“I’m Mireia! I’m so pleased to meet you, My Lady!”
I dabbed my lips with a napkin, since I had just finished a bite of my raspberry tart. “Hello, Lady Mireia. I am Tiana.”
She waved her hands in negation, palms facing me. “Nonono. I’m not a ‘Lady’! I’m just a commoner! But I’m so honored to be here! I’ve been at the school for two years as a maid, but I’ve just become an official student! And it’s such an honor to be able to attend a tea party! I’ve served them, but attending one is a new experience for me!”
I was hearing all her words like that. Every sentence ended with an exclamation point. I was already feeling overwhelmed from all the words spilling out of her so fast.
I tipped my head. “Oh?”
She nodded rapidly, yup, yup, yup, yup, as the gush turned into a torrent. “I have been serving Lady Shasie in lower school, but the school has given me a scholarship because of my magic, so now I’ll be attending on my own! What about you? The princess told me that you didn’t attend lower level because you were in knight training! Are you coming here to guard a noble? House knights are usually big men, you know? I was so surprised when she said you’ve been training to be a knight! Isn’t it terribly hard for a girl to do? That’s really amazing, for a girl to become a house knight!”
All eyes at the table, and several from neighboring tables, had turned on me while she babbled. I felt some heat rising to my cheeks from the attention, and struggled for a response.
Carson was not amused. He had been making his rounds, refreshing tea cups, but he almost instantly appeared at my elbow.
In slightly cold tones, he told Mireia, “My Lady could hardly serve as household staff, Young Mistress. Such a thing would be out of the question for her station.”
I had been enjoying the anonymity, but Carson had just ruined it. No, he had only driven in the last nail. Amelia was the one who ruined it, by telling her in the first place.
Now the whole room had gone silent. Mireia was looking around, while my imagined question marks were popping up in the air around her head. The rest of the room was wondering why the high class butler they thought the princess had brought was being so deferential to the unknown newcomer.
Tiana’s weak social power folded under the pressure. I’m not sure when it happened, but her reflexes had kicked in at some point. I was already hiding my blushing cheeks behind my folding fan before I even noticed I had opened it.
Remaining behind the fan, I turned my head slightly and told him, “Carson, nobody told her my house, so she could hardly know my rank, could she? Miss Mireia meant no discourtesy.”
He bowed, “Forgive me, My Lady. I was unaware.”
After allowing myself a slightly theatrical sigh and a moment to regain my aplomb, I folded the fan, set it down firmly, stood up and curtseyed.
“Please forgive the late introduction, My Ladies, Miss Mireia. My name is Tiana Pendor. I am the daughter of the late Lord Egon, the Duke Pendor and of the Lady Sasara, the Duchess Pendor. It is a pleasure to make all of your acquaintances.”
I rose back up as I watched the facts register in the heads of the girls in the room. My status was nearly as far above their own station as the princess was. My mother was lord of one of the largest provinces in the kingdom, and they probably also knew she was the King’s top adviser. And– probably topmost of their concerns– my father was the most notorious criminal in recent history. The intimidation factor was visible, and my heart was breaking a little as I watched so many friendly smiles freeze.
Giving Mireia a nod, I added, “As Miss Mireia noted, I have indeed been absent from lower level classes here in order to attend knight training. I have begun my service as a royal knight, serving His Majesty, King Owen. I shall now be attending here for the next few years as your fellow student. Please do not hesitate to come to me if you should ever find need to request His Majesty’s protection.”
I curtseyed briefly again and sat down, while giving the shocked pink-haired girl a smile. Carson refilled my cup and moved on.
Erin and Clara both looked sympathetic, and when I glanced at Amelia, she looked dissatisfied, which I suspect was in reaction to how the rest of the girls were responding. Most of them were just stone-faced. At my table, Lune’s eyebrows were bunched up a bit, Kiji and Mereia both looked honestly spooked. Treyka was the only one I noticed who was not disturbed. She looked intrigued by me, instead.
Kiji and Mereia both come from home territories adjacent to Pendor, so Duke Egon was a well known bogeyman for both of them. Many young women had disappeared from their provinces and turned up later in his blood slave harem, or worse, in his graveyard. On Earth it would be like the girls had just learned they were sharing a table with the daughter of Count Dracula.
I tried to smile and enjoy the remainder of the party, but I couldn’t help worrying that I had just experienced a preview of my upcoming school life.
# # #
The carriage ran home toward the late afternoon sun much slower than it had traveled to school. The horses may have been tired, but I suspect it was actually an illusion created by my depressed mood.
For a brief time, I had experienced what it was like to hang out with a group my own age and enjoy their conversation. Admittedly, Robert had experienced this in his life– he wasn’t a total loner– but it was new for Tiana. Other than Amelia, she’d had few companions of her own age and gender in her life. Her only experiences of fellowship were limited to the knights barracks and a few months membership in the Hero’s Party.
I was feeling the full force of Tiana’s emotions right now. Amelia’s well-intended attempt to return her childhood friend to normalcy had dug up all of the old pain. Bitter memories of rejection and fear at the few parties she had attended, of her sadness on her own birthdays, of Mother’s absence and thus failure to recognize what was happening to her daughter until the damage was done…
When Tiana reached the age of twelve as an isolated, lonely girl, she decided to go to the barracks rather than the academy. The camaraderie she found there had been a wonderful new start for her, but it had also been the finishing blow to any desire she still had for a normal social life as an aristocratic girl.
It had probably been the fact that she was a bit too young that had kept her out of trouble as a girl among men. She wasn’t surrounded by boys her own age there; the youngest apprentice other than her had been three years her senior, and a boy of very strict moral upbringing. The majority of the squires had been in their late teens and early twenties. I imagine a very different result for a girl who was learning “guys=fun” at such a young age, if the men had been normal teenagers instead young men trustworthy enough to become trainee knights. It’s no ordinary boy who qualifies for the Royal Barracks, so whenever she began heading the wrong direction, they were the sorts who would steer her back on course rather than taking advantage of her. And keep an eye on each other.
I had remained in my funk for well over half the journey home, but I was surprised out of it when the coachman suddenly pulled the brake. The horses whinnied their protests while he reined them back.
We were nowhere near the city yet. In fact, where we were, in the bottom between rolling hills, it wouldn’t even be visible. Carson and I both pulled the curtains back, trying to understand why we had stopped. The plume of road dust and the dim evening light didn’t allow much visibility, but we could see that the footmen had come off their perches with swords drawn.
It was enough clue for me. I grabbed my scabbard and prepared to open the door, but Carson grabbed my hand before I could turn the latch.
“My Lady, I shall go first.”
In every way I could imagine, a knight was needed out there more than an elderly butler, but I had to consider his pride. The boss had to be with his subordinates, the footmen. And perhaps he couldn’t stand sending the young mistress out ahead of himself. I nodded and let him go.
I shouldn’t have. As I exited, drawing my sword and tossing the scabbard back into the cabin behind me, he was falling to the ground, and the footmen were already down. I broke into a run to the side, as a magic bolt came through the spot where I had just been.