Being a servant is most certainly not what it used to be. Long ago, servants were mistreated, unpaid, and unseen. Today, if you get in with the right noble family, servanthood can be a career choice, or your ticket to an education and, ultimately, a better life.
It's all a matter of the family's preferences. Some prefer adult men, like those with backwards ideas that women are too feeble for hard work, or families where the men can't be trusted with other women around the house. Others prefer old women, like those with gaggles of children that need to be tended to. Still others choose younger servants, instead opting to educate them in addition to their wages in exchange for their work, letting them go after a few years to make a life for themselves out in the world.
The royal family themselves offer this kind of work-study program to young girls throughout the kingdom, although it's very difficult to be accepted. At this point, pretty much every servant in the palace is a legacy—the daughter of a former servant. They're typically brought to the palace around age five, and while it's definitely not a great situation, they actually have a pretty good life here.
The girls have full-time classes, both academic and servant training, until they turn twelve. Then, they serve as "runners," essentially bringing items and messages to people around the castle as instructed by the older servants. They're the ones who deliver snacks to the prince and bring the queen her daily tea. At sixteen, they have communication chips implanted in their ears (not a fun procedure, by the way) and they become full-fledged servants, catering to the needs of the royal family, their guests, and the palace staff. (Okay, technically, they're part of the palace staff too, but they're far below everyone else, even the cooks and maids.)
At twenty, they're eligible to be chosen as a High Servant if a position is open. Each member of the royal family has one High Servant—essentially a servant dedicated to them and only them, to be at their constant beck and call. The High Servants are sometimes required to live in rooms closer to her master for periods of time, and they rank just slightly higher than the other servants. They often serve the liaisons between the servants and the rest of the staff and the royal family.
They continue working until twenty-five, where their communication chips are deactivated and they're released into the world with twenty years' worth of education and a certificate to prove it signed by the queen herself.
Despite being at the bottom of the palace hierarchy, even the servants at the palace live in luxury. They have the entire center floor of the palace as their living quarters, so they can get anywhere on the grounds in five minutes if they speed-walk. It can only be reached by the staff elevator, which opens up into their living area, complete with a bunch of plush couches, chairs, beanbags, and pillows, and a massive television. With the television, they also have video games, which the younger girls always get a kick out of when they first arrive. There's a small kitchen in the corner, which they're able to stock weekly thanks to food orders placed by the High Servants to the cooks.
The common area branches off into two hallways to the left and right. Down the left hallway are doors leading to their exercise room (which even has a pool!), the classrooms, and their massive bathroom, which takes up the entirety of one side of the hallway. The right hallway houses the bedrooms: six rooms with three sets of bunkbeds each. However, each bedroom is massive, with plenty of room for the girls' few belongings, school supplies, and clothes, as well as a desk for each girl and comfortable chairs tucked into corners or by the windows.
So overall, life as a servant for the royal family could be a lot worse. And there are rumors of other noble families who aren't nearly as kind to their servants—technically, they're required by law to pay all servants, but there's little specificity as to how much. And servants' contracts can be complicated and hard to understand, so that even educated adults who sign them may not know what they're getting themselves or their kids into. Still, even in the palace where life is pretty good for the servants, the trick is to keep your head down and work hard—don't draw unnecessary attention and work and study until you turn twenty-five.
That being said, Ally Dawson isn't very good at the whole "head down" thing. For some reason, Queen Mimi Moon herself has taken a particular liking to Ally. Granted, the queen sees all the servant girls as daughter-figures, since she only has a son, but she seems to be especially interested in Ally. Apparently, the tutors consistently reported back to the queen about Ally's unexpected intelligence as she's grown up, and even now, as she studies to become a teacher, her tutors comment on how perhaps she should be educating them.
So as she helps put the younger girls to bed one night, she isn't too worried when a message to meet the queen in her office comes through her communicator chip and bounces around her head like a pinball machine. As soon as she turns off the lights in the last of the Littles' rooms, she hurries to the queen's office, glad she hasn't changed into her pajamas yet.
