Two dozen princes crammed into a small, mirrored room and gave each other embarrassed smiles.
Over the past six days, each had successfully surmounted the riding test, poetry test, waltz test and Explain-Your-Favorite-Hobby test (which had eliminated fifty princes in one round). Each had agreed to this final test of the quest.
The prize was princess Lily of Wallaiston. She had insisted on a psychological test, much to her brothers' collective dismay.
One of those brothers, Prince Edward, leaned on the sill of the room's sole window and gazed through the dirty panes at the Wallaiston River, half a mile away.
"I could be fishing right now," he said to Jeremy.
His cousin, Jeremy Reboky, prince of the independent city of Greloc, propped his elbow on the sill and flipped a page in his book. He and Edward were the test's referees.
"It's supposed to rain later," Jeremy said and turned another page.
"Rain never hurt a fishing expedition," Edward said. "Better rain than mind-numbing boredom. Where does Lily come up with these ideas?"
"Quest Magazine. 'Your True-Love's Mind: Psychological Tests Tell You What You Need To Know.' She's a modern princess."
Psychological tests were new, the rules uncertain. Lily had received approval from the Questing Board only the night before, along with a snappish note: "The Board warns that 'pysch' tests can be highly damaging to the untrained quester and recommends full disclosure be made to all princes of the test's measurements with princes allowed the opportunity to refuse participation without rating damage."
Twenty-two princes had signed affidavits agreeing to the test's conditions and measurement standards: twenty-four hours in a locked room; down 2 points for sleeping, down 3 for lack of poise, down 5 for negative physical behavior, down 5 for negative verbal behavior; 1 point down for sitting.
Jeremy shrugged and ran a finger down a column of text. "She thinks it's a surefire method, guaranteed to get her the best prince possible."
Edward sighed. His sister Lily wanted a nice prince, a smart prince, a prince with a sense of humor ("Who doesn't?" his oldest brother, Giles said. "The princess of Hanswe, for one," said their middle brother, Gregory; Gregory had just returned from a Hanswe quest—"Fire-breathing dragons, I asked you!"—and was feeling bitter), a prince who 'understood her'. Edward grimaced.
He wasn't a quester, having dropped out of the only quest he ever attended, and he knew only a few of the princes present. Brofon of Polaka, the best quester in the kingdoms (only Edward's brother, Gregory, had an equal reputation) was participating, but Brofon had his sights on the Princess of Tagart and was only participating in Lily's quest to rake up points.
Nelson Pageant of Mawess had naturally come. He was a family friend. Currently, he was making bets amongst a group of boisterous juniors: "I'll race you tomorrow Sharky's Bridge to Camer Downs."
Edward also knew Ronald Marsavana of Zovona, neighboring kingdom to Wallaiston. Ronald was a slick and cool senior. He wore a constant, aloof smile. The rest of the princes included Nelson's gambling friends, a pair of card-playing brothers, three juniors from Latavania and Freshers, princes on their first quest.
There was, of course, the usual princess dressed as a prince. This one sat with the freshers, the ones discussing whether the fight scenes in Shaffington's Horatio were "real".
"No one fences that well with both hands."
"Uh huh, sure, ambiguous—"
"Ambidextrous, you moron."
And the princess dressed as a prince said, "I saw a guy once could fence with his feet."
Edward watched the princess laugh, a quizzical twist of the lips and brows. Cool eyes sparkled.
She was clever. If Gregory's stories could be trusted, most masquerading princesses tried to mingle with the princes their own age, the ones they hoped to get the inside track on. This princess had submerged herself amongst the smooth cheeks and high voices of the young boys. She praised them, encouraged them and fed them bizarre data: "Zovonian snakes are thirty feet long and eat monkeys whole." They didn't know she was a girl. Edward doubted they would care.
Her object appeared to be Ronald. She watched Ronald, stood next to him when she could and laughed at his jokes. Ronald was the fourth son of a dying king with plenty of money and good prospects for the future.
Edward's grimaced. The masquerading princess would have to move quickly. Other than Brofon, Ronald had the best score in the group.
The princess applauded a fresher's boastful recital of his points. Turning her head, she met Edward's scrutinizing gaze. He looked away quickly and nudged Jeremy.
"Aren't you supposed to be observing?"
