Prince John wilted in his throne. He curled his long fingers around the ends of the wooden armrest and scratched listlessly at invisible splinters. He sighed.
Gisbourne frowned. "Something wrong, Sire?"
John did not answer.
A dark hush had fallen over the court. Guards flanked John's either side, characteristically unsympathetic and unmoving, but the rest of his company-his advisers, the court lords, visiting companions-suffered the mood.
"It seems," said John, after a long while, "that I am not popular amongst my subjects."
It was no secret that Prince John's popularity had dwindled since his ascent to regency. With his pesky brother, Richard, away and absorbing prodigious amounts of the nation's reserves (men and money), it was difficult to gather the taxes needed to fund a proper kingdom. The palace needed new china, frankly, and Prince John wasn't about to go without.
"Not popular? You, Sire? Surely-"
"I don't understand it," John said, finally. "I realize the Robin Hood situation has put a certain . . . strain on the countryside; but, I hardly think that's enough to warrant this negative attitude. What do you think it is? Does my regal beauty render me unapproachable? Am I perhaps too generous? Too charitable?"
"Perhaps they are simply too awestruck by your majesty, Sire."
"Or, perhaps, they are intimidated by your fierceness, your Majesty."
"Perhaps it's time for a different approach."
"What does his majesty have in mind?"
"A new campaign, I believe," said John, "in order to improve my public relations. A carefully organized campaign, certainly. I must appeal to my subjects' overall sense of patriotism. I must woo them. Wow them. Make them see that their monarch is more than just an outrageously handsome-"
"-And stunningly wealthy-"
"-Ruler. Yes. I must find a way to relate to my public that is-iconic. Infectious, even. A charming and, shall we say, devilish folk hero?"
"Like Robin Hood, Sire?" The guard who said this immediately regretted it. Prince John gave him a withering look.
"Forgive me, Sire."
"No, not at all like that vexatious scalawag Robin Hood. My status as a folk icon must exceed that of the rebel. I must be fresh. I must be, I daresay, hip to the groove. I must get jiggy with the lingo. That's what the people like these days, is it not? Relatability. A sparkling personality. A trendsetter. Someone the people will clamor to emulate."
"Where is my messenger?"
A wobbly-kneed little fellow heard the request and turned up, as if by magic, in the center of the throne room.
"A new image is what I require. One on the cutting edge of fashion. I will appeal to their simpler sensibilities. I shall wear what they wear; but, with unparalleled fabulosity! I want to have my finger on the pulse of the nation. Clothes, as they say. . . make the man." He stroked the long curl of his beard and motioned his messenger. "I want you to go into the village and discover all that you can about the local aesthetic."
"A fashion mogul, your Excellency?" A fashion-forward gentleman himself, Sir Guy of Gisbourne fluffed the scarlet velvet of his Pauldiardo St. Michel cape in approval. "What an ingenious plan!"
Although Sir Guy of Gisbourne thought the plan was a great idea, the Sheriff of Nottingham knew it was a terrible idea. So far, every plan Prince John and his court had cooked up to combat their poor image had ended in a challenge-a challenge that Robin Hood never failed to accept. And if Robin Hood interfered . . . . "Your Majesty, if I may-"
Prince John interrupted, eyes fixed on the wobbly messenger. "Bring me a detailed report of all of the fashion trends you observe and report back to me." Now he gave his beard long, careful strokes. He cocked one eyebrow up and smiled.
"As His Majesty wishes."
The Sheriff of Nottingham gave a quiet, but long-suffering sigh.
The following day, Prince John held a jousting tournament. He announced that the event would be considered a holiday, and had his scouts encourage all villagers to "take a day off from their toil and enjoy a glorious day of jollies, courtesy of their loving king." Citizens arrived in droves, although not without suspicious and fearful glances. King John sat on a great, regal throne, wearing a get-up he'd mottled together after his messenger's report. It had become fashionable, the messenger had said, to wear one's cape torn off at the left shoulder, swept slightly to the right, so the torn pieces fell like a gauzy net around the back. Prince John made sure his "ripped at the shoulder cape" was a majestic purple color. Beside him, Sir Guy of Gisbourne glowed in his dashing new frock and matching torn-shoulder cape.
