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The King's Court
“Will you be attending Court tonight, ma’am?” Ellie Fielding asked her mistress, as she yanked her corset ties tighter.
“Ooft!” Chelsea Parker-Livingston complained, as her waist shrank even more, cutting off her air supply. “Yes, I am indeed. James will be escorting me. It shall be his first time at Court in five years!”
“Ah, yes. And how did your brother find France? To his liking, I hope?” Ellie finished tying the corset, and began to help Chelsea with putting on her elaborate gown, without creasing the delicate material.
“I believe so. I have had little opportunity to speak with him, as he has been locked up in his room since his arrival yesterday. Whatever could he be doing in there?” Chelsea tossed her head indignantly. She didn’t take too kindly to being ignored.
“I’m sure he did not mean to neglect his sister. He will no doubt make up for it tonight.” The pair were silent for a few moments, as they concentrated on the gown. Eventually, it was arranged neatly, and Chelsea hurried over to the mirror.
“What do you think, Ellie? Beautiful, isn’t it? James brought it back for me from France.” She turned this way and that, admiring the ornate stitching, and rich, expensive sky-blue fabric. Her petticoats swished as she moved.
“Of course, ma’am.” Ellie looked down at her own, rather drab servant’s uniform. The dull grey dress was baggy and unflattering. To her, everything that Chelsea wore was beautiful and exotic, although she had to admit that tonight’s dress was even more dazzling than normal.
“Do my hair.” Chelsea commanded, sitting down on the stool in front of her dressing table. Ellie sighed, and moved behind her quickly. Sometimes her and Chelsea would get on well, and talk almost like friends. During those moments it was easy to forget that the power in their relationship was very much one-sided. Then Chelsea would act commanding, to reassert her authority, and Ellie would have no choice but to obey piously.
She pinned up her mistress’s hair into the elaborate style that her mistress described as being ‘the height of fashion in France’. Poor Ellie stumbled along; trying to make sense of Chelsea’s muddled instructions. Finally, when Chelsea was satisfied with the result, she swept dramatically from her seat. Ellie followed her down the staircase, to the darkened driveway where the carriage was waiting.
Chelsea climbed into the carriage elegantly, graciously accepting the offered hand of a young porter. Ellie watched enviously as the carriage rolled away into the night, towards promises of excitement, intrigue and glorious fun.
Chelsea leaned back against the plush cushions. Her brother sat opposite her, and she took the opportunity to examine the changes the spell abroad had wrought on his appearance. When James had left, he had been a slightly awkward, gangly boy of eighteen. He was now a confident, well-groomed man of twenty-three. Her friends would probably call him handsome, she thought. He was old enough to be married, now, and no doubt he would be soon. The added allure of an extended stay in a foreign country would mean that he would be the catch of the season for the women at court. She wondered which of them would become her new sister-in-law.
“Are you not going to ask me how France was? I presumed you would be dying of curiosity by now,” He teased her.
“You seem to be unwilling to share your travel stories, so I assumed that I ought not to ask.” She retorted, and he frowned.
“I presume you are alluding to my absence from dinner last night, and my failing to come search you out today.”
“You presume correctly. What business could you have that is so urgent it keeps you away from your family, upon your return from such a lengthy absence? I would have thought you may have been curious to see how much I have changed, since you last saw me five years ago.”
“Are you fishing for a compliment, my dear Chelsea? I notice you are wearing the gown I brought you from France.” He gestured to her outfit. The folds of the skirt took up the entire seat, meaning that it was fortunate no others were travelling with them, or else there would not have been room. “I trust it is to your liking?”
“Why, yes. Although not quite the fashion here in Vare yet, it shall be soon, and I shall be seen as ahead of the trend, thanks to the thoughtfulness of my brother.” She inclined her head towards him. He smiled bashfully at the compliment. “But do not think I have not seen through your cunning plan. When I am asked about the source of my fabulous dress, as I no doubt will be, I shall have to direct the asker to you for the name of the dressmaker, meaning that you will have a flock of young ladies fawning over you all night.”
“Whyever would that be so?” He looked amused.
“You’ve been away for five years. You’ll be a novelty to them. Especially since you remain unmarried, each will be desperate to catch you before the end of the season.” She explained to him. A flash of something indescribable crossed his face, but it disappeared so quickly Chelsea could not have been sure that it had even been there in the first place.
“In that case, we had better not disappoint them by being late. I believe we have arrived.” Sure enough, the carriage had drawn to a halt. Two porters emerged from the shadows to open the door. James exited first, before helping his sister climb down the carriage steps. Chelsea paused for a moment, gazing up rapturously at the extravagance of the building in front of her. No matter how many times she came here, the incredible beauty of the building never failed to amaze her. The smooth, white walls curved up to meet the shining rooftops. The stone the walls were made from glittered and sparkled in the last of the sunlight; later, when it grew dark, this would become a luminescent glow. This stone was so rare, it was used only on the homes of the most powerful and affluent families, including Chelsea’s. The golden gates stood open to welcome the chosen ones, and the red carpet beneath their feet protected delicate shoes from the rough ground.
