Summary: Alice attends the derby and meets the queen–and a possible new adversary.
Notes: I again used a lot of the original PB dialogue, but I bedazzled it a bit. Also, I’m sure it’s pretty obvious that I’m trying to get caught up on Game of Thrones before the new season premieres based on some of my references in this installment haha. Plus, I solemnly swear that the next chapter will include more Bastien!
As Alice approached the suitors’ tent at Honeyhill Downs, Olivia noticed her arrival and smirked condescendingly.
“Look who finally showed up,” Olivia said as she surveyed Alice from head to toe. “Fashionably late has its limits you know.”
“Oh my god!” Alice exclaimed, pointing frantically to Olivia’s hair. “What is that?”
“What?” Olivia grabbed for her clutch, yanking out a compact to check her hair. Alice rolled her eyes and walked over to where Hana was waving at her.
“Alice, I was worried about you! What happened?” Hana asked.
“I got lost,” Alice said lightly, shrugging.
“It’s only day two and you can’t even keep up?” Kiara asked. “Très embarrassant.”
Alice ignored her, worried that if she kept rolling her eyes at this rate that they’d fall right out of her skull.
“It can be very overwhelming,” Hana reassured Alice with a warm smile. “The press swarmed us all when we arrived…it was a lot.”
“How do you handle the pressure?” Alice asked. “You’re always so cool and level-headed.”
“I guess when I’m up there, I try to think of the person that I want everyone to see and then act like that person,” Hana replied.
“But doesn’t that get exhausting? Constantly putting on a facade and not letting anyone know the real you?” Alice asked. She felt hypocritical considering how she was currently deceiving an entire nation by simply being a suitor, but she was genuinely curious. Alice saw Hana’s smile falter slightly before she composed herself again.
“If I’m honest…yes,” Hana admitted. “But there are certain expectations I’m expected to meet, so what can I do?”
Alice was about to respond when a booming voice sounded over the loudspeakers, announcing the start of the races. She and the other suitors leaned forward to get a better view of the track as the starting gun rang out across the stands.
“The gray one is taking the lead!” Penelope cried, pointing excitedly.
“That’s Twilight-Dash,” Hana said. “She’s such a sweet horse.” She glanced at Alice and found her watching. “I admit I arrived a little early so I could see the horses,” Hana said, blushing a little. “I’ve always enjoyed riding and I thought it would be relaxing to see them before having to face the press.”
Alice thought of her own encounter in the stables, but said nothing.
“I’m cheering for the one with flowers in her hair,” Kiara announced.
“Twilight-Dash is still in the lead at the halfway point! She could win!” Hana exclaimed excitedly, grabbing Alice’s arm.
“I don’t think so, my horse is gaining!” Kiara teased Hana good-naturedly. Alice studied Kiara out of the corner of her eye. If Kiara stopped being so pretentious, Alice thought she could like her. Maxwell had advised her about the importance of allies…maybe that would soften the blow if and when she and Bastien came clean…
“They’re neck and neck!” Penelope gasped as she grabbed Kiara’s arm with excitement.
Alice and the other suitors watched with heady anticipation as the horses pulled closer and closer to the end. Kiara cheered as her favored horse crossed the finish line first and the other women relaxed, applauding politely as the horse was led to the side and wreathed in roses. Despite the excitement of the women around her, the whole thing felt a little anticlimactic to Alice. She’d never been much of a gambler and Alice thought the whole point of these social events was for the suitors to not only make an impression on the press, but to also spend time with the prince. Alice had no interest in wooing Liam, but she still found the whole setup somewhat puzzling.
“I’m disappointed…we haven’t gotten to see the prince at all,” Penelope said, echoing the thoughts in Alice’s head as if she’d spoken aloud.
“He’s sure to be at the picnic though,” Kiara said hopefully. “We’ll be heading over there shortly.”
“Wait, that’s it for the races?” Alice asked.
“There were a few more for those of us who didn’t get lost,” Olivia said. “But I’d hardly expect a commoner like yourself to be able to successfully navigate a more highbrow event.”
