SETTING: PSUEDO-THRONE ROOM
(Scene begins on the signal of one of the servants’ blowing a kazoo in royal trumpet fashion. After she is done, she exits. The DUKE and his WIFE sit in very impressive chairs, but one wouldn’t go so far as to call them thrones. The ADVISOR stands at the DUKE’s other side. With a heavy sigh, the DUKE begins.)
DUKE: I’m so depressed.
WIFE: We know, darling.
DUKE: It’s not even depression at this point. Rather, ennui bordering on insanity.
ADVISOR: Insanity would be more interesting, admittedly.
DUKE: Will someone do something amusing?
ADVISOR: We have tried amusing you, my lord, with frankly unreasonable consequences.
WIFE: (Very proud of herself) I’ve an idea! (She pauses dramatically, looking about at all of them, waiting for someone to say something.)
DUKE: Yes, my dear? (Then a bit testy) What is it?
WIFE: If you must know, I think it would be beneficial to have a contest in your honor, for some one or another, no matter their birth, to bring you some interesting nibble of enjoyment. What do you say to that?
DUKE: A contest? How dreadfully cliché. (Wife pouts.)
ADVISOR: Dreadfully so.
WIFE: But, pumpkin—
DUKE: No! No contests! There will be no such frivolity on my watch!
WIFE: Well, I’ll just send them away, then, shall I?
DUKE: What? They’re already here?
ADVISOR: You did not consult me with this matter?
WIFE: (Again pouty) Well I don’t see why I should have to. (Puppy eyes at Duke)
DUKE: Oh, stop that, do! Stop it now, I say! I cannot bear the puppy eyes! (Inner struggle) Oh, alright, alright!! Send them in, one at a time.
WIFE: (Bubbly) Yes, darling! (She exits)
ADVISOR: My lord, are you are you quite sure this is the best plan of action?
DUKE: No I’m not. But it’s her plan, and it’s more comfortable wrapped around her little finger than sleeping on the couch.
(WIFE reenters with BARD. WIFE flutters back to her place beside her husband, BARD stands confidently in front of the group. DUKE motions to ADVISOR that he shall begin.)
ADVISOR: Well, young man, state your name.
BARD: What good would a name do me, such horrors have I seen!
DUKE: (Aside to WIFE) Doesn’t waste time, does he?
BARD: For I bring you a tale of bloodshed and betrayal, of lechery and lust, of malice and mischief!
ADVISOR: (aside to DUKE) And of dust and dung beetles, I suppose.
BARD: (Visibly shaken, but carries on) I, great sir, will weave circumstances that do not even haunt your darkest nightmares, nor flit through your flightiest fancies.
DUKE: Get on with it!
WIFE: (Reproachfully) Richard!
BARD: Oh, right, sorry. Um, yes, right. There once was a King (Enter KING), who, after years of being alone, wanted to marry, but he was ever so picky—
DUKE: Heard it!
WIFE: Oh, but I haven’t! Do go on. (BARD looks at DUKE, then at WIFE, who waves him on)
BARD: Right. He was ever so picky, until a princess of unearthly beauty came to the castle. (Enter WITCH. Getting back into the story) She was so beautiful, it was enough to curl the hairs below his—(Sharp look from ADVISOR)—Erm, cap. He permitted her to stay the night in the chambers alongside his own, a rare honor. That night, when they were both asleep—
DUKE: This is boring. Where’s the gore?
WIFE: I’m sure he’s getting to it, isn’t that right, pet?
BARD: (Falters for a moment) Oh, yes ma’am. Coming right up. That night—
DUKE: Good. (Harrumphs)
WIFE: (Gently) Go on, dear.
BARD: Right you are. (Back in the swing of things) That night, when the house was asleep, the King, in his dreams, felt a frightful chill creep through his veins, and try as he might, he could not move or speak, or even open his eyes. But in his mind he saw a great serpent wend its way around his body. (During this narrative, the WITCH has gone to the sleeping KING, drawn him up out of bed as in a trance, and wrapped her arms about him. They go on to act out the scene of the following morning.) The next morning, when he told his beloved of this night terror, she put a hand to her mouth, he thought in shock, but truly to hide a devilish smile. She was no princess at all, but a witch, and the King was under her spell.
KING: You will be my queen.
WIFE: Oh how dreadful!
BARD: It was!
DUKE: You saw it, did you?
BARD: (Drawing himself up) I was the king’s personal jester.
DUKE: And this king, he divulged the private visions of his deepest sleep to the court fool?
BARD: He thought it might make good material for the road.
