The Servant


The wedding was over, the feast eaten, the epithalamia sung. Outside the the queen's apartments, Eugenides finally managed to shed the hastily cobbled together and unwelcome gaggle of temporary attendants. He'd come to Attolia without any of his own cousins to bear him company, not that most of his own cousins would have been particularly welcome, at that. For the ceremony, the queen had insisted he look appropriately royal, and Eddis had supported her. Over all Eugenides' protests, sulks, and sly weaseling attempts to avoid it, he went attired as a king to his wedding and subsequent coronation, accompanied by a cluster of important court hangers on.

In the queen's chambers, the ladies gathered around like nervous ducklings. Except for Phresine, they stood between the queen and Eugenides as if to shield her from his view. It was as if after everything they could still protect her from the hated barbarian highlander who had stolen her throne and come to force himself upon her.

"Leave us," said the queen. The attendants quieted and stepped back. Only the youngest, Phile, looked torn between obeying her queen and protecting her. She hero-worshiped the Queen of Attolia, and it appeared to Phresine she didn't want to leave her queen alone with the hated enemy. Phresine gently urged the girl from the room, one hand on her back.

"Come, child," she murmured in the girl's ear as they left the queen's chamber. "Her Majesty has nothing to fear from her king." She didn't say from that boy. She didn't say from anyone who looks at her like he does. Phile shot Phresine a doubting look but accompanied her without argument, and with only one worried and adoring glance back over her shoulder.

In the antechamber, the attendants glared and snarled impotently. Phresine calmly performed her nightly duties, tidying the queen's dressing table and laying out the most likely jewelry and perfumes for the morning. It would be best to get the evening's work down quickly in order to move the more excitable of the attendants out of earshot sooner rather than later, but the rest of the ladies were gossiping and griping rather than paying any attention to their tasks.

The queen's attendants each expressed their frustration and anger differently. The elegant court dresses in the queen's wardrobe bore the brunt of the lady Iolanthe's fury. Nearly alone among the queen's maidens, Iolanthe had not supported the Mede's suit. "Rare is the woman who can feel complete without the strong hand of man of the back of her neck," she had coldly said while the other attendants were gossiping about Nahuseresh's fine, muscular arms, his elegantly pointed beard. "A woman who does so and maintains power and respect in the eyes of the world is only to be admired and emulated." A worthwhile perspective, in Phresine's opinion, if somewhat pompously delivered.

Attolia had been delivered from the Mede, but it seemed Iolanthe did not find Eugenides to be a worthy substitute. "It's just not fair," she raged. "All these years successfully fending off her own barons, to be defeated by a half-grown goatfooted boy."

"She didn't look defeated to me," murmured Phresine, as she heaped a pile of discarded robes in Iolanthe's hands.

"How will she be able to bear the shame of his hands on her?" said Ligeia, daughter of Baron Eucrastes. She clenched her fists tightly around the sash she'd ostensibly been putting away. "She could have had Nahuseresh, a beautiful, manly, cosmopolitan courtier. Instead they force upon her this thief, this degradation."

"I'm sure she'll find a way to tolerate such torture," said Phresine, and pried Ligeia's white-knuckled fingers off the delicate fabric. "And he's only got the one hand to shame her with." Ligeia flushed and stammered, but Phresine didn't waste time reassuring her. If Ligeia didn't get a move on they'd all be hearing the queen's reaction to her husband's hand on her.

Phile wrapped her arms around herself. "She deserves better." Phile's own hot and longing glances towards Attolia had been received with such benevolent and uncharacteristically kind amusement that the girlish crush had grown into passionate loyalty. "I can't bear for her to be made unhappy."

Phresine gently touched the girl's cheek, then turned and chivvied the remaining attendants out of the room. "She won't be, dear. She won't be."

 

 

In the morning, the attendants arrived to find their king and queen sitting up in bed, watching one another. Attolia regarded Eugenides coolly but a slight smile played about her lips. There was something about her eyes, the set of her shoulders, that Phresine barely recognized on her queen.

When Iolanthe brought in a robe, the queen released Eugenides' hand and rose from the bed.

The king yawned and stretched, luxuriously. "How does it feel, my dear? To be a defiler of inno-"

"Eugenides." When the queen spoke in that tone, even hardened soldiers quavered. The king barely flinched. "Now that you are king, you will need your own attendants," the queen said as Phile brought her a ewer of perfumed water for her face. "Erondites' son, of course, and young Hilarion --" Eugenides grimaced. "-- and Baron Theocrites' middle son will be useful."