“Christ, you’re exhausting,” Alice muttered as a member of the royal guard motioned for the suitors to follow him. She wanted to say more to Olivia but she remembered that she was supposed to play nice, so instead Alice moved away from the redheaded Nevrakis to walk beside Hana.
“What happens now?” Alice asked as they made their way through the crowd.
“Now the real party happens!” Hana said with an enthusiastic smile.
“So the race is just an excuse to get together and party?”
Hana laughed. “More or less. This next part is basically a large tea party.”
“Like the Mad Hatter’s tea party?”
“Hopefully with fewer mice,” Hana said with a chuckle. “Although, there will likely be croquet, so your reference isn’t far off base.” She fell quiet for a moment as they walked. “When I was little, I didn’t have that many toys to play with because my parents thought they were frivolous, but I was allowed a tea set so I could learn to be proper hostess.”
“Ah, yes, every five-year-old’s highest ambition,” Alice said.
Hana smiled, but there was a sadness in her eyes. “My parents are…single-minded at times.” She paused. “What about your parents? What are they like?”
Alice hesitated. “My mom left when I was little and my father passed away a couple years ago. Cancer.”
“Oh, Alice, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” Hana said quickly as she touched Alice’s arm sympathetically. Alice shrugged.
“It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay, but it is what it is. I have some close friends that have become family for me,” she said.
“I think that’s nice,” Hana said thoughtfully as they exited Honeyhill Downs to see a line of cars awaiting passengers. “I like the idea of choosing your family.”
A black town car rolled to a stop near Hana and a driver quickly hopped out of the car and hurried to open the door for her.
“I guess this is me,” Hana said. “I’ll see you at the party?”
Alice nodded and waved goodbye to Hana before surveying the area for Maxwell and Bertrand. Shortly after, a familiar limo pulled up at the curb and Maxwell stood up through the sunroof.
“Alice! Let’s go!” he called cheerily.
“Maxwell, please sit down,” Bertrand’s disembodied voice admonished from inside the car. Alice smiled and slid into the limo with the brothers.
“I hope you had a good time!” Maxwell said. “What’d you think of the derby?”
“It was…fast,” Alice said.
“Yes, of course the horses are fast,” Bertrand said dismissively, completely missing the point. “Alright, enough pleasantries, we don’t have much time. First of all, was that Lady Hana Lee I saw you with before we pulled up? You two looked friendly.”
“Hana and I are becoming friends,” Alice said. “I like her.”
“Hmm…interesting,” Bertrand mused thoughtfully. “An alliance with her family isn’t the worst thing as long as you don’t let it distract you from the prince. In any case, your focus today should be on impressing the queen. She holds more sway than anyone else at court.”
“Even more than the king?” Alice asked, eyebrow raised.
“Socially, yes,” Maxwell said. “You need to get her to like you.”
“Okay, well, what is she like?”
“The queen enjoys fashion and likes a woman with grace and style,” Maxwell said. “She tends to favor the ladies who are originally from Cordonia, so you’re at a slight disadvantage there.”
“But I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Maxwell assured her. “You’re really good with people.”
“Do you have something to add?” Alice asked.
“I merely found Maxwell’s comment amusing,” Bertrand said. Alice narrowed her eyes, but said nothing as he continued. “The queen has a high regard for royal protocol. You should call her ‘Your Majesty’ when you first meet her and ‘ma’am’ thereafter.”
“Easy enough,” Alice said.
“Etiquette-wise, don’t forget that you must always stay a step or two behind her when keeping company with her,” Bertrand added.
“Like a well-trained dog learning to heel,” Alice said sweetly. Bertrand’s face darkened with annoyance.
“I don’t care if you think things like etiquette and our traditions are silly, you have to learn them if you’re going to advance in this competition,” Bertrand glowered. “So I suggest you get on board.”
“Fine, fine,” Alice said, exasperated. She knew he was right; she just hated admitting it when he was so condescending.
“Oh! The queen also loves to play games and can be quite competitive,” Maxwell interjected, trying to alleviate the tension in the limo.
