tagNonConsent/ReluctanceAt His Majesty's Pleasure Ch. 14

At His Majesty's Pleasure Ch. 14

bylady_temily©

Authors: Thank you, as always, for your lovely comments. They keep us going! And we're glad to hear that so many of you enjoyed Septimus! Don't worry, it won't be the last you see of him. :)

And for those of you who participated in the comment game by providing words for us, you'll see the fruit of the results in this chapter! We've used at one word from each comment. See if you can spot yours!

We hope you enjoy a slightly longer chapter!


***

In the aftermath of the glorious battle, the feast was duly served. And what a feast it was! The silk tablecloth was soon laden with dishes upon dishes of bountiful and exotic wares: herring pie, stuffed peacock, poached pheasant eggs, sage baked capon, slow roasted hares, full haunches of spiced veal, field mushrooms garnished with cheese - and that was only what was in her immediate field of vision.

Alais was no stranger to affluence, but this was extravagant even for royalty. She wasn't surprised anymore - the King seemed to enjoy his affluence - but she was a little remorseful that she'd been so greedy with the muffins before. They'd left less room for her to sample all these delicacies.

As they dined their way through the array of courses, she opted to listen more than she spoke. Those at the table were his closest family, honored to be seated with him; any observations she could draw might be invaluable.

Adeline continued to be amiable toward her, although her attention was primarily occupied by her children and her attempts at feeding them. Alais still did not know fully what to make of her - and how much of her kindness was feigned. That would not deter Alais herself from persisting in their friendship, though. There was little chance Adeline would be turned against her brother, considering their closeness, but perhaps the princess could be an advocate on her behalf.

Alais was able to make quicker work in the study of the princess' husband, the blandly handsome Duke Randall. Most of Randall's contributions to the conversation consisted of deferring to the King or pronouncing facts of common knowledge. He was quick to quiet whenever the King spoke and quicker to laugh when the King made some amusing comment. No, Randall did not seem particularly cunning, nor anything but a happy follower. But he seemed harmless.

On her other side, Count Gavin was the principal speaker; Boris had long forsaken the table in favor of a certain Duchess of Toussaint. Gavin appeared to be on close terms with His Majesty, for they conversed with easy familiarity - and though the King still controlled the conversation, Gavin was evidently not afraid to make a few good-natured quips about the excess of the wedding or the speed with which it had been conjured. Toward her he was charming and solicitous, quick to explain Obsivian customs or include her into their discussion. He had a way with sly jokes, too. She was disposed to think well of him.

The same could not be said of his mother.

"Out of curiosity, might I ask why you waited so long to wed?" intoned Countess Lucille, now seated next to her after the departure of Boris. She smiled thinly, into her goblet. "You certainly had no dearth of suitors."

Alais bit into a candied almond, and was pleased with herself for displaying no sign of insult or discomfort whatsoever. "What a curious question," she said, pleasantly. "The same could be asked of His Majesty."

Lucille's expression was claimed by a wide and unconvincing smile. "Oh darling, you needn't be evasive," she said. "I meant no offense, of course. Is it such a curious question? After all, men like to have their dalliances, whereas we do not have such license." She placed her hand briefly over the younger woman's, as if in show of solidarity. "And it seems you had your share of advantageous matches, hmm?"

"I think my mother is attempting to pay a compliment on your eligibility," said Gavin, with a wry smile. It was no such thing, of course, but she did appreciate his attempt at lightening the mood.

"Yes, I suppose," Lucille continued on, ignoring a look from him. "It must be very pleasant to enjoy the attention of multiple suitors. You can't be blamed for wanting to lengthen their affection for a little while longer." She gave Alais's hand one final pat and retracted it, drawing up her handkerchief to lightly dab at her slightly smirking lips. "Do not worry. We all grow out of such phases."

Alais peered at her for a moment. Perhaps the unsolicited inspection of her past dalliances should have insulted her. That would have been a little silly, considering her very virtuous and blameless husband likely hadn't hesitated one moment before inviting another woman to his bed. On the third night past their wedding. And yet it was she who was meant to feel guilt or shame for all those suitors who hadn't even the faintest hope, and never again, of spying a peep of skin beneath cloak and gown?

