Alec prowled across the room to the window on the far side, drumming his fingers on his leg.
An inner door opened and Janet came through with a couple of members of the kitchen staff, each bearing a laden tray. They arranged the contents on a side table, then Janet’s two helpers bobbed quick curtseys and scurried out of the room, whispering excitedly to each other even before the door had closed behind them.
“Tea and some food to keep you going. I’ve fancier fare coming up in around half an hour.”
Alec looked puzzled. “Are you a mind reader?”
Janet chuckled. “No sir, but your lady wife saw fit to fill me in on this afternoon’s likely activities and I saw a space where food might come in useful.”
“And so it is.” Lady Aurelia said. “And I’m afraid I’m about to send you off on a bit of a chase. Nathan and Kid are somewhere in the private quarters and I promised I’d send you after them with provisions.”
“Exploring are they? Don’t worry, I’ll track them down.”
Alec added. “There was talk of Kid choosing his bedroom. I’d appreciate it if you could persuade him to take the Blue Room.”
Janet nodded. “All’s I need to do is mention it was yours as a child and we won’t be able to get him out of it.”
Mellisande tugged Alec over to the food table. “Eat before you don’t have time. Janet, what are the kitchen staff saying of our arrival?”
“They’re all agog to see you. And while I didn’t say who the formal tea later is with, they’re all drawing their own conclusions and near on coming to blows over who gets to come up to serve.”
“Good. I want that news to spread like wildfire. The more people who know the princess is now socialising, the better.”
The maid smiled and made her way through to the apartment’s inner rooms with a loaded tray propped on one hip.
Alec sighed. “And now we wait. Aunt Aurelia, what would you like to eat?”
Fifteen or so minutes later, Janet reappeared, without the tray. “Took a bit to track them down sir, then neither of them could figure how to work the secret door between your sisters’ rooms. I left them having a picnic on the floor of the Blue Room, he’s very happy to be sleeping there.”
Janet nodded acknowledgement and began clearing the food away, taking the remnants through the same nondescript door as she’d first come through.
A short time later, someone knocked at the main door.
When he opened it, Alec found Lucas on the other side. On his arm was Princess Isolde. Immediately behind him, and blocking the access of the two Stromsmere guards, was the ambassador.
Alec bowed. “Your Royal Highness, it’s an honour, please come in.”
He stood back to let her and Lucas pass, then stepped forward again. He spoke over his shoulder. “My love, did you invite the ambassador as well as Her Royal Highness?”
Mellisande, having greeted Lucas’s companion moved to his side. “No. This is a female gathering, he will be terribly in the way.”
The ambassador drew himself up. “You cannot expect me to leave Her Highness unprotected.”
Mellisande looked him up and down, then met his gaze levelly. “Are you questioning the abilities and commitment of not only your guards, but my husband and His Majesty?”
“Your husband being someone I should care about girl?”
Alec’s smile was more of a snarl. “I’m so sorry, you haven’t been introduced. Lord Grimsmere, please be known to my wife, Her Grace, the Duchess of Northaven.”
The ambassador swallowed, Mellisande’s gaze turned deadly. “And now you’ve managed to offend both of us, I suggest you leave. The guards may stay, you may not.”
The Stromsmere guards, sensing an opening, shouldered past the fuming ambassador and sidled into the room. Alec closed the door behind them.
Mellisande said as she turned. “Funny, I thought he would have latched on to the presence of Alec and Lucas at a ‘female gathering’. He still managed to be offensive enough to dismiss though.”
Princess Isolde had taken a seat next to Lady Aurelia. She sighed and said. “It’s his ongoing refrain. He’s the only one who can protect me. He’s never actually explained what from, but it’s something of an obsession.”
Alec and Lucas looked at each other, then at the two silent Stromsmere guards. Lucas addressed them. “We may want to split your focus then, one of you in here, and the other keeping watch outside the door.”
The two men looked at each other. One of them nodded. “Yes. Asa will watch outside, I will remain here.”
Alec asked. “Do you want us to add a couple of our guards to your roster?”
The one who had spoken looked thoughtful. “If you would allow me to direct them in the small things, I would find the additional eyes helpful.”
Alec nodded. “I’ll get Nathan onto it, once he’s available.”
The silent guard saluted, opened the door and stepped into the hallway, bumping into the ambassador in the process.
The older man staggered back and glared. Alec coolly stared him down. “Ambassador, if you feel you can do a better job than trained soldiers, hand-picked by your king, I suggest you fetch a shield and sword and sign on for guard duty.”
He didn’t wait for a reply, but closed the door again. A short while later, a series of knocks came. The remaining Stromsmere guard nodded. “That’s Asa, the ambassador’s gone.”
“Good.” Alec finally walked away from the door, just as the servants’ door opened.
Janet paused, brows raised, at the faces staring at her. Mellisande smiled and motioned her forward. “Have you brought the tea?”
“Yes, Your Grace, and also to send Simon’s apologies. He was coming to give His Grace his daily report and correspondence but wanted to check on an unexpected development that crossed his path first.”
She stood back to let a number of servants through, bearing a wide range of delicacies. They arranged them on the same table as before, this time with noticeably more sideways glances and meaningful looks. Finally, there was nothing left to adjust and they flowed back out, whispers rising as the door closed.
Alec looked to Janet. “Did Simon give you any indication of what development he was checking?”
“He made a vague comment about ice in unusual places sir.”
“Interesting, thank you. Would you be kind enough to track Nathan down again and ask him to see to the selection of some additional guards for Her Royal Highness’s retinue? I’ll then stop interrupting your work.”
Janet suppressed a smile, curtseyed neatly and walked through the door leading to the suite’s private rooms.
The soldier looked after her, then cocked an eyebrow at Lucas.
“She’s Northaven.” Lucas said.
The soldier nodded, and seemed to relax a little. The princess, on the other hand, seemed to have grown more tense. Before she could say anything, however, voices came from the inner rooms.
“But Janet said there was chocolate cake and you said that was your favourite, and I want to tell The Lady about my room.”
Kid ran through the door, then scrambled to a halt, staring at the two visitors with wide, frightened eyes.
Princess Isolde gasped. Her eyes, as dark as Kid’s, darting between the child’s rigid form and the equally rigid stance of her remaining guard.
Alec moved to stand beside Kid and held out a hand. Kid gripped hard and gulped.
Lucas, watching the frozen group, snapped in exasperation. “For pity’s sake Rodin, get rid of the glamour and tell us what happened.”
The guard turned wary eyes on the king, then shrugged, nodded, and reached under his jerkin. He took out an amulet on a simple leather cord, then pulled it off over his head and threw it onto a nearby table. He turned back to gaze at Kid, now through eyes as dark as his sister’s, set in features that clearly showed how Kid would look as an adult.
He replied to Lucas. “Shouldn’t it be you telling me what happened?”
Their stand-off was broken by a wobbly little voice. “Papa?”