Moira spoke up, with an assessing look at the two of them.
“A simple dress suitable for dinner with royalty isn’t going to be easy to come by. The tailors say your measurements are close enough to Lady Areliana to manage in a pinch. I may be able to trade with her personal maid for an older dress – she has dozens – but she’s going to want an exclusive piece of gossip in return.”
Sariya mulled things over, “Gossip specifically for her mistress, or for another audience?”
“Oh other servants milady, Her Ladyship isn’t the most astute and her maid is often more a nanny than an informant.”
Marcus gave an evil grin, “Tell her to keep an eye on the dragons tomorrow night, of course you’ve been sworn to strict secrecy and don’t know the details but something is definitely up and it’s going to come out at the ball tomorrow.”
Moira considered it and grinned in turn, transforming the prim and proper maid into a clear force to be reckoned with.
“Very good Your Highness, I’ll be back shortly, so don’t misbehave.”
Sariya burst out laughing at Marcus’ affronted expression and steered him towards the food tray.
Moira was as good as her word, returning about twenty minutes later with not one, but three dresses.
“Too plain and unfussy for Her Ladyship, never been worn. Her maid was glad to get rid of them and is already staking a spot in the gallery with the best view of the dragon perches.”
“Now, into your room milady, the tailors are right behind me to clean up and I don’t want them getting distracted with new ideas.”
Sariya allowed herself to be bustled through the door, with a parting “Be nice”, to Marcus.
Samuel announced the return of the tailors shortly afterward and Marcus retreated to a window seat to allow them clear access to the mess.
Sunk in thought, he blinked in surprise as a tailor appeared beside him and diffidently cleared his throat.
“Begging your pardon Your Highness, but I was wondering if you you had any preferences for the Lady’s wardrobe.”
Marcus snorted, “I like whatever Sariya wears because it’s her wearing it. I’m sure she would have told you her preference though.”
“Well, yes, but they’re not in the general fashion just now.”
“Let me guess, she prefers simple, clean lines and rich, bold colours, rather than frills, lace and pastels?”
“Yes sir, it’s most unconventional.”
“Good, maybe she’ll set a new fashion and the court ladies can let go of the idea of looking like ambulatory Christmas trees.”
“Never mind, obscure cultural reference. Just follow Sariya’s preferences.”
The tailor nodded uncertainly and merged back into the flock circling the room.
Finally the room was cleared and emptied of busybodies. Moira poked her head through the connecting door, then stood back to let Sariya through. The dress was a soft green and relied on the fall of the full, brocaded skirts for ornamentation rather than frills and lace. The neckline looked unusually plain for a court dress and Sariya shrugged when she encountered his gaze.
“It had a frill that made me look like one of those Australian lizards, so we removed it.”
Moira humphed, “Never seen such a lizard as you described milady but I’ll work on paring down the other two dresses this evening.”
Marcus smiled, “Thank you Moira, you are a miracle worker.”
The maid flushed and retreated to Sariya’s room in pleased confusion.
Marcus offered his arm to Sariya and led her from the room, Samuel in tow.
“Very good timing, dinner is being served in a meeting and dining room just down the hall. We’ll be there in time to get settled before my parents arrive.”
“And now I’m nervous again. Where are the dragons?”
“Spying on the supposedly secret preparations for the dinners I’m not attending. They’ll likely be by with updates throughout the evening.”
With that, he opened another door and ushered her into a well appointed room, with a dining table in one half and a comfortable arrangement of sofas and chairs in the other.
As predicted, soon after they had settled onto one of the sofas, Samuel announced the King and Queen.
Sariya stood and stepped forward, nervously squeezing Marcus’ hand.
He squeezed back and whispered, “Relax, they already like you.”
And so it seemed. The royal couple barrelled into the room, wreathed in delighted smiles. The Queen beat the King in the race to Sariya, who found herself engulfed in a warm hug.
The Queen pulled back and looked Sariya over, holding both hands, “Oh but aren’t you lovely as well. My dear we can’t tell you how grateful we are to you for rescuing the gemscales.”
“And our grumble-pot of a son”, The King had arrived by this time and, hampered by his wife’s refusal to move, settled for a peck on the cheek.
Sariya blushed and mumbled something incoherent.Marcus intervened before she could dive too much further into awkwardness and herded everyone back toward the sofas.
A waiter appeared, providing drinks, but as soon as they were starting up a conversation, a harassed-looking Samuel sidled in the door, shutting it hard behind him.
“Begging your pardons but a footman came to collect His Highness for a dinner engagement. I told the man he was already at a family dinner, but now he’s back with Lord Cragmore demanding admittance.”
The entire royal family frowned and the King spoke, “Thank you Samuel, please admit His Lordship, but do keep the door open, he won’t be staying long.”
Samuel opened the door to a large, red-faced man with a deep scowl and too much jewellery.
The seated party looked over at him in silent question. When that only elicited a deeper scowl, the Queen addressed him.
“Well Lord Cragmore, would you care to explain this intrusion on a family dinner?”
“That boy is meant to be having dinner with my daughter. This is an outrage.”
“That ‘boy’ is your crown prince and future ruler, I suggest you remember that Ivo.”
The King achieved the perfect blend of mild reproof and deadly threat.
The Queen turned to Marcus, “Did you turn down or ignore another invitation to organise our dinner?”
“No mother, I’ve had no invitations to dinner, or any other events of any kind for this evening. That’s why I felt comfortable in sending you and father my invitation last night.”
The King joined in, “So how is my son supposed to be at a dinner he wasn’t invited to?”
Lord Cragmore retreated into bluster, “The whole castle knew about it. He’s just being contrary.”
Marcus took his turn, “I do not attend social events created by rumour and servant’s gossip. If your daughter had been polite enough to send me an invitation, she would have known I had a family dinner already arranged and would be unable to attend.”
“A family dinner with some jumped-up peasant girl from gods-knows what dung-sunk village you’ve been gallivanting to.”
Sariya burst out laughing at that, “A dung-sunk peasant, oh that is priceless. I can’t wait to tell my parents that one.”
Marcus joined in, finally turning to the bewildered intruder with an explanation, “Her father is a highly decorated and high-ranking military officer in her home country and her mother is an equally revered foreign diplomat.”
Lord Cragmore was thrown off his course enough that Samuel was able to chivvy him out of the room with little more than a token protest.
Sariya caught a glimpse through the open door of a positive gaggle of open-mouthed servants. As Samuel closed it behind himself and Lord Cragmore, they all took off in various directions.
Marcus, following her gaze, smirked in satisfaction, “That should take care of any further interruptions.”
The waiter popped his head through the other door, “Is it safe sir?”
“Yes it is, and thank you for your rounding up of that pack of gossips.”
“Wasn’t hard sir, most of them have been hovering in the area all day. I’ll tell chef you’re ready for dinner.”
They were halfway through the main course when Mav and Rory arrived, incandescent with mischief.