"Actually," she corrected, apparently happy to trade one vice for another (the latter being far more accurate), "it was more sloth than vanity. To be inextricably tied takes... a mental toll, I think. I had hoped to laze about for as long as possible."

She was smiling almost innocently now. "I think I can also understand the logic behind your theories - but I can't help but wonder, why is it that the husband, in your customs, is free to take as many mistresses as he like, while the wife must be beyond such reproach upon penalty of death. Forgive me for my ignorance. I'm still learning, you see."

Gavin coughed briefly, though she caught his expression before he concealed it - one of surprised amusement.

Lucille blinked, caught off guard for a moment in a way that seemed to irritated herself. She sniffed. "Oh, I quite agree," she said, airily. "The world can be very unjust. But nonetheless, it falls upon us women to be the paragons of chaste virtue. Oh - in Obsivia, I mean. I understand if foreign standards are...different. I confess that much of the outside world mystifies me."

"Not as much as you are mystifying our Queen, I am sure," said Gavin, with a quiet smile past his mother.

"Yes, it is easy to see how she might be confused," said Lucille. "It must be difficult to get a sense for all these new traditions - particularly if they so diverge from your own. And learning can be difficult for the - what was it, slothful?" She smiled, behind her lacy handkerchief. "But I wouldn't worry. Given enough effort, I'm sure you'll begin comprehending our customs, even if they might elude you now. And I assure you that any embarrassments are to be perfectly expected, and understandable."

The King shifted, next to her. He'd been preoccupied with a conversation with Randall (about the qualities of different swords, so it seemed), but he appeared to have overheard the gist of the other conversation going on besides him. "Yes," he cut in smoothly. "The Countess is exceptionally knowledgeable in our customs - she is wise, in all her years."

The comment was casual, but cutting; Lucille was not past her mid forties, and her frilly dress suggested that she aspired towards appearances of youth. Her expression took on a faint look of distaste. "It is not wisdom," she said, attempting to sound indifferent, "but merely - "

"You do not do yourself justice, dear aunt," said the King, interrupting again, with blithe rudeness. He set down a filled goblet for Alais, his smirk rather conspiratorial. "I'm sure Alais appreciates your advice - not all of it is outdated yet, I should think."

Lucille looked like she had come across a vaguely unsavory scent, and merely sniffed and muttered something inaudibly into her handkerchief.

"But perhaps all this selfless dispensing of wisdom has tired you," remarked the King. "You look unwell."

The Countess was surprised. "I assure Your Majesty that I am perfectly - "

"You look unwell," the King merely said again. A note of casual command entered his voice. "You will go rest now. It would be a shame if I had to worry about your health."

The entire table had quieted.

Lucille stared at him. Comprehension had dawned on her that this was a dismissal, and a look of utmost indignation was now painted on her face. But the King's smile looked dangerous, and she was evidently not fool enough to challenge him.

"May the Gods bless your marriage," she said, stiffly.

Rising from her chair, she obediently departed, in a huff of perfumed silk and ladylike displeasure.

Slowly, the conversation resumed again, though she could see some of the nobles at the other tables eyeing the empty chair with curiosity.

The King looked vaguely amused. "Not that you weren't holding your own just fine, but I would not have my bride overwhelmed with...wise teachings, on her very wedding day."

It hadn't occurred to Alais that her husband would have been inclined to interject to her aid and even go so far as to banish the offender. Was he merely annoyed on his own behalf, as it was his wife that the Countess had been slighting? Or maybe - just maybe - did he have some minimal sliver of care for her? There was an odd element of protectiveness in his dealings with her (protectiveness from himself notwithstanding). It was a fact that had gone unacknowledged - for the uncomfortable implications that she didn't entirely dislike his protectiveness, despite all the teasing complacency that accompanied it.

"Yes, best accustom myself with wisdom slowly," she returned. After a moment of hesitation, she added, "Thank you."

"But of course." The King glanced to his cousin. "No offense intended, of course. But I don't think she was enjoying herself here, in any case."

Gavin shook his head. "I apologize on her behalf," he said. "She is a good woman," he added, to her, "and usually in much better spirits. I hope you will not judge her on this meeting alone."

Alais thought this strange, for it made her wonder why Lucille might be so bitter in mood. "I always hope to reserve judgment," she answered lightly. "As long as the favor is returned."

