Though it had been an excessively long, mildly inconvenient journey, here it was at last: the great palace of the kingdom of Lira. As his aide-de-camp pulled the horseless carriage round the grand driveway in front of the palace, Prince Albert of Forint couldn’t help but lament (to himself, of course) upon noticing all that scaffolding clinging to the entirety of the east wing of the building. That was the older part of the palace, he knew, and considered hopelessly old-fashioned, but of a style that Albert privately still quite liked. Those thin, clear windows mass-produced nowadays might be more practical, but could they hold a candle to the ornate, handcrafted stained glass of the past centuries? Maybe not, however, Albert reminded himself, he was not there to critique windows.
The carriage came to a halt, and Albert removed his goggles. His aide-de-camp hopped out, darted round to open Albert’s door, assisted in removing the voluminous duster that covered Albert’s shining gold armor, and produced a handkerchief that banished any stray flecks that had managed to get through said duster. A Liran official rushed forward – sedately, of course – to provide honored-to-welcome-yous and right-this-ways, and, following that way, Albert strode up the stately steps, his armor flashing in the brightly shining sun, looking every inch a king’s son come to win the hand of a fair princess. Which, of course, he was.
Admittedly, by the time he reached the top of said stately steps, Albert was not over-fond of said brightly shining sun, as the former was very long and the latter very hot. Once inside, had anyone asked his opinion on the subject, he might have said the temperature in the palace itself was untowardly warm, especially in the throne room, where he was received. Otherwise, it was all that was splendid, with the well-dressed courtiers of Lira seated in ornate chairs of dark wood on either side of the room, and the King of Lira seated in an ornate chair of gold on a dais at the far end of the room.
The official Albert was following stopped about halfway up the aisle and began howling out may-I-presents and of-that-names. Albert might have moved a bit closer to the dais himself, as, when the king spoke his own welcome in a voice of average volume, Albert had to strain just the slightest to catch every word. But, while Albert thought that stepping forward slightly as he gave his reply showed a bold spirit, any more might be taken as presumptuous.
At any rate, Albert didn’t really need to hear all that much, as he had memorized the words of the ceremony for the Winning of the Hand of the Fair Princess since he was old enough to do so, and had seen it take place for several of his own sisters. As was custom, the Princess of Lira herself was not present in the room. However, he’d heard of her as a kind, virtuous, accomplished young woman, qualities which of course meant nothing individually, as everyone said that of most princesses. But, taken together, they meant that she wasn’t a madwoman, at least. More importantly, he’d seen a photographic portrait of her, and had been pleased to discover it wasn’t entirely unlike her painted one. So, with confidence, he responded with gusto to the King’s scripted hast-thou-come-to-win-the-hand-ofs and dost-thou-accept-the-tasks-set-forths.
And so, at long last they came to the very end of the ceremony. Now all that was needed was for the King to say, “Verily, I see thou art a man of great heart and courage. Go forth, with my blessing,” and Albert would be shown to his guest room. There’d be an opulent ball this evening, where he would meet the Princess – along with all the other suitors, poor fools – and then he’d actually go forth and complete the tasks the following morning. Said tasks were fairly standard stuff – find this mystical jewel, slay that marauding dragon – he’d review them again in the morning.
But, only, the king didn’t say what he was supposed to stay. Instead, he said: “Verily, I see thou art a man of great heart and courage. Now, all that is needed is for you to acknowledge the Terms and Conditions.”
Albert let a good thirty seconds go by while he 1) heard what the king said 2) realized it wasn’t what the king was supposed to say 3) realized that he didn’t understand what the king said 4) realized that, because it wasn’t what the king was supposed to say and he didn’t understand what the king said, he didn’t know how to respond to what the king said 5) waited to see if the king or anyone else would say anything else to explain what the king said 6) realized no one was going to explain what the king said and 7) spent ten seconds coming up with something to say in response to what the king said. Those ten seconds produced this: “Ah, I beg your pardon, your majesty?”
The king merely repeated what he said: “Verily, I see thou art a man of great heart and courage. Now, all that is needed is for you to acknowledge the Terms and Conditions,” but this time Albert was a bit more prepared.
