Take My Hand
Lynn travels to the royal palace to build a magical security shield for the king. She hopes to make a name for herself, but finds herself the unwilling friend of the youngest princess instead. Just while the eldest is playing to take over the throne without having to get married. How to survive in a court as a commoner? How to prevent the evil schemes of an heir bent to get the throne at all costs? And how to get away from the court so she can start her business at last? These are the questions Lynn struggles to answer.
I wandered down the same hallway that Nitza had disappeared in. I didn't see her anymore, so they probably went down some obscure sidedoor to a place that mysteriously connected to wherever they needed to be. When you strayed from the main hallways, this place was a blue marble labyrinth.
I continued, and after a minute I started hearing voices. Ah, that's where the crowd must be. If I just followed that, I noticed, I would almost always end up in the correct place. Some place at the table would be set for me, so if I hung back then the natural process of elimination would show me where it was. Or I could search for it. No one ever knew where they were seated from one day to the next. It was always a game, and it depended on the status of the players and how much they were favoured by the royal family. Rita's attendants always sat in a group together, a flock of parakeets, but for others it was usually a challenge to find their place on time.
When I came out into a smaller hallway, however, I saw that it was not a crowd there. Only a small group, about a dozen. A few couples, but the centre of attention was a teenage boy in very fancy wingrider clothing who was sniffling. Two women with the look of nursemaids about them were trying to wipe his tears away. A strict man, with two triangles of red hair pointing straight from his head and a pinched mouth, was berating the young man, not very well because he had a soft, high voice. Observing it all, lounging against a pillar, was prince Leo. He was the first to notice me when I came around a corner and took in the scene.
He only gave me a once-over while I glanced at him, rather rudely, and made to relax back against the pillar, when he did a double-take. His eyes widened. So had mine, when I recognised him. What was he doing here? Wasn't he supposed to be with his king, guarding him or something? Last time I'd met him he'd been riding ahead of the king to secure his path. So I thought him head of security. Minor royalty often held such positions in stories, anyway. Made for a good opportunity for them to travel abroad and perform heroics.
With one hand he pushed himself away from the pillar and walked along the wall to where I was standing. It gave me a little time to recover from the shock and conjure up a smile. He cocked his head. "Gosh, you look exactly like one of Rita's parakeets, but I'd swear I'd seen you before somewhere."
I spluttered. "What?"
He shrugged. "My fault, sorry." It wasn't even a polite tone of voice, but one as snide and bad-mannered as he'd been witty and nice before. He started to turn around.
"We did, but you were a lot more civil then." I tried to match his rudeness, instead I sounded angry. "Demon possess your tongue, did it?"
He turned back around in a flash. Then his face broke out in a grin that drove away what, I could now see, had been a blank mask of a face. Were mask-faces catching in this place, or something? "Ah, Miss Lynn."
"Got it right in one, your highness." I made to leave. I had no desire to stay in the presence of a cranky prince and a bawling child. A hand caught me on the shoulder.
"Ah, how quickly you've adapted to courtlife. Going to scorn me, are you?" I lifted the hand from my shoulder, but as soon as I touched it, he wrapped his hand around mine and kissed the back of it. Not knowing what to do with this sudden one-eighty in attitude, I waited for him to continue. "My humble apologies for the way I treated you."
"Then why did you do it?" I couldn't help but ask.
"Because I felt like it. I've seen entirely too much of fluttery ladies these past few days, and you caught me in a bad moment. Please forgive me?"
I rolled my eyes. "Fine. If you stop the mindless flattery."
He let go of my hand and stood next to me comfortably, hands clasped behind his back. He didn't seem to mind, unlike most people I'd met in the palace, to talk to me as if I was more than a small splash of mud on the floor. "Ah, it's only mindless to a woman with a brain, believe me. To the majority of the people living in this hellish place it's banter."
"Haven't had a lot of fun here, have you?"
"No, and now, he exploded on me," he gestured to the teenager. "Have any shields against tears, Miss Lynn?" He didn't have any scruples in talking to me as if I was a confidante of his. It rather took me aback. Did he care that little about gossip?
"No, but I might have one against insensible men," I snapped. "He's part of your party, isn't he? Why are you talking about him like that?"
He blinked at me. "I..." Silence reigned for a few seconds. He hunched his shoulders. "Because I've had more than I can deal with over the past few days," he muttered. A sigh. "I'm sorry, Miss Lynn, I'm afraid you're simply the first friendly, non-scheming face I've seen in a while."
I accepted the motivation at face value. It was probably true, the morose way he said it. "So what's bothering him?" I nodded my head at the teenager, who had gone from crying to angry in a few seconds, ranting about something.
"It's my charge, the youngest son of the king." My eyebrows went up.
"Er...shouldn't that mean you treat him with a little more respect?"
"Why? If he doesn't act like a man, I won't treat him like a man. I treat him like he deserves."
"Sounds like you don't like him very much," I ventured. I felt more than a little odd, talking so confidently to a man i'd met only once before.
"I don't," he said quietly, as if he was unwilling to admit it. "But he was assigned to my care for the duration of this journey." We watched him in silence for a little longer. "We need to go into the hall in a few minutes and honestly, I don't know what to do. Maybe drag him in by the ear." The last was sneered. The mask was threatening to slip back over his face. Why did men always follow admissions of emotion with a show of toughness?
"Maybe-" but we were interrupted when the teenaged prince came walking at us, on high heels. He probably thought it looked impressive, but he reminded me of a harrassed pigeon. He stopped directly in front of prince Leo, arms crossed and right in his face, ignoring me.
"I refuse to bear the embarrasment of sitting at the lowest table as if I'm a bastard instead of my father's legitimate son. I'm a prince, and I will be treated that way!" The arrogance came off him in waves, much like Nitza when she was in a snit over something. What was it with the royal family that they couldn't deal with anything approaching a refusal or an insult? "I'm royalty, not some nobleman of low breeding!"