“But, ultimately, she’s concerned about how the prince’s bride will be partly responsible for Cordonia’s future. Keep that in mind when you talk to her,” Bertrand added.
“I hope you do,” Bertrand said.
“Do you always have to have the last word?” Alice asked.
“Hey, look, we’re here!” Maxwell announced, sounding relieved.
“You performed well with the press earlier, but remember, Alice, it only takes one slip-up to tear apart the reputation you’ve built,” Bertrand warned.
“Was there a compliment in there?” Alice asked, astonished. Bertrand grimaced.
“Don’t get used to it.”
After they exited the limo, Maxwell escorted Alice by the arm into the perfectly manicured garden dotted with impeccable white tents.
“Wow, this looks like something from Downton Abbey,” Alice said as she surveyed the scene before her.
“You’ve been to an abbey?” Bertrand asked. “I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s actually a…you know what, yes, yes I have,” Alice said. Maxwell tried to hide a smile.
“There, you see the other ladies?” Bertrand asked, pointing to Hana and some of the other suitors who were standing in line across the lawn. “Go stand with them in the receiving line.”
“Alright, wish me luck!” Alice said, plastering a smile on her face.
“Good luck!” Maxwell said. Bertrand merely grunted as she left.
“Hey!” Hana said as Alice approached them. “Welcome to the tea party.”
“Cutting it awfully close again, aren’t we?” Olivia asked. “You should really work on your time management.”
Alice opened her mouth to reply but was cut off by a herald loudly announcing the arrival of the queen.
“Welcome, all,” Queen Regina said to the waiting crowd. “I’m so delighted you could join us this afternoon and I hope you enjoy the festivities.”
Alice and the rest of the crowd clapped politely as the queen made her way through the crowd, pausing every few feet to greet guests. She was escorted by a tall, thin, blonde woman in a green dress who perpetually looked as if she’d just stepped in something unpleasant.
“I wonder who that is with the queen,” Hana whispered to her.
Alice shrugged. “Beats me. But I’ve only been in the country for 24 hours, so what do I know?”
“That’s Countess Madeleine of Fydelia,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes at their incompetence. “If you haven’t heard of her, then you really are behind the times.”
“Her name was all over the tabloids at one point,” Penelope added. “She was betrothed to the former crown prince until he abdicated.”
“It was particularly embarrassing for her to be thrown over like that,” Kiara said, shaking her head. “She was the one who was chosen during that social season. To go through all that and not be royal…”
“Why would that be embarrassing?” Alice asked. “It’s not like she was the reason he abdicated, was it?”
“Heavens, no!” Penelope gasped.
“So then it seems like she has nothing to be embarrassed about,” Alice said. “Wouldn’t any ‘scandal’ like that fall on the prince who abdicated?”
Olivia smirked. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
Alice laughed, surprised, and even though she’d meant it as an insult, Alice could tell Olivia was pleased she’d understood the reference.
“Who is Jon Snow?” Penelope asked, but Olivia ignored her.
“Anyway, Madeleine must be the queen’s guest as a consolation prize,” Olivia said. “It’s sad, really.”
“Shhh…” Hana shushed them quietly as the queen approached. Olivia rolled her eyes, but did as Hana said.
The queen paused for a moment to speak with each suitor before she finally reached Alice. Trying to remember everything the Beaumonts told her, Alice stepped forward and curtsied as gracefully as she could.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Your Majesty,” Alice said politely.
“Ma’am, this is the one I was telling you about…” Madeleine said quietly to the queen. Alice imagined Madeleine was the kind of woman who asked to speak to a manager if her glass of water had four ice cubes instead of three.
“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Alice Ayers,” the queen said. “The press speaks well of you. It takes great effort to manage one’s image so responsibly.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Alice said.
“They’re touting you as ‘The Everywoman,’ someone who is common like them,” the queen continued. “It’s good the people see themselves in you, but if you become queen, I hope you’d be aware of your true status.”
“Of course, ma’am. I’d take it very seriously.” Alice felt like she was reciting lines in a play. The whole idea of royalty still felt so foreign and strange to her. She’d never even run for student government in high school and here people were talking as if she’d someday rule an entire country.
