Arlene’s morning began early. As was usual, her eyes opened just as the first shy pinks of dawn entered into the sky. No thoughts or sounds interrupted the stillness of the morning. Just as she liked it. These would be her only silent moments of the day before she went back to bed at whatever point the Queen was done with her.
The morning routine was simple enough and made easier with decades of practice as well as her newly-young body. Hitting sixty without magical rejuvenation wasn’t an experience she was interested in repeating any time soon.
She rose from bed and doffed the nightgown. A tap of cleaning magic to freshen herself up, then on went the lingerie. Even if the Queen didn’t insist she ‘look sexy’ on a daily basis, there was no telling who would see her in nothing but her underwear on any given day. Dress was just as important as deportment.
Each piece of her uniform was inspected for stains before she put it on. Shirt, then skirt, then the apron over the top. Each was perfectly pressed and devoid of wrinkles to give the younger maids a good example. The Queen wouldn’t notice a wrinkled sleeve (and was often the cause of dishevelled uniforms in the palace) but it was the spirit of the thing. A few minutes with a warm iron let the world know that they were the finest maids in the country and not just an assortment of hardworking girls with humble backgrounds.
With her shoes already polished and set in place, all Arlene needed to do was step into them as she considered the tools of her trade laid out on the dresser. The comb went into a pocket in her apron as a matter of course. What else…? The wooden spoon she used as a wand for cooking spells wouldn’t be necessary until lunch, but the silver one for tea would be useful. The set of keys was a must, as were her scissors, needle and thread. Tears were an ever-present threat and the third button on the Queen’s yellow silk jacket was coming loose.
Once she made sure her hair was in a presentable state, she opened the door of her overly-large and mostly empty bedroom. One of the younger maids stood in front of her with a fist raised and ready to rap on the wood.
“Good morning, Sara.”
“I-! Er… Good morning, Ma’am!” The fox wasn’t much older than ten, though she was quite mature for her age. Arlene had doubts when Sara and her half-sister Sundrop were sent to apprentice in the palace together, but the two of them were excellent once they had a chance to show off their work ethic.
She wasn’t willing to patronise her young colleague and responded with a nod. “You’ll be working in the kitchens the next few days. There’s a delegation staying over, so stay out of sight as much as you can.”
The girl noted each word on her wax tablet as though it was some kind of valuable philosophical teaching that would need to be referenced. Arlene appreciated her spirit and allowed herself a small smile.
“I’m heading that direction now. Join me.”
The servants’ passages thrummed with as much activity as she expected. Cooks, bakers, butlers, messengers, footmen and every variety of maid jostled for space as they dashed to and from their posts in preparation for the busy day. That gave Arlene the time and venue to check in with the leaders of each appropriate group. The night-shift housemaids were nearly done their work cleaning the palace from top to bottom. The servers were setting up tables in the dining hall, the chambermaids were assembling in the kitchen to deliver tea, coachmen were preparing their vehicles on the off chance the monarchs would need them and the laundry maids were working through the last of the linens. All as it should be.
The final check-in happened in the narrowest part of the servants’ passages, right between the main kitchen and the postmistress’ archives. The lead squire needed to press herself against the wall to make way for a parade of serving carts bearing the ministers’ breakfasts.
“Hm?” Arlene indulged the orcish woman who stood head and shoulders above her. While it was one of her titles, Dervila only called her ‘Lady Chamberlain’ when something was wrong. On top of that, she was wringing her hands nervously. Wonderful.
“It’s about Her Majesty’s armour, you see.”
“We can’t fix whatever it is unless you tell me.”
“The smith is running a little behind and he still has it for polishing.”
Irritation flared in Arlene’s mind but didn’t make it to her well-practised stony expression. “Hurry him up if you can and send your least attractive squire to deliver the Queen’s arming-clothes.”
The squire nodded and dashed off to complete her tasks. With any luck, she would have the armour back in short order. The Mistheimers would arrive no later than noon and the Queen needed every bit of respectability she could get. She was more than likely going to come off as a tongue-tied buffoon with a head full of nothing but sex, but the armour would remind them that she was also the kind of buffoon who could personally demolish an army in an afternoon. And that was just in the bedroom.
