There once lived a king who loved the theater.
His taste crossed all genres – romances, sophisticated comedies, broad farces and stomach-churning tragedies.
He particularly liked historical pieces that featured his ancestors.
Watching his predecessors parade around in crowns and tiaras while engaging in outrageous behavior was a self-centered delight.
The royals’ peccadilloes were well documented and knew few bounds.
The history of his family was filled with crime and passion, mystery and murder.
It was replete with drama and perfectly suited for public staging.
He wished he could have been an actor. Due to the circumstances of his birth, that wasn’t to be.
In compensation, he’d always surrounded himself with an acting crowd.
He liked their heightened sense of drama.
It didn’t hurt that so many of them, especially the women, were such “good lookers”.
Their presence provided a shot of youth. Past his personal half-century mark, he needed to replenish his “juices” from time to time.
To ensure a steady supply of new talent, he established a feeder system for his Theater Company.
Once a year, he sent his only son, the Prince, on a pilgrimage across the country to scour for talent.
The Prince attended a pre-set list of specially commissioned local theater festivals.
His route took him from the shining capital in the east to several built-up centers in the middle of the land.
Then he’d proceed south to trading ports along the shoreline, finally concluding in the sparsely populated mountain region of the west.
The king’s choice of taskmasters was deliberate and well-planned.
The Prince was one of the handsomest men anywhere.
He was someone who would create excitement on any regional scene and who could easily mix into either a hoity-toity or a lower-brow milieu.
It helped that he always had the King’s particular inclinations and requirements in mind.
The only quibble the King had with his offspring was that he was too easy-going.
How would the Prince survive once he inherited the realm?
He was lax in finding a wife. That was a major flaw. A proper choice in the marital arena could set things right.
Others might fuss over the bloodlines and the ladylike qualities of any future Princess; the King was more concerned that she be tough enough.
The Prince needed a strong woman to guide him through the palace intrigues that were sure to be part of governing.
What he required was a gentle and loving “assassin” for a companion, someone with a backbone of iron.
“One could always hope,” thought the King.
But in the meantime, the Prince must stay otherwise engaged.
Therefore the Prince was charged with determining who among the performers in the outlying regions should be escorted back to the royal court for further polishing.
One young man and one young woman per year was the ideal.
It was a serious responsibility that would dramatically change the lives of a couple of ambitious and glittering individuals on the cusp of adulthood.
This year’s journey was the fourth anniversary of the Prince’s ascension to this assignment. A peppering of grey in his sandy-toned hair rendered his appearance more distinguished-looking than ever.
Tall and erect, his athletic body was perfectly suited to showing off the fine attire his high status could afford.
He set off with an entourage of seven – six horsemen and a chambermaid – for his usual month-long jaunt across the country in late spring.
In the early going, the nondescript female companion would come in handy as a mixer.
In her dealings with everday gentle-folk, she’d hear a different sort of gossip than the armed escort would glean from drinking partners.
Later, she’d be a traveling buddy to the chosen actress.
She’d put at ease the winning young lady to make her feel better about some of the unspoken aspects of the career course she was embarking on.
After all, there was some baggage and heartache for the victors.
Once brought from the boonies to the big city, and acclimatized to a dazzling social scene, few would ever return to their rustic homes.
The company of eight set out on the night of a full moon.
The lunar orb waned, waxed and was returning near to full brightness once again, but the job remained unfinished.
At the end of each week, one rider was sent back to the King with news of the latest progress.
The first rider was dispatched, then the second and finally the third.
In the saddlebag of the last horseman was a dispatch with the usual salutations for the King, plus the following query. “No outstanding catches found so far. Would you be willing to settle for less than the best?”
The Prince would eagerly await the King’s response.
This year’s crop of students was disappointing. Sometimes that happened. Fate was taking a sabbatical.
There was only one more local theater group to visit.
The Prince kept his fingers crossed that his mission would meet with success even at this late date.
Many days’ ride to the west lay several villages in a valley at the base of the country’s mountain boundary.
The various hamlets and farming communities in the region competed with each other to supply the best acting talent to the royal court.
A school of the performing arts was situated an hour’s walk up a difficult path on one side of the almost encircling elevation.
