The Royal Palace of Jaunt Jolie was like being inside a giant fondant fancy, if the giant fondant fancy was in the oven, and everyone was in the oven, and the oven was in the desert, in direct sunlight.
And the fondant fancy sang.
That was to say, it was a godforsaken nightmare.
Agatha had arrived ten minutes ago, and she had already decided she was never going to complain about Camelot again. She was also trying to work out how to cut their visit short, though currently she was not coming up with any good ideas. Maybe she should poison herself? Pass out? Fake an assassination attempt? They all sounded like too much effort in this heat.
Technically, she had visited Jaunt Jolie before, but she had been a bit busy worrying about dying, and had only really noticed that there were lots of hydrangeas, because Sophie had complained. Now, she had lots more time to… appreciate the decor? She wasn’t sure appreciate was the right word. There were lots of smarmy portraits, elaborate tapestries, flowers, and not a whole lot else.
Already sweating in her court gown, Agatha grimaced and tried to find something to distract her from both the temperature and the singing walls, which burst into a pitchy rendition of the anthem every time they were disturbed-- Tipple Top, Joy and Jaunt, Come and be Jolie!. Agatha wasn’t sure how the people who lived here hadn’t gone insane yet. Maybe they had. It would explain the colour palette.
Sighing, she leant to the side and pried her glove off, sticking her hand under the crystalline waterfall to their right--
“Agatha.” hissed Beatrix from just behind her. “Don’t stick your hand in the sacred fountain of Saint Sofia. It’s not a water park.”
“Oh, that’s what--” Agatha snatched her hand out of the spray of water. “Whoops. I thought it was just like, a fancy fountain thingy--”
“I used to think you did these stupid things on purpose.” muttered Beatrix. “I’m now less sure.”
“I thought it was just some ridiculous extra indulgence.” admitted Agatha.
“Clearly.” Beatrix said thinly.
Agatha shot her a dirty look, but hastily wiped her hand on the back of her skirt and pulled her glove back on, trying to look innocent as the throne room doors were heaved open for them. Beatrix had been very snippy with her today, though Agatha wasn’t sure why. She was sitting pretty on her new position as Tedros’s liege, and Jaunt Jolie was her home kingdom, so it wasn’t as if she had much reason to be annoyed. Perhaps she was worried Agatha was going to embarrass her in front of her family and friends. It wasn’t exactly unlikely.
Not for the first time, she wished Tisiphone had deigned to come with them on this trip, but her Chief of Staff had refused the second it was pitched. She had claimed her title meant she needed to remain in Camelot, since Tedros was in Hamelin for a council and Agatha in Jaunt Jolie, but Agatha was fairly sure she just didn’t want to come. Looking around, it was unsurprising; her Never cousin, the daughter of one of Callis’s sisters, would have stood out like an inkblot on a white dress against all this pastel yellow and pink. Agatha also doubted she would have made a great impression on Queen Jacinda, since she tended not to emote, and she was directly descended from one of the most infamous Never lines in the Woods. So was Agatha, but since she was an Ever and a Reader, it cancelled out--
Agatha noticed the footmen gesturing for them to move forwards and hurried to do so, cursing herself for getting distracted. She could practically hear Beatrix’s eye-roll.
They were announced into the cavernous throne room by a footman with a thin, reedy voice, who looked far too hot in his pink and yellow livery;
“Agatha Pendragon, Queen of Camelot, and Beatrix Rotunda, Dame-Commander!”
Queen Jacinda was immediately visible; seated at the centre of the room, upon a pink-tinted marble throne that looked horribly uncomfortable. Agatha hoped all the chairs in the kingdom weren’t like that. She wasn’t sure how one politely dealt with the fact their buttocks were going numb. Pollux’s Etiquette lessons had never covered that. (She didn’t think so, anyway. She hadn’t always listened.)
Behind Jacinda stood a huddle of miscellaneous courtiers, and with them two boys-- the Princes that she’d encountered when they were captured by the Snake. Last time she’d seen them, they’d both been crying. Now they looked smug as anything. What were their names? Adrian and Samuel, she thought. Adrian was older, at ten, and Samuel was… small and snotty. Six? Seven? Who cared? Agatha didn’t make a habit of particularly disliking children, but these two had a slightly malicious tinge to their benevolence that firmly reminded her of the first year Evers, so she was immediately wary.
“Agatha.” Jacinda smiled warmly at her, but made no attempt to approach, or really do anything much. Agatha stopped awkwardly at the foot of the dais and curtsied, trying to keep it neat.
“Your Majesty. Thank you for the invitation.”
Jacinda waved a dismissive hand.
“Oh, it’s no trouble. We thought hosting you for a little while prior to the ball might help you adjust to your new role.”
She had a point, Agatha thought wryly. This was her first solo engagement in another kingdom since she’d married Tedros, so it would probably be useful to get used to it in a relatively benevolent environment, even if said environment was very hot and very pastel. Jacinda had helped them before, so how bad could she be, really-- ?
Then Jacinda turned, and her smile struggled.
“Your Majesty.” Beatrix curtsied neatly and smiled adoringly at the Queen, as if she was deeply and profoundly happy to be here--
But Agatha had been Beatrix’s classmate for the better part of two years, and could see the taut edge to it, the way it had been forced. It was the smile that she’d turned on Agatha for most of their first year. She had once heard Tedros call Beatrix out for it, telling her their class of Everboys had dubbed it her Anemone’s Hair expression; definitely fake, probably hiding something. It was as aggressively artificial as the canary yellow of their Professor’s wig. Beatrix had scoffed at him, but Agatha privately thought he might have been onto something.
“Ah.” said Jacinda tightly. “...Beatrix.”
Oh, god, thought Agatha. They have bad blood.
She had thought Jacinda was, as far as Ever leaders went, relatively benevolent? She had been counting on her to help them along, not do… whatever this was. Why on earth would she have a problem with a random Good graduate more than half her age? Beatrix had barely been here for the past four years...
"Lady Rotunda." Agatha corrected quickly. Jacinda shot her an indulgent smile, but, again, it iced when her attention shifted.
"Yes, of course. My apologies, Beatrix. I hear you've been knighted."
Agatha frowned at the blatant ignoring of her correction. Beatrix didn’t even blink.
"That's correct, your majesty." she said sweetly. “I’ve been greatly honoured by King Tedros.”
Agatha would have laughed-- she rarely heard Beatrix use Tedros’s actual name, let alone his title-- had she not been so confused over what was unfolding. Beatrix was the queen of etiquette, but this entire interaction felt strange and artificial. Not that being fake was exactly alien to Beatrix-- Agatha remembered their first meeting well enough-- but this went beyond anything Agatha had ever seen from her before.
“Yes, well-- yes, er, lovely.” Jacinda seemed to cast around for something else to say-- “Ah, I’m sure you remember my sons...”
As if on cue (and they probably were) the two boys hopped down from the dais.
“Crown Prince Adrian, and Prince Samuel.”
“Of course,” said Agatha, as the older boy, Adrian, bowed deeply and kissed her hand. Agatha, who was sure she’d seen him picking his nose as they’d entered, shot Beatrix a help me look, and Beatrix returned a damningly smug expression of ha ha no. So she was condemned to try, somewhat unsuccessfully, to look kindly as Samuel shoved a bunch of flowers into her hands without much grace.
