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There’s a Party – 07

“That was ill-advised.”

The prince looked up, his expression so wistful that his eyes might have changed colour. “Certainly it was. Yet you must admit, it was the first interesting conversation I have had in an age.”

At first glance, the damage from the prince’s stunt appeared to be minimal. Not that his bodyguard should worry about the social aspects of this absurd function. Rune snuffed like a bull as he waited for his charge to gain a clearer head. “Even so. You have a duty to the young ladies, not to their brothers.”

“Oh, duty.” The wistful expression drained into a childishly sour one. “They want romance, Rune. I don’t want to romance anyone.”

“If you don’t get back to the eligible ladies, sir, they are going to pout and accuse you of wanting romance with a different set.” So saying, he began to steer the prince back to his proper place in the ballroom.

Royalty had a fifty percent chance of being pressed upon or cutting through the crowd like a ladle through soft cheese. Rune was 2.13 metres tall and over 190 kilos. He doubted a wall could have given him trouble, never mind a few hundred people.

To his credit, the prince neither sulked nor slouched. His proud posture carried him along as though Rune was not here at all. Right up to the illustrious mock parkour where his parents awaited him with the next lady. No one commented on the prince’s impromptu dance partner. Neither the king nor queen even raised an eyebrow.

Nor did the lady. If it had not been more than his job was worth, Rune would have laughed aloud. The lady in question was clearly genteel enough for the title, but likely not old enough. She was more than a head shorter than the prince, with a face that would have suited a porcelain doll, and fluffy pink dress to match. The young princess was taller than this girl.

The prince gave no visible reaction. He gazed stoically at the scene before him and said some vaguely pleasant thing in the local language. A nothing phrase that Rune had quite frankly tired of already.

“May I present Miss Duvall.” The queen gestured to the sprout of a girl and went on in florid terms. Once the most pertinent details had been stated, Rune recited a poem in his head. A local born girl with foreign parents. No money or status. No life experience.

The prince bowed his way through the introduction, then led the little lady onto the dance floor. The difference in height made conversation impossible. The prince did not stoop.

A few feminine giggles arose as the dance went on. Rune stood solemnly, listening. A plump, middle-aged woman said, “How darling. His Highness has time enough for all of us, not just marriageable females.”

Another comment rose up to his altitude, this time from a man who had just put down a glass of wine. “Here I thought we’d just be standing around watching girls fawn over the prince. Let’s go, dear.” Then he pulled his companion up to join the dance.

Rune had been in the employ of the Royal Family since before the prince had been born. Perhaps he should have picked up a few more tricks. The queen had not chosen the diminutive lady at random, or to punish the prince. She had managed the situation.

Without quite meaning to, Rune cast a glance around the edges of the party. As ever, Ms Park hovered about, like a very elegant shadow. Perhaps the queen hadn’t been the one managing the situation after all.

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There’s a Party – 06

Someone had already fainted. Finn was close enough to see the colour and a blurry interpretation of her dress. But it was too far away to be included in the circle of unhelpful onlookers. A man called out in an accent of authority. “Move aside! I am a doctor.”

Moses must have been a doctor too, because the crowd parted like the Red Sea.

Finn was not a doctor. But he and the doctor did have work in common. They were both doing it. Just different sorts.

Someone hurried over to join him. A young man, maybe two year Finn’s junior, if not more. Tow-headed and a little skinny, wearing a big hat and scarf.

Most of the room was devoted to dancing or staring at the doctor and his patient. Finn looked about the immediate area, in search of the local attraction.

“Are you hiding from somebody?” he asked, after coming up empty.

The huddled figure took a step to the left. In accordance with, Finn realised, Finn’s own movement. “My parents, mostly.”

“Good luck with that. I had to expatriate to get away from mine.”

Still huddling a bit, his new acquaintance snorted. “I wish I could do that.”

“You wouldn’t if you knew the whole story.” Finn shuddered, hoping the gesture would be taken for exaggeration.

He’d expected some automatic pity or contradiction. But the young man just laughed nervously.

Then he dodged about so dramatically to the left that the only place to stand was between Finn and a long table.

Finn stared at him. “The last person who came that close to me wanted my wallet.”

“Sorry it’s just–let’s dance!”

He was being dragged onto the dance floor before he could even process what had happened. Fortunately, dancing came naturally to Finn. Even waltzes.

They got a few looks from older couples. It was enough to make Finn comment. “They really need to update the language of dance.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re dancing the lady’s bit. You aren’t a lady.”

“Should I be flattered that you noticed?”

“Certainly. But my point is, they should call it something else.”

People had begun to stare in earnest. Whisper was to polite a word to cover what else they were doing.

