by NN West
Once upon a time there dwelt in the land of Fantasia a rich merchant who had only one son and no wife. It was whispered by the superstitious that the boy's mother had been one of the Elven race who, tiring as such soon will of her mortal lover, had returned to her own kindred, leaving the half-human child to comfort his father for her loss.
Whatever the truth of his parentage, young Ray was a delightful child who grew into a beautiful youth without passing through the stage of gangling adolescence that seemed to afflict his contemporaries. At 18 he had a slender, feline grace, a riotous mop of silken curls, the clearest, greenest eyes in the world, and an odd, haunting beauty that served to confirm the rumours of his Elven mother. He was gentle, sweet-natured, unspoiled--and chaste. Not one of the girls who fluttered around this paragon like bees at a honey pot could boast of having received more than courtesy from him.
Shortly after Ray's 18th birthday his father took a new wife, the lovely, predatory Alexis, a widow with two children by her first marriage, so that Ray found himself sharing his father not only with a stepmother, but two stepsisters, Krystal and Sue-Ellen (so-named from their mother's addiction to soap opera of the more lurid variety.)
All three women were as cruel and treacherous as they were beautiful. Scarcely were they installed in the house when they began to work on the merchant, flattering him, cajoling him, pointing out how...unfortunate it was that a man in his position should be burdened with a son around whom such speculation was woven. Not that they believe any ill of the youth, Alexis added hastily, but it was said that the Elven race were lacking proper emotional motivation...and it certainly could not be denied that the merchant's first wife had deserted husband and child... could it?
By the time Ray realized what was happening the damage had been done, and his father was regarding him with suspicion; his innocent attempts to heal a breech he could not account for were held up as proof of a devious, scheming nature. Hurt, Ray withdrew to nurse his wounded pride, and his reaction was instantly called proof of his sullen, stubborn refusal to admit to his faults and mend his ways.
Within six months of his marriage, the merchant was dead. Natural causes, the doctors said, but there was a smile on his face and a faint weariness in Alexis' expression that set a few tongues wagging. The general opinion seemed to be that there were worse ways to go.
On the day of the merchant's funeral, the will was read. Everything had been left to Alexis and her daughters--Ray had been completely disinherited. As 'an act of charity to my ungracious son', Alexis was enjoined to provide food, shelter and clothing for Ray until his 21st birthday; on that date he was to be given the clothes he stood up in, his mother's picture, a servant's wages for a year, and was to be turned from the house forever.
From being a rich man's only heir, Ray had become a pauper. His friends deserted him for--as they kindly pointed out--it would be far too embarrassing for all concerned if Ray had to be excluded from certain pastimes and amusements he could no longer afford.
Alexis decreed that since she must pay him a servant's wages for a year, he would work three years to earn it as a scullion, since he lacked training for anything better. A servant had no need for fine clothes; she confiscated his wardrobe, leaving him only a couple of pairs of old jeans and some shirts, most of whose buttons had long since vanished into limbo.
He would be working long hours, and so would no longer require a suite of rooms; they were taken from him, and he was ordered to make himself a bed in the kitchen. The girls found this vastly amusing, and with memories of an old nursery tale, quickly renamed their luckless stepbrother 'Cinderayla'. They took pleasure in slapping and pinching him as he went about his duties, and often played malicious tricks on him, so that when he thought himself finished and with time for a brief rest, he would be summoned by a furious Alexis to re-polish a floor that the girls had just soiled. He quickly learned never to argue, for despite her seeming fragility Alexis had a heavy hand with a cane. The only restriction she placed on her daughters was to forbid them to use any form of weapon on him, for Krystal had once caught him on the cheek with a heavy ornament; he had almost lost his sight, and Alexis did not wish it to be known that she permitted actual harm to come to her stepson. The broken cheekbone healed unevenly, and the woman frequently commented on how ugly the deformity made him look, allied to his strangely non-Human face.
