The Royal Tea-Party [FFT]
She stood straight and steady as the door that shut behind her, drawing her spine as stiff and tall as though she were herself a man of years and height, and not a squire of twelve who had only that past autumn grown enough to reach the polish and rags from the high shelf in the armoury cabinet without dragging over a stepstool to aid her. Her eyes fixed straight ahead, her feet spanning the same width as did her shoulders, her hands clasped together at the small of her back, fingers slightly taut, ready for action at but a moment's notice. For hours she had stood like this before, and was prepared to stand that way for many hence, should such be required of her.
Seated atop a velvet cushion, the princess stared at her guard with wide round eyes. She fixed her hands in her lap, worrying a ring that wound about her third finger. Agrias kept her gaze pinned to a spot of no consequence on a far wall. Though she was yet young, what her years of training lacked in duration was more than compensated for by their arduousness. Discipline kept her rooted in place beyond the distractions of curiosity; discipline was the watchword of Agrias' order, and any student in which it was found lacking would find a reminder in the superior's sharp tongue and sharper lash. She knew well her age and status, and she knew that she was not yet of great enough merit in either to look even a meagre knight in the eye, to say nothing of a princess
The princess in time bowed her head, arranging a small china tea set along a low table. Each gesture was pristine, fraught with delicacy, and each fragile white cup met its partner saucer with only the slightest chime of contact. Surely, Agrias thought, daring to view these movements only from the corner of her vision, surely such things were not instinctive, but had to be learned with the same dilligence as that with which a knight took his education. Agrias' thumb rubbed thoughtfully the sword-calluses along her palm.
She had seen Princess Ovelia before, of course -- knights of all orders were expected to attend at all major royal pomp-and-circumstance affairs, and their squires were oft expected to follow them on such occasions, to learn by observation that knighthood was not merely a battler's prize, but a sacred trust. Agrias had of course shown her the appropriate deference at the time, bowing in a show of respect as only befit someone of her status, yet though she knew she one day might be in the direct service of the princess, such a day seemed intangibly far in the future, a task for the day some years off when she had rightfully earned her place among her brethren.
As such, nothing in her considerable education thus far had prepared her for being placed in a room with the princess, told to do her sworn duty to God and to her liege, and left alone. Though discipline also told her she should never question an order, she found herself wishing she had at least been moved to ask for clarification.
Nor was she prepared when, after several minutes' worth of careful settling and re-settling, Princess Ovelia folded her hands in her lap and turned her attention back to her newest guard. Small, pale hands smoothed at the wrinkles of her skirt. "What's your name?" Her voice was small and musical, the tone of her words nearly identical to the song of the tea set.
Agrias hesitated for a moment, first wondering if she had in fact been the princess' object of address, then weighing discipline's contradictory orders of remaining silent on duty and always answering a direct question from a person of a higher rank. In the end, her decision arose largely as result of interrogating her options and deciding it would be less rude to speak than to keep a silence that could be read as obstinance. "Agrias Oaks, Your Highness."
From the edge of her vision, Agrias saw Ovelia's face light up in a smile. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Sir Agrias."
Sheer surprise at hearing her name spoken with such a title cracked through Agrias' stoic front. "No, I -- that is--" After a moment's lost bearings, she remembered herself, but could feel the flush that had crept into her cheeks linger past her attempts to regain her dignity. "Your Highness, I am not a knight."
"Are you not?" Ovelia's smooth forehead creased in a thoughtful frown. "Then why have they set you to guard me?"
"It is my desire one day to become a knight, Your Highness." She'd answered one question already; she might as well answer the rest. "At such time, it would be my honour to be set into your service, and thus I should attend to you with all loyal haste and devotion."
Ovelia's mouth quirked in contemplation, and Agrias thought she might be able to find contentment for hours doing nothing but watching the princess' sweet face move from one humour to another. Her countenance was openly expressive, a sharp contrast to the men like stone statues with whom Agrias was compelled to spend so much of her time. "And at that time," spoke Ovelia slowly, as though working through aloud a particularly difficult tactical scenario, "you will be obliged to follow my every order?"
