"And here is the kitchen," the Head Maid gestured around them. "When tea is prepared for Her Majesty, it shall be left on a tray on the table just to the right of..."
Lady Chastity-Claire tried hard to pay attention to what she was being told. But in her mind, she felt like she was drowning. And this might have been a rock upon which she might cling and rest, but it was a far cry from the place she had once called home.
A home to which she could never return. Not since her mother, father, and sister had all succumbed to the plague and she had been left destitute. She could not (at her age, or her gender as the law said) run or keep the house and its grounds, and no matter how much she wanted to stay, and to be close to the place she had always lived with her family, it had been passed to her cousin.
Her cousin, whom her father had once vaguely suggested she might marry, but had never mentioned again when Chastity-Claire soundly rejected the notion. Her cruel cousin, who would not let her stay in the house once her family were no more.
He had watched as she was thrown out into the streets, begging and pleading all that time, and the only remark he made was how begging might save her if she could find a good corner in London so that passers-by might toss her coins.
It was only the intervention of her half-brother Noel that had saved her. He had some friends among the serving staff and had found her a job as a maid at the palace, for which she was currently being shown her duties.
Not that she could concentrate. She missed her parents and her sister. She wanted them back, and to wake up realising that all of this had just been some terrible nightmare.
It weighed heavier on her heart every day, knowing it wasn't. She had been Lady Chastity-Claire Babcock, daughter of a Duke and a Duchess and with all the prospects in the world. And now...she was Chastity-Claire, at best, and "you, girl" at worst. There was no money or title, no family or home.
She had nothing, apart from this job.
That's why she'd decided she had to make the best of this opportunity. She simply couldn't throw it away or waste it by doing a lousy job! No, she had to be a dutiful, hard-working and responsible servant. She had to serve Her Majesty the Queen as though serving her was her sole purpose in life.
She didn't know if this new job would result in her finding some sort of lasting financial security, but for now, it was enough.
It had to be enough…
She had a roof over her head, money in her pocket and food in her stomach. She had no reason to complain. Not much, anyway.
She'd mourn her parents in private when no one was listening, and during the day she would rise to the occasion; she would be stalwart and push down her feelings of heartbrokenness and loss. Maybe, with enough practice, it would get easier in the future.
She really hoped so…
"… understood?" said the Head Maid, snapping C.C. out of her gloomy thoughts.
"Yes, Madam," replied the young woman, "When shall I start serving Her Majesty?"
The Head Maid – whose name C.C. would eventually learn was Prudence – gave a satisfied nod. She liked when the new girls were eager to work and fast learners. It saved a lot of time in training.
"Right after you've put on something more… adequate," said Prudence, gesturing at her dress. Her brother had given it to her when he'd first arrived at his home in London. Her cousin hadn't allowed her to even take a few extra dresses for her to wear!
Luckily for her, Noel had gotten her a number of new day dresses. She hadn't brought them with her that day – her brother had promised to send them along with the rest of her things once she was settled – but she was well aware that they weren't exactly the most apt or comfortable garments to work around the palace. They were too fine for her new station, as it was…
"You'll find seven new dresses in your room," explained Prudence, gesturing for C.C. to follow her – she was going to show her to her new room. "You'll also be given a set of aprons, which you must keep clean and starched at all times. You've told me you know how to sew and mend your own clothes, so I trust you won't have any trouble keeping your uniform in perfect conditions at all times."
C.C. shook her head a little, "No, Madam, it will not be any trouble."
"Good," Prudence replied without even so much as looking over her shoulder to make sure the newest servant was following. "I have a feeling that you might settle in here nicely."
If only her tone reflected as such!
The door designated as hers was down the far end of the servant's quarters, but she had no luggage to bring so the journey was not tiresome.
Prudence opened the door and gestured with a flourish of her hand.
"Here is your room," the Head Maid announced. Then a stony edge came to her voice. "However, there is a ground rule which must be kept; you must not get any ideas about bringing a man back to–"
C.C. laughed and waved a hand almost dismissively, "There is no chance of such a thing taking place!"
The Head Maid pursed her lips, perhaps annoyed at being interrupted. But she also seemed to be inspecting C.C. thoroughly – scrutinising her character as well as the clothes that she wore.