Ray bore his changed circumstances with resigned patience. It was not the work he minded, nor the loss of his fine clothes and easy life; he even accepted the spite and ill-treatment from his stepmother and stepsisters. What hurt was the knowledge that his father had disowned him so easily. Perhaps, he reasoned, the stories of Elven blood were true; perhaps a birth such as he was something to be ashamed of. Certainly he must have done something very terrible to merit this treatment. Gradually he began to accept what he was so often told for the truth; he was ugly, stupid, lazy... he was to be treated as an outcast... for surely they couldn't all be wrong?
So quietly, patiently, he endured, carefully performing his menial duties, accepting the petty, spiteful punishments, the lack of sleep, the scanty poor food, the endless, repetitive toil, as his due lot in life. Soon he had almost forgotten that he had ever lived any other way...
A year passed. Ray was nineteen. There was great excitement in the land, for the Crown Prince had returned from his adventuring in foreign parts to celebrate his 21st birthday, and also, it was whispered, to bow to the king's increasingly impatient demand that he take a wife.
King George the 346th was known to his subjects as Old King Cowley, (as the chroniclers of his reign remarked, how else were you supposed to keep track of 346 kings all with the same name unless you gave them some sort of distinguishing nickname?) and was surprisingly popular. He had been born and brought up in the northern (and most civilised) part of the kingdom, and had succeeded to the throne unexpectedly on the death of his third cousin. In turn his heir was the son of his sister, formally known as His Serene Highness The Crown Prince William Andrew Philip Bodie; Old King Cowley frequently remarked that the title was wholly unsuitable, since Prince Bodie was rarely serene, but he supposed custom had to be followed. As a matter of fact, Prince Bodie was remarkably sensible on the subject of names; the younger and more romantic members of his court sometimes referred to him as 'Prince Charming', although not within his hearing--on the only occasion some daring spirit had done so, the rash youth departed for his family estates on permanent exile minus his front teeth. 'Prince Bodie' was the most the determined young man would permit, and even then his closest companions, such as his bodyguard and cousin Murphy Count Dandini, were urged to call him simply 'Bodie'.
In one particular Prince Bodie was an especial trial to his royal uncle--despite the best efforts of every diplomat in the Foreign Office, the opinionated young prince had succeeded in alienating the father of every eligible princess within a year's travel. Phrases such as 'blackguard', 'young ruffian', 'scoundrel', and 'thoroughly unreliable' were repeated over and over again in the replies to Old King Cowley's formal proposals of a marriage alliance. (It was remarked, however, that when the opinions of the princesses in question were sought, no such complaints were forthcoming.
Be that as it may, with the prospect of a foreign alliance seeming more and more unlikely, Old King Cowley determined to have his unpredictable nephew respectably married in the shortest possible order; decreed that during the year of the prince's 21st birthday entertainment and parties would be given at which he would have the opportunity of meeting every even remotely eligible young woman in the kingdom; if, at the end of the year, he could not produce a fiancee of his own choosing, the king would select a wife for him.
Alexis was delighted when she heard the proclamation. Although regrettably a little too advanced in years herself to be eligible, she had not one but two delightful daughters--and she was in a position to bring them to the notice of the prince. Royal Mother-in-Law! Why, the position was as good as hers already!
Events proceeded better than she had dared hope. Within weeks bookmakers were taking bets on whether Sue-Ellen or Krystal would be the bride of the prince. All that marred her contentment was the increasing enmity between the sisters as first one, then the other seemed to be higher in favour. It would, she thought, be worth enduring the sulks of the loser to have the matter settled, but it appeared that the prince had no intention of naming his preference quite yet.
It would have astounded all three women to know that in fact Prince Bodie had no preference. Becoming bored with the endless debate over his marriage prospects, he had determined one morning to choose the first eligible girl he set eyes on that day; but, knowing that his uncle would insist on the marriage taking place as soon as he announced his choice, he intended to make the most of his last year of bachelorhood by postponing the announcement until the last possible moment.
