Liz’s chambermaids had her ready in plenty of time for dinner, and she checked the final result in the full-length stand mirror in her dressing room. Never in her life had she seen such a large and perfect mirror, and the intricately carved and gilded frame that was holding the glass qualified as a minor work of art as far as she was concerned.
The dress she wore was darkly purple with light touches of gold trim here and there. It was the most ‘Parker’ dress she owned, as it was comprised entirely of her family’s colors, and her hair was pulled to the top of the back of her head in a pommel, before falling down the back of her head in a cascade of glossy ringlets. As opposed to the dress she wore at the Harvest Ball back in Krakovia, which had been well-covered in diamond chips, this dress had just a few, which were sprinkled here and there to catch the eye as she walked past. Before the war, this had been Liz’s best dress, and it was still one she cherished.
Heading out the door, she checked the rooms on either side of her own and found her sisters waiting for her so they could go down together and make their entrance as a family. Maria had chosen a muted yellow dress, while Tess’ dress was sky blue, a color which always seemed to go well with her honey blond hair. All three dresses had the deep, square necklines that were still the fashion, which was a good thing, as they hadn’t yet had the time to have anything else made.
As the Parker sisters made their way down the double helix staircase, they joined an ever-increasing tide of women of all ages who were heading for the formal dinner. Once on the first floor, the women headed down the wide main corridor toward the south wing and the State Dining Room. A senior servant in the white and gold tabard of the royal service was waiting for Liz when she and her sisters left the east wing and entered the south wing. The man had a full description of Liz from the prince himself, and called out to her before she could move past him.
“Lady Elizabeth Parker?” the man asked.
Maria and Tess dropped back, while Liz turned to face the man, and asked, “Yes?”
The steward bowed low and then offered her a thick, folded sheet of white paper with both hands. “Milady, this is from His Highness, the prince.”
Liz didn’t think she had time to look at it now, and she didn’t have anywhere to stash the paper in her dress, so she asked, “Could you arrange to have it taken to my rooms, please?”
Upon hearing the word ‘please,’ the steward stumbled, and would have fallen, if Liz hadn’t lurched forward to brace him. The man apologized profusely for his clumsiness, and when he regained his footing, he thanked her for her kindness and then said, “No, Milady, I cannot. The prince was very specific. He said you needed to read the note before entering the dining room.”
More curious than ever, Liz gingerly opened the folded sheet of paper and immediately recognized the handwriting as being Max’s. Lord knows I’ve read and reread his love letters often enough to be an expert on what his handwriting looks like. She was eager to see what he wanted to say now.
Before you do anything else, please shorten the chain on which my signet ring rests, so that the ring rests above your neckline. That will show to one and all that you are under royal protection. It could conceivably help save your life, and should help protect you in case your rivals choose to try to humiliate or discredit you.
I wanted to tell you this myself, but I have obligations that will keep me from seeing you up close until after dinner, and it would be irresponsible of me to wait until then to see that you have the protection you need.
After the meal, I hope to sneak away from the crush of well-wishers and sycophants long enough to hear how your afternoon went. I hope you and your sisters are pleased with your rooms.
Liz refolded the letter, planning to keep it, even though she had no place to store anything on her dress. She handed the letter back to the servant and asked him to have one of the maids take it up to her rooms. “You need not pass any message to the prince. I will see him soon enough myself. Thank you.”
“As you say, Milady.”
Liz then gave her sisters a quick explanation of the letter and why she was currently doubling up her necklace. That doubling caused the apparent length of her necklace to be cut in half, which put the golden signet ring right below her neck, where everyone could see it. The Parker girls then resumed their walk down the hallway toward the State Dining Room, and marveled at the wide, marble-floored hallway that was lined with white Corinthian columns topped with gold leaf capitals. As the dinner guests gathered, the sumptuously decorated hallway served as an anteroom or sorts where the male and female guests could meet and have a drink before the meal was served.
The Parker sisters quickly found their father, who promptly led them around the room to introduce them to the few members of the capital’s high society of whom he knew and approved. After that, he was pleased to hear how his girls had spent the afternoon, mostly because he still couldn’t quite wrap his head around the news the king had given him earlier. Liz looked and sounded happy, so he chose to withhold the information about her upcoming knighthood as it might ruin her chance to enjoy the dinner and the fine company.
Jeffrey had to admit he was pleased to finally be able to expose his girls to a bit of the capital’s social swirl. He’d already received a dozen invitations for himself, and his daughters, to attend parties at various local mansions of the more wealthy and powerful noble families over the next two weeks. Social swirl indeed! he thought. They will all run out of suitable gowns to wear before the second week is over. If the prince had not offered the services of his sister’s own dressmakers…that could have become a problem.
Maria and Tess told of making a few social contacts before Liz had joined them. They were under no illusions, however, about why they were so popular. Being housed on the fourth floor meant their family was well-regarded by the king. That in itself was enough to draw the interest of the other nobles, but knowing they were the sisters of the famous Lady Elizabeth increased the nobles’ level of interest another notch.
Dinner was called not too long later, and as each family entered, a servant with the master seating list directed other servants on where to lead each family to sit. Liz and her sisters were surprised to find they were to be seated on the dais at the long, gently curving head table with the royal family and other notables. The Parkers were spread out, with each woman at the head table being placed between two men.
Three seats in the middle of the table were empty, and while Liz assumed correctly those were for the royal family, her eyes were focused on the blond beauty who took a seat immediately next to the four center seats. She instantly recognized her main rival for Max’s hand, and couldn’t help but notice that Victoria was seated closer to the royal family than she herself was…in fact, Liz was sure that Victoria’s seat would just happen to put her next to Max for the rest of the evening. A quick, smug look from Victoria was all it took for Liz’s guess to be confirmed. She quickly looked away from Victoria and instead took in the white marble columns along the walls, the golden silk fabric running from column to column, and the white marble mantels in front of the half-dozen huge fireplaces that lined the long walls of the rectangular room.
