How to Woo the Prince: a Primer by his Aide
In his heart, Artus knew Philippa was wrong, and it vexed him all day into the next that he couldn't come up with an ironclad retort. Yes, a good servant did their job, and a good servant took their orders without complaint. But if your master was the sort of person who decided they wanted to be paid in cakes instead of gold, surely it was your ethical duty to remind them that gold could buy many more cakes?
A part of him wondered if he just wasn't as good a servant as Philippa yet. After all, didn't the prince also save every animal he came across, to the extent that Artus had to plan routes through town where he'd spotted the least amount of strays? Didn't he still tell the prince that horses injured in races lived in retirement pastures? Frederic didn't need to know how awful the world truly was.
But the prince didn't put himself in danger. Or rather, any situation Frederic put himself into, he was the biggest danger. Any moment Philippa Mazarin looked away, Rita was just a shopkeeper, beholden to the masses. She made herself look weak, and Rita should care more about looking weak. A villainess was at least fearsome; a weak noble was...
Frederic called to him. "You missed the target!"
"Huh?" Artus put down his bow and peered across the field. His fourth arrow was nowhere to be found.
"Goodness, you made a hash of it! I think I see it in that tree over there. Are you okay? Do you need your eyes checked?"
Frederic said this without a hint of mockery, which made it worse. "I'm just tired. I had a late night."
"Ooh, you had to spend a lot of time with Lady Marguerite, right?"
"No, of course not!" Artus yelled, but then his brain caught up. "Sorry, I thought you meant—I heard—anyway, yes, we had another lesson yesterday, and then I had a lot to catch up on when I returned. Alone."
"Oh, what do you think of her? How many more lessons do you need to do? Did you ask if she likes riding and soft cheeses?"
Artus thought of her wide grins, and her book recommendations, and her with her customers. "She's not what I expected. I might need to do a lot more lessons than I anticipated, but I think she likes cheese. I can arrange a meeting if you like."
"I'd like that! His Majesty mentioned that there isn't as much time to prepare for the engagement party as usual. I wonder why they don't just push it back, though?"
No doubt because the Beaudennes were abundantly wealthy and the king had recently hemorrhaged money on a battlefront and imported furniture. "I wonder why."
"Tutu, are you mad? It's all right, we all miss the target sometimes."
"Oh, of course I haven't seen you miss in years, but you don't have to be embarrassed about it. How about we pick up the arrows and then go eat supper together, like we used to?"
Others will perceive your kindness as weakness. "I'm afraid we can't. I'm your servant now, and that wouldn't be appropriate. I may just be overtired."
"It's Artus, Your Highness. You don't want to seem too familiar with me. Deep apologies, but might I be excused for now? I'll have the cleanup taken care of."
Artus left without looking back at Frederic.
Artus's thoughts faded into the same dream, over and over. His shoulders started heavy under a rich cloak and light with purpose. He walked down an aisle to the throne, flanked by endless rows of courtiers. At first the courtiers would bow or cheer, but at some point down the long, long aisle, one would throw an egg at him. Then another. Another. Finally he'd flinch, and now eggs pelted him from all directions, and he'd have to take off his sticky cloak. His boots would get stuck in the yellow gooey carpet, so he'd take off his boots. Liquid dripped down his face, and he struggled to see the path through it.
Only once he was tattered and nearly in tears would he reach the king. Sometimes the king would tell him how disappointing he was, other times he would only shake his head. The cloak would be taken from Artus's shoulders, and somehow his princely uniform disappeared too. When he finally collapsed to his knees, the crowd would erupt into laughter.
At this point, the dream was unpredictable. Sometimes Frederic would help him. Sometimes Frederic stood at the king's side. Sometimes Frederic marched down the aisle himself, and Artus was helpless to stop him.
This time, Artus looked up, and he realized with a jolt that Rita was there, running to him from down the aisle. The courtiers watched with stares greater than their eyes, and he knew what would come, and he opened his mouth to tell her to stay away, that her dress would get dirty, and where was Philippa? But he didn't hear his words, or maybe she didn't listen to him. The courtiers rose, and he yelled out,
Artus shot from his bed. He was back in his room, his glorified servant's room, cold and small and dark. He pressed the heel of his palms to his eyes, willing himself not to feel humiliated anymore, reminding himself that being Frederic's aide was a position he could take pride in. That there was still time and opportunity to be greater than his enemies. That past failures didn't stop him from succeeding in the future, and that helping Frederic rise in power was as good as rising himself.
His heart told him that everyone had seen him at his weakest and his enemies still laughed at his downfall.
Suddenly, the door burst open. "Don't touch my brother!"
Artus whipped his head up to see Frederic, in his nightshirt and fully alert. Being only a room apart, Artus must have woken him up with his yell. "There's no one," Artus said. "Sorry for the disturbance."
"Really?" Frederic looked around. "But you sounded so... What's wrong, then? Did you hurt yourself? Did you have a bad dream?"
Frederic's correct guess stung Artus. "Yes. There was just—I witnessed a minor incident yesterday in town, and it reminded me of the past.”
Frederic’s eyes widened, an expression that hadn’t changed since he was a boy and Artus had been his hero. “Past battles?”
“…Essentially. I’ll try to go back to sleep now, so I’ll see you in the morning. And Frederic?”
“What is it?”
Artus remembered kneeling before the king. “The king no longer acknowledges me as his son. Neither should you.”