It so chanced that on the morning in question, Prince Bodie had seen Krystal and Sue-Ellen at precisely the same moment. Finding nothing to choose between them (he considered them both vain, empty-headed baggages who stood in greater need of a sound education than husband) he shrugged his shoulders, paid both an equal amount of attention, and privately confided to Murphy that when it came to the bit he would base his final selection on the toss of a coin. Perhaps, he added casually, his cousin might care to wed the reject--then at least the two friends could be miserable together.
Knowing nothing of this, Alexis was delighted to entertain her daughters' royal suitor on her deceased husband's country estates. Such influx of visitors necessitated a great deal of work, with all available staff being pressed into service--among them an almost-forgotten scullion who scarcely remembered himself that he had once been heir to the estate, and that it should be him who had the right to welcome the prince.
The staff worked day and night to prepare for the royal visit. There was so much to do that the procession was already in sight far down the country road when the last of the cleaning materials were hurried out of sight. Ray, who had as usual been given the dirtiest jobs, judged that he just had time for a quick wash under the stable pump; he was just pulling on his ragged clothes when the clatter of hoofs on the cobbles announced the first arrivals--the prince and Murphy had grown weary of the slow movement of the procession, and had raced ahead.
Aware of the punishment he would face if Alexis learned he had been seen by the royal visitor, Ray dived into the shelter of a huge pile of hay. He pulled it around him so that he was well-hidden, but being naturally curious he peered out, anxious for his first glimpse of the prince.
He was utterly unprepared for what he saw. Quite simply, as he peered up from his hiding place, Ray fell in love. He had no mother to tell him that this was not allowed, that one man shouldn't fall in love with another. His Elven heritage was to the fore, dominating his mind and that which he desired. Ah, but it was cruel! A year ago and he could have approached the prince, won him as a friend, perhaps even... but no. He would soon be driven from his former home. What could such as he ever offer the dark-haired, blue-eyed prince who rode into the stable yard... and into the heart of the half-Elven exile?
But... a cat may look at a king, as the old saying went, and certainly a despised scullion could dream of his enchanting prince. Taking care not to be seen Ray took every opportunity to watch his idol, storing up memories and images in his lonely heart. He could not even feel jealous of Sue-Ellen and Krystal as each in turn promenaded on Prince Bodie's arm, his beloved was as far above him as the stars of heaven, and it was enough--almost--just to watch...and wonder how it would be if he were the one Prince Bodie swept into the rhythm of the dance in the candle-lit hall [word missing] an evening...
It was Ray's patient, careful observation of the prince that brought him at last to the realisation that he was not the only one to watch so closely. Besotted as he was, he could not but be aware that the two rough-looking individuals who lurked in the shadow of the next bush one morning had some nefarious purpose in mind--it was certain that they were not there simply to admire the beauty of his beloved. Anxiously, Ray remained concealed as Bodie and Murphy left the garden to depart for their morning canter across the heath, and the two suspicious characters in turn emerged from their hiding place.
To his horror, Ray learned from their conversion that the two men were part of a devilish plot to assassinate the prince. The attempt was to take place that very morning--indeed, the murderers were already in position.
There was no way to warn Bodie. As the conspirators hurried off Ray paced up and down the garden anxiously. How could he summon help? Looking as he did--he glanced down disparagingly at his torn and patched clothes--who would believe him? Even if Alexis was willing to act on his information, he could not reach her--she had long since given orders that her stepson was to be kept out of her sight. As for Bodie's men, who [word missing] Murphy could be trusted? And the loyal aide was marked for death with his master.
The only chance, small though it was, lay in whether he, Ray, could reach the site of the ambush in time to shout a warning. From the conversation of the conspirators he knew where it was, but he was on foot while the prince and Murphy were mounted on fast horses. Still, he had to try...
As he drew breath to run, Ray stopped suddenly as a shimmer in the air beside him solidified suddenly into the shape of a tall, solidly-built, fair-haired man with a dangerous expression on his world-weary face.
"That's right--rush off half-cocked and ruin everything," the stranger snorted disgustedly. "That's the trouble with your half-bloods; no patience to speak of."
