Notes from the Palace
Some extra Kingsley and some Emory without any girls nearby.
Set between Chapter 25 and 26 of the Opal Fox, but best read after 26
The head butler slid into the billiards room with the practiced ease of someone who has spent decades sliding unobtrusively into rooms. The footman on duty noticed him almost at once while the soldier was a close second but the prince was lining up a shot and there was no way the boy would take his eyes off the table. The prince played billiards and he played for money, and whatever he did for money he practiced diligently. The boy spent more time with his billiards and his horses than his tutors, not that it would matter. When his brother was king he would only be useful as a goodwill ambassador. The prince made the shot, knocked two balls into their respective pockets and paused to admire his handiwork.
"Excuse me, Your Highness," the butler said after a cough to announce his presence. "There is a man at the servant's entrance."
"A man?" Prince Emory said, sparing the butler a glance as he stepped around the table.
"Yes. He says that he is a footman but he is not in livery. He has a message for you but demands to give it to you in person. He says those were his orders."
"And has he said whose footman he is or who sent him?"
This was the part the butler had been dreading but he didn't show it. "He says he belongs to the Dielle household."
The cue stick nearly slipped out of the boy's hand and he looked up quickly. The butler felt himself under real scrutiny and knew he had to deliver the rest of the news. He had never thought he would see the day where a member of the royal family carried on with a bunch of traitors and witches. Then the gossip had come from Salano and not far behind it the guilty parties.
"He says Miss Dielle sent him and told him that he must give the message directly to you."
"This man, is he tall with auburn hair?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
"Calls himself Kingsley?"
"Yes, Your Highness." A hint on confusion showed though the butler was quick to cover it.
"Good. Show him in."
This came not from the butler but from Lieutenant Vincent, one of the Cyneweard officers assigned to the prince's personal guard. The prince gave him a blank stare and the lieutenant leaned his own cue stick against the table before crossing his arms.
"You Highness, you don't know if this is really one of the Dielle footmen, and even if it is—"
"Jeeves, I believe I told you to fetch this man," the prince said.
The butler bowed swiftly and hurried from the room, cursing the current state of the monarchy.
"Your Highness," Lieutenant Vincent said as the prince went back to their game.
"First, I doubt anyone would show up here out of livery pretending to be a footman. An imposter would make sure to get the uniform exactly right."
The was a clink as the cue hit the first ball and then a second clink as the momentum was passed on.
"Second, this is just the sort of thing Aurelie would do."
An orange ball rolled along the bumper before slipping quietly into a pocket.
"And you trust this girl," the lieutenant sighed. He knew his chances of winning this argument were about the same as his chances of having another turn before Prince Emory won. "Why this girl, why this one out of the entire kingdom? Why the one your father most objects to?"
"Well that's half the fun, isn't it?" the prince replied with the sort of impish grin that set ladies swooning. "And from that question I can tell you've never seen her. A form crafted by the gods to bring about man's destruction, she walks in beauty like something or other, all that sort of thing."
He waved a hand carelessly and shrugged.
"Very eloquent, Your Highness."
"I'm glad all that poetry I've been reading is paying off."
"You've courted women painters would kill for," the lieutenant felt it necessary to point out. "I doubt—"
"Sharp wit, acid tongue, knows how to use a sword, could break you in half with a flick of her wrist and two words, it's quite possible her father has tried to have various members of my family killed over the years; everyone likes a little danger."
There was another click and Vincent watched as yet another ball made its way to its proper pocket while the cue ball lined itself up for another elaborate shot.
"I would think you have enough danger in your life already, Your Highness."
"Vincent, the kind of danger I normally face involves unstable chandeliers and mad horses, not strawberry lips and low-cut dresses. I am a grateful support of whoever decided to lower necklines."
Lieutenant Vincent stifled a laugh and had to admit he saw the prince's point.
The door opened again to admit the butler, followed by a tall man in street clothes a bit finer than those of the average servant. He had a footman's deft movements as he followed the butler and slipped into a more deferential posture he stepped into the room but both the prince and the lieutenant had caught the glare and set shoulders of the man in the hallway. Neither would have wanted to face that man in a fight.
"Kingsley," Emory said pleasantly as he paused to chalk his cue stick. "What is serious enough to pry you from Lady Aurelie's side?"
