The Duchess's Boy, By Louise Quenneville
er Grace, The Duchess Stilzchen of the North-East Gnomes, set down the letter she’d been reading. She took off her spectacles and laid them on the desk. Raising a hand, she summoned a messenger. She instructed the messenger:
“Find the human boy Edward and have him meet me in the bramble-garden in half an hour; and tell the Cook to have tea and cakes ready, the kind the boy likes. We are to be alone in the garden, absolutely no-one else is to be there.”
She rose from her chair and taking the letter with her she strode towards the garden, the very picture of gnomish dignity from the top of her ruby cap down to the tips of her claws, and all the wattles and warts in between.
She was sitting on a bench when Edward came into the garden.
“Come here, my boy and sit here beside me – I’m going to have to give you some unpleasant news.” The human boy, Edward, did as he was bid and sat down on the bench with the Duchess.
“I fear, Edward, that you are soon to lose your human inheritance.”
Now the boy Edward was a human boy, eleven years old, not particularly tall or handsome or in any way remarkable in appearance for a human boy; what set him apart from other boys was the way in which he seemed completely at ease sitting not two feet away from a pointed eared, pointy-toothed, pointy-nosed gnome.
“That’s not so bad, your Ladyship, I never really wanted to live in the castle and have the Queen tell me what to do all the time,” answered Edward.
“Edward, my dear, you were born to be a king among the humans. It was only by sheer good fortune and human foolishness that you’ve had a chance to grow up among the gnomes. And a kingdom is a lot of wealth to give up so easily... I could try to speak to your mother the Queen one more time.”
“Please Ma’am, don’t trouble yourself. She doesn’t want me; you’ve tried before.”
The Duchess lowered her head until the dewlap under her chin lay across her broad bosom. “It’s my fault, you know, that your mother is that way. You know the story of how my nephew Rumple made a bargain with the Queen – that was before she was the Queen, just a common girl she was then – that he would help her make gold in exchange for her first born child.” Edward nodded yes.
“Well I know about making bargains with humans, and they are not to be trusted to keep their end of the agreement. And Rumple was such a fool to advance gold for credit – you must never do that with a human, remember that –“ The Duchess paused, looking intently at the boy.
“Yes Ma’am, never; I’ll never extend credit to a human,” he said.
“Good lad... So, knowing that Rumple would have a terrible time collecting on the debt, and seeing myself as eminently more credit-worthy than the Queen, I facilitated the exchange in advance by taking you in escrow....You look confused, Edward – I just mean that I kidnapped you at birth and replaced you with a place-holder I made from a turnip, some clay and some baby clothes... I didn’t actually do anything to you except make sure the Queen couldn’t hide you from Rumple when he came to collect. I didn’t tell Rumple. Poor Rumple wasn’t very bright, and I don’t think he could have carried out his part in getting back the place-holder prince from the Queen without letting the secret out if he’d known.
"Rumple had already promised me he’d give me the Prince to raise once he’d collected the baby from the Queen. So, if all had gone according to my plan, at the end of the exchange the Queen would have been childless, Rumple would have been so proud, and I would have the place-holder back. No-one except myself would ever know I’d already had you here in my home for a whole year.”
“So,” Edward said with a smile, “the Prince in the castle is a turnip-head! No wonder everyone says he’s so stupid.”
“I made the place-holder Prince too well, I’m afraid. He’s got dimples and blue eyes and golden hair in the perfect proportions for a boy, and he always does what his mother and teachers tell him.”
“That’s not very real,” said Edward.
“Well, there is another thing – I needed the place-holder to be believable for a whole year, so I entangled his enchantment with another baby born in the castle three days earlier. That way whatever the real baby did, the fake Prince would do, just three days later.”
“Like growing and crawling and stuff?”
“Yes. I hadn’t thought some things through entirely, such as how unlikely it would be for two real babies to have all of their teeth erupt in exactly the same order, but the humans were fooled.”
“Humans are pretty gullible.”
“Except you, my special boy!” The Duchess tousled the boy’s rather ordinary brown hair. “Now you know how the story goes – Rumple, poor fool, gives the Queen a chance to keep her baby, and ends up dead. Poor Rumple.” She pulled a large handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. “Now to honor Rumple’s bargain, I had to return you, the real prince, to the Queen. I wrapped you up and sneaked into the nursery. I hadn’t expected the Queen to be sitting there, singing to the fake prince.”
“Prince Turnip-Head!” Edward added.
“Yes, Edward, she was singing to Prince Turnip. She saw me and stopped singing. I quickly explained that I was going to give her back her real baby, and that I could take the fake-prince if she wanted, or I could turn him back into a turnip if she preferred. She didn’t comprehend a thing I said. She grabbed a broom and chased me, screaming her head off that someone was trying to take her baby. Well, that was almost true, but -- “
“She didn’t want me” said Edward softly.
