In case anyone's wondering, I put these chapters up first on my livejournal. Then, I forget about them for a little bit before putting them on fictionpress. Not on purpose though. ;;
Anyhoo, here's chapter 13.
The banquet passes by in a blur. Dishes are laid out before him, revealed in all their steamy goodness, and whisked away in the next moment before he can even fully appreciate the sight. For a dizzying second, Cecil marvels at how quickly the nobles eat. Nobody back at the village, except maybe his sister, Robin, could match this speed. Truly their appetites are on an elevated level.
The next dish is placed on the table, the cover lifted away by a stony-faced servant. It's a plate of pork belly, each slice seared and browned perfectly, laid out over a bed of roasted peppers and onions. It takes only a second before Cecil can smell it-the savory sweetness of the onions. He can almost imagine biting into a piece, biting past that initial crunch into a soft layer of fat.
But before he can reach out, the dish disappears, carefully balanced on a servant's arm and carried away. Cecil sits back in his seat. Only then does he notice that none of the plates leaving are particularly empty.
He inclines his head towards the queen. The motion catches her attention, and she turns to see his raised eyebrows, and his glance towards the banquet table.
"Trust is hard to find in these halls. It's hard to forget your first poisoning," she says under her breath. Her face is set into a mask of polite joy, and Cecil is reminded of the king's features-that face so like his own, but unfamiliar in its cheerfulness. He wonders if the king's ever been poisoned.
Shifting a bit closer to the queen, Cecil twists the corner of his mouth to ask, only to have the queen's attention drawn away by another conversation. One about military expenses. There isn't any information current enough in any of the books that Victor has supplied him with; Cecil anxiously listens in on the conversation, but it never drifts his way.
The weight of the king's title hangs heavy on Cecil's head, but he feels like a strange, dusty thing, swept away and forgotten in a corner as people speak around him and of him, but never to him.
It is only when the banquet ends, and the Gilded Ballroom is being emptied of people, that his presence is acknowledged once more. The duke and duchess wave him farewell with their decorated gestures, and Cecil and the queen mirror them.
"I can not express my gratitude for your attendance," the duke says, shaking Cecil's hand. The other man is surprisingly stronger, and the handshake jerks Cecil forward a little. It feels like a breach of etiquette; Cecil's not sure if he should be offended until the duke murmurs in a low voice, "Forgive me, but I seem to have been mistaken about your character, Your Majesty. You are not quite the man I thought you were."
Cecil freezes, and he can feel the queen's scrutiny once more. Doggedly ignoring her pointed look, Cecil ducks his head and asks, "Is that good?"
Duke Franz rocks back on his heels, a thoughtful expression on his face. All Cecil receives, however, is a cryptic laugh.
As they leave, it's no surprise when the queen curls her fingers, one by one, around Cecil's upper arm. To Victor watching from behind, it must look like an intimate gesture-the queen pressing closer until Cecil can feel her warmth through the countless layers of fabric between them.
However, when Cecil glances down at her, there's a tightness to the queen's practiced smile, this tension in the wrinkles around her mouth. The way her nails dig into his flesh through her gloves isn't particularly painful, but he's sure that once she releases him, there will be imprints left behind.
"What did he say?" she asks.
Cecil blinks in confusion, then suddenly understands. "The duke? He simply said that I was not the man he thought I would be."
He jumps when the queen curses under her breath. "Clever bastard," she mutters.
The queen shakes her head. "I doubt he knows the whole truth. It is too fantastical to guess that His Majesty would procure such an exact look-a-like for himself. No, I suspect what the duke has in mind is that you are not who His Majesty claims to be."
"Or that the king is not who he claims to be?"
A little bit of the tension goes out of the queen's smile. "You could say that. It might cause some complications the next time Duke Franz meets His Majesty, but we can only hope the duke will be too preoccupied with his marriage for that to happen anytime soon. Thankfully, no one else seemed to notice anything."
"But you have me," Cecil says. To the queen's perplexed look, he adds, "Is that not what I am here for? To replace the king for such occasions?"
It's the wrong thing to say, from the flicker of anger in the queen's dark brown eyes. She turns away before Cecil sees too much. Despite that, her voice comes out as eloquent as ever, "His Majesty may have decided such a thing, but I can not approve of it."
Cecil grits his teeth together, looking back at Victor to give him a derisive look. The latter has been silent the whole while. But when Cecil meets his even gaze, he finds himself quickly turning away.
"I can't replace His Majesty, then?" Cecil says, half to himself. Then, laughing a little: "And here I thought my speech was good enough."
The corners of the queen's smile curl up into a smirk. "Oh? A speech so naively optimistic?"
"Ehh, not so good after all?"
"Better than anything His Majesty would have said."
Victor's presence heavy on his mind, Cecil doesn't say anything, but he can't help but snort. It's all too easy to imagine the king lazily getting to his feet in a haphazard swaying motion and toasting to the sanctity of marriage, all the while giving a speech so insincere in its cloying sweetness.
As he dwells on the image, he barely notices that they have moved into the royal quarters, and that Victor has shut the decorated doors behind them. Cecil barely notices how the queen's gone stiff at his side, nor does he see the fourth person in the room with them.
What catches his attention is an overly familiar voice, a single "Ah."
Wide-eyed and bespectacled, dressed in a wrinkled tunic with a stained sash tied around his waist, the king stands in the middle of the room, looking over the three of them. There's no trace of sheepishness in his easy smile, and even his wide-eyed expression, the only hint of something that could be mistaken for guilt, quickly relaxes as his eyes narrow in amusement.
"Cecil," he says. "It's been a while. My fault, really. I should visit more often."
Cecil can't find an adequate response. Meanwhile, the queen slips the silk glove off of her left hand, daintily. One finger at a time. Clutching the fabric in her right hand, she purposefully strides over to the king, rears her ungloved hand back, and slaps him smartly across the cheek. Cecil's jaw drops; Victor visible flinches. But the king hasn't moved a bit, and the placid smile doesn't drop from his eerily cheerful countenance.
"We had an agreement," the queen grinds out from between clenched teeth. She still has not dropped her left hand; it hovers unsteadily by her cold eyes.
The king brings a hand to his cheek. It is beginning to turn a faint shade of red. "Ah, yes. You make the decisions while I show my face. Have I not honored it?"
For a moment, the queen's features twist in a perplexed frown.
"My face," the king continues, reaching out to clamp a hand down on Cecil's shoulder. Never before has the sovereign's grip on him felt this heavy, this oppressive.
"I showed it."