“Oh, thank you--” Agatha decided it was best not to tell them she was allergic to lilies, but she was saved by Jacinda continuing to talk;
“Adrian,” said Jacinda. “Perhaps you’d like to show Queen Agatha and her household to where they’ll be staying?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Adrian smiled in a spectacularly smarmy fashion and held his arm out to Agatha, even though Agatha was significantly taller than him and needed no help walking. Agatha accepted it unenthusiastically as the courtiers looked on in smiling indulgence, as if they had never seen a better display of chivalry and decorum. Agatha personally thought she’d seen better from Tedros and Chaddick in first year. They might have thought she was a witch, but at least they’d held doors open for her.
"I was at your wedding." Adrian told Agatha as they made an excruciatingly slow pace down the hallways. A group of Adrian’s nursemaids were following them several paces behind. Apparently he wasn’t supposed to be without supervision, ever. It gave the uncomfortable impression they were being stalked.
"Yes, I remember." Agatha said. Well, sort of. She vaguely remembered the Princes of Jaunt Jolie being present. Lots of people had been.
"Lady Walton said your dress wasn't very expensive. A… wise economical choice."
One of Adrian’s nursemaids unsuccessfully stifled a giggle.
Agatha suspected Lady Walton had actually said it was cheap and bit her tongue, wondering how to respond. She’d rather liked her dress.
"Oh." she said. "Er. Well, I don't know--"
"Lady Walton infamously failed the fashion portion of the Queen’s ladies’ assessments.” Beatrix cut in coolly. “She couldn’t tell Ooty fairy silk from a potato sack. How should she know? Did she waterboard the dressmaker? Kidnap the royal accountants?
Adrian cut Beatrix a short glance, stopping in front of a door.
“I don’t talk to the knights unless I have to, it’s beneath me. I shall go and see if everything’s ready for you.”
“Um, Prince Adrian--” began Agatha, but he was already inside and snapping the door shut. Beatrix’s lip curled. Agatha sighed.
“Maybe we should swap.” she said to Beatrix as the trailing clump of noblewomen whispered behind their fans. “Bet they’d respect you as Queen. Here, put this on--”
Beatrix shot her a withering look and slapped Agatha’s hands off her crown.
“What is this, first year? Get a grip, Agatha.”
“I was joking." frowned Agatha.
“Make a better joke, then.”
Beatrix and Agatha glared briefly at each other, saw a nursemaid staring, and gave up on it.
No need to fuel already pretty well-fueled rumours. In the two months since Beatrix had been officially appointed as Tedros’s liege, there had been no fewer than fifty-six articles beating the world’s deadest horse. Said horse-- i.e. Tedros and Beatrix’s brief courtship-- had perished dramatically in their first year at Good, and should really have been left to decompose in peace. Perhaps it was a horse that Agatha liked to bring up to embarrass Tedros and Beatrix, but a dead one all the same. But the Royal Rot were convinced Beatrix was going to use her new position to kill and replace Agatha.
(No one seemed to have considered how Tedros might be factored into this supposed plan, or indeed anything else.)
Still, Agatha had thought that was the (awkward) end of their interaction with Adrian and his nursemaids, until she left to find a vase for the lilies and overheard him talking to Beatrix in the parlour;
"You don't look like a knight."
Beatrix replied in a toweringly good impression of her first year Queen Bee disdain;
"And what should a knight look like, Prince Adrian?"
“Don’t they wear armour?” Adrian yawned. Beatrix scoffed.
“Maybe your Knights of Eleven prance around and posture in full battle armour every day, but I don’t see why I should. I’m not going to battle every day.”
“They wear armour every day because they should always be prepared to defend us. If I was your King, I’d make you do it.”
“But you’re not my King, little boy.” said Beatrix imperiously. “Tedros is my King, now.”
“The Cowardly Lion and the Straw Harpy?” Adrian sneered, and Agatha was taken aback by the venom in such a young voice. “I’m sure everyone’s going to be very scared.”
“Parroting your nursemaids’ gossip, Adrian?” said Beatrix tartly, but Agatha could tell she was angry.
“You know I’m not. I think I’ll take my leave, now. Afternoon, Dame-Commander.”
A beat, and then the sound of the door opening and shutting, and footsteps as Adrian and his herd of nursemaids retreated.
Agatha waited for at least thirty seconds, wondering why on earth this whole family, including the ten year old son, seemed to hate Beatrix...
Then re-entered, working with the assumption that Beatrix did not intend for her to overhear that.
“Don’t know how to tell them I’m allergic to lilies.” she said. Beatrix forced a smile.
“I’ll take them, I like them.”
“Thanks.” Agatha handed them over. “Adrian gone?”
“Good, I was tempted to punt the kid.”
“I despair for your future as a mother." Beatrix told her. "...but I agree."
“How can she have raised someone so… smarmy?” asked Agatha. “Bettina was alright. Well, apart from when she interviewed me. She was annoying then.”
Beatrix shrugged grumpily and didn’t reply.
Agatha hesitated, and then said;
“Is there a… problem between you and Jacinda? It just felt like--”
“No problem.” snapped Beatrix immediately. “Why would there be?”
Because you both seethe with fake niceties every time you interact, and her son seems to hate you?
“Oh.” said Agatha. “Um, I don’t know. Just a feeling?”
Beatrix looked hard at her for a moment. Then, just as Agatha thought she might admit to something, she said;
“Don’t wear that to dinner, half the lowest ranked Dames will outdress you.”
“I have a nicer gown.”
“How about jewellery?”
Agatha’s ‘ I’m wearing all the jewellery I brought’ hesitation must have been telling.
“You can borrow some of my earrings.” Beatrix sighed. “...I suppose.” she added, with zero good grace. Some things never changed.
Said dinner was with Jacinda, her top courtiers, and various officials, but mercifully no princes. It wasn’t not too bad, but something about it felt… tense. The food was nice, and everyone seemed polite, but something simply was wrong.
“We’ll have tea tomorrow,” Jacinda told Agatha as the second course was brought in. “There’s a nice spot on the veranda, over in East Tower. I’m sure we’ll have a lot to catch up on.”
Agatha wasn’t sure they actually did have a lot to catch up on-- she hardly knew this woman-- but she tried her best to seem suitably enthusiastic about this idea, even though she was internally panicking. This was something she’d somehow managed to almost completely avoid, thus far, and she found her knowledge of how to behave was distinctly foggy.
“We’ll be hunting tomorrow,” one of the Knights of Eleven told Beatrix. “Good fun. Plenty of deer in the woods, this year!”
“Lots of them.” nodded the knight. “Young does mostly, maybe a few stags. We’ll leave the fawns for next season though…”
Beatrix’s hand clenched around the stem of her wineglass. Agatha stared at her, horrified. They couldn’t send Beatrix after deer. They hadn’t even considered that, because no one hunted them in Camelot. Why was that? It was…
The idea came to Agatha in a flash.
“Oh, perhaps leave the deer.” she blurted, praying for even an ounce of Sophie’s conviction, rather than her usual awkward half-questioning mannerisms, as everyone turned to stare at her. “They’re a protected species in Camelot, we don’t hunt them. Tedros’s mother made it law, she was very fond of deer. I don’t want Beatrix to have to disrespect her wishes, even if we are here.”
Agatha wasn’t sure if it was her status or the actual content of the argument, but to her relief, the knights nodded, looking a little sheepish.
“Of course, my lady, we’ll all avoid that.” said the lead knight hastily. “Perhaps we’ll pursue reports of a Ravenswood cavewolf pack further east.”
