It turned out, my audience wasn’t a debriefing at all, it was a dinner date. I was dragged by the princess into her private chamber along with her two friends until we were called to come to the dining room.
I don’t blame Uncle Owen– I mean, the King– from wanting to lavish rewards on me. His daughter had been very nearly either sold off in some foreign place and used in the way a slave that looked like her would be used, or made the unwilling bride of a bandit. For the same reason, I don’t blame Amelia for clinging to me or the other two for giving me their own thank-you hugs. But I was tired from my journey– even the break at Mother’s house hadn’t fixed that– and I just wanted to collapse in a bed somewhere. Sadly, not happening. So I would just have to rely on Tiana Full Battle Mode and the mettle of a royal knight to get me through it.
Sitting with the girls was a real challenge. As I said, Amelia was like an adoptive sister to Tiana, but their paths had diverged on Tiana’s twelfth birthday, when she entered the knight’s barracks as a squire candidate. Tiana had made squire with almost no effort, but it had taken a complete year-round all-hours-of-the-day effort for two years to be recognized as a candidate for knighthood. She hadn’t wanted to make knight that fast, but she had to keep the trainers convinced that a girl like her was worth training. To do it, she had to learn and develop at more than double the normal speed. She’d had no time to spend with Amelia or anyone else.
Meanwhile, Amelia and her friends, same age as me, had proceeded along as normal teenaged noble girls, their lives dominated by school and tea parties. I had absolutely nothing in common with them. Nevertheless, Amelia was determined to renew the close relationship she’d had with Tiana when they were children.
Well, I wasn’t against renewing the relationship. I just didn’t know how to talk to girls. Actually becoming one hadn’t cured that. It seems socializing was Tiana’s weak point.
Hearing them chattering about school made me think about my own school days as Robert, and how different it had been from Tiana’s harsh early teen years, or the lives of young commoners like Melione and Brigitte.
Only the children of professionals, merchants and nobility, like these three, who were attending the Royal Academy together, had anything that resembled Robert’s youth. Tiana would have been the same, but she had left school at twelve years old to begin her apprenticeship as a knight. The majority of the upper class continued in school until twenty one years old, or until pregnancy, since marriages were not unusual for the girls after they reached seventeen.
While I was thinking about this, I was suddenly not on the sideline listening to the three, because the topic of conversation had become me.
“Tiana, do you ever regret going into knight’s training instead of attending school with us?” Amelia asked, almost hitting the nail on the head. My reverie must have been all over my face.
“‘With us?’ Isn’t she too old?” Clara asked, tipping her head.
“What are you saying? Tiana is two months younger than me!” Amelia told her, looking like she was ready to laugh.
“What?!” Clara and Erin responded in unison.
“But… she looks so mature. And she’s a knight already!” Erin protested.
“I am indeed younger than Amelia,” I told them. They both just shook their heads.
“I am wondering, My Lady,” Erin asked, “Why do you call Her Highness just ‘Amelia’?”
“Well, when we were younger, she would get mad at me if I treated her like a princess in private, instead of like a sister.”
“I still would!” Amelia declared, “So don’t you dare start, Tiana!”
“We grew up together,” I explained. “Mother was always so busy with rebuilding Pendor and didn’t want me underfoot, so I lived with Her Highness and her brothers most of the time.”
Mother’s house wasn’t Tiana’s childhood home, because she didn’t buy it until Tiana reached double digits in age. Before that, they had lived at the Palace.
“You stayed with whom?” Amelia asked.
“I stayed with Amelia and her brothers…”
“Wow,” Erin said, “That must have been dreamy. Staying with the princes all the time.”
Tiana’s memory was full of two punks who loved bullying their little ‘sister’. Really, they were a couple of jerks.
“Dreamy?” I asked, my face twisting a little. “Ged and Rod?”
Amelia burst out with laughter. “Oh, I think I just heard every girl at the academy scream in indignation, Tiana.”
The other two were nodding in agreement, with Erin looking outright astonished. Apparently Princes Gerard and Roderick had a high appraisal at school. But, to me, they were just a couple of annoying older brothers.
We were called to dinner shortly after that. Mr. Angry was gone, and a different knight was in attendance, along with a few footmen servers. The rest were the same six as in the parlor, plus one extra.
The aforementioned Prince Roderick was dining with us, and he greeted me in an oddly warm fashion, even taking my hand and seating me himself. I was a little surprised at the guy who once called Tiana an ‘ugly crow”.
I didn’t know what to make of it. He wasn’t just being civil to me for the adults. For some reason, he was being downright affectionate…
Since I was still a guy on the inside, this junior lady-killer didn’t stand a chance with me anyway, but I did have Tiana’s sensibilities to draw on, to assess the male gender. I knew girls would in fact find him appealing, with his blond hair, green eyes, handsome mug and well-practiced posture. Nevertheless… no.
Don’t you act all gentlemanly and charming, Rod. I haven’t forgiven you yet for all those times you yanked on Tiana’s pigtails.
I had been Tiana for a week, and I was somewhat accustomed to dealing with having a female body, at least the basics of it, but let me put a little reminder here. I was still to a major extent Robert inside. A large amount of Tiana had invaded my consciousness, but I hadn’t flipped genders when it came to what attracted me.
Tiana certainly was attracted to guys. However, she was also attracted to girls, in the vampiric way, and that side of her was teaming up with Robert’s preferences and outvoting her straight side. Thanks to that, Rod’s talent with the ladies was not working too well with me. Which was fine. Tiana saw him as her older brother, more than anything.
I felt like I had robbed Clara and Erin with this seating. The King naturally sat at the head of the table, and I was seated on the King’s right, with Rod on his left, so that the prince was seated facing me. Amelia was on my right and Mother was on Rod’s left , with Clara next to Amelia and Erin next to Mother, so that both of them were far from their ‘dreamy’ Rod.
But, even though it was what qualified for a casual dinner at the Palace, they had apparently decided I had to be in the guest of honor spot. I’m pretty sure Mother would have had my seat, otherwise.
Rod’s charming smiles kept coming at me, although there were a few times he seemed to be smiling specifically at my décolletage. I chose not to be too cross with him about it– he’s seventeen years old– but I decided I needed to have the dressmaker increase the coverage a bit.
Mother’s eyes had narrowed a few times when looking at me, and I was starting to worry I was doing something wrong. Still, the King remained handsome and friendly, his usual charming, lady-slaying self– Rod had to get it from somewhere, right?– so I didn’t fret about it.
When Rod’s eyes weren’t on me, he was mostly venting his frustration with Amelia’s security detail. Then he began venting his frustration with Amelia.
“If you were more diligent with your magic lessons, you might have had the power to drive them away, yourself!”
Amelia lowered her head and answered, “Yes, Brother.”
“You need to take your teacher more seriously. Once your guard was out of action, you were defenseless!”
Since His Majesty wasn’t saying anything, I decided to defend her. “Your Highness, even if she had better magic skills, she was outnumbered. Magic in combat works best as support for fighters, or when fighters can keep the enemy away long enough to launch attack spells. She was better off not resisting.”
His eyebrows bunched up and he scowled. “You were able to take them all on by yourself! I understand the Lancers were being completely routed when you arrived!”
I tipped my head, confused. “Your Highness, that is not really relevant here. I didn’t use any magic.”
“Huh?” His eyes became blank.