On a large canvas, a red-haired princess in a simple blue gown sat on a grassy hillside beside a large-eyed hound. There was a terrible sadness in her face, and it was echoed—no, multiplied—in the great brown eyes of her beautiful hound.
George wiped at his sudden tears and thought himself a fool. Why should he cry before a painting? Why should he feel as though a hole had been opened inside of him that might never be filled?
This was supposed to be the day of his betrothal. He ought to have felt sober and thoughtful. He ought to have been focused on the woman whose portrait this was supposed to be. Princess Beatrice.
“It is a fine painting, is it not?” asked Sir Stephen, at George’s side.
What could George say?
Jaw open, he sought for some compliment to offer. But he could think of nothing that would not sound like an insult in disguise. It was the painter he wished to compliment, not the woman painted.
“He loves me, you see?” said Princess Beatrice, her hands clapping. “I knew he would love me.”
There was a chorus of agreement among her ladies in waiting.
“Yes, Your Highness,” and “Of course, Your Highness,” and “Who could ever have doubted it, Your Highness?”
Chickens, thought George. He wished to shoo the lot of them away from his castle and back to the coop in which they belonged.
But George knew his duty. The kingdom of Frendle needed money and marrying Princess Beatrice would give it that. He had to at least try.
He looked at the painting again. Could it really be Princess Beatrice? George could not imagine Princess Beatrice arousing the loyalty of such a fine hound. A goose perhaps, but not a hound.
George’s eyes flickered to the painter, saw the man’s tight fists and tensely white face.
There is a man with a secret, thought George. And one of his secrets is that the woman in this painting was never meant to be Princess Beatrice. Oh, there were superficial similarities, but no more than that.
“Who is she?” George whispered to the painter.
The man only waved his hand at Princess Beatrice, whose face red with pleasure had turned red with anger. “Did someone drop him on his head while he was young?” she demanded. “Is that why he cannot recognize me when he sees me?”
If only someone had dropped the Princess on her head, George thought. It might have made her mute, at least.
But he knew the thought was not worthy of him. His father had told him often enough that the difference between a boy born a prince and a boy not was that the other boy might learn what he did best and do it all his days. The Prince learned what his kingdom needed most and did that all his days.
So, would George be the prince and marry this woman? Would he share his kingdom and his castle with her, his life?
Sir Stephen pushed close enough to put his mouth to the Prince’s ear. “Your Highness, the painting is of the Princess Beatrice,” he whispered urgently.
George sighed. Why had he not held his tongue and found a chance to speak with the painter privately later?
The princess should have been first. “A thousand apologies, Princess Beatrice.” George bowed. “Can you ever forgive me for not recognizing you?”
“Well, perhaps I might forgive you. Some day,” said the Princess, her face twisted with condescension.
Oh, Father—can I do this, even for you? In his mind, George heard his father’s answer: “Even the lowliest swineherd has a tale of his own.” So what was Princess Beatrice’s tale?
The problem was, George didn’t care. He wanted to know of the princess and the hound.
“The painting will hang there.” The flesh below her chin wobbling, the Princess pointed imperiously to the blank wall above the second throne. Two of the Princess’s men moved to take the portrait from the painter and do her bidding.
“No!” George did not shout, but he spoke with his royal tone of command, and Princess Beatrice’s men froze at it.
The Princess folded her arms across her voluminous chest, the fabric of her gown pulling at its seams. “Why not?” she asked.
“It is my mother’s throne,” said George.
“Your mother is dead,” said Princess Beatrice bluntly.
“Yes, indeed,” George spoke through clenched teeth, reminding himself that it was his own fault if Princess Beatrice acted as though he were half-witted.
“Well, then there is no queen here, except for me. Why should my picture not sit above my throne?”
Suddenly, George could not help himself. “Because it will never be your throne!” he shouted.
“What did you say?” Princess Beatrice asked, her face white.
Could he take back the words? No.
“I said that it will never be your throne.” He spoke in a whisper this time, but the hall was so quiet there was no doubt as to what he had said.
A long pause, during which Sir Stephen tugged at him, perhaps with the suggestion that he offer to build the Princess another throne, a better one than the simply elegant maple of his mother’s. But George would not do that.
Instead, he bowed again, more deeply than before. “I am sorry, Princess. But we were never meant to be matched. You are too—”he struggled for the right word. “Too high above me,” he said at last. “And I can not spend my life with my neck craned to look up at you.”
Princess Beatrice stared around at her ladies in waiting. “What is he saying? Will someone tell me what he is saying?”
But they were all of them too afraid of her to speak the truth.
It was Sir Stephen who, to George’s surprise as much as anyone’s, stepped forward. He cleared his throat and bowed over the Princess’s well-manicured fingers. “My lady, the Prince says he is unworthy of you.”
There, that was a careful way to put it. But would it work? George thought of his father, who had shown him the letter with the marriage proposal from Princess Beatrice’s father, King Hubert. From his sick bed, the King had done it, his hands trembling with his malady.
“You must not feel obliged, George. But if you think there is any possibility you might love her, consider well. It could be the future of our kingdoms.”
Had he considered well? George was sure that he would never love this woman. It was likely that he would come to hate her. Still, he felt as though he had failed his father and his kingdom and himself.
“Unworthy?” Princess Beatrice pointed at one of her ladies. “You—tell me what that means.”
“He—cannot marry you,” the woman gibbered.
“Oh!” said Princess Beatrice in a peeved tone. Then, “Oh,” again, rather more loudly. “Then Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh.” She stamped her foot until George was afraid she might somehow stamp straight through the floor.
One last long “Oh,” of frustration rang through the hall and George sighed with relief that it was over.
But of course it was not. Princess Beatrice ran at the painting of the girl and the hound. Using her fists, she stabbed at the center of the canvas again and again. There was a long mournful sound that came from the painter, who looked as if he had himself been ripped in two.
“Now we will go,” said Princess Beatrice to her ladies, breathing heavily.
“Yes, yes, of course, Princess,” said the ladies in waiting. And “I cannot believe you have been treated so badly, Your Highness.” And “Such a man is not worth your anger, Princess Beatrice.”
A trump sounded as the doors opened and the retinue departed. George stood straight until the last one of them was gone, then turned back to stare at the once-perfect painting.
“I would have it returned to me,” said the artist with stiff sadness.
George looked more closely at the man. His face was as distressed as the one he had painted. “Let me guess. The Princess Beatrice offered to pay you following our marriage.”
The man tightened his lips and would not speak.
He is as proud as any king, thought George. But a proud painter was likely a hungry one. Perhaps that was the way to what George wanted.
“I will pay you to tell me her name and where I might find her, and her hound. I will pay you whatever the price Princess Beatrice offered you on the day of our marriage.”
“I will pay you twice what she offered. Three times.” Madness, utter madness, thought George. If the painter accepted, he would have bankrupted Frendle.
Sir Stephen coughed loudly. “My Prince—”
But George did not take the offer back. He did not even wish to. Instead, he stood straight and tall as the painter’s eyes seemed to memorize him.
“And what makes you believe that you are any more worthy of her than of the other?” he asked, not as a worker to a king, but as a man to a man.
George tried to think of some answer. He did not think this was his best day to prove worthiness. He had shown himself to be a man who did not keep promises. He had shown that he thought of himself before his kingdom.
“I—I would like to be worthy of her,” George got out at last. It was the best he could do, and yet he was ashamed of it.
It was not enough. The painter tucked his work under his arm and walked towards the great gilded doors. Then he was gone.
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