For the three days leading up to the banquet, Buck spent most of his time with Rydone and Misene, whom he’d recruited to help him find poets who were just sedate enough to settle Erson’s nerves, but not so slow they’d put the entire Resadorian audience to sleep. Unfortunately, there weren’t many poets in Resador city who didn’t patter out their lines at ninety words per minute. Fortunately, however, that meant there were so few candidates to choose between that they were able to hire everyone who auditioned.
“Again, thank you so much for this opportunity,” said a tall young woman with light brown skin and round golden spectacles. She wore a neat cream coloured dress and had some matching beads in her hair.
“You’re very welcome… Ronune,” Buck said, finding her name on the list he’d made up that morning. It was now little more than an hour until the banquet, and he’d set up a small folding table in the middle of the palace courtyard. He picked up a five of spades playing card with the palace crest on the back and handed it to her. “This means you’re fifth up. When it’s your turn to go, hand that to any one of me, my two friends here, or the nearest guard in palace uniform – they’re the ones on duty.”
“Of course, yes. Thank you so much,” Ronune said. She curtsied, then headed off towards the flow of people going through the palace’s main doors.
“That’s the third one that’s been falling at your feet, Buck,” Rydone said. She tried to lean back in her chair but the thin wooden leg caught in the cobblestones and she almost fell backwards into a fountain.
“She’s right,” Misene said as she regained her balance. He was on Buck’s other side. He squinted at Buck. “What have you been promising?”
Buck spread his hands wide. “It’s not my fault! Most of these poets have never been chosen to perform at court before so they’re all really excited.”
Misene scratched the top of his head. “Isn’t the line-up entirely down to you?”
“That is true,” Buck said. “Um… it’s not my fault they’re terrible?”
“They’re not terrible,” Rydone said, “You just have no patience for slower rhythm.”
Misene chuckled. “Sorry, mate, but she’s right again. You’re not known for your patience.”
“Exactly!” Rydone exclaimed. Buck whirled around to face her. He’d been turning back and forth between the two of them for most of the conversation. Rydone added, “You’ll probably have proposed marriage to Erson on Pires’s behalf before you’re on stage thirty seconds.”
“Shh!” Buck hissed. “Be quiet about that. Pires says it won’t work if we go in too recklessly, so we have to be subtle.”
“Okay, okay,” Rydone said, resting her chin on her hand.
“To be fair,” Misene said, “If I was Pires, I don’t think I’d have been able to hold myself back this whole week.”
Buck scoffed. “I’m sure Croline would love that.”
“Pfft, he would understand,” Misene said, batting at the air with one hand. “We’ve been arguing over Erson all week.”
“I think that’s kind of the point,” Buck said. “I guess generally the idea is to not seem like another screaming devotee.”
They had to stop as another poet approached the table. He was the last to sign in so once he was gone they packed up and followed the increasingly bottle-necked crowd inside. The crowd parted to let Buck through first to the main hall – his pastel version of the blue and yellow cloak over dark green sparkly doublet and trousers announced loudly who he was. The main hall was straight through the foyer, directly under the large meeting hall, and got its light from a massive circular stained glass window on the far side.
“Buck! Bucket!” called a voice as they entered the room.
Buck looked up at the stage, on the right-hand side. Victane waved at him from where he was helping to set up some ribbon wall-hangings. A moment later he hurried down the steps at the side of the stage and made his way through the crowd to meet them.
"Um, hi," Buck said.
"Oh, Buck, you should have seen it," Victane said, clapping his hand on top of Buck's shoulder. "Rydone, Misene, hello. You wouldn't believe how close we were to cancelling the whole thing!"
"In the last half hour?" Buck said.
"Well, see, it turns out Queen Merhen was giving noncommittal answers to Erson these past three days and he was bluffing to Pires that she'd said yes, you know, thinking he could convince her. But then today she's on her way to her private dining room as usual and Erson finally comes clean," Victane said. Buck wasn't sure if his tone was hushed so the citizens filing in wouldn't hear him, or if he'd been genuinely panicked by this turn of events.