And, eventually, she gave one stiff nod and straightened her back.
"Very well. You shall begin your duties immediately, by bringing tea to Her Majesty," she said, pointing an imperious finger at the wardrobe C.C.'s dresses were to hang in. "And you shall dress appropriately, in order to make a good and professional impression upon her."
The order was clearly meant for following right away, so C.C. got to it.
The fabric in each piece of clothing itched, and it felt rough on her skin when she moved. It was nothing like the dresses she'd had back home...
The dresses which didn't belong to her anymore. None of it did. She'd not fought hard enough for it and this was the price.
But she was giving to have to live with it. So, changing into an approved dress, just as the Head Maid had requested, was her very next step.
And then she'd get on, for the first time in her life, with serving tea for the Queen.
Any man knew that Prince Niles didn't usually grow bored at council meetings. He found the business of running a kingdom too important to do anything else. But for that moment in time, he couldn't get any orders or businesses of the day into his head. That was all filled with ideas of what he'd rather be doing.
Going hunting with his father, taking down a magnificent stag or a prized wild boar.
Reading in his chambers, surrounded by good food brought freshly to him.
At the nearest brothel, forgetting that a world outside even existed under some young lady's expert hands...
He was particularly fond of a young lass named Sarah – she certainly knew how to please both with her hands and mouth! He'd given her a hefty tip last time around, and since his father had recently given him his monthly allowance, he reckoned that a visit to Sarah was due.
But that would come later, when the meeting was over and after he'd had tea with his mother. He'd promised her he would visit her after the meeting with the Council (without his father, obviously. After his latest infidelity his mother didn't want to be anywhere near her husband and had temporarily banished him from the marital bed).
Thankfully for him (and probably because his father had seen the boredom on his face), he lifted the session, and the Prince of Wales was allowed to go. But not before exchanging a few words with his father, of course.
"Son," said the King, still sat in his comfortable throne, "Do tell your mother that I am hoping she finds herself in high spirits today. And give her this…"
With a gesture of his hand, a box full of brand new jewels was brought forward by a servant and handed over to Niles; his mother's coat of arms had been carved on the centre of the box's lid.
"You know, this won't grant you her forgiveness, father," said the prince.
"I am hoping it will ease her anger, so that she might warm to me again," Joseph replied. "She cannot remain cold to me for all time."
A part of Niles wondered if that were true, or if his father was merely hoping. Not that he was going to say so – he knew nothing of marriage, and his inexperienced word would only lead to discourse. And once that happened, his father's anger always became unparalleled.
Niles had to take it upon himself to remain mostly neutral; a conduit for both sides. In return, neither side bothered him about his prowess with women (his father was actually rather proud of him for it) and he could do whatever he wanted during his free time.
The gift really was beautiful, though he still felt his mother would probably much prefer a husband who didn't stray. And his father knew this, even if nothing would change.
So they remained at what could either be equilibrium or an impasse. And either way, Niles had tea to get to.
He nodded at his father, sighing only minutely, "I shall see that she receives it."
Joseph smiled and slapped him heartily on the upper arm. The King then turned and went out, no doubt to either attend to something else that was important or to go and play sports.
Though which sport it would be – dogs, horses or women – Niles did not know.
He followed the passages round to the salon his mother most enjoyed taking tea in, and he knocked before a soft "Enter!" bid him come in.
"Good day, Mother," he greeted without looking up from the door, which he was closing. "Father sends his warmest regards, and bid me to see to it that you received..."
There was no other reaction to be had – trailing off was the most suitable thing he could do, when he finally turned and came not face-to-face with his mother, but with one of her maids.
And she was the most gorgeous woman he'd ever seen! He'd thought Sarah comely, but this new girl made each and every single brothel worker look as plain as a bowl of flour!
She was statuesque, with a head full of golden blonde hair that ached to be caressed, and lips that even just from looking at he could tell would perform miracles. Her hands were slender but strong, and her legs just the same. And her body curved in a way which made him want to reach out and touch––
"Ah, Niles, my boy!" his mother snapped him out of it, by coming from a room off to one side. "Eet'z good to 'ave you 'ere!"