“Perhaps that would be better,” said Agatha, trying not to sound too relieved. Beatrix smiled, and said nothing-- but under the table she seized Agatha’s hand and squeezed it.
Before Agatha could attempt a topic change, Jacinda jumped in;
“Beatrix,” she said. “How is your family? I haven’t seen much of them, recently.”
It seemed like an innocent enough topic change, and Beatrix’s face remained pleasant, but she’d only just let go of Agatha, and her nails caught Agatha’s wrist as she flexed her hand nervously.
“I believe they’re well,” she said neutrally. “I haven’t seen my mother or aunts in a few months, but I gather they’re all perfectly fine.”
“Are they coming to the ball?” asked someone further down, a noblewoman Agatha hadn’t been introduced to.
“I don’t think so.” Beatrix murmured. “They’re currently staying out in the country. My mother had... Everwood Architectural Society business.”
“Of course,” said Jacinda smoothly. “She’s very busy, is Viscountess Rena. Hardworking.”
Someone snorted and tried to pass it off as a cough. Agatha, who had never been acquainted with Beatrix’s mother besides seeing her afar at the first year Visiting Weekend, shot Beatrix a questioning look, but Beatrix wasn’t looking at her, staring into her soup.
The conversation moved on; onto weather, trade deals, the Princess of Hamelin’s new baby, but Beatrix didn’t look at Agatha, or at anyone else. Agatha had never seen her so… subdued. She was so used to seeing her holding court in meals at Good, and even now, she and Tedros carried a lot of the conversation in Camelot. This was unprecedented, and distinctly strange.
Though she’d seemed subdued at dinner, Beatrix stomped back to their rooms in a bad mood.
“That was boring.” said Agatha, booting the door shut. “Bet my maids are glad they didn’t have to go to that.”
“Boring is a generous way of putting it.” said Beatrix tartly, sitting down at the vanity and starting to let her hair down.
“Why, what would you call it?” yawned Agatha.
“Seething of disrespect.” said Beatrix. Agatha turned to her, surprised.
“Really? You think they were disrespectful?” she perched on the window seat. “I know they’re a bit snotty, but--”
“No, Agatha, I don’t think they were disrespectful, I know.” Beatrix whipped around to her. “They’ve been disrespecting us the whole time, and you just haven’t noticed because you’re obtuse. They should have introduced you as Her Majesty the Queen Agatha of Camelot, and me as Dame-Commander Beatrix Rotunda of the Kingdom of Camelot, not whatever the hell they did! They shouldn’t have been lazy with our titles. They let Adrian be rude. And you think they don’t know you’re allergic to lilies? Of course they do. You don’t just not know those things about someone you’re hosting, especially a Queen, and especially the Queen of Camelot. They’re making fun of us! Jacinda ignored you after you corrected her on my title, they think you’re inept, they talked across you and they--” she noticed Agatha’s expression and stopped. “...do you even care?”
“To be frank, Bea, not really.” said Agatha unaffectedly.
“Perhaps you’ve forgotten, but I am very used to being made fun of by Evers who laud their knowledge, status, and superior etiquette over me.” Agatha told her. “What’s the point in pursuing every tiny thing? It’s been like this since I was fifteen. I just ignore it.”
For a moment, Beatrix looked genuinely baffled, as if the concept that you might tolerate disrespect had simply never occurred to her.
“But what? You did it. Tedros did it. Everyone did it.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s right, Agatha. We were gits at fifteen.”
“True.” Agatha shrugged. “But I’m very good at putting up with it.”
Beatrix set her hairbrush down very precisely, and stood up.
“Agatha.” she said, stomping across the plush carpet and stopping in front of her. “Tedros isn’t here. I will slap this into you if I have to.” She leaned down and said, very deliberately; “You are the Queen of Camelot. You don’t have to ‘put up with it.’ You are allowed to both expect and demand a certain level of respect, you do realise that?”
“I’m not Sophie.” mumbled Agatha. “No need to be ridiculous about it.”
“It’s not egotistical to want to be treated in a way befitting your status! Or treated well in general!” Beatrix stabbed an accusing finger in her face. “I thought that marrying Tedros of Camelot might have cured you of this weird inferiority complex you have, but sadly, it hasn’t. What’s wrong with you?”
Agatha bristled indignantly.
“What’s wrong with me? Just because I don’t want to cause a big fuss--”
“You’re a pushover!” harped Beatrix.
“I am not!”
“You are when you think it’s justified, which is often, too often! You married King Arthur’s sexy son! You’re Queen of the Ever kingdom! You should have an ego the size of the Murmuring Mountains!”
“Maybe I don’t want to have an ego!”
“YOU DON’T HAVE ANY CONFIDENCE, LET ALONE AN EGO!” thundered Beatrix. “YOU’RE ABOUT AS ASSERTIVE AS A MOUSE THAT’S BEEN STEPPED ON!”
“WHY HAVE YOU TURNED INTO A MOTIVATIONAL CASTOR?” Agatha shouted back.
“BECAUSE YOU’RE RIDICULOUS!”
Agatha slumped against the windowpane, exasperated.
“Why the hell do you feel so strongly about this? It doesn’t matter that much.”
“It matters a lot more than you think, Agatha.” said Beatrix sharply, finally returning to a normal volume. “It does.”
Agatha shook her head.
“I’m not fighting with you about something so ridiculous.”
Beatrix pursed her lips tightly.
“Fine. But you’ll see I’m right, eventually.”
“True.” corrected Beatrix, returning to her vanity. She eyed Agatha in the mirror for a moment, then snorted and sat down. “If you told us in first year, that this was what we’d be doing after graduation-- you, Queen of Camelot, going to tea with Jacinda, and me, your knight, going hunting-- I think we’d both have strokes.”
“You’d probably kill me first.”
“Probably.” said Beatrix, putting her medals back into their boxes. She paused. “God, I was a beast to you, wasn’t I?”
“A bit.” said Agatha mildly. “Convinced my head’s dented from where you tripped me into the wall.”
“Oh, don’t.” groaned Beatrix. “Did you ever tell Teddy about that?”
“Take it to the grave.”
“No promises. If I ever want you fired, I might bring it back up.”
“Not that you will want me fired, since I’m much prettier and nicer than whichever sweaty brute would replace me.”
“I think the reason that you and Sophie don’t get on is because you’re too similar.”
“Ugh, please. As if Sophie would ever tell you you were a pushover. She relies on it.”
“It’s true.” Beatrix caught Agatha’s look and held up her hands. “Fine. But even if it’s not true now, it definitely used to be.”
Agatha tried to think of something to deny that, struggled to find anything, and settled for a non-committal;
“It’s why you got attached to Teddy.” added Beatrix. “Your original disdain for each other meant you never felt like he was superior to you. In fact, you probably thought he was distinctly inferior, so you just told him off every time he was being a git. No one else did. Ever. And I guess he was so surprised he was forced to pay attention to you, even if it was just to argue with you, at first.”
Agatha blinked at her.
“Are you gunning for the royal psychiatrist position, too?”
“I’m a career driven woman.” said Beatrix drily.
“One way of putting it.”
“I suppose.” Beatrix paused. “I am sorry I was horrible to you, though.”
"Well, I looked down on the lot of you for being feminine and not having aspirations that I deemed good enough, so we’re even."
"Mm." said Beatrix. "We’re not, but ok. And either way, you ended up beating us all to the exact aspiration you didn't deem good enough."
