This chapter finds Polly continuing in her attempts to foil the jadess’s plans at the Palace.
Polly, while impersonating the princess, has been kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee, and taken far, far away from her home… where she meets the very princess she was impersonating. It is revealed they all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.
Chapter 14A: Court Rivalry
Maria came over the next morning, with three boxes of new dresses. I slept hard that night after my day at court, and I woke up reluctantly when she knocked on my door. “Come in,” I groaned.
“Good morning,” she told me, sweeping into the room. She dumped three boxes on the floor beside me. “Get up and decide which dress you’re going to wear.”
She had brought three dresses, the first a dark, golden apricot with a V-neck and a golden circlet of ivy for the waist. The second was raspberry edged in gold, with embroidered roses growing up from the skirt to the neckline. But the third one was the one I chose to wear: an azure blue, without seams and without decorations, with a square neck and trailing sleeves. Maria helped me lace up my girdle and pull the dress over that again, and my stomach protested at being constricted for the third day in a row. Around my neck and arms I wore jewellery like woven silver.
“Are you going to court today?” I asked her. She shook her head.
“I do not feel so much like it lately,” she said. “You get tired of it after awhile. So I’m taking the time to re-order my estate again.”
“But you will come to help me every morning?” I looked at her. “Please? I need you for moral support, and I don’t think I’ll ever manage to do this by myself.”
“I’ll come as much as I can,” she promised, combing out my hair. “How did it go yesterday?”
So I told her all about my day at court, and my many mistakes, and she laughed.
“You did very well for your first day,” she said. “I know many who would not think someone not born to nobility could perform half so well. You did not even know what a court was like before.”
She left just before breakfast again, avoiding Casper and leaving me to swallow as much food as I could manage and climb into the carriage to set off. Casper came with me again, he had business with the Rajah.
“So long as the jadess doesn’t get you,” I told him with a laugh. He pulled a face.
“I try not to put myself in a place where she can get at me,” he said.
“You know,” I said, “I feel sorry for Paulina. I mean, being left behind.”
“I gave her a protection charm too, you know,” he told me. “So she can get out of the house now.”
“I know,” I sighed. “But she’d be so much better at this court stuff than me.”
The carriage reached the Palace. Casper led me through the Palace again, since I didn’t know the way, this time to a different throne room, with different heralds at the door. But one we went in I found all the same nobles as the day before.
“Hello,” Janeira said to me, once I had given my greetings to the Rajah.
“Hello,” I replied. The other ladies all looked at me, but didn’t say anything. I nodded to them.
It was much like last time. I sat down on a chair, spreading my azure skirts out around me, and listened to them talk. Janeira explained some of the names they were talking about, reminding me of people I’d met yesterday. But still I couldn’t contribute much to the conversation, and I kept getting everyone mixed up.
“That Lord Hamptys thinks too much of himself, doesn’t he?” Carmen was saying, fanning herself slowly with a large, gilded fan. It was hot and stuffy in the throne room. Mandarine looked sharply at her.
“Lord Hamptys is my father’s brother,” she told Carmen coldly. The others were all watching them with avid interest.
“So?” Carmen asked, raising one eyebrow archly.
“I would appreciate it if you did not insult my kinsmen,” Mandarine replied.
“Not again,” Janeira sighed from beside me.
“Why not?” Carmen said. “They’re all pompous asses, and you’re one of them.”
“Nice words coming from someone who can’t even get the Rajah to look at her,” Mandarine sneered, her face white with fury.
“Oh yeah?” Carmen hissed back. “Does he look at you any more often?”
“He does,” Mandarine asserted.
“You shrieking fool!”
Thwack! Mandarine’s hand shot out and slapped Carmen across the face. Carmen rose up, raised her arms, and hit back. Then Mandarine grabbed a hunk of shiny black hair, and they both fell to the ground in a screaming, kicking, biting, yowling pile. I stared, aghast.
“Cat fight,” an earl standing two feet away remarked.
The other ladies weren’t helping much. The ones on Mandarine’s side were facing the ones on Carmen’s side, circling the fight, hissing at each other and encouraging Carmen and Mandarine on. There was quite a lot of hair-pulling and elbowing in the crowd, and multitudes of dirty looks, though Carmen and Mandarine were the only ones who were actually fighting.
I stood up nervously. “Um, why don’t we take this outside?”
They all stared at me, and even Carmen paused, though Mandarine did not.
“Whatever for?” Daina asked.
“We’re in a palace!” I protested. Maria must’ve been crazy – meek-tempered women at court, my foot! Janeira came up beside me.
“The Rajah’s learned not to keep valuables in his throne room by now,” she told me. “Don’t worry.”
I stared at them all. Didn’t they see? How uncourtly and unladylike!
“Chaldean women have tempers like cats,” I remembered hearing Casper say. “And once they start there’s no stopping them.” I think he’d been talking about the women who’d been furious at him for jilting them, but I thought I understood what he meant now.
