At His Majesty's Pleasure Ch. 14

bylady_temily©

Inside, however, she was deflating a little, her cheeks beginning to strain from the exertion of constant bright smiling. How much longer...

Were there actually hundreds left...

Why couldn't they leave their parcels at the doorstep...

Her hand in her husband's upon the table made for a perfectly loving gesture on the exterior. As time passed, her smaller fingers were actually beginning to twitch from the impatience. The King felt this restlessness, and gave her hand a playful squeeze. His smile was subtle, and his glance quite commiserating. At least the tedium of such ceremonies was something they could both agree on.

As he stretched out, she felt his foot brush across her slippered ones. He withdrew. But after another moment, he was back, teasingly nudging her under the table; as she gave way, he nudged more.

She kept her eye politely focused on the current giftbearer at hand, but she pinched a few of his fingers lightly in retaliation. Her own slippered feet were at first hindered from moving of their own accord, what with the layers upon layers of silk already impeding their way. With enough time (of which there was plenty) and patience, she finally managed to dig her heels out from under the heap of wedding skirts and nudge him back.

There was a familiar tittering in the middle distance, something like a shrill "Oh ho ho ho ho!" in flawless harmony with the more masculine (and also familiar) "Ho ho hoho!" Alais stared past the bloodstained grounds where she spotted the esteemed relatives of both royal parties undergoing blithe fraternization. Well, at least Boris had found an eager recipient of his attentions in the Duchess of Toussaint. Good for them.

The procession of the gifts continued with the same monotony as before. There was a glimmer of macabre curiosity with the presentation of a vial of blood (apparently some age old tradition), but even that was quickly drowned out by the heap of conventionality otherwise. Meanwhile, the King's foot continued to play with hers, alternately pushing further into her space and then rooting against her efforts to pull him. His object seemed merely to be contrary - pressing when fended off, retreating when being drawn. Now and then, he managed to hook her ankle and trap it against her chair, which seemed to entertain him the most.

They must have suffered through the bulk of the noble houses by now, and the end of the line was finally in sight.

"Almost done," the King murmured into her ear, as a particularly nervous lordling scurried off, having deposited a collection of ivory bracelets. "It'll be my council of High Lords next, and then royalty."

The very first of the High Lords, however, was no stranger; Ethan smiled at them both as he approached, dipping in a brief bow. "Congratulations, Your Majesty. A decisively-won blessing," he said, with something of a humorous cadence. "Woe to those who would trifle with your marriage."

"Oh, but who would trifle with love?" said the King, with a smirk.

"Yes, true," said Ethan, good-humored, as usual. "I can't begin to comprehend the number of gifts that have been thrown at you, so I'll keep this mercifully short. Here." He produced what appeared to be a small chest, oaken and polished to a sheen. As he laid it on the table, he undid the silver clasps, opening to reveal a miniature chess board - with each piece carved of intricate marble and pearl. "A secret tip with this set - the pawns are particularly good for spinning."

Alais's smile turned more sincere. "Thank you," said she, observing the procured board. This one, she actually had a mind to keep. "I wouldn't be as I am without your wisdom."

She removed a pawn from the well-polished chest, and spun it experimentally. "In fact, I think I might have actually tried running away." She said this jokingly enough, prodding that dear husband of hers underneath the table again.

Ethan's smile had a way of seeming quietly sincere. "Well, I'm glad we averted that crisis," he said, echoing her tone. "I'm sure the King would have been inconsolable, and the Gods know we couldn't have that."

"'Inconsolable' is one way to put it," said her husband, lightly.

Acavalier and roguish-looking man followed after; she noticed he and Ethan shared looks of disapproval as they walked by. The man was dark-haired and tall, and his gait could have been described as a thinly veiled swagger, even as he approached the most venerable high table.

"Roderick," the King greeted, with casual familiarity.

"Majesties," Roderick returned, slanting in a passing bow. He eyed both monarchs in equal parts, with his gaze upon the Queen somewhat more circumspect. "Lord Commander Roderick, always pleased to serve." He was yet to even finish his introduction before hooking a thumb in his belt and snapping his fingers at a duo of slaves.