A servant approached the King, looking uncertain as he bowed. "There is a...visitor who has just arrived, Your Majesty."

"I was under the impression that we were all accounted for," replied the King, dismissively.

The servant did not take the cue to leave, however. "The visitor..." His voice dropped as he bent forward, speaking in more hushed tones into His Majesty's ear.

At first, the King's expression remained unchanged. Then his eyes narrowed, his gaze finding the far doors. "What nerve."

He seemed to stew in his thoughts for a few moments, while the servant remained bowed next to him.

"Very well," said the King. "Send him in."

As the messenger quickly extricated himself, Adeline furrowed her brows in confusion. "What was it?"

The King leaned back in his seat. "You remember King Jehan."

"I was in Scalyria not a week ago, yes," said the Princess. "With all that horrid business about his coup - you were so concerned for my safety. How could I forget?"

"He's here."

Alais blinked in surprise at this revelation, and heard the murmurings of shock echo around her. The two kingdoms were technically at peace, though there had always been bad blood between Alexander and Jehan particularly.

Adeline tsked disapprovingly. "I thought his invitation was intentionally 'delayed,'" she said. "A clear indication as any that he was not welcome."

"What can he mean, to force himself somewhere he is not wanted?" grunted Randall.

"I wager that he was insulted by it," speculated Gavin. "Perhaps he thinks to assert himself."

"What a jackanape!" declared Randall. "No sense of propriety at all!"

"It explains his late arrival, at least," added Gavin, with more levity. "Actually quite impressive that he made it, considering the short time. Must be those famed Scalyrian horses."

The doors opened then, revealing the object of their discussion.

King Jehan was just as she remembered - a giant of a man, almost as big as Titus, with the brawn and muscles to match. As befit Scalyrian culture, he wore his hair in a long braid, and in both this and his beard were strung a gleaming number of beads and jewels. A heavy fur cloak was slung over his shoulders, probably as recompense for the colder climate here; contrastingly, his silk shirt was buttoned only halfway, hanging low enough to reveal some of his burly chest. There were other adornments on his person: bejeweled rings, generous heaps of necklaces, and the inky swirls of tattoos upon his hands and neck. His complexion was tanned and dark, which only drew more attention to the paleness of his blue eyes - a trait he shared with his deceased brother. Who, Alais was not quick to forget, he had apparently murdered to obtain his new throne.

As soon as he entered, King Jehan threw his arms up as if to greet them. "Ah! Your Majesties!" he said, his baritone voice easily carrying from the opposite side of the vast ballroom. "What an honor it is to be before you, on this most joyous day."

Alexander rose in greeting (though she noticed he took his time in doing so), and she and the rest of the royal table followed his lead. "It is you who honors us with your presence, King Jehan," he replied, though there was something wry in his manner of speaking. "We are pleasantly surprised by your arrival, after hearing that the invitation was delayed."

Jehan continued to stride up the length of the room, his entourage of courtiers and servants following close behind. Scores of eyes followed them, as the Obsivian nobles quieted and observed. "What are some odd leagues to a good horse?" he said. "No, I determined not to miss such an occasion."

When he was before them, he slanted the barest of bows, which Alexander barely deigned to return.

"Queen Alais - how lovely to see you again," Jehan greeted. "Princess Adeline - glad to see you are still well."

"Good to see you as well, King Jehan," said Alais, politely.

"Likewise, Your Majesty," added Adeline, with a sweet smile.

"The invitation was most unfortunately delayed though. Odd, isn't it?" said Jehan. "Delayed messages. An epidemic in times where the slightest hint of disrespect earns speculation and ire. For example, one might almost think I was not welcome." Here, he laughed, as if he had made some good joke, though the accusation was not dislodged.

Alexander smiled with him, appearing unruffled. "I had imagined you would have yours hands full," he pointed out, casually, "what with that recent revolution of yours."

"All the more reason for me to strengthen my diplomatic ties, no?" said Jehan. "We are no stronger than our allies - would you not agree, brother?" At the other king's look, he clarified, "Oh, excuse my manner of speaking. It is common in my culture to refer to one's friends as brothers."

"I am flattered you should think us friends," said Alexander. His tone toed an ambiguous line between sincere and mocking; it was impossible to tell which.