"Your Majesty?" she asks hesitantly, poking her head through the open door.
"Yes, yes, come in darling," Queen Mimi says. Ally enters the room and curtseys. "Have a seat."
Ally sits in one of the chairs opposite the queen's massive desk. It's ridiculously organized, without a single pen or piece of paper out of place, and Ally wishes that her desk looked that neat. But no, hers is full of books and notes piled so high her lamp got buried somewhere in the mess.
"What can I do for you, Your Majesty?" Ally asks.
The queen watches Ally with her cold eyes. Ally swallows, trying not to be nervous. She knows she does good work, and she always follows the rules and treats everyone with respect. And the queen likes her.
Her Majesty suddenly leans back in her chair, looking tired. Ally notices the dark circles under her eyes. The queen rests an elbow on the armrest of the chair and massages her temple with her fingertips. "Are you aware that my son's High Servant has fallen ill?"
Ally nods. "Brooke, yes." Brooke became Prince Austin's High Servant about a year ago, after his previous High Servant aged out. But two weeks ago, Brooke started showing symptoms of the Palace Plague, as the servants and nurses have taken to calling it. It starts with extreme fatigue and severe migraines, and it turns into a terrible fever and constant nausea and a bunch of other nasty things. Most of the girls who have gotten it ended up being released from their contracts once they got better, going home to their real families without so much as a goodbye to the other servants, most of whom they grew up with.
"Right, well, fortunately she has recovered, but she has elected to return home as she continues to regain her strength." Now the queen sits up and leans forward, resting her elbows on her desk and pressing her fingertips together. "You are by far the most intelligent servant in the palace, and you never make mistakes." Ally doesn't point out her notorious clumsiness. "I would like you to be my son's new High Servant."
Ally's heart drops. Being a High Servant should be an honor—she knows it. And she knows she should be jumping at the opportunity because it's a step up from her current station. But the fact is, being a High Servant is a lot more work than being just a regular servant. Sure, the pay is a little better, and they usually get personalized recommendation letters from their master once they age out of servanthood, but it's pretty much a full-time gig. The rest of the servants get a fair amount of free time, switching up the order of who responds to calls each hour. But High Servants are essentially independent, directly responsible for the needs of their master and in charge of telling other servants to complete tasks when necessary.
If she takes this job, she'll probably have no time for studying, and a recommendation letter won't do her any good if she hasn't completed all the advanced education necessary to become a teacher (and there's a lot). Not to mention that she doesn't really feel comfortable ordering the other girls around; they're like her sisters. And everyone with eyes and a brain is a little terrified of Prince Austin.
But the queen herself specifically chose Ally for this job. And Ally would never deny the queen something menial, much less a job that should be an honor and one where rejecting the offer might be seen as an insult against her son. So Ally takes a deep breath and plasters on her signature "sweet servant" smile.
"It would be an honor to be Prince Austin's High Servant, Your Majesty."
"Excellent," the queen says, not even a hint of a smile on her face. She opens a drawer in her desk and pulls out a small gray device, handing it over to Ally. "This gives you access to the other servants' chips. Have my High Servant show you how to use it."
Ally grits her teeth. Cassidy, the queen's High Servant, is…difficult to get along with. Ally still sees her as a sister, and she knows Cassidy feels the same, but she never shows it. This is not going to be a fun conversation.
The queen looks at the clock on her wall. "It's not too late; my son should still be in his office. Go tell him the good news."
Ally nods and stands, bowing her head and curtseying once more. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
The queen waves dismissively, and Ally leaves the room. She stifles a yawn until she's safely in the hallway. Then she shakes her head to wake herself up and walks six doors down to the prince's office. (Although, if she's being honest, she has no idea what the prince could possibly need an office for—he doesn't do anything.)
She knocks quietly, waiting for permission to enter.
"Come in," she hears from the other side.
