Selfish, vain, and cruel. Selfish, vain, and cruel.
The words echoed in the king’s head as he pulled on his silk nightcap. It couldn’t be true, could it? It took Fred a long time to fall asleep, and when he woke in the morning he felt, if anything, worse.
He decided he wanted to do something kind, and the first thing that occurred to him was to reward Beamish’s son, who’d defended him against that nasty little girl. So he took a small medallion that usually hung around the neck of his favourite hunting dog, asked a maid to thread ribbon through it, and summoned the Beamishes to the palace. Bert, whom his mother had pulled out of class and hurriedly dressed in a blue velvet suit, was struck speechless in the presence of the king, which Fred enjoyed, and he spent several minutes speaking kindly to the boy, while Major and Mrs Beamish nearly burst with pride in their son. Finally, Bert returned to school, with his little gold medal around his neck, and was made much of in the playground that afternoon by Roderick Roach, who was usually his biggest bully. Daisy said nothing at all and when Bert caught her eye, he felt hot and uncomfortable, and shoved the medal out of sight beneath his shirt.
The king, meanwhile, still wasn’t entirely happy. An uneasy feeling stayed with him, like indigestion, and again, he found it hard to sleep that night.
When he woke the next day, he remembered that it was the Day of Petition.
The Day of Petition was a special day held once a year, when the subjects of Cornucopia were permitted an audience with the king. Naturally, these people were carefully screened by Fred’s advisors before they were allowed to see him. Fred never dealt with big problems. He saw people whose troubles could be solved with a few gold coins and a few kind words: a farmer with a broken plough, for instance, or an old lady whose cat had died. Fred had been looking forward to the Day of Petition. It was a chance to dress up in his fanciest clothes, and he found it so touching to see how much he meant to the ordinary people of Cornucopia.
Fred’s dressers were waiting for him after breakfast, with a new outfit he’d requested just the previous month: white satin pantaloons and matching doublet, with gold and pearl buttons; a cloak edged with ermine and lined in scarlet; and white satin shoes with gold and pearl buckles. His valet was waiting with the golden tongs, ready to curl his moustaches, and a pageboy stood ready with a number of jewelled rings on a velvet cushion, waiting for Fred to make his selection.
‘Take all that away, I don’t want it,’ said King Fred crossly, waving at the outfit the dressers were holding up for his approval. The dressers froze. They weren’t sure they’d heard correctly. King Fred had taken an immense interest in the progress of the costume, and had requested the addition of the scarlet lining and fancy buckles himself. ‘I said, take it away!’ he snapped, when nobody moved. ‘Fetch me something plain! Fetch me that suit I wore to my father’s funeral!’
‘Is… is Your Majesty quite well?’ enquired his valet, as the astonished dressers bowed and hurried away with the white suit, and returned in double-quick time with a black one.
‘Of course I’m well,’ snapped Fred. ‘But I’m a man, not a frivolling popinjay.’
He shrugged on the black suit, which was the plainest he owned, though still rather splendid, having silver edging to the cuffs and collar, and onyx and diamond buttons. Then, to the astonishment of the valet, he permitted the man to curl only the very ends of his moustaches, before dismissing both him and the pageboy bearing the cushion full of rings.
There, thought Fred, examining himself in the mirror. How can I be called vain? Black definitely isn’t one of my best colours.
So unusually speedy had Fred been in getting dressed, that Lord Spittleworth, who was making one of Fred’s servants dig earwax out of his ears, and Lord Flapoon, who was guzzling a plate of Dukes’ Delights which he’d ordered from the kitchens, were caught by surprise, and came running out of their bedrooms, pulling on their waistcoats and hopping as they put on their boots.
‘Hurry up, you lazy chaps!’ called King Fred, as the two lords chased him down the corridor. ‘There are people waiting for my help!’
And would a selfish king hurry to meet simple people who wanted favours from him? thought Fred. No, he wouldn’t!
Fred’s advisors were shocked to see him on time, and plainly dressed, for Fred. Indeed, Herringbone, the Chief Advisor, wore an approving smile as he bowed.
‘Your Majesty is early,’ he said. ‘The people will be delighted. They’ve been queuing since dawn.’
‘Show them in, Herringbone,’ said the king, settling himself on his throne, and gesturing to Spittleworth and Flapoon to take the seats on either side of him.
The doors were opened, and one by one, the petitioners entered.
Fred’s subjects often became tongue-tied when they found themselves face-to-face with the real, live king, whose picture hung in their town halls. Some began to giggle, or forgot what they’d come for, and once or twice people fainted. Fred was particularly gracious today, and each petition ended with the king handing out a couple of gold coins, or blessing a baby, or allowing an old woman to kiss his hand.
Today, though, while he smiled and handed out gold coins and promises, the words of Daisy Dovetail kept echoing in his head. Selfish, vain, and cruel. He wanted to do something special to prove what a wonderful man he was – to show that he was ready to sacrifice himself for others. Every king of Cornucopia had handed out gold coins and trifling favours on the Day of Petition: Fred wanted to do something so splendid that it would ring down the ages, and you didn’t get into the history books by replacing a fruit farmer’s favourite hat.
The two lords on either side of Fred were becoming bored. They’d much rather have been left to loll in their bedrooms until lunchtime than sit here listening to peasants talking about their petty troubles. After several hours, the last petitioner passed gratefully out of the Throne Room, and Flapoon, whose stomach had been rumbling for nearly an hour, heaved himself out of his chair with a sigh of relief.
‘Lunchtime!’ boomed Flapoon, but just as the guards were attempting to close the doors, a kerfuffle was heard, and the doors flew open once more.