"Who are you?" Ray gasped.
"Name's Macklin. I'm your fairy godbrother. And no smart cracks, either, petal. I didn't ask for this assignment, you know."
"What assignment?" Ray was thoroughly bewildered.
"Taking care of you, of course. Your mum just remembered all about you--decided she really ought to make sure you're properly settled in life. I drew the short straw. None of this three wishes rubbish for you, flower--you get the whole 'happily ever after' bit. Just tell me what you want, and I see that you get it."
"You mean, you can grant me anything I want?" Ray asked hopefully.
"Just said that, didn't I? Told you, I'm your fairy godbrother. You tell me what you want, I sort it out for you. Let's see... usual priority is a fair-haired damsel..."
"There's no time for all that now," Ray interrupted impatiently. "If you really can make things right, help me save Prince Bodie."
"Prince Bodie, huh? If that's your first request, looks like I can forget about the damsel. Okay, I get the picture. I know just what's wanted." Macklin glanced around. "Fetch that wheelbarrow over here, will you?"
Ray did as he was told, and watched in amazement as with a few cabbalistic words Macklin changed the rusty container into a gleaming silver chariot.
"A Capri, that," his fairy godbrother announced with satisfaction. "Mind you, that really comes into another fiction plane, but still... beggars can't be choosers, can they? You'll find you know how to drive the thing all right. Passenger seat has all the weapons you'll need--and you'll know how to use them, too. Oh, one last thing."
Macklin waved a careless hand. Ray looked down at himself, and gasped in delight. His torn rags had vanished, and he was clad in the sleekest skin-tight jeans, a T-shirt that clung lovingly to every contour of his chest, and a leather jacket that shone with an expensive patina that bespoke wealth.
"Very tasty," Macklin muttered, eyeing him up and down. "Okay, petal, go rescue the boyfriend."
Ray felt the colour stain his cheeks. "He's not my boyfriend," he murmured as he turned away.
Macklin smiled cryptically. "If even half of what I've heard about Prince Bodie is true, you'll sing a different song five minutes after he catches sight of you," he promises under his breath. For a moment a frown creased his forehead as he studied Ray's retreating form, then with an evil grin he waved his hand--and tightened the jeans another size and a half.
"One thing," he called. "Come back here when you've finished--we have a few things to settle."
The arrival of Ray in the silver Capri routed the assassins totally and Bodie and Murphy, who had been resisting bravely, sallied from their refuge, and within a very short space of time all the prisoners had been rounded up and were on their way back to the castle in charge of Murphy and a squad of the royal bodyguard. Not until they had all departed did Prince Bodie turn to his rescuer.
"Looks like I owe you one, sunshine," he said warmly, his gaze roaming appreciatively over the attractive stranger.
"Oh, it was nothing," Ray shrugged modestly, deliciously aware of the eyes that lingered on the tight jeans. He backed away, slipping into the driving seat of the Capri. "I really must be going now..."
"But I'll see you again, surely?" Bodie asked anxiously. "You'll be at the ball tonight?"
Ray looked up, drowning in the pleading blue eyes. "I'll be near you," he promised, "and if everything works out, then maybe..."
Ray, time to get back. Macklin's voice echoed in his mind.
"Wait a minute--at least tell me your name," Bodie pleaded.
"I can't just yet. Call me what you like."
"Okay--Sunshine. Don't forget, or I'll come looking for you." Bodie stepped back as the Capri pulled away. He glanced up as Count Dandini returned, having seen the prisoners safely locked up. "You know, Murphy, I may have just solved my problem," he remarked thoughtfully.
Macklin was waiting when Ray braked to a halt in the garden. He smiled knowingly as Ray slid out of the driving seat and patted the bonnet happily. "Nice line in magic chariots you've got," the young man observed.
"Nothing but the best," Macklin agreed. "Sorry about this," he continued, waving his hands over both Ray and the car, "but union rules are rules. We're supposed to reach an agreement before I do anything for you. Only reason you got this much on account was due to your mother's influence." As he spoke the car seemed to collapse in on itself to become once more the rusty wheelbarrow, and Ray stood there shivering in his tattered rags.
