At His Majesty's Pleasure Ch. 14


"It was such a near miss, Your High - I mean Your Majesty," said Bimba. "We took one of your grandfather's ships here and the coxswain almost steered us the wrong way! He was such a hufty-tufty too, absolutely convinced he had the right of it. But we made up for the time, and then I had them get me the fastest carriage and we rode day and night - oh, you won't believe how relieved I was when the castle battlements finally rose into sight. To have missed your wedding! The horror! And then..." She colored slightly, losing some of her excited energy. "Pardon me - I'm rambling, aren't I?"

"You wouldn't be yourself if you weren't rambling a little bit," said Alais, goodnaturedly. She hesitated, and added, "How is my family?"

"In good health," Bimba assured. "Your brother was a bit...worried for you at first, but he's calmer now. He and your grandfather send their best regards." In the same tone, without a change in her demeanor, she added, "They enjoyed your sketch of the canary in your letter."

Oh good, so they did get the secret message.

Alais wished to take her handmaiden aside so they could converse freely, but that would have to wait for a more opportune time. "You must be exhausted," she said, gently. "Are you sure you shouldn't rest?"

"Oh no," said Bimba, immediately. She did look tired, with subtle shadows under her eyes, but that did not seem to deter her at all. "I won't abandon you for a second time, Your H-Majesty! It was because of me in the first place that got you into..." She colored again, recollecting their surrounding audience. "I should very much like to stay by your side."

Alais understood her meaning - she'd been in the gardens on that fateful night because Bimba had had a tryst with a squire, and if it wasn't for that, the King would have never been able to complete his abduction. She shook her head though, catching her friend's eye to dismiss this claim of responsibility. No one could foresee such consequences. And knowing Bimba, the poor thing had probably been racked with guilt ever since.

"If you'd like to join us, you are welcome to have a seat," said the King, with a nod toward Countess Lucille's vacated seat. Gavin accordingly drew it out for her.

"Oh," said Bimba, surprised and also somewhat intimidated. "It wouldn't be proper, for my station. I can certainly stand with the other ladies-in-waiting."

"Nonsense," put in Adeline, with a kind look. "You seem as if you might fall on your feet if you stayed too long! Do sit with us."

Bimba swallowed and accepted the invitation, sitting down in a slightly nervous manner as she looked around her.

Alais turned to her husband. Part of her was still surprised that he had extended this favor. Clearing her throat lightly, she took his hand in hers and pressed there a soft and formal kiss. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

The King smiled. "I did say I would spoil you."

He had, but this seemed to go beyond merely satisfying his ego, as she had justified before. How did this benefit him in any way? If anything, it was marginally at his expense, by allowing her an ally among her ladies-in-waiting instead of making her rely on those loyal to him. He didn't need to do this, just as he hadn't needed to prepare that dessert for her...or dismissed his aunt in a gesture that resembled protective. Why had he, then? Could he actually have some regard for her well-being?

She was uncomfortable with these implications - and definitely uncomfortable with the feeling of warmth within her that brightened when he smiled down at her so handsomely. She also realized, belatedly, that she had stopped the mental calculations on turning his council members against him. Was she getting that good at faking her adoration that some of it was seeping through? ...Was that so bad? Was he so bad? No, no, she couldn't let the lines get blurred. She mustn't forget who he was, what he had done to her. Even if this was all terribly confusing.

Perhaps he had her summoned here as a weakness.

"Oh, and I almost forgot," said the King.

A larger-than-life marble sculpture was slowly wheeled in on a golden platform. After a moment, she recognized the complacent and aristocratic features for who they were meant to represent. Had he - had he really gifted a statue of himself? It was characteristic of him and his brand of mischievous arrogance that she wondered why she should even have been surprised.

The statue king would have seemed completely nude if not for the drapery (also composed of some rich and purple velvet material) strategically shrouding him from waist down. At least he had some modesty not to expose the well-sculpted relief of his private parts to all these guests.

It did make her wonder if very many people had seen his cock, all the same. How many artisans had labored over it? Was it accurate? Did he have to pose?

She found she had a handkerchief to her mouth - some attempt to suppress the giggles threatening to burst forth. "Your grandest gift yet."