With her ten-minute walk extended to its typical thirty, Arlene made it to the kitchen. The girls in charge of waking and dressing those who had the privilege to live in the residential wing of the palace were already finishing their preparations. Their real goal—as they crammed themselves and their serving-carts laden with teas and breakfasts—was to stay well out of the way of the dozens of scurrying cooks preparing for several days’ worth of important dinners. She could pick out the experienced ones. They knew each loose paver and narrow spot in the kitchen by heart, so they effortlessly moved between walking, shuffling and whirling around the others who didn’t share their expertise. At least the clumsiest stayed at their stations to slice ingredients, prepare sauces and set stews to boil.
“Finian.” She spoke just loudly enough to be heard over the din of work.
Arlene couldn’t see the head cook, but she knew better than to try to get his undivided attention on a day like this. “Sara will be assisting you for the next few days.”
“Ah, good! Tell her that I need her to start mixing up the proportions for hopped and unhopped ale in the barrels by the corner. They’ll need to be ready for the fermenters by mid-afternoon.”
The young maid looked confident. Good. She needed an ego boost after fumbling a job cleaning vases the week previous. Considering that her parents ran a public house together, she would have little problem working through Finian’s tasks for her.
Arlene handed the girl a slip of paper. “Give him this when he has a moment. I’ll be back to help with desserts in a few hours.”
“Alright! Thank you, ma’am!”
She turned her attention to a deer woman who was standing near her elbow with her hands clasped. “You’re hovering, Phaedra.”
“Just, er… just a question, Head Maid.”
“I’m serving Lady Greenglass—the Deputy that is—and I just did a little looking around town yesterday.” She withdrew a phial of a brown liquid that had an unpleasant viscosity. “The alchemist on Whitewood Lane said a drop of this should make a pot of tea plenty bitter.”
“Hm.” It would be good to finally find a solution to this ridiculous tea nonsense she always brought up. Why she would want expensive, well-blended teas to be steeped so long that they turned bitter was beyond Arlene’s ken. Worst of all, it was never bitter enough. “Is it safe for food? I don’t want her to complain of feeling ill on our account.”
“Yes, Head Maid. It’s just the extract of a few bitter plants like dandelion and ground ivy.”
“One drop, you said?”
“That’s correct, yes.”
“Good. Add three.” Was it petty? Yes. On the other hand, she doubted that anyone who properly knew Lady Sophia Willow Penelope Greenglass would blame her. Decades of serving the irascible, whiny, unpleasant braggart who thought she stood equal to the Witch-Queen would wear on anyone. This was nothing but a harmless prank as a bit of payback.
“Are… are you sure?” The girl opened her mouth as though she planned to say more, but shut it with tight lips before any argument came out.
“Very. I’ll be coming with you to introduce her to the concept and take any blame for her displeasure.”
Each drop after the first required eye contact and a nod. It was a good thing Phaedra didn’t have the heart to take initiative on this kind of thing. The moment they were done, Arlene led the way back through the tunnels to the residences.
The buildings and rooms of the palace weren’t officially numbered or labelled in any way aside from brass plaques announcing the business that took place inside. Of course, that just meant that the servants were free to implement their own internal system which would make good sense. The room whose plaque read ‘S.W.P. Greenglass’ was R1S-III-7: the seventh room in the south wing of the first building of the twin pair of residences designed for lords and ministers, third floor. Apparently the Mistress of the Post caught wind of this scheme a few decades ago and was attempting the impossible task of overlaying something similar over the entire city of Dun Peak.
Arlene rapped on the door with a cool confidence that would tell Greenglass exactly who was here for her morning wake-up. Tempting as it was to walk in with no announcement, the Head Maid still had to be an unquestionable professional. It was but a moment before a reticent ‘come in’ filtered through the door, anyway. She and the other maid strolled in with the tea-cart and set to work.
“Good morning, Deputy Minister.” In Arlene’s experience, it was critical to get the first blow of the exchange. Once the elf got going, the act of opening her mouth caused unpleasantness to flow out like flames from a dragon. Reminding her that she wasn’t queen of the world was a healthy start to her day.
Greenglass slipped out of bed and allowed Phaedra to strip off her nightgown. “And what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from our Queen’s favourite insect to?”
Keeping her face still was easy. She had decades of experience and a significant amount of natural talent to boot. Even her own family said that Arlene’s naturally drooping eyes and tight-lipped mouth never moved more than half of what other people’s did. No, the problem was keeping her antennae from tapping together in anger or having her wings flick with irritation. It would just prove the elf right, even if she had precious little control over the features that marked her out as the ‘favourite insect’.
