Regina the Rose
The next day rolls around. Elaine is absolutely terrified. Supposedly, she’s to be attending a visiting noble girl who’s staying in one of the Southern rooms. No one’s told her more than that. Technically, the job is one above Elaine’s usual station, but she gets the feeling that she’s simply being set up for failure. Everyone else is probably scared to do the job, so it’s getting dumped onto her in place of someone qualified.
What a mess. Elaine can barely eat her morning meal for how nervous she is. If everyone's avoiding this noble girl, then surely, she's a real brat. There has to be a reason why no one else wants to deal with her. Maybe she's already doling out punishments. Maybe she throws tantrums. Either way, Elaine is the one who gets the dirty work, yet again.
It's still painfully early in the morning. The sky isn't even beginning to get light yet. Another serving girl in her age group, Joan, who's small and bratty, with a sharp smirk and deft hands, was the one to wake her. And Joan wasn't kind about it. Her shrill voice was an awful thing to wake up to, especially when Elaine barely slept, in the first place. She opened her eyes to Joan telling her that she needs to get ready— and quickly.
So Elaine did. Now, she readies tea, soft, white bread, a small pot of berry jam, and orange, rich cheese on a tray; the noble's breakfast. It's almost sickeningly better than her own. There's no crunching on onions for rich girls.
The elder servants give her a clean apron just for this task. They also tie her unruly hair back, which involves a lot of tugging and yanking her head around.
And the end result is that Elaine feels twice as nervous as before.
If everyone's so worked up about whoever this girl is, she must be a big deal. Elaine sometimes thinks that she should pay more attention to the gossip that goes around the castle... but that would require actually talking to the girls who pinch her arms when they get a chance and whisper rude things behind her back.
Either that or the older ladies who are much too fond of smacking around any of the young ones who don't move quickly enough.
Neither option sounds too appealing.
That leaves Elaine in a state of having no idea what she's doing... which seems to be walking her way right into her own grave. With a grimace, she ascends the stairs to the noble's room. Her hands are shaking, but she clutches the tray like her life depends on it. It probably does. If she drops this, she'll be in more trouble than she has words for. Actually, that goes for if she makes any mistake at all. Not a reassuring thought.
"Pardon me, my lady," Elaine calls as she stands outside the door. It's just daybreak, so hopefully, the girl is awake. "I'm the servant here to attend you. May I enter."
After a moment, "You may."
Carefully, Elaine pushes the door open one-handed, balancing the tray on a hitched-up knee. By whatever miracle, she doesn't drop anything, but when she enters the room, it's to a sight that she would have never expected.
Sitting on the bed in a long, pale gray nightdress is a person who might be the prettiest girl Elaine's ever seen. She's not much older than Elaine herself, but where Elaine has unruly hair the color of coal, this girl has thick, wavy hair in such a deep, rich hue of brown it's only a couple shades short of black. Unlike Elaine's dull brown eyes, this girl's hazel ones all but shine in the low light. Her features are outstandingly fine and sweet, her hair cascades over her shoulders and down to her hips, and the smile gracing her lips is stunningly inviting and kind.
Elaine is awestruck. She's frozen for a moment, only able to stare. Who is this person? She was expecting some kind of awful brat, not the most intimidatingly beautiful person she's ever laid eyes on. Somehow, this might be worse.
"Place the tray on the table, please," the girl instructs, her low voice both commanding and soothing Elaine's fried nerves.
"Y-Yes, my lady."
The words will barely come out. Suddenly, she's understanding why no one else wanted this job. Someone like this is almost impossible to face. She gives off the aura of a princess, so far above the lowly maids that it's no surprise none of them wanted to get too close. It feels like any minuscule mistake would make her look like a terrible fool.
Standing, the girl moves to sit at the table where Elaine does her best to lay the tray. She somehow doesn't spill, and when the girl directs her smile sweetly in her direction, Elaine has to step back.
The girl takes a sip of her tea after blowing on the surface lightly. Then, she closes her eyes, breathes deeply, and turns to Elaine.
"Your name, please. I'd like to know who I'm speaking to."
"A-Ah, um, E-Elaine, my lady," she manages.
"Thank you. It's nice to meet you, Elaine. My name is Regina. The tea is delicious, so do send my compliments to the person who prepared it when you return."
Regina eats delicately and slowly. Every bite that disappears between her lips doesn't spill so much as a crumb. Elaine watches, vaguely astounded. How can one person be so... perfect? It's surreal and incredibly intimidating. Elaine stands by in nervous silence until Regina's finished her meal.
From there, she collects the dishes and arranges them neatly on the tray to be carried back downstairs. She hasn't done this sort of job before... ever, really, but what happens next should entail helping the lady dress, do her hair, and prepare for the day. Not too bad, right? Hopefully, not. The only problem is that her hands are still trembling and the Regina remains absolutely terrifying. Here's hoping she can keep it together.