From the age of thirteen, students were enrolled in the school by their social-climbing parents.
They’d learn acting techniques and prepare for the biggest event of their lives, which would arrive when they reached their late teens or early 20s.
The year’s curriculum built towards a climax in the spring when the King’s representative arrived to assess the academy’s program.
A play would be chosen to showcase the talents of the two brightest lights.
This year, the scheduled partnering was between Wesley and Winona.
He was the blonde-haired and vibrant Prince Charming of all fairy tales.
She was the radiant bubbly creature every girl aspires to be.
Her most remarkable feature was her skin. It magically glowed as if translucent and backlit by an inner goodness.
It was a gift that any young lady, if she were ever fortunate enough to possess it, would be sad to see depart when sufficient years passed.
Their understudies were Rory and Regina.
The competition between the two couples was intense but civilized. They managed, for the most part, to maintain a pretense of being close friends.
With final rehearsals out of the way and nothing left to do but wait for the curtain to go up, the four young people carried through on their plan to escape for a few moments over dinner.
They took a picnic basket and climbed in an upward diagonal direction for half an hour until they came to a promontory jutting into wide-open space.
From Look-out Ledge, the valley with its dotted signs of habitation and rectangular plots of land appeared as a stunning vista spread out below them.
The fact Wesley and Winona were romantically involved was common knowledge to everyone in the vicinity.
The relationship between Rory and Regina wasn’t nearly so intense.
Their interaction was characterized by a measure of mutual respect, but they remained merely friends.
Physically, Regina was out of Rory’s league. She was a beauty every bit as winsome as Winona, but in a quieter way.
Darker of complexion, with piercing blue eyes that could chill an acquaintance when annoyed, or charm when pleased, her allure emanated from a smoldering core.
She was both more statuesque than Winona and less lush. Her strong physique supported a straight-up angularity that was compelling but also intimidating.
It had been a toss-up which of the two young ladies would be awarded the female lead in the play that year.
Wesley was a shoe-in as nominal hero, since he was the nephew of the Director. Winona won out over Regina because she was Wesley’s girlfriend.
Rory was an actor of a whole different stripe. Short and far from conventionally attractive, he had progressed from background player to prominence due to his extraordinary talent.
Regina and Rory had commiserated over their disappointment in not being chosen to take center stage.
Ultimately Rory was accepting. Regina, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so prepared to be forgiving. The snubbing still rankled.
For all four of the youthful thespians, this was their one and only opportunity to escape their beauteous rocky cage.
At Regina’s urging, Rory had brought along his copy of the play for some final analysis. But he put it aside when the others teased him about being too earnest.
Wesley said they should try to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Winona spun in circles, silhouetted against the drop-dead gorgeous background of the emerald hillside and the topaz sky.
In time, they arranged themselves on two blankets, delved into Regina’s picnic basket and enjoyed the kind of experience that can only result from youthful exuberance and unlimited prospects.
Roasted chicken was gnawed to the bone; celery and carrot sticks were chomped and demolished with gusto; slices of bread and goat cheese disappeared as if into thin air.
Wesley and Winona washed everything down with Regina’s punch. It wouldn’t do to get drunk on this of all nights.
Regina and Rory felt they could partake of a little wine, since they wouldn’t be performing that evening.
At the two-thirds mark of his tankard, Wesley was overcome by a shocking weariness.
He looked over at Winona. Her head was lolling like a yo-yo in sleep mode.
Blackness streamed over him, but not before he could think, “I’ve been drugged.”
Rory, when he saw what was happening, cried out, “What’s going on? Is it food poisoning? Are we all going to die?”
“No! Don’t be ridiculous,” replied Regina, “I’ve simply put them to sleep. A little laudanum mixed into a fruit drink can work wonders.”
“Are you crazy? What have you done?”
“I’ve persuaded our friends to turn the limelight over to us tonight. That’s all.”
“I don’t want any part of this,” said Rory.
“Have you always wished to be a star?” asked Regina.
“Yes, of course,” replied Rory.
“Come on then, we should hurry back to the theater to prepare for our roles.”
She gathered up her things and was able to lead a stunned and malleable Rory by the hand in the desired direction.