“We’ve found something new to bitter the sharp-eared gentlewoman’s tea with, if she should be of a mind.” She didn’t personally mind elves. In fact, Layla Greenglass stood out as one of the women that Arlene most respected in the country. She spoke exactly as much as she needed to, prided herself on exemplary work, ran a tight department and was even quite an attractive woman. What a shame that her obnoxious sister shared her looks and nothing else.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me you’ve steeped it for two hours this time. Oh, maybe you’ve found a way to add hops in? I’m looking for something that tastes like more than watered-down dirt.”
The maid felt a twinge of professional pride that Phaedra managed to get Greenglass into her underwear so quickly while they sparred with each other. The girl used to struggle quite a bit with the garter belt straps if the person wasn’t cooperating.
“Not at all. One of the royal alchemists gave us a moment of her time, so we consulted her.” ‘Royal’ in the sense of royally chartered. Though that did technically mean any member of Dun Peak’s guild of alchemists—whose ranks consisted of every licensed practitioner in the city.
“How unexpectedly thoughtful. I hope you got on your hands and knees to thank her for giving someone at your level her time.”
“Naturally. I don’t have the benefit of your lofty level of education on every subject, but she gave us something very much like a tincture. Very rare ingredients for a potent effect as I understand.” Like dandelions and ivy. One might even have to go outside for those!
“…Was it expensive?”
“Ah… There’s no need to be concerned about the price. I know that your sister handles the family assets in the capital, so I’ve already forwarded the bill to her.”
“Now hold on! What do you mean ‘already?’” Panic crossed the deputy minister’s face and made the prank all the sweeter.
One of Layla’s many virtues was her very narrow definition of necessary expense. Should her twin sister spend more on frivolities than was allotted… Well, Arlene had the pleasure of listening from the other side of a door for a few dressings-down she gave. The woman never raised her voice or cursed but had a way of making you wish she would. Best of all, if she was asked about a bill that she never received, Layla’s suspicions would be aroused so much that she would hand out a lecture just on principle.
“Perhaps it’s best to just enjoy the result. It’s only supposed to take a single drop to accomplish what you’re hoping for, so that’s what we put in.” Phaedra’s eyes darted around the room as she tried not to think about which superior’s side to take and remained subserviently silent.
“Fine.” Deputy Greenglass took a sip. The face she made while holding in her reaction to the concentrated bitterness made Arlene’s morning.
With her self-indulgent procrastination done, Arlene moved on to the main event of her days at the palace. ‘Queen’s Maid’ and ‘Lady-in-Waiting’ were her oldest titles despite the many other mantles she wore.
The path through the service tunnels to the Queen’s tower was a long one. Barring a few distractions (the armourer’s apprentice coming to make his apologies, a runner from Captain Selene to report that the guards were being equipped in their ceremonial armour, news that the kitchens were proceeding on schedule and would be ready for her by early afternoon and a receipt nervously handed to her by the woman in charge of the palace’s stores), she was free to think. Reflecting on her mood was what allowed her to have decades of stalwart daily consistency without being reactive to situations.
Today was—to her surprise—still shaping up to be a good day. Arlene always felt the weight of the enormous pressure to perform on days like these. The Girian delegation and the Wearns’ wedding were each stressful enough to put her off her lunch for a week each. But now… here she was. Even the usual headache was gone and she practically felt playful. That must have been why she went out of her way to toy with Greenglass on a whim. They usually contained their nastiness to each other to when they had the misfortune of meeting. The question was why. Perhaps it was just that she was getting used to the cavalcade of diplomatic missions to the capital.
Now it was time to put her good mood to a real test. She emerged from the tunnel a few dozen paces from the door to the tower. Having a single entrance kept the Queen’s personal living spaces safe and likewise let her check in with the guards assigned to the outside.
“Morning, Lady Arlene. One went in, none out yet.”
“I would be more surprised if Her Majesty let her go.” Though she went through far fewer women than most people thought, the Queen tended to sleep with exponentially more when she was under pressure—sometimes two or three a day if there was a stressful event coming up. This particular guard was one of several girls invited into the Queen’s bedroom the day that the Minister of Diplomacy came to Dun Peak. Arlene would know, being the extra member of that ‘entirely optional’ threesome which H.M. the Witch-Queen ‘suggested’ they have.