She placed her gloved hand in the crook of James’s elbow, and swept into the palace, smiling aloofly.
James Parker-Livingston had not been present at Court for years. As he glanced around, he caught a glimpse of a few familiar-looking faces. Of course, everyone was much older than when he had last seen them. And some marriages had been made, he noticed. He saw Selena Bates, one of Chelsea’s childhood friends, on the arm of old Count Ingelby. That was an interesting match. Presumably made for the money and connexions, rather than any real affection. Indeed, Selena’s eye was visibly straying in the direction of most of the young men in the room. As he watched, the Count’s son, Evan, joined the pair. James and Evan had been good friends before they’d gone their separate ways, and so he steered Chelsea over towards the group.
“James, my friend! I had heard you were back from France, and was hoping to bump into you here. You must tell me all about it!” Evan’s eyes were bright with interest. James looked around the group. He noticed Selena eyeing him with perhaps a little too much interest, and resolutely turned his gaze.
“Indeed, my wife and I were discussing you just this morning, were we not?” The Count confided, and then continued without even pausing for Selena to agree. “I was not sure whether you would put in an appearance at Court tonight, although my wife insisted that you would.”
“Oh, my sister would not allow me to miss it for the world.” He laughed, and Chelsea blushed demurely.
“Chelsea, you must tell me where you purchased your gown. It is simply beautiful!” Selena said admiringly.
“It is a present from my brother. He brought it back from France for me.” Chelsea smirked in his direction. James adopted a bashful look.
“Then I must admire your taste, dear sir. The colour is perfect for your sister, and the fabric well-chosen. You have an impeccable eye.” She smiled at him prettily, and batted her eyelashes. He refused to flirt with her in front of her husband, though, and gave only a vague smile in return, with a significant glance at the Count.
“I am sorry to drag my brother away from you, but I have just spotted someone I absolutely have to introduce him to.” Chelsea politely extricated them from what was becoming an increasingly awkward conversation. He’d thought the mysterious person was a ruse, but Chelsea set a demanding pace towards the opposite corner of the room. A young man was stood by himself, having just parted company with an elderly couple.
“Good evening, sir.” His sister curtseyed daintily. Following her lead, he gave a short, stiff bow. Clearly whoever this was must be important, to require such formalities. “Richard, allow me to introduce my brother James, who has recently returned from France. James, this is Prince Richard DeBouchard, heir to the throne of the Isle of Vare.” James froze for a moment, and stared at his sister in amazement. She had certainly come on well in the last five years. To be on first name terms with the prince... he quickly regained his composure, and shook hands with the man who would soon become the ruler of his home land.
The prince spoke first. “Chelsea has told me a lot about you, James. I feel I know you already.” He laughed. James was growing more and more astonished by the second. His little sister obviously had spent some time with Prince Richard, then. “How did you find France? I have always desired to go there, but I am afraid that my duties insist I remain here. I admit to having a curiosity to visit our former rulers, both France and Britain. I find it fascinating the ways our society has been influenced by theirs over the years.”
“Richard is quite the historian. He is ever so clever – you ought to see some of his writings on the history of the Isle of Vare; it is fascinating reading.” Chelsea simpered. The prince smiled at her fondly, and she gazed back. The two of them remained frozen for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes. James’s eyebrows couldn’t have risen any higher. Who would have thought it? His little sister could be the next queen! Of course, he shouldn’t get ahead of himself. It may be just innocent flirting.
Prince Richard cleared his throat, before continuing. “I find life on the island so incredibly constricting. Of course, I would not wish myself anywhere else, but I have such a desire to travel, and see the world for my own eyes, rather than from books. After all, it always surprises me just how much we do not know about our own history. For example, we know the dates of the British occupation, between 1432 and 1803, but we remain unaware of the reasons why the British granted us our independence after just less than 400 years of occupation. Another great mystery is how we lack any form of records from before the French occupation. The earliest dated record I have been able to find in the Palace, and indeed within the city walls, dates back to just 1084...” He droned on and on. James tried to find a polite excuse to extricate himself, but after all, it was his future ruler whom was speaking, so he felt duty bound to hear him out.
Fortunately, after about ten minutes or so, there was a break in the music, which signalled the commencement of dancing. The Prince halted in his tirade, and offered his hand to Chelsea.
“Would you care to do me the honour of the first dance, my dear Chelsea?” James watched his sister graciously accept, before being led into the dancing throng by the Prince of Vare.
Across the room, Countess Selena Ingelby also observed the pair, her blue eyes narrowed in jealousy. She and Chelsea had been best friends since they were small, but now they were older, they had started to grow apart. After her marriage to the old Count, Selena had been expected to play the part of the subservient, obedient wife, obeying her husband’s every wish without question. Most of the time, the Count was too old to grant her much more than the occasional smile. He spent much of his time in his study, where his primary companions were his trusty wine glass and a bottle of vintage port. Thus, Selena was left with the run of the mansion.
