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The Ordinary Queen

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Being queen of Ambergeldar wasn't as hard, physically, as being an assistant kitchen maid, but Amy thought it was every bit as hard in other ways. She had to know and care about politics and diplomacy and the price of wheat. There was no tidy list of chores to be accomplished. Ambergeldar hadn't had a queen since Peregrine was quite small, and nobody was quite sure what to do with one now.

"Not that they make me the least bit unwelcome," Amy told Peter Aurelious. She'd taken him and Mr. Pemberthy into one of the gardens to see if this was the one they preferred. For the moment, they were alone, but she didn't expect it to last.

"Qwa!" said Peter Aurelious. He flew from her shoulder to a tree and hopped along a branch. "Qwa!"

Amy laughed. "Exactly. Now, if you and Mr. Pemberthy will be all right here, I have to go learn about the castle linens and tell people to go on doing what they've been doing for years."

Hearing his name, Mr. Pemberthy came running back to see whether Amy had a treat for him.

She offered him a nut from her pocket. "That's how much you care about being queen." She smiled at him. "It just means a never ending supply of nuts and that we shall be quite warm all winter."

Mr. Pemberthy didn't deny it.

Amy turned away and headed back toward the castle. She'd only gone a short way when she saw a stout, gray haired woman hurrying toward her. Amy smiled and waved.

The woman paused and smiled. She lifted her skirts slightly and started walking again, more slowly this time. "Your majesty." She swept a curtsey when she was within speaking distance. Her clothing was more practical than the usual run of court gowns but was still elegant in an understated way. "One of the maids said you'd come this way."

"Lady Adele." Amy nodded acknowledgment. "I just wanted some air. I hadn't forgotten about our appointment." She turned around slowly, looking at the flowers and trees. "I like being outside."

"Should I introduce you to the head gardener? His majesty hasn't taken an interest in the gardens, but I'm sure, should you wish, changes could be made." Lady Adele stood next to Amy for a moment then started walking.

Amy followed. "Oh, I don't mean to make changes. Everything's lovely as it is."

"Nonsense. You do us no favors with that attitude. I won't say you should turn us topsy turvy, but you're our queen." Lady Adele reached over and took Amy's hand, patting it once.

She wouldn't do that if I were a proper sort of princess. No. I'm queen now, not a princess. Am I a proper queen? Amy squeezed Lady Adele's hand in return before pulling free. At least she didn't pat me on the head. If I were Perry, she would have. "So today is the laundry?"

"And the sewing rooms. They're for mending, making uniforms and making clothes for you and King Algernon. You've seen the solarium. That's for whatever you please, but I believe the last queen used it for embroidery."

Amy thought of her own serviceable embroidery. Not my first choice to fill time. Is that what queens do? Her sisters had spent hours at a time on elaborate projects, but she'd preferred simple things that left her time for playing in the garden. "I don't see why I shouldn't do some mending, myself, much more practical."

Lady Adele's silence told Amy that she'd said something wrong. Mending is what an ordinary woman would do. Queens aren't supposed to be ordinary. Amy raised her chin. I am ordinary, and I am a queen. Perry wouldn't want me any other way. "Best to start as I mean to go on," she said. "I'm not decorative. I might as well be useful."

"But, your majesty--" Lady Adele protested. She didn't say anything further for several seconds.

Probably trying to come up with something tactful. They reached the door into the castle, a small, side door, not important enough for guards. Amy opened it.

"Embroidery," Lady Adele said as she followed Amy through the door, "is quite respectable. Embroidery or painting or music. Even flower gardening might be... usual. Next you'll be saying you want to cook."

And risk being recognized? Never. "I know nothing about cooking," Amy lied. "I don't expect I'll have time to learn." It would be fun, though. I wouldn't have to do the dull parts or wash the dishes. Avoiding the kitchen had been easy so far. Peregrine had assured her that none of the staff, seeing her at a distance and dressed as queen, would recognize her. She knew that her face wasn't particularly memorable, but she thought someone might recognize Mr. Pemberthy and Peter Aurelious. How many women have a squirrel and a crow following them around?

