Robert stood on his balcony. It had been almost a month since he had started his new schedule.
He had sat on the throne three times, and dealt with many issues of the people. He had been calm, collected, ruthless when he needed to be, and above all fair. He had dealt justice and benevolence with equal consideration, although not equal regrets.
He now knew how to administer to small problems, while learning to deal with big ones in his statecraft lessons.
With Master Turendel he had mastered the Basic version of the Sigil of Air, allowing him to enact it without Sketching, he had it so perfectly memorized.
His time in the library had been well spent, and he had learned much about the past of the land and had seen many mistakes to not repeat. He had also learned many ways of ruling that he wished to emulate, and much of his success with the people was due to his knowledge of the past.
Unfortunately nothing in his Sketching lessons, history books, or statecraft tutoring had taught him how to deal with duchesses and ladies.
And today he was meeting three of them.
His parents had decided that instead of bringing them to meet him one by one they would throw a small party at first, with the first few to arrive. He had agreed to a week off his lessons so that he could entertain them in the afternoon and evening if he was allowed to spend all morning in the library, but he was beginning to regret his decision.
He had not even met them yet and his mouth was dry and his hands were beginning to shake. He would take a drink to fortify himself, but he was worried that if he had one he would not be able to stop drinking. And if he didn’t stop then he would get drunk, and if he got drunk then he would make a fool of himself.
As much as he was worried about this, scared, he did not want to fail at it. He wanted to make a good first impression, entertain the ladies throughout the week and then send them away at the end so that be could be free to return to his lessons for another while.
That would save him.
He just had to last that long.
“Sire? It is time to get dressed. They will be expecting you soon”
“Of course Steven”
Robert turned from the balcony and walked over to his butler. He was wearing his undershirt and a pair of nondescript leggings. He would be keeping them on beneath the ridiculous outfit his parents had picked out for him.
“This…this is not anything like my army uniforms”
“Steven, how many times do I have to say to call me Roberts? Although, it makes you uncomfortable, so forget about it. Not important”
“Thank you sire. Now, you really should get dressed”
The pants went on first. Slightly frilly at the waist they were nevertheless the most conservative of the three pieces that were laid out. They were also a deep ultramarine, which he approved of.
Pulling them on he poked at the tunic. It was a royal purple with a high stiff collar and tight belt to match. There were slashes down the front on either side of the buttons that let that green cloth underneath peek through.
And the shoulder cape to match in that same shade of green.
He was going to look ridiculous, but his parents had insisted.
“Yes, alright, help me into them then”
Straightening the clothes as best he could he marched for the doors.
“Steven, my parents never told me where I was to find the ladies. Do you know?”
“Yes sire. They should be in the Dining Hall”
“The private one?”
Nobody was ever allowed in the private dining hall.
“No sire. The Grand Dining Hall”
“The Grand Hall? But there will only be six of us, or maybe not even that many! Why in the world would they put us in the largest room to eat when there were so few of us? I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. Steven, would you mind tidying things up here and laying out one of my usual outfits? I’ll want to change as soon as I can”
“Of course sire. And they are in the Grand Hall because-”
“I’ll see for myself soon enough Steven. Don’t worry about me”
He closed the door behind him and started down the hallway.
He was about halfway to the Hall when he heard the faint sounds of music.
“They couldn’t have hired musicians for so few, could they?”
Increasingly nervous Robert pulled open the doors to the room’s second floor balcony and stepped out.
The Grand Hall was full.
Every chair had someone in it, and the stage was covered in musicians. The tables were just beginning to be laden down with food as the cooks and waiters served the guests.
Evidently he was late, but late to what?
“His Royal Majesty, the Crown Prince of Destria, Robert Marlan Destral”
As the steward announced him the crowd turned as one to look at him. He could see more than a few women with open looks of ambition or lust on their faces. And then the wave of thunderous applause hit him.
He almost wilted before it, almost turned and fled back to his room tearing off the ridiculous outfit as he went.
Instead he forced himself to smile through the confusion and terror and step forwards to the railing. He raised his hand and waved, looking around trying to guess how many people there might be.
The Hall was full, so close to a hundred and fifty maybe? Maybe more?
Making a decision he motioned for quiet. As everyone hurried to obey the sudden silence left the room echoing.
“Welcome everyone. I must say, I’m surprised to see you all”
Polite laughter greeted what they thought was a jest.
“I am overjoyed that so many of you could make it tonight for this wonderful event. I would just like to say that it is with great pleasure that I welcome you to Castle Destria, and that I hope you all enjoy this splendid meal prepared by our cooks!”
As the crowd began to applaud again he descended the curving staircase, looking to make sure that his parents were already seated at their table.
They were, but his usual seat was filled.
Looking around he noticed that most of the seats were filled. However, there was one seat open at each table. Each of those seats had a waiter standing behind it, carefully not watching him but keeping their eyes on him.
He knew what was expected of him and refused to be coerced.