Becoming a Countess had done much to boost her station, she mused, as she smiled prettily at the constant flow of elegantly dressed men and women who came over to congratulate her husband on his marriage. A most advantageous match, her mother had said. She gained connexions with powerful families while the Count lived, and on his death, she would stand to inherit his entire estate, due to his previous wife being childless. After this death, which would inevitably occur within the next couple of years, once the correct mourning period had been observed, Selena would be free to marry whomsoever she may choose. The perfect arrangement.
Still, in the meantime, she had to be content remaining on the edges of the room, listening to her husband discuss matters of business and politics with his equally old and dull friends, while her friends danced with eligible young bachelors. It was the life she had chosen for herself, though. One important truth existed in life: you can’t have both love and money at the same time. Women before had ruined themselves and discredited the family name for the sake of love. Selena was quite happy to wait.
Back at the Parker-Livingston’s mansion, Ellie was down in the basement, where the servants spent most of their time. There were nine permanent staff required to keep the household running smoothly: a cook, two lady’s maids, two porters, a butler, two housemaids and a stable boy. The cook and the butler had been married for ten years, and the stable boy was their son. Ellie’s fellow lady’s maid, Susie waited on Mrs Parker-Livingston, and was recently engaged to the older of the two porters. Susie and Ellie were good friends, and Susie had often joked that Ellie ought to get engaged to the younger porter, so they could have a double wedding. The younger porter, however, was unbearably snobbish and far too uppity for a servant. Ellie had always harboured a great dislike for him. So despite Susie’s attempts at matchmaking (she’d even taken Ellie down to the post-office one day to ‘have a look’ at the postmaster’s son!), Ellie remained resolute that she would only get marred if she fell in love. And as it seemed unlikely that she ever would, she was committed to becoming an elderly spinster.
The two women were discussing this subject that evening. While the rich and fabulous partied at the Palace, they sat together on Ellie’s bed in their shared room, mending clothes while they chatted.
“How can you say that you’re never going to get married? You’re only eighteen!” Susie complained, as she stitched vehemently at Mrs Parker-Livingston’s stockings.
“I’m not saying I definitely won’t ever get married, just that it’s unlikely.” Ellie explained patiently as she mended a tear in one of Chelsea’s undergarments.
“You can’t wait forever. You’re at the prime of your youth now. If you put it off much longer, you’ll be too old and no man will take you.”
“I don’t want any man who’ll take me. I only want to marry if it is to someone who I genuinely love, and who loves me in return.” Ellie’s eyes misted over, and became dreamily. Susie snorted.
“You’ve been reading too many romance novels. Life isn’t like it is in books. People don’t fall in love, and abandon their families and livelihoods to be with the one they love. In real life, people marry out of convenience, and if they think that marriage will better their situation in some way. Love doesn’t even come into it. Many women find themselves fortunate to like and respect their husbands, but certainly not to love them.” She spoke patronisingly, as if to a small child. Only two years older than Ellie, Susie liked to think of herself as Ellie’s older sister, who was far more knowledgeable and world-weary than naive little Ellie.
“Do you not love Tom then?” Tom was the porter to whom Susie was engaged.
“I wouldn’t say love, exactly. Not like it is in books. But he is a nice man, and we get on well.”
“You’re basing your future happiness on that? He’s a nice man? Phfft!” The women sat in silence for a few moments, concentrating on their work. They’d had the same argument many times before, and neither had ever won. After a while, Susie changed the subject.
“Have you heard the gossip about Mistress Chelsea?” She brightened at the prospect of possessing a titbit of interesting news to share.
“Why, apparently she may soon be engaged to the Prince!” Ellie’s mouth dropped open in shock.
“You can’t be serious! Chelsea, the future queen?”
“Whyever not? He’s about her age, and she is old enough to marry, so why not marry the prince?”
“Who told you?” Ellie demanded. She refused to believe such preposterous news without confirmation of its source. A lot of the gossip Susie told her was unfounded, anyway. Like when she’d said one of the housemaids was having a secret liaison with the butler. The scandal had swept the servants quarters like wildfire, only for it to be found that the rumour had been circulated by the other housemaid, after the two had had an argument. Few put much faith in Susie’s ‘news’ after that incident.
“Well, I heard it from the baker’s boy, whose cousin works at the palace. The cousin apparently saw the two together at Court on Lundi and Mecredi this week!” The Court met four out of seven evenings of the week – Lundi, Mecredi, Vendredi and Samedi (although independent of French rule for many years though, the islanders had kept a few French words in their language, including the days of the week). Who was seen with whom, and how often, was much a subject of gossip among anyone with a source who attended those evenings.
“So?” enquired Ellie. She was still mistrustful.
“They danced two dances together each night! The prince does not often favour women with such attention. I expect the proposal shall come any day soon.” It was well-known even amongst those who had never attended a formal gathering of the sort where there was dancing, that two dances was the maximum number which was socially acceptable for an unengaged couple to dance. Once engaged, this rose to four, and after marriage, the pair were permitted to dance as many dances as they may wish together. Ellie nodded, impressed.
“Just think, if Miss Chelsea marries the prince, when he becomes king, you will be the queen’s maid!” The two women continued to gossip, imagining scenarios where the servant’s quarters at the palace were as luxurious as the main bedroom at the Parker-Livingston’s, getting more and more absurd each moment.
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