Jeremy glared; he hated people to interrupt his reading, but he shut his book and gazed around the room.
The gamblers were arguing now about riding techniques. Edward hoped they would confine their enthusiasm to shouts and slaps on the back. There wasn't enough space for demonstrations.
Brofon, drawn temporarily into the gamblers' debate ("Ask Brofon, he knows!"), caught Edward's eye and raised an amused eyebrow.
"Not much fun for you," he said, "watching us go berserk."
"I'd like to see you go berserk." Edward said. "If I thought it likely." Brofon never lost his cool.
Brofon's eyebrow continued to rise. "Oh, I'm a bundle of nerves, can't you tell?" and Jeremy snorted one of his rare laughs.
Ronald had overheard. He leaned forward, smiling: "You never know," he said. "Psych tests bring out a man's true personality," and he moved away, groomed and manicured, his hair waved neatly back from a clean, sweat-less face.
Brofon rolled his eyes, and Jeremy said, "Want to take bets on his true personality?"
"Maybe he'll crack," Edward said hopelessly.
Jeremy shook his head. "I'd say he's a natural at psych tests."
"Oh, well," Brofon said equably, "to each his own," and strolled over to the card-players.
Ronald was slick: could he be what Lily wanted? Edmund shook his head over the inscrutability of sisters.
The afternoon shuffled on. Jeremy returned to his book. The gamblers started arm wrestling competitions. Brofon and the princes from Latavania compared questing stories. The card-players switched from Poker to Blackjack. And Edward watched the masquerading princess watch Ronald.
Edward escaped the room near midnight. The guards released him with mock seriousness:
"Papers, sir, papers."
"Give it a rest."
In the throne room, Edward's brothers, Prince Gregory and Acting Regent Giles hunched over the council table. Stacked papers surrounded them. Their father had retired from the kingship eight months earlier, leaving his country and its problems to his sons.
"Everyone asleep?" Gregory said.
"Freshers are. Most of the seniors will make it."
Giles grunted. "How's Jeremy?"
"He finished The Diaries of King Tudar and started A History in Polakan Art."
Gregory laughed. "And how's our little brother holding up?"
"Lily owes me. So do you."
"I go on quests, bro. No way I'm tracking points for other princes on my break."
Edward shrugged and settled into a faded armchair. Through the open windows, the Wallaiston River winked in the moonlight from the edge of the palace meadows.
"You think father would buy me a boat?"
Giles said, "He's probably bought one already—only king I know takes his retirement seriously." Giles signed four documents and tossed them into his secretary's tray. He glanced up at Edward, brow creased. "I haven't got the money, Ed," he said gently.
"No," Edward said. "Not with twenty financial councilors breathing down your neck."
A girl's voice echoed in the hall. Gregory grinned at Edward.
"Lily wants an update. She stayed up just to see you," and their younger sister danced into the throne room.
Gregory caught and spun her, and she giggled, waving her hands at Edward.
"Eddy, how's it going? Who's winning?"
"Tedious. I won't do this again, Lil."
She laughed happily. Lily was seventeen, pale-haired with a snub nose and gleeful smile. A bit young for marriage, Edward thought, but Lily claimed she was ready: "Some princesses start having quests at fourteen," which Gregory said was true.
Giles said, "You want tedious, try filling out these forms. Are Board Inspectors always this fussy, Greg? I've received five messengers since yesterday and the paperwork—"
"Can't mess around with ratings," Gregory said. "Quests have got to be fair."
"Nelson has a good rating, doesn’t he?" Lily said, and the three brothers blinked at her.
"You know Nelson," Lily said impatiently. "He's a senior."
"He's too young," Edward said blankly, but Gregory said, "No, no, he's not. He started quests young, remember? Daddy wanted glory and honor for his little boy. He must have made senior just this year," and bleakly, "Oh, Lily, why didn't you tell us you wanted Nelson?"
Edward gaped from Gregory's unhappy eyes to Lily's pale face. Nelson? Lily wanted Nelson?
Not that Nelson was a bad choice. He was insecure, moody, easily irritated, yet fundamentally kind. Edward had seen him help a lost fresher on the first day. Nelson visited Wallaiston often enough to show off his new horse or his new dogs. He was young, as young as Lily.
Nelson liked Lily.
