13 June, 2013

Tappety bit

Sometimes I write things on a whim as a study or test of my abilities. You may notice that I'm no good at writing diplomatic things or meetings. Meetings are so boring. Anyway, let me know what you think.

I know every room and item in the palace. I know every scullery maid and groomsman, every guard and ornament, every bump and chipped brick. Margot sometimes calls me the Palace Spy, because I know everything that happens around the place, even what happens in the secret meetings that I am not supposed to listen in to. I may not understand everything, but I can repeat it to Margot when we go to our secret place where we will not be overheard. Sometimes the King or my Lord Tipstaff will be there, trying not to move or breathe loudly so that I would not know they are there. I go along with their little games, but sometimes I call them out to remind them that I am not stupid.

Officially, I am a tweeny maid, with no set work. I help everyone and anyone around the palace – if they want my help. Everyone calls me Tappety, short for Tippety-Tappety, because of the sound my little white cane makes on the palace floors. My real name is Fiona, but only Margot calls me that, and then only when she is cross with me.

My sister is very wise. She is one of the King’s favoured advisors and sits amongst his key chancellors in the Mirror Pool Hall, although the Sigello family have no place among the nobles. Father was a childhood friend of the king, a long time ago, but was banished to the Mountlands after an argument. Mother was sent with him and they died there during a night raid by the wild mountain dwellers. Margot and I were kept safe here in the palace. I don’t remember, but Margot said that when the messenger ran in, the King cried and came to inform us in person. He also told Margot that whoever married her would also have to carry Father’s family name, although Margot laughed at that.
“Who would want to marry a woman too wise for her own good and inherit a blind little sister at the same time?” she says. I tell her that she’s just so beautiful that she scares the boys away with her radiance. I’ll get a light slap for being silly, but she’ll be smiling. I know because she’ll move with a lighter step and sometimes even hum a love song.

I don’t know what’s better (or worse). To be considered stupid and worthless because you’re blind or thought senseless and weak because you’re a girl.

Today, I was chased out of the scullery, because I chipped a plate. It wasn’t my fault. Roni kept tickling me. At least I didn’t break it. I tried helping the maids upstairs make the beds, but while I tucked sheets as well as any of them (without wrinkles too), Githa sent me away because they found getting around me and my stick a bit too tricky. So I went down to the pottery shed to help one of the assistants, Tony, with glazing some pots, but the Master Potter saw and said that a blind girl wouldn’t be able to see to make sure the glaze is even and boxed Tony’s ears. I heard him checking the pots I’d dipped after he’d seen me out and I’m pretty sure none were thrown away. I then sat listening to the ladies gossiping in the solar, but because it was already a little overcrowded in there and they considered me bad luck to have around the pregnant ladies, I was sent away. I tried helping the stable boys in pitching hay, but the Stable Master said it was no work for lack-muscled girls and told me not to disturb them today, because the Duke of Ellend-Stighen was taking the diplomats from Nebrodensis hunting and one of the Princes of Rhuscoriaria was expected to arrive today with a large entourage.

Feeling down that Cook wouldn’t even let me into the kitchen, I left my stick in my room and crept into my usual hiding place where I would be able to listen the Chancellery in session. Sitting in a hollow covered by tapestries can still get quite cold, especially when the hollow you’re sitting in is made of stone. So I have padded it with old rugs and blankets that would have been thrown out. It’s so cosy that it’s easy to fall asleep, which is what I did while below they debated from their seats around the Mirror Pool about the usefulness of sumac.

I woke to hear the King thumping his fist on the table and storming out of the room.
“He’s right too, you know,” Margot’s quiet voice echoed around the room.

“What would you suggest then, Miss Know-It-All?” asked the tired voice of the Chancellor of Trade. “We’ve discussed every avenue thoroughly.”

“There are too many variables,” Margot said. “We must show them our strength, but without showing all. Tell them we will be firm and that they cannot force us into one of their agreements.”

“Ah. You’re talking about parades and competitions. Sports and such,” said the Chancellor of War. “Poppycock. That stuff never works. If they want war, we should just hammer them.”

“Strategy, Lucius,” said Jaris, the Prime Minister. “You excel at strategy. This is us openly declaring that we will go to war if they dare push us. We want to show them that we’ll not be another of their puppets… but in a friendly way. Think of this as the opening moves of a serious game of chess.”

“Fine. Side with the girl.”

“The girl,” said Jaris in a frosty tone, “sides with the King.”

“Besides,” Margot said as if the temperature in the hall hadn’t dropped, “they may not present to us in the way we think they will. If anything, I believe they will try disarm us with friendliness first and when we relax our guard, they will strike.”

“All right,” said Jaris. “are there any other suggestions?”

“Besides crush them before they attack?”

“Yes, Lucius, besides that.”

“It’s a pity the King hasn’t any children yet. We can’t even propose a marriage treaty,” said the Chancellor of Foreign Affairs.

“We have discussed the cool treatment, the over-enthusiastic welcome and everything in between,” Jaris said. “Does anyone have anything else to add? No? Then, would someone please fetch his Majesty?”
I could hear the rustle of material, but no footsteps. Nobody dared talk to the King when he was in a bad mood, which meant it was a job for me and that meant that Margot would be sent to find me and charge me with calming the King down enough to finish the meeting.

