I rode to the palace in the mansion’s second carriage. The mansion’s primary carriage was already at the Palace with Mother, of course, so Carson, Mother’s butler, drove me instead of the usual chauffeur. That, for me was a blessing. The primary carriage always carried three or four footmen, because it was fully decorated in Pendor’s livery. The second carriage was an unmarked vehicle mostly used for errands. It had a rear box for footmen if desired, but that was usually used for packages and groceries. Only the driver and one footman in front were needed.
The mansion also had a little phaeton-style buggy for quick errands, but that was used strictly by the staff. Apparently it would create a massive scandal if a daughter of a ducal family were to actually ride in one. Don’t ask me to explain, because I don’t understand it either.
My carriage arrived at the palace, and a squire that I knew well stuck his heads into the cabin.
“Lady Tiana!” he said with wide eyes. I doubt anybody in the barracks expected to see me back from my mission for months, so his reaction wasn’t odd.
“Good day, Malcolm. I have to report to the Palace. I sent word ahead.”
“I’ll check, My Lady.”
His head disappeared as he went into the guard post, then he came out again and waved us through as the barrier raised.
A footman helped me step down out of the cabin, and I advanced to the entrance, curtseying and announcing myself to the sentries. They waved me through into the entrance hall.
I should have had to wait here for someone to come ask my business, but oddly, a royal staffer was already there, awaiting for my arrival.
I knew something was not going as I expected the second we turned right at the arcade that surrounds the inner courtyard instead of left. The man whisked me down that, through an entrance I knew well from my childhood, right into the quarters of the royal family.
Sitting in a private chamber and being served tea by a royal maid was not the wait I expected. I looked around at vases with cut flowers, ancient but highly polished furniture, thick carpet and tapestried walls and tried to sort out exactly what could explain my presence there.
Frankly, I had already resigned myself to waiting for hours in a noble’s sitting room or even the general waiting area, on the side of the palace that I would have reached by turning left at the arcade. I expected to be in the Royal Offices, where all the ministers and their staffs work, and having to wait until they got around to organizing a few officers to debrief me.
I had even been ready to be told to come back tomorrow, or to go home and wait for a summons. These were the various options that were reasonable. I shouldn’t have seen the inside of the royal quarters at all.
When the staffer who had seated me here came back to alert me that the King would receive me now, I was so shocked, I very nearly didn’t stand.
Seeing the King wouldn’t be anything new for Tiana. She had met him many times in the past– in private, he was something like a foster father to her– but appearances are appearances. I should have been debriefed like the failure I was, and then secretly allowed back in to visit His Majesty at some later date when he called for me.
I did manage to stand though, and the staffer led me to the King’s parlor and gestured for me to enter. Inside, I took the sides of my dress in hand and descended into a deep curtsey.
This wasn’t a curtsey like the Queen of England gets. Orestanian girls, whether commoner or noble, do two dozen or so curtseys like that every day, toward all sorts of people. But the commoner girls aren’t ever expected to learn what I was performing, the Orestanian courtly curtsey which descends far lower.
It’s only for use under specific circumstances and I’m kind of impressed that the noble girls all have mastered this more acrobatic maneuver. It is difficult to curtsey so low that your knees are nearly on the floor, and brutishly difficult to hold it like I was doing. Much harder than the kneeling bow I would have performed in a normal knight’s uniform. But, you can’t bow in a formal gown, or even in many ordinary dresses. Thanks to the low, open neck line popular in Orestania, you would be treating the one addressed to quite a nice view.
Because it’s considered rude to conceal species characteristics before royalty and higher nobility without a reason, I allowed my wings to fully materialize and spread them as I dipped.
Once down, my back remained straight and upright, in properly chaste fashion, but I lowered my head as I declared, “Your Majesty.”
I held that position, with my head down.
Fortunately, in the Kingdom’s etiquette, a curtseying noblewoman without an escort’s arm to hold for balance is allowed to put one hand to the floor. I reinterpret that to mean I can put my wingtips to the floor. Otherwise, I think I would have fallen over before he finally said, “Please be at ease, My Lady.”
He didn’t say ‘please rise’, so I only took ‘at ease’ as far as raising my head.
King Owen was seated in an upholstered high-back chair, while his daughter Amelia sat on a settee to his right. The rest of the seats were empty, but my mother and two royal aides stood behind the king, and two girls of similar age to Princess Amelia, and therefore similar age to Tiana, stood behind her.
They call that room a ‘parlor’, but it was immense, with a multi-story ceiling and two levels of balcony surrounding it. I suspect the entire house I grew up in back on Earth would fit inside it, roof and all. The group I just described were at least fifty feet away, and we were speaking in raised voices.
There were a number of other people in the background, mostly scribes, clerks, guards and the like. The King’s parlor was a second audience chamber, albeit a more casual setting than the throne room. Much royal business was conducted here, not just that part the royals were directly involved in, and scribes had to record everything said by the king and his guests, as well.
I announced, “Your Majesty, your knight has returned, and is troubled to report that she has failed in her mission.”
His eyebrows went up. “Failed? I have received frequent reports from Arken, but none reported any failure.”
I frowned, and shook my head, “My liege, I failed to maintain the place in the Hero’s Party that Your Majesty commanded me to take.”
“Isn’t that a failure on the part of the Hero?” the King asked. “His leadership ability is lacking, in my view.”
Shaking my head, I stated, “I am sorry, Your Majesty, but that is not the case. Given my actions toward the healer Melione, the Hero had no choice…”
“If he had no choice, then he is no leader,” the King stated, chopping my response off. “Arken indeed reported your action, but I do not agree that it was against the healer girl’s will. She joined the quest fully prepared to provide for you in an emergency. She accepted that request from me, even though I granted her the right to refuse it and still join the party.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it, unable to come up with a reply.
“The reports I have over the last four months include your three rescues of the Hero and four more of other party members, your several battles against demons, your successful solo defense of a village of our halfling subjects against an entire tribe of rampaging goblins, and your inflicting the majority of the damage to the dragon which the Hero’s Party defeated last week. Per Arken’s report, without your valiant attacks, performed at extreme mortal peril to yourself, the party would never even have scratched the beast.”
It was embarrassing to listen to this list, since he was giving credit to me for the things Tiana did before she died. I bowed my head again and answered, “I undertook these actions in my service as one of your knights. They need no particular recognition from Your Majesty.”
“If all my knights were so unremarkable, we would never have performed the Hero Summoning, Lady Tiana. The demons would already be annihilated.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake!” I heard the princess burst out. I looked up with surprise to see the golden-blond girl jumping out of her seat. She trounced across the room toward me with the other two girls following her.
“Y… Your Highness?” I stammered as she arrived. Tiana had known her forever, but this wasn’t the place for informal behavior…
“Father said ‘be at ease’, Tiana! Get UP!”
The princess yanked on my arm while the other two grabbed other handles, and they forced me to my feet. She stared at me for a moment, then, to my great shock, her face crumbled and she buried it in my shoulder, hugging my waist and squeezing with all her strength, which, frankly, wasn’t much. She’s not that strong.
I stood there, frozen and struggling to figure out what was going on. Then I realized she was quietly sobbing.
In a near whisper, I prompted, “Amelia?”
Her voice sounded so fragile as she answered, “Thank you so much, Tiana.”