I scraped my throat. If a nobleman was so bad, what was I? A goat? Prince Leo flicked his eyes towards me, and then turned the young prince around by his shoulders. "Sirne, meet Miss Lynn. Miss Lynn, meet my cousin, his royal highness prince Sirne, the youngest son of king Severo and fourth in line for the throne."
After a moment, I received a small nod. I gave a similar nod back. "Pleasure, your highness."
The atmosphere in the room iced over. I became aware of the audience we had. The personell that had formerly tried to comfort the prince were now staring wide-eyed at the three of us, along with the nobility. I looked at them, and suddenly they had a lot of other things to stare at, whether it was a painting, the ceiling or their feet. I turned back to the two princes. The younger one was still held in place by the older one, who was standing behind him with a grim expression. A slight shift of weight betrayed his uneasiness.
I put my arms in my side and looked over prince Sirne's shoulder. Prince Leo was focussed on what the young man would do. When he saw me watching, he waggled his eyebrows. Ah, I was part of a test, then. How to treat commoners 101. Fun. Especially with an immature prince. Well, I wasn't participating in this.
The younger prince was still staring at me, now with a muscle in his jaw jumping. Probably refusing to say something civil. Gosh, hadn't I seen that just a minute before. My eyes went from prince Leo to prince Sirne. Then I shook my head. "Y'know what, your highnesses, you're not very pleasant company this evening, and I don't have the patience to play the convenient tool this evening. Excuse me. I have to find the dining hall before the king enters it."
A glimpse of two pairs of eyes bugging out was all I got before I swished my dress around and walked away. I was not going to play along. I'd had quite enough of snobs, even funny ones. Again I was stopped. This time by a voice calling behind me. "Wait!" It was an order, so I didn't. I continued to walk down the hall, not running but walking about as fast as my skirts allowed.
It was no use, halfway down the hall I was overtaken by two men who were keeping up easily with their long legs striding wide. I ignored them.
"Miss Lynn, please!" prince Leo, on one side of me. Again put a hand on my shoulder. I had to stop.
"What?" I asked sharply.
"Whew. If I didn't know any better I'd say you were the daughter of a duke, the amount of scorn you put in that word."
"Commoners" I put heavy emphasis on that word, "are just as capable of intelligent communication, your highness. Now would you please let me go? I'm in hurry."
But he didn't remove his hand. "You don't have to be in the room before us, Miss Lynn, in fact, I think we're seated at the same table."
Yeah, I'd already drawn that conclusion from the words of prince I'm-the-best. "I surmised that." Maybe that would be enough for him to let me go. But no, the prince seemed bent on insulting me more that evening.
The younger prince started talking behind us. "Cousin, why, exactly, are you talking to this commoner as if she's equal to us? We really don't have time for this if my seat is to be changed."
"It's not." the words were clipped. Prince Leo kept his eyes on me. "We're sitting where we were assigned to sit. It'll be a good lesson in humility for you, and a good change of company for me."
"How nice," I bit out. "If you leave me in peace, you can go find it."
Prince Leo smiled. The royal not-to-be-refused arrogant smile I hated so much. "I've already found it, Miss Lynn."
"No, you haven't." I pulled my shoulder away from his grip and started walking again.
He caught up with me again. "Why do you keep turning away, Miss Lynn?"
"Because you keep annoying me."
"Apology not accepted."
"Then what?" He really wasn't leaving me alone, was he? Fine, maybe a loss of composure would show him how annoyed I was.
"Behave civilly!" I yelled at him. "You complain about talking to nutheads that don't have one intelligent thought in their heads, but at the same time you act like a nobhead yourself! Stop it or go annoy someone else!" I added a sniff to that, for punctuation. I was very ready to walk away, if only I could be sure that I would not be stopped again.
It didn't help that the man didn't look the least bit apologetic. More like he'd heard a wall talk to him. Then it turned a serious expression. This time, he made a small bow before he said, "my apologies, Miss Lynn, for behaving like a dunderhead. I am ashamed of myself."
"You'd better be." I could only bring myself to be half serious, however. What was it about this man that I could like him, while at the same time be on the verge to give him a stamp on the foot?
He heard it, I think. He held his arm out to me. "Then allow me to introduce you properly."
Out of curiosity, mostly, I took it. He led me the half-step to Sirne, who was looking at me as if I'd exploded his palace.
"Sirne, this is Miss Lynn. Miss Lynn, this is prince Sirne."
The prince, was paying me no attention any more, but was looking at prince Leo. "Have you gone bonkers?" he asked. "What do you want from me?"
Prince Leo shrugged. "Say hi, if you can manage."
The youngster pointed at me, an accusing finger. I resisted the irrational temptation to bite it. "This commoner just insulted you, and then you talk to her like she is your wife, and then you apologise, and you introduced me twice. Are you mad?" His voice broke on the last word. He seemed honestly confused, poor boy.
"Possibly. But that wasn't any kind of greeting." Prince Leo sounded stern now. Hypocrite.
Prince Sirne turned to me. He held up one hand. "Hi." The word came out the same as "commoner" did. Not even worthy of a speck of mud. What had I gotten myself into this evening?
"Always a pleasure, your highness." Maybe if I acted normal, everything would turn back to normal eventually.
"Excellent," said prince Leo. "shall we find our seats?"
"I should probably go to my own."
"No, no, you're sitting with us. I need some intelligent conversation this evening." And then, before either I or prince Sirne could protest, he frog-marched us both to the small hall, and out the double doors, seating us at spots at the lower table that were not ours at all, and refusing to move until some head servant came and assigned us seats together.