Slipping out of my alcove, I hurried back to Margot and my room. Before long, the rustle of silk a light step-to-step-to heralded Margot’s arrival.

“Fiona, there you are,” Margot smiled. “Done anything interesting today yet?”
“Not really,” I said. “The usual.”

“I have a job for you. You know what it is?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “He’ll probably be in the art gallery.”

“Thank you,” Margot said. “I’ll let them know he’s on his way then.”

Tip-tapping loudly into the art gallery, I made my presence known to anyone hiding behind the statue of Grand Marshal Wilks who was probably staring at the painting of old King John the Talented. I could smell the King’s retainers standing by and his head retainer, Humphrey, guarding the door.

“Knock, knock,” I called from the other side of the statue.

I heard the King sigh.

“Knock, knock?” I tried again.

“I thought I told Humphrey not to let me be disturbed.”

“Am I disturbing you, Sire?”

“Yes, Tappety. Please, I’m not in the mood for jokes right now.”

“Would it cheer you up to know that I saw Cook making ice-cream?”

“They sent you to fetch me back, didn’t they?”

“Next time, Sire, I suggest you get permission to knock Sir Moustache into the pool.”

“Sir Lucius wouldn’t like it if he knew you were calling him Sir Moustache.”

“Did you know that his moustache fair rattles every time he breathes out? Most people can’t hear it, but you know, Sire, sometimes it makes me wonder whether there is a mouse stuck in there and is scrabbling to get out. That’s what it sounds like. Perhaps it twitches that way too. I wouldn’t know, but don’t be surprised if a mouse doesn’t suddenly pop out one day.”

I heard a faint coughing near the art gallery door where Humphrey was probably trying and failing in holding in his laughter. He never was very good at holding it in where I was concerned. I’ve never really understood why. He keeps admirably silent when the Jester plays the fool for the King.

“Tappety, I forbid you to do anything of the sort.”

“Oh, no, Sire. I’d never pull such a prank. You know me.”

“Yes, I do,” said the King, taking my hand and beginning the walk back to the Mirror Pool Hall.
Humphrey and the other retainers fell into step around us. “No mice.”

“Yes, Sire,” I replied, knowing that Humphrey would find someone else to play the prank now that I’d mentioned it and been forbidden from the act. Someone like the Jester.

We passed a window and I caught a scent of strange spices on the air. Down below in the courtyards, it sounded like mayhem.

“I guess they’ve arrived,” the King sighed. “We’d better hurry. We’ll leave you here child. Humphrey, please go ahead and make sure everyone’s ready in the courtroom.”

Their footsteps faded away with a clip-clip-clip.

I stuck my head out the window, pretending as if I could see what was going on down below. With all the smells and sounds, I could sound my own picture of the chaos. Taking my time, because I knew it would take a while before the newcomers were allowed entrance into the throne room, I wandered from window to window, trying to sort out the cacophony below. By now, the Prince and his officers would have been shown to a nice waiting room, provided with refreshments and left to freshen themselves up before meeting the King. I knew well enough not to go near the guest waiting rooms, but I did wander out into the Rose Hedge Garden to sit beneath the honeysuckle trellises to see what I could hear.

I heard voices in a strange running language that I couldn’t catch. I could make no head nor tail of any of the words they used. I couldn’t even tell where one word started or ended, so after whistling back to a song thrush happily eating cracked snails on the other side of the bench, I rambled toward a camouflaged garden gate to slip back into the palace building unnoticed. Only one gardener I knew of used this gate and door and so it was with great surprise that I ran into some Rhuscoriarians. The wind had been at my back and so I had not smelt that strange spicy smell that hung about them.

“What’s this here?” laughed an accented voice. I didn’t like the sound of his laugh or the tight grip on my shoulders.

“E-excuse me,” I gasped in a small voice. “I didn’t – I didn’t think anyone would be here. Please, excuse me.”

“A child like you has a staff of office? No. It must be stolen.”

My cane was ripped out of my trembling hand. Wanting to get away from these strange men, I listened to the whisper of their clothes, felt the warmth of their body heat and smelt their body odour and spicy scent in order to gauge who was where and how to escape.

“Perhaps she is a messenger,” said another man.

“Since when are girls messengers?” snorted the first man, saying something in their own language to which they all laughed in a way that made me feel dirty.

“Excuse me,” I said and twisted out of the man’s grip, throwing myself between two of the men and running away.

“Hey, come back,” they called.

I kept running. They could keep my cane. I had a spare one in my room.

“Tappety, goodness. Stop running, child. You know you’re not allowed to run in here,” Githa caught me when I spun around a corner. “Where’s your cane?”

“I lost it,” I gave a guilty smile. I didn’t dare say that I had accidentally run into the foreigners. I would be caned so hard that I wouldn’t be able to sit for a month.

“Then go to your room. You’re not safe without it.”

“Sorry, Githa,” I mumbled and slipped off to spy on the throne room from behind a door covered by a hanging of a red war horse.