"Naturally," said Jehan. "Especially after both of us disposed of our real brothers, eh? All the more reason to find brotherhood among the more deserving." Bizarrely, it did not appear that Jehan intendedthis particular sentiment to be offensive; on the contrary, he actually seemed to believe that it might establish some genuine grounds for connection between them.

And, of course, it would ironically be the thing that did get under the King's skin.

Alexander's expression visibly cooled. "Prince Cassius is alive and well."

"He resides in a monastery," emphasized Adeline. There was a flash of concern obvious in her expression, when she looked at her brother. "By his own choice."

"Yes, yes, of course," said Jehan. He offered a sly smile. "Just like mine, you mean?"

Alais did not necessarily blame the foreign king; the fratricide was an established rumor, and only recently had she herself learned that it (most probably) was not true. But she also knew her husband was particularly sensitive on this note, and anything else that related to his family - oddly, one of his attributes that she did find human and relatable. She was deeply loyal to her family herself.

Alais felt the tense silence of the King next to her, and knew him well enough by now that she could predict a provocation or veiled threat was on his tongue. No one seemed poised to interfere.

...But she could, couldn't she? A queen did have a ceremonial role in attending to royal guests, or so it went in theory.

"King Jehan," she cut in smoothly, before Alexander could speak. She felt his eyes upon her, surprised, but she bravely continued. "You must be fatigued, after making such extraordinary time on your travels. And here we are, keeping you longer on your feet." She gestured invitingly to a front row of tables, which he might interpret as a seat of honor. "I'm afraid we've already made a right mess of the feast, but there is still food aplenty for you to replenish your energy."

She was momentarily concerned whether her direction would be heeded, given how well-occupied the front tables were. But the batch of nobles she happened to glance at seem to take this as a sign of command from her, and instantly rose and began dispersing from the table. Well - there was some advantage to being a Queen after all.

"My thanks, Queen Alais," said Jehan, with an incline of his head. "We would do well to take some sustenance. And not intrude more than we have, aha." She spied him looking at her consideringly, for a moment, before he and his retinue made their way to the seats.

Alais relaxed once the situation appeared to be defused, only to find the King still watching her. "What?" she asked.

His expression was strange. Was there actually a glimmer of respect in his eyes, or was it a trick of the light? "Nothing," he said. After a pause, however, he conceded, "You handled that well."

She had half-expected he would be riled that she had asserted herself at all; she had not anticipated praise. Why had she helped him, anyway? The thought gave her discomfort, until she reasoned that giving the appearance of aiding him was essential for her pretense. Right, right.

On the King's other side, Adeline flashed her a grateful smile of her own.

*

When they had all enjoyed the feast as much as they could, the plates were carefully cleared by the attending slaves.

"Now it is time for my Queen to receive gifts," said the King.

He gave no further instructions, but apparently the custom was settled enough that he did not need to. The lesser nobles approached first, gradually to form a snaking line that carefully skirted the mess left by the bride berserkers (still being meticulously scrubbed by a clump of slaves). None of their gifts were particularly out of the ordinary, and kept safely to what might be expected to present to one's queen - jewelry from most, books from those who wanted to appear erudite, and a few crafts from (purportedly) gifted artisans. There were one or two novelty items, like a set of delicate china and an odd collection of pearls said to bring luck, but most had not ventured to be original.

Few lingered in their presentation of gifts, only staying long enough to pay their respects and wish her well. This quickness would have seemed bizarre, had not the reason surfaced soon enough; on the off chance that anyone did pontificate a few minutes longer, the King would begin to drum his fingers impatiently, and the speaker would seem to quickly find it within themselves to finish their thoughts.

The unending flow of guests and superfluous gifts she accepted with equal decorum and gratitude. The demeanor of a perfectly sweet and conventional (alternatively, conventionally boring) queen seemed to flow through her veins, as she appeared to have a perfect answer to every perfectly conventional gift.

Report Story

bylady_temily© 101 comments/ 92396 views/ 68 favorites

Share the love

Report a Bug

Next
6 Pages:123

Forgot your password?

Please wait

Change picture

Your current user avatar, all sizes:

Default size User Picture  Medium size User Picture  Small size User Picture  Tiny size User Picture

You have a new user avatar waiting for moderation.

Select new user avatar:

   Cancel