The brothers exchanged glances. They didn't speak. In the stillness, Edward could hear the river rolling to the sea.
Lily said shakily, "Doesn't he have a chance? Brofon doesn't want to marry me."
"Ronald Marsavana does," Edward said, and Lily wavered, hand to her mouth.
"Oh, no. Eddy, I don't like him. I don't have to marry Ronald, do I, Giles?"
Giles pressed his hands to his face; his elbows slid over the papers on the desk. Above his entwined fingers, his tired eyes watched Lily.
He said, "You wanted a quest, Lily."
"Yes—but—Nelson . . . Nelson's a senior . . ."
"Ronald has more points."
"I won't marry him! They can't force me."
"No," Giles said. "No, that's not how the Board works."
Lily said on a whisper, "What would they do?"
They would take away Wallaiston's Questing Rights: "Cannot hold quests or send family members to Questing kingdoms while a quest is in progress." Gregory would lose his rating; their Quest funds would be cut; they would probably be fined—Edward saw that in Giles' downward glance, the hopelessness that seemed to hover over Giles too often these days.
But, "Hey," Gregory said, an arm around Lily's shoulder. "Steady on, kiddo. No one's going to make you marry the moron."
Lily smiled tremulously.
"You should get back in there," Giles said tonelessly to Edward; Edward knew what he was thinking: Save what we have. Prevent as much damage as possible. Convince the Board we did everything by the book until the end, and maybe they won't come down so hard. That was how Giles' mind functioned in a crisis.
Not a chance, Edward thought miserably as he stalked down the corridor. Ronald's father had cousins on the Board and Ronald, Edward knew, would resent, in his poised affable way, being rejected.
Lily caught up with Edward at the foot of the grand staircase.
She grasped his arm. She was crying.
"I won't—It would ruin Gregory's chances, and he likes the princess of Hanswe, despite what he says. She's having another Quest next month; no one completed the last, and she takes a lot of points. I'll marry Ronald. I'm not completely selfish," and she ran up the stairs, her slippers whispering like tears on the steps.
Jeremy was half-way through A History in Polakan Art. He leaned on the windowsill shoulder to shoulder with Edward and listened while Edward, furious and helpless, told what had happened: "Lily doesn't want to marry Ronald. What do we do?"
"I don't know." Jeremy sighed, his book pressed against his cheek. "Giles won't force her—?"
"No. She wants to sacrifice herself. We won't let her, but it'll kill Gregory. He loves the quests—"
Jeremy said, "Is Lily such a good match?" the kind of comment only a cousin can make.
"For Ronald, she is. She takes 380 points; Ronald has 376 as of yesterday's test. He's a fourth son. Lily has her own property." Edward groaned. "We should have handled this better. Gregory says most matches are made months beforehand, despite the Board."
"Your brother Giles doesn't think that way."
"No, he isn't political. He's got trade concessions on his mind and tax issues." Edward rubbed his eyes savagely. "I should have seen it. I'm the cynical one—about quests anyway—"
Jeremy nodded sympathetically.
They were conversing softly. Edward wasn't worried about being overheard. Ronald, unruffled, still smiling, had taken up a perch near the card-players. He leaned against the wall, one leg braced beneath him—not quite sitting. I'll take a point off, Edward thought savagely.
Even if they gave Nelson 15—and Nelson didn't deserve it, the fool—and Ronald only 14 or even 12, Ronald would still be ahead. Ronald had only gotten 11 points on the riding test, but his "Ode to a Princess" (as judged by the resident palace poet) had gotten 13 to Nelson's 7. Edward remembered now that Lily had liked Nelson's poem better. Why hadn't he guessed?
Ronald had gotten more points at the waltz, although Nelson had swept up points in The-Favorite-Hobby category, but then Lily had judged on that test. Stupid, Edward told himself. Stupid, older brother.
As of this morning, Ronald was five points ahead on Lily's quest, eight points ahead on his cumulative questing score. There was little Nelson could do to close the gap.
It was nearing two a.m. Of the questing princes, only Ronald, Brofon, and the card-players were still awake. Even Nelson slept, his arms folded across his chest. He swayed and might have toppled if Brofon hadn't caught him.
"Yeah, I'm good—" but he was asleep again in a few minutes, his head against Brofon's arm.
At least he isn't sitting down.