“Mother. Father. This dinner is an unexpected surprise”
“Ah then dear, you will just love the ball that is to follow”
His Mother turned in her seat to send him a warning glare. There were after all other people nearby. Well, damn etiquette and protocol. He had lived so free from their machinations the past month, he had nearly been independent. He would not lose that now. If they wanted to play dirty like this then he had no reason to follow their rules either.
“Mother, you seem to misunderstand. I said it was a surprise, not that it was one I enjoyed”
His Father turned as well.
“Son. It would do to talk quietly now so as not to disturb the other diners. I suppose you wish an explanation?”
“What I wish is that the dinner guests leave immediately leaving behind the three ladies you said I was to entertain this week.
“However, that would be rude to send them out now, so I will settle for an explanation”
“Dear Robert. Did we ever say that you would only be meeting three women tonight?”
“You said I would spend the week entertaining three women Mother. Three, not thirty three”
“Oh no, there are not that many women here tonight who are interested in you. But we did not lie. You will only entertain three women this week, and you will meet them all tonight. It just so happens that you will also meet many other women this night who you will entertain in the future. In this way we have not lied, we just did not tell you the whole truth. I am sure that you appreciate the difference. If we had told you that we were hosting a dinner and ball you would have refused”
“And so you lied and tricked me, breaking the spirit if not the word of our agreement”
“Son. It is what we do as your parents. It is our right. Now, your Mother and I have explained ourselves and tire of this argument. You will now go to the first seat of the evening. Each of the tables where you have a seat have three different ladies you will meet at.
“When one course finishes your waiter will instruct you which table you are to move to next. You will only visit a few tables tonight, the ones with the women who you are to meet. You will decide which three you want to entertain this week. Next week we shall host another dinner and you shall decide again which three you wish to entertain throughout the week. There may be new women, and there will also be women from tonight. We will continue like this for a month, and then we shall return to a month of your studies. If you wish you may resume your studies in the mornings, for as much time as you wish”
“That was not our agreement!”
“We have altered the deal. Now, take your seat son”
Unable to argue any more Robert turned and walked to the table they had indicated, trying to keep a pleasant expression on his face.
They were forcing him into this, which they would regret, but he would do his best to be pleasant and choose the three ladies he liked the best to entertain.
He turned and saw a young woman, perhaps no more than thirteen, hurrying towards him.
“Prince Robert, I cannot believe that it is you! You are so much more handsome than the stories say!”
She bobbed a quick curtsy and smiled up at him. There was nothing shy about her at all. Her blonde hair was braided down her back and she had sea-green eyes.
“Thank you” Reflexes kicked in overruling his surprise at being flattered by the teenager “And since I have not yet had the pleasure of hearing your name let it suffice to say that your beauty far outshines the sunrise or a flower opening of a spring morning”
“Lady Marie Angel. Of House Angel”
House Angel. They were known for being on the far side of Destria right by the sea but still in the mountains. Their territory produced the best wines and fruits as they had lush valleys that had room for both housing and farming. They had taken their name from the Angelbirds that were only found in their domain, the beautiful white birds that always flew with the dawn, sometimes appearing to bring the dawn with them.
“Well Lady Marie, it is a pleasure to meet you. I do not mean to be rude, but I was just on my way to a table to start eating…”
“Oh, thats fine, you can come eat with us then! There is a free chair at our table that I think they were saving for you anyways”
He could mess up his parents order and follow Marie or he could be less annoying to the servants and follow the plan which might embarrass or insult Marie. Neither option was particularly enjoyable.
Robert didn’t want to make more work for the servants, but did not want to insult Marie. He had to make a decision, and quickly, before she noticed his delay.
And then his chance to make a decision was forever denied as someone tapped him on the shoulder.
Turning he almost smacked into a curtsying woman.
“My Liege. My name is Natasi Inari. I am from the mainland, and the equivalent of one of your duchesses. Would you care to eat with me now and perhaps again with me later?”
She had long dark hair and the dark olive skin of those on the most western provinces. Her eyes were beautiful and enchanting brown orbs.
And she was being very improper if he understood her correctly.
Feeling his face redden he did not have a chance to get out a reply before every woman in the room who hoped to attract his attention swarmed him.
He finally made it to Marie’s table for the dessert course. He had met so many women with so many names that he was having trouble keeping track of who was who and what they all looked like.
He was not looking forwards to meeting new people, and so was pleasantly surprised to find that he already knew several of the people at the table.
“Hello Prince. I see you’ve met my cousin!”
Andrew Angel, a Sigiled Knight-in-training, sat beside Marie. He had spent some time in the Castle’s garrison learning bladework from the soldiers and Sketching from Master Turendel.
“I have indeed Andrew! Hello again Marie, how has dinner been? I’m sorry that I haven’t had a chance to get here before now”
“Do not apologize Prince. It was not my place to request that you sit with us since that would disrupt the schedule”
“Yes, but did you know that there was a schedule or what it was? I didn’t even know what it was, so there is no need to feel guilty”
She immediately perked up thanked him as he turned to the other guests.
“Knight Williams. It is a pleasure to see you again. What brings you so far from the Fortress’ garrison?”