The Master of Ceremonies was directing some courtiers where to stand and I could hear the Chancellors entering to stand below the dais. Margot ended up against the wall to the right side, near my hiding place. It wouldn’t do for these patriarchal bigots to know that she was an advisor. Let them think she was someone’s wife.

“His Royal Highness, Prince Neto Niaz Saahir Kahil of Rhuscoriaria and Duke of Getlamh and Sumac. His Serene Lordship, Eorl Onkar Zeeman of Levo. And his Right Honourable Count Badhur Bakari of Bakehill.”
I heard the low murmur die down as everyone in the throne room stopped where they were and gave small ruffly bows as the trio walked through the hall to the dais where the chancellors had parted for them.

Margot took a sharp breath.

“Is that Fiona’s cane?”

There was a slight murmur among the courtiers and I cringed. Now these foreigners would rat me out and everyone would know that I’d disobeyed orders. I was going to be in worse trouble than the time I tripped and spilt a bottle of ink on her visiting ladyship Lady Pansy of Topple 5 years ago. They’d expressly banned me from going near visitors before they had entered court since then.

Because of the murmur, I missed the initial greeting.

“I believe,” said a voice I recognised to be the man who had grabbed me earlier, “that your people are wondering why I am carrying this white cane. We wanted to return it to the child we met and frightened earlier. She happened across us talking in a place she did not expect and ran away so quickly that she forgot her cane. One of your men told us that the girl was blind and we would like to return it to her and express our apologies to her before the court.”

That startled me so much that I almost fell out the door. Good thing there was a bracket in the wall to hold onto. The noise in the Throne Room rose a level or two.

I heard the King’s voice say something.

They’d be looking for me and I was about to be invited into the Throne Room for the first time ever. I couldn’t move for a moment and then I gently eased the door closed and hurried out the secret tunnel out into a nearby closet. Before I left the closet, I knew Humphrey was already there, waiting. I could smell the lavender that his wife used on his uniform.

I paused.

Humphrey peered in.

“You look presentable enough.”

I twitched.

“Thought we didn’t know about your hidey-hole? Come on, Tapp. Everyone’s waiting.”

I too Humphrey’s arm and he led me through the big doors and through the courtiers to where Prince Neto and his friends waited. Humphrey had told me where people were standing.

“Your Royal Majesties,” I curtsied first to the King and Queen and then to the foreigners. “Your Royal Highness, your Serene Lordship and your Right Honourable Lordship. Excuse me.”

“His Royal Highness, Prince Neto tells us that you ran into them quite by accident,” I could hear a crinkle in the King’s voice and fidgeted, not sure whether he was going to be amused or angry. “I’m sure you know you aren’t allowed to disturb our guests in any way.”

“Yes, your Majesty. Sorry, your Majesty. It won’t happen again, your Majesty,” I bobbed, feeling a bit like a duckling in the middle of a windy pond.

“Prince Neto, please meet Fiona, the younger of my goddaughters. Please forgive her for disturbing you. She has a habit of getting herself into trouble despite her handicap.”

“Apology accepted, your Majesty. And Fiona, we are sorry for frightening you,” I felt the cane being carefully placed in my hands. From the heat radiating out in front of me, it felt like my face was being closely examined too.

“It was my fault for not being more careful, your Highness. I’m sorry,” I bobbed again.

“Your Majesty,” there was a small squeak of a foot pivoting. “it is my understanding that you have no daughters or young female cousins of the marrying age, but you mentioned another goddaughter. I feel that if Fiona is anything to go by, her sister will be just as beautiful if not more. Perhaps you would be willing to part with a goddaughter for my sake, as I am in need of a wife,” Prince Neto said, placing a hand on my head, “that is if she is not married.”

I knew I was meant to be blushing, but instead I was horrified. Margot marry this pig’s backside? I clapped my hands over my face to try hide my expression. Perhaps I didn’t hide it well enough, I’m not very sure exactly what happened, because the King’s voice turned cool.

“I’m sure it can be discussed at some stage,” he said. “Fiona, you may go.”

Bobbing once more to all the important people, I fled the room as quickly as Humphrey’s arm allowed me.

“What’s wrong?” Humphrey asked when we were outside. “I thought you’d be pleased that a prince would want to marry your sister. You’ve been moaning about her being single for years.”

“Not that prince,” I said. “He’s nasty. You can tell his Majesty I said so later too, if you want to. There’s something about him that really frightens me.”

“New people can be frightening,” Humphrey said. “Give him some time. He seemed nice.”

“You’d better go back in,” I said, wrinkling my nose and shaking my disagreement. “The King will miss you.”

“Stay out of trouble,” Humphrey said, knowing that I was going to go back into the closet to listen through the tapestry again.

There was no chance to get back into the closet though, because I was soon dodging the number of gifts that the Rhuscoriarians had brought with them. Tigers and monkeys and trains of servants with platters of piled spices. Chests of precious items, bolts of cloth and dancing girls. Carved sculptures and near naked people who clinked with the sound of chains. I pressed myself against a wall for a basket of what smelt like weird fruits or vegetables to go past and at one stage, I thought I heard a crying child.

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