The Dog Princess — Chapter II
In which Hartwell learns of his fate and takes it as well as can be expected
“Is she cursed?”
The queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Harriet, had found Hartwell doing what Hartwell usually did, and that was wander around the castle bored out of his skull and bother the servants.
The news of his imminent nuptials seemed to confuse Hartwell. The queen had been prepared for an entirely different reaction, but the young prince simply looked befuddled. “I heard her mother and father were cursed by a magician, and that is why she came out looking like that.”
The king breathed audibly.
“It wouldn’t do for me to marry a woman who is cursed” said Hartwell.
“She is not cursed” replied the queen, patiently. “She’s just… a little peculiar-looking. She is a very accomplished girl, well-read and extremely bright, and she will be queen one day. So you will be king.”
“I’m not marrying her.”
Here comes the tantrum, thought the queen.
Instead, Hartwell kept his cool. “There is no reason for this marriage. I’m not old, I don’t need a bride just yet. And she doesn’t need a husband, either. Did you not say she’s my age? Mind you, I can see why she would have trouble finding someone willing to put babies in her.”
“This marriage is needed, Hartwell” said the queen. “We have established ties with nearly every kingdom, except for that one. We need a fresh alliance and more security. And you’re the only way of securing that. You’re our last unmarried son.”
Hartwell stared at his mother. “Can I still say no?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“What’s in it for me, though?”
The king lost his patience. “Enough, Hartwell. You are a prince, not some commoner who can do whatever he wants with his life. You were born into privilege, and that privilege comes at a cost. You will marry the girl, and that’s my final word on the matter.”
The following morning, Hartwell got on his horse, promptly fell off it and asked for a carriage to take him to Hartley’s residence, in the capital of the nearest kingdom. It was about a day’s journey, but the king and queen agreed it might do him good to speak to his brother about this important moment in his life. Hartley had struck lucky: his wife, the pretty, bubbly princess Annika, adored him. The queen thought Hartley would talk some sense into his brother.
Darkness had fallen on the kingdom when a slightly bruised, sullen Hartwell entered the gate at Hartley’s castle. The prince and his wife had retired to their rooms, he was told; he would see them the following morning.
As royal cadets, Hartley and Annika had no official duties. All they had to do was look pretty, wave merrily and produce children, but that last one could easily be overlooked, since Annika had two older brothers who had already managed to sire an impressive progeny. Annika had been given her own castle as a wedding gift from her father, a small, almost cosy place with no moat, no drawbridge and only one guard at the door.
The news of Hartwell’s engagement did not surprise Hartley. “It’s about time” said the prince to his brother.
“But she’s ugly.”
“So? They all end up being ugly in the long run. Even my Annika, do you think that in thirty years’ time she’ll be the pretty flower she is now?”
They were sitting in the pottery shed, where Hartley was putting the finishing touches to a large clay vase he had just taken out of the oven.
“But at least you’ll have had at least twenty years of waking up next to a pretty girl.”
Hartley made the same face the queen made when talking to Hartwell. “I think you should talk to Hudson.”
Hudson and his wife were heirs to a vast duchy in her mother’s kingdom, one of strategic importance as it was placed near the Northern Sea. Their castle was damp, drafty and inhospitable, and the duchess was hardly ever in it.
“She travels a lot. She talks to people, checks on the crops, makes sure everyone is fed and clothed and living in dignified conditions. And she leaves me here to die of lung disease” complained Hudson, who seemed to have lost a lot of his old looks and was going bald. “Before you marry that girl, see that she doesn’t drag you to the end of the Earth to do her duty.”
On the subject of the marriage itself, however, Hudson was a little less pessimistic. “She will be queen, which is good. You will be king. All you have to do is turn the lights off for a few months, wait until she pops out the first baby, repeat to be on the safe side, then retreat to one of the many family homes for the rest of your life.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because we haven’t had much of a chance to have the bloody babies, have we? She’s never in. And she’s expected to produce an heir before I bugger off and leave her to it.”
“What if my wife and I don’t have babies? Am I expected to keep trying indefinitely?”
“Technically, yes. Practically, there’s a number of things you can do to guarantee that the kingdom has a king, and that includes shagging as many girls as you like until you get one pregnant. At that point, you take the baby and raise it as your own.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because she’d kill me.”
“All right. So, what should I do?”
“What do I know? Do I look like the best advisor? Go talk to Hounslow. He’s the future king. I’m just a poor housebound sod.”
Hartwell returned to his family home two weeks later, after consulting with all four of his brothers. Master Pepper, from Philomena’s kingdom, was waiting for him.
“Saddle up, my boy” said the king. “You’re leaving immediately. And this time, you’re not taking the carriage.”