Williams was a soldier in the garrison of the Great War Fortress, the single greatest military asset of all time. He was sitting next to a woman Robert’s own age who looked down at her food, cascades of brown hair concealing her face for the moment.
The Great War Fortress was a massive flying structure much like Castle Destria. Kept aloft by Permanancied Sigils of Air it served as the last line of defense and first line of attack for the kingdom.
Being able to have a mobile fortress had won them many wars, as the soldiers could remain safe and rain arrows and rocks down on opposing armies without fear of retribution. It was currently inactive atop a nearby mountain since there was not a war on. It was manned by a garrison of soldiers ready to defend the mighty Fortress from any attempts to steal it, not that those would be likely. The mountain was inaccessible from land, and so the soldiers could only be resupplied through Castle Destria or one of the floating Border Towers which rarely strayed this far in.
Robert had met Williams when he snuck over to explore. Williams had been the one who had finally found the mischievous boy and his newfound friend.
“Business and pleasure Prince. The Captain needed missives delivered, and he also needed me to protect something very important on the way here. I was told that I should stay for the dinner and return when events permitted”
“Well, thats lucky for you. But, I apologize. Where are my manners? I have not yet asked the names of those I don’t know” He addressed the woman next to Williams “Fair lady, what is your name?”
“If you’ll pardon my rudeness my lord, you already know my name, although it seems you may forget it”
Marie and the other woman gasped at the rude words, but Robert was too busy trying to remember the voice.
“My lady, I seem to remember your voice, but I cannot place it. Perhaps if I saw your face I would be able to match a name to it?”
Williams quickly hid a smirk behind his hand, but Robert noticed.
“What is it Williams?
“Prince. The lady you are talking to is who I had to protect on the way here”
It took a moment for Williams’ words to register, and then comprehension dawned on Robert’s face to be quickly chased by surprise.
Turning he stared at the widely grinning woman who had finally raised her face.
“Madison! What are you doing here?”
Madison Amery was the daughter of Tyler Amery, the Lord-Knight Captain in charge of the Great War Fortresses’ garrison. Robert had first met Madison when he was a child and had snuck into the Fortress to explore. It had not been long before he had found the only other child aboard. Together they had struck up a friendship and explored the Fortress together until guards found the missing Prince and dragged him back to the Castle.
His parents had realized then that a friend may be good for him and that the Fortress was no place for a young woman to be raised. Tyler had agreed that Madison would be fostered in Castle Destria for a time so that both she and Robert could have a friend.
While they had been close friends for several years Robert’s parents eventually decided that he should also make male friends and arranged to have him fostered with the Royal Family of Dunesain on the mainland.
When it had been Matios’ turn to live in Castle Destria Robert had been excited to introduce his two best friends to each other. However, upon their return Madison was nowhere to be found, and his parents would only say that she ‘had had to go away’.
He had not seen her since that day, but had never forgotten his first friend.
She looked much different now. Her long brown hair was no longer tangled and shone in the candlelight. Her button nose now matched a well shaped face that held kind and joy filled eyes.
“Prince Robert. How long has it been?”
“Years. Ten? No, its been eleven now hasn’t it?”
“Yes. Too long. My father decided that this would be as good a time as any for us to see each other again. We would have an excuse to meet, and so nobody would think to spread rumours. Even then he did not want to let me come, until I told him that this was my birthday request”
“Madison…when was your birthday?”
“Tomorrow my lord”
“Madison! You should have used a birthday request just to come and see me! You could have written a letter or something, I’d have come and visited you! You’re my oldest friend! Anyways, you’ll have to stay now. I can’t let you travel on your birthday! That would make me a poor friend indeed”
“Well, be that as it may, you’re being a poor host right now. Prince”
Her smirk clued him in and he turned as red as when Natasi had spoken to him.
“Ah, I’m so sorry. Is everyone waiting for me to start eating?”
“And also to resume their conversations” Andrew gestured around at the silent Hall “They’ve been watching us the entire time”
Robert did not need to turn to know that his parents were glaring at him again.
“Umm, yes. Right”
Hoping that people would attribute the red in his cheeks to any wine he may have had and knowing they would not he raised his glass.
“Let the dessert be served”
As waiters wheeled out the food on trays Robert turned to the last woman at the table.
“Prince. My name is Delilah Ronove. My family is a small one from the interior. We’re the stewards of a large part of the Royal Families’ holdings, and so own no lands ourselves. I’ll let you talk to your friend. I am also not interested in marriage, as I plan to become a Sigiled Knight and they are not allowed marriage. However, my parents insisted that I at last meet with you in hopes that you can change my mind”
Robert took a moment to think about all the women that he had met so far that evening.
The three at this table seemed the least competitive, the least annoying, and the most refreshing.
He was not romantically interested in any of them, but that was fine. He would enjoy catching up with Madison, would be able to talk about Sketching with Delilah, and found Marie too happy and friendly to ignore.
And, spending the first week entertaining women who he had no romantic inclinations towards would be a wonderful revenge on his parents.
He had made his decision; now he just had to last through the rest of the dinner.