"Oh, I know how you much you like to admire me," said the King in an undertone, though he was grinning too. "I would not wish to deprive you of the excellent view when I am away."

She glanced over the sculpture again, secretly noting how well-defined the abdomen was. Well, at least it accurate depiction. "How very generous of you."

Teasingly exasperated, she added, "Please tell me we're done."

The King laughed. "Yes, we're done," he said, as if pronouncing upon her the greatest mercy in the world. And perhaps it was. "I think I have finally spoiled you to my heart's content."

A full crew of servants and slaves were occupied in transferring the mountain of gifts out of the ballroom, but at least they were gathered in one corner and set out of the way. By this time, the blood splatters from all the exercise of the so-called bride berserkers had been finally scrubbed away as well, which allowed the bevy of oncoming musicians to step across without trouble and position themselves to begin their songs.

"We thank you for your presence on this joyous occasion, and also for the generosity of your gifts," the King said, raising his voice to its formal cadence. He sounded wry, but that was a matter of course for him. "Now," he added lightly, "if you'd like to join us in actually making use of this ballroom for what it is."

On cue, the cheerful vibrato of stringed instruments filled the air.

He turned to her. "Perhaps you'll be generous in turn and favor me with a dance?" he asked, all charm and every entitlement.

"How could I refuse?"

But first there was the matter of her extravagant skirts. The King had no recourse but to wait for a moment as she fiddled with the strings, her lips pursed with steady concentration. This was silly. The whole train of her dress was silly, for all the good it did her in the two minutes of walking (elegant gliding) down aisles and the six-something hours of being hidden under the table, but there they were now.

At last - with the help of Fiona and Eleanor, the ridiculously excessive garment of lovely sheer, silk, and lace detached from her hips, leaving the more modest (and practical) part of the dress in tact.

"Bimba, would you like to - " Alais paused, eyes alighting on the sight of Bimba slumped delicately over the table, fast asleep. She smiled faintly, deciding to leave her friend to her well-deserved rest.

She gave the King her hand, and he led her down the dais and to where the empty ballroom awaited them. Evidently, despite his invitation, His Majesty's people deferred to him the testing of the waters. They would have the first dance alone, it seemed, with all eyes upon them.

For his part, the King seemed utterly comfortable with the audience, probably because his ego seemed to act as a cushion against embarrassment and shame. He placed a gentle hand at her hip, used the other to claim hers, and guided them off into waltzing steps. His footwork was fine enough, his hands steady and guiding.

"Not still hungry, are you?" he asked, teasingly. "Should I have them fetch another muffin?"

"I'm sure that would entertain the audience. Dancing with a muffin in my mouth." It felt an age ago that she would have shied away from any manner of his contact. Now, she looked at ease and perfectly righted under his touch, her steps following his lead in graceful beats. Princesses, of course, were meant to be more skilled in the arts than even their male counterparts, and Alais was not lacking in hers.

"Do you enjoy being watched?" she murmured, glancing surreptitiously at those who were still lined where the tables were arranged. She would've made for a poor princess indeed if the thought of eyes on her back could cow her with such ease. At minimum, she tolerated it for its inevitability, but to claim she enjoyed it would be far too generous.

"Being watched? Like many kings, I've become indifferent to it. So it goes for anything with enough exposure. Our senses are dulled to it."

He continued to lead her along, in time with the lively music.

"But I suppose there are exceptions. I do like being watched when I'm making a spectacle." He grinned, pronouncing it like a joke, but the sentiment seemed vaguely lodged in reality; he didn't clarify what kind of spectacles these were, but inferences could probably be made. "Spectacles are nothing without an appreciative audience."

Far behind him, Duke Boris had risen grandly from his seat. "Your Grace!" he declared, loudly enough for it to be audible even at this distance. "I will be a sorry soul indeed if I've left this ballroom without seeking the hand of the most beautiful woman in the room - hoho! Will you do me this great honor?"

"Oh, Your Grace! Oh how you flatter!" returned a familiar feminine voice.