“Your majesty, might I inquire what these Terms and Conditions are? Lest your majesty mistake me, let me state that I know of the concept of Terms and Conditions. I merely inquire as to what these specific terms and conditions are. And, if I might be so bold, what their place is as a part of this ancient, most hallowed ceremony for Winning of the Hand of the Fair Princess?”
The King waved his hand, a bit more dismissively than Albert would have thought appropriate. “Our legal representative shall explain the Terms and Conditions momentarily. As to their place in this ancient ceremony: my daughter may wish to grant her hand via traditional means, but we are a modern monarchy living in modern times, are we not?”
There was another uncomfortable silence, during which Albert gradually realized he was expected to respond. “Ah, yes, sire.”
“Then,” continued the King, “We must take modern precautions.” He clapped his hands. “Honored Beatrice, if you please?”
A woman, whom Albert was forced to assume was Honored Beatrice, rose from the crowd and came across the room towards him, holding a large stack of papers, on top of which rested an inkwell and pen. While there was as yet no gray in her hair, she was of such an age that Albert would have been comfortable referring to her as a spinster. Nevertheless, she wore an elaborate ebony gown, which gleamed like fish scales, with an excessive number of drape-y bits that wafted behind her like wings.
“Your grace.” She inclined her head respectfully, but with a smile he couldn’t place and didn’t like. “Allow me to present the Terms and Conditions, as well as a Medical and Bodily Injury Waiver, for your detailed perusal and signature.” She held out the stack of papers.
It took Albert a moment to realize that she meant him to take them, and he grabbed at them very awkwardly once he did comprehend this, as he was, of course, still wearing his golden gauntlets.
“Take as much time as you need,” Beatrice assured him. “There are fifteen sections, each of which require your signature. You can also opt to have the conditions read out loud by Winston over here, if you would prefer.” She motioned to the official who had shown him in, who had now taken a seat.
“Ah, no, that won’t be necessary,” Albert responded. Beatrice smiled, and went back to her chair.
Somehow, and he wasn’t quite sure how, even as he did it, Albert managed to position it so that he was holding the pen and inkwell in the crook of his elbow, while one gauntleted hand uncomfortably held the stack of papers, and the other clumsily turned the pages of Section I: General Disclaimers, which numbered seventeen pages. However, this method for safekeeping the pen and inkwell proved his undoing when it came time to affix his signature to the end of Section I. He read the closing paragraph twice just so he could strategize how he was to do it. He was keenly aware, more so as every second passed, that 1) they had not given him a table or anything remotely of the sort to utilize 2) he was actually the only person standing in the room 3) everyone in the room was looking at him and 4) it really was very hot in there.
He eventually decided to abandon a slight bit of dignity and place some items on the floor, reaching for them when the time came. Dignified, perhaps not, but better than ink-spotted armor.
Only, the ink was all dried up.
“Ah, Honorable Beatrice,” he spoke up. “Might I trouble you for a renewed supply of ink?”
“Of course,” she replied. And then they waited for a good five minutes while a serving man ran off to find, and then back again with, a new inkwell.
“Thank you,” Albert said.
The silence as he signed was deafening, save for the scratch of the pen. Perhaps…he spoke before he could lose his nerve. “Honorable Beatrice, mayhap it would be best to have these Terms and Conditions read aloud, for the benefit of those assembled here.” He realized, after he had said it, that that last part made very little sense, but, well, no takebacks now.
“Of course,” Beatrice assented. She produced a second copy of the documents from somewhere in her robes and handed them to Winston.
Winston then began to read, for the next hour, the Terms and Conditions and Medical and Bodily Injury Waiver in the fastest monotone Albert had ever had the misfortune of hearing. He really only understood a word or a phrase here and there, such as “agree,” “the Princess’ sole discretion,” and “hold harmless,” intermixed with a steady barrage of legal gibberish, such as “indemnify.”
Nevertheless, he signed everywhere they said to sign. And, once that was over with, the King mercifully gave his blessing, and everything was back on track.
Or so Albert thought, all through the ball and his many dances with the Princess, who did seem to be gracious and accomplished and did not look unlike her photograph. And all through the many tasks he undertook to win her hand, and all through his many triumphant completions of said tasks. And right up until he found himself seated in a small room, in front of a desk, behind which sat the Honorable Beatrice in a pair of spectacles, again with that same smile he couldn’t put a name to but didn’t care for.
