(122-12-10) Undercity Oysters vs The '06
Undercity Oysters vs The '06
Summary: A dragon, a widow, and a dunner walk into a bar… Two of them have a Servant Problem. One of them is the Servant Problem.
Date: 10/12/122 AL
Related: None

Through the tunnel comes the dunner, a man named Wulfred to those that care to know the name. To others, he is something of a nuisance. To those that serve drinks, he is a zealous follower and an outspoken patron. A regular champion of those that imbibe, and a doting steward for those that pour. He casually bumps into someone walking past him, no doubt leaving the winery. He is the first to offer them a wine-stained smile, exaggerating his apologetic posture. "Please, forgive me, my shoes are not what they used to be. They are so out of order that the drunker I stand, the longer I feel. Again, my apologies. You have my apologies." He tips an imaginary hat before sliding into the main thoroughfare, looking for a place to settle and order his next round.

How sweet of Lord Ormund Hightower to permit the most reputedly wayward of his lady cousins to take up residence in that proud and eponymous domicile, for a time. (Upon that point she was reassuringly clear: for dear Marsei's wedding, you know, and until she can find suitable lodgings of her own in the city…) Anything to escape the Golden Maiden Inn, the company in which has already after a single night and the breaking of her fast been deemed by Lady Joyeuse Hastwyck stultifying, verging upon unendurable. Such a pack of dried-up old hags, she's never sat down with in all her days! … Which haven't been so very many days, thank you very much. Oh, no.

Whilst the trunks her maid toiled so long yesterday to unpack, are repacked, Lady Hastwyck — attired in another of her newest gowns, its style the absolute latest from the court in King' Landing, yet executed in teal-green sandsilk which clings to her rounded figure with the fondness of a lover — with her chaotic dark red curls pinned up and subject to the constantly slackening control of an assortment of pearl-tipped pins — with strand upon strand of enormous glowing white-golden pearls wrapped about her throat, and the confident smirk of a lady who knows just what she's got on, darts along Lower Hightower Street with a tall young guard at her heels and a hastily-snatched up white handkerchief fluttering lacily in her grip.

The winery. Oh, yes, she knew it well, last year. She can't recall ever seeing it in daylight, mind you, but it must be round here somewhere… Just the sort of pleasantly cool and refreshing little nook in which to pass an hour or so away from those dreary creatures at the inn.

She's walked past the tunnel twice before she recognises it. Well, a lot can happen in a year, can't it! And one can't remember everything.

Light and fleet in silk slippers dyed to match her gown, she hastens through — only to pause framed by the archway, in an attitude of expectancy, her lips still painted by a smile of triumph (she found it, she found it!) and her heavy-lidded green-grey gaze flicking this way and that, on the offchance of an old friend, an old acquaintance, an old vaguely-familiar-face…?

Jurian has already been here for a certain span of time. He doesn't appear to be attended by any guards or servants, despite his distinctly Targaryen looks. But he does wear a short blade at his hip. He appears to be still medicating the long-term fallout of a hangover from the stag party two days ago. An /awful/ lot of drink was had, and they've probably only just barely managed to get the winery clean again after it. So he's found himself a relatively dim table and occupied the corner near the wall so that people will not bump him and ruin his communion with the fortified grapes.

No one will ruin the Targaryen's communion with fortified grapes. At least knowingly so. The man previously denoted as Wulfred will be making his way through the winery crowd, pausing to have words with familiar faces. "Gretch, my sweet, how goes it? Kellan, mate, I trust you've been well. Tilly, please see me later. I have the coin I promised you a month ago." Or rather, he says he has the coin. One never knows.

With a small parcel of coin he seems to have procured recently, he offers it to the one he had addressed. The girl, Tilly, also seems to have an open bottle at the ready. Wulfred exchanges the bag of coin for the bottle, helping himself to an untouched cup on an adjacent table. "Think nothing of it. A debt paid is a soul at peace. Really, I insist."

To the peregrinations of dunners, spivs, and their ilk the widow Hastwyck is oblivious — for her attention has fallen upon a pretty golden head hiding its light in a corner, a profile well-known to her even in shadow…

In a rustle of sandsilk and a waft of her own soft spicy fragrance she floats across to him (manoeuvering right past Wulfred without a glance his way) and, within hailing distance, a table or so beyond his own, calls out in a low voice, tinged with surprise and unmistakable pleasure: "Why, you ought to have said you intended to come to the wedding—! We might have…" A step nearer — and, perhaps, in answer to a reaction from the princeling thus addressed — the lady falters and adds with a soft laugh, gathering handfuls of silk as she lowers herself into a graceful, dragon-soothing curtsey, "Your Grace, forgive me — the princes of your house, you have such a similar elegance about you… I fear after all you are not my friend."

Jurian looks up from his cup, eyelids moving in slow-motion. He fixes Joyeuse with a steady look for a moment. It looks like he might say something cutting at first, but then he leans back slightly, the back of his head touching the cool wall, and asks, "Which of my cousins do you mistake me for?" He glances over her shoulder at Wulfred's gladhanding his way through the room, then focuses on Joyeuse again. "Choose a good-looking one so as not to offend me," he advises. Which is probably meant as a joke. Probably.

With a bottle in handat the expense of an unknown partyWulfred pours his first glass with the audience of two older patrons of the Winery that have made eye contact. "Do you enjoy prestidigitation?" he asks them. "Watch, carefully, as the contents of this glass are emptied into the cavern of my gullet. I'm afraid it is not an immediate display, but rather one that takes several moments to come to fruition." He then uses the bottle to refresh their cups, which they are more than thankful for. "Drink and be merry, my acquaintances. No, really. For tomorrow we may be without wine."

The prince Lady Joy obligingly mentions is as requested a handsome one — and not unintelligent although, if we're honest, a bit of a wastrel, known within the family for the fanciness of his doublets rather than the cunning of his political machinations. He doesn't count except insofar as no Targaryen with pretensions to fashion would dream of missing one of his… wholly memorable… soirees. "—But once I saw you clear, Your Grace, and less in the shadow," adds the lady who has accosted him with this unaccustomed brashness, when he sought no company but that of his grape friends, "I knew you must be another — for you're several years younger than he, are you not?" Her heavy-lidded eyes blink inquiringly. In a year at court, she has learned a little of what dragons like to hear.

There is a handkerchief on the floor near Wulfred's feet. It is white, lacy, and carries a spicy scent he may have had a whiff of recently.

Jurian regards Wulfred with a mixture of skepticism and disgust. He lifts his chin. "You there. If I buy you a bottle, does it buy some quiet?" Possibly not, since Wulfred is already carrying one. Then his eyes go back to Joyeuse. She earns a smile. "Sit with me, and I will stand you a drink for your flattery if you wish," he offers. "I'll have your name, as well."

The handkerchief at Wulfred's feet must have gotten his attention, for he only seems more intent on pouring wine for his new friends. Once the cups are refreshed, he casually sets the bottle on the adjacent table before bending to address his boots. The handkerchief is picked up and casually slipped into his wrist cuff before he bounