Naturally he brings Johanna, who has failed the assessment. Rosa is still with me and my two relatives look down their noses at her, Johanna going so far as to insist the girl give up her seat to my cousin’s greater claim. I send Rosa a secret wink and she brightens, then shuffles sadly to another chair, just outside the circle.
Uncle frowns. “What’s that girl doing here? She’s not suitable company for you, Arianna.”
I fold my hands in my lap. “Rosa has far more practice in being a princess than I. Her mother asked me to let her visit and I’m happy to spend time with her.”
Uncle tuts at me. “You are so naïve, can’t you see the former queen is using her to spy on you?”
I choke on my laughter. “A seven-year-old child? Matters must be dire indeed. However, you’ll be pleased to hear, that even at seven, she has passed all the assessments set for my attendants.”
Johanna goes red. “The tests were stupid. Family is far more important.”
I smile. “Indeed, which is why I am obeying my father. If you failed the challenges put to you, cousin, I cannot consider you for a role in my household. Or would you have me thumb my nose at the king?”
Uncle tries for diplomacy. “I’m sure you could persuade him. After all, you’re here, on your own, in a strange place, it’s only natural for you to want a friend beside you.”
I put my head on one side as I consider him. Time for the gloves to come off. “And when has Johanna ever been my friend?”
He turns purple and I raise my hand to silence whatever he’s going to bluster out next. Astonishingly, it works. “Enough. Johanna will not be happy as one of my attendants, she’s already proved that. If she wishes to become one, she may approach me again after spending a year in study and self-improvement. If she doesn’t, I wish her well and will acknowledge her when we meet in public.”
Uncle stands muttering about snakes in bosoms, as if he ever cared about me beyond my stipend, he’s going to miss that now I’m no longer under his roof. I wonder if he’s realised.
I look at Johanna, sulkily rising to follow her father from the room. “One last thing, what is the name of the girl who questioned my parentage?”
My cousin looks at me, uncertain. “Lady Mary Lavande, she’s the Duke of Doughton’s middle daughter.”
I put on my thoughtful look. “Someone who’s used to thinking of herself as a leader of opinion then. I wonder if she’s been stupid enough to put herself forward for a role with me.”
Johanna’s eyes light. “She was in the assessments this morning, passed all of them, although the etiquette master had strong words with her at one point.”
“Ahhh, yes, and etiquette is so important, is it not Rosa?”
The girl responds. “Yes, Your Highness, Mama says it’s the core of effective politics.”
I think I’m going to learn an awful lot from what ‘Mama says’ in the coming weeks. Rosa is proving to be a treasure already.
Uncle and Johanna both start, they’d clearly forgotten Rosa was there. They allow themselves to be herded out by Mrs Pendred’s return and Rosa collapses into giggles as soon as they’re safely out of hearing.
I beckon her back to the comfortable chairs and ask Mrs Pendred. “How many am I to interview tomorrow? And how many am I expected to select?”
The housekeeper replies. “You shall interview ten and select three.”
I’m going to need more information, now who to ask? I start with the long-time servant to the palace in the room. “In confidence, who would you prefer I select, and who would you prefer I absolutely don’t?”
Mrs Pendred looks surprised but it doesn’t take much coaxing to reveal her opinions. She sees far more than I ever will of this place, which reminds me. “And of the acceptable candidates, who is most likely to bear me company, should I be summoned to the High Kingdom?”
It’s more than likely if what they say about my mark is true, and I believe some young ladies are actually fond of their families and homes.
That creates a thoughtful silence, before she finally says. “I can’t say for certain, it’s not a thing I, or I believe they, will have considered.”
So, something else to ferret out, along with attitudes to baseborn girls, tomorrow.
The next morning, I am presented with a set of files, one for each of the candidates I will be meeting over the course of the day. I skim through them over breakfast. They’re thorough and unemotional, although I do detect an occasional hint of sly humour. I would love to meet the person who wrote these, even more so when I realise each of them has notes on observed behaviour to subordinates, and a final, slightly scribbled note, on their attachment to their current state. Someone had a late night, or very early morning.
I look up as Mrs Pendred directs the maids in setting up my sitting room for ‘comfortable chats’ over tea. I’m going to be doing a great deal of false sipping today.
When I catch the housekeeper’s eye, I say. “Please thank the author of these documents for me. They’re invaluable.”
I’ve pleased her in some way, she nearly smiles as she tips her head the merest inch and says. “Of course, Your Highness. Are you ready for your first meeting?”
I move to the chair she’s had set for me and put the pile of documents on a table beside it, conveniently out of sight of anyone entering the room.
I sit straight, fold my hands in my lap, and reply. “Let the games begin.”
The first girl is forgettable, nice enough but so eager to agree, I fail to find any personality in her. When she leaves, I move her report to the back of the table, she’s a ‘maybe’.
The second one, Lady Genevieve of somewhere-or-other is a delight; sweet, fun, clever, and as honest as a courtier can be. I’m strongly inclined to offer her a role immediately, until she starts talking about her family. She is deeply attached to her siblings and parents. A pity. I debate over her file, then tuck it to the bottom of the main stack, that is where I’ll keep the ones I’m most like to ask for.
The third interview is as forgettable as the first, and I’m allowed a pause, as the next set of lambs are herded into the anteroom. Rosa skips in from the outer room, where she’s been ‘reading’ in the window seat.
“All of them were nice enough. Lady Genevieve was the only one who spoke to me, and she’s funny. One of the others patted my head and said I was a good girl and told the other one it was so sad that I was there, without Mama.”
I ask her. “Are you sad without your Mama?”
Rosa shakes her head. “She’s always so busy, Nanny is the one who looks after me, and she’s been allowed to stay as my maid.”
We get the signal, the next group, four of them this time, are on their way. Rosa returns to her window and her book, and I look over the next set of names. One of them is the charming Lady Mary.
She is first through my door for this session. She’s not meant to be, but I’m happy to have our little chat early.
She sweeps in, and plumps herself down on the chair opposite me, saying. “I cannot believe that awful little former princess has been allowed to stay. Is she a terrible burden on you?”
I stare at her, icy cold and silent.
The footman at the door smirks behind Lady Mary’s back, then composes himself and steps forward, leaning down to murmur to her, slightly too loudly. “Protocol when meeting with royalty, Your Ladyship, insists you remain standing until invited to sit, you do not start the conversation, and you address the member of the royal family by their title.”
Lady Mary scowls, she’ll be useless in court politics, everything she thinks shows on her face. She rises stiffly, then sketches the worst imitation of a curtsey I’ve ever seen. “My apologies, Your Highness.”
I acknowledge her words and say. “Please be seated, Lady Mary.”
Then, I reach for the pile of papers beside me, and pull out her file.
She leaves ten minutes later, stomping out of the door in a manner I’m sure her parents would be appalled by, I drop her file on the floor.