"Wait, the Queen's not coming?" Buck asked, absentmindedly waving goodbye to Rydone and Misene who went to take up their stations.
"Well, she wasn't," Victane said, "But then I got an idea."
"Oh, yes. I wrangled Hilene and Ordune and we went and started a serious cleaning job on the private dining room. When the queen comes by, we tell her there's been a cleaning scheduled since this room isn't used to being used so intensely, but that it'll be good as knew tomorrow," Victane said.
"So... everything's fine?"
"Oh, yes." Victane beamed. "But I've never thought so fast in my life! You'd have been so proud, my young friend."
Buck smiled and patted Victane's hand on his shoulder. "I am indeed extremely proud. Thank you so much for covering for me."
Victane nodded. "You are of course welcome. Well, get to it. You have a banquet to host!"
Buck nodded and straightened his cloak, repositioning the red brooch at the centre of his collarbone. He padded around the edge of the room, jogged up the steps, then took his place at the front of the stage. Below him, there were rows and rows of benches, all tightly packed with Resadorian citizens who’d queued overnight to sign up for admission. At the opposite end of the hall, the left if you were looking in from the entrance, was a raised dais similar to the one in the meeting hall. But this one was populated by armchairs and sofas of all different colours, sizes and textures.
“Welcome, everyone, to a very special night. We have in audience the revered Queen Merhen, along with her son the beloved Prince Erson, and of course the very lucky Duchess Pires, who gets to sit with them all night!” Buck left a pause for a laugh from the crowd. Pires and Erson sat on a long blue sofa together with the queen in a dark red wingback chair to Erson’s right. Pires would certainly be having at least an eventful time with her driving companions, if not a strictly enjoyable one. “Well then, keep an eye out for the buffet popping up to your left but for now sit back – though not too far on those benches. Resador City Palace presents: ‘A Night of Recitation and Relaxation’.”
Buck sidled off to the back of the stage to make way for the first poet and harpist. Set to quiet, hypnotic music, the poet’s verses about rolling plains were actually rather pleasing – soothing, Buck might have said if pushed. For every poet he announced, there was an increasingly warmer air in the room, and the low level of chatter eventually petered out. When they broke for an interval after the sixth poet was finished, almost all the crowd rose sleepily to their feet, stretched, then sat straight back down again.
Erson and Pires had moved closer together as the evening went on, which Buck figured was a good sign. They were both leaning back against the couch cushions, though not against each other. Every so often one or the other seemed to direct a comment towards Merhen, which often led to all three sharing a laugh. Buck was unsure whether that was a good or bad sign. He didn’t have much time to think though, as Erson had stood up and was crossing to the side of the dais.
Buck kept watching him as he stood at the long table under the stained glass window, but all he did was pick up some battered vegetable snacks and put them in a bowl made of thin metal. He looked up at Buck and smiled, waving him down.
Buck was supposed to be starting his own clam, slow poem soon – but who was he to ignore a direct order from the prince? He hurried down the steps and walked as fast as he could up to the prince.
“Good evening, Bucket,” Erson said.
“Good evenng, your grace,” Buck said.
“I feel I owe you some thanks,” Erson said, taking some cutlery from the table. “Sometimes I need a push to have a really great night.”
Buck had to stop himself from fist-pumping. “Of course, your grace! I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”
“We should have a chat tomorrow,” Erson said, “I’d like to hear more about how you put these things together.”
Inwardly, Buck danced from foot to foot. “I would love that, your grace.”
“Wonderful,” Erson said. “Well, I better let you get on with it. You’re up next, I believe?”
“Indeed, your grace. I’m going to be… reading poetry.” Buck thought for a moment. “Would you hate it if I accidentally broke into song at some point?”
Erson paused with his food halfway to his mouth. He frowned for long enough to make Buck’s stomach tense, but then winked and said, “I think that might be quite alright.”
“Fantastic!” Buck exclaimed, whirling around and bounding off before he even remembered to add a ‘your grace’. Perhaps he could have some fun with this after all.