She braces herself and steps into the office.
Prince Austin is just like his mother—a pristine desk, immaculate bookshelves, not even a speck of dust out of place in the room. And he looks like her, too: tan skin, wavy blonde hair, although his is much shorter and messier, an angular face with a sharp jaw, and light brown eyes that always seem to be below freezing.
He paces the length of his office, the sleeves of his stiff white button-up shirt rolled up to his elbows and his hands shoved in the pockets of his dress pants. But when he sees her, he stops, raising an eyebrow.
She swallows and curtseys, keeping her head down. "Her Majesty the Queen has just appointed me as your new High Servant, Your Highness."
He doesn't say anything for a moment, and she feels him studying her. She has a strange flashback to when she was little, and he used to make his High Servant bring all the servant girls his age outside to play with him. She used to complain about it, instead preferring to read, but whoever the High Servant was at the time had made her go. She always used to end up having fun, playing knights with wooden swords and going to battle one-on-one against the great Sir Prince Austin Moon while the rest of the girls battled each other around them. But he would always throw a tantrum and try to change the rules when she beat him, and she always used to get in trouble for getting frustrated when he did it. Eventually he learned not to challenge her anymore.
She wonders if he even remembers.
"My mother appointed you to be my High Servant," he says. His tone makes her risk a glance up at him, and he's got his arm crossed, staring down at her with eyes like icy laser beams. "She doesn't even trust me to choose my own High Servant anymore."
"I apologize," Ally says, because she's learned that it's always the safe thing to say when someone who outranks her (i.e. anyone except her fellow servants) is upset.
Austin snorts. "I'm sure you do."
"I'm…sorry?" She looks up at him hesitantly.
"Just—leave me alone," he says impatiently. "Go do whatever it is you do."
"Yes, Your Highness," she says, curtseying again. "What time would you like your breakfast in the morning?"
He makes a strange face. "Surprise me."
She nods and starts walking out of the room.
"And Ally," he says, although she didn't give him her name. She swallows and turns to face him. He raises an eyebrow, probably at the look on her face. "That is your name, right?" She nods again. "Ally," he repeats. "Don't apologize for things that aren't your fault."
She nods once more, and he tilts his head towards the door in a gesture for her to leave. She rushes out as fast as her legs will carry her.
After a lightning-fast tutorial from a very annoyed Cassidy on how to use the communicator device, Ally changes into her pajamas and heads into the bathroom to get ready for bed. She isn't all that surprised to find her best friend waiting for her, arms crossed, toes tapping the ground.
"Where have you been?" Trish asks.
"The queen wanted to see me. Brooke is better, but she went home. You're looking at Prince Austin's new High Servant."
Trish's eyes go wide. "Really? That's great, Ally!"
"It should be, yeah. But now I'm gonna have less time to study—"
"Which you do too much of, anyway," Trish interrupts.
"And I'm gonna be ranked above the rest of you, which I'm not really comfortable with."
"We all know how it works. No one's gonna resent you for that."
"And I have to do everything the prince says."
"Okay, he's a little scary. But at least you still get to live with us! He's never made a High Servant stay somewhere else, so that's something."
Trish sighs. "I'm sure it'll be fine. Just think of the recommendation letter!"
Ally decides to deliver the prince's breakfast herself he next morning instead of having a runner do it. So, at nine o'clock sharp, she knocks on the big double doors to his rooms.
"I have your breakfast, Your Highness," she says.
When he gives her the go ahead, she pushes the cart of food into his rooms. She realizes with a start that she's never been in here before—nobody but the High Servants ever have a reason to be in the royal family's rooms.
There's a small entry area with a couch, a tall plant in the corner, and a low table with a bowl of colorful candy. Then an open archway leads into a larger living area, where all she can see are another couch and a television.
