They fall silent when I enter and stop just inside the door, my arms hidden beneath my cloak. Why should I make it easy for them?
Uncle huffs and blusters and orders me over to him. I obey the silent command from the throne instead. A path opens for me and I tread down it, still hidden by my cloak.
I curtsey when I reach the base of the small dais the throne sits on, using the movement to assess those surrounding the king. There’s the Steward, the Chancellor, and the man I assume is Prince Cornelius. The queen is lurking in the shadows behind, glaring at her husband and her brother. Her children are there too, glaring at her.
I rise, and the king does too, stepping off the dais to stand directly in front of me. He holds out his hand and I, being the docile and obedient daughter I am, put my right hand into it. He turns it, displaying my ruler-mark to those around us.
I watch him look it over, then he meets my eyes with a savagely satisfied grin. “Very well done, my daughter.”
Because of course I have control over whether I glow and what my ruler-mark is. It is nice to take the praise instead of the blame for once, so I drop my head in acknowledgement and say. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
He summons the Chancellor with a jerk of his chin, then angles my arm towards him. “Have this sketched and sent to the High King. While we wait for his reaction, have my daughter readied for formal presentation to the Court.”
He grips my hand and grins again before letting go and leaving the room. Unfortunately, that seems to be Johanna’s cue. She flings herself at me from whatever dingy corner she’s been lurking in. “There you are, I’ve been so worried!”
Uncle isn’t far behind her, all but shaking a finger at me. “Really Arianna, you should know better than to go running off like that. I hope I raised you to be a little more considerate of others.”
I’m saved by Steward Pendred, who inserts himself in front of Uncle, and peels Johanna off me with disdainful fingertips. “As I hear it, Princess Arianna wasn’t the one running off, which is why you are relieved of your duties towards her.”
Johanna begins to wail and Uncle splutters and fusses to the point of incoherence. All I can make out is. “Cousin…comfort…familiar…take her home.”
The Chancellor intervenes this time. “The Princess will, of course, need several maids in waiting. Your daughter may join the group to be assessed for suitability tomorrow. If she is found to be properly educated and able to comport herself rather better than she has demonstrated thus far, she will be allowed to put her case to Her Highness on the day after.”
With that, he summons the Housekeeper, Mrs Pendred, and she bustles me off to bed. I think she takes great satisfaction in leaving Johanna behind. We both know my cousin won’t pass the assessment.
All in all, it’s been quite a satisfactory night. I just wish I could share the choicer moments, and my observations, with Zarn. I’m surprised he wasn’t at the house earlier, he knows when the full moons are and how important this one would be. He’d better have an acceptable reason for his neglect next time I see him.
The next morning the seamstresses arrive, again. I am to set a new trend at court of elbow-length sleeves. My father wishes my ruler-mark to be on display at all times. I will be able to discern a great deal from who follows that lead, and how quickly, so I go along with the plan happily enough.
As they’re packing up, and the court artist is scowling over a parchment sheet where a rendering of my ruler-mark is rapidly taking shape, a page appears at the door. “If it please you, Your Highness, Her Majesty, um former Majesty, would like to meet with you.”
Now here’s an interesting development. I respond. “I would be honoured.”
Mrs Pendred is attending me again, she frowns. “You can’t go to her, that would be most inappropriate. I’ll have tea sent to the Rose Parlour.”
The page gulps and hops from one leg to the other, he is very young. “She said she’d come to the princess, Mistress.”
I know Mrs Pendred’s goggle-eyed expression is reflected on my own face. I manage to stumble my way through an assent, then turn to stare at the housekeeper as the door closes behind him.
She shakes herself out of astonishment by calling for tea and shooing the plethora of maids and remaining needleworkers back to their tasks in other places. When the page returns to announce the queen, Mrs Pendred takes up a guard-like position just behind and to the right of the chair I’m sitting in.
I rise and curtsey as she enters. Even if she’s no longer to be our queen, she still is for the moment, and a princess of an important neighbour. She inclines her head in return and sweeps into a chair facing mine.
She doesn’t waste time. “You must be pleased with yourself.”
I shrug. “I’ve spent my life being blamed and scorned for something over which I had no control. I appreciate the change.”
She mulls this for a moment, then leans forward. “This is why I wished to speak with you. My children are now in your position and while the boys will be fine, Rosa will not. She’s a sweet child and I don’t wish to see this twist of fate crush her.”
Where is this going? I wait for her to continue and after a moment, she does. “We’ll be returning to my father’s home in two days’ time. I would prefer to leave Rosa here, if you will take care of her.”
Mrs Pendred answers for me. “Why do you believe your daughter will be any better treated here than under your wing?”
“Because she’ll be sheltered by someone who knows the signs, and who can teach my little girl to ignore or deflect the insults.”
Her smile is more bitter than amused. “We’ve heard stories, Princess Arianna, of how you’ve dealt with discourtesy. I particularly enjoyed the one involving the candle spike. Rosa needs your example if she’s to make something of herself when she’s grown.”
Mrs Pendred mutters. “And she’s likely to do that growing in the High Court, rather than here, given the aspect of Her Highness’s mark.”
She and the queen share a look of long-time allies, then both of them look at me. “I’d like to speak with Rosa first, find out whether we will get along. If we do, I’d be delighted to add her to my group of attendants and teach her the correct way to deal with ignorant young men.”
Rosa is brought immediately, and I find the queen is correct, she is a sweet child, and is looking sad and frightened. I ask her to stay with me, to help me learn my way around the palace, and her mother and Mrs Pendred add their support to the notion.
She twists a finger into the fabric of her skirt. “But people don’t like me any more. If I stay with you, they might be mean to you too.”
This child is far too sensitive for nobility, but I’ll teach her to build a shell, and learn who to trust. I give her my most evil grin. “I’m very good at dealing with mean people, would you like to learn?”
Rosa glances at her mother, who nods, then back to me, a small smile appearing. “Yes please.”
And so it’s settled, they move her into Johanna’s room that morning while Mrs Pendred plots with Pendred on the best way to inform the king of this development. He promises to see it done, and all but gallops off through the door.
Rosa and I have afternoon tea sitting on a rug on the balcony, a picnic and not at all the thing princesses do she tells me with awed delight.
She’s only seven, so I need to go carefully as I outline a plan for the following day, and the selection of my maids in waiting. I don’t want anyone who will treat Rosa with less than respect as, putting aside Rosa’s feelings, someone who sneers at her is secretly sneering at me as well.
Thankfully she finds my idea exciting, she loves the thought of being a spy, and I have to rein in her ever-wilder ideas for costumes and scenarios. We let Mrs Pendred in on the secret, she’ll make sure the young ladies hoping to enter my inner circle don’t get too nasty with the young former princess.
We’re interrupted by a message from my uncle, demanding I visit. I allow him to visit me instead, it’s so satisfying.