Esther stood behind Iolana in the long line of those waiting to be presented to the king. She was only too conscious of the fact that those behind her left a good seven or eight feet between them, and that two royal guardsmen stood nearby, keeping their eyes fixed on her. She was sure that Iolana must have noticed too, but she feigned not to. Both Esther and Iolana had new dresses, very expensive and the height of fashion. Iolana’s was a white flowing gown, cut for a small bustle, as was the most recent style in the capital. Long waves of lace stretched down to the ground and down her arms to her white gloves, and technically the dress featured a high collar that went clear to her chin, but the top was a white gauzy silk which left much of her chest and all of her back exposed. Esther’s dress was similar in that it was mostly white lace, but with short sleeves and a plunging neckline, and of course a hole cut out in back for her tail. They both wore large round hats topped with sprays of feathers and flowers.
A man in a pristine black suit with a grey waistcoat came down the line, finally reaching Iolana and Esther. His carefully waxed mustache emphasized his thin-lipped smile.
“This is the procedure,” he said. “When you hear your names, you will step forward and stop at the yellow dot on the floor in front of the throne. Your name will be called, and you will curtsy. Then you will exit through the opposite door. If the king asks you a question, you will answer in as few words as possible, finishing with ‘Your Majesty’. If either of the princes should address you, the same applies, but in their case, it is ‘Your Royal Highness’.”
“Of course,” replied Iolana.
“I was told you understood Brech?” said the man to Esther.
“She does,” said Iolana.
“Then, there will be no surprises?”
“No sssurprises,” said Esther.
The line moved slowly onward. They were afforded a view of the royals long before it was their turn to stand before them. His Majesty King Tybalt III was a tall, thin man who, though his red uniform seemed to hang on him, was still quite spry for his sixty-four years. His thinning hair and mutton chops were still more blond than grey. Behind the throne, on either side, stood the two princes, dressed, like their father, in red uniforms filled with medals. Twenty-four-year-old Crown Prince Tybalt was on the left, looking completely bored. His fifteen-year-old half-brother, Prince Clitus, looked more nervous than anything else.
When she was close enough to actually hear the king’s conversation, Esther paid close attention to the exchanges.
“Lord Winsdall and his daughter Lady Ewa Windsdall,” droned the announcer.
“Good day, Lord Winsdall,” said the king. “This can’t be your daughter. There has to be some kind of mistake. Why, your daughter was only this big,” he held his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart, “when last I saw her.”
“They do grow up fast, Your Majesty.”
“Tell me, young lady, do you shoot? My son is a great shot.” He waved toward Prince Tybalt.”
“I don’t, Your Majesty, but I’d love to see him shoot.”
Prince Tybalt glanced down at the young woman the way a street sweeper looks at a pile of horse dung, sniffed, and turned away.
“Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Van Josen,” called the announcer, signaling that Lord Winsdall’s time was over.
“You’re the fellow that laid the trans-ocean telegraph line, aren’t you?” asked the king.
Prince Clitus looked interested. His older brother still looked bored.
“I was the chief engineer, Your Majesty. It was a team effort.”
“Quite, quite. You should all be congratulated, and you will be. We are sure to see your name on the list for the Order of St. Ulixes.”
Mr. Van Josen bowed. Prince Clitus looked as though he wanted to say something, but held his tongue.
“And how are you finding Brech City, Mrs. Van Josen?”
“Ser gute, Majesty.”
“Sir Redry Moorn, Lady Honoria Moorn, and Lady Hortence Moorn,” called the announcer, as the Van Josens stepped away.
Prince Tybalt was suddenly interested, particularly in Lady Honoria, who was a lovely young woman in a lavender gown. Both young women batted their eyelashes at him, but he was oblivious to Lady Hortence who was pretty enough, though not in her sister’s class. He leaned over and whispered something in his father’s ear.
“Sir Redry. These are your daughters?”
“Step-daughters, Your Majesty, though they are as dear to me as if they were my own.”
“You are in the city for a few days?”
“A fortnight, Your Majesty.”
“Very good. We shall see that they are invited to the Crown Prince’s tea.”
Sir Redry bowed curtly.
“Lady Iolana Dechantagne Staff and Esther… Ssaharranah of Birmisia.”
Iolana shot Esther an annoyed glance before turning her attention to the royal family.
“Lady Iolana,” said the king. “We were sorry to hear of the death of your father Sir Radley. We found him to be a fine man.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“And we express our admiration for your mother. A most remarkable woman.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Iolana suddenly looked as if she had bitten down on a lemon.
“So.” King Tybalt rose to his feet and stepped down to stop directly in front of Esther. “This is a lizzie. We are told you understand Brech.”