How to Woo the Prince: a Primer by his Aide
Music vibrated the banquet hall doors, a traditional song associated with Saint Clemente. Artus stood there on the wrong side of them, wondering what would happen next.
Rita might notice he was gone before the music ended. Maybe she’d discreetly ask her father or brother to bring the armor back in. Maybe they would move the piano so the armor could go back to its original spot. Maybe while they moved the armor, Artus would be lucky enough not to be spotted again.
Or maybe any part of that would go wrong, and matters would unravel just like they had during the ride with Frederic.
Even if Rita knew the attendees now, Saint Clemente was a surprise replacement. Who knew what Rita would try in the meantime?
The melody was near its end. Soon it would be time for the venerations to resume. Rita could mix them up and make a simple gaffe, or insult a lord, or make a fool of herself. Artus squeezed his eyes shut. It hadn't even been a question that he would never be an attendee at anyone's veneration feast except the king's. But, at this moment, he thought of Rita, always bright and exuberant, feeling the same shame that haunted him.
Artus found the suit hinges with his armored hands. He smashed his glove around them until they opened—or broke—and opened the armor. His legs got stuck as he tried to pull them out and he toppled to the ground facefirst. Luckily, any sound was drowned out by the music, which reached its final crescendo. Cursing the whole time, he wriggled ungracefully until he escaped the heavy suit.
Artus was hot and sweaty and not dressed for the occasion. He still wore his aide's uniform instead of the party clothes or white attire typically favored during the Festival of Saints. Nothing to be done about it. Straightening his hair and his cuffs, he went back into the Beaudennes banquet hall.
At first, no one noticed his entrance. But once the music ended and the servants left, one by one heads turned to him like iron filings. They pointed, and whispered, and finally once Rita spotted him, her lips parted in surprise, all eyes were on him. Cold sweat prickled on his neck, but Artus willed himself to look unshaken. He told himself it wasn't much worse than his dreams.
Marquis Beaudennes arched an eyebrow. "Artus Cressofort. I'm sorry that I didn't greet you earlier."
"You weren't here before," the second son of Beaudennes said bluntly, because that one had the grace and brains of a hammer. "When did you come in?"
"My sincere apologies," Artus said, bowing slightly. "I was unable to leave my work until not long ago, and arrived only during the honorings of Saint Jovianne." Better that the time of his arrival wasn't right after the unusually heavy armor went out.
"The apologies are ours," Renaud said coolly. "I did not receive word that you would attend."
Of course it was Renaud who invited him. Artus bit his lip. "That's unfortunate."
The second son cocked his head and asked, "Are you going to stay anyway?"
While Artus internally called him many colorful shades of stupid, the son actually had a point. Nobody came late to a veneration feast. It was like barging in during the third act of an opera.
"...I'm already here," Artus said helplessly.
"Now now," said Marquis Beaudennes, clasping his hands. "If Artus Cressofort wishes to stay, we should welcome him. It must be hard for a former prince to attend the feast of a marquisate."
"Prince?" Rita echoed. The shock on her face was hard to stomach.
Murmurs roiled all around him. Rita hadn't been the only one not to know.
"He's the Prince Artus?"
"I'd heard the prince had been exiled..."
"But isn't this Prince Frederic's aide?"
Renaud held up a hand to silence the crowd. His face was impassive as ever, but somehow Artus sensed it was gloating. "It's an old story. As you know, Prince Artus was heir apparent. Six years ago, the prince sought honor and glory by launching a campaign to secure the border between Reuchateau and Ossarlech, and failed."
He hadn't sought it, Artus thought furiously. He was told to go, and he did. He was given his resources, and he made the best of them. He was promised reinforcements and he had expected them.
Artus would never know why his previous allies had abandoned him. The timing implied it was due to his mother's house falling out of favor, but had it really been over something so trivial? Maybe they had financial conflicts of interest. Maybe they decided another prince would make a friendlier king. Either way, he remembered watching from his fortress walls during the endless siege, waiting for his allies to take out the Ossars from behind, as supplies dwindled and soldiers went hungry. He remembered seeing the granary empty and knowing that if he didn't surrender, people would starve to death.
Most of all he remembered returning to the king after being ransomed back, and watching as all the nobles swore that they had never promised any reinforcements. They said it was Artus's own arrogance and poor judgment that had led him to campaign with his insufficient force. It was Artus alone who lost the border territory to Ossarlech.
And the king, who so coveted that territory, looked at his fallen son, whose only true asset had been his wits, and he must have wondered what this boy was good for now.
"The king wanted to exile him to the border, but Prince Frederic favored him enough to keep him on royal grounds as his aide."
Frederic had stormed and wept. He argued that if Artus couldn't do it, that meant it was impossible anyway. No doubt the king found the sixteen-year-old's tantrum embarrassing, but Frederic's mother the queen was best not angered.
"Since then, he's taken his mother's last name, and mostly deals with Prince Frederic's affairs. It's understandable that few even remember his face."
Artus didn't trust himself to say anything, so he kept his mouth shut as everyone started gossiping all around him, like he wasn't even there.
"I've seen him once or twice before, but I didn't realize..."
"I suppose I just recognized the crown back then."
"Is a prince really here as an attendee, even if he's no longer recognized?"
"Well! Who can say he hasn't learned humility now?"
Rita said something to the marquis, who then clapped his hands.
"Let us not dally any longer."
The hall returned to silence. After Saint Jovianne, there was no need to be seated, so Artus positioned himself where Rita could see him well. He didn't know why Rita suddenly decided to stand, but it did draw away any lingering eyes on him. Of course it would—Rita, in the venerator's voluminous white and blue robes, her hair peeking beneath a shimmering blue veil, was breathtaking.
She called up the remaining names. Artus shook the nerves and tension from his body as each called attendee brought up their plate: the prop for Saint Clemente. For each attendee, Artus indicated what Rita should do with it. Rita caught on quickly, thank heavens, and that made this all worth it. The humiliation was worth it. After all, what more reputation did he have to lose?
Once everyone else was called, Rita said, "Artus Cressofort."
Of course. He was an attendee now, after all. Artus dutifully grabbed a plate and brought it up. As he bowed, he muttered under his breath, "Put food on the plate." It was the plainest and most straightforward honoring: you are welcome here.
Rita reached for his plate. But instead of putting anything on it, she grabbed a grape off it and ate it. Artus stared. So did the Beaudennes.
"It's tasty," she said cheerfully. Somebody in the back gasped.
Artus thought hard about how to fix this, but Rita surprised him by standing up, assisted by her cane, and moving her hands in the gesture that meant the feast was over. Guests said some perfunctory thanks before immediately talking all over each other.
"Marguerite," Renaud said, concerned, but there was nothing to do about the final honoring now.
Marquis Beaudennes spoke softly, "Marguerite, are you sure?"
Rita started to look worried. "Did I do it wrong? What did I say?"
"That you admire him and are honored by his presence," Renaud said stonily.
"Oh, good, then yes. That's what I meant. Anyway, I'm going to ask Artus to take me to Prince Frederic's night party. Bye now!"
Rita rushed Artus away, hardly remembering her cane.