"God knows how." said Agatha, polishing her wedding ring on her skirt.
"I guess Teddy really is just that good looking," said Beatrix.
They nodded solemnly for a moment. Then;
"Why are you nodding?" Demanded Agatha. "You don't like men!"
"I have eyes!"
Later, they sat and played chess, then cheated at chess, then threw the chess pieces at each other and had to get up and go and look for them.
"How did you get the Wish Fish to show that?" asked Agatha presently, trying to get her arm under a chintz sofa to retrieve a bishop. Beatrix plucked a pawn from a vase of flowers.
“What? My elaborate dreamscape wedding to Teddy?”
“Yeah. It can’t have been your real wish.”
Beatrix pursed her lips tightly.
“Wishes change. You know that.”
“Wish Fish don’t work like you.” said Beatrix. “It’s not your deepest wish, just the one that’s strongest at the time. How do you think we all got it to draw boys? Just what we were most interested in at that moment. Wish Fish aren’t very strong magic. What you did was run your much more powerful talent into their magic, freaked it all out, and granted their wish instead of letting them see yours, because you didn’t know what yours was.”
“Yeah, I gu-- ow!” Agatha leaned too far trying to look under the sofa, and knocked her crown directly onto her hand.
“Seem to have figured it out now, though.” murmured Beatrix under Agatha’s swearing.
“Yeah, completely by accident.” Agatha made sure she hadn’t knocked any of the jewels out, then threw it on the coffee table with her veil, a scattering of hairpins and a muttered good riddance. “Wish Fish have always been useful to me, though.” she added, abandoning her search for the bishop to nurse her bruised hand.
“Yeah, because you do half the work for them,” said Beatrix. “You grant wishes. They just point you in the right direction. They’re massively overstated.”
“Huh.” Agatha considered this. “Suppose so.”
She pointed her fingerglow at the sofa, and the bishop came whizzing out, along with several clumps of dust, and a startled looking mouse.
“Whoops.” said Agatha. “Sorry.”
The mouse stared at her, and squeaked furiously.
“I nearly burned the school down in Animal Communication.” Agatha told it. “I’m not your best hope.”
Beatrix groaned and came stomping over to get it. She, at least, could remember how to talk to it.
“It says you’re inept.” she told Agatha, taking it to its hole in the skirting board as it squeaked furiously at her. “And I’m too pretty to be a knight. He thinks we should swap.”
“Great.” said Agatha as Beatrix deposited it and watched it run off. “Even the Jaunt Jolie vermin hate us.”
“Bodes well for tomorrow, right?” sighed Beatrix.
They shared a glum high-five, and went to find the rest of the chess pieces.
It wasn’t until Agatha went to bed that she realised Beatrix had mostly avoided answering her question about the Wish Fish.
Three days later, Tedros looked rather startled when Agatha and Beatrix both rounded the corner, saw him, and immediately seized him like he was the last lifeboat out of Ooty.
"Do I look better after being away for a few days?"
"Take me home right now." demanded Agatha.
"Make that us,” jumped in Beatrix. “I'm not staying here either--"
"What?" spluttered Tedros. "What can old Jacinda have done?"
“What hasn’t she done is more like it.” sniffed Beatrix.
Tedros was looking increasingly worried.
"What the hell happened?"
Agatha shook his arm.
"Tedros, I love you more than life itself, but if you extend our stay any more than absolutely necessary, I will have you murdered. I'll do anything to get out of here. Faint. Throw up. Collapse and have a fit. I'll fake a pregnancy scare. I'll hire an assassin for myself."
"Isn't that last one like... fraud?"
“I would be more worried about the baby one getting overheard.” said Beatrix. “The Rot reporters get into the vents.”
Agatha laughed. Tedros and Beatrix did not.
“Happened at least twice before,” said Tedros. “But you still haven’t told me what happened--”
“I’ll tell you what happened!” barked Beatrix, hustling him into their sitting room and slamming the door. “They all hate us! I went hunting with the Knights of Eleven-- the real ones-- and they spent the entire time making fun of my stance, technique and jewellery, and then when I brought down more wolves than them, they started doing it more. Agatha went to tea, and… I don’t even know what happened, but you looked like you’d been to war for ten years when you came out.”
Agatha took a fortifying breath.
“It was, um. Bad.”
Beatrix looked at her out of the corner of her eye.
“What did you do, actually eat the cakes?”
“WHAT ARE THEY THERE FOR IF THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE EATEN?” Agatha exploded, not really caring that she was exposing the fact that Beatrix had been exactly right. Beatrix groaned.
“It’s a weird power play thing to see who can eat the slowest, daintiest and least. We did do it in Princess Etiquette--”
“I had fake plague!”
“Didn’t you do it in your room?”
“Pollux bought me a timer and the tea service, and then--”
“You ate everything immediately, didn’t read the instructions until afterwards, then made up some times.” filled in Tedros. Agatha scowled and didn’t grace him with a response, which was a clear yes. She’d been so ecstatic to finally get some good food in that stupid place that she’d paid precisely zero attention to Pollux and his paper instructions.
“How’d you account for the ones you were meant to leave?” asked Beatrix. “The many cakes you were meant to leave?”
“I didn’t. I got 29th with pride. The lemon meringue made up for it. Who did worse?”
“Flavia knocked the teapot over, onto the cake stand, and turned all her cakes to mush in a pool of tea.” Beatrix shook her head. “I think we were all secretly jealous that you were so shit at Etiquette. We didn’t have the balls to eat seven different types of pastries in one sitting and then act like it was a good thing when we got failed.”
“What, did Pollux hold me up as a bad example?”
“Agatha, you were the poster girl for ‘Temptation is the Path to Evil’.”
“I’m Queen of Camelot!”
“Yeah, now! Then you were some scrawny rando who gave Tedros a black eye!” Beatrix glanced at Tedros, who hadn’t really contributed to this conversation. “What are you thinking?”
“That Agatha scammed her way through the School for Good.”
“What, it’s taken you this long to catch on?” scoffed Agatha. “You thought I bewitched you in Surviving Fairy Tales.”
“You do bewitch me, frequently.”
“Oh, for god’s sake.” mumbled Beatrix as Tedros made a swipe for Agatha’s waist and Agatha made a very unconvincing play at pretending she didn’t want to kiss him.
“Oh, get off, git, it’s only been five days--”
“That’s a long time.”
“Mm. Fine, well--” Agatha let him kiss her, but she didn’t miss Beatrix’s grumbling behind them, something about I hate third-wheeling you two you’re so embarrassing I can’t believe I ever thought Tedros was appealing--
Tedros broke away from Agatha solely to look affronted.
“You’re just mad you got replaced with someone who ate 20 miniature cakes by herself and didn’t even get the failing rank for doing it.” said Agatha from behind Tedros’s shoulder.
“I certainly am not. Besides, they weren’t even that miniature.” muttered Beatrix, but she was grinning. “How many cakes did you eat this time, before realising it was a bad idea?”
“Ten, but that was only like, half the problem. It felt like a Rot interview. Jacinda’s ladies just spent the entire time grilling me about things that they were clearly going to go running to gossip magazines with, and Jacinda just sat there and didn’t stop them. She just ate one macaron extremely slowly. I spilled tea in my lap, though I don’t think anyone noticed. Then I needed to pee halfway through, but I couldn’t leave because they brought her sons and their snotty friends in to perform the Camelot anthem on their lutes-- don’t you laugh at me.” Agatha broke off to warn Tedros. “You’re meant to be on my side. It’s your fault this is my job.”