Agrias allowed herself a curt nod. "I am obliged to follow it already, Your Highness."
At that, Ovelia rose with a smile and walked over to the bed, her long white skirts trailing about her, their lacy hem concealing her dainty feet. She reached up to the high mattress and pulled from it a pillow of fine satin; it, like the rest of the room, shone pristine white. "I am hosting a royal tea," she announced as she dragged it back toward the table, as its girth made bearing it in her small arms prohibitive. She set it down at the seat at the table opposite hers. "And everyone in the kingdom is invited to attend."
"Indeed, Your Highness." Agrias nodded again, unsure whether her princess was speaking of some future event of which Agrias was yet uninformed, or if the table set before her qualified as a place sufficient to seat the kingdom entire.
Ovelia knelt and smoothed the pillow, pressing out its creases. "I shall of course requre my knights to be in attendance."
There seemed nothing for Agrias to say to this, so she kept silent, though her stoic gaze by this time had been well-broken; she watched Ovelia openly now, letting her eyes study each of the princess' movements. How curious was the institution of royalty, then, that such a small girl held them all in thrall, that men far greater than she humbled themselves to every extent for the sake of this child -- though perhaps curiouser indeed was the stirring Agrias felt rising in her own breast, the buds of duty that flower into blossoms of devotion. Watching Ovelia, Agrias was filled with the knowledge that she would do the same as those great men and more, even unto death, were the princess only to order her thusly.
Yet even in the face of such newly minted purpose, Agrias still found herself at a loss when Ovelia came over and placed her hands in the crook of Agrias' right elbow. "I shall require an escort," she announced, pulling with all her small might and dislodging Agrias from her post by the door.
"Your Highness, I--" All pretense of stoicism dropped, Agrias looked nervously first at the door, then at her princess as she stumbled tableward. "Please, Your Highness, my master has set me to guard you--"
"It is my belief," said Ovelia calmly, as though her escort were not two heads taller than she and flailing, "that you can see me to guard me even better if you are seated across from me." She tugged despite all protest across the width of the room, back to the low table, where she settled herself upon her former cushion, skirts ballooning as she descended as though she were the seed pod of a dandilion, infinitely delicate, borne on the wind. "Please take your seat, Sir Agrias."
Hoping only that the situation was at least vaguely explicable, and that she would not be subject to punishment too severe for leaving her post, Agrias folded her legs in a cross beneath her and sat atop the newly settled pillow. Everything about her was such a well-laundered white that though her own uniform was well-pressed and shone pristine, she yet felt as conspicuous as a mudspot on an otherwise gleaming marble floor. Her own instructions in table manners had been cursory at best, and surely did not cover what to do in the event of tea with a princess, so she folded her hands atop one another over her crossed ankles, hoping that mimicry would be sufficient to avert disaster.
Ovelia reached for the teapot, bypassing the handle and placing her hands directly on its fat white sides. Agrias nearly cried aloud that she had best be careful, lest she burn herself, but Ovelia's hands seemed unharmed by the contact. The reason became clear as she upended the spout over Agrias' teacup and nothing came out save air. "Is that enough for you, Sir Agrias?"
Agrias paused the moment it would have taken to fill the cup with actual tea, then nodded. "Sufficient, Your Highness."
With a pleased smile so radient it made even the interior of the windowless room seem like daybreak, Ovelia went about the business of filling her own cup. From there, she picked up what appeared a sugar dish, though as Ovelia removed the lid, Agrias could see that it was as empty as the teakettle had been. "One lump or two?"
For Agrias, who took her tea as straight and dark as did most all the other knights, the true answer was neither of these; however, she supposed that imaginary sugars would not adversely affect the taste of imaginary tea. "Two, Your Highness," she nodded, nudging her cup forward so that Ovelia's sleeves did not drape so far over the table.
