How to Woo the Prince: a Primer by his Aide
Little inspired as much fear in Artus as a party. In his younger years, when he was a faultless prince who memorized all the niceties of etiquette, he had the satisfaction of having gone through all the correct motions, said the right words and danced the right steps. To enter the same parties under the same eyes as an aide was excruciating. He never told Frederic, but he had wished many times that he had been exiled instead, to be a beggar where survival was considered success, rather than a living example of failure.
With Rita dragging him into the carriage, Artus felt... strange. Strangely light, strangely free. A part of him marveled that he had survived, that he hadn't crumpled as he had so many times in his dreams. He faced the Beaudennes and managed to accomplish what he needed to. In a way, he fooled them. As Philippa drove the carriage to Frederic's night celebration, Artus still felt the stares of the guests on his skin, but also Rita's smile, and her hand on his wrist.
Rita was saying something. "It's too bad I'll have to miss our night party entirely, I think Renaud wanted to tell me something. But you know, I just performed for hours! If I wasn't going to your party, I'd be going to bed. And it serves him right for being so rude."
Artus glanced at her. "Lady Rita, you..."
Rita blinked. "What is it?"
"I didn't tell you to do that honoring."
"I know, I heard you."
"Yeah, I've gotten pretty used to understanding you when you hiss. You wanted me to say you're beneath me, right?"
"It doesn't exactly mean..." Artus began. "Wait, did you study up on honorings?"
"I just did a hundred of them. I'm starting to pick up a few things."
"Huh. Do you really know what the one you gave me meant?"
"Of course. That's the first one you taught me."
"I didn't..." Artus trailed off. "You mean, from when I described how Frederic would honor you."
"Yep. Though I added a little embellishment that I thought would work, and it did."
If Rita was this smart, why was he still teaching her how to throw tea parties?
Rita grabbed his hands. "Artus, honestly I can't thank you enough. You know that, right? Nobody else would have stood in that suit for three hours for me. And then you came back, even though you probably knew how rude and awful everyone was going to be!"
Yes, obviously they were rude and awful, so Artus couldn't explain why it was so heartening that Rita had acknowledged it for him. "I had to see it through. I watched you almost promise Glavier you'd marry him. I wasn't going to leave you to fend for yourself."
Rita's jaw dropped. "I did?!"
"And you were so confident about your hundred honorings."
The decorations at Frederic's palace were just the right balance of somber veneration and splendid festivities. Artus walked into the ballroom filled with trimmings he chose and immediately felt more like himself. White and blue themes, of course, plus the azure of the royal family. Peak attendance had passed, but the dance floor and its margins still had plenty of occupants, including the fifteen attendees of the veneration feast itself. Clearly the results of excellent planning.
Rita also looked delighted with the ballroom, though she was delighted by most things. "Wow, how nice!"
The current dance ended. Prince Frederic quickly greeted them at the entrance. "You made it! Amazing, I can't believe you're still standing!"
"I know, it was so tiring!" Rita agreed. "At least I got to spend most of it sitting."
"At least someone did," Artus muttered.
In a rare turn of events, Philippa said, "You did well, Cressofort."
"You were able to sit?" echoed Frederic. "That's pretty smart, how did you manage that without offending everyone?"
"Oh no, is it still not healed?"
"It's basically healed, but—"
"She should stay off it until the physician sees her again and tells her otherwise," Artus interrupted.
"That's unfortunate," said Frederic. "I would've liked to ask you to a dance, but that would be irresponsible of me. Let me fetch you some refreshments instead."
"I'll come with you," Philippa said.
So Artus and Rita ended up by themselves on the edges of the ballroom, watching the other dancers glide by.
Rita sighed. "This would have been a perfect romance opportunity, if you'd just ease up on the cane thing."
"Are you saying you'll impress the prince with your dance skills?" Artus couldn't help asking.
"Tsk tsk, you've learned nothing about romance! I show him that I don't know anything about dancing and he needs to show me how, and then I cling onto him while he expertly leads the dance."
"You're assuming he's an expert lead."
"With you as an aide, I figure you'd badger him until he became one."
Artus chuckled. "That's both right and wrong. I've never needed to. Prince Frederic's a good dancer."
Rita grinned at him.
He cleared his throat. "I didn't say this yet, but thank you for your...honoring. You didn't have to do that."
"You'll make me feel really bad if you thank me. It was bad enough that you had to stand there the whole time in a suit of armor—"
"The armor was a ridiculous idea and my legs are still—"
"—but then you put yourself in the line of fire for me. Renaud can be vicious, but I didn't realize the marquis was that mean."
"I think you're the only one the marquis isn't 'mean' to."
"Maybe." Rita studied her hands. "I didn't know you were a prince, too."
"Former prince, as everyone likes to remind me." Artus looked away. "I'm sorry you had to find out like this."
"Me too," said Rita. "I would've wanted it to be when you chose to tell me."
"They're wrong, you know," Artus added in spite of himself. "I never said I could win with just the soldiers I had. I just thought other lords wanted to share the glory of securing the border more than they wanted me to fall out of favor. It could've worked."
"Six years ago, you would've been just a kid."
"I was nineteen, only a little younger than you now."
"And I need your help all the time."
"...That is true."
"It's horrible that you didn’t get a second chance. Especially because I think you're smarter than everyone else in that room. You would’ve made a great king."
“…Thank you. Though Prince Frederic will be better than I ever would have been.”
“Hmm, I wonder about that.”
Artus turned to her, startled. Rita’s eyes were already on him, soft and luminous in the golden lights of the ballroom. As Frederic’s aide, he should protest vehemently. As Frederic’s betrothed, Rita shouldn’t say anything of the sort. But Rita, he knew, was the sort of person who gave sincere compliments without thinking about it… the sort of person who would risk her own reputation just to acknowledge him.
Before he could figure out what to say next, Frederic and Philippa returned, each carrying a tower of food on a plate.
"We weren't sure what you wanted, so we got you one of each," Frederic said proudly.
"Grab from the top to the bottom," Philippa advised. "Otherwise it might fall."
Rita eyed the monument of food. “You’re sharing this with us, right?”
“Oh no, I ate a lot.” Frederic patted his belly. “I was starving after my veneration feast. It doesn’t matter how much you eat beforehand, by the end of the honorings, it’s all gone! So the moment I got here, I just stuffed myself at the banquet tables.”
“You only had fifteen honorings,” Artus pointed out.
“Oh that’s right!” Rita said, though for some reason she was looking at Artus. “Artus didn’t eat anything during the feast!”
Frederic’s eyes bugged out. “You haven’t eaten for four hours?!” he exclaimed, as if four was a staggering number.
“I’m fine. Really.” Between the stress of the honorings and facing the Beaudennes, Artus’s stomach had already eaten itself.
“That’s why you don’t gain any weight,” Frederic said, at the same time that Philippa said, “That’s why you’re skinny.”
“I’m a normal weight,” Artus scowled as they herded him to a table. “I thought this food was for Lady Rita?”
Frederic looked puzzled. “Rita?”
“You can call me Rita. Anyway we can share! I already stole your food.”
“What? As in an honoring? What happened?" Frederic demanded at Artus. "I thought you weren't an attendee!”
All Artus could manage was a strained, "Ugh..."
Rita jumped in to relay her version of events. Artus grimaced, both over the inconceivable amount of food and hearing about the brouhaha all over again, but truthfully he didn’t hate it as much as he thought he would.