"I mean," Macklin continued chattily, "no point you saying Prince Charming there is the love of your life if he's been splattered all over the landscape, is there? Makes me look such a fool, an' all, not to be able to deliver the goods. You...er... do want him, don't you?" he asked anxiously.
"Ooh yes! Who wouldn't?" Ray's eyes shown at the thought.
"Hmph." Macklin's sceptical tone might have answered the question, but Ray was too besotted to notice.
"I mean, did you see his eyes?" the lovelorn youth continued longingly. "And his mouth. And that..."
"Quite. However, unless you want to waste my time here just talking about him, we'd better get to work. I do have other customers, you know." Macklin produced a clipboard and pen. "I presume you want the happily-ever-ever, forsaking-all-others, as-long-as-you-both-shall-live bit?"
"Just checking." Macklin made some notes. "What's next... Protection against bewitchment of offspring... I think we can forget about that. Oh yes, I almost forgot. What about the wicked stepmother? I do a very nice line in warts and boils."
"I don't think so," Ray shuddered.
"Toads and lizards falling from her lips each time she speaks?"
"Your stepsisters are included in the deal, of course," Macklin urged. "Just think of the possibilities."
"If it's all the same to you, I'd really much rather forget all about them," Ray said quickly. "Just as long as they don't bother me."
"Right. One non-interference clause coming up." Macklin ticked another column on his form. "I think that covers everything."
"Is that all there is to it? Do I get him now?" Ray asked eagerly.
"Lord no!" Macklin said wearily. "All I've done is draw up the contract for you to sign on completion. It's just a safeguard, so that I know exactly what you want, and you know what to expect at the end of the day. Here, read that over and initial it."
"That seems to cover everything," Ray murmured after a few moments, returning the form.
"Fine. Next step is the ball tonight at the palace. Just stay out of sight until everyone has left, then meet me in the stable and you'll see what you will see."
"But..." Ray was talking to empty air. Macklin had vanished.
The interminable day grew to an end at last and Ray watched thankfully as the coach bearing Alexis, Krystal and Sue-Ellen pulled out of the courtyard. With fast-beating heart he hurried to the stable, half afraid that it had all been a dream, but Macklin was there, lovingly polishing the bonnet of the gleaming silver Capri.
"Your magic chariot awaits," his fairy godbrother announced with a flourish. "Oops--can't go like that, can you?" He muttered a few magic words, then beckoned Ray forward to gaze into the mirror that had suddenly appeared on the stable door.
For several minutes the younger man was incapable of speech. The clothes he had worn that afternoon had transformed him, but these...
Trousers of the finest, softest suede in pure white, fitting like a second skin; on the rounded swell of a buttock the rich curve of flesh was enhanced by a decorative patch that caught and held the eye. ("Sorry, but T'Lan's kinky for patches," Macklin muttered obscurely.)
The shirt was a gleaming emerald silk that matched his eyes; abandoning all pretence at buttons it lay open to the waist, exposing the seductive trail of hair and the tiny dormant nipples.
The outer garment was a full length white cloak, with a hood that framed his oddly beautiful face, emphasising the slanting green eyes; from beneath the hood a riot of silken curls flowed down his neck. On his feet were boots of white leather, so soft and supple that he could almost think himself barefoot.
"Very nice," Macklin nodded. "Well, off you go and have a good time. Just remember one thing--you must leave the palace before midnight. When the clock strikes twelve, all your finery will vanish."
Ray looked puzzled. "Why?" he asked.
Macklin shrugged. "Who knows? This is a fairy tale, not the great novel of our time. Just remember what I told you."
"I will," Ray called as he climbed into the Capri. "And thank you, fairy godbrother."
"Not so much of the 'fairy', if you don't mind," Macklin growled.