She purses her lips and walks under the archway, where the room opens up on either side of the couch and TV. To the left, there's a big chair, a piano, and an organized bookshelf, along with a small table and two chairs right next to the big window looking out over the palace gardens. To the right, there's some sort of table-game, a glass display case with the prince's weaponry against the wall, and some sort of mannequin holding his armor. To the left of the weaponry and armor is a closed door, which Ally assumes must lead to his bedroom, and to the right is an open door leading to a beautiful, pristine bathroom.
Prince Austin emerges from the bedroom already dressed for the day and shuts the door behind him. Ally straightens her posture.
"Where would you like your breakfast, Your Highness?"
He gestures with his head to the table by the window, so Ally pushes the cart over and unloads the plates onto the table. She takes the silver covers off to reveal a stack of pancakes drizzled with syrup on one plate and two slices of bacon on the other.
"Sit," he says, nodding at the other chair. She hesitantly sits down. "So, as my High Servant, you're going to need to coordinate my schedule and make sure I'm where I need to be and always prepared for everything. That's basically the bulk of what you do, because I don't have the luxury of sitting in an office or on a throne all day like my mother."
Ally nods. "Of course, Your Highness."
He raises an eyebrow, a piece of bacon halfway to his mouth. "Also, none of that 'Your Highness' bullshit." Her heart pounds when he curses—she didn't even know curse words were in his vocabulary. "It's a waste of time and very annoying. Just call me Austin. No 'Prince' in front of it, either."
He nods, sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms. "And you are Ally, right? You're the girl who always used to beat me at my own games when we were small?"
He lifts his chin and a hint of a smirk crosses his face. Then he nods towards the door. "You can go now. Go to my office and get the tablet off my desk—it's got my entire life in it. Learn it. Live it. Breathe it. I don't care what else you do; I'll let you know if I need you."
She stands, curtseys, and leaves his rooms before he changes his mind.
She splits the day between her own studies and studying the tablet from Austin's office. The tablet has pretty much everything she needs to know on it, from his schedule, to a list of every single person he knows along with pictures and descriptions, to a catalog of his entire wardrobe organized by formality.
Apparently, he's spending the day today with his friend Dez of the Wade family, which hopefully means he won't be needing her at all.
If only every day could be like this. But unfortunately, she has a feeling that this is just the calm before the storm.
Sure enough, the next day is packed with activities for the prince, and therefore packed for her as well. But on her way to Austin's rooms in the morning, something further down the hall stops her.
One of the butlers is yelling at a young servant, waving his feather duster in her face and hurling insults. When Ally gets closer, she recognizes the servant: Lucy just had her twelfth birthday yesterday. She also notices the silent tears streaming down Lucy's face.
"Hey," Ally says, interrupting the butler's current string of expletives. "What's going on?"
The butler turns to glare at Ally with a tomato-red face. A vein is popping out of his neck.
"You're the prince's new High Servant, yes?" he asks angrily. Ally silently grabs Lucy's wrist and gently pulls the trembling girl over next to her.
"Yes, I am."
"Then you're in charge of this imbecile," the butler spits, focusing his glare on Lucy again. Ally steps in front of Lucy protectively. "I was cleaning the queen's rooms, and this amateur was meant to bring me coffee, but she spilled it all over the queen's white carpet! The queen could have your head for this, girl!" he shouts at Lucy.
"I didn't do it!" Lucy whimpers from behind Ally. "I was already leaving, when he started yelling at me—"
"Lies!" he screams.
Ally ignores him and turns to face Lucy, holding one of her hands and gently brushing her tears away. "Go have Trish make you a hot chocolate, okay? I'll take care of this."
Lucy swallows and nods, and then she all but sprints back down the hall to the elevator. Ally turns to face the butler again, arms crossed.
"If Lucy's the one who spilled the coffee, why is it all over your shirt?"
"Be—because she spilled it on me!" he splutters.
"And either way, I'm pretty sure drinking coffee inside the royal family's rooms is a big no-no. 'The queen could have your head for this,' is what you said, I believe?"