This was no way to treat a champion like himself, he who had won the Princess’ hand. For won it he most assuredly had. For sure, a few slobs had come close to beating him at a few tasks, and to his chagrin, one personage – not even a prince, simply the second son of a duke – had even somehow bested him at one particular challenge. But, never mind that. Albert had won 10/11 of the tasks. He had scaled the monstrous mountain to defeat the terrible troll, dived to the depths of the devilish lake to fish out the priceless pearl, sprinted across the scorching desert to defeat the sniveling snake, etc. So why, then, was he cooped in this dark room with the Honorable Beatrice, and her bat wings, and not being paraded into the grand hall to wed the Princess right then and there?
“Well,” began the Honorable Beatrice. “I’ll just come right out and say it: you did not win the hand of the Princess.”
And so it was that Albert experienced yet another shocked, awkward silence at the hands of the Liran monarchy.
“I beg your pardon?” he nearly gasped.
“You did not win the hand of the Princess,” repeated the Honorable Beatrice.
More silence. That was apparently all she was going to say, so Albert managed to choke more words out. “But, but how could that be? Did I not scale the monstrous mountain to defeat the terrible troll? Did I not dive to the depths of the devilish lake to fish out the priceless pearl?” He was becoming bolder and louder as he went along, remembering all that he had suffered. “Did I not sprint across the scorching desert to defeat the…”
“Yes, yes, you did all that,” the Honorable Beatrice interrupted him. “But, well, the simple fact is…the Princess doesn’t like you.”
“I must beg your pardon, once again?”
“Well, you, like all the other participants, were given the chance to interact with the Princess at the Questing Eve Ball, and, apparently, you, em…” She paused a brief moment, and appeared to check some notes. “You talked about historical architecture, specifically the techniques by which you create multi-colored glass, for a solid hour and fifteen minutes. Whereas, this other fellow, the Duke of Shilling’s son, was apparently much more agreeable, simply by virtue of talking about different sorts of muslins for two minutes.”
Albert once again allowed his incensed-ness to fuel him: “The Duke of Shilling’s son? Is that the one who has won the hand of the Princess?”
Beatrice grew tight-lipped. “I can neither confirm nor deny the final winner of the Princess’ hand. I can, however…”
Albert dared to interrupt: “I demand to know how this is even possible. I won the tasks, I must win the hand of the Princess. Such it is and such it has been, throughout Winning of the Princesses time out of mind. You are saying that these tasks counted for naught, and that the winner was decided at the very beginning of this…charade.”
“Actually,” interjected Beatrice, “If you reference page thirty-five of the Terms and Conditions which you signed, you will note that it clearly states that the final winner of the Princess’ hand is up to the discretion of the Princess, who may take into account the winner of the tasks, but is not obligated to do so. And, actually, there was the potential for the winner to be decided at any point during the Winning of the Hand of the Fair Princess, up to and including the end of the final task. But, yes, it just so happened it was decided on the first night.”
Albert had never heard anything like this in his life, and he said so.
“Well, your grace,” Beatrice smiled that smile again, which he was now able to recognize for what it was: condescending, and perhaps a tad dash of cruelty. “I know that you come from Forint, where they are, perhaps, a tad more attached to the old-fashioned ways of doing things than we are. We are…”
“…a modern kingdom yes, yes, yes, I have heard this word used a thousand times in my presence during this charade,” now that he’d found the word, he didn’t want to stop using it. “But,” he forced himself to calm, for a moment. “Will you not take under consideration the great love I have for his majesty’s daughter. My feelings…”
“…are entirely legitimate, I am sure,” said Beatrice with faux-sympathy. “Here is what you do: ‘Feelings,’ you say, ‘I have no further use for you. You are simply cluttering up my mind, and tripping up my thoughts. Goodbye now.’ And then, you toss them out.”
“Well, madame,” responded Albert after a biting pause. “While my feelings for the Princess are strong, I can see but one recourse: you will be hearing from my father’s lawyers.”
That smile again, but not condescending, merely…hungry. “I look forward to it.”
And so, as Albert turned to walk out of the room, he wondered how he had ever thought her shining scales to be those of fish or her wings those of a bat. No, it seemed there was a new kind of dragon abroad in the land, standing between noble princes and their fair princesses: Lawyers.