Niles merely hummed his reply as his mother crossed the room to take him into a brief hug. His eyes were glued to the young maid as she shuffled back to the ornate coffee table upon which their tea awaited, along with trays full of scones and pastries. His mother had a bit of a sweet tooth.
He had never seen this servant girl before. Judging by the freshness of her features and her lean body, she had to be between sixteen and seventeen years old – a new acquisition. She worked in silence, bright blue eyes and nimble hands focused only on her task. She was pleasing to the eye, and Niles couldn't help but wonder just what it would feel like to stroke her soft skin with his fingertips…
"And what eez zhis?" said his mother, smiling down at her gift and unintentionally snapping Niles out of his thoughts.
"Oh… this… it's a gift from His Majesty," he informed her, immediately causing her expression to sour. Just as he'd suspected, gifts – however pretty and expensive – wouldn't put his father back in Marie's good graces anytime soon.
If he had any place in her good graces – if she had been asked, Marie would have been more than sure that Joseph didn't even warrant a mention in that book. He had been nothing but cruel to her throughout their marriage, taking mistresses whenever he felt like it and humiliating her on a constant basis.
It hadn't been like that during the first few years of their marriage, back when they'd had their first daughter. Little Princess Josephine had brought a light to their life that had seemed to make her husband kind to her. He'd been there, and for a while they'd seemed to be… happy.
But it had all changed again in the blink of an eye. He hadn't been the same towards her since the death of their second daughter, Elizabeth, when she had been but a baby. It was as if he'd simply lost all interest in her, in making her happy, or in...anything to do with her that didn't involve him getting what he wanted. That was, if he wasn't getting it from other women in the first place, and that usually meant getting it whenever and wherever he could, including just after Josephine's third birthday, a few months after Elizabeth had left them. Marie had still been grieving…
The two things combined had broken the queen's heart, but the worst had come a few years later, when Josephine had been taken from them by consumption. She hadn't been alone in her grief this time, though – the loss of his favourite child had affected the king more than he would ever dare to admit. Joseph had withdrawn from everybody, not just Marie. Not even the fact of her being pregnant again had brought them closer – he'd wanted nothing to do with her...
Joseph had only come to see Marie after finding out she'd given birth to a son.
To Niles, their precious boy, whom the king had taken a single glance at and then walked away from, with a mutter on his lips about "the size of the thing". Their boy, who had been so small his own father had imagined he'd die soon after his birth, so there was no point in becoming attached.
But Niles had lived, and had grown into being Joseph's treasured boy (one of many, but the only he acknowledged), and the heir to the throne.
He'd wanted more sons after that – he'd had his heir and he wanted more. So, he'd come to her chambers almost daily, trying to secure another child from her. He hadn't managed...the whole way. She'd become pregnant again several times, but all resulted in miscarriages and stillbirths, and eventually Joseph reached the conclusion that she'd probably been rendered infertile by some sort of illness. He refused to entertain so much as a single thought that suggested he might have given said illness to her, and returned to his street whores and brothels with growing frequency, visiting her far less. He'd lost all interest, if he'd ever actually held any for her, not just for their marital activities. They spent no time together whatsoever either, and when they had to appear together in public, they didn't speak. They barely even looked at each other.
He'd truly brought her nothing but pain and embarrassment and disease over their lengthy marriage. Did he really think he could even begin to make up this latest betrayal with a trinket? A flimsy piece of jewellery that they both knew was really just a bribe to crawl into her bed and slither back out again when he was done?
How stupidly shallow did he think she was? He could gift her a thousand new pieces of jewellery, and have all the odd fancies about her that he wanted, but it wouldn't even begin to take reverse what he'd done to her!
It burned in her blood that she wasn't allowed to refuse him. He came to her occasionally, when he didn't feel like going out of his way to look for women, and all she could do was let him get on with it.
But she did have her pride.
"Oh," very close to scowling, she used the fingers of one hand to push the chest back towards Niles, touching it like handling it any more than that would stain. "Tell your fazher zhat I do not want 'is gifts. I do not want anyzhing from 'im."
She couldn't refuse her husband what he wanted, but she could make it known that it wasn't what she wanted.