Together, they presented a pair of twin daggers resting velvet pillows. The blades themselves were curved in the shape of exotic crescents, but it was their hilts which may have given the more... prudish of their audience more reason to wheeze.

Both were carved in the forms of nude women, their gold and bare breasts protruding obscenely from each handle (inlaid cut gemstones to probably represent the nipples). Each detail and curve surely had been crafted by one with acute knowledge of the female form. The blades themselves were tied with frilly pink bows, not evening managing to conceal the dried spatters of blood peaking out from underneath the ribbons.

Alais examined one that had been carried to the table with a critical eye. "These are certainly well made."

The King's reaction was to smirk. "Were these not the blades that you wielded in the Battle of Womerset?" he said, as if recalling a fond and benign memory - though the event he referenced was a bloody massacre, going by the rumors she'd heard. He picked up one of the set. "Recently used, hm?"

Roderick made a halfhearted attempt at appearing bashful. Naturally, this deceived no one - not even himself - and with it came the implication that he had gotten away with even crasser faux pas in the past. "Oh, could you tell?" He bowed his head in what sufficiently passed for a humble gesture, or the shadow of one, though a hint of a grin was equally at his lips. "How embarrassing. My deepest apologies."

Alais simply turned her half of the set in her hand. Even the poses of the hilts were lewd - but they were just sculpts, weren't they? After all that she had been through, she refused to be scandalized into shocked silence or whatever else was expected of her. "Does this mean I'll learn how to use these?" she wondered aloud, tugging again at the King's foot beneath the table. What with marks of congealed blood already there, wouldn't it have done the gift a disservice for them to end their long and possibly violent history as a wall ornament?

The King only laughed, not appearing to take the question seriously. Alais eyed the daggers, though, as they were passed down to where the all the rest of the presented gifts were being stored. There was likely a mountain of them piling up somewhere, possibly in a different chamber to keep things clean - she didn't know.

Following him was an elderly man who introduced himself as Archmagister Bastien. Though he walked with a cane, it could have been said that the sharp relief of the black walking stick made him appear all the more sprightly. "Congratulations," the greyed Maester intoned, his voice almost mesmerizingly resonant.

"Allow me to present a modest collection of tonics, for the preservation of Your Majesty's health." Bastien waved in a portable chest of vials - each filled with a brightly colored liquid demarcating one from the other. "Note that the ones of viridian hue are meant for the promotion of fertility," he added with a meaningful incline of the brow.

Alais's fingers shifted just slightly, but she remained outwardly calm.

Next was a Count Stevron, Master of Law, a slender man of moderate height, somber countenance, and stern blue eyes. His offering took the combined efforts of three grown men: a towering treatise with a mammoth of a spine, the length of its pages spanning taller than it was wide. He pronounced it to be the laws of Obsivia, compiled together for her viewing pleasure.

The two remaining High Lords she was already acquainted with. Lord Bartholomew, as the Inquisitor, provided three figurines of legendary gladiators. And Duke Gavin produced a pack of small seeds for the rare dusk orchid, a gift that surprised her for its knowledge; few people knew she enjoyed gardening. But she supposed he was Obsivia's Spymaster.

This concluded the presentations of the council, leaving only royalty - a mercifully short affair. King Jehan introduced a lovely white mare, large enough that she suspected the same stock and breed that produced Alexander's own warhorse. Boris and Evangeline approached arm in arm, appearing delighted with one another. The former offered two caskets of what he assured were very, very fine wine; the latter a musical set including a silvery harp and a set of drums for accompaniment. Adeline's contribution was a pair of colorful silk fans, each painted with vivid colors and with a fine hand. They were beautifully rendered as they were, but also carried another utility - a snap of the wrist caused the protrusion of sharp blades. Alais quite liked this gift too, for while she was not particularly violent in nature, she always did have a fondness for ingenious hiding spots.

This finished, Alais sat back reflectively. The presentation of gifts was actually less interesting than the presentation of the people that accompanied them. Was it possible that one or more of them could become her ally? Was there any chance of turning them against their King? Ethan appeared inclined to help her and his principles diverged from his monarch, but she did not know whether that was enough to surmount the friendship between them. He and the Lord Commander appeared to dislike each other; perhaps a wedge could be driven there.

