In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 14 - Meeting the King

Cinderella formally meets the king, a wedding party happens, and a good fairy does some interfering.


Their arrival at the palace was met by the king himself, who looked as though he’d probably been pacing up and down the halls ever since they’d left that morning. He came rushing out to meet them, and Cinderella at once slid off her horse and made a low, graceful obeisance. “Your Majesty, I am so sorry for all the trouble I caused.”

“If the result of it all is my son actually wanting to marry, then you’ve no need to be sorry at all,” King Rupert insisted. “Up, up, child, and let me look at you. That stepmother of yours didn’t harm you in any way?”

“No, Your Majesty. She had tried to lock me away in the garret so the prince wouldn’t see me, but Prince Adam came and broke the lock on the door and escorted me back downstairs to where Prince Charming was waiting.” She lifted up her skirts just slightly to display the glass shoes. “He had my missing shoe.”

“He requested that I bring the lady back to the palace for him,” Adam put in. “The stepmother first lied to him and then contrived to break the fake shoe and call it an accident in a most unconvincing manner; Charming wished to deal with her without delay.”

“I’m quite sure he did – I shall banish her later, such behavior isn’t allowed. Her daughters are just as bad, I take it?”

“No, Your Majesty,” Cinderella told him quickly, much to his surprise and everyone else’s as well. “They aren’t…I wouldn’t call them bad. Spoiled, perhaps. And not very bright on the best of days. Their mother has a very…strong personality, and is quite ambitious. The girls are not at all accustomed to thinking for themselves, simply to doing as she tells them.”

The king looked rather inappropriately delighted by this. “How very good of you to defend them,” he approved. “Still, I don’t think we’ll invite them to the wedding, oh no. Perhaps I’ll have one of my people find suitable matches for them, that would do, wouldn’t it? Yes, my wedding present to you, my dear – I’ll see your stepsisters settled comfortably, since you spoke for them.”

She curtsied again. “That would be wonderful, Your Majesty.”

“Now now, no more of that,” the king fussed, lifting her back upright himself. “We shall be family soon enough. Now, what is your name?”

She blushed. “I…my stepmother called me Cinderella, Your Majesty.”

Adam could see the ‘oh she did, did she?’ snap wanting to come out of the king’s mouth, but the man restrained himself and merely nodded. “That’s…actually rather pretty. And fitting, since our kingdom is called Asher. I think Princess Cinderella has a nice ring to it, don’t you, Adam?”

“I agree, Your Majesty – and it is certainly unique.” Cinderella had gone a bit wide-eyed – she had suffered quite a few shocks over the past few hours – and Adam took her arm to steady her just in case. “Your Majesty, I believe she’s becoming overtaxed. Is there somewhere…”

“Oh! Yes, yes, bring her into the sitting room, we needn’t be standing around out here. All of you come, we’ll wait for my son to return.” He motioned peremptorily to a hovering servant. “Bring refreshments to the sitting room – and let Prince Charming know that’s where we are when he returns.” He led them all into a small, comfortable room just off the audience chamber, tossing himself down into his own well-worn velvet chair and then directing everyone else to take a seat; John stationed himself behind Adam’s chair. “Prince Adam, we owe you a great deal and I am only sorry I didn’t have any information which could aid you on your quest. You will be staying for the wedding, though, I insist upon it – and here at the palace until then. I had hoped I might impose on your princess to assist the lady in the meantime, as I’ve no wife to do that duty. We won’t keep you long from your quest.”

“I’d be happy to help, Your Majesty,” Elsa agreed sweetly. “Are you sure you want us to stay here in the palace, though? With so much to be done, we’d not want to add three extra guests to your servants’ burden.”

“Oh no, it will be fine, my dear,” King Rupert assured her. “We’ve servants aplenty, believe me – I’m tripping over them most days, and they’re scurrying around trying to stay out of my way.” He raised an eyebrow at Adam. “Small castle?”

Adam nodded. “Twelve servants all total, and four of those lived in the village and only came up to do the day-work. Of course, with only myself, my wife, and Princess Elsa there, we’d really not have needed more even if the castle had been larger.”

“Ah, a more informal arrangement, then – good! Keep it that way, my boy, you’ll be more comfortable. I used to escape to my hunting lodge for a week at a time, when my wife was alive, and and we’d not even take my valet with us.”