As it is, just picking up the dishes is a delicate process. Elaine almost fumbles twice but keeps it together through fear of failure alone. If she messes up in the presence of someone like this, she doesn't want to think about what'll happen.
However, when she goes to move the teacup and stirring spoon, the tremors in her fingers get the best of her.
Elaine's hand jerks just enough that she loses her grip on the spoon and it hits the floor. For a moment, she's paralyzed. Oh, no. Elaine is fully expecting to get yelled at, but—
Instead of scolding her, Regina leans down and picks up the spoon from beside her chair. She places it neatly on the tray next to the cup and smiles at Elaine without a trace of anger. Shame that her heart is already about to burst from nerves.
"Th-Thank you, my lady. I'm v-very sorry."
"No need to worry. Just a simple accident, hm?" Her voice is soft and gentle, lacking even a reminder to be more careful.
Just as expected, she's to help Regina dress next. Regina manages most of it on her own, but it's left to Elaine to do the laces on the back of her rich, burgundy dress. The fabric is so heavy with embroidery that it feels wrong to even touch it. Between the full sleeves, the floor-length skirt, and the low neckline, the entire thing screams refinement and class above anything Elaine's ever known or been this close to.
But Regina voices no complaints. Even when Elaine's fingers are clumsy and her hands shake, the other girl doesn't so much as breathe a word of displeasure. Her patience is astounding. The entire encounter is quickly turning into a mirror of the moment with Nikola from the day before...
"Are you curious about who I am?"
Regina's sudden words startle Elaine out of her thoughts. She jolts to attention and tries to remember what was said.
"Um... yes, I am, my lady. News of, um, p-people such as yourself rarely reaches the lower ranks," she says as politely as she can, trying to hide the bitterness that wants to seep in. "Why do you ask, if I may inquire?"
"Oh, no reason, really. I'm just trying to make a bit of conversation. I don't know much of anyone here yet, so I thought it would be nice to talk to you. And I'm sure you have questions."
Elaine nods where Regina can't see it, then voices a quiet agreement. She feels uncertain even speaking to someone like this, but judging by the circumstances, it would be far ruder to decline the lady's desire for conversation. She'll just have to endure it. This bizarre conversation (hopefully) won't hurt her, after all.
"Well..." Regina starts, "to begin with, my father, Bartolomeo Adaire, is a close friend of Lord Cornelius. They've known each other since their youth, visit often, and write letters when my father can't make the trip."
That takes Elaine aback. This girl is important enough that her father knows Cornelius himself? That gives her even more reasons to be anxious. She's dealing with someone so far above her that it might as well be the distance between her feet and the moon. Elaine bites her lip and tries to focus on the last of the laces. The anxiety in her chest is only worsening by the minute. She needs to get this done and get an excuse to leave.
"I-Impressive, my lady. You m-must be honored to know him." Respectful. Simple. Don't say anything that could be used against her later.
"I've never met Lord Cornelius before yesterday, actually. My father has spoken of him for most of my life, but this is the first time he's taken me with him to visit," Regina explains. "And the reason for that... well, there's a merger, you see."
"A merger, my lady?"
"Yes. One of those political things where both parties have something to gain. My father has a daughter and Lord Cornelius has a son... you can assume where that leads, I'm sure."
Regina's musical laugh doesn't quite manage to drown out the sudden, ringing realization that whacks Elaine right over the head. It can't be. There's no way that this girl could— could be meant to marry him. The implications are clear, but she has to be misunderstanding something.
"Marriage, Elaine. I'm Prince Nikola's betrothed. This is our first meeting as well, and it's intended to be something of a test run to see how our personalities match. Everything's gone splendidly so far, of course, and I expect nothing different in the future."
As Regina explains it, Elaine's heart twists in her chest. She doesn't know why, but somehow, hearing that hurts. It's probably just her nerves getting the better of her. Who the prince marries is none of her business. The only time it'll affect her is now, when she's speaking to the bride-to-be herself. Elaine takes a deep breath and tries to force herself to focus. She pulls the last lace through its hole and neatly, slowly, ties off the bow.
"All done, my lady. Is it to your satisfaction?" Respect. Remain respectful and don't let her composure slip.
"Yes, thank you," Regina says, standing, and giving a quick twirl to test the fit of the dress. Even like that, the grace with which she carries herself is impossible to look away from.
"Do you require anything else, my lady?"
"I do. Would you help me tie up my hair, please? I'd like to speak to you for a bit longer before I let you go."
Regina gives a cheeky grin that makes it clear she knows what she's doing. This is intentional. She's prolonging Elaine's terror just so she can have a longer conversation. Of course, Regina probably isn't anywhere near as aware of Elaine's terror as she is herself, so that's not something Elaine can fault her for.
...no matter how much she hates having to stick around.
"Yes, my lady. I'll assist you to the best of my ability." Elaine goes to stand behind Regina, who takes a seat at the mirrored vanity to the side of the room, primly sweeping her skirt out of the way. "What kind of style would you prefer?"