Finn sighed. “You’ve been found out.”

The prince stumbled over the next step. His elbow nearly knocked into another dancing pair, but he managed to rein it in. “I thought the hat would help.”

“It did with most of them.” Finn indicated the ballroom at large. “But you were just on stage ten minutes ago. Even the ugliest hat won’t disguise you for long.”

A big pink mountain loomed towards them. The man had obviously missed his calling as a Dashiell Hammett character. Finn drew Prince Matteus onto the sidelines where the kid could be safely collected.

On impulse, just before the giant arrived, Finn shook the prince’s hand. “Now ask me what I do for a living.”

“What?”

“Do it. It’s what royalty does.”

The prince’s eyes lit up. “Of course. And what do you do?”

The giant was there, watching with disapproval as powerful as a grandmother’s. “Whatever I can do, your Highness,” Finn said, and ended the handshake.

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There’s a Party – 05

Small rebellions fueled Ewan’s life. He stood with the one partygoer in the room who looked lethally unsociable, talking while the MC made a speech. If the bearded wallflower didn’t blow a blood vessel, someone would at least shush them.

“I have no particular feelings towards champagne.”

“Then it must’ve been the white wine.” Ewan nodded sagely. “For me, it’s canapés. Vol-au-vent mugged me on a street corner.”

Behind him, he heard someone stifle a laugh, but it could have been a sneeze. Beardy stopped frowning to look so genuinely puzzled that Ewan nearly lost his game face.

“What did it hold you up with? A revolver?”

There. Ewan spluttered, and laughed. The MC went on without even a dirty look, but those closest to Ewan and the Beard looked as they would have liked to have been armed.

Ewan waved at them, giving his most disarming smile. “You’re funnier than I’d’ve credited.”

“I’m not sure why you say so.”

Thunderous clapping rocked the room, and Ewan joined in to keep from covering his ears. Under the noise, he asked, “I think we might need an introduction.”

The applause went on, but they both bucked conformity in order to shake hands.

“Ewan Blackwood.”

“Dr Henning Voss.”

Eyebrows up, Ewan went back to clapping. Something was definitely going on. He glanced at the stage. “Oh, the prince.”

Beard doctor followed his gaze, muttering something in German. “What a circus.”

At last, the noise began to die down. Music took its place. Some lass peeled off a magazine page had been allowed the prince’s first dance.

While many of the guests took up the call to dance, a good number held back. At least they wouldn’t be conspicuous. Although no one was looking at them now that talking was allowed.

“A circus,” Dr Voss repeated, shaking his head.

Ewan was inclined to agree that it was a circus. For one thing, they’d hired a clown like him to play at being a guest. And he’d never seen so many people pretending to live in the ton of Regency romance. “Too bad it isn’t more of a theme park.”

Dr Voss looked horrified, then seemed to force a laugh. “Don’t speak too loudly. Someone might believe you are serious.”

This was going much better than Ewan had expected. He’d thought he would have to spend the entire week in the company of fat old women who talked only of centrepieces and their lapdogs. Even if he had been a legitimate member of this social class, this wasn’t his thing.

Which made him think. “Why are you here? Demanding wife? Daughter in need of marrying off?”

This time, Dr Voss laughed like he meant it. “Nothing like that. I’d almost rather have a wife or daughter to drag me about.”

“Then…?”

He pressed his lips into a thin line, which had a funny effect on his beard. “There can’t be any harm in telling you. I’m working.”

“Heh, working the party?”

“No, working as a doctor.”

“That doesn’t sound as fun.” Then some lights clicked on in Ewan’s brain. He slapped his forehead. “Although it does explain why you were glaring at a drinks tray.”

A crack like wood giving way under pressure resounded about the room. Gasps followed it, and new circle formed outside the one meant for dancing.

“S’pose that’s your cue,” Ewan said to Dr Voss’s fleeing back as he reached out for a glass of champagne sweeping past.

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There’s a Party – 04

Suggested play: (When You Gonna) Give it Up to Me – Sean Paul

On the face of it, the ball should have been seen as merely another charity event. But no other charity event could boast a prize like this one. Unfathomable, it was.

Dr Henning Voss, still less than two years after he’d earned the title, had worked at many royal charity functions. He’d been roped into the first, and after that, he’d gained a reputation as a concierge doctor. It had stuck so firmly that he’d had to take it as his actual occupation.

He shot his cuffs for the hundredth time. This tuxedo was his own, bespoke tailoring. He’d bought it after a particular charity auction had forced him to realise that his place in the world had been decided without his input.