Five minutes into the return trip down the slope, Regina stopped dead in her tracks.
“I hope this isn’t going to affect your performance?” she both asked and stated.
“I think it might,” said Rory.
“Okay, there’s something I meant to do. I wrote a note of apology and then forgot to leave it.”
She rummaged around in the picnic basket and found a piece of parchment.
She held it up for Rory to see. In block capital letters were the words “SORRY TO BE SO SELFISH” followed by her signature.
“I’ll go back and drop it off,” she said.
“I’d feel so much better if you did,” said Rory. “But I’ll take it if you like.”
“No, it’s my responsibility. You stay here on guard. Call or whistle if anyone approaches. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
So back up the path she went.
When Regina came to the clearing at the edge of the cliff, she extracted the apology and tore off her name at the bottom.
Then she set the letter in amongst a sheaf of papers and stuffed the whole package inside the frilly shirtfront of the prostrate and unconscious Wesley.
First she dragged Wesley’s body to the cliff edge, then Winona’s.
As quick as you can say, “main chance seized,” the deed was done.
Another few minutes and she was back with Rory racing down the hill.
“Would he settle for less than the best? Of course not,” was the King’s reaction.
On second thought, while he may love the theater, he had other pre-occupations as well.
Taking precedence among those interests, during peace-time at least, were matters of a mercantile bent.
A priority among all his royal duties was the presumption he would adopt whatever steps were necessary to ensure his nation’s prosperity.
Well down the coast to the west was a neighboring nation with a persistent and terrifying problem.
The “head honcho” in that land was dealing with a humbling situation. He was hampered in the administration of his duties by the fact that, rather than inheriting his position, he’d been chosen by his people to be their leader.
It was a novel idea in the world at the time. Unfortunately, it also placed limits on his authority.
There were those in his country who wanted the conundrum dealt with. An equal number believed there should be no tampering with the natural course of events.
Someone coined the term “endangered species” and it became a rallying cry for the forces in favor of maintaining the status quo.
The upshot was that a monster was at liberty to intermittently feast on some of the nation’s finest female flesh.
If he could offload the pain suffered by some of his citizenry onto someone else, he would be eternally grateful.
During a state visit two years earlier, the King had suggested there might be a solution that would work to both their advantages.
He hadn’t volunteered any specifics because, in truth, he hadn’t yet come up with a plan.
If ever an idea did present itself, the two men agreed to open the door to all sorts of trade possibilities.
The one land was rich in wool and fur, the other in spices and tea.
The King returned home, promising he would be in touch if inspiration struck.
He’d been mulling over the opportunity from all possible angles since then.
There were some ethical issues that needed sorting out.
He knew his best chance lay in catching a solution from the side, by surprise.
The notion of accepting “second best” initiated a tangential journey that so far wasn’t leading to the usual dead end.
Despite some mild misgivings on a personal level, he was sensing the glimmer of an answer.
“Since this year’s human harvest might not be a bumper crop anyway…” he was thinking.
There was one way to supply the needed ingredient to fix his neighbor’s dilemma while hardly endangering relations with his own people at all.
He composed notes on two pieces of parchment and sent couriers in different directions, one by land to track down his son, the other by sea to his opposite number in the country next door.
To his son he wrote, “There’s been a change in plans this year. I want you to take whomever you have chosen to our emininent friend next door. As you and I have discussed, he has a special need.”
To his ”cousin” ruler he wrote in more florid language, ”To convey my affection for your august presence, there is something I wish you to have. Please expect my gift, which will arrive shortly. I trust you will know what to do with her and that you will remember our pact.”
Settle for less than the best? The timing could not have been more fortuitous.
Then he called for his chamberlain to discuss arrangements for that evening.
Entertainment featuring local folklore might be most appropriate.
He had reason to celebrate.
By the time they reached the school, Rory’s consternation had settled down a bit.
Then he went into another panic when he couldn’t find his copy of the play. He was sure he’d left it back at the rest site.
Regina assumed command and gave him instructions. “Calm down. I’ll look for your manuscript. I probably stuffed it in my picnic basket along with everything else.”
Rory still appeared on the verge of the shakes.