The remainder of the ballroom seemed to interpret the launching off of this second duet as an a sort of implicit blessing to finally take part. Around them, lords and ladies alike began rising from their seats, and soon more and more couple joined them on the floor.

The King's hand rose, taking hers along with it, so that he could twirl her about beneath it.

As his hand reclaimed her waist, he smirked. "What about you? Do you like being watched, Alais?"

Dancing in the midst of a ballroom didn't make for an efficient conversation venue, with its impromptu pauses here and there, each time she twirled or spun from (and, in her graceful way, occasionally around) him.

On after a few more steps was she able to answer, "I've come to appreciate my privacy." In truth, it also hinged more on the composition of her onlookers. An audience that was distinctly Vvarian also had less of a toll on her than that of strangers - but it helped that more than half had been so thoughtful in their gift-bearing that day.

There were plenty of distractions about them, and it was all but futile to expect any sort of linearity in aforementioned conversation.

"Did you have many suitors?" she inquired, when they were close enough to speak surreptitiously again. "How many glares from spurned noblewomen should I prepare for in the coming months? How many are glaring as we speak?"

"Enough that you should feel flattered to be chosen from among them," the King supplied, with his characteristic smirk. "I'm sure I will suffer glares in turn," he continued, lightly. "It wasn't, what, twenty minutes into our first meeting, before I came upon another suitor and his lute?" He laughed to himself. "What a frightening prospect, to confront them. What ever shall I do?"

His hands settled over her waist, lifting her briefly into the air. It fell perfectly within the range of the dance, though his touch lingered a little longer than necessary, his smile mischievous as he glanced to her. He resumed the steps of the waltz; his technique was not flawless, but his strength as a dance partner laid in the easy confidence with which he guided her - here, at least, was some advantage from his readiness to move her around.

As the song drew to a close, his steps slowed as well. Turning, he clapped politely for the quartet, and was joined quickly by his subjects.

"Ah, Ethan! Where do you think you're going?" said the King, spying the Duke out of the corner of the eye, apparently on his way to a side door.

The crowds of dancers parted easily before the King, revealing a rather embarrassed Ethan who looked like he'd been caught in the middle of something. "Oh, just - "

"Always trying to escape your social obligations," said the King, with a laugh. "No, I won't have it." He cast his gaze around, catching sight of a coy-looking brunette who was seated not far from them; Alais recognized her as one of her handmaidens. "Lady Maerian, perhaps you could favor him with your hand, and rescue the poor Duke from the shame of an early departure."

Lady Maerian rose, curtsying. "Of course, Your Majesty," said she, and smiled demurely in Ethan's direction.

Alais observed with mild, albeit gracefully veiled, amusement as Lady Maerian all but swept the Duke aside for the slow dance. Of all her new handmaidens, Maerian had been one of those who'd left the least impact. She hardly spoke at all, aside from when absolutely necessary. It was curious, watching her being brought to life - at what seemed like Ethan's expense. Slower dancing also meant more intimate dancing, didn't it?

Having successfully bullied the dance into existence, the King returned his attention to his partner. "Apologies," he said, gallantly. A slower song had begun playing, and he reclaimed her hand to guide her into it. "One must do what he can for his friends."

"I think you flustered him. What if he wasn't feeling well?" Her words took to a chiding tone, but the spark in her eye suggested that she was only playing along with his humor - also unfortunately at Ethan's expense. He looked like he needed rescuing, but didn't they all.

She fell back into his self-assured guidance, and with the more languid beats of the music, there was less of that sprightly twirling and spinning stealing away her focus.

"I think he's feeling fine," replied the King, breezily. "If he wasn't, he would have said so - instead of looking so startled and ashamed." He looked amused. "In any case, he could do with some blissful matrimony of his own."

"Duke Ethan has no suitors?" she queried. The Duke's own good looks were more along the lines of sweetly cherubic than devastatingly handsome. He was not poor to look at either way, and implications of his bachelordom were a little surprising.

"Depends on how you define suitors, I suppose," said the King. "He's had plenty enough who were interested in him - his general amiability sees to that. But he's never seemed to reciprocate."

Alais noticed the now more distant figures of the Duke and his partner, who were dancing quite close indeed. Ethan seemed uncomfortable.