Prince Bodie was quietly driving his cousin Count Dandini into a nervous breakdown. Forced as he was to remain enthroned beside his uncle as the guests were announced, he was unable to keep watch himself for the one guest in whom he had any interest. A dozen times he sent Murphy scurrying to the gate to see if there was any sign of the magic chariot or its enchanting driver.
'He's got to come', the Prince thought desperately. 'I can't find him and lose him all on the same day! But if he doesn't come, how will I ever find him? I don't even know his name!'
For careless, cynical, arrogant Prince Bodie had tumbled head over elegant heels in love within two seconds of gazing into the bewitching green eyes of his nameless rescuer. That was the mate he would choose, no other. Old King Cowley wouldn't like it, of course, but it was his own fault; when he had sent his nephew to serve as a mercenary under an assumed name in foreign armies in order to learn of their ways and customs, he clearly hadn't given quite enough thought to just what customs he might adopt. Well, it was just too bad...
Murphy came forward to whisper something in his ear. Bodie listened, then with a delighted grin he turned to his royal uncle.
"Sire, I beg you to excuse me. If all goes well, I will announce my betrothal before the ball ends tonight." Without waiting for an answer he left the throne and hurried across the ballroom to the white-draped figure Murphy had indicated by the door.
Old King Cowley strained his eyes to follow his nephew's progress. (He really did need glasses, but so far had not been able to bring himself to wear them in public.) He grunted with satisfaction as he saw his nephew pause beside a figure dressed all in white, linger for a few seconds in conversation, then with typical impetuosity he swept his partner into the dance.
With a grunt he leaned back, wishing as always that the throne was a little more comfortable. So the young scapegrace was beginning to take things seriously at last! If the lassie was even halfway suitable he'd agree to the wedding in short order. Pity he couldn't see her face... He could send for them, he supposed, but it seemed a pity to interrupt Bodie's...er...train of thought.
At the other end of the ballroom Bodie smiled down into his companion's flushed face as they circled the floor. He had not given Ray the opportunity to remove his cloak, and so far it had not dawned on any of the avidly watching guests that it was a young man who blushed and trembled so adoringly in the prince's arms. Delighted at the response to his touch, Bodie tightened his grip.
"I was beginning to think you wouldn't come," he murmured.
"I couldn't stay away," Ray confessed. "I had to see you again."
"Just as well, Sunshine, because if you hadn't come, I'd have had the palace guard out scouring the kingdom. Look, we can't talk here. Will you come with me?"
"Anywhere," Ray breathed, gazing up into the blue eyes so close to his, feeling as though he was drowning in their intense gaze. And those lashes... What would it be like to feel them brush against his lips?
"Let's go, then." They had reached a door guarded by two footmen. As they came abreast of it Bodie called out an order, the door was opened. He whirled a breathless Ray through it, and it was slammed and locked behind them.
"My private quarters," grinned Bodie. "Now we can really get down to business."
It was much later that night. Two figures lay entwined in an embrace on a couch before a flickering fire in Prince Bodie's room. Two sets of elegant clothing strewn haphazardly across the floor were mute testimony to the urgency with which they had reached the haven.
Ray sighed happily as Bodie's lips nuzzles his ear. Deprived of maternal guidance, the wretched youth had never received the benefit of the usual warnings.
'Lie back and think of Fantasia.'
'It's not a sin if you don't enjoy it.'
'Only a slut moves, dear.'
'Not until you've got the ring on your finger.'
Never having benefitted from such sage advice, he had responded happily, enthusiastically, and above all loudly to Bodie's lovemaking. Replete, he sighed contentedly.
"Happy?" Bodie asked with a smile, winding one of the silken curls around his finger.
"Blissfully. What more could I want?"
"There is more, Sunshine. I'm not going to risk losing you now. Lover, will you marry me?"
Ray snuggled deeper into the strong arms, smiling broadly as he listened. Everything he had wanted was being offered to him... It was working out as Macklin had promised...
Suddenly Ray stiffened and looked up at the face bending over him. The blue eyes were glazed with passion, blind to everything but need. Oh yes, Bodie wanted him, more than the throne, more than his position, more than life itself.