 

Charming returned to the palace about an hour later in high good spirits. “The thing I love most about bullies,” he announced as he came in, tossing off his cloak to a servant who appeared to have been waiting for just such a thing to happen, “is that they’re all such small, mean people at heart – which makes it so much fun to put them in their place.” He did a bit of a double-take, though, when he saw Cinderella’s dress. “All right, there’s magic going on here somewhere, because I know you weren’t wearing that the last time I saw you.”

She blushed. “It was my fairy godmother’s doing. She said if I hadn’t been wearing the other dress she’d have just set it on fire.”

“We encountered her on the road on the way back,” Adam explained. “She seemed quite pleased with the way things had worked out.”

Charming shook himself. “Well, that’s a good thing, I suppose.” He sat down on the narrow couch Cinderella was already perched on, taking her hands in his. “You’re all right, though?” She nodded, and he stole a kiss. “We’ll find husbands who can manage your sisters, don’t worry. There seem to be plenty of young lords to go around right now, but we’ve a surprising dearth of young ladies to match them with.”

“Yes, well, there will be more now that you’re off the market,” the king commented, not quite rolling his eyes. “Princess Elsa has graciously consented to stay here and help your bride-to-be settle in before the wedding, hopefully Prince Adam can keep you occupied as well.”

Charming looked surprised by this, and Adam shrugged. “We don’t mind, Charming – not like we’re on any kind of a schedule at present. And her ladyship’s fairy godmother said we were to stay for the wedding and then leave the next day, so I’m going to take it on faith that she knows what’s best in this situation.”

Elsa appeared briefly puzzled by that statement, but she said nothing and so the expression passed without comment. A servant came shortly thereafter to show them to their rooms, and so soon as they were alone she pounced on John, who was sorting through their bags and putting things away while Adam tried to decide what he was going to wear to dinner that night. “Magic means you know what’s best?”

John sighed. He’d known the question was coming, but he was wondering if answering it was going to have him experiencing life as a cricket shortly thereafter. Still, though, he wasn’t going to lie to his princess for fear of that. “No,” he said, “it doesn’t. Magic means you can do things people without magic can’t do, that’s all. In the case of this fairy, however…well, she seems to have been involved in this situation for quite some time, so Adam is trusting that she knows more about what’s going on than anyone else does.”

“That’s why he asked her if there was anything else we needed to do?”

“Yes, that was it.” He smiled, proud of her. She might never be able to rule Arendelle by herself, but she was going to make a good queen someday regardless if he could just figure out how to get her safely back to her throne without the threat of further…incidents. On impulse, he gave her a hug. “You know, you made a really wonderful use of your own magic today, Princess. Without you, we might not have been able to rescue Lady Cinderella without a good deal more drama on all sides. What did you think of it all?”

“I couldn’t believe those people were so…so…”

“Greedy?”

“Yes, greedy! They were terrible, John, and all but one of their daughters were afraid.” She made a face. “Charming called that one a harpy when we left the house, she was awful and her family didn’t seem to know what to do about her. Her father came out and apologized, and Charming was just as nice about it as Adam would have been and told him it was all right and that people sometimes get carried away in situations like this one. He told the man that there was a young lord on the other side of the mountains who needed a strong-willed wife and suggested he see if that would be a good match for her. The man cried, John. He cried!”

“Because his prince was so nice about it,” John soothed her. “Not all rulers would be, in a situation like that. A bad one would have gotten angry and punished the girl and her family; good rulers know better than to give in to their anger that way.”

She cocked her head. “But he was so angry at Cinderella’s stepmother, and he looked to be enjoying that.”

“That’s because her stepmother is a horrible, wicked person,” he explained. “Adam and I saw that while we were hiding outside the manor house this morning; she was even threatening her own daughters. And she tried to keep the woman he loved away from the prince even after she knew it was love and knew magic had to be involved. So, wicked and greedy to the point of stupidity.”

“I still don’t understand that.”

“You don’t understand because it doesn’t make sense,” Adam told her, coming back into the sitting room. “Cinderella is her stepdaughter – that means she married Cinderella’s father after his first wife, Cinderella’s mother, had died. And her marrying him made Cinderella a part of her family, and sister to her own daughters, under the law. So having Cinderella marry the prince would have brought every bit as much wealth and honor to the family as having one of her own two daughters marry him would have…and that’s where her being stupid comes in, because she let greed and jealousy blind her to reality and reason. Right now she’s just lucky that Charming’s father is also a good ruler and he’s not going to punish their entire family for what she tried to do.”