“Lady Alice, tell me, what do you think is the best quality for a ruler to have?” the queen asked.
A really big hat. “The best quality should be a sense of duty,” she answered. “Loyalty to the kingdom you represent and the people you serve will carry you through any crisis.”
“Good answer,” Regina said, nodding approvingly. “Governance is not to be taken lightly. You will be bombarded daily by a hundred little decisions. Few will be glamorous, and many will weigh heavily on you. Loyalty to the kingdom and to the people must guide your every decision.”
“That’s good advice, ma’am, thank you,” Alice said.
“As heads of state, we have a responsibility to the people. The press acts as their eyes. We must always portray a sense of calm and dignity. If the rulers appear in control, then everyone will be assured,” Regina said.
Alice considered her words carefully, turning them over in her mind. She wondered what the queen might be hiding beneath her calm and dignified public persona.
“Hysteria benefits nobody,” the queen continued. “Do you agree?”
“Yes, but I think you can still maintain authority while allowing people to see you as human,” Alice said. She could practically hear Bertrand’s blood pressure rising. “If we set the example that it’s normal to make mistakes and have weaknesses and anxieties, then we can foster compassion for our faults rather than restrain them.”
“Normal people are allowed to have weaknesses. Rules aren’t,” Regina said, a slight warning tone flickering around the edges of her words like kindling.
“Ma’am, I hate to interrupt, but it’s time to begin the game,” Madeleine interjected smoothly.
“Yes, thank you for reminding me,” the queen said, turning to speak to all the suitors. “Everyone, please, follow me. It’s time to begin the ceremonial croquet match.”
“You were serious about the croquet?” Alice whispered to Hana.
“Why wouldn’t I be serious about croquet?” Hana whispered back, confused, as the queen led the suitors in a procession across the lawn.
“Know that one of you will represent Cordonia, and I expect you to represent us well,” the queen said. “Madeleine here had been the embodiment of dignity and devotion,” Regina said, gesturing to Madeleine at her side. “It is my hope that you may all learn from her example.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Madeleine said graciously.
“Does she always pay her debts, too?” Alice whispered. Behind her, Olivia snickered.
Across the lawn, Liam waited near a number of croquet hoops and he smiled warmly, greeting each lady as they passed.
“Lady Alice, I’m so pleased to see you,” he said as he took her hand and brushed his lips against her knuckles, giving her hand a slight squeeze.
“It’s nice to see you again, Prince Liam,” Alice said, giving him what she hoped was a friendly smile rather than a suggestive one. Before she could say more, the queen began speaking again.
“Custom has it that the queen and the prince play a round of croquet with two of the season’s suitors,” Regina announced. “I have chosen Madeleine as my partner.”
The noble ladies around Alice erupted in a flurry of startled whispers.
“She’s a suitor?” Penelope asked.
“Pas bon!” Kiara said.
“That scheming little–” Olivia hissed, cutting herself off before she said something she’d regret. All the while, Madeleine smiled serenely as she remained by the queen’s side.
“As for myself, I shall choose Lady Alice,” Liam said.
Alice felt Hana squeeze her arm encouragingly while Olivia grumbled. She walked over to join Liam and casually surveyed the party as she walked. Off to one side near the king, Alice saw Bastien who looked like he was suppressing a smile. It took all of her restraint to not smile back.
There was no way Alice had ever held a croquet mallet in her life and Bastien couldn’t help but be amused by the situation. He had no doubt she’d be fine one way or another though; her short time in Cordonia had already proved she wasn’t easily felled. He watched as she and Liam selected their mallets and Liam stood close to her, no doubt trying to quickly explain the game before they began. He watched as the prince lightly rested his hand against her back to turn her towards the croquet circuit and Bastien felt a twinge of jealousy. Could he really do this? Could he watch Alice publicly date someone else? Granted, she wasn’t the only one participating in the social season, but she was the only one he cared about. The prince said something that made Alice laugh. Since when was Liam so funny?
Stop it, Bastien scolded himself. You are sworn to Cordonia. That is your priority.
He wondered how long that would remain true.
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