“Well,” said Tedros, attempting to quash the mirth in his voice and failing. “Were they any good?”
“They were so bad I didn’t even realise it was the anthem until near the end.”
“Do you even know what the anthem sounds like?” asked Beatrix.
“I know! I know! I’m crap!” Agatha turned to Tedros; “I told you to hold off on crowning me!”
“I wanted to marry you!”
“And I wanted to marry you, but unfortunately by virtue of that, I am now a very bad Queen with no training!”
The cakes weren’t even the problem, they were just indicative of it. Agatha’s grip on etiquette was so poor, she kept missing subtle power plays and embarrassing herself. And, worse, there was no one to blame for it but herself, for turning her nose up at training, deliberately flubbing her duties to take attention off of Tedros, and not listening in lessons. Perhaps her education had been fragmented, but she could know more, if only she’d listened to Pollux…
“Yeah, well, tough.” said Beatrix, checking the clock. “Teddy’s abandonment issues won’t take you dropping the title, even temporarily. We have to go and hear about ball prep with Jacinda now. Try and pretend to be interested.”
Tedros didn’t even bother to protest.
“You’ll get there.” he said encouragingly, as they reluctantly went to find the ballroom. “You can do all sorts of stuff already.”
“Like what?” sighed Agatha. “Walk with the correct posture, so I don’t keep knocking my crown off my head and onto my foot?”
Tedros hesitated, apparently having had one of his examples taken off him.
“Um, yeah. And you did a good job of pretending to like that Mahadeva Duke who told me I should have stayed dead.”
“I went catatonic with rage and was on autopilot.”
“Yeah, I blacked out for most of that interaction.”
“Is that why he had frogspawn in his bath later?” cut in Beatrix.
“That was an unfortunate plumbing mishap that redirected the water supply into the frog pond.” deadpanned Agatha. Tedros blinked.
“We have a frog pond?”
“And toads. And newts. I’ve been cultivating one secretly.”
“Secretly enough to mean that you would be the only person to know how to redirect the water supply there?” said Beatrix pointedly. Tedros seemed too fascinated by the frog thing to notice.
“I enjoy amphibians.” said Agatha evasively. She was actually supplying Tisiphone with frogspawn and various slimes for potions, but she did rather like them. Callis used to bring frogs in when they wandered too far from the lake. Agatha had liked putting them in buckets and putting them back in the shallows. Sophie had not liked it, and had not appreciated Agatha trying to put a newt down the back of her dress.
“I can get you a big salamander.” said Tedros eagerly. “Or five. Or twenty.”
“That would be a nice anniversary present.”
“You’re insane.” murmured Beatrix.
“You could make that a thing.” insisted Tedros. “It could be like… wildlife preservation? That’s a Good Deed. People would like that.”
“Would they? Or would they think it was some disturbing witchy hangover from my upbringing? Which is what it actually is?”
“You could play it off.”
“Maybe.” mumbled Agatha. Tedros’s vehement faith in her was very sweet, but Agatha thought it might be somewhat deliberately blind to her many incapabilities.
But Agatha knew one person who wasn’t fooled.
Behind Tedros, Beatrix shot her a look that could only be interpreted as a warning.
Beatrix did seem to cheer up a bit, by the time the ball was looming. By comparison, Agatha was dreading it, but Beatrix never missed a chance to dress up.
“At least you have a guaranteed partner, now.” Beatrix told her as they prepped. “And we don’t get failed for not having one, at real balls.”
“That was so dumb.” muttered Agatha. “Don’t you want to dance with Tedros, though? I’m sure he’d appreciate not getting tripped over or stood on for a while.”
“Oh, I’ll find someone to dance with, I’m sure.” Beatrix said cheerily, picking through earrings. “Who’s going to want to dance with Jacinda’s ladies? They dress like it’s thirty years ago.”
She stood and held up the two gowns she’d brought.
“The turquoise or the mauve?”
“Er.” Agatha squinted. “Not sure.”
“Don’t know why I’m asking you.” muttered Beatrix.
“The turquoise?” hazarded Agatha.
Beatrix peered at them.
“Yeah, the mauve one has a strange neckline, and I don’t really have jewellery for that. I’m getting a third opinion, though, I don’t trust you, you couldn’t tell the difference between ermine and otter fur.” She went marching out of the door in her chemise, and bellowed down the corridor; “TEDDY! WHICH ONE?”
Once Tedros had agreed that the turquoise one was superior, Agatha and Beatrix had spent twenty minutes arguing about the other person’s ability at lacing up gowns (then had to draft in Agatha’s maids because they were annoyed at each other) and Agatha had found her lost surcoat, they headed down.
“As far as these things go, it’s quite unusual for us to be here.” mumbled Tedros as they waited to be announced. “Midsummer balls aren’t usually attended by other royalty. Usually it’s kingdom-only nobility and gentry and things. I guess Jacinda just wanted an excuse to throw a party and bumped it forwards so she could show off to us.”
Agatha glanced at Beatrix for confirmation, who nodded.
“Is no one immune to showing off with parties?” grumbled Agatha. “Why can’t they just show off with a castle or something?”
Beatrix shrugged. “This is a lot more… immediate. And obvious.”
She was immediately proven right by the sheer number of people, performers, and decorations inside. Practically everything was festooned with flowers, from the pillars and windowsills, to the singers and the band, the drinks trays, and the outline of the dance floor.
“Um.” said Agatha. “Does anyone have any--”
Tedros had slapped a couple of Hinderpollen allergy tablets and a glass of water into her hand before she’d even finished her sentence.
“Thanks--” Agatha threw them back hastily, aware her eyes were already starting to itch.
Beatrix shook her head grimly.
“I told you.”
Agatha frowned, remembering her comment about the lilies.
“Maybe they just didn’t think about it?”
“They’re meant to think about that sort of thing.” said Beatrix sharply-- then her expression changed as she passed people she presumably knew. “Oh my gosh, how are you? Ugh, yes, we need to catch up, I’ll set a date at that brunch place on the dock-- yeah, you know the one! I’m sooo busy, but I’ll tell you--” she turned back to Agatha and immediately dropped her smile. “I won’t tell her, I hate that stupid cow. She wanted Japeth to win. She can wait at the brunch place for eternity, for all I care.”
“Sometimes I think we should just send you to say cutting things to opposition leaders until they cry and agree to stand down.” muttered Tedros, towing Agatha through the crowd. “What use is twenty years of knight training against unfiltered School for Good bitchiness?”
“No use at all.” said Beatrix.
“I’ll try it some day, then.”
“You really should.”
They paid their compliments to Jacinda (Adrian glowered at Tedros the entire time) and Agatha made three passable turns at various dances before giving up and going to find something to eat, leaving Beatrix to flirt with a couple of squires near the band. Tedros followed her, trying his best to ignore the cluster of noblewomen trying to get his attention.
“This isn’t too bad.” said Agatha, taking several handfuls of mini pies. “I’ve been to worse.”
“Not as bad as Sophie’s masquerade ball for the fourth year graduates.” muttered Tedros.
“I can’t believe she made you go to that. You couldn’t talk.”
“I went semi-willingly. I felt bad ditching you.”
“I didn’t even know you were there until she took the enchantments off the masks at midnight.” grumbled Agatha. “How did you even know who I was?”