“He’s going to exile her, though, right?”

“Yes, because it’s dangerous to let someone who has no respect for the royal family stay in your kingdom, because if you do they’ll almost certainly cause more problems later.”

She frowned. “Do we exile people in Arendelle, John?”

“The king or queen is empowered to do it, yes. It hasn’t happened very often, from what I understand.” Mainly because the preferred method of punishing such people in Arendelle was execution – although that didn’t happen very often either – but he wasn’t going to tell Elsa that. Arendelle’s laws could be very harsh when it involved any behavior which might be considered treasonous…whether the offender had been trying to protect a member of the royal family or not. He shook off that grim thought. “Really, most people never go so far that such punishment is required, Princess.”

“So why did she?!”

Adam chuckled. “Because she didn’t think she was going to be caught, Elsa. Wicked and greedy to the point of stupidity, remember? Don’t try to understand a person like that, you can’t.” He turned his attention to John. “I know what I’m going to be doing for the next two weeks, and I know what Elsa’s going to be doing, but I think you’re going to be bored. And despite the much more formal relationship between servants and royalty they seem to have here, I don’t want you down helping in the kitchens or some nonsense like that, do you understand? You’re the royal bookkeeper of two kingdoms, I expect you to find something to do that befits your station.”

John smiled and shook his head. “I already spoke to the steward about having access to the royal library, Your Highness; I’ll be researching histories for information that might help us. When I’m not keeping things in order in here, that is.” He went back to ferreting out the other items he knew his prince and princess needed. “Someone will be up shortly with hot water for the bath. For obvious reasons, Princess, you’ll have to go last, not first as would be considered proper.” He seemed to sense Elsa’s opening mouth before a word could get out. “No, you’ll do it the normal, non-magical way this time, and the steward said he’d send up a maid to attend you if you wanted one.” The steward, who John suspected had ready sources of information all over the castle, seemed to have already come to the conclusion that ladies who use magic may not want or need ‘help’ with their toilette and might be offended if assistance were offered in that vein – he’d been that careful in making the offer, anyway. “He told me he’d already had one picked out for the prince’s future bride, but he changed her for another after finding out Cinderella’s…previous situation. So he’s apparently got a very high-class ladies’ maid running around with nothing much to do at the moment.”

“What would I do with her?”

“I believe they mostly fix hair,” Adam told her. “And fuss over dresses and shoes.”

“I can do those things myself!”

John smiled. “Yes, that was why they said they wouldn’t send her up unless you requested it, Princess – the steward knew you didn’t need her, but he wasn’t sure if you might want her or not.” She shook her head. “Then we won’t ask for her to be sent up, it’s as simple as that.”

 

Servants came with water for the bath shortly thereafter, and while Adam was taking his John sat down at the room’s writing desk and went over their travel expenses, adding in what they’d spent at the inn the night before and budgeting for some minor additions to two royal traveling wardrobes to make them appropriate for two weeks’ stay in this much more formal castle and then the wedding to follow. Elsa plopped into a fine brocaded chair, bored and peppering him with questions. Most of them were about the upcoming royal wedding and how it would be planned and who would be attending, and finally John realized what she was actually trying to ask him. “He won’t be here,” he told her. “No one who was at your coronation will be, it’s too far and the wedding is too soon. Nobody will be here except people who live in the area, or Asher’s nearer neighboring kingdoms.”

“So no one from Weasel Town?”

“No, but it’s Waselton, Princess.” John corrected. “The place is called Waselton.”

Elsa pouted. “Weasel Town.”

The bookkeeper looked at her over the tops of his glasses. “Only if you’re trying to start a war. If not, the name is Waselton. Wa-Sel-Ton.”

“But I heard…”

“It doesn’t matter, whoever called it that wasn’t the ruler of Arendelle.” He put down the pen with a sigh when the pout deepened. “Sweetheart, don’t. You have to learn to be a proper ruler, and a slip like that can cause serious problems – no matter how accurate it is, all right? Not to mention, the people of Waselton shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of one dishonorable man.”