The butler sets his jaw, a sudden, eerie calm overcoming his features as his face returns to its normal color. He lifts his chin and a smug smile plays on his lips. "Perhaps. But it's my word against hers."
Ally sets her jaw. "You stay away from her, and you keep her name out of your mouth."
"I don't even know her name, darling, and it doesn't matter. No one is going to believe a child, let alone a nasty little servant, over me."
Before she knows what she's doing, her hand is in a fist and her arm is cocked back, ready to aim a blow right at the butler's ugly, smug face. His eyes go wide as he focuses on something behind her.
"This servant is attacking me!"
Before Ally can punch the butler, a pair of hands firmly grips her shoulders. She swallows, dread filling her stomach.
"Nobody is attacking anybody," comes Austin's low voice from behind her. "Greg, if I heard correctly from your extremely unprofessional tantrum, I believe there's a coffee stain in my mother's rooms. Better get that cleaned up before she gets back. And change your shirt while you're at it."
Greg's face turns redder than it was before, but this time his eyes are wide and his lip is quivering. He bows deeply. "Yes, Your Highness," he says quickly. "Right away." He starts rushing back into the queen's rooms.
"Oh, and Greg?" Austin calls after him. The butler turns back around so fast he almost falls over. "I don't want to see you even look at any of those girls the wrong way again." Austin's tone by itself makes even Ally's knees shake; she can't imagine what he must look like, or how terrified Greg must be. He'll probably need a change of pants as well. "Am I understood?" Austin asks.
Greg nods quickly, bows once more, and then stumbles back into the queen's rooms.
Austin's hands still on Ally's shoulders, he gently guides her back to his rooms, not letting go of her or saying a word until they're inside. When they stop in the main area of his rooms, he finally releases her shoulders and walks around to face her. She studies the ground to avoid his eyes.
"Stop," he says. She swallows, still not looking at him, but she does notice him shove his hands in his pockets. "I told you not to apologize for things that aren't your fault."
Now she risks a glance up at him. He looks angry and scary, but it doesn't seem to be aimed at her.
"Greg is an egotistical, power-hungry dick who gets off on using what little power he does have on anyone he thinks won't—or can't—fight back. If it was up to me, he would've been fired ages ago, but…I'm pretty sure he's sleeping with my mother." He shudders slightly at the thought. She doesn't blame him.
"He was yelling at a girl named Lucy. She just turned twelve yesterday; today's her first day as a runner. And I really don't think she's the one who spilled the coffee," Ally says.
Austin nods thoughtfully, leaning against the back of the couch. "You were about to punch a butler in the face. That could've cost you your job, you know. Hell, if the wrong person saw it or he spun the story the right way, it could've cost you your life."
Ally swallows and nods. "I—I know. I wasn't thinking—"
"You weren't, were you?" he asks, tilting his head. "You were just worried about helping that girl. Lucy."
Ally nods again. "She's like a sister to me; they all are. I'd do anything for them."
Austin studies her for another few seconds. "Well, luckily for you, as my High Servant, you're under my protection. So people like Greg may theoretically outrank you, but they can't touch you unless they want to answer to me. And trust me, nobody wants to answer to me."
Austin nods. "So, really, you weren't in any danger. But you didn't know that. What you did took guts."
Ally swallows, then clears her throat, trying to ignore the heat rising to her cheeks despite his icy stare. "So, um, you received breakfast in your rooms this morning, right?" she asks, checking the tablet in her hand.
"Perfect. So, first on your schedule for today is a fitting with the tailor. Then you have a meeting with the queen and the royal advisers about trade agreements, and then you have some study time with your tutor in your office, and then lunch."
Austin nods. "Let's go to the tailor's, then."
Ally frowns. "I'm coming with you?"
"You come with me to most things. You're essentially an extension of me."
She tries not to make a face at that description. "Right."
"And I'm having the tailor take better measurements of you. Just in case."
"In case of what?" she asks.
Austin shrugs. "I'm not sure how I feel about my High Servant wearing hand-me-down uniforms."