“Enchantment stopped you recognising people’s faces and voices, but you slouched, didn’t dance, and you were still wearing those horrible shoes.” said Tedros. “Wasn’t hard.”
Agatha stared at him.
“...I can make up a more romantic answer, if you want.” offered Tedros.
“No, that’ll do.” snorted Agatha, biting into one of the pies. “Ooh, this is good chicken--”
“Give.” Tedros snatched one off her plate and crammed it into his mouth, casting an eye over the crowd. “Well--” he swallowed. “Adrian is too short to glare at me the entire time, because he can’t see me over everyone else’s heads. So that’s a plus.”
“Why does he hate you so much?” demanded Agatha. “He sucked up to me.”
“Don’t know.” Tedros frowned, fiddling with the tassel on his jacket. “Well. I did wonder if it was because of his--”
“Of course you’re here.” Beatrix came stalking over to interrupt them. “Wouldn’t have expected anything less. Listen, Teddy, can I have a quick word? There’s… well, it doesn’t matter, I’ll be quick. Agatha, save me one of those canapes, I want to try one--”
Agatha gave her a thumbs up, mouth too full to talk, as Beatrix hauled Tedros away by his elbow. Agatha caught very vague snippets of their conversation-- ‘think she might have’ and ‘your… why?’ and ‘swear I saw--’
Beatrix's face suddenly dropped, looking past Tedros. Tedros stared at her, confused--
“Beatrix!” someone squawked behind them. “Beatrix!”
Beatrix looked sick.
“Tell me it’s not her. Teddy, tell me--”
Tedros immediately looked almost as panicked as she did. Agatha followed their gaze to a short blonde woman in an elaborate dress near the East entrance, a few feet away, standing with one of Jacinda’s guards. They appeared to be arguing.
“No, it’s-- it’s definitely…” Tedros looked over his shoulder again and trailed off. “Um, was she invited--?”
“No!” hissed Beatrix. “No, we were sent--”
“Look, that’s my daughter there!” the voice warbled over. “She’s with-- oh, look, there he is! Co-ee! King Tedros! Not too late to reconsider your choice of bride, dear-- oh no, that’s just my little joke, just a little joke we have--”
Agatha slowly finished her food and set her plate down, sensing imminent doom. Beatrix’s mother. Beatrix’s mother who, apparently, hadn’t been invited.
Beatrix and Tedros exchanged pained glances.
“Really funny.” muttered Tedros. “Side splitting--”
The woman gave up and bellowed across the ballroom.
“BEATRIX! COME HERE!”
Agatha winced. People were starting to stare, now, heads turning and necks craning to see what was going on.
“Stay here.” Beatrix told Tedros. She snatched up her skirts and stalked over, bright red and mortified. “Mother, please, it’s not--”
“Ah, good!” Her mother seized her arm and whirled her around to face the guard. “Trixie, tell this gentleman you’re my daughter-- look, young man, she’s with the Camelot delegation, she’s with King Tedros! She’s a… what’s the title, dear? Dame?”
“Dame-Commander.” mumbled Beatrix, but her mother talked over her;
“Of course, I hope you might get a bit of a promotion soon, if you catch my drift--”
Agatha thought she might have been drunk-- she was very red, and there was a wineglass held loosely in one of her hands.
“Promotion to what?” snapped Beatrix. “King’s imaginary and unrealistic mistress?”
Her mother shot her a sharp look.
“Oh, won’t you stop being catty? Tell this gentleman we’re on the guestlist.”
“But you’re not, because you--”
Beatrix immediately wrested her arm from her mother’s grip as Queen Jacinda appeared behind them.
“Queen Jacinda! Oh, your majesty, I apologise--” Beatrix’s mother dropped a very dizzy curtsey. “I hope Beatrix hasn’t been too much trouble--”
“Viscountess, yourself and your family were sent away from court several months ago, at my behest.” said Jacinda icily. “The crown extended no invitation to yourself or your family.”
Now it made sense, Agatha realised. The weird comments about Beatrix’s family, the royal family’s apparent dislike for her, the tension. Her family were in disgrace, and they’d been removed from court.
Agatha cut Tedros a quick glance, and found that he didn’t look surprised in the slightest, just grim. This had probably been taboo gossip in Good, something all the Evers knew but never, never discussed. No wonder she’d not known. First year Beatrix would have had an iron grip on the Good rumour mill. Something like that would never have made it past the pseudo-court surrounding Tedros and Beatrix, let alone trickled down to Agatha’s level.
Then why had Beatrix come? She had to have known she’d get a frosty reception at best and a disastrous one at worst…
“...yes, yes of course, quite.” spluttered Viscountess Rotunda, struggling to maintain composure. “But Beatrix--”
“Beatrix is attending the Queen of Camelot, and thus her presence is a separate matter.”
Viscountess Rotunda scowled. Apparently she didn’t think much of Agatha. What was new?
“Trixie, why don’t you-- whoopsie, sorry dear--”
In her emphatic turn to her daughter, she’d stumbled and spilled her (red) wine onto Beatrix’s skirt. Several people groaned. Jacinda’s lips thinned.
Beatrix snatched the wine glass out of her mother’s hand and slammed it onto a loitering waiter’s tray, slapping her mother’s hands away as she tried to blot at the stain.
On the other side of the crowd, Tedros was trying to look like he wasn’t paying attention, but it wasn’t really working, because everyone around him was staring.
The idea of indomitable Beatrix being humiliated in such a way made Agatha’s stomach flip in panic. Before she could even think about it, she made a beeline for the group-- ducked past several people, elbowed an archbishop out of the way, and seized Beatrix’s arm.
“Dame-Commander. I need you to accompany me immediately.”
Viscountess Rotunda whipped unsteadily around to Agatha.
“As a matter of urgency.” said Agatha, ignoring her. Beatrix’s mother took a breath--
Jacinda stepped in front of her, and Agatha took her cue to bodily drag Beatrix after her, walking so fast that people hurled themselves out of her way.
They got out onto the cold veranda and hustled down the flagstones. Agatha’s shoulder caught the wall, which immediately trilled out ‘ Tipple Top, Joy and Jaunt, Come and Be Jolie!’ even more pitchily than usual. Agatha slammed the walls with a stun jinx-- and they started to Gregorian chant it instead, at twice the volume.
“TI-IPLE TO-OP, JOY AND JA-AUNT, COME FORTH--”
Agatha swore at a volume to rival the singing, taking the steps down to the main patio. They half-fell down the dip to the sunken garden, and collapsed onto the stone benches under a holly bush.
They stared at each other, for a moment. Then Beatrix looked down at the stain on her skirt.
“I liked this dress.” she said.
“Here.” Agatha leaned over and scoured the stain out with her fingerglow, leaving a patch that looked slightly bleached, but far less noticeable. Beatrix muttered a vague thank you and buried her face in her hands for a moment, digging her nails into her forehead. Agatha waited nervously, not sure whether to say anything or not. Was she crying? Furious? It was hard to tell.
“I expect,” Beatrix said, voice muffled by her hands. “You have a lot of questions.”
“Um.” said Agatha. “Maybe a couple.”
Beatrix drew herself up and smoothed her hair, clearly struggling with whether to tell Agatha something or not. She gazed up at the lights of the ballroom for a minute, face pinched. Then she bit out;
"Queen Jacinda thinks I'm a scheming social climber, just like my mother. So, naturally, the entire court thinks it too.”