The pout hovered for a moment, then dissipated. “They shouldn’t be, should they. Isn’t there a way they could get rid of him, though? He can’t be a good ruler!”

“Technically he’s not a ruler, he’s just a duke – that’s a step down from a prince.” He decided to try to avoid getting into the topic of how a kingdom rids itself of an undesirable ruler, as he was more than a little afraid she might make the connection between frightened, angry subjects and the rulers of those subjects sneaking off on urgent quests in the middle of the night. “His ruler is his king, in this case the King of the Danes, and as they have fifty dukes if they have one I doubt the man even knows that particular duke by name. All the king cares about is that Waselton is profitably run and remains loyal to the Crown.”

Elsa’s expression said she was not thinking that was an attitude a king should have, which actually made John happy because it really wasn’t. “What about Prince Hans?” she wanted to know. “He’s a ruler.”

“No, he’s not – he’s a prince because he’s the son of a king,” John corrected. “The way I understood it, he’s the thirteenth son in his family, which means he’s so far from the throne he might as well be in another country. That was why he was so very desperate to take over any way he could; a prince with no throne to ascend is a man trained for a job he can never do in his own home country. Quite a few of them in that situation wander around looking for a princess to marry, but most of them aren’t so unprincipled a villain as he was.”

“Then why did they ask me if I’d marry him?”

He was startled, and it showed. “Who did?”

“The Chief Councilor, he wanted me to marry Hans. He said he was sure Hans had just gotten carried away because…because he was afraid, but that he’d done a very good job in Arendelle while I was gone. He said…” She frowned down at her hands, which were knotted together in her lap in a growing circle of ice crystals. “He said they just wanted me to do my duty to Arendelle and then I could go back into seclusion so I…so I wouldn’t hurt anyone else by accident.”

The pen rolled off onto the floor with a splatter of ink as John stood up; he didn’t even notice. He moved to stand in front of her, she looked up at him with icy frozen tears starting in her eyes…and then he went to one knee, taking her hands in his, ignoring the cold that felt like it was actually burning his skin. “No, Princess,” he told her. “No, that isn’t right and he shouldn’t have said such a thing to you. He knew what happened wasn’t your fault. Do you understand? You not being able to control your powers was no more your fault than it was Prince Adam’s fault he was turned into a Beast. Not to mention, since you hate Prince Hans – with good reason – being forced to ‘do your duty’ would not have ended well for him.”

The pout tried to make a reappearance. “I could have held it in for one ceremony.”

John turned red all the way to the tips of his ears. He squeezed her hands, shook his head. “There’s…considerably more to it than that, Elsa.” She started to open her mouth, and he shook his head again. “No, I can’t discuss that with you. And I know Mrs. Potts or Annette must have explained…how a marriage bears fruit, so you already have the answer.”

She went redder than he had. “They wanted me to do that with Hans?!”

That is a part of being married,” he confirmed. “That was what Councilor Tarben was wanting from you; he wanted you to marry Prince Hans and produce an heir for Arendelle.” He squeezed her hands again and then released them so he could stand back up. “You don’t need to worry about that though, Princess. When the time does come for you to marry, we’ll make sure it’s to someone you actually want to be with, all right?”

Elsa cocked a skeptical white-gold eyebrow up at him. “You make it sound like I get to choose who I want to marry. Princesses don’t; queens don’t either.”

“You do,” John corrected bluntly. “Barring the fact that it’s a…unique situation anyway because of your powers, you’ll be forced into a marriage with someone not of your choosing over my dead body, Your Highness.”

He was unprepared for the surprise hug; she nearly knocked him over backwards. “No!”

John sighed and patted her back. “It’s a figure of speech, sweetheart.” Even if he had meant it quite literally, and hadn’t included his renewed determination to see that it would happen over Councilor Tarben’s dead body as well. “It just means anyone who tried to force you would have to deal with me first, all right? And they’d also have to deal with Adam, he’d never stand for something like that. Neither would Cogsworth or any of the others, either. We’d none of us allow that to happen to you. You will only be married if you consent to it, all right?”

The hug squeezed a little tighter. “You promise?”

“I promise. Adam will promise too, when you get a chance to ask him.”