The caterers were out by this time, and he felt a bit more “on the job,” so to speak. But he found that even with that social wrinkle smoothed out, he just couldn’t get comfortable.

He disliked this greatly. Not the sweeping ball gowns and sea of men indistinguishable from waiters. It was the idea of auctioning a child.

Of course, at nineteen, Prince Matteus was not a child. Neither would Henning have believed that the boy was amenable to starring in a dating game.

How it really worked was not less distasteful than a loud television programme. Women donated money with the understanding that they would be paid especial attention and that the prince would be required to dance with every one of them.

That was it, as far as Henning knew. He hoped there wouldn’t be any games.

As if in reply to his fears, he saw a man ascend the stage. He was tall, darker, and handsome, in an intentionally bald sort of way. He was dressed differently than the black tie assembly: a grey suit with a red dress shirt and no tie.

Henning looked for the microphone and was grimly satisfied to see a small black thing clipped to the man’s jacket collar.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” the man announced, flashing pearlescent teeth in a showman’s grin. “In just a few moments, his Highness will arrive–”

Cheers erupted about the room. Henning narrowed his eyes and wished that he had hidden against the wall. Cheering didn’t often happen at charity functions. He didn’t think he approved.

The speech went on, and he did his best to tune it out. A tray of white wine floated past on the arms of a white-clad caterer. Henning sighed. They were paying him extra to act like a guest, but he couldn’t drink on duty.

“You look pretty grumpy.”

He jumped. “I beg your pardon?”

“Or maybe you just have a personal grudge against champagne.”

There were a surprising amount of men in attendance, considering the style of the gathering. This one was obviously hired. Possibly even an android. Or maybe a model. They were equally possible options.

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There’s a Party – 3

Lucas slapped his smartphone against his palm. Technically, the ball had begun, but the necessary bottleneck at every door kept the current party population ludicrously low. None of his friends were there yet, and his phone had no signal.

“Bloody jammers,” he muttered. “I just wanted to play Angry Birds.”

He glared up at the nearest security camera, tempted to make a face. Thanks to iron self-control, all the cameras recorded was the steady gaze of a handsome, slightly wispy blond man.

At least the bartender had shown up on time. Lucas ordered a highball, then wandered off with it. Better to be rich than famous, as his father was known to say, but as far as Lucas was concerned, both were better than being royalty. Of course, he was only one of the three.

The rest of the people milling about the ballroom could have been any mix. There were some faces which were familiar, if not overly so. Then there were the tourists who had donated to receive their invitations–likely the rich, or the woeful combination of rich and famous. These strangers actively worked the room. They were the loudest, chattering up new acquaintances.

All of them lit upon the same topic at one point or another. Matteus had always been a spoiled kid, with a physically and metaphorically big head. His body had grown into his head, but the latter was still a problem.

Lucas sauntered close to a group of gossipy Americans. One of the more artificial blondes therein huffed while trying to hide her impatience. “Why isn’t he here yet? Is this a trick?”

He ducked away so that he could snort. It was a bit of a trick. But she wasn’t the one being played. That honour belonged to Matty. In return for getting the media circus of his life, the kid had to take on a serious courtship. Of course, he could always get out of it by choosing an American suitor at the end of this. That wasn’t an alliance that Queen Vanessa would encourage.

Suddenly, the south entrance slammed open. Lucas jumped at the bang. It was a wonder the doors hadn’t bounced back to shut themselves.

He started to raise a glass, but this was not a royal entrance. Not entirely. He set his glass down and waved instead. Eight-year-old Princess Elisabet marched at the head of a group of guests. Some were more of the same, but Lisbet wasn’t the only friendly face adding to the room.

Lucas rushed over to join her, his face already starting to relax into a beam. This wasn’t the time or place for a demonstrative hug, but he was gratified to see that Lisbet’s greeting was not yet a curtsey and hand offered for kissing. She slapped him a high five, then bumped fists.

A nearby duchess aunt shot them a disapproving look. Lisbet composed herself, straight-backed in her lilac ball gown with a gathered skirt. In her best royal tone of voice, she told him, “Matty nearly had a row with Mum, but she’s still saying he can’t come to the ballroom until certain people get here.”

“Which people?”

Where another girl her age would have shrugged and muttered, Idunno, Lisbet tilted her head and pouted as she said, “I wasn’t told.”

Then the disapproving duchess aunt appropriated Lisbet to make social circles around the room, leaving Lucas to seek out what other friends of his had come in on Lisbet’s tide.

1

There’s a Party – 2

Suggested play: Marjaani – Billu Barber

The bigger the event, the more things that could go wrong. And events this big made Soo-bin wish she had kept her old job as a programmer. Deadlines were killers, but at least she didn’t have to wear heels or style her long hair.