The guard chuckled and saved Arlene the effort of opening the door herself.
“I see the squire made it here, Your Majesty.”
“M-mhm. Lower. Good morning, Arlene.”
It was no surprise to find that the Queen wasn’t ready. The fact that she even had her arming jacket half-on was a notch above usual. She was completely naked otherwise to give the girl between her legs better access.
“And to you. Tea?”
“If you would.” She put a hand on the squire’s forehead and pushed her back a touch. “Warm me up slowly. It’s not a race.”
At least not this morning. Competitive cunnilingus did factor into the Queen’s evenings on occasion. The concern was that she would spend too long on this little dalliance and have to meet the Minister and Deputy Minister of Diplomacy while on the verge of orgasm. Greenglass would complain loudly and Rowan would just stand there and stew. The man had an impressively cold poker face but had a tendency to turn scarlet when faced with the Queen’s proclivities.
“Have you spoken to Minister Rowan yet?” Arlene withdrew the teaspoon from her apron and tapped the teapot. The age of the spoon and the tens of thousands of times it was used as a wand for this exact purpose made bringing the water to a boil effortless. A pinch of chamomile went in the tea first and foremost.
“Hm? No. Haven’t seen him.”
The maid sighed. He seemed as though he was on the verge of overcoming his awkwardness on their ‘date’ some days before. “Have you considered summoning him?”
“Well, er… I’m sure he’ll be along on his own time. Didn’t you say he wanted to talk to me?”
Rosehip was next to impart the floral flavour the Queen liked. “Yes. I expected he would use King Arngrim’s visit as a pretence to open the conversation.”
“That’s today, isn’t it? I assume that’s why I’m wearing my armour.”
“Hm. Should I play it off like I haven’t noticed and just summon him? I’m starting to feel as though bedding him was a bad idea.”
“That’s up to you, Your Majesty.”
“I’m asking you as my friend, Arlene.”
Words more magical than anything the Institute of Magic taught. Specifically because they contained ‘that was a direct order,’ ‘you have to,’ ‘remember that you are a servant who belongs to me,’ and ‘you should feel bad for wanting to get out of this’ into one sentence that needed no elaboration. Being candid was off the table—and not just because she would have preferred to crack their heads together to see whose was harder. Serving a young Queen for most of her life gave Arlene an encyclopaedic knowledge of the woman’s tells.
A Queen Rhiannon who was feeling normal would have no hesitation to summon any minister who she felt like amusing herself with. Then again, a normal Queen Rhiannon would never make an exception to her personal rules and sleep with a member of her court, either. It was a few decades too soon to believe that she could feel remorse for having sex with someone she shouldn’t have, but there was some guilt there—whether or not she recognised it herself. One of her (many) major failings as a person was being entirely inept at dealing with former partners, and now there was one she had to speak to on a regular basis.
“Perhaps normal is best.” Arlene handed her a cup of tea and a saucer so that she wasn’t tempted to rest her cup on the squire’s head.
“Alright. Summon him for me, then.”
“You might consider finishing first.”
“You know I like my mornings slow. He carried on a normal conversation when you were under the table.”
Arlene was blessed that Rowan’s first impression of her wasn’t more coloured by that fact. He spent so much time stroking her ego that he almost believed his ‘I’ve seen how hard you work and you’re a good person even though you’re the head of the Queen’s personal bedwarmers’ narrative.
“The operative word being ‘he,’ Your Majesty. You spent most of the conversation alternating between halfhearted teasing and panting into your hand.”
“You know I can hold that kind of thing in when it isn’t you. No offence to you, dear. You’re doing fine.” She ran a hand through the squire’s hair as the world’s most inelegant reassurance. The commanding, seductive tone of voice alone kept the squire from discovering her monarch was a moron.
Decades of being her personal servant and favourite sex toy did tend to impart a certain skill in the bedroom. The uncomfortable truth was that Arlene was so used to sleeping with all kinds of women that she knew she had a type now. On the worst days, the Queen’s mental rot infected her to such a degree that she considered making advances on some of the more attractive public servants in the ministries. At least her day with Rowan was a reset that assured her she wasn’t completely of the ‘queenly persuasion’ yet.
“Having a girl between your legs might be distractingly normal if you think having sex with him was a bad idea.”