 

The next two weeks went by rather quickly for Adam and Elsa, and a good deal more slowly for John as he mostly spent his days combing through the castle’s library for histories which covered the period of the curse, searching for clues which might reveal something about Adam’s nameless kingdom. His efforts gained him little more than a daily headache, which he was at some pains to conceal from Adam and Elsa, but he did find an account of a splendid christening celebration which had taken place in a neighboring kingdom some seven years past, and which had invited guests from kingdoms both far and near. He passed that information on to Adam so that he might ask King Rupert about it and kept searching, headache be damned.

The royal wedding of Prince Charming and Cinderella was a splendid spectacle which the inhabitants of Asher would doubtless be talking about for years to come. The wedding party which followed filled the castle and spilled out across the town and into the countryside, and in every corner there was much merriment to be found. Adam, in truth, was possibly the only person present who truly wished he were somewhere else – although no one who didn’t know him well would have gathered this from his face or manner. He did his part to keep the dancing going, kept one eye on Elsa to make sure she wasn’t being overwhelmed with attention and the other on Charming to make sure none of the young ladies present whose advances had been rejected tried to cause any trouble in the crowded ballroom. He’d have had John watch Elsa if it had been possible – John was much better at keeping her calm – but those servants whose services weren’t required at the party had all been banished below stairs for the duration and rumor had it were having quite a party of their own. Adam hoped John was enjoying himself and hadn’t slipped off to the library again for one last go at the dusty books and records, which had so far only yielded one potentially useful piece of information and days upon days of headaches John had very obviously thought he was doing a capital job of pretending he wasn’t having.

Mostly, though, Adam was wishing Belle was with him. Two weeks of being around Charming and Cinderella had made him miss his wife terribly, and the wedding had been a hundred times worse. He wanted Belle to be there at the party, wanted to dance with her as they’d once danced in the otherwise empty ballroom in his at-that-time enchanted castle, wanted walk with her in the moon-drenched gardens, wanted to laugh with her and join into conversations with her…he just wanted his love back.

A tinkle as of tiny bells startled him and he jumped…and Cinderella’s fairy godmother laughed. “More wine will cure that problem,” she advised. “Although it may not make for an agreeable morning on the morrow.”

“Exactly the reason I’ve been abstaining, for the most part,” he agreed. “That, and a man can’t dance well if he’s in his cups.” He noticed her foot tapping to the music, smiled and swept her a very courtly bow. “My lady, would you care to dance?”

She looked surprised by the offer, but then she smiled back and took his offered hand. “Why you adorable thing, I’d love to. Thank goodness you’re not in your cups.”

Adam laughed and swept her out into the dancing, where they did a very credible few turns around the ballroom before she indicated she’d had enough and allowed Adam to remove her from the crush just as though she’d been a regular lady and not an extremely powerful fairy who could have easily extricated herself. She saw the king watching them with a rather stunned expression on his face and favored him with a little wave, then returned her attention to Adam. She could see the sadness in his eyes, of course, which made her all the more appreciate the gallant effort he was putting into doing his part at the party. This one was a good boy, she couldn’t think why Marguerite would have settled that awful curse on him. Normally fairies did not interfere with each other’s little projects, but Marguerite hadn’t been around for a while so maybe…she stood up on tiptoe and kissed Adam’s cheek. “You’ve asked me no boon for helping see this plan of mine to a satisfactory conclusion, dear boy, so I’ll give you a gift,” she said in his ear. “When you find your way to the end of this quest, you will make your way home again…to your kingdom, Valeureux.” And then in a twinkling she was gone, leaving only a shower of sparkles that fell around the astounded prince like a rain of tiny blessings.

King Rupert came hurrying over. “Adam, you’re absolutely white! What…”

Adam blinked at him. “She…” He sank down onto the chair the older man pulled him to; his legs were shaking. “She said she wanted to give me a gift. My…my kingdom’s name is Valeureux.”

The king gasped. “I remember that place! It just…good lord, that had to have been a very powerful curse, to take away a memory like that. Valeureux was the home of the Ruby Market.”

Adam nodded. “Yes. I remember now…I remember my father telling me once that our kingdom was known far and wide for the famous Rubis Marché. He…never told me why, though, or what it was.”