“No, I know it.” said Beatrix bitterly. “Sophie once told me what she said about me, you know? She said Jacinda called me ‘ this stultifying Beatrix girl who kept trying to be Betty’s friend, hoping it would ingratiate her in royal circles.” she shook her head wryly. “The worst thing is, she wasn’t even wrong. I did suck up to Bettina. On my mother’s orders, mind you, but no denying I had a good go.” she paused. “...shall I tell you a bit of family history?”
“I mean… if you want to, but--”
“Oh, honestly I’m surprised Tedros hasn’t already told you.” said Beatrix tartly. She scoffed. “Or Sophie. I’m sure her infernal gossip magazines told her everything. No, it’s fine. As much as I tried to project myself as a high status lady at Good, the fact is…” she paused, briefly, then blurted it out in a rush, so quick Agatha nearly missed it; “My family is a laughingstock, here at court.”
“A laughingstock? But you told Tisiphone your family were in favour, so it’d be fine--”
“It was a white lie.” snapped Beatrix. “I said that I was in good favour, technically that’s true, but it’s only because I have to be, by virtue of Teddy giving me the position he did. It doesn’t mean they actually like me, or won’t go out of their way to make fun of me. And I didn’t say anything about my family being in good favour.”
“...you lied to Tisiphone?”
“The idea of lying to a Wardwell did make my skin crawl, but I figured nothing had ever come down on my head for being a terror to you, so…” Beatrix shook her head. “The point is, my family haven’t been in good favour in this court since my mother was at the School. She caused a scandal when she returned and married without Jacinda’s permission, then pretty much immediately got divorced and had a string of affairs with various knights and noblemen. We were always humiliated by my mother’s aggressive attempts to raise us up. No one at court wants anything to do with us. Grandmother was terribly ashamed of us.”
“Your grandmother was the maiden who defeated Rumpelstiltskin, wasn’t she?” remembered Agatha. “The Miller’s Daughter.”
“That’s right. Only reason we have a high standing at all. She died just before I went to school, and maybe that’s for the best. We consistently embarrass ourselves, and I didn’t make it better. In fact, I made it a lot worse. When Bettina wasn't taken to Good, and I was instead, Jacinda was… upset. She’d wanted a betrothal between Bettina and Tedros, to solidify it when they both went to school. So when I went instead, made it my holy mission to marry Tedros, and succeeded only in driving him into the arms of a graveyard peasant, I ruined all of her plans."
Agatha decided to ignore the graveyard peasant bit.
“Teddy was very generous to put up with me, you know.” continued Beatrix. “He never could have married me, and I knew that. It would have been a disgrace. But I didn’t want to displease my mother, so…” she shrugged and smiled grimly. “I persisted.”
Agatha thought back to their Wish Fish conversation.
“It really was your biggest wish, at the time. Marrying Tedros.”
Beatrix nodded miserably.
“The inheritance from my grandmother was much smaller than my mother and her sisters had expected. She gave a lot of it away. And my mother and aunts had been spending and gambling extravagantly, relying on it being more. So an advantageous marriage was pretty necessary. I still remember my mother reading the paper that said Tedros would be going to Good. She shoved it in my face and told me that he was my goal, now. I wanted to be a good daughter, so I just went along with it. And convinced myself that I wanted it, too, even though I… really didn’t.”
Agatha wondered how strong Beatrix’s force of will really was, to be able to convince both herself and the Wish Fish that Tedros was what she really wanted.
They sat for a moment.
“I know you heard what Adrian called me.” said Beatrix. “The lovely little epithet the gossip magazines gave me. The Straw Harpy. It’s not very good, but it’s memorable enough, I suppose. Does what it needs to. Implies what they want it to imply.”
Agatha had read enough to know what it meant. Beatrix’s grandmother had made a deal with Rumpelstiltskin, getting him to spin straw into gold on her behalf, and had spied on him to learn his name, and ensure she didn’t have to uphold her half of the deal of giving him her firstborn. Harpies were vicious thieves. So… what? Beatrix was a fraudulent thief?
“You were just a kid,” said Agatha, slightly horrified by how casually she’d taken it. Beatrix shrugged glumly.
“They don’t see it that way. Second you enter the School, you’re fair game, since they assume you’ll turn up in a fairy tale at some point. I was just a kid, but I was a kid after Camelot’s crown, and that was justification enough to make me a target. Both at home and in Camelot.”
Agatha made a mental note to crack down on the Royal Rot, or to pitch the idea of doing so to someone else. They’d gotten away with far too much for far too long.
"...why did you say you'd come with me?” said Agatha finally. “You could have gone to Hamelin with Tedros."
"Yeah, going off with Tedros while you went elsewhere. Papers would have loved that.” scoffed Beatrix. “No, I’d have had to come here for the ball, anyway. And, well, someone had to come with you."
Agatha stared at her.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I see your habit of interpreting everything I say as backhanded insults hasn't left you." snapped Beatrix. Agatha shot her a look and she pinked. "...sorry. No. I didn't mean you needed a babysitter, or something. I just…” she paused. “Ever nobility can be cruel.”
“I think I know that, Bea.” said Agatha. She tried to make it sound reasonable, but clearly it had still had a sting to it, because Beatrix grimaced.
“Yes, well. There’s School for Good cruel, but then there’s… this. Jacinda insulted me to Sophie’s face, Agatha. Sophie who, at the time, was playing Queen of Camelot. She’s my Queen, and I was a teenager she’d not seen for years, and she still saw fit to insult me to my old classmate. You saw how Tedros and I behaved when we didn’t know any better. You see how that little brat Prince Adrian is growing up.” she sighed. “I’m harsh on you, I know. It’s not fair, and I shouldn’t hound you for every mistake. But I don’t think Tedros gets what a precarious position you’re in.”
“He is a bit… too confident in me.”
“He doesn’t get it, at all. He thinks everyone is going to think your ineptitude is charming, just like he does, which is not the case. He’s so caught up in his enthusiasm of having a Queen he actually loves that he’s completely failing to notice there’s a large chunk of people who think you’re a disaster.”
“Thanks, Bea.” muttered Agatha. Beatrix shrugged.
“He was sort of right, you are getting a bit better. But Teddy never had to contend with being in or out of favour, or people trying to undercut him. He’s rich and handsome and everyone felt sorry for him when his father dropped dead. He doesn’t understand.”
They sat in silence, for a while. Beatrix picked up a fallen holly leaf and turned it over in her hands, somehow avoiding snagging her gloves on the thorns.
“I think I get it, now.” admitted Agatha. “Why you’re always on my case about embarrassing myself, not noticing things and not knowing etiquette.”
“Yeah. I know it’s hard to spot. Perhaps I’m better at it, since I’ve been… on both ends.” she hesitated. “Maybe I should just leave you to it. Maybe you can be a… trailblazer. I don’t know. You’re good at that, aren’t you?”
Agatha was about to point out that it was entirely by accident, every time, but before she could, they were interrupted.
“I’ve been looking for you two everywhere--” Tedros bashed through the patio doors, and Beatrix immediately intercepted him.
“What happened with my mother?” she demanded. Clearly she’d also recognised the slightly pained crease of Tedros’s eyes as he tried to work out whether he ought to say something or not.
“Er, it was… it… well, she’s gone now, so--”
“She disgraced herself, didn’t she?” said Beatrix. “What did she do, fall over and take out a waiter with ten glasses?”
“She, er. Threw up on Prince Adrian.”