ADVISOR: Oh, I’m sure he did. (DUKE glares at ADVISOR for stealing his thunder, ADVISOR cowers.)
WIFE: What happened next? I want to know how he escaped the witch’s clutches.
BARD: He didn’t.
(The KING and WITCH hang from the waist like puppets.)
BARD: Oh yes, they’ve been married these last 16 years. Got a whole litter of little ones. Happy as clams, the both of them.
WIFE: And that’s how the story ends, is it?
BARD: Well, yes.
DUKE: What a crap story.
BARD: Well there are some redeeming qualities—
ADVISOR: No, I quite agree. Complete crap.
DUKE: You can’t build it up like that and leave at such a dead end.
BARD: But it’s a happy ending! Everyone likes a happy ending.
DUKE: Not at the expense of reason and virtue, dear boy.
WIFE: You don’t have to patronize the child.
DUKE: But he doesn’t know what he’s doing! It should have ended like this: (With all the gusto of a true storyteller; the KING and WITCH right themselves and carry on with the pantomime) One hundred years of this curséd enchantment passed over the kingdom. The king was but a shell of his former self, kept alive, but never truly living, and his queen reigned through him with an iron fist. If there was murmured word of her treachery among the servants, she had the culprit publicly executed as an example.
WIFE: Oh my.
BARD: He’s good.
DUKE: I’m not finished! (Back into story mode) One night, when the queen was out collecting herbs for wicked potions by the light of the full moon, (Enter MOTH) a moth fluttered down and landed on the slumbering king’s shoulder. In the tiniest of voices she whispered:
MOTH: You have been fooled into believing your queen is a good woman, but the beauty on the surface counteracts the evil within. Only you can put an end to this black magic. You know what you must do. (Exit MOTH)
DUKE: The king woke, for the first time, of his own accord. He felt a glimmer of his soul flicker in the bottom of his heart, forgotten after a century of neglect. He formulated a plan, which he began to carry out the next morning at breakfast.
KING: I am out of sorts, my dearest.
WITCH: (Suspicious) Oh?
KING: I’m sure it is for want of the warmth your body gives. If you would spend but this night in my chambers, I would be very well pleased. It has been too long.
DUKE: The queen was put off by this request, for there is no spell that could replace the companionship of another human, so she could not refuse. (KING and WITCH exit) That night, while she slept, the king slit the witch’s throat, and, as he looked on in horror, out of that fatal wound bled forth snakes as black as night, until she withered away, her skin dry and brittle. He let out a sigh of relief, for her felt her grasp on him release. As this breath of air washed over the corpse, the dusty remains flew through the air and out the open window into the night. The witch was never seen again in the kingdom, nor anywhere near. And the king, having regained his youth, lived out the rest of his days in benevolent peace and wisdom. (The DUKE seats himself, exhausted. Stunned silence.)
WIFE: Oh, Richard. That was incredible.
DUKE: (Surprised at himself, even proud) It was, wasn’t it?
ADVISOR: My lord, that was… I can’t find the words.
BARD: This means I lost the contest doesn’t it?
WIFE: Oh, the contest! I had completely forgotten!
DUKE: Send the other hopefuls away. (A better idea) No, wait! Advisor!
ADVISOR: Yes, sir?
DUKE: Organize a banquet in honor of this young man.
DUKE: What is your name?
BARD: It’s William, sir.
DUKE: William has shown me the honor there is to be had in the spinning of tales, the excitement of holding a room at bay by the suspense of a well-placed pause. Yes, m’boy, you have given me a treasure worthy of a celebration.
BARD: Just trying to earn my keep, m’lord, so to speak.
DUKE: You have earned my thanks.
WIFE: Oh, Richard, I haven’t seen you this worked up in years.
DUKE: I have been quite melancholy of late, but no more! (He takes WIFE in his arms) I love you, my dear.
WIFE: (Tittering) Richard, please, not in front of everyone!
ADVISOR: Really, sir, that is a matter best reserved for private affairs.
DUKE: I believe I remember telling you to organize a banquet.
ADVISOR: Yes, m’lord. (He begrudgingly exits.)
DUKE: (Beckoning the BARD) Come, lad. (He uncertainly kneels before the DUKE) No, no, rise. You are learned in the ways of letters, are you not?
BARD: Indeed I am sir.
DUKE: Good, you shall have a place at my table.
WIFE: Things really are going to change. I shall oversee the kitchen.
DUKE: And William and I shall see to the day’s entertainment. Together we shall pen a few pretty tales of fancy for the populace. What do you say, Sir Bard?
BARD: I’d be honored, m’lord!
DUKE: Very well. Let us begin! (Tableau.)