The brawl was still raging. A couple of palace guards and some earls were trying to drag them apart, but they seemed afraid to get too close. I was about to try and extricate them myself, when a piercing whistle tore through the hall.
“Stop it this instant,” the Rajah commanded. He stood, regal, his noble eyes flashing, his strong profile hard, his muscle tense under his robes as his darkish hair fell down around his forehead. He made a motion with his scepter, and amazingly both women stopped. I made a mental note to correct Casper. Chaldean women could be stopped if they lost their tempers, but only by a young, handsome, unmarried Rajah’s command.
Both Carmen and Mandarine looked decidedly worse for the wear. Their hair was yanked out of its combs and tangled around their shoulders, their make-up was smeared, their expensive dresses were torn and rumpled. Jewels that had fallen off were strewn around the floor.
“I have tolerated your childishness long enough,” the Rajah told them sternly. “I will no longer. I will not have this unseemly behaviour in my court. From now on you will get along.”
I thought he was asking rather much, but both Carmen and Mandarine looked penitent, at least for now. The Rajah gave them one last look, before sitting down and continuing his conversation with the officer beside him. He already looked as if he’d forgotten the incident.
“Well, they certainly both got the Rajah to look at them that time,” I muttered.
“Sharp tongues get you in a world of trouble at court,” Janeira said, rolling her eyes. “Especially theirs.”
Without looking at each other Carmen and Mandarine picked up their things off the floor and stormed away, presumably to fix themselves up. The other ladies separated into two groups, Carmen’s group and Mandarine’s group, and began whispering excitedly.
“Does this happen a lot?” I asked Janeira.
“About every couple of weeks,” she replied.
Carmen and Mandarine came back looking as good as new, and my day after that was pretty much the same as yesterday. I though I was finally getting the hang of manners at lunch. At least I didn’t make everybody stare at me so often.
Court days fell mostly in a pattern. First was the morning, when everyone arrived one by one, to be announced by the heralds, and to give their greeting to the Rajah. Then, while the Rajah took care of business, the court ladies were left to gossip and amuse themselves together. After that it was our ‘daily promenade’ around the garden. Officially it was to get some fresh air, but both we and the Rajah knew better. The earls seemed to know better too, and often they would show up and watch us during this time, talking among themselves. Probably discussing our beauty and rating us, I thought. Most of the earls seemed to be of marriageable age, perhaps that explained it.
Then there was the mid-day meal. The Rajah’s lunch was the finest in the land, slices of cold venison, fresh salad, platters of fruit, bowls of jelly, pitchers of cream, and frozen ices to go between each course. Too bad the laces on my girdle were too tight for me to enjoy much of it.
And in the afternoon the court enjoyed leisure time. We did all sorts of courtly things: boating on the river, displaying ourselves to the common folk, viewing plantations, hawking (for those with hawks to show off), competitions in which the lords and earls would show off their skills for us. The earls and the court ladies all seemed to know each other, and be friends, and sometimes I wondered why the ladies didn’t just quit chasing the Rajah and marry one of them. They were extremely kind and courtly; I met some of them because they who showed open interest in the only woman with blond hair there, though obviously not because of my beauty. I got to know some of the ladies too, and they could’ve been worse, but it seemed it was hard to really fit in here if you weren’t on anybody’s side. So I stood around by Janeira.
The Rajah came too, in the afternoon, if he wasn’t wrapped out in something else. When he did, the ladies would all jostle in a crowd around him, enough to make me green and wish they’d give the poor man a break. If he disappeared even for a moment, though, I worried, wondering if the jadess was getting her hands into him, but at least I had all the ladies under my eye. Though Casper would probably skin me alive if he knew.
“I thought you said Chaldeans like their women meek,” I said to Maria, first moment I could – one morning when she brought over new dresses. “The two leading women at court are spitting cats.”
“I said you would have to be meek and mild, to get close to the Rajah,” Maria retorted. “Carmen and Mandarine are leaders at court, very true – but are either married to the Rajah yet? Is that the sort of woman he prefers, or merely the sort that wearies him? You decide.”
Slowly I hooked a pair of jewelled earrings into my ears. “He seems – pretty sick of court in general. Don’t tell me, he’ll offend some important family if he doesn’t show up.”
“You are quick.” Maria grinned.
Casper’s plan was genius, then – there was no way the Rajah would meet a strange woman outside of court, and if he was always at court it would be difficult for the jadess to make a move. Even more difficult if I was there to keep an eye on things.
“You are a foreigner,” Maria went on. “You have to be very careful about your place in court. And I know the Rajah prefers the sort of woman – that I can never be.”
She glanced away quickly. It was the first sign of emotion (other than anger) that I had ever seen in her.
I wouldn’t go to court anymore, either, if I had to watch all those women fight over the man I loved.
“Look here, the Rajah’s got to open his eyes someday,” I told her.
She let out a long sigh. “I do keep telling myself that.”