She also didn’t have to worry about people she’d hired showing up only to be denied access to the building. “This is Finnegan Murphy, one of the PGs I hired.”

Guard Baker raised an eyebrow. “Professional guest? This guy?”

The affronted expression on Mr Murphy’s face was rather amusing, but not something that she could afford to leave unsoothed. Soo-bin ignored the guards and greeted Mr Murphy with a hostess’s smile.

He was younger than she remembered. All the better, of course. He took her hands and they kissed one another’s cheeks like aristocrats.

“You’ll fit right in,” she whispered, as warmly as was possible at such a low volume.

In that vein, she took his arm and led him into the lobby. The decorators had gone beyond the call of paycheck, with vases borrowed from a royal summer house stuffed to brimming with white and red roses. Similar fake flowers wove round every pillar.

It almost distracted from the camera crews setting up. There were cords everywhere. Soo-bin prayed that they would have it all cleared up before some poor woman in stilettos tripped and broke a bone.

Mr Murphy said nothing as she whisked him through the lobby. A good sign. He had done this before, but she didn’t want to bank on anything. PGs were a minor element of the ball. Yet even a rat could drown a nation.

So she made up for his silence. “This will obviously be a little different from other parties you have previously, er, attended.”

“I read the letter you sent me,” he said. “People will be here hoping for a royal romance–”

“A date with Prince Matteus.”

“Right. So I’ll be sort of junior guard. If someone gets too handsy with his Highness, I intervene politely or inform a real guard if it looks dangerous.”

She pressed her lips together, trying not to smile. “Well put. The rest is much the same as any other soiree. Flaunt your looks, keep your distance, and don’t drink too much.”

They stopped just shy of the east entrance of the main ballroom. Its intimidating wooden doors were shut.

Mr Murphy gave a shallow bow, one hand over his chest. “I’ll do my best.”

“As will we all. At least you can drink.” Before opening the door to allow him in, Soo-bin leaned in and whispered, “Do have a southern comfort for me.”

1

There’s a Party – 1

Suggested play: So Fine – Sean Paul

Finn climbed out of the taxi and into the crowd. It was mostly comprised of women, and most of those ranged between seventeen and twenty-four. A few of those nearest him sighed in appreciation as he smoothed his suit.

He wasn’t an expert on fashion. This was a secret. A few days earlier, he had gone into a high-end clothing store and made puppy eyes at a shop girl. She’d suited him up, and had slipped her phone number into a pocket for good measure.

The suit was as crisp as a fresh sheet of paper. He felt like he was wearing a cross between nori and silk. Halfway to the Executive Ballroom, he’d realised that he’d forgotten the tie. He fixed his collar in a half-hearted flare to make it look intentional. It had the side benefit of making his slightly unkempt black hair look stylish.

It only took a minute for the swoons to pass and the crowd to fold over him. The country had to be filled to capacity with people in from all over the world. Participation, parties, and romance. What more draw could they have added? Finn smiled and relaxed into the swell of strangers. They were headed in the right direction, after all.

The Executive Ballroom was lit up like a Christmas tree. A red carpet had been rolled out the front doors and a good way towards the sidewalk proper. Once Finn had stepped onto the carpet, the crowd tamed into a wide queue.

Almost tamed. One or two uninvited gestures had him spinning round to catch the culprit before he finally reached the opaque glass doors.

Luckily, the hands had been interested in his assets, not his invitation. The knot of burly royal guards expanded and then contracted around him. It was a little too warm, but the comparative privacy was nice.

He took the invitation out of his jacket and held it out for inspection along with his ID.

But rather than a grim nod and a tree-trunk arm ushering him in, what Finn got was a suspicious frown. “What is this?”

“My invitation.”

One of them had a hand cupped over one side of his face, muttering into a radio. Finn rolled his eyes, shoulders slumping. His ID had been returned to him. Not so the invitation.

“This is unbelievable. I was asked to come here!”

“Of course you were, sir.” They might as well have called him ‘miss,’ for all the attention paid.

Finn put his hands behind his back. The last thing he needed to do was lose his temper and start poking giants in their barrel chests. “I mean it. Ring Miss Park. She’ll tell you.”

The name didn’t have the ripple effect that he’d hoped for, but someone did take out a mobile phone. He crossed his fingers that they were phoning Miss Park and not the constabulary.

Behind the protective knot, the gathering throng was getting restless. Finn could see more than a few dirty looks. None of them seemed aware that he was the reason for the hold-up. Yet.

Suddenly the doors burst open. Finn whipped his head up. Miss Park had made an appearance.

She did not look happy about it.