Agatha cackled, then realised no one else had laughed and put her hand over her mouth.
“He probably deserved it.” said Beatrix tiredly. “But he’s going to hate me even more now.”
“Why does he hate you?” asked Agatha. “Is he just copying his mother?”
“I suppose so, but he’s got a particularly vicious streak. Probably coddled too much.”
“He is only ten.” said Tedros. “Mind you, that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. Suppose it’s only vomit. He’ll live.”
“We should probably go back in, though. If only to pretend like we care.”
“Yeah, probably best.” Tedros turned to Beatrix. “We’ll go and dance.”
Beatrix looked doubtful.
“The Royal Rot will gossip.”
“Rot always gossips,” said Tedros indifferently. “All it can do. You need a completely smooth brain to read that filth.”
“Sophie reads the Rot.”
“Like I said.” sniffed Tedros. Agatha stomped on his foot. “Ow. Kidding. Obviously.” He held his hand out to Beatrix. Beatrix ignored him, dabbing at her smeared mascara. Tedros frowned. “Come on, Bea, you look fine, no one will notice. Look, I think I still owe you a Snow Ball dance.”
“No one got one.” mumbled Beatrix. She glanced at Agatha.
“Did they bring dessert out, yet?” Agatha demanded of Tedros.
“Yeah, I think--”
“Great.” Agatha went trundling off back into the ballroom, determined to let Beatrix have at least one good dance at this horrible event. And to find dessert, but for once that was a secondary desire. For once.
And it was working-- until Jacinda approached her, anyway.
Agatha curtised unenthusiastically and shallowly. Not that she really needed to (or, by now, wanted to) but Jacinda very slightly outranked her, and she was the host.
“I trust you’re enjoying the party.”
“It’s lovely.” lied Agatha. “Thank you for taking the time to host it.”
“I’m sorry it’s not gone as… smoothly as I would have liked.” said Jacinda. Her ladies giggled.
Agatha tensed, knowing this was going to lead into another one of those subtle digs. As it stood now, she would never be able to match up to the backhanded power plays. She might be bad-- but, just like last time, with her duties, what she could do was be bad at it on purpose. She could be incredibly, directly obtuse and unrefined. Bulldoze her way through the interactions as if she simply took everyone at face value. It wasn’t believable-- she’d spent two fairytales being passably intelligent-- but it was incredibly disarming, and right now that was all she needed.
“I’m sorry you have to deal with that all the time.” added Jacinda, her ladies’ heads bobbing in agreement behind her.
Agatha did her best approximation of Tedros’s blank, baffled expression.
“Deal with what?”
“Oh, well. You know. That family.”
“Don’t think I do know.” said Agatha innocently, turning to poke around in the tray of fancy chocolates. “Who?”
“Oh.” Agatha crammed an orange cream in her mouth. “It was unfortunate, I grant you, but I’d never met Beatrix’s mother before, so it’s not really all the time.”
“From what I’ve observed, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” said Jacinda grimly. Agatha blinked languidly.
“Never met her sisters, either.”
Jacinda stared at her. Agatha glanced over at Beatrix and Tedros, just as Beatrix turned her head and caught sight of them standing together. Her face fell, visibly, but she wrestled it back into something less dismayed when Tedros looked her way.
Agatha gave up.
“Queen Jacinda,” she said sharply. “I might be young, unrefined, and inadequate when it comes to etiquette, but I assure you, I am not stupid. I respect you a great deal, but won’t continue this conversation with you if you intend to use it to slander my liege. I have every intention of building a good relationship with yourself and between our two kingdoms, but that’s going to become very difficult if you refuse to offer even the smallest bit of respect to the Dame-Commander, who is both your subject and mine. I assume you expected me to agree with you, but if Tedros or I had observed anything from her that we disapproved of, we would not have appointed her. I don’t wish to lower myself to gossiping about valued members of my court behind their backs. I thank you for your concern over the matter, but if I wished for your input on myself and my husband’s appointments, I would have asked for it.”
Jacinda blinked a few times. For a moment, she looked completely stunned. Her ladies were wide-eyed and silent. Agatha hoped desperately that she hadn’t miscalculated how much Jacinda’s ego would take, or how far her like for Agatha herself went--
Then Jacinda took a deep breath, and forced a sheepish smile.
“I think it’s been a while since anyone’s dared to call me out on… well, anything.” she admitted. “Yes. I apologise, Agatha. Her mother is… so very trying, and I suppose I may have let my impression of her rub off on how I viewed her daughter. I do… think I should warn you--”
“Whatever you want to warn me about, I assure you, Beatrix has either told me herself or will do so in due course.” said Agatha. Jacinda hesitated, then pressed her lips together
“Yes, of course. I suppose she was your classmate, after all. You will likely know her better than I.” she bowed her head to Agatha. “I will take my leave now. Good evening, your majesty.”
Agatha repeated the sentiment, and watched her leave thoughtfully. Even if most of the rest of the Woods didn’t respect her, she thought she might have wrangled some from Jacinda, today. Not that it made up for previous slights, but still. It was something.
She caught up with Tedros and Beatrix after the foxtrot. She was exceedingly glad she’d made Beatrix do that one; last time she and Tedros had tried, she’d fractured his toe and twisted her ankle.
“Come on,” Agatha said, grabbing Beatrix’s arm and dragging her towards the doors as the party started to wind down. “I’ve decided. We’ll go home, and you can teach me how to hold a teacup properly. And… things.”
She knew Beatrix would understand the implication; she was willing to try and learn, at least. Finally.
“I have duties which aren’t just following you around, you know.” Beatrix told her.
“What, shouting at men twice your age for being useless and ruthlessly drilling all those kids who wanna be knights?”
“Well, consider it a hobby, then. I know you hate how I hold teacups.”
“You clutch them like they’re going to come to life and run away from you at any moment.” grumbled Beatrix.
“Never can be too sure in these stupid Woods.” muttered Agatha. She sighed. “Look, I need to do this, else I’ll never be taken seriously.”
“It won’t solve all your problems.” warned Beatrix. “Some of them are just going to be left to time. Some people are just going to hate you because you’re young and because they wanted their daughters to marry Tedros. Or just because they’re spiteful.”
“Well, yeah, but some problems solved is better than no problems solved.”
“Fine.” mumbled Beatrix. “I’ll show you.”
“In return, you can help me weed the frog pond.”
“That doesn’t sound like a fair trade.”
“Kidding. Maybe.” Agatha grinned at the look on her face. “Here, how about this; I’ll organise a state visit for Shazabah. I’ll ask the Sultan to bring his family.” she swung Beatrix’s arm in hers. “Especially his daughter. They can bring that Jeevan guy, too. And you can challenge him to a joust and break his face.”
“I don’t need you to be a middle man. I can write to Reena whenever I want.” muttered Beatrix, but she looked sorely tempted.
“Don’t you want me to do it?” asked Agatha innocently. “Fine if not, it can just be the smelly Sultan and his womanising court, with no Reena--”
“You’re awful.” Beatrix interrupted sternly. “And one day I will kill you and replace you, just so I can wear your jewellery.”
“So that’s a yes?”
“That’s a yes.” grumbled Beatrix. She squeezed her arm. “Jacinda wasn’t rude to you, was she?”
“No.” Agatha said. “She seemed quite respectful, actually.”
Beatrix looked doubtfully at her.
“Yeah.” Agatha paused, “After I told her off.”
“After you told-- Agatha! I can’t cope with you!”