Had he been looking he’d have seen the older man’s momentary scowl at that, but it was gone quickly. “I can show you, dear boy.” He urged Adam back to his feet and led him out of the ballroom, waving to his son to let him know everything was all right. Up the stairs to the eastern wing of the palace they went, and finally into a long gallery where a servant quickly lit sconces on the walls so the shadowed paintings which hung there might be seen. Some were portraits, others landscapes, and one of these was a mahogany-framed painting almost as long as a table which depicted a cozy village surrounded by autumn trees all in crimson and gold. A tall rock fountain splashed in the village center, surrounded by stalls and carts piled high with the fruits of the harvest: rosy-cheeked apples, bright berries, bottles of ruby wine, sheaves of golden grain and stalks of corn. The villagers depicted were rosy-cheeked as well, cheerful looking people who were almost all wearing some red item of clothing in honor of the day. “That was the Ruby Market,” the king told the stunned prince gently. “The trees turning just at harvest time were what gave it the name, as I recall, and it was said to be a wonder to behold. I’d never been there myself, but I’d look at this painting when I was young and wonder what it must be like to live in such a wondrous place.”

Adam shook his head. “I…honestly can’t tell you. It wasn’t until John came to work for me that I ever really started seeing my own kingdom.” He reached out one hand, not quite touching the painted fountain. “It’s still there, a bit more worn now. And the shop with the flowers in the window sells cakes; we’ve stopped to buy some on several occasions, John and I, because he said the people needed to see me and get to know me.”

“That they do,” the king agreed placidly. The effort to remain placid was almost killing him, though. He couldn’t imagine what sort of king would raise his heir not to know his own kingdom, or his own people – a bad king, only a bad king. And sadly, he now could recall hearing rumors of the last king of Valeureux, and had to think being cursed might have been the best thing that could have happened to the man’s son, if only because it had kept the boy from being raised to be like his father. He wouldn’t say so, however.

Charming slipped into the hall and hurried over to them, looking worried. “Adam, good lord, whatever did Cinderella’s godmother do to you?!”

Adam found a smile for him, tearing his eyes away from the painting. “She told me the name of my kingdom.” He waved an unsteady hand. “And there it is.”

Charming’s eyes widened. “You’re the king of Valeureux?”

“I’m the prince of Valeureux,” Adam corrected. “I can’t be king, as my father is missing, not dead.”

“We’ve a similar law,” King Rupert said. “Stops overly-ambitious younger sons from getting creative with their path to the throne. Charming’s never had to know much about that because there’s only one of him.” He raised an eyebrow. “And where exactly is the mother of my future grandchildren?”

“Changing into something she can ride in so we can sneak off on our honeymoon,” Charming told him. “Princess Elsa is pretending to be her while that one kitchen boy pretends to be me, so far as I know nobody has noticed yet – and we’ve been free enough with the wine tonight that none of them are likely to, either.” He gave Adam a strong hug. “I know you’re leaving tomorrow, but I hope you’ll come visit again someday. I’d love to show you what Asher looks like when we’re not crawling with prospective brides and magical intrigues.”

Adam laughed. “If I can, I will. And if I can find a way to un-curse my wife, perhaps you can come to visit us.” He indicated the painting again. “Apparently we’re famous, and quite a pretty kingdom as well.”

Charming clasped his shoulder, then moved to hug his father. “We’re off, Father. Send someone if…”

“I don’t expect to need you,” the king informed him, rather huffily. “I need grandchildren! So go get started on that, it’s not an instantaneous process by any means.”

“I’m told practice does make perfect, though,” Adam added, and ducked when Charming swatted at him on his way out. He swiped at his eyes, dashing away the remnants of the tears which had collected there. “My apologies, Your Majesty. Shall we rejoin the party?”

The king nodded, taking his arm. “For a short while – long enough for them to get away to the lodge, anyway, and then you’ll need to be off to tell your companions what’s happened and get ready to leave in the morning. Although if you’d rather stay…”

Adam shook his head. “Cinderella’s godmother told me we were to stay for the wedding party but leave the very next day. She’s done my people and I such a good turn, I…” he raised his hand to wipe his eyes again, “…well, I believe it would be best to follow her instructions.”

“Good point,” the king approved. “Very well, then, let’s go back down to the ballroom and see how your little princess is getting along standing in for the bride. Hopefully she’s having fun, Charming did a particularly good job teaching that kitchen boy how to dance…”

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