Using a tiny silver spoon, Ovelia lifted out two invisible cubes, one at a time, and lowered them into Agrias' teacup from a height sufficient that they would not cause a potentially embarrassing splash. She then placed three into her own glass, stirring them around with the spoon before declaring the business of sweetening finished. "Do you take your tea with milk or with lemon?" she asked next, gesturing to an empty plate and a small ewer whose contents, though not immediately visible, Agrias could surmise.
Lemons had found their way into the mess hall on many an occasion, and Agrias found she liked their tartness, though she had never before considered putting milk in her tea, and thought it might be a novelty worth trying, even if the experience was only pretend. "Both, Your Highness."
"Both!" Ovelia clapped her hands over her mouth, a gesture insufficient to stop the giggles that bubbled through her fingers. "The milk will curdle!"
"It ... oh." Agrias suddenly found a small scar on the back of her knuckles utterly fascinating. "Then whichever you think is best, Your Highness."
The princess' laughter abruptly stopped, as though she had suddenly become aware of doing some great injury to her tea-time guest's dignity, and she reached for the cream pitcher with newly reclaimed poise. "I prefer milk in winter," she said, as though none of the preceding events had taken place at all, "though in the summer, I find a lemon slice a refreshing balm against the heat."
"Thank you, Your Highness." Agrias reached her hands out before her, taking the proffered cup and saucer. The weight of real porcelain sat unfamiliar in her hands, heavy and unexpected, and she held cup and saucer alike aloft over the table, just as she had reached them, unsure of what etiquette compelled her next move to be.
As Agrias waited, Ovelia went about the motions of finishing her own tea preparations, allowing a generous amount of the imagined cream fall into her cup before righting the pitcher and placing it back among its tea-set fellows. "I am told," she began, lifting the cup from her saucer and bringing it to her lips; Agrias took hurried care to shadow her exactly, hoping that in mimicry she would have no opportunity to commit a blunder. Ovelia's face lit up as she tilted the cup to taste its phantom contents. "Ah, this tea is delicious. I am told that all proper ladies need to know how to serve tea." She raised her eyebrows at Agrias. "...Do you?"
Agrias wished then that she had been trained as a magus instead, that she might be able somehow to apparate to another place and time where she was not such an obvious disappointment to her princess. "No, Your Highness, I...." She took another sip of tea as she weighed her words; she neither wished to aggrandise falsely her own humble status, nor to make it seem like the duties of a princess were at all inconsequential by contrast. "My education compels me toward becoming a proper knight, oft at the expense of becoming a proper lady."
The words seemed to catch Ovelia by surprise, and she pondered them, her brows furrowed, before lightening into a smile. "One moment," she smiled, pulling herself to her feet again with dainty grace. She walked over to her bureau and took from its top drawer a silver brush, sized for a child's hand, its bristles soft and fine. With a purposeful smile, she returned to where Agrias sat; however, instead of returning to the seat in front of her, Ovelia circled behind her and placed her hands on either side of the tight bun that held Agrias' hair from her neck. All those in her order who chose to keep their tresses long tied them back thusly, that it might not interfere with their duties, and Agrias had taken to the same habit once her own hair had grown from the novice initiate's short-shear to touch at her shoulders again. "You have such lovely hair." Ovelia reached for the leather thong that kept the bun fast and tugged at one end; the knot, though tight, gave way, and gravity brought Agrias' hair down in a cascade to the middle of her back.
It was a strangely naked sensation, this exposure, but if Ovelia noticed any discomfort on her guest's part, she paid it no mind, taking the locks instead in her hands. She parted their golden waves, then took half in her hand, teasing at the ends with the brush. Agrias found herself regretting the haste with which she had prepared herself this morning; had she known she might find herself at the end of a princess' scrutiny, she might have taken more care with her appearance. There was nothing for it now, then, but to bear up under it.
Whenever the brush encountered a snarl, Ovelia would work it through with gentlest fingers, separating the strands one from the other without causing Agrias the slightest distress. "Is it always swept up so severely, or do you ever let it down?" Ovelia asked, running her brush again through a long lock of hair, from scalp to root, and smiling as it met no resistance.
