a cold wind of fear swept over the assembled populace as they watched the long dark line of ships enter the harbor.
their fears proved to be only too well founded.
the army, navy and imperial guard of the wolf-prince quickly established themselves in the kingdom, in the royal palace and in the meanest streets and humblest farms.
as a first sign of the new order, the royal stepmother and the royal wizard were hanged, and their bodies left to the crows, on a gibbet erected high over the harbor.
a brief marriage ceremony was conducted, uniting the new prince and the princess, shortly after the hanging of the stepmother and the wizard.
there was no public celebration of the nuptials, and the people were warned to stay at their own homes, farms, and factories, as the prince did not approve of displays of idleness.
the new rule was both relentless and capricious.
the personal servants of the princess were banished from the royal palace, and left to beg their bread in the streets, and the highways outside the capital.
the princess herself was mostly confined to her chambers.
she was mostly ignored by the wolf-prince, but subject to the most degrading humiliations by the prince’s servants, and most especially by the imperial guards, whose salacious behavior aroused the amusement, rather than any ire or jealousy, on the part of the prince.
but the discomfiture of the princess was nothing compared to the sufferings of the populace, who were subject to the daily whims and brutalities of their new masters, who seemed to regard the kingdom only as a brief stop to plunder, on the road to further plunder.
as for the wolf-prince, he left the management of his new kingdom to a steward - a beast-man like himself, but with the outward form of a fox - and occupied himself mostly with planning a march into the interior of the continent, to conquer new kingdoms for his father the emperor, and for his own glory.
a steady stream of the black ships came into the harbor, bringing reinforcements and supplies for the planned invasion, by which the prince hoped to rival the deeds of cyrus, and of alexander.
at last the preparations were made.
the prince reneged so far from his parsimonious ways, as to announce a great feast for his guards and army, on the eve of their departure for the interior.
a huge table draped with black cloth was set up in front of the palace, and the feast set upon it.
the night was dark with a threatening storm, but a hundred torches, whipped by the wind, illuminated the forbidding scene.
dozens of the prince’s captains took their seats at the table, ready, after their arduous preparations of the preceding weeks, to take their fill of meat and drink.
the wind brought to the assembled diners the sounds of the common soldiers at their campfires, already begun on a night of drunken debauchery.
the prince sat at the head of the table in a golden chair. the steward, the fox-man, sat at his right.
the princess sat at the prince’s left hand in a smaller, silver chair. she was the only woman seated at the table, although there was no lack of serving wenches, busy refilling the goblets of the captains.
the wind began to pick up. “are you not afraid, my lord, “ the princess enquired timidly, “that a great storm is about to break?”
the prince only laughed. “i am not afraid of storms. i am a storm.”
suddenly there was a slight commotion, about halfway down the long table.
among the humble denizens of the kingdom oppressed by the imperial soldiery, there was one with the form of a spider, but the heart of a lion.
this was a cobbler’s assistant by the name of pedro. a tiny hunchbacked dwarf, he had spent his entire life in the cobbler’s shop in an alley behind the wharves, rarely seeing the sun, and never venturing more than a few hundred yards from the harbor.
despite his ungainly form, he loved to dance, and when he was not occupied with his duties at the cobbler’s, he was wont to pick up a few pennies by dancing for passersby in the alley.
on the night of the prince’s feast, he had crept through the darkness to the imperial table.
now he sprang up on it, to the mixed consternation and amusement of the seated soldiers.
with a great oath, a burly captain of grenadiers commanded him to begone, before he was split in two.
“but look here,captain, ” cried pedro. “you will notice that i have not spilled so much as a drop of wine. or disturbed a knife, or fork, or napkin, or sugar bowl, on your most elegant table.”
a few of the captains laughed, and the burly grenadier began - “that is all very well -“
“and i wager,” continued pedro, interrupting him, “that i can dance the whole length of the table, with such unparalleled nimbleness that i do not disturb so much as a grain of pepper, or a flea upon it.”
some of the captains, already quite drunk, began shouting, “capital! let the little fellow dance!”
“yes, this is good sport!” and goblets were raised to pedro.
and to mingled cheers and grumbling, he danced down the table to where the prince and princess were seated, doing so, as he boasted, without disturbing anything on the black cloth.
“do i not do well, my lord?” pedro boldly addressed the prince.
the prince had little patience for such foolery, but not wishing to appear too dour at an occasion he had himself set aside for celebration, he nodded as amiably as his nature allowed.
a raindrop fell on the table, beside the prince’s plate.
“shall i continue, my lord?” cried pedro.
but he prince waved him away. “enough - enough.”
pedro turned as if to go, but as a few more raindrops fell, he suddenly bent down, seized a knife from the table, and leapt upon the prince, who was too astonished to cry out.
pedro plunged the knife into the prince’s heart, killing him instantly.
a confused cry rose up from the table, and only increased as the prince’s body, falling backward into the golden chair, quickly transformed itself into - not a wolf, as might have been supposed, but into a mangy jackrabbit.
chaos reigned, especially as the rain began to fall in earnest. the captains rose from the table and fled into the darkness.
after a last glance at the body of his master, the fox-steward followed them.
in a matter of hours all of the imperial army and guards had fled, either into the interior of the continent, or back on to the ships.
by daybreak the ships were all gone from the harbor.
the kingdom was saved.
pedro was the hero of the hour.
a great cheering crowd of grateful citizenry gathered at the harbor to hear the princess address the hero.
“you have done well, little man,” the princess addressed pedro with flushed cheeks. “speak, and whatever you wish shall be yours.”
“anything?’ asked pedro.
“anything,” replied the princess.
“then i wish for your hand, fair lady. i wish you to be my bride.”
a great gasp fell over the crowd, followed by an even greater hush.
clouds passed over the newly risen sun.
the princess grew pale, but managed not to faint.
at a signal from the princess, pedro was taken away and hanged, on the same gibbet from which the bodies of the stepmother and the wizard had been taken down only that morning.
the townsfolk and peasants went back to their homes, and about their business.
life returned to normal.
the princess ruled the kingdom alone for many years, with a generous but firm hand. she never married again, or entertained any suitors.
and though rumors swept the kingdom from time to time, and some fearful citizens continued to scan the horizon daily, the black ships never returned.
“well,” asked the comtesse, “what did you think of my little story?”
marie had a vague feeling that there was something wicked about the comtesse’s story, but only replied, “that was very nice, madam. i had not heard such a story before.”
“i am glad you liked it. there, now, finish your tea.”
“thank you, madam. will you be wanting anything else?”