The following day, we set off. The trip is uneventful, other than Johanna’s tantrums. It’s perhaps unfortunate her fiancé is part of our travelling group. By the time we reach the Royal City, Johanna is no longer betrothed. Her intended informed Uncle, at a dinner in front of all of us, that he wished for a wife, not another squalling brat, and left the inn that very moment. Johanna was poised for another tantrum, a truly epic one if I’m any good at reading the signs, but Uncle cut the rug from under her, turning to her with a glare and informing her that if she continued acting like a spoiled child, she would be sent home, and confined to the nursery until she learned to behave like a young lady of breeding. Then came the clincher. “Even Arianna behaves better than you.”
I thought she was going to choke on her own tongue. She didn’t, more’s the pity, but she’s been sweet as autumn apples ever since and watches me like she’s never seen her own cousin before.
For someone who’s barely been beyond our estate’s market town, the Royal City, and the palace, are an assault on the senses. They’re loud and large and simply too much. I’m relieved propriety has dictated I travel in a carriage, rather than on horseback. I’m sure I would have taken a tumble if I’d had to handle a horse as well as those streets.
We pass the entrance to the Garden of the Sacred Springs and I see Zarn’s house. I want to check my key, carefully hung around my neck, small and pretty enough to serve as a necklace, but Johanna is watching me, so I continue to watch the people and buildings passing us by.
When we arrive at the palace and the carriage does not stop at the grand front entrance, Johanna draws a breath, she’s about to start shouting again. I remain, sitting quietly, watching the activity out of our windows. She eyes me and shuts her mouth again. I suppose wonders do still happen.
We clatter through a wide arch cutting through the side of the building into a quiet courtyard. The carriage draws to a halt and a minute later the door opens. A man in palace livery is there, bowing. “This way Honoured Ladies.”
Johanna pushes past me to exit the carriage first. She steps down, shakes out her skirts, then shrinks a little in the face of the unremitting disapproval on the faces around her. Another man offers me his hand, I place mine on top and slowly descend, inclining my head in thanks as he bows and steps back. Johanna’s gone red.
The man who assisted me bows again and indicates an open door. “This way, if you please, Lady Arianna.”
I nod again and began a slow walk in that direction, giving those around me time to move around us, and give me a clue as to how I should proceed. Johanna scurries after me, catching up and yanking my arm into hers. “We should walk together, cousin, so neither of us get lost in this place.”
I reward her with a vague pretence of a smile, and we’re met at the door by a stern-looking woman, who raises a cold brow at the sight of Johanna’s death grip on my arm. She makes no comment, beyond a request to follow her, and so we do. The woman sets a good pace, not so much that I’m discommoded, but Johanna is flushed and out of breath by the second set of stairs and whining about being stuck with me in some dusty back-corner of the building instead of with the interesting people by the end of the fifth corridor.
The woman leading us finally deigns to comment. “Lady Arianna, if you wish to dispense with your companion in favour of a lady of the court, the girl can be relocated from the family wing to the outer apartments to join her father.”
Johanna chokes, and pinched her lips together, I reply. “Thank you, I’ll keep her with me for now. A little familiarity in a strange place.”
That earns me a pinch-lipped smirk. I’d heard my Uncle and his get were not overly popular at court. It seems to be the truth and the servants are enjoying having the upper hand.
Johanna nearly cries when we finally reach what are apparently my apartments. They’re luxurious beyond anything she’s ever seen, far above Uncle, or her aging former fiancé. She’s never like to be content with less now, a pity since she lacks the dowry and beauty to marry so well. Suddenly, I’m her ticket to a life she doesn’t want to leave and I can see in her face that she hates it.
She’s given a secondary room, still far better than her rooms at home, but a pale comparison to the indulgence I enjoy. She’s going to try and bully me into swapping rooms as soon as the woman who brought us here leaves. She’s not given the chance. Instead of leaving, the woman brings more servants in. Porters with our luggage, maids to unpack and present the various items in mine for her inspection, most are rejected. Then the seamstresses arrive.
It seems my desultory wardrobe has been anticipated. There are armoires full of half-finished gowns in the dressing room, all awaiting my arrival for final fittings and adjustments. Johanna is ignored, and when she makes some plea for something suitable for her role as my companion, she is swept up by a pinch-faced man in puce satin who begins to drill her on court etiquette and manners.
As I’m helped out of my fourth dress, the man reports back. “Lady Arianna’s tutors were correct, the girl is astoundingly ignorant, and arrogant with it. Wholly unsuitable for polite society, as her elder brother proved last season.”
I had wondered why Cousin Geoffrey hadn’t returned to the palace this year. Now how to find out what the oaf did…
I couldn’t ask, that would be crass beyond imagining and I clearly needed to show myself to be the exception to my family’s ineptitude. I could ask another question though. “I’m afraid I’ve been so caught up in the excitement of my first visit to Court, I’ve lost track of the moon cycle. When is the next full moon?”
There, now they know that I know why I’m here.
The pinch-faced man replies. “Tis a week tomorrow. You’re to spend the intervening days brushing up on your Court studies and being assessed. With His Majesty finally acknowledging you, we must decide on suitable alliance partners you can be used to entice.”
The stern woman looks me up and down as she says. “She’s a pretty thing, with the kind of figure men go silly for, coupled with manners their mothers won’t abhor. If she proves as well-educated and informed as her tutors claim, we’ll be able to aim a little higher than the Chancellor was intending.”
The pinch-faced man nods. “Provided of course…”
I can’t help it. “Of course what?”
I manage to look suitably distressed and eager to please, and the man looks pityingly at me. “Provided you glow next week, and a ruler-mark emerges.”
This is an area no one has seen fit to educate me on. I exaggerate my already worried frown and twist my fingers together. “I don’t know what to do.”
That makes them look at me approvingly and they add ruler-marks and the history of the Sacred Spring to my study schedule. I find it hard to believe they’re making up all these elaborate dresses for me to simply sit and read, or listen, in solitude but it proves to be the case and I work out why in the first morning. These court gowns are passing complicated and take some time to grow accustomed to.
Johanna is sent to debutante classes in the main part of the palace. She’s smirking when she leaves, as she’s to become acquainted with the newly arrived noble girls and doubtless intends to make alliances based on her association with me. She returns in a temper. It seems her dresses, so new and leading the fashion at home, are dowdy beyond belief here, and she possesses none of the accomplishments these fresh little lilies simply drip with.
It seems there was a brief moment of interest when she announced her relationship to me, but one of the girls saw fit to whisper. “If she is the king’s daughter. What if Her Majesty is right?” and all the others gasped, and giggled, and turned away.
Johanna has promised to point the whisperer to me when the time seems appropriate so we can publicly cut her. If I’m the king’s daughter… All that horrible girl’s done is put my lurking worry into words. What if the queen is right, and I’m the product of a second misstep of my mother’s? I suppose that will be my fault too. If that’s the case, I’ll simply take my un-glowing, non-ruler-marked self and hide in Zarn’s house until he appears, then I’ll fret and fume at him until he takes me away. I may persuade the Chancellor to pay me to disappear first though.