And there was the Master of Law - her brief reading made her think he was irate with the King's dismissive behavior. If the man did care enough about legality to present her with such a gigantic volume of laws, it was likely he had been perpetually disappointed by the King's flouting of them. As far as she was aware, the King made his own rules.

"I hope you don't think we're done, just yet," said the King, interrupting her inner scheming.

"I think that's everyone," said Alais, uncertainly. Her stomach sank with the possibility that there might be some second round. There couldn't be, could there?

"I haven't given you my gifts."

Oh.

The King snapped his fingers, and a slave approached the table with a covered plate. With a flourish, the dish was revealed, at the same time that a delicious aroma of vanilla and spice reached her nose.

"Look familiar?" asked the King.

She blinked down at the creamy pudding, perplexed - before realization hit. The pudding. The "state secret" recipe that she had jokingly pronounced to him on that fateful night in the gardens, after they'd concluded their card game. Half cup butter, two cups sugar, two eggs, three cups flour, eight ounces of dates, and two cups boiling water... Had he really -

"You remembered?" she said, staring. "All the way back?"

The King smirked. "Of course. What kind of King would I be if I did not commit important state secrets to heart?"

This was...strangely thoughtful.

"Now go on, have a bite," the King suggested.

Alais took the spoon to her serving, bringing it to her mouth. It was - good. Very good, even to her picky gourmet sensibilities. It might even be better than how the chefs had made it back in Vvaria; there was a hint of vanilla and a creamier consistency that did not compromise the basic favor and crusty goodness of the original.

She savored it for a moment, but at the same time felt the King's attention on her.

"Well?" he prompted.

He was observing her with a particularly sharp attention. Really, he seemed unusually invested, so much so that an absurd hypothesis popped into her head. "Did you make this yourself?"

The King looked taken aback, but his hesitation was all the confirmation she needed.

"You did!" she affirmed, surprised herself that she was right.

He laughed, that rare flash of embarrassment flickering over his features again. (Why did it have to be so disarming?) "I cannot hide from your observational powers," he said. "Yes, I confess it. Cooking...is a secret hobby of mine."

"Is it really?" She almost couldn't imagine it.

"Yes. But you must promise to keep it confidential. How could I maintain my credibility if it were known?" he said, with a quirk of his lips. Under the table, his foot nudged her playfully again. "Who would still fear me?"

"I think you'd find a way." But she was smiling too, if only because the revelation made him more human.

"Now that you've found me out, you owe me a verdict," added the King, nodding to her half-eaten pudding.

"It's good," she said. "Incredibly good, actually. And I promise I'm not saying that only to placate you."

His smirk grew wider, and he looked supremely pleased with himself. Shifting, he kissed her lightly on the cheek. "I thought so."

She was oddly touched, despite all the smugness - and it took a moment for to register that it wasn't even the product of her fake adoration. He had spoiled her before, but this seemed to go beyond what she had previously conceived of as a condescending type of pampering. That the King of Obsivia, so feared and dreaded by many, had prepared this dessert for her - well, it was at least a little endearing.

"That isn't all, of course," the King continued. He made a gesture.

A full procession of slaves began heading in their direction, each walking in paired lines and wielding a tray.

"You have demonstrated an attachment to certain items," said the King, amused, "so I thought you should have only more of them."

The first gift was a set of towels - decorated with elaborate stitches and artistry, and each folded into the shape of graceful swans. The second was a jewel-encrusted umbrella, and the third a unique deck of cards (that he hinted had a trick to them).

Alais couldn't help a surprised laugh. "Ah ha. You must be very proud of your sense of humor."

More slaves followed, bearing yet more gifts. To call this excessive would slander the word, as it rose to a different level entirely; then again, considering the extravagance he hoarded for himself, perhaps he considered this only fair.