"Well, we'd better get going. Can't make you late my first real day on the job."
The rest of the day—and the next few weeks, actually, go exactly as planned. Ally is a model High Servant. In fact, the queen herself comments on how Ally is the greatest High Servant Austin has ever had, exceeding the queen's already high expectations for her.
Ally and Cassidy actually end up working pretty well together, too, as the unofficial leaders of the rest of the servants. And Ally understands better why Cassidy seems to be in a bad mood all the time: being a High Servant is like having two jobs, three if you count studying. They're always on call for their master, plus they serve as caretakers to the other girls. It's exhausting.
So when her few short hours of sleep are interrupted by a metallic voice in her brain requesting her in Austin's rooms, she has to splash cold water in her face four times just to wake herself up. But this proves to be difficult, because the power seems to be out, so she has to do it in the dark. And even with the cold water, she's still so tired she forgets to change into her uniform before making her way to Austin's rooms.
Luckily, the hallways are lined with huge windows, so the moon gives her enough light to get to Austin's door without trouble. She knocks a few times, but no one answers. So she hesitantly opens the door and walks through to the main area of Austin's rooms, where she immediately runs into the couch. She curses under her breath.
"Ally?" comes a quiet voice from where Austin's bedroom is. "In here."
She slowly feels her way to the door and walks in, her eyes finally adjusting a little. She sees the dark figure outline of Austin with his shock of blonde hair sitting on his bed, arms wrapped around his knees.
"Austin?" she says quietly, squinting to try to see him better. "What do you need?"
"I woke up, and the lights aren't working," he says, his voice a few pitches higher than normal. "I…I don't like the dark."
"Oh. Do you want me to find a candle or a flashlight or something, or—"
"No," he says quickly. "No, please don't leave. Could you maybe stay with me?" He pauses. "You don't have to. But my bed is big enough for, like, four people, and it's probably more comfortable than the one you sleep in."
She swallows, her heart pounding. "Yeah," she says before she knows what she's doing. "Yeah, of course I'll stay with you."
She makes her way around to the other side of Austin's bed and sits against the pillows. Austin was telling the truth—two other people could easily fit in the space between them.
"Thank you," he says, quieter than before.
"Of course," she says again. "So…why don't you like the dark?"
"I don't know," he says after a few beats of silence. "I never have. But…it's not as bad when I have someone else in the room with me."
Ally can't help but smile just slightly. Knowing Austin has fears—and one as mundane as the dark—strangely comforts her. And him trusting her enough to ask her to help him through it makes her stomach flutter. Granted, this is kind of part of her job, but still.
"I've found that nothing seems as bad when we have someone by our side.
"Must be nice, having a whole group of girls that are like sisters to you supporting you. Especially the past few weeks, adjusting to being a High Servant."
"I mean…I wouldn't really say anything about being a servant is nice, but…it's not as bad as it could be, especially having those girls with me."
"What are you going to do when you age out of servanthood?"
"I'm studying to be a teacher."
Austin doesn't say anything for a few seconds. "I can see that," he says. "You'll be good at it."
"Thanks," she replies.
"You're welcome. Thanks again for staying with me." She feels the mattress shift as Austin lays down again.
"You're welcome." She lays down too, and wow is this bed comfortable. It's like laying on a cloud. She can already feel herself drifting off to sleep, but she scoots in just slightly so she isn't on the edge of the bed.
Austin moves in a little, too. "Goodnight, Ally."
He keeps shifting trying to get comfortable, and then all of a sudden his fingertips brush against her hand, which is resting on her pillow next to her head. Her breath catches and she stares at the ceiling, wide-eyed, as she waits for him to pull his hand away, but he doesn't.
She swallows and closes her eyes, then moves her hand closer to his until his fingers are resting in her palm. The mattress moves one more time as Austin settles into a comfortable position. Meanwhile, he flexes his hand before slowly, slowly, lacing his fingers through hers.