“Give me a chance and I’m sure I’ll locate it. In the meantime, you go tell the director and crew that Wesley and Winona won’t be performing tonight.”
“What reason will I give?”
“Say they took their cue from the play. They’ve run off together. Everyone knows they’re an item, but they’ve been restricted in what they can do.
“You know we’re heavily chaperoned here most of the time. This is one of the few days security is overwhelmed, on account of the commotion. There’s so much that needs to be done.”
Rory nodded his head.
“Make it clear you and I are prepared to step in.”
And so it went.
But there was another matter about which Regina had given Rory no advance warning.
Regina and Rory weren’t as well matched physically as Winona and Wesley.
The play was a two-person showcase. It featured a man and a woman engaging in heated and witty verbiage for nearly two hours.
To show off her acting chops, Regina wanted to play the male role.
Hair darkened and shortened, voiced lowered and empowered, torso flattened and corseted, she could transform herself into the very embodiment of a rich successful merchant.
That meant Rory, nearly a foot shorter than Regina, would have to perform the female lead in drag.
They’d both learned all the dialogue and if there were a few errors in the delivery, it would only add to the seeming spontaneity.
Rory, now in a semi-stupor, agreed. This would take some help from the behind-the-scenes faction.
Formidable effort ensued such that only a few minutes late, the curtain rose and the emoting began.
The play was a well-established crowd-pleaser. Audiences loved The Martinet’s Marriage Minuet not least because it was mildly subversive vis à vis prevailing social mores.
The male lead’s every action was based on three suppositions – that because he was taller than most men and looked terrific in a suit, he was destined to be a visionary business leader.
The woman’s subservient position as keeper of the bachelor’s household allowed an assortment of shrewd observations. She saw through her employer’s preening and drew conclusions of her own.
She understood there was no inconsistency when her aspiring lord and master, despite their escalating philosophical differences, wanted to increase her compensation.
Her defining set piece, her diva moment, came when she pointed out that there are certain employers who want to pay you more.
That way, they feel they have even more right to dictate what you say and do.
Hence the setup and the source of the sparks on stage.
Of course all was eventually resolved, the merchant and his thorn-in-the-side grew closer and love, as so often in real life it is not wont to do, triumphed.
Regina was a revelation as the prince. But it was Rory’s note-perfect portrayal of the spitfire foil that stole the show.
In a blonde wig and decked out in Winona’s gowns, after some minor adjustments, and with cheeks pinched and beet-root coloring on his lips he was transformed into a tempestuous beauty.
Much of the population of the entire region was in the audience. They rose as one on several occasions with thunderous applause.
Their pleasurable agitation threatened to extinguish the hundreds of candles that illuminated the auditorium.
Even the usual critics, who didn’t have the brains God gives boulders, were won over by the performances.
The Prince knew within fifteen minutes he’d found his treasures.
Upon conclusion, after a short period of celebration with the show’s full complement, he gathered up his charges and proposed they stay the night in the village at the base of the mountain so they could leave first thing in the morning.
Good-byes to family and friends were perfunctory. They were accomplished in a whirlwind of congratulations and well-wishes. No-one would deny the Prince what he wanted.
Rory spent a sleepless night in his room worried Wesley and Winona would show up, with forceful support, and accuse him and Regina of taking away their glory.
As the hours passed, he could only presume they were afraid to make the steep descent in the dark.
Regina slept like a baby.
Regina and Rory were both delighted to mount up and be on their way as soon as dawn broke.
The grand adventure was about to begin.
So here he was, tied to a stake, waiting to be consumed by fire.
Rory thought back over the events of the past week and a half.
It all began on the night of his triumph.
The ride across the country heading east had been fantastic fun.
He’d never ridden a horse of such fine quality before.
Man and beast glided over the countryside. The fresh sights were a source of amazement.
The messenger from the east appeared in the middle of the second day.
The new arrival handed over a rolled-up scroll that was bound with purple wax and the imprint of a great seal.
The message had to be of the utmost importance.
Sure enough, once the Prince read the missive, matters took a 180 degree turn.
No longer did they head in the expected direction, towards King and castle.
First, the whole party – the five men and two women – headed south to the coast.