There were the obligatory investments into her wardrobe - gowns of every make and style and fashion, some with laces and others with frills, some elegant and others gloriously whimsical. Accessories followed, everything from gloves to scarves to sashes to shoes. And that was to say nothing of the jewelry, which was a sparkling affair of gleaming emeralds and opulent rubies - most of which had probably been plucked from a collection of cherished family heirlooms that he'd casually pilfered. The quality and grandeur easily dwarfed similar offerings from his nobles, which may or may not have been intentional. Pick but a small handful of the jewels and they would likely feed the whole of a village for years to come. To contain all these new accouterments, he had also considerately gifted her a beautiful armoire, constructed of aged oak and behemoth size.

"Plenty of hiding space too," he quipped. As if he was merrily brushing aside what she had been hiding from.

More fanciful gifts were peppered here and there as well. Different candied treats and delicacies were provided, as well as truffles and an eastern drink of carnelian tea. Flowers too, from a wide variety of regions (mostly countries that he had conquered), that had been carefully potted and pruned for display - colorful azaleas and white lilies of the valley, and one arid-looking cactus. The theme of exoticism continued - perhaps for no other reason than to display his wealth and influence - in the choice of combs, quills, perfumes, and the occasional toy. By the end, it was a gluttonous blur.

So advanced the cascade of gifts worthy of a dozen Queens. While Alais liked to think she was not so easily swayed by general materialism and greed (womanly virtues and all that), even she had to admit the procession was something to be lauded, if not just for the carefully strategized way they had been arranged. How many rehearsals had been forced upon these stewards in the past week alone? All for this extravagant presentation meant for her - and her husband's ego, she carefully reminded herself.

As the King allowed her to examine a silver filigree compass, he waved over the last spectacle: a carriage of charming if extravagant make, painted all unblemished white and trimmed with elegant gold. It was pulled by none other than her favorite new mare (though decidedly smaller than her Scalyrian counterpart), Kumquat, who neighed gently as she pulled to a stop.

"All yours," said the King - looking, as always, quite satisfied with himself. He lowered his voice. "It comes with a secret compartment," he added, conspiratorially. "Since you like hiding things so much."

"So you've decided to encourage my foibles after all?" she teased, in spite of the implicit references toward that one day. What else were all these brand new hiding places for? The secret compartment in particular was exciting; however, its purpose felt just a little diminished for his obvious awareness of it.

A good dozen slaves followed in the wake of the carriage as well, all shaved and collared, heads lowered. They bowed deeply in her direction. Most were women, and some eunuchs.

"And these are also for your use," he said.

Her polite gratitude was a little more subdued with the approach of these newly gifted personal slaves, the more conscientious part of her suddenly reminded of Jasper.How many of these were once nobles? Did it matter at all, where they had come from? She inclined her head as they were shepherded aside, her cheek now leaning against her right hand.

At the very end of the parade was, however, a sight out of place - not a slave, but a young noblewoman with curly gold hair and wide blue eyes. As their eyes met, the woman gasped and began waving frantically.

Alais put a hand to her lips, at once recognizing her handmaiden and friend. "Bimba!"

Bimba rushed forward and up the large dais as quickly as decorum would allow, dipping into a curtsey before them. She hesitated before approaching the table, looking uncertain, but the King smiled magnanimously and waved her around.

Alais rose, quickly embracing her. "It's so good to see you," she breathed - and meant it. "I can't believe you're here."

"I couldn't think of being anywhere else!" declared Bimba. "When His Majesty sent word that I could still be your handmaiden here, I just about died from relief."

Alais felt a twinge of guilt as well as happiness. She worried that she was bringing Bimba into a realm of danger, here in Obsivia. But knowing Bimba, her handmaiden probably considered this an exciting and exotic adventure - and besides, they'd protect each other, wouldn't they? The more selfish part of her simply rejoiced. Bimba was her dearest friend - they had known each other since childhood and had rarely been out of each other's company since. She was also someone - unlike all of his subjects - that Alais could implicitly trust; to have a real ally at her side made her future trials suddenly seem less lonely.

"But that must have been only a few days ago?" Alais recollected. She'd requested Bimba's presence during their lake trip (and had then thought it unlikely he would oblige). "How did you arrive in time?"

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