How to Woo the Prince: a Primer by his Aide
Rita's less-than-enthusiastic reaction worried Artus, but only a little. Even if she hadn't ridden a single day since he saw her five years ago, even if she had completely changed in every other way, surely one didn't forget how to ride a horse?
The day of the meeting was cloudless, and the forest of the hunting grounds was just tinged with autumn's orange, matching the setting sun. Prince Frederic, unable to sit still on his horse, trotted circles around Artus. Frederic managed to infect his horse with his enthusiasm, and the big gleaming light in Carrot's dewy eyes was matched only by the sparkles in Frederic's.
"Are you sure you don't want to come riding with us?" Frederic asked. "I'm sure it'll be lots of fun with the four of us!"
"You should get to know each other on your own," said Artus, who stood beside his own mare. "This is your meeting with your fiancée, remember? I'll be watching from here in case you need me. Look, there they are."
Rita didn't ride the golden stallion she had been so proud of last they met, which was strange because it surely had a lot more riding years in it. Besides, she would have looked stunning on it, with her amber hair and crisp white riding jacket. She also looked tense, her eyes on her horse. Rita must still think Frederic wanted to kill her for no reason.
"Wow, she's so pretty!" said Frederic. "And I know you said she liked how strong I was, but you didn't tell me she was so strong as well!"
"What? Oh, no, that's Philippa Mazarin," said Artus, realizing how Philippa, who sat proudly and made eye contact, would look like the lady in charge right now, even if she was wearing armor. "Lady Marguerite's bodyguard."
"Oh. Lady Marguerite is very pretty too!"
The first impression was botched. Artus kept disappointment off his face as the two women greeted them.
Frederic rode up to Rita. "Good day, Lady Marguerite. I'm glad to finally make your acquaintance."
"Your Highness. The pleasure is all mine." Rita did a passable little curtsey on her horse and brought out her hand for Frederic to kiss, just like Artus had advised her to. In that moment, they looked like how regal couples dreamed of being depicted: tall Frederic with his combed dark hair and broad frame, his thin lips pressed to Rita's long, slender fingers.
When Frederic smiled, he looked boyish again. "Sorry that I couldn't meet with you earlier in the day, but anyway it's good riding weather now that it's cooled off a bit, so I'm glad we can enjoy it together. Shall we get on with it then? Carrot's been itching to go for a while, oh, but I have a bit of a hot seat, ha ha!"
"Yes. That'd be great," Rita said. Artus internally willed her to relax.
"Mazarin and I will wait here, Your Highness," Artus said, and to Philippa's credit, she dismounted without a word. "Good riding to the both of you."
As Frederic took Rita for a loop around the field, Artus and Philippa watched from the edge. By the time their masters reached the far edge of the field, Artus could tell they were talking animatedly. Good. But...
"Your lady's riding isn't what it used to be," Artus remarked.
"Perhaps," said Philippa with her hallmark terseness.
"In fact, she seems like an entirely different person from the rumors, and from the previous times I met her. It's possible she's changed a lot during those five years, but were the rumors wrong?"
Philippa's lips pressed. "No. She's just changed a lot."
"If you mind my asking, did anything happen?"
Philippa rolled her shoulders. "She had a bad fall. During her recovery, she must have gained new perspectives on things."
"Ah." Off that stallion, no doubt. A part of Artus was surprised that this was the first time he'd heard of the accident of such a notorious figure of society. Another part of him wondered if maybe the rest of the nobility should have bad falls. "I'm sorry to hear that," was what he said.
Unexpectedly, Philippa shrugged. "It turned out for the best. Her recovery was miraculous, and her relationships have all been better since then."
"Is that also when she opened her bookstore?" Artus hazarded.
"That hasn't been difficult for you?"
"The job is harder in some ways," she admitted. "There's more to protect her from. And books are heavy."
Artus flashbacked to Philippa always in the background, carrying stacks of books. "You really do all the stocking, don't you?"
"It'd be shameful to let m'lady do it. But I'd say the job feels easier than before. I'm proud of the master I serve now."