 

Every evening, Amy, the Ordinary Queen, and her man-of-all-work, Peregrine, took a walk in the gardens. It was their time just for the two of them. Tonight, they'd stopped at the lake and were feeding the ducks from a short pier to which three boats were moored. Amy was crouching, trying to give bread to the smallest duckling which never seemed to be fast enough to beat its siblings to the floating fragments.

"This isn't as nice as The Birches," Peregrine said, looking around and frowning slightly at their attendants who hovered a bit more than a dozen yards away. "We can't really be alone."

Amy smiled up at him and straightened. "We can't go to The Birches all the time, and the gardens are right here." She put her hand on his arm. "My ladies think it's sweet that you're courting me." She squeezed his arm and laughed. "Little do they know! They think we barely know each other."

He patted her hand. "We're carrying it off." He reached for the bag of bread and muffins that she held. He took a handful of pieces and tossed them out.

"How were your meetings?" Amy asked after tossing her own handful of bread to the ducks. "I know you weren't looking forward to them."

Peregrine sighed and stepped in close to put his arm around her. "Tedious, mostly. We need a new tax to keep up the roads, and everyone has a different scheme to put forward. Relations with Crystalvia have become strained over the question of a fair price for our copper and their linen. I was hoping you might be able to help there, with your sister married to their crown prince and all."

"I can try." Amy knew she sounded dubious. "I'll write to Pearl. She seems perfectly happy with Prince Orlando, but I thought him stiff. You'll have to tell me more about the whole thing so I know what to say."

"I can have Lord Marbury brief you, if, that is, Lady Adele can spare you."

"Nothing I'm doing with Lady Adele is urgent. She's managing everything perfectly well without my interference. It will take me years to learn all she knows about managing a castle. I know a little about how Mama did things, but--" Amy made a face. "--there were always more interesting things to do."

"You're not bored here?" Peregrine sounded alarmed.

Amy turned her head in to his shoulder for a few seconds. "I miss having every second Thursday afternoon in the forest, but really, it's just work, and I'm getting more than two pfennigs a week." She straightened up and pulled away a little. "A queen must be a maid-of-all-work."

"Yes." Peregrine squeezed her, and she could hear relief in his voice. "We'll have to see about those Thursday afternoons. I miss them, too."

Amy scattered more bread for the ducks. "Perry, however did you manage to get away before? How did nobody notice the king going missing for whole afternoons?"

"Well--" Peregrine stepped back. He reddened a little. "I had to tell some lies, and Gunther covered for me. Sometimes I said I had a headache and needed a nap. Sometimes I said I was taking my lunch into the garden and ordered everyone to stay away. They worry when they don't know where I am, but they're used to me disappearing for a few hours. I used to do it a lot when I was a boy."

"Did you now?" Amy made the words teasing. She held out the bag of bread for Peregrine.

"Absolutely." Peregrine pulled out a hunk of bread and started breaking pieces off it. "I liked the attics and the cellars especially. Mr. Emmery, my tutor, had a horror of spiders. If I was in the gardens, he'd find me and haul me in for my lessons. If I was in one of the attics, he'd come to the top of the stairs and call for me. As long as he couldn't see me, he wouldn't venture further."

Amy smiled. "So we'll need nursemaids and tutors who can brave the attics?" She blinked. Children. Godmama said we'd have six. I'm not ready to have children. She shoved her hand deep into the bag, trying to banish the thought. Children are part of being queen, and everyone expects us to start right away. Perry's an only child, so you have to go back to his father's generation for other heirs. She shivered.

"Are you cold, Amy dearest?" Peregrine stepped closer and put his arm around her again.

"A little." Amy leaned back against him. "Evenings are still a little chilly."

"Would you like to go in?"

Amy held up her handful of bread. "Not until the bread runs out. I want to enjoy the ducks." This is our time. I'm not giving it up just because I'm thinking about... things. "If we go in, they'll just call you away for another meeting. It's early enough for one."

"You could come, too." Peregrine sounded wistful.

I could. "Would the ministers mind? They don't know me."

"They have to get to know you. Your opinions matter to me."

Amy tossed out some bread and didn't say anything.