Niles raised an eyebrow, but turned to one side and gave the box to another of his mother's serving girls (one he'd had just after turning seventeen if he remembered correctly) and sent her away with it. He then addressed his mother again.
"As you wish, Mother. I am but a messenger," replied the prince, offering his arm to Marie and gesturing at the waiting tea, "Shall we?"
"Indeed we shall," Marie allowed her son to escort her to the table.
They seated themselves, and the conversation began. It covered a list of subjects, from the topics at the day's council meeting to the weather and to the various hunts that would no doubt be starting up soon.
And all the while, Niles boasted as loudly as he could to catch the maid's attention. By now, she'd know he was interested – they always did. They'd be shy at first, and play at being coy to make sure he wanted it badly enough. But then he'd show them, and he'd leave more than satisfied. All he needed to do was prove to her how strong and virile he was. It had maids falling at his feet in no time.
"I fear I might need a new horse – I am such a strong rider; the last poor filly could not keep up."
"The kingdom will need a ruler with a firm hand, and I certainly know how to work mine."
"I am thinking now that the fair weather has returned, I might pursue archery again. My arrows are long, straight, and well suited for a quiver."
But, despite his boasting, the maid never looked his way. She remained stood at a respectful distance, eyes firmly cast to the floor and hands neatly folded behind her back. She was surely keeping up the pretence that she didn't care to make him more interested. Typical of women!
Why would she ignore him otherwise?
When he asked for more tea (purely to make the girl come closer to him) he soon discovered she was soft-spoken. Her voice was sultry and pleasant, and he could only imagine how it would sound when she called his name in the throes of passion. He wanted her to scream and beg for more, and he was certain it would become a reality sooner rather than later.
Eventually, when they ran out of tea, she left the room for the kitchens to bring more. Niles watched her go with interest, not caring to hide just how taken he was with the new serving girl.
"Eet'z 'er first day," chastised his mother, bringing his attention back at her, "Could you please behave een a dignified manner?"
"And, pray tell, what did I do?" he asked, half-smile fast appearing on his features.
"You know full well, son," replied Marie, "Zhe girl eez a noblewoman, not some common maiden – she'z Lady Chastity-Claire Babcock, daughter of zhe late Stewart Babcock, Duke of Bedford. She was left destitute after 'er fazher's deazh. Zhe last thing she needs eez you ogling 'er!"
Niles raised an eyebrow. So, she wasn't just some ordinary serving girl – she'd been raised a little better, and she'd have a sense of how affairs should be handled. Playing hard to get was practically a pastime of the wealthy girls, though they all wore down eventually.
He just had to bide his time. Perhaps give her a little space, considering her family had just been lost, but still close enough so that he could seize his moment when the time came.
And he would have his moment. He always did, in the end. He was the Prince of Wales, he was rugged in his looks, and he was charming when he spoke (who cared if the words were empty?). Those three things had practically made him an expert.
But, to currently appease his mother, he leaned back in his seat and took another sip of his tea.
"I see," he said.
Marie pursed her lips, "You 'ad better, my boy. As I said, zhis girl 'as been zhrough enough already. And you know, you 'ave met 'er before now."
Niles put down the tea he'd just been about to drink. Had he met her before? When? He was sure he would've remembered a seductress such as the one that was currently serving them!
The interested look made his mother continue, "Back when she was first born, your fazher and I took you wizh us on our visit. Joseph wanted to see 'er and 'er parents because Stewart Babcock was zhe richest man in England, at zhe time. 'e'd felt zhere was somezhing to gain from being close to zhe Babcocks. Oh, she was tiny! And you 'eld 'er, after I did, and asked eef you might one day 'ave a sister..."
That made her sigh to herself – remembering a lot of that day did. Niles' bright little face as he declared how much he liked the new addition and wanted to be her friend, her showing him how to hold a baby properly, while Lord and Lady Babcock watched with proud smiles on their faces, already head over heels for their five-day-old daughter...
The prince very vaguely remembered something like that going on as well, when he was about six. Well, it looked like that tiny baby that he'd held had grown up very well, indeed!
"Zhe two of you becoming playmates was discussed, but nozhing ever came of eet," Marie said, drinking her tea, shutting out the memories again before it got to Niles asking why he couldn't have a sister.