Tess was seated two spots on the other side of Victoria, and the two women struck up a conversation which lasted until they were separated by the arrival of the Duke of Salzerei, Lord Hanson. He greeted Victoria, thankful Max had been able to secure him this position. The two men had met that afternoon, while Liz was chatting with her sisters, and had agreed to work together to position Hanson as the most agreeable suitor for Victoria’s hand. Implicit in this arrangement was Hanson’s agreement to help Max win the right to marry Liz, if the chance arose.
Victoria politely introduced Hanson to Tess. He knew Tess was Liz’s younger sister, mostly due to Max’s rather thorough briefing on the Parker family. Hanson was in a most unusual position: he was highly interested in Victoria, but needed her to lose to Liz so that he could then have a shot at winning her hand for himself…but he knew he dared not mention Liz in Victoria’s presence, not even to her own sister, not if he wanted to gain Victoria’s favor.
The royal family didn’t come in until everyone else had found their seats. That caused everyone to rise once more and stay standing until the king sat. Phillip wasted no time in signaling for the first course to be served. The meal went smoothly, until after the second course, when the king pounded an empty goblet on the table to draw everyone’s attention.
A twitch of his finger brought a servant scurrying over to refill the goblet, and then Phillip said, “We are here tonight, having this unscheduled banquet, to celebrate the end of the war and to honor a family that did so much to bring about Our victory. Rise and be recognized, Lord Jeffrey Parker, Baron of Roswell.”
Jeffrey, who was seated just three chairs down from Liz, had known this was coming. The king had told him that his family would be honored during the banquet. So, he pushed back his chair and rose.
“The good baron first left his rather secure home at Our behest, traveled to Krakovia, and took up residence there to help hide the crown prince from Khivar. When the crown prince earned his knighthood and decided to return to Alemannia to help lead the war effort, he placed the baron in charge of building a supply line from Krakovia to Roswell, and building a large supply base there. And then, his army led the column of reinforcements that marched over the mountain pass and allowed the royal army to win the Battle of Maiden’s Pass.
“Mentioning that battle brings to mind the maiden for which the battle, and the pass she led her army through, are now named. Lady Elizabeth Parker, rise and be recognized.”
Liz had no idea this was coming. She had been content to see her father recognized for his efforts in front of the most powerful people in the kingdom. Having the king himself direct his attention toward her made her nervous, but when a servant stepped forward to help her with her chair, she rose, thanked the young man, and faced the dinner guests like this was something to which she was accustomed.
“Lady Elizabeth,” Phillip said, which got Liz to look the king straight in the eye, “you have a most ardent supporter in the person of the crown prince. In open court he enumerated the many things you did to defend the crown.” Phillip went on to re-list Liz’s efforts, mostly for the benefit of those who hadn’t been present in court that morning, but also to make sure Liz knew the king knew and was grateful to her.
When his recitation was at an end, Phillip said, “We are of a mind to reward Our many supporters in the coming days. The nobles who actively supported Khivar will be shortly losing their titles and lands, thus opening up new positions for those who supported Us. While those who are moving up have not all been decided on yet, We are hereby promising Baron Parker his choice of the Countships that become available.”
A low murmur of approval rolled through the guests, causing the king to signal for silence. “Furthermore, due in small part to the skillful arguments of her own royal supporter, Lady Elizabeth Parker will be honored with installation as a full member of the Order of the Dragon.” That emphasis was for the people who had suggested that she be made an honorary member since she wasn’t either a man or a knight.
Liz was surprised, but didn’t know how big that honor truly was. Maria, on the other hand, did know, and fainted when she heard her little sister was going to gain an honor that she herself had dreamed about since she'd first decided to try to be the son her father never had. When Maria slumped in her chair, the men on either side of her signaled a servant, who talked to his superior, who sent someone else to fetch a vial of smelling salts to awaken the lady.
While the servants and the two gentlemen were taking care of Maria down on one end of the head table, the king stood, which made everyone else stand, and said, “We propose a toast. To our most loyal defenders, the Parkers of Roswell.” Phillip, who already had his goblet in hand, raised it and drank deeply.
The diners responded to the king’s toast by raising their own goblets and saying, “The Parkers of Roswell,” before draining their own drinks.
Just as the king and his dinner guests resumed sitting, Edward de Laney and his daughter Victoria exchanged worried glances. An increase in rank for Lord Parker from Baron to Count was a serious danger to Victoria’s chances of marrying the prince, and they both knew it.
Liz had trouble eating after that, as a suddenly nervous stomach made her appetite disappear. Maria came to just as the next course was served, and was so embarrassed that she forgot to be jealous of Liz, at least for the rest of the meal. Tess was in fine fettle, however, as occasions like this were what she had dreamed about since she was little, and for her, the truth was better than the dream ever had been.
Max found the dinner much more enjoyable after his father’s announcement regarding the Parkers. Victoria was uncommonly quiet after that, leaving him free to eat and chat with his mother. By unspoken agreement, they talked about anything other than his marriage prospects, leaving them plenty of time to catch up on the little things they’d done since Max had left the Summer Palace last spring.
Other nobles, including Lords de Laney and Hanson, were honored during the meal, helping make the seven course meal last an additional than two and a half hours. Once the meal was over, most everyone was full and felt like seeking their beds, especially those who were staying in the city and had a bit of a carriage ride ahead of them. Liz wasn’t one of them, however, as she was expecting to meet up with Max now that the dinner was over.