The Sheriff, whose job was to corral villager in for the tournament, was to wear a version of the cape along with a crushed-velvet hat with silver accessories. Every few minutes, he had to blow the feather out of his face (it drooped over his left eye like a weeping willow branch.)
Prince John surveyed the crowd with the satisfaction of a lion relaxing in the sunlight, gazing over his pride. He stretched his hands and purred to Guy, "It's working."
"It is, Sire," said Guy. "You see, all eyes are on you."
"Yes," said John. "What are they saying?"
A few peasants whispered and cast occasional glances at Prince John. They turned and murmured amongst each other. John smirked, then, for just an instant, let his smirk away and allowed a moment of suspicion. He raised an eyebrow and chuckled it away, but he snapped for a servant.
A thin fellow carrying a silver plate inclined his head to the prince's order.
"Go into the crowd and see what it is they are tittering about," said John.
The messenger snaked off. John regained his smile and his composure-sat tall and proud in his throne, basking in the crowd's adoration. He only occasionally afforded a glance toward the messenger, to see how he was getting along in the crowd. He comforted himself with a mental list of all the things his subjects were saying about him.
"Oh, look at that John!" they were probably saying to their kin. "He's so glorious!"
"A go-getter! A crusader of the cutting edge!"
"Oh, our king is the most fashionable to've ever graced the throne of England!"
"Or any throne!"
"Oh, we are so lucky to have such a fashion-forward king!"
"We adore him!"
"Hail Prince John!"
The messenger returned.
John motioned eagerly. "Well?"
"They are talking about your new cape, your Majesty."
"Well, it seems that-"
". . . they're sharing a story, Sire."
"It seems, Sire, that the torn-shoulder look began after a bit of a scuffle outside of Sherwood forest."
"Apparently, a roguish young archer had been wearing a cape when he leapt out of the trees and seized one of your Majesty's carriages. Your Majesty's guards tried to apprehend him; but, the archer had already stolen all of the goods on the carriage. As he slipped away, one of your Majesty's guards caught him by the cape and-"
"And the archer's cape ripped at the left shoulder, Sire. It's been a trend about Nottinghamshire to wear one's cape that way ever since."
Prince John already bristled with anger. "And this young archer's name?"
The messenger swallowed hard. "Um."
"Robin Hood, Sire."
"What?" Prince John stood up and slammed his palm to the arm-rest.
An immediate hush fell over the crowd.
Prince John smiled uncomfortably, waved, and motioned the crowd to carry on. He sank into his seat as a low roar began anew. "Curses," he muttered. He twirled his beard and cast a dark, calculating gaze toward that abominable rat's nest, Sherwood Forest.
Guy of Gisbourne frowned. "Your Majesty?"
"No matter," said John. "A slight mishap. . . but we cannot afford to be defeated."
"What shall we do, your Majesty?"
"We'll be back tomorrow," said Prince John, "with an even better ensemble." He cast a dark smile over the tournament, leaned back in his throne, and tried to ignore the funky cape that was sitting on his shoulders . . . a cape like the one a rabble-rouser had worn last month.
John had his stylists toil through the night to devise his next outfit. It was his own take on a little ditty that had become popular in the shires: an angular hat with a great fluffy feather pinned jauntily into the folds. Many of the peasants had taken to wearing such a hat, and so John decided that their king would wear such a hat as well (only better!) The next morning, John made a point of strutting out into the village to pay the landowners personal visits. He took his carriage and took the long ways, making sure to pass through the village and be seen by as many curious eyes as possible.
One of his landowners, a blacksmith, came out surprised and wiping black soot off his hand with the edge of his waist apron. "Your Highness, what an unexpected pleasure."
"Yes, well, such thoughtfulness couldn't be expected from other monarchs, but I am, as they say, a people's king."
"Yes. . . ."
"What do you think of my new hat?"
