A/N: There might be a 7.4, just out of interest, even though I usually stop at 3. I'll start writing a summary of the rest of the night at the start of the next chapter and see if it's starting to get too big. Also, I just hit 25k words!
They drifted down towards the palace once everyone had finished their tea. The wind had picked up a bit, whipping Buck’s hair around his face. He didn’t have the longest hair in the world, but he’d tried to keep his fringe nice and loose to go with the casual theme of the night. He’d put on a thin linen shirt and a dark blue robe over it – which had involved a subtle shift around on Simone’s part – plus some thick black breeches. He also had no bucket with him, and wouldn’t be going by the name of Buck. He had to make a new name for himself, because he was fairly sure Erson would remember his.
“Wait, where’s the door?” Buck asked, realising they were ambling vaguely up to a narrow cobblestone path that ran alongside the palace. There was a little stream as well, running around just inside the path. It was like an extremely non-threatening moat.
“There’s a door just along there,” Dorrea said, pointing a little to the left.
Buck squinted in the dying light. “What, where?”
Dorrea stepped in front of him and led him around to a little wooden bridge across the stream. It brought them to a square wooden door set deep into the stone, so that there was an overhang of stone above their heads as they knocked. Buck figured that had to be helpful on rainier nights.
And they’d have needed it, because it took upwards of five minutes for Dorrea’s ringing to be answered. Eventually, a middle aged woman with straggly light brown hair ushered them in.
“Oh, sorry about the wait, Dorry,” said the woman, once they were all inside. “Raddig was handling this wing but he had to do some damage limitation.”
Buck’s ears pricked up. “What sort of damage limitation?”
The woman led them down a low, narrow corridor with a wooden ceiling and dim light, explaining that an argument had broken out over whether or not everyone was wasting an evening. Few people had much faith in the night as a musical exercise – nobody knew a song clean enough to be sing within a mile of a princess – but some had taken the slight on Myal’s honour to heart.
“Interesting...” Buck said. “I’m Buttane, by the way.”
He held his hand out for her as he introduced himself, but halfway to shaking it she turned to Dorrea and exclaimed, “Ah, Dorry! So this is your boy then?”
“He is indeed. And these are his friends, Hilene and Victane.” Dorrea gestured to each in turn.
Buck glanced at the two guards, realising he’d forgotten to introduce them before trying to get details about court politics. They didn’t glare at him or anything though, so he figured all was good. The woman introduced herself as Olean, and led them through a door in the stone wall to their left, into a wide, high hall.
There was a blocky wooden stage at one end of the room, and a young woman Buck assumed to be Princess Myal sat on a throne in the corner of it. Scattered around the room were people wrapped in thick, rough fabrics, with dark trousers like the ones Buck had put on. And off to the left, a fight was in the process of being broken up.
On one side was a tall man with short dark hair, backed by a group of cheering supporters. On the other side was a shorter, stocky man, with similarly vocal supporters behind him. And in the middle, muscles straining as he tried to push the two apart, was the shepherd they’d spoken to on the way in. Perhaps the queen would like him better if he managed to prevent this bar fight from breaking out in the middle of the great hall.
Instinctively, Buck started towards the throng to hear what they were shouting at each other, but his mum tapped him on the shoulder and led him towards the stage. Hilene and Victane headed towards the fray. There were a few crates of various sizes lined up in ascending order, which Olean led them up. Buck grinned, having not expected to find himself on a stage again quite so soon.
Olean rushed to the opposite corner and crouched down beside Princess Myal’s throne.
“Oh, poppet, I’m so sorry the night’s not going to plan,” Olean said, patting the princess on the hand.
Buck noticed that the princess’s brow was furrowed deeply, and her nose was scrunched up as if she was trying to hold back tears. Her long dark hair flowed down either side of her head, along her shoulders, then draped over her arms. She clenched the tips of it tight in one fist.
“I just wanted to give them something to do – something fun,” she said. She paused to sniffle and look up at Buck. “Oh, gosh, I’m terribly sorry.” She glanced towards Olean. “I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced?”
Olean shot to her feet and gestured for Buck to approach. “Well, you know Dorrea here. This is her son, Buttane.”
Buck sank into a deep bow, flourishing with one hand. “A pleasure, your Highness.”
Slowly, Myal’s hands unclenched. Her mouth hung slightly open as she reached her hand out, then dropped into a wide ‘O’ as he bent down and kissed it.
Olean patted her on the shoulder and she snapped back to attention. “What, um… What brings you to the Royal Court, my good sir?”
Buck put his weight on one leg and gestured fluidly with his hands as he spoke. “Well, I’ve been travelling for some time, seeing the realm. But my mother made me aware by letter that there was to be a brand new court established right here in the valley where I was born. Now that was a sight I had to see.”
Myal’s mouth closed, and turned upwards into a grin, though at his last words this dropped slightly. She nodded her head towards the crowd below, where Hilene and Victane were doing a decent job of diffusing the tensions. This was nothing compared to when flyte night got out of hand back in Resador City, all those alliterative insults flying back and forth.
Myal muttered, “Not much of a court. There’s been two singers so far and the songs have been nothing but bedtime stories! I don’t want people to go to sleep. I want them to stay here and have a good time.”
Buck rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, your Highness, I think there may be some hesitation over what subject matter would be appropriate for a royal presence. That doesn’t leave many songs but bedtime stories.”
“But Erson isn’t hearing lullabies! Everyone knows what Resador’s like, yet he gets to stay down there as long as he wants!” Myal’s hands briefly curled back into fists.
“Hmm… Perhaps it would interest you to know that I myself am a singer, and would be happy to get the night going again?” Buck grinned at her. “And I do take requests. Would you like to hear something like what Erson might be hearing right now?”
Myal tapped the ends of her fingers together. “No… or at least, not yet. I’m trying to introduce a sense of history here. Do you know any songs about the uniting of the realm?”
Buck nodded. To him, the chronicle of the Royal Origin was a bedtime story. And he’d worn the right clothes as well, for it was a sombre tale full of bitter infighting and tortuous peace negotiations. It actually made for a terrible song, but it had been a good starting point from which to train his memory.
The princess called out for the crowd’s attention, though most people had begun to watch the exchange between Buck and Myal anyway. Then, with a smile, she gestured for Buck to take centre stage. He did so, then let his voice ring out in thin, plaintive song.