“Well!” (Edelbert told the Master of the Wardrobe) “That was something you never saw coming! The King asking a maid to come for an audience in the Great Hall…” (Edelbert went on for a bit, but you get the idea. He was surprised.)
So she came. Gloria. And she came alone. (By that I mean she didn’t bring the feather duster.) Bernardino felt a bit odd about that, because even though he realized bringing the feather duster would be a huge breach of etiquette, for some reason he expected her to have it. (That’s no mystery, by the way; he associated her with it. Pretty much a case of classical conditioning leading to passive learning). But (anyway, as I was saying) she didn’t have the feather duster. But she did curtsy and say, “Good afternoon, Your Majesty.”
“Good afternoon, Gloria,” said the King.
Bernardino thought the maid might be nervous so he tried to put her at ease with some polite chit-chat, a thing the royals were good at having chatted with heads of state for many centuries during which time no one ever said anything interesting. (It was just the weather, horses, or collecting beetles, over and over again).
“Nice weather we’re having, eh?” said Bernardino. “Always love the fall myself. I call it the season of mellow fruitfulness.” He laughed.
“The apple crop failed,” said Gloria, “so it wasn’t very fruitful.” She didn’t laugh. (Gloria wasn’t trying to be mean. She just was very matter-of-fact.)
“I’ve got a new charger,” said Bernardino. “A splendid animal, sixteen hands, runs like the wind.”
Gloria thought maybe Bernardino could be slightly nervous so she decided to put him at his ease. (She thought King Bernardino was nice plus she felt like they’d bonded during William’s accident.) So she asked, “Is that throne made out of solid gold?” expecting to hear “No” and something about plywood and gold leaf. (It was a pretty humongous throne.)
“Yes it is,” said the king, “and it’s always been beastly cold. A few years back, I had them install a brazier under the seat. Now it’s quite toasty. Would you like to try it?”
“Oh,” said Gloria, “I’d love to!”
It was a bit of a problem for Bernardino to get up from the throne. Not an emotional problem, a physical one: his robes made it difficult to stand. Bernardino had put on the full royal regalia for the Maurian ambassador: the colobium sindonis (a shroud tunic, made mostly of lace); the supertunica (long, made gold and silk); and the Pallium Regale (an outer robe of red velvet, trimmed in gold, and lined with crimson silk). His crown was pretty heavy, too. Bernardino’s shoes were small, black and odd-looking. And they made his feet hurt. (It actually felt like there was wood in them—and it needed sanding.) Anyway (given the robes, the crown, the shoes) when King Bernardino tried to stand he tipped over like a Yule tree crashed into by a drunken courtier. (Don’t ask). So it was Gloria to the rescue once again, catching an elbow and keeping Bernardino from being overthrown.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said. “My equilibrium seems to be ever in your debt.”
“You’re welcome, sire,” she said with the best curtsy she could manage (under the circs). “Catching you is no trouble at all.” Then, not sure why that came out the way it did (she was just trying to be gallant like he was) she blushed bright red.
King Bernardino gallantly regained his balance and even more gallantly sat the maid upon his humongous, solid gold, toasty-warm throne. “Mmmmm,” said Gloria. “It is nice!”
The King took a moment to admire a few strands of Gloria’s light brown hair that had escaped from her white cap and were caught in a stray beam of light. Then he noticed her clear complexion, her bright eyes, dramatic nose, ruby-red lips, and generally classic profile. “So…” he asked. “How are things going in the castle?” expecting to hear, “Oh, the dusting is going splendidly,” and something about how rewarding it was to clean the place up.
“Um…” said Gloria. She hesitated, thinking, “This is the King!” and “Should I tell him really?” and “But he’s nice, it’ll probably be fine” and “Sure, why not!” and “Oh, well, here goes…” all in a single flash of mindless decision.
“Well,” she said, “Barthes, the atilliator, he makes crossbows you know, he was in the refectory talking to Armond, the second valet and Barthes said that the falconer, I forget his name, needed some things repaired, you know, they go around the bird’s leg…”
“…right, jesses, he had some jesses that needed fixing so he asked the Master of the Wardrobe if he could fix them—the Master of the Wardrobe!—well, he was drunk, the falconer…and then the Master of the Wardrobe told him that ‘his suzerainty covered only royal birds without feathers’ and oh, Your Majesty, the whole castle was a-roar for days…”
“Oh!” said Bernardino.
And then the King learned what the carver told the brewer…what the chamberlain said…the oath the butler swore when a hogshead of mead arrived empty but for sand…how beautiful the choir sounded on St. Uli’s Eve; their voices floating down from the battlements as the snow fell silently…how everyone missed Princess Star, poor thing… the nut loaf the baker made, she had a piece with butter…and the poor man who arrived at the gate with a box of puppies, each fatter than the next and how all the valets and clerks, servers and scullions (not naming names, Sire) adopted them, and when the meat started disappearing from the kitchen the cook said….
“Who knew?” Bernardino caught himself thinking. “Who knew?”
As he watched Gloria, her face alight with wonder at every fantastic, wonderful, amazing, completely ordinary thing he suddenly saw his palace as a living organism with every courtier playing a part: the blood, the bone, the flesh, the sinew; all making a body that moved and breathed—if not in harmony—then in as much conjunction as any one life. Suddenly he thought of Prince William: his face solemn, his breath silent. What part had he to play? And King Bernardino began to weep.
“Oh…” said Gloria, halting in midstream as time flowed over the rocks like a river. In one lithe movement she was off the throne. Her arms went around the colobium sindonis, the supertunica, the Pallium Regale and the sorrowful King inside.
“I know he will get better, Your Majesty. I know it!”
How does she know for whom I weep? thought Bernardino. Then: Does everyone know? As the King’s tears flowed he grew aware of an astounding sensation, something to ponder when the next quiet moment arose: For the first time in months he was happy.