The freshers had drifted to sleep long ago except for the princess. She had a boy's head against her shoulder and another boy's head pillowed by her leg. Edward wondered if he should tell her she could have Ronald, to take him, please, off their hands. She was watching Ronald now, her brow creased so she reminded Edward momentarily of Giles.
Edward returned his gaze to the window. Beyond his reflection, he caught the faint lights of Sharky's Bridge spangling the black sky.
The black gave way slowly, indefinitely, to gray. It seemed to Edward that this gradual whitening would go on forever, but the dawn broke suddenly, as it always did, and sunlight seeped through the whiteness to sparkle sweetly on the glass.
The snoozers stirred and stretched. The card-players changed over from Euchre to Hearts. Nelson shook himself and said, "Uh, thanks" to Brofon.
The gamblers groaned and shoved each other—"Help me up, man."
The freshers had the easiest time. They'd had seven hours sleep; they woke with energy and enthusiasm. This was their first quest—maybe, their second—they were doing okay, this test stuff wasn't so hard.
They wrestled gleefully, reminding Edward of the gamekeeper's puppies: wiggle, wiggle, pounce.
"Pipe down," the gamblers snarled.
The freshers calmed when breakfast arrived, sent in by the cooking staff. Jeremy finished A History of Polakan Art and went out for a break. He came back looking glum.
"Giles is worried," he muttered in Edward's ear. "He says Board fines can get high."
Edward's depressed reply was lost in sudden pandemonium.
The freshers had started breakfast by comparing mouthfuls of chewed food. They had worked their way up to a localized food fight until a fresher catapulted a melon into a gambler's head. The gambler shouted furiously and clobbered the fresher (-5 points) who shrieked and flailed in return.
Edward waded in. A great deal of food covered the floor by the time the freshers had been removed to their side of the room. Brofon, helping, lifted rueful eyes to Edward and pointed to the jam smudges on his jacket front and across his right shoulder.
"Got pushed," he said. "Not a full 15 anymore."
"You still look poised to me," Edward told him and dragged the last fresher to his friends.
"You could keep them in order," he said tartly to the princess.
"I don't want to." She had a sweet, husky voice. Her eyes in the morning light gleamed with greenish-blue flecks. She smiled up at Edward. He flushed and turned abruptly to the bewildered servants.
The room was in shambles. More than a few gamblers had bruised eyes and knuckles. There was no one who hadn't been splashed or splattered or stained or dripped on.
Except Ronald. His spotless coat hung evenly. Not a single hair had lost its place. His whole person appeared fresh and tidy.
"Disappeared into the bathroom the moment you and Brofon started to clean up," Jeremy said in Edward's ear. "You can't say he isn't clever."
"Leave it," Edward barked to the servants. "If the princes want mess, they get mess."
The servants filed out, smirking.
"Idiot Freshers," a gambler growled.
A fresher yelled, "I'd rather be a fresher than a stupid—stupid—" He floundered, and the gamblers laughed, not kindly.
"—a stupid quester-fester—"
Abrupt silence during which the growling gambler turned red, and the fresher looked terrified. Even the card-players watched.
Edward said, "A what?"
"Stupid Fresher jargon—"
"It means," said the masquerading princess, "a quester who makes another quester look bad."
Her voice was friendly but there was sharpness, significance, in her tone. The mutters and murmurs and complaints throughout the room ran together and dribbled away.
"On purpose," she said. "Like, for example, a quester who ruins another quester's dress suit, his best dress suit, his only dress suit maybe. Or a quester who spreads slanders about another quester's ability—" her voice was like clear honey "—or a quester who knocks down another quester, like you did to Brofon—"
Too quick, Edward thought, his eyes on Ronald's white face. He'd been ready with his cry of innocence.
"I saw you," the princess was on her feet. "I've been watching you all night, all during the quest, if you want to know, and I saw you push Brofon before you went to the toilet. In this confusion, no one would have guessed it was on purpose."
"Ridiculous." Ronald smoothed his hair with a shaky hand.
The princes watched and said nothing. A fester-quester indeed; there was too much at stake in these games to overlook a saboteur.
"You're a woman," Ronald said angrily. "You'll be fined."
She laughed. "This has nothing to do with money."