Her thoughts, however, returned to her own situation. "Will you be dancing with me this whole time? I thought perhaps I might mingle with my new...subjects." It would be favorable to be seen mingling.

As for her lute-wielding admirers, she had the idea that they would not dare encroach upon his his territory. Not without an army's worth of string instruments, at the very least. He had no pressing incentive to harry her exclusively throughout the span of the night - even if he was still painfully and unfairly handsome even in his arrogance.

His brows rose, with mocking surprise. "So keen on seeking out other gentlemen?" he asked. "Even on your wedding day? Should I be hurt by your lack of regard for me?"

He grinned, and as the melody swelled, intentionally pressed her a little closer, so that she gasped from surprise.

"That's not what I said at all," she chided, frowning as though wounded by the implication. "You're twisting my words."

Despite the pretense of offense, he wasn't far off the mark. His presence was nothing short of distracting to every possible extent - she needed time away from him to clear her head and work her way through her confusing emotions.

Besides, there were more people here than she had ever had access to since the night he'd stolen her away. So Alais endeavored to treat this opportunity as just that. Even as she appeared adoringly at peace, pressed against him like this, she had every reasonable incentive to reach out and explore these wilds.

"What if I'd miss you too much to let you leave my side?" Despite this professed sentiment, however, he did release her as the song came to a close. "But very well. I'll leave you to your own devices. You may speak with as many gentlemen as you please." A smirk twisted his lips. "Though I'm sure they won't compare."

"Oh, of course." Her hands took it upon themselves to give his a sweet little squeeze. "If you change your mind, you can always call me back." She did not doubt that that would be beneath him.

Before she could leave, however, his hand held firm, tugging her back with an easy pull - she fell back against him as he lowered his mouth to her ear. "Just one condition."

She looked up at him, and could see the possessive glint in his eyes as his gaze raked over her.

"You will not dance with anyone else," said the King. He pressed a proprietary kiss upon her lips, stealing her response. "Tonight, I will have no man's hands upon you but mine."

Alais shivered a little, but it was not an unpleasant feeling. "I'll - remember that."

He smiled, as if seeing his effect on her. "I do mean it, Alais."

"You've made that clear," she retorted, recovering enough of herself to tease.

"Good," said the King. "Then you may go."

She managed to dip into elegant curtsy before she took her departure.

The crowd parted before her almost as easily as they had before the King himself, as if she bore some potentially dangerous untouchable quality that might bring down the wrath of her husband if they stared too long.

Alais moved through them with an undeterred wisp of a smile, taking her secret amusement from the way certain guests would avert their gaze when she cast her eye toward them long enough. It was a little over the top, being regarded as though she had the potential lethality of a venomous plant (or venomous possessor/handler/spouse). At least she wasn't wholly alone - out of the corner of her eye, she could perceive Eleanor and Fiona following at a respectful distance, as well as a full escort of chevaliers - the King's personal guard.

Not far away, she spied the happily drunk Boris and his Duchess companion, who were cutting a wide swathe through the crowds with their magnificent, sweeping movements. ("How delightfully you move! What grace! What beauty!")

In trying to give a wide berth to the joyous dancing partners, Alais found herself moving closer to the edge of the room. Ahead of her, she recognized a familiar figure - her champion Septimus, who was, as the victor, now the sole gladiator on display. They had cleaned him of the blood splatters and bronzed him with fresh body oil, with the crowning touch a wreath of laurels upon his head.

As she watched, two young noblewomen near the raised dais began giggling, before one reached out to stroke his gleaming chest.

Alais stared for a moment, before approaching with a slight clearing of her throat.

"Oh," said the woman, startled. "Your Majesty," she added, curtseying, with her friend quickly following suit. Looking a bit embarrassed, they excused themselves and slipped into the throng of dancers.

"Thought they'd never leave," said Septimus, with a slight grin.

"Does that happen often?" Alais queried, as she peered up at him.

"More often than you think." The gladiator offered an exaggeratedly world-weary sigh (though he still could not quite stifle his grin). "Such a burden, isn't it? To be the object of such admiration."

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