The absolute lack of reaction was enough to make the prince think twice about what he said next. He knew the footman's true connection to the family and could guess what kinds of comments rankled most.
"I've a note from her ladyship, if it pleases Your Highness," Kingsley replied in measured tones and held a plain envelope out to Jeeves.
The butler took it and transferred it to the prince, who broke the plain seal with growing interest. He read through the scribbled note, squinting at some of the messy letters and then slipped it back into its envelope.
"Would you care to explain the meaning of this?"
"I'm sorry, Your Highness, I've no idea what Lady Aurelie wrote ye. She did not see fit to tell me."
Emory glanced over the table, took a careless shot and missed.
"Go ahead Vincent," he said before turning back to the footman. "Lady Aurelie has asked me to keep you in the palace until supper. She write that it's important."
Emory could almost see the sudden apprehension in the footman's eyes but it was so fleeting he thought he had half imagined it.
"Now do you think you can offer some explanation?"
Prince Emory could see the other man thinking. The footman stood almost immobile but he was working his jaw and his eyes had dropped to examine some point on the carpet.
"I cannot," he said after a moment.
The prince heard something that was definitely not a snort from behind him. Certainly it couldn't have been because Lieutenant Vincent would never be so rude and certainly the palace footman wouldn't dare. Prince Emory could see the impatience waiting to explode from the palace butler but he thought it could wait another moment. He thought he could see something else forming on Kingsley's mind.
"I cannot tell ye," the footman said in measured words that seemed almost painfully voiced, "that it seems, she does not trust me not to speak to her uncle or the other servants."
This was the kind of insight the prince had been waiting for, though he had hardly expected these insights to come from Lady Aurelie's favorite footman.
"And I'm sure you cannot tell me what it is she is afraid you might say to her uncle?"
"It certainly is not to do with where her cousin may be." The footman shrugged. "She hasn't run off. With a man, to a man, 's'all the same."
"Lady Anne?" Emory said slowly, trying to fit the image of the dark girl to his idea of someone who would run off with a man. He couldn't do it. Though he could imagine her floating sedately off to kill something with a poisoned dagger. "Lord Farelle's daughter, Lady Anne Farelle?"
Kingsley returned a blank stare.
"Ah, stupid question. But why send you here, why not just keep you in the drawing room with her if you heard their conversation? And why are you out of livery?"
For a moment a flicker of annoyance showed beneath the footman's mask. The prince found it interesting and wondered what he was supposed to know, what he could possibly be missing.
"I cannot tell ye that my lady agreed to cause a distraction for her cousin's parents."
There was a snort from Lieutenant Vincent, who was shaking his head. The butler looked scandalized but the prince was thoughtful, almost as thoughtful as he looked when lining up his next shot.
"She would do that, wouldn't she," he said at length as the balls were knocking each other about on the table. "So she's out causing a scene? Ranting at the injustice of being treated like a dangerous sorceress and putting nobles in their places?"
He smiled wryly and looked for the next shot, missing the footman's expression.
"I certainly would never tell ye that milady has probably locked herself in her bedroom by now and will not come out til the morrow. Nor that the lovely ladies staying with her will be only a nuisance."
"Ah, so you take my view of them then?"
"I don't know your view, Your Highness, but ye could say that I take their view of ye."
The prince took his next shot and stood, all cold smiles. It was one thing to know certain people held an unflattering opinion of you and quite another to hear it voiced by a servant. There was a sound that was definitely not laughter form Lieutenant Vincent, even though it sounded remarkable similar.
"He's Opposition through and through," the lieutenant managed without much of a smile.
"No, he's a 'concerned party' worried about a young lady, which is ten times worse," the prince shot back. "They don't like me."
There was no reply.
"Well, what should I do?"
"To get them to like me. They are her friends after all."
"I—I'm not sure that she would wish them to like ye."
The prince had to pause again at that.
"I cannot explain, Your Highness."
"I'd appreciate it if you'd try," the prince said as he lined up another shot.
He missed Kingsley's shrug and the sympathetic look Lieutenant Vincent gave him.
"She is a girl," the footman said after a pause. When the prince frowned he added: "Have you met Lady Juliette Jujue?"
"Don't tell me Lady Aurelie gets jealous!"
"I would certainly never tell ye such a thing."
The prince regarded the footman while the latter continued to stare solidly at a point about a foot above and to the right of the prince's head.