No. Money made a difference in ratings. Money made a difference to the kings and to some of their daughters, but it was the Brofons of the tests that the questers respected. Even princes like Gregory—with no money and little power—had admirers who wished them well, because they were good players, good sportsmen.
Ronald tried again, his voice exuding reasonableness. "I didn't push Brofon. Why would I need to? Brofon doesn't want to marry Lily."
"Neither do you. But you want to win. That's how a fester-quester thinks. Win the unwilling. Win the other man's bride. Win for power. You don't play well."
The gamblers murmured agreement. Freshers crowded in behind the princess, their lips curled in savage anticipation.
The princess said, "There's a mark on Brofon's shoulder. A smudge of jam; it looks like handprint."
Brofon peered slant-eyed at his right shoulder, his face bemused.
"Looks like it to me," a card-player muttered.
"Looks—" Ronald's voice gained a panicked harshness.
The princess continued. "You pressed your hand to the floor—Perry dumped his plate of spread here—and pushed Brofon and ran into the bathroom to clean up, quickly, because you didn't want to be too obvious. So quickly," and now she addressed Edward, "there might be jam traces on the towels."
Ronald twitched. Nelson and another gambler shoved past him into the toilet. In the soft silence, Edward stepped closer to the princess.
Nelson stuck his head out of the toilet. "She's right."
"Not from me." Ronald spoke through a clenched jaw. "I didn't put it there."
"So quick," the princess murmured, "I doubt you checked beneath your nails."
She strode forward, took Ronald's wrist and raised his hand to her eyes. A card-player, gazing over Ronald's shoulder, said placidly, "That's evidence."
Ronald pulled back his hand, spat ,and struck the princess in the shoulder.
She tumbled to the floor. The freshers gasped as a group and lurched forward, and it was Nelson—Nelson of all people—who said, "Leave him alone. Let him go. He isn't worth it," to the freshers, to Brofon, to Edward.
Edward trembled. Jeremy pulled him to the window. "Negative verbal, negative physical, negative poise," he said gleefully. "That leaves Ronald with 2 points, and all Nelson did was sleep and gamble."
Brofon had helped the princess to her feet. She limped back to the freshers who swarmed about her, their faces tight with the same fury Edward felt.
Ronald remained by the door. His hair drooped out of its neat coils. His hands clenched and unclenched. He spun abruptly and thumped on the door.
"Let me out. Let me out of here."
The door swung outwards. A guard peered in.
"I'm leaving," Ronald said. "I don't have to take this test."
The guard gazed past him at Jeremy and Edward.
Jeremy said in his cool, scholar's voice, "You signed the agreement, Ronald. You forfeit this test, you forfeit the quest and your points for Lily."
"I don't care. I don't want her anyway," and he was gone, followed by the shrugging guard.
Jeremy opened Traditions of Ancient Wallaiston while Edward waited for the freshers to finish showing off to the princess. "I would have hit him so hard." "I would have kicked him, you know, like this—"
A few gamblers laughed, kindly.
The freshers' bombast fizzled. The card-players lent them a deck, and they began a complicated game of Rummy. The princess caught Edward's eye. She joined him at the window, and they leaned there, shoulders touching.
"Did you see him push Brofon?" Edward said.
"Yes. I knew he would do something like it eventually. It wasn't just Brofon. He struck Nelson too, but Brofon was the one he wanted to take down."
"How did you know?"
"My nephew was a fresher with Ronald. He didn't complete his first quest. Ronald ruined his dress suit, the only one he had, and he was too humiliated to go to the dance test in his everyday clothes. It matters, at that age. To some," she said, her eyes flickering up to Edward's face.
"You know I didn't finish."
"I know you don't care."
The day was crisp as ice with sunlight that gleamed off every surface. Beyond the meadow, boats filled the river, their sails billowing.
Edward said, "Sometimes, I care. After all, would you marry a fisherman?"
"Why not?" and perhaps she sensed Edward's disbelief because she took his hand.
"Not everything is a test," she said. "Not every mating is a game. Some things, you don't have to conquer to win."
In the published version, point cards establish that the princess-dressed-as-a-prince is Princess Charlotte, a non-registered princess (she doesn't have to be won by a quest).
"Masquerade" was published in the April 2004 issue of Leading Edge.
Prince Gregory's story "Tested" can be found in the most recent issue of Tales of the Talisman!