But it was an artificial need, Ray realised dully, born of his own longing and Macklin's magic. Bodie was a Prince of the Blood Royal, held to the throne of Fantasia; what was he but a penniless beggar, unwanted by his mother, disowned by his father, his Elven blood making him an object of contempt. He could not tie the man he loved to such a wretched creature.
Slowly Ray sat up, and forced a smile to his lips. "Yes, I'll marry you, love," he lied.
He accepted the kiss he received without guilt, for he knew it was the only farewell he would bid his lover. "How about some champagne to toast our betrothal?" he suggested.
"Of course. Won't be a minute." Bodie rose, slipped on a robe, and left the room, calling for Murphy as he went.
As soon as he was out of sight, Ray rose and grabbed his cloak. He didn't dare take time to dress, and his boots were nowhere to be seen. Wrapping himself in the heavy folds he went out onto the balcony from which he saw that he could easily reach the ground; across the gardens, he told himself, through the stables, and out of the palace by the servant's entrance. No one would question anyone leaving the palace. He returned to scribble a brief message which he left on the couch. Then, knowing that if he lingered he would not have the strength to leave at all, he returned to the balcony and swung himself to the ground.
Midnight was striking when one of the guards on duty on the south wall leaned forward, studying the figure that stumbled along the moonlit road. Dead drunk, to judge from his unsteady gait, and obviously a beggar, for bare legs gleamed in the moonlight below a ragged piece of sacking that wrapped the huddled figure. Really, it was terrible the state some people let themselves get into. Still, whatever went on outside the palace walls was no concern of his...
"Sunshine? Sunshine, where are you?" Bodie glanced frantically round the room. He'd only been gone a few minutes, for heaven's sake... He noticed the sheet of paper on the couch and picked it up.
I'm sorry. I can't go through with it. I'd only hurt you. But I love you.
So his loved had gone out of his own free will. But why? Dazedly Bodie looked around the room, hoping for some clue. He frowned as his gaze fell on the pile of clothes on the floor, and he picked them up. They were lying where Sunshine's had been, but these torn and patched jeans were certainly not the expensive garments his lover had worn...
Wait! Hidden by the jeans was something he did recognise, a pair of soft white leather boots. He picked them up, an idea already forming in his mind.
The following morning a proclamation was issued the length and breadth of the kingdom. Old King Cowley announced that his nephew and heir was distracted by the mysterious disappearance of the one he was to wed. However, the fair unknown had left an item of clothing behind, namely a pair of white leather boots. Whosoever in the kingdom fitted the boots--and could speak the name the prince had given his betrothed--would be given Prince Bodie's hand in marriage.
Alexis was furious. From having an excellent chance of seeing one of her daughters on the throne, she now had no more than anyone else. The boots might very well fit one or both of the girls, but each had only one chance to guess the love-name. If she ever got her hands on that interfering hussy... Besides, what sort of woman wore boots to a ball?
The search progressed slowly, for Bodie and Murphy accompanied the heralds each day. They were the only ones to know that it was in fact a man they sought; the heralds considered that their strict interpretation of the 'whosoever' in the proclamation was sheer pedantry.
At long last the procession reached Alexis' estate. She watched with bated breath as first Krystal then Sue-Ellen tried on the boots. They fitted Sue-Ellen, but alas, she could not give the name the prince waited to hear.
Putting as good a face on it as she could, Alexis waited for the royal party to leave. Instead, the herald coughed.
"Is there anyone else on the estate, Madame, who is eligible to try the boots?" he asked.
"Only the servants, and they are all too old."
"You're forgetting Cinderayla," Krystal giggled.
"Oh yes, Cinderayla." Sue-Ellen chuckled. "Perhaps he's the prince's betrothedhed!"
"Who is this Cinderayla?" the herald enquired.
"Merely the scullion," Alexis answered quickly. "He certainly cannot be the one. My daughters are simply being foolish."
"Nevertheless, the decree is that all must try. Summon Cinderayla."