“It’s not that simple. She thought she had the perfect baby – that’s my fault, for being such a good enchantress. You on the other hand, were real; you had a poopy diaper, you were teething, and once she started chasing us with the broom you started crying like a baby-banshee. She preferred the illusion.”
“Stupid humans,” said Edward, with a tear sliding down one cheek.
“Now there,” said the Duchess, wiping his face with the handkerchief, “you are an excellent apprentice-magician, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I’m so glad I got to bring you back home with me again that day.” Edward managed a small smile. She patted his cheek “That’s it, lad, a brave heart can smile even on a dark day.”
“If she attacked you with a broom, why didn’t you put a curse on her?” asked the boy.
“I was too busy running away to stop and curse her. If her aim with the broom had been any better neither of us would be alive today. I tried again to fulfill Rumple’s part of the bargain on your second birthday. The Queen used a torch instead of a broom to chase me away. On your third birthday she was waiting for us to appear and she set the dogs after us. I had to use magic to get away that time.”
“So you gave up.”
“No. The Queen was convinced a terrible creature was trying to steal her baby and replace it with a changeling. So I thought it would be wiser to let the Queen keep the fake-prince until she figured out on her own that he was a fake, and then she would want her real baby back. She still hasn’t figured it out, which says a lot about her intellect.”
“Stupid Queen,” muttered Edward.
“The child that the fake-prince is still imitating, three days behind, is the daughter of the Master of the Hunt and his wife, the Mistress of the Queen’s wardrobe. The Master of the Hunt has no sons, so he takes his daughter riding, hunting, tracking, and so forth, so the fake-prince has not been a completely girly-boy turnip-prince. However, new and important events have transpired.”
The Duchess picked up the letter she’d been reading earlier. “My informant among the drain-pipe dwarfs tells me that yesterday the daughter of the Master of the Hunt was seen kissing the son of the Sergeant-at-arms behind the old west barn.”
“Oh!” said Edward.
“This is a very intolerant kingdom, at least among the humans. The Queen will faint. The King will call the Bishop. The Bishop will blame the Devil and will perform an exorcism. The exorcism will break my enchantment, and the fake-prince will revert to turnip and clay.”
“But then I can be Prince!”
“No. I wish it were so, but the Queen will declare that someone has stolen her blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with dimples, and that the turnip was a changeling. Although this is mostly true, it won’t be quite true in the way she means it. Soon hundreds of young men and boys having blond hair, or blue eyes, or dimples, will begin appearing at the castle, each one claiming to be the lost prince.”
“But I’m the real Prince!” said Edward angrily.
“I know, dear boy, but we can’t prove it. Also, you aren’t blond or blue-eyed, and you don’t have dimples. We’d have to use a spell to make you look that way, and you’d have to pay your first-born child to buy that kind of spell.”
“I don’t want to look like prince-turnip! Why should I have to change when I’m the real boy?”
Edward’s anger was mixed with tears, and the Duchess made use of her handkerchief again.
“I know, it doesn’t seem fair -- but the world isn’t about what is fair. We gnomes say that it is the sign of a greater heart to look for what is good instead of what is fair.”
“So I should look for something good to come out of all of this?” asked the boy, sniffling back tears.
The Duchess wrapped the boy in her loose-skinned gray arms and hugged him close. “Getting to see you learn and grow has been the greatest good thing that has ever happened to me, Edward. I hope someday you will see all the good you’ve done by being here.”
“That was the problem, wasn’t it, that the fake-prince was too good-looking?” said Edward, his face against the fabric of her silk and burlap gown.
“That was my fault,” said the Duchess. “I didn’t know what a real human baby would look like. “
“And to get to look pretty enough to be the Prince I’d have to sell my first-born? And I’d never look like myself again?”
“That’s what it would cost.”
“I don’t want to be Prince that much.”
“Do you think you might want some honey cakes?”
The Duchess felt the boy nod against her shoulder.
They sat for a while eating cakes and drinking tea. By the time the supper gong sounded they had finished all the cakes, and washed their faces in the fountain. They’d talked about the problem of how sometimes people of all kinds were blinded by beauty, or lack of beauty, and how that had caused so many problems for Snow White, the Beast of Beauty and the Beast, and so many others. They’d agreed; the Gnomish way was best: look for a good bargain, buy low and sell high, and never be afraid to take a profit.
During the daytime Louise Quenneville is found sitting in front of a microscope. Evenings, she investigates the tracks that birds, squirrels, cats, mice, and the neighbor's children have left in the snow of her yard and imagines what might go on in the yard when she is away at work. Sometimes she works late and it is dark when she gets home; that's when the night creatures come out and things can get strange. Skunk tracks look much like cat tracks in the dark. Life is full of lessons.