Agrias set her shoulders. "I do not, Your Highness." There was a fleeting sense of embarrassment to the omission, as though it pained her to contradict the princess in any way. "It would be a distraction possibly fatal for a knight to make a sudden move and find his perception hampered by his own hair."
"Then why do you keep it long?" Coming from Ovelia, the inquiry was trimmed with no malice, not a carefully crafted probe intended to trap her conversation partner in a logical fallacy, but an honest question. Her hands gathered Agrias' hair into a bundle, testing its weight before letting it fall again about her shoulders and back.
She opened her mouth as though she had an answer for the princess, but none came. It was a question which had never confronted her before, as there had seemed no need for it to arise -- many others in the order, male and female alike, kept the style, and so did she. There really was no thought to the decision other than that it was proper for those around her, and so, she surmised, it was proper for herself. Her hands found the rim of her tea saucer, and she traced its beveled edge with careful fingertips.
A knight did not desire personal glory, nor did he seek to distinguish himself from his peers, but rather melted in among them, so that in battle his desires might be as indistinguishable from theirs as were theirs from his. Indeed, had Agrias' teachers been careful to stress from the first day of her time with them, a knight who strives for individual recognition above all things is one cut down when his folly of pride leads him to the delusion that his very survival does not depend on his comerades. Steeled by these words, she had done everything she could to blend in with the others, to stand out neither in dress nor in speech, neither in failures nor in successes. Surely by such careful action had she safeguarded her position.
Ovelia's hands slowed at the silence. "I did not mean to cause offense...."
"You have given me no cause for offense, Your Highness," Agrias was quick to say. "My hair is long because I have not thought to cut it, though Your Highness is correct, and I shall shear it anon--"
"No!" Ovelia's small hands folded into fists around the strands. "I did not mean-- I would not have you do such a thing! I only...." From behind her, Agrias heard the sound of a small, deep breath, and then Ovelia's grip slackened and she resumed her brushing. "Perhaps ... may I plait it for you?"
"As Your Highness wishes," came Agrias' near-automatic answer; had the princess asked to cut Agrias' hair at the root until she was as bald as an old monk, Agrias would have readily agreed.
She could feel as Ovelia separated her hair into three separate sections, leaving aside two forelocks too brief to work into the braid, then began to twist the long sections together. Agrias closed her eyes and learned with her body the pattern of the braid, first the farthest left into the middle, then the farthest right, back to the left, in a spiral dance that wove endlessly in and out of itself.
Her master had once told her the parable of the three reeds, whose moral was that three reeds might be snapped easily one at a time, but three that joined together resisted all such attempts to sever them. She thought of it now as the princess' hands travelled down the length of her spine, their rhythm slow and easy. It would set her apart, this new hairstyle -- she had seen none like gracing the heads of her compatriots -- yet even as Ovelia's fingers brushed the fabric between her shoulder blades, Agrias knew she would never again tie it any other way. This was her mark, her branding, and she took its charge upon herself willingly; her body felt heavy with the weight of belonging.
By the time she finished, Ovelia's hands were nearly to the small of Agrias' back, and Agrias turned the edge of her gaze to see the princess take a white ribbon from her own hair and knot the three dancing strands together. Still standing behind her, so that Agrias might not see her face, Ovelia took a small steeling breath. "...When I am Queen," she said, her voice clear and authoritative despite her few years, "you shall be my knight."
Agrias bowed her head low, so low she could nearly feel the weight of the knighting sword on her shoulders. "As Your Highness wishes."
When an hour later the princess' customary guard and Agrias' master returned from the war meeting to which they had been so unexpectedly summoned, they found the young squire still at full attention and readiness, though seated, not standing, near a low table set for high tea. Across her lap lay the sleeping princess, who looked so delicate in her white-clad dreaming that the men found their hearts moved and, instead of disturbing the tableau, retreated without a word, shutting the heavy doors to the princess' chamber softly behind them.
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