“I was just thinking that it might help illustrate that-”
“I’ll return with the Minister, Your Majesty.” Arlene’s patience was wearing thin and she had no interest in listening to the Queen’s waffling.
The ancient door slamming shut behind her should have been a relief that allowed for more space to think. All she needed to do was fetch Rowan and bring him back. It would take a few minutes at most, then she would be back to working on important things. The one hitch in her plan was the maid waiting outside the door for her.
“Um, Head Maid?” The girl wrung her bonnet in her hands and stared steadfastly at Arlene’s shoes.
“It’s…” Gisela’s persistent wringing swapped direction once… twice… three times. She did spend most of her shifts working as a laundry maid, though they were trying her out in a few different positions now that she was developing professionally. Her problem was that the young Gislander was over-conscious of her origins and had a paralysing fear of mistakes. “We can’t find Minister Rowan! I’m sorry I didn’t-!”
“Are there people out looking for him?”
“Yes, Head Maid.”
“Good. I’ll check the interiors, so go make sure he isn’t in one of the courtyards.”
Arlene turned on her heel and began walking. With luck he would merely be already up and about somewhere unexpected. She only bothered to intervene on the off chance that the Minister of Diplomacy decided his position as a spy for Gisland just wasn’t working out for him. The other servants had no reason to suspect that the Queen’s new favourite could be hiding or in the process of fleeing the country.
Over the course of the half-year Rowan lived in the palace, she came to know it would be in character for him. The man possessed a remarkable talent for assuming. Whether it was the plans the Witch-Queen or Archduke had for him, what his personal responsibilities were, debts to the people around him or even the emotional states of unimportant people like herself. He no doubt rationalised Deputy Greenglass’ hatred of him starting with some small mistake he made at age six that spiralled out of control and made him a fundamentally unlikeable person. An arbitrary decision he was caught would be reasonable compared to some of the earlier gaffes which the Queen delighted in.
In Arlene’s opinion it was his most irksome personality trait. In Rhiannon IX’s palace, inflexibility was the worst character flaw that a mortal could possess. She was guilty of it in her younger years, but that only meant his embarrassing mistakes brought up memories of her own.
Rowan pushed the needle from troublesome to likeable on their little date, though. Their entire visit with the wizards should have put her off. She wasn’t sure if it was watching him struggle to be considerate in the face of two absolute idiots, accepting how she acted without comment or insisting on taking care of her after it was all said and done—he just made it work somehow. The sex was good, but now she had an idea of what these other women saw in him. It would be a shame if he disappeared now.
Right. Where would she go if she was the Minister of Diplomacy? The ministry’s tower itself was out of the equation. He would be far too likely to meet the lesser Greenglass there and she wouldn’t help if one was nervous or unsure. ‘Sophia’ would still be cross with him for the fellatio as well. What Arlene wouldn’t give to peer over Rowan’s shoulder for that. Those sharp elven eyes turned up in a glare while she-
A flutter in the pit of her stomach warned the maid that her mind was wandering. Rowan. Logically speaking, if he was just wandering the palace he would avoid the throne room and Queen’s tower, which left him with few choices if he wanted to stay inside. The barracks and servants’ quarters were out of the question, the mint was a well-guarded dead end and a man who carried prayer beads around wouldn’t bother going to another religion’s temple.
The main loop, then. If he went in the direction of his office and kept walking, she would need to go counterclockwise around the palace to catch him.
Ten minutes of walking proved her intuition correct. Rowan strode down the hall with his eyes locked on a handful of papers. She had to admit he looked quite handsome for a runaway minister. His robe flowed dramatically behind him, he wore that dead-serious businesslike expression she had a weakness for… even that androgynous ponytail the Queen loved was beginning to suit him.
He caught sight of her and his face softened as though she was the answer to all his problems. Did he need her for something? Arlene hurried over and paused a moment to let him-
Let him what? Kiss her? Allowing herself to get swept up in all his words about the two of them being equals was already embarrassing and now she was acting like a blushing maiden. Minister Rowan could have any woman he wanted and frequently did. A servant was nothing more than a fling for a man who could please a queen, and right now she was nothing but another member of the palace staff he was inconveniencing with his disappearance.
“Where’ve you been, Minister? Even the maids who are assigned to you couldn’t find you.”528 Views