Seething, promising herself that the luckless youth should have a good beating when the royal party left, Alexis had no choice but to send to the kitchen for Ray.
As it happened, Ray had not heard of the proclamation--no-one wasted time telling him news that could not possibly concern him. It came as a shock, therefore, when the first thing he saw on entering his stepmother's presence was his pair of white boots reposing on a velvet cushion, and the second, Prince Bodie himself. Colouring, he hung his head, hoping that he would not be recognized.
His hope was doomed to failure. Bodie's heart pounded as he caught sight of his beloved, and something else throbbed in response to the sight of the sweet flesh revealed by the torn garments. He forced himself to stand silent until the formality of trying on the boots was completed, then he moved forward and cupped Ray's chin, tilting the downbent face towards his own.
"My love, will you deny me?" he asked sadly. "Speak the name I gave you."
"I can't," Ray whispered painfully. "It was magic...you didn't have any choice. My fairy godbrother arranged it. I love you too much to take you with a trick."
Bodie smiled in relief. "Is that all?" he asked. "Look, love, I have a few charms of my own. Among them is one that says I can't be bewitched."
"I swear it," Bodie said solemnly.
"Then..." Ray swallowed nervously. "You call me... Sunshine."
"Correct!" the herald announced triumphantly.
Neither Ray nor Prince Bodie heard him, being locked in a passionate embrace. Neither did they hear Murphy's tactful whistling... nor the gnashing of Alexis' teeth.
Old King Cowley was not pleased. That disreputable nephew of his had turned up at last with his intended in tow, only to reveal without a blush that the baggage in question was a man--a very good-looking one to be sure, but a man nevertheless. Objections had to be raised--and were.
"He's a scullion," he said with distaste. "Do you really want dishpan hands at your bed and board?"
"If they're his, I do," Bodie said defiantly.
"And he isn't really a scullion," broke in an unexpected voice; Krystal had decided to cut her losses in the hope of earning Ray's or the prince's gratitude. "He's my stepfather's real heir, only my mother and sister persuaded him to change his will."
"See?" Bodie demanded triumphantly.
"That's all very well, but what about his... er... his mother's side of the family?" Old King Cowley asked delicately. "They might not be quite...quite."
"Oh yes they are!" There was another interruption as Macklin appeared in a puff of smoke. "I'm his fairy godbrother, and I'm here to tell you that his mother is the daughter of the King of the Elves. There's royal blood in that lad, and don't you forget it, George, unless you want war on your hands."
"Harrumph." Old King Cowley emitted the sound that only a true-born Scot can achieve, and then only after years of practice. Things were not going too well. "He's... he's a man!" he declared at last.
"You noticed, huh?" Bodie said fatuously, gazing adoringly at the object of his affections.
"I could scarcely avoid it--those garments are barely decent. However, I was referring to the succession."
"What about good old Murph?" Bodie suggested with an air of inspiration. "He's eligible--and I'll even adopt him. Say, 'Thank you, Daddy', Murphy."
"Thank you, Daddy," Murphy replied demurely.
"Any more objections?" Bodie enquired.
A look of victory lit the craggy face. "Yes. His dowry. What about his dowry. His weight in gold, as I recall."
Ray looked crestfallen, but Macklin grinned reassuringly. "Your Mum'll take care of that," he promised, as he began to utter another spell.
Cowley's eyes widened as the gold began to appear, a mountain of it, gleaming in crystal containers, far more than Ray's weight. He licked his lips in delight.
"Glenfiddich. Glen Grant. The Macallan. Glenmorangie. Glen... Ach, take him with my blessing, laddie. I willna lose this dowry. But just where do you think you're going in such a hurry?" he asked as Bodie began to pull Ray away from the throne.
The blue eyes widened innocently. "I'm just following up your observation, Sire. Those clothes are indecent...so I think the best thing I can do is get him out of them as quickly as possible...don't you?"
And--Bodie being Bodie in any universe--that's exactly what he did.
-- THE END --