They spent that night in lodgings above a tavern in a harbor town.
The next morning, the Prince hired a ship and they set sail down the coast.
Rory had never been to sea before. This was one more wonder to take in, but his initial joy was quickly dispelled.
Shortly after boarding, Regina was escorted to a tiny cabin and locked in as a prisoner.
For three days, Rory intermittently pleaded with the Prince to release his friend.
He was under no illusion Regina’s plight resulted from anything as simple as what happened back in the clearing.
There were bigger forces at work about which he had no understanding.
He’d have to be cautious about being too assertive in his questioning.
It was hardly his place to dispute any directive from the King.
Nonetheless, his advocacy seemed to be working.
At least once per day, the Prince did check in on his female “guest”.
On the morning of the sixth day, the Prince emerged from the cell with Regina on his arm.
Rory was overjoyed. Again his excitement was short-lived.
He was taken into custody instead and escorted to the room previously occupied by Regina.
On the seventh day, the Prince and Regina entered his cabin together to determine how he was doing.
The two of them were making cow-eyes at each other.
He had to admit the Prince and the actress made a lovely couple.
On the eighth day, as they were pulling into a strange port, the chambermaid who had taken on the task of supplying Rory with nourishment, begged him to escape.
She was willing to help. According to her, he had no idea what he was in for.
Despite her most persuasive and sorrowful arguments, Rory refused.
He was convinced Regina would use her new-found influence with the Prince to come to his rescue.
As for his future, he had some vague intimation of what might be in store.
From childhood on, he’d heard rumors about a fire-coughing dragon on the other side of the mountain range that separated his country from the people living where the sun set.
According to legend, every five years the beast needed a “candy” canapé to restore its good humor. If denied, the consequences would be catastrophic.
How could that have any relevance for him?
If there was a danger, it was in a land far away. And the monster’s supposed capacity for terror lay in its proclivity to devour fair damsels.
Nevertheless, here he was, dressed in a gingham frock, a riot of golden tresses firmly attached to his scalp, waiting for a scaly sulfurous suitor.
He was between a rock and a hard place.
More accurately, he was between a wooden post and a fiery scourge.
He’d been escorted here over two days with fanfare by a contingent of soldiers.
At no time since reaching land, had the Prince and Regina allowed him to slip out of character.
His maiden-in-distress routine was sure to be his crowning achievement.
He noticed that this side of the mountain spine was every bit as beautiful as the other.
Tremors emanating from within the facing cave gave warning of a mighty stirring.
It was only a matter of time.
He started shaking in his designer boots.
How could he also be mildly amused?
But, honestly, what was he to do?
Despite his best efforts, circumstances were having their way.
He remembered the words of the downtrodden chambermaid.
“It’s the beautiful people who have all the luck.”
By an incredible stroke of good fortune, Wesley’s slack body landed on a second ledge hidden ten feet below the first ledge on the night of the talent showcase.
Seconds later, Winona’s limp form landed on top of him.
They both lay unconscious for six hours.
When they finally revived, their initial panic over their precarious position was quickly augmented by discomfort.
They spent a miserable night bruised and cold and clinging by a few handholds to the side of the mountain in pitch darkness.
The next morning, a continual series of shouts and hollers attracted the attention of a goat herder who ran and acquired a rope from the nearby school to help raise them back onto safer ground.
There was no question they’d been done a wrong. The stack of parchment in Wesley’s shirt made pretty clear the name of the culprit.
A less than cryptic note was wrapped in Rory’s folio copy of the plays the school had given him to study that academic year.
Wesley realized Rory’s conscience-easing apology was tantamount to a confession.
Their anger was hard to contain and a desire to seek retribution was overwhelming.
The local authorities were notified and a warrant issued for the apprehension of Rory, should he ever return to the place of his birth.
When news arrived of what had transpired across the border, joy over the pay-back was gradually mixed with a dollop or two of remorse. It seemed the poor devil got what he deserved.
True to her theatrical leanings, Winona thought of Rory’s unfortunate misstep into deception and crime as a fool’s final folly.
On the occasion of another full moon several months later, Wesley and Winona were crowned King and Queen of the local harvest festival.