Niles, not remembering any of that, smirked and thought to himself that he would get Lady Babcock to play with him, soon enough.
"Eet was even suggested zhat you may be engaged to marry, one day!"
Niles nearly spit out the next sip of tea he tried to take, and ended up choking a little bit as he tried to stifle his laughter. Marry Lady Babcock? As attractive as it sounded to have her in his bed every night with no one to stop him, it would change too much, surely! You didn't snatch one wild mare to ride and simply take it home with you to tame, even if it was the most exquisite! You took whichever you wanted the most from the herd on that particular day, and then let it go again until the next time! He wasn't about to be tied down to one mare so soon – he had years before he had to start producing heirs. Legitimate ones, anyway.
Lady Babcock was looking like the finest mare on the plains, as things currently stood. He'd be breaking her in with the rest of them before too long. And for all his mother's talk, she wouldn't be able to stop it. She wouldn't even notice when he'd gotten what he wanted.
She'd barely noticed that he'd choked and laughed, let alone anything else.
"Well, that will never happen; she is a maid now, after all," he said, quickly moving the conversation on. "How is your tea?"
It wasn't what he really wanted to be thinking about, but he couldn't very well sit there and imagine what he could be doing to Lady Babcock right then, could he? That would have to come later, once his time with his mother was done.
All he needed was the opportunity to get this lady-turned-maid alone. He didn't know if she'd go by herself at the end of tea, though. And she could go anywhere, if she was fast enough – he enjoyed the chase, but the servants' corridors in the palace were so winding (and he, having spent so little time in them, being a prince and not some hall boy), he often found himself losing them before he could work his charm.
When he did get them (and he always did), it was in his territory – chambers in the parts of the palace usually meant for the Royal Family. There, they were in his power, and it was just the way he liked it.
They were in his territory now. All he needed was for something to happen which called his mother away. And then he could start working the beauty he was eagerly awaiting.
She had to return from the kitchens eventually.
Let the hunting begin.
There was something soothing about the faint bubbling noise made by the water as she heated it up on the stove. It reminded her of quiet afternoons spent at home, cooped up in her father's study with a good book and a nice cup of tea. She remembered that her mother would sometimes drop by, mostly to complain about one thing or the other. C.C. had eventually realised her complaints were but an excuse to visit them in the study. She remembered her dearest father would take her mother in his arms and…
God, thinking about it hurt her so…!
She missed them. She missed her old life. She missed her home…
Sighing, C.C. moved to fetch the kettle from the stove and put it back on the silver tray, ready to be taken back to Her Majesty and her son.
She'd heard plenty of stories about Prince Niles' good looks, and although they certainly were as true as they could be – he was rugged in his looks and had the most wonderful set of bright-blue eyes she'd ever seen – none had mentioned his irritating penchant for boasting about his feats and achievements.
She'd spent the better part of an hour just hearing his adorned soliloquy, trying not to laugh at certain comments he'd made, and hoping they'd dismiss her as soon as possible. Was he always that annoying and self-important? If so, she couldn't help but wonder how the Queen (or any woman, for that matter) tolerated him!
Just as C.C. meant to make her way back to the queen, the door to the kitchen was opened to let another maid in – it was Ruth, another of the queen's personal servants. She carried an empty tray with her, clearly meant to be refilled with food and the most delicious pastries.
"Ah, if it isn't the prince's new love interest...!" Ruth sneered, making the pottery rattle with the force she set the tray down.
The words and slam set off a warning sign in C.C.'s head, even though part of her was also certain she could not have heard correctly. What was Ruth talking about, and why was she being so...rude about it?
C.C. blinked at the other maid, showing she didn't understand, "I beg your pardon?"
With a knowing look on her face that could either mean something good or something bad, Ruth made her way to the counter. The cooks had prepared some more pastries, so she started to pile them onto the plates on the tray, arranging them prettily.
"Surely you saw the way Prince Niles was preening himself around you, like a bird of paradise? I bet you did – I bet you couldn't keep your eyes off of him. Like he couldn't stop himself with you."
C.C. had been in the middle of lifting the boiling kettle at that point, but ended up nearly dropping it on her own foot. Fortunately, she didn't, and also managed to keep herself from looking as ungraceful as a blind bear being made to dance on hot coals.