"My new hat. What do you think of it?"
"Well, your Majesty, it's. . . ah. It's delightful."
"Whimsically familiar, yet daringly different, am I correct?"
"An innovative spin on a shire classic, wouldn't you say? Tell me, have you ever seen it worn quite this way?"
"No, your Majesty, I certainly haven't. I-I mean-the angles, the feather, the way the-er, colors and shapes contrast with the, uh the-. It's even more daring than the one Robin Hood was wearing last week when he-err, I mean-"
"B-Bobbin. Bobbin Goode! Yes, Bobbin Goode, Sire, that's who it was. Came strutting around here wearing a hat like that. Only-not so fine a hat. Dull, really. No where near as cutting edge as his Majesty's. Oh, no! There is no comparison!"
The guards instantly sprung into action and hauled off the shocked and pleading blacksmith.
"Curse that Robin Hood! How am I to improve my public relations if he keeps meddling in my affairs!"
-"Your Majesty, I beg you! Have mercy!"-
"I'll try once more. That repugnant rabble-rouser may think he's all the rage, but a new fashion icon is about to emerge! England's fashion sensibilities will not be co-opted by that-that nocuous ne'er-do-well!"
One of Prince John's guards gave a bow. "Your Excellency?"
Prince John hurried back to the palace and summoned his messenger. The wobbly man, along with John's stylists, stood eager.
"I want you to go back into the village," John told the messenger, "and find me a fashion not begun by Robin Hood. Something commonplace, but . . . catchy. You know, a knock-'em-dead craze that is sure to turn heads during my journey tomorrow."
"Of course, your Highness."
John extended two fingers to motion toward his stylists. "When my scout returns, you are to take what he has learned and create a ravishing outfit. This time, it must be to DIE for."
The next day, John set out for Nottinghamshire once more. He wore his stylists' latest fashion concoction-a tunic made of patched together fabric squares. Patchwork was a recent fad adapted from the villagers, who'd taken to putting colorful patches on their tunics, frocks, and dresses. John's men had altered the look to include a colorful array of patches, including patches spun of pure gold. He had his fashion consultants streamline the tunic so that the outfit would be killer chic. As John paraded through the village in his carriage, heads turned.
Sir Guy of Gisbourne smiled. "You've got them, your Excellency. Not an eye on Nottingham is turned from you."
John smirked and chuckled-a faint, self-satisfied breath. "And not a single mouth mentions any name, except my own."
"No," said Guy. "Not a single word about the outlaw since we set out."
"Look! A young lad in his peasant's frock. Let's see what he has to say about my hip new digs."
A mischievous, golden-haired child ran past John's carriage. He was wearing the original fad-a cheap, patchwork frock with patchy trousers and patchy shoes.
"Excuse me, young lad!"
The boy paused by an oak tree, looked confused, but stopped. He bowed and shuffled his heel in the dirt, not looking as reverent as he might have (a spirited one, for sure: a perfect fashion consultant.)
"Ah." John extended his arms gracefully, so that his frock fanned out. "I see that you are wearing the latest rags. I am too. As you can see, I, your king, whole-heartedly embrace your latest fad and think that is it mad cool. Tell me, my trendy young friend, what do like best about my ensemble? The fine silks? The rich velvets? The trendsetting sheen of the golden threads?"
"I like the gold patches, your Majesty, I guess."
"Yes, your Majesty. I mean, I do like it them. It's like the patch on my sleeve, but . . . shinier?"
Prince John chuckled his contentment.
"Well, I was on my way to the water well, your Highness."
"-Just a moment, you delightful young scamp. I wish to know one last thing before you go."
"Sure, your Highness! I mean-yes, your Highness?"
"Tell me, Child, just to satisfy my curiosity," he stroked his beard, "how is it you folks came to wear this delightful fashion?"
"-Err, I gotta' go, your Majesty-" The boy took off running with his basket of food from the market wagging behind him.
"SEIZE THE WHIPPERSNAPPER!"