The king glowered. "Wonderful. My own pack of yapping dogs following me around, dressing me like a doll, despising me but hoping that through me they can get to you." He opened his mouth to say more, ignoring the arch look the queen sent his way. He caught Phresine's eye, blushed, and subsided.

When the queen was dressed, the attendants withdrew to give her a few minutes alone with the king. The younger ladies bustled around the breakfast table in the antechamber while Phresine sent for a servant to deal with the large ink stain on the wall of the queen's bedchamber. She looked thoughtfully at the inkpot in her hand, which she had picked up before leaving the room.

Attending the king and queen at breakfast was an exercise in keeping a straight face while the pair sniped at one other. Before the wedding, Ligeia had expressed reluctant awe that Eugenides dared be rude to the queen.

"You mean because she cut off his hand?" asked Iolanthe, while the other gossipy attendants twittered like spring birds.

"I mean because she's Attolia," said Ligeia waspishly, and everyone nodded. Phresine, meanwhile, had kept her own counsel.

Certainly right now, spearing a slice of apple on the end of his hook, brandishing it with a flourish of his bell-like Continental sleeve, Eugenides didn't look like he feared his wife. "It's terribly useful," he said. "I think I shall start a new fashion in court. The apple farmers will be greatful."

The queen showed her teeth. "Perhaps when you get bored of being king you could become a fisherman? We know you're good with boats." She spread a piece of soft cheese on a piece of bread, then placed it on her husband's plate.

"Making you a fishwife, my dear?" Eugenides fluttered his eyelashes in what he probably thought was a coy and flirtatious manner, but only made him look like he was prone to fits. Phresine resisted the urge to tell him his face would freeze that was it he wasn't careful. The king looked at the bread and cheese on his plate for a moment, then reached for his winecup.

Phresine and Phile both slipped out of the queen's chamber at the same time. Phile asked the lounging guard if he could send someone for the king's robes of state. Phresine went down to the kitchens to speak with the cooks. The corridors were long and twisted, and her bones ached from the stairs, but she suspected her message would go awry if she didn't deliver it in person.

"Darius," she called to the underchef, when she finally reached the kitchens.

The bronze-skinned young cook smiled broadly. "Phresine, light of my life! Are you finally running off with me to my secret love nest in the Gede Valley?" Those in earshot laughed, not unkindly.

"Get on with you," said Phresine, and patted the lad's backside. "I need a new tray for the queen's breakfast."

He cocked his head. "Something wrong with the first one?"

"No, if you've got two hands to eat it with," she said. "Can we get some oil for the bread, and a bowl of olives, and the lamb cut into smaller pieces?"

Darius' flirting smile vanished. "Right, wouldn't want to discomfit his royal majesty," he said coldly, and turned to assemble a platter. "Our queen's most beloved husband."

Phresine sighed, but there was no point in lighting candles for the blind. "And fresh lamb, Darius. With no sand." That should have been enough clarity, but best to play it safe. "Her Majesty will be sharing the plate."

When Phresine returned, the ladies were serving the king and queen with clenched teeth and carefully blank faces. Phresine smiled at Eugenides as she placed a fresh bowl of olives by his side. He smiled back, sweet and oh so young. He looked disarmingly innocent, and if she didn't know better, she would never believe he had just been provoking Attolia outrageously.

"Today we will choose attendants for you after morning court," the queen said, in a voice of command. It sounded like the conclusion to a continuing argument.

The king sighed and didn't argue further. "And a new suite of rooms," he said.

The queen looked unhappy. "Is that really necessary?"

"Do you want six months or three years? If you want six months, I'll need a new suite of rooms." The king sounded no happier than the queen, but he grinned slightly. He was smug, Phresine thought. Smug and far too crafty for his own good. Don't be too sharp, she thought, or you'll cut yourself on your own wit. "I know just the suite of rooms, too," he said. "I believe they were something of a revolution in modern architecture." He grinned openly at the queen, now.

She raised one eyebrow in mock surprise. "I can still have you whipped, you know." The king smirked like a schoolboy. Such an innocent child, Phresine thought, for all he'd seen and done so much.

As the king and queen rose to leave, Attolia turned for a moment to her husband. "It feels quite lovely, actually," she said, with a slight smile. He looked at her quizically. "To be a defiler of --" She stopped as he caught her hand and held it to his mouth, hiding his smile behind her fingers. Then he let go of her hand and fixed an expression of bored sulkiness on his face while together they walked out to face the madding crowds.