The prince, interested in her? Now that was a laugh! She was just a maid, and princes didn't care for servants, even if said servants had once been a member of the nobility. Ruth had to just be joking around with her, there wasn't any other option! Granted, it was a strange sort of joking around, but some people didn't even have sense of humours at all, so she wasn't about to pass judgement.
"What are you talking about?" she asked, distracting herself from the previous near-accident by pouring the hot water into the teapot, where it began to stew the leaves. "He was preening, I'll give it that – but it was not for my benefit!"
Ruth shrugged, "Well, it's always for his benefit in the long run. But it was directed at you, wasn't it?"
C.C. blinked again and wondered if she'd ever heard anything so ridiculous in her life. Men didn't look at her, and princes especially didn't look at her! She was below their frame of sight, and always would be. She made a noise which sounded like "tch" and shook her head before returning her gaze to the tea. It had stewed enough – she had to take it back up soon.
"It was not," she told her fellow maid. "A prince would never look at me."
Ruth's eyebrow raised, and she lifted her now-full tray.
"Oh, don't be so stupid – are you stupid? Probably not, I'll bet, even if you act it sometimes," she said. "His Royal Highness has a real fondness for beauties and maidens, ain't no matter where you're from. And, after a bit, once he's done having his fun, he'll get tired and bored with whatever you have that's left over for him to still play with and move onto the next one."
A strange, smug smirk came over her face right at that moment, before she continued.
"Most of the time, anyway," she grinned, flashing her eyes directly at C.C.. "I'm the one exception, you see. I have too much to… give, for him to ever get bored. And then I reap the benefits from him getting his."
C.C. frowned, uncomfortable – by the sounds of things Ruth was both talking from experience and enjoying every moment of that experience...
Every word she was saying sounded like a threat, too, but C.C. didn't know why. Perhaps it was a warning about what the prince was like? It was quite surprising, even as she'd heard more. She'd already known that Prince Niles was a bit of a womanizer, but she'd never imagined that serving girls – so many of them, too! – would have to deal with that side of his personality.
In hindsight, the prince would talk louder and look her way when retelling his feats and boasting about his virility and strength. Had… had he really been trying to catch her attention? She'd never considered herself particularly beautiful, but it seemed the prince… liked her? Why?!
She was flattered indeed, but under no circumstance would she become the latest notch on his bedpost. No sir. She may have been a pauper and had to work as a maid for a living, but she still had her pride. She still had the education her parents had given her. She still had her dignity.
She was determined to save herself for her future husband (if there ever was one), and not even the prince's charming smile would convince her otherwise. She was still sceptical about Ruth's teasing asseveration – it seemed ridiculous that Prince Niles fancied her – but if that indeed was the case, then she would politely turn him down, so he could go back to pursuing his next conquest.
She would never stoop so low as to sell herself to a man, even if that man was the future king of England.
"Well, he won't get anything from me," she said to Ruth as she took her own tray in her hands and lifted it up, taking care to balance the teapot upon it. "I am not going to be a notch on his bedpost."
Ruth gave her the kind of look someone might give a girl of about five who says she's never going to like boys, but with an extra condescending snort.
"We all say that at the start, little dear. He'll get you into it. Nothing beyond what he wants and no feeling to it whatsoever, and you end up back down here, just the same as...well, the rest of you," Ruth held back to let her go through the door that led to the servants' corridor first. "I'll probably have a good laugh over it when I'm called up to visit him after."
C.C. felt an irritated, churning sensation in her stomach. She didn't like the implication that she couldn't keep her head when confronted with a man who offered her attention. She didn't care what Ruth chose to...do with her time, either. But she wasn't interested in the empty attentions of a man who only wanted one thing and was not interested in her as a person.
She was not going to be with a man who didn't love her, and who'd drop her just like he'd dropped nearly every other woman around the palace, apparently. She wasn't going to try and explain this to Ruth, however. She'd more than likely just keep on insisting that they all ended up the same way, in the end, apart from her.
But C.C. wouldn't allow it. She'd be the exception if she had to be, but she would not give that smug prince what he wanted.