"If something happens to me," Peregrine said hesitantly. "Not that I expect it to, what with Crustacea's gift, but if, then you'd have to rule until one of our children is old enough. I don't like to think of that," he added in a rush. "It's just that I can't help it. I think about my father and how he didn't plan to die. It just happened. Nobody really knew what to do. Aunt Hedwig and her husband almost took over. To safeguard my interests they said, but once they got in, they'd never have left."

"Oh, Perry." For a moment, Amy couldn't find words. To be thinking of such things! I suppose he has to. He's king. Oh. And I'm queen. "I suppose we do have to think about that." Could I do it? She leaned out over the water and dropped bread in.

Peregrine grabbed her arm. "Careful! You'll fall in."

"I'd only get wet. It's shallow here. Besides, I can swim."

"Not when wearing all of that, you can't." But he loosened his hold on her arm.

Amy straightened up and took a deep breath. "I will come with you to the meeting tonight, if there is one. I'll make time in my schedule for other meetings. Nothing Lady Adele is teaching me is so urgent that I can't. What she does is a full time job, but I don't have to do all of it myself. Even if Lady Adele wants to retire-- and I'm not sure she does-- there are other ladies who'd be happy to do the job." I'm babbling. She shut her mouth hard.

"Then let them." Peregrine put his arms around her. "I can trust you to be sensible when other people are being silly."

Amy leaned back against him. She lifted her empty hand to touch his arm. "I can be silly, too." I insist on that.

"When it's right to be. You'd never try to convince me that peasants who've been flooded out don't deserve help because they chose to live near a river."

That sounds very specific. "Who said that?"

"Count Celefin. The Ferron flooded last week. Ten villages were under water. The waters have receded, but most of what people had is gone. Some of them didn't manage to save their livestock. The very least I can do is to forgive taxes for the year."

Amy nodded. "Can you give each household some chickens? A few hens and a rooster would be something to start with. Do they need seed for their crops? Why did the river flood? Are there ways to keep it from flooding again?"

Peregrine's arms tightened around her. "See? Sensible. I-- we-- need that. You're also the only one who's worked, really worked, for a wage. Not that we can tell anyone that, but it gives you perspective."

"I keep having to stop myself from using the servants' stairs. I'm not supposed to know where they are."

Peregrine laughed. "I should give you a tour of the castle, my tour, not Lady Adele's or Lord Everard's. I'd include all the servants' stairs and the attics and the cellars. You'd have an excuse to know anything at all about the castle."

"The next time it rains in the evening. I'd rather walk around than sit and listen to music. Even if the musicians do need something to do, too." She gave the bag of bread a bounce, trying to judge how much was left. "I think we're nearly out of bread. The ducks will be disappointed."

"The ducks have had quite enough. We don't want to adopt any. Mr. Pemberthy and Peter Aurelious are enough for now. We're having difficulty persuading the hounds that Mr. Pemberthy isn't to be chased and eaten."

"There will be more animals," Amy told him. "Maybe not wild things but more animals. I like them." And children ought to have animals to play with and care for. I want my children-- My children! --I want them to have fun and pick flowers in the forest and swim in pools and play games in the sun.

"Will you settle for a dog or maybe a peacock?"

"I suppose. I keep worrying that someone will recognize Mr. Pemberthy and Peter Aurelious even if they don't recognize me." But I couldn't bear to send them away. I don't think they'd go, anyway.

"Obviously, they couldn't be the same squirrel and crow. You're not a kitchen maid, and you've never been to Ambergeldar before." Peregrine reached into the bag and pulled out what Amy thought was the last of the bread. He tore it to pieces and scattered it.

Amy pulled away from Peregrine to lean out and shake the bag upside down over the water. Only crumbs came out. She sighed. "I suppose we have to go in now."

"There's always tomorrow night."

"I want to look at the flowers tomorrow. Lady Adele suggested I should take up gardening. I might if I have time. She didn't like my suggestion that my ladies and I should start helping with the mending."

"We have more than enough room for whatever you want to do. I don't know who to talk to about it, but we can figure it out." Peregrine plucked the bag from her hand.

"We'll figure all of it out, Perry." I can learn to be a queen. Even if nobody ever taught me, I can learn.