"Been a long day, has it?"
The footman's eyes slid sideways and down a little but did not quite reach the prince. The prince grinned and turned back to his game.
"Well Jeeves," he called while focusing on his next move. "It would be rude to ignore the lady's request. I'm sure Kingsley won't be in the way in the servant's dinning hall. Make sure he gets a good meal."
The butler nodded imperceptibly to the prince's footman, who carefully replaced the stoppers on the decanters he had been pouring from before stepping across the room. Kingsley followed him out into the hall without another word and silently the door shut behind them.
"Your Highness," the butler began to say.
"Oh and find a couple pretty maids to keep him company," the prince added as he sunk another shot.
"Your Highness, the maids' time would be better spent—"
"He's a guest."
"He is a footman, Your Highness," the butler said in strained tones.
"Ah Jeeves, here's where you're missing an important point. He is a footman; in fact he is the favorite footman of a young lady, the young lady, that I'm interested in."
When there was silence the prince looked around.
"Do you see where I'm going with this, Jeeves?"
"I'm afraid so, Your Highness."
"Good. I don't want there to be any bad reports about our hospitality. Now send for my secretary and have the grooms saddle a horse. I have a note I need to send to my cousin."
The butler nodded and disappeared as silently and unobtrusively as he had first entered.
"What are you up to now?" Lieutenant Vincent asked as the prince attempted a trick shot.
He missed and the officer finally got another turn.
"I told you I was having my cousin put the Midwinter lights up again, didn't I?"
"Yes," Lieutenant Vincent drawled as he tried to select the best angle. "But you didn't say why."
"I think she'll like them but I need him to move them up a day."
The cue stick slipped and missed the ball completely, impacting on the bumper and bouncing back to hit the officer in the hand.
"What?" he said while shaking out his hand.
"It's all done with magic and she likes magic. And if her aunt and uncle are after her about their missing daughter she'll probably like escaping them as well. I'll need him to round up some people for dinner as well but it shouldn't be hard, he always has people over."
"What about us? I'm not about to let you ride off alone with the Dielle girl, especially not after you gave us the slip the other day! And if you haven't noticed the Dielles aren't particularly fond of the Cyneweard. Her sister was damn near homicidal whatever they say about it."
The prince grinned and hefted his billiards cue experimentally.
"I've got a solution for that too but I'd better use a real sword. It is tradition after all."
If the lieutenant was feeling apprehensive he did a remarkable job of hiding it behind a faintly annoyed frown as the prince drew his sword and flourished it. The prince tapped Lieutenant Vincent first on his left shoulder and then on his right while the lieutenant stood there, grasping his pool cue.
"Arise Sir Vincent of Meade, blah blah, appropriate words. Congratulations!"
"Did you just knight me, Your Highness?"
"Is that legal?"
"Probably not technically but traditionally you don't have to be king to knight someone, only a lord with a sword. And I believe this is a sword." The prince flourished the object in question again and the jewels studding the hilt glittered in the candlelight.
Lieutenant Vincent rubbed his chin while considering this. If you made it to captain in the Cyneweard you typically received a knighthood. But you also only made it to Captain if you were somebody's second or third son and the lieutenant had made it this far on wit, guile and the prince's favor. Birth was not his strong point.
"Sir Vincent," he said after a moment, trying on the name. "Are you going to knight the others while you're at it?"
"That's the plan. Why don't you go round them up. Then I'll need you all to find some shiny helmets."
"Preferably with feathers. I don't suppose you can ride while holding a lance?" the prince mused.
The newly-knighted Sir Vincent had a brief premonition of dread as he watched the prince's thoughtful expression.
"Of course, the trouble would be getting four matching lances on short notice. Maybe later."
Sir Vincent breathed out slowly, though he was still afraid any sudden movement might set off another mad idea.
"No, the helmets should be enough for now. And I'll have my four knights errant."
He chuckled to himself while the lieutenant walked towards the doors. The prince had always been something of a showman but this girl, this witch, was somehow making it much worse. If Vincent wasn't careful he'd find himself in a suit of armor in a fortnight.
Humming, the prince turned back to the billiards table and sunk his last ball. For fun he cleared the table of Vincent's as well and then turned towards the windows as his secretary arrived. There was a lot to do and time was running low.