A yell echoed out from the far end of the field. The two of them glanced over to spot Frederic's and Rita's horses sprinting in opposite directions, with Rita's beelining for the forest.
"M'lady!" Philippa launched onto her mount in one effortless movement and took off. Artus struggled to catch up, but neither of them managed to make it to Rita before she and her horse plunged into the forest. Artus's heart thudded in his chest. What had happened? No, that didn't matter—they had to catch Rita.
Artus could see Frederic trying to veer Carrot to go after Rita, but the horse was too agitated to be led. Carrot was affectionate but not particularly well-trained.
Rita was already gone. Philippa lowered herself in her seat, clearly intent on going after her.
"Mazarin, wait!" Artus shouted. "Stop!"
But of course Philippa didn't answer to him, and by the time Artus reached the edge of the forest, he'd lost sight of her too. Artus cursed as Frederic came up by him.
"A deer," Frederic said breathlessly. "I think a deer spooked Carrot, and then Carrot spooked the other horse. Should we go in after them?"
"No. I'll go after her, but you need to get a search party together. It's getting dark. We have to make sure we find her." It would have been better if they could coordinate with Philippa, now instead they'd have to tell the search party to look for her too.
"You don't think Philippa might just catch up to her soon?"
"Maybe," Artus said, starting for the forest, "but if she doesn't, or if she catches up to her after they've gone a distance, they'd be too unfamiliar with the grounds to get back."
Although Artus never enjoyed the hunting grounds that much, he remembered it well: the trees, the smell, the paths. Broken branches scattered in the wake of Rita's and Philippa's horses—just another reason it was annoying Philippa blindly rushed in after her—and Artus followed until it reached a dirt clearing, where the paths scattered. Philippa might have lost track of her lady and went in another direction, or some paths were old animal paths, or both.
Artus cursed. He'd held a sliver of hope otherwise, but he knew the truth: neither he nor Philippa could catch up to Rita. The forest was dense and full of animal tracks, and Rita's horse was stronger than either of theirs. The best scenario would be if she fell off without injury or if the horse somehow calmed itself down. The other scenarios were bad.
"Lady Marguerite!" Artus called. No response but a few startled birds. He called out again, and then another time. Meanwhile the shadows grew longer, creeping over the forest like so many new branches.
Stupid. This was his fault. Yes, the weather was better in the evening, and Frederic's morning schedule had been full, and it was after the bookstore's regular hours. But Artus should have known better than to schedule their meeting for a scenario where nothing went wrong. With Rita, everything always went wrong.
A deer, of course it was a deer—they were most active in sunset hours. It amazed him that he lived life in constant worry and yet still made mistakes like this.
An hour passed. Artus followed a few paths, but they kept fading to nothing. "Lady Rita!"
He'd noticed that her riding form wasn't what it used to be, how unstable she looked. He had assumed it was just her nervousness at meeting the prince. In hindsight, had it been so inconceivable that she had forgotten how to ride, the same way she'd been bad at the most basic etiquette?
"Rita, answer me! Rita!"
Then, faintly, miraculously, "Here! I'm here!"
Rita, Artus thought, almost not believing it. "Keep talking! I'm coming to you!"
Artus nudged his mare toward the direction of the voice. He was sorely tempted to go faster, but he wanted to be certain he wouldn't miss her.
He called again. "Say something else!"
"You're supposed to say Polo!"
"It's a game!"
Hearing Rita be her usual ridiculous self made Artus relax a touch more. "Polo," he called after a moment.
"Are you playing?"
She sounded close. "Just that once," he said.
"Don't you want to find me?"
"I have." Artus spotted Rita sitting on the ground. Even in the dim light, he could see dirt and detritus smeared on her uniform and stuck in her long hair. Her horse was nowhere in sight. She looked up at him as he dismounted, and Artus caught her red nose and watery eyes before she rubbed her face. Again he was struck with guilt, and he kneeled by her side. "I'm sorry for taking so long."
Rita glanced at him, and unexpectedly she chuckled, if a bit wetly. "Your standards are high for everything, aren't they?"