How to Woo the Prince: a Primer by his Aide
Aside from Rita's sprain, the incident ended up being minor—both Rita and Philippa had been found that night. Philippa took much longer since the woman hadn't stopped searching for her lady for a single minute and ended up roaming very far, but Artus supposed that Philippa Mazarin was always the hunter and never the hunted, so she could get lost however she wanted.
Against everyone's wishes, Rita ran the bookstore at its regular hours the very next day. Artus even offered to run the bookstore in her place (and maybe fix a few things about it in the meantime), but Rita said no. Instead Artus found himself coming earlier and earlier to keep an eye on her. Today he arrived nearly an hour before closing time, catching Rita at the head of a queue standing up the way she wasn't supposed to.
Despite the crowd, she spotted him and immediately swiped up her cane. "Hi, Artus! I kept your usual spot open."
"You can't fool me, I saw—"
"Right this way, mister!"
Huh? Artus looked down. It was the book-destroying boy, helpfully pointing the way to the chair he was most familiar with. "What, are you the usher?"
"Is that a thing? Rita I wanna be an 'usher! HUSH!!"
"A husher is not a thing," Artus said, but it should have been. "So you are helping out the store?"
"Yeah! Rita needs my help! She's hurt, so I'm gonna be her knight and shiny armor!"
"It's knight in... Nevermind. All right, show me to my seat," Artus sighed. Hugo marched him proudly to the chair and table in the corner, which also happened to be the only seat available.
Artus had planned to kill time by reading some of his own materials, but instead he found himself watching the strange crowd today. Far from the demanding louts of before, several of them were fetching things for Rita, making other customers form more orderly lines, and returning books to shelves. Rita looked more relaxed too, and seemed to just be chatting with a bunch of them.
When the clock struck the hour, they said goodbyes to her and filed out the door themselves. Some of them even waved at him, and one woman even stopped by his table.
"I'm cheering for you, you two are so beautiful! Good luck!"
"Excuse me?" Artus squawked, but the woman moved fast for her age and had vanished out the door.
As Philippa locked up the shop, Rita made a big show of properly using her cane and laboriously walked to him. "Sorry for always ignoring you. I know you said you don't mind, but I feel bad that you spend so much time sitting there just for my sake."
"If I didn't want to come early, I wouldn't." Artus wanted to ask about the child undeserving of books, or about the woman, but he struggled to word the question. "Your customers were very friendly today," he finally said.
"They've always been good people. Well, most of them. You just don't usually get to see them at their best is all."
"In most situations, their best is much less relevant than their average."
"Their average is good! Ever since I sprained my ankle, they've been really helpful. I've also gotten to know a lot of them!"
"It's only been two weeks..."
"You'd be surprised how much you can learn in two weeks," Rita said proudly, as if she hadn't been struggling with all the things she was supposed to be learning in the last few weeks.
"I see. And it seems they've been getting to know you, since they appear to be familiar with me?"
"That was your doing. Remember that one night where you barged in, declared yourself as the prince's aide, and threatened to chop off someone's tongue?"
"Don't summarize it like that..."
"Word spread! I think some people come to the store because they like to be under the prince's protection, too."
"You're not encouraging that, are you?"
"Oh, I've also come up with an idea for the store."
"Answer my question first—"
"I'm going to make most of the collection a public library where people can borrow books, with options to buy books if they want."
This was extremely far from Artus's idea of a store. "A library, open to anyone in the city?"
"And they can choose whether they'd like to pay to read a book, or read the book for free?"
"It would never work. It doesn't make any sense."
"Ye of little faith," Rita wagged a smug finger. "Anyway, it was basically what I was letting people do, so once we finish reorganizing the store to make it have more library character, it will at least match expectations."
"I suppose I can't argue with that," Artus said with resignation. "Just let me help you with the transition. Some of your books are far too valuable, and you also risk angering customers who would have preferred to borrow a book if they knew it would be an option so soon." Philippa suggested he not give unsolicited advice, so he could solve that problem by making it solicited.
"That's a good point. Wow, you'd do that? But you're so busy with Prince Frederic's matters."
"Helping you is helping the prince," said Artus. "You need not be shy about asking me for anything, so if you need help with your finances or proper book repair, I'm at your disposal."
"You still remember that book the two kids ripped, huh..."
"As an avid reader yourself, doesn't it pain you to see a book destroyed? Even a cheap, amateur one, let alone an illustrated one?"
"As long as the book can be read all the same, it doesn't really matter, does it? I think of my favorite books as journals, and I put all sorts of markings in them."
"You do what?!"
"I mean, I respect the book purists who keep their copies in pristine condition too, it's like a nice fish that you can have with or without sauce... Artus, nothing has made me feel so much like a villain as the look you're giving me right now."
As Artus silently reevaluated the definition of evil, Philippa came over to them. She must have finished closing up. "Will you be staying late again, Cressofort?"
Artus coughed into his fist. "I shouldn't, I have other affairs to attend to. Let's get on with business." What fiend drew all over their books? "Since this weekend will be the Festival of Saints, our goal between now and then is to review the rules concerning the festivities. I've put in a request that you come to the prince's party—"
"I can't. I have to go to my family's."
"Since they know about the engagement, I'm sure they will excuse you."
Rita wrinkled her nose. "Really?"
Philippa spoke up. "M'lady is the venerator for the Beaudennes celebration this year."
"You're what?" This time Artus asked serenely, because maybe if he reacted as though nothing was wrong, reality would fall in line.
"Oh, yes, genera—I mean venerator," Rita agreed. "My aunt's been away sick due to her pregnancy, and they said I may as well take over. I've organized parties before, so hosting this one shouldn't be too much more work, since the servants are doing all the cooking and all."
Artus steepled his fingers. "Lady Rita, can I have a private word with you?" He took deep breaths as Rita dismissed Philippa, hoping the extra air to his brain would cure the sick feeling in his stomach. "You told me you have barely any memories from the past, so I think you don't understand. Hosting the veneration feast of the Festival of Saints is not the same as hosting a party. How much of your family's traditions do you know?"
"Uh, we're not going to go over that today?"
"Impossible. Some of the rituals are commonplace, but what a family does is highly dependent on the saints they choose to revere and their relationships with the attendees. Just as saints used their greater power and wisdom in the service of ordinary people, the venerator must honor their inferiors in a manner befitting their chosen saints. The honoring tends to be highly symbolic and abstract. Furthermore, while no one will tell the venerator what any specific attendee is owed, everyone in your family is going to have opinions about each honoring decision. Do you understand what I'm getting at?"
"The veneration feast is a social field of death. Everything you do might invite ridicule. Any hand gesture could cause insult. The wrong color of napkin could start a feud."