After fifteen minutes of grueling interrogation, Prince John's men got the little brat to fess up. The patchwork trend, the boy confessed, had been an invention of Robin Hood. Apparently, Robin Hood had popularized the look by using scrapes of cheap fabric cut into patches to mend his merry men's clothing and to help the peasants keep their tunics in good condition for longer. When John heard the news, he sank to sit, humiliated, on his throne and to knead his regal brow in frustration.
"Confound that Robin Hood! He thinks he's all that." Prince John snapped and had his guards pass him some of the food from the peasant boy's confiscated basket. He munched miserably on a bite of bread. "How will I ever persuade the people of Nottingham to like me?"
Sir Guy sighed. The Sheriff made no move and said nothing; but, in his mind lurked the words, 'I told you so.'
"Well, never mind," John said, and snapped upright in his throne. "If I cannot floor them with the familiar, then I will awe them with the avant-garde!"
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow. "Sire?"
"Send word to every nation that Prince John of England wishes to meet with the top designers in the land," said John. "Don't stop until you've located the finest and fiercest. I'll need them to design my fabulous new fall collection." John lowered his bellow to a crafty purr: "Soon, Robin Hood, we will see who's really the shiz. Once my collection is complete, the people of Nottingham will hail a new icon, and that outlaw's influence will be passé. . . ."
"Shall I fetch the messenger, your Majesty?"
"No," said John. "Have one of my royal guards insure my invitation finds its way out safely. I want to avoid public knowledge of my summons."
Word of Prince John's confidential plan to introduce a new fall fashion line spread about Nottingham as fast as the prince could pen his message to parchment. Maid Marian insured the news leaked into the village before nightfall. By daybreak, Robin Hood and his merry men had not only heard the news, but chortled about it over flasks of ale.
"So, Prince John thinks he can turn Nottingham against us with a few new rags, does he?" Robin Hood threw his head back and guffawed.
Little John's enthusiastic "AH-HA!" rang out over the roar of the merry men's laughter. Ale mugs clanked. Friar Tuck laughed and bit into a great turkey leg.
"What shall we do, Robin?"
"What say we let him have his collection?" Robin propped his hands on his hips, eyes shining mischief. "In fact, how about we design it for him?"
Will Scarlet grinned. "What've you got in mind, Robin?"
"We'll give Prince John exactly what he wants: a wardrobe to honor a king. I think we can fill in the details as we go, what say you, Men?"
Little John let out another of his belly laughs. " I say it's a marvelous idea."
The merry men all took part in a spirited chorus of "AYE!"
"This, my friends, is going to be a show to remember. We'll need disguises first . . . and I think I know just where to get them. Let's see if we can persuade these designers to have dinner in Sherwood forest while we take care of Prince John's wardrobe."
At nightfall, Prince John welcomed twenty-four designers into Nottingham Castle. All of them spoke in thick accents, needed translators, or barely spoke English. An Italian designer who went by the name of Robinanocchi-and whose accent was most difficult to distinguish of all-told the prince that he and the other designers would require only material, quiet, and an undisturbed workspace.
"But you must not peek at our designs until we're finished," Robinanocchi croaked.
"Of course," said John. "You may have all of the time you require, and all the money you require, so long as your designs are fabulous."
"Rest assured, Sire," said Robinanocchi, "our designs are going to leave quite an impression."
"Robinanocchi" and "the twenty-three designers" got to work. They worked well into the night, occasionally strolling out to order more expensive fabrics and golden thread. When no one was looking, Robinanocchi and the designers would sneak great spools of gold and silver thread and priceless cloth out the windows. Outside, Maid Marian and her lady-in-waiting took the spools and cloths and loaded up a wagon to take out to the countryside and give to the poor.
"I'm sure the poor will have even better designs in mind for the money that wagon will bring in," said Petit Jean le Magnifique.
Robinanocchi and his merry designers toiled for three days and nights. On the fourth morning, just as Prince John was beginning to grow suspicious, the twenty-four designers emerged.
"Your Majesty," said Robinanocchi, "We're almost ready to reveal our fashions."
"Almost?" Prince John said, with a raise of his majestic eyebrow.
"A collection this magnificent deserves a magnificent audience. We've toiled for hours, Sire. There simply aren't enough people in the castle to warrant a public exhibition of our handiwork."
"Well, how many spectators do you require?"
"If you will summon every citizen in Nottingham," said Robinanocchi, "then we will proudly reveal your fabulous fall line."
Prince John sighed. "Very well. " He flicked his wrist for his messenger. "You heard the man. Let it be known that Prince John wishes for all of Nottingham to attend his fashion extravaganza this afternoon."
As Robinanocchi and his merry designers left, John kneaded his forehead, but then relaxed in his seat and muttered, "Troublesome as these designers are, at least all of Nottingham will see my collection. My reputation as a hip trendsetter will, at last, be won."
By noontime, every able citizen of Nottingham had gathered in Nottingham Palace. Prince John tapped his fingers impatiently and eyed one of his guards.
"What's taking those designers so long?"
The guard nodded to another guard, who sent a messenger to peek behind a great velvet curtain. The messenger nodded, then whispered to the second guard, who whispered to the first guard, who then said, "They're ready, Sire."
"Good," said Prince John, "I see our spectators are growing restless, as am I."
With a swish of the curtain, Robinanocchi appeared on a long stage and hopped up onto an upside-down wash basin. He spread his arms wide, motioned to all of Nottingham, and in his most ridiculous accent bellowed, "Good citizens, I apologize for having made you wait. I know you're all very excited to see his Majesty's new collection."
No reaction. Prince John sat up indignantly and pounded his fist to the armrest, prompting a half-hearted cheer or two.
"His Majesty asked us to create a collection that truly represents the heart of Nottingham, and I believe my designers and I did just that. Now, my designers and I are all for new trends; but, when it comes to capturing the true spirit of England, we know that classics-" Robinanocchi turned to give Prince John and his men a pointed, spirited look, "-never go out of style. And, now, without further ado, I present a new clothing line. We call it Threads of a True King, inspired by the work of England's foremost fashion icon, Richarde de Lionhearte!"
"What?" Prince John immediately snapped up in his seat.
Robinanocchi laughed. Brazen members of the audience cheered. The velvet curtain swished for each peasant and chuckling merry man who strutted out onto the catwalk in King Richard's colors-expensive sashes and rich velvets, shining gold, and flowing tunics reminiscent of King Richard's armor and court dress clothes. Somewhere on each piece-on the back, on the sleeves, on the side-King Richard's royal seal had been stitched in gold thread. Chaos erupted.
John stamped to his feet. "No, NO!" Furious, he whipped from side to side, motioning his guards. "Seize them! SEIZE HIM!"
It was too late. "Robinanocchi" exchanged hats and reached for a bow and arrows he had hidden behind the curtains. He and the merry men, who'd all concealed weapons in their fabulous clothing, leapt into action. Peasants fled in the scuffle. Guards tried to seize Robin Hood and his men; but, as usual, the merry men were ready, and slipped out of the guards' clutches like oil. Robin Hood jumped onto the chandelier and held a triumphant hand on his hip. "Enjoy your new clothes, your Majesty!" He tossed a velvet hat with King Richard's design stitched onto it. "They're made for someone of a greater stature that yours, but I think the colors will be a welcome change."
The hat landed on the side of Prince John's head. Prince John snatched it off and tossed it to the ground, then shook a fist at Robin. "You will pay for this, Outlaw!"
"Better luck next time," said Robin. He gave a hearty laugh, swung the chandelier, hopped onto the rafters, and climbed through the quickly diminishing drawbridge door just before the guards locked it tight.
Prince John clenched his fist and made his knuckles white.
The Sheriff of Nottingham sighed knowingly.
Sir Guy of Gisbourne gingerly approached the throne. "Your orders, Sire?"
"This isn't over," said John.
"If it's any consolation, Sire, you do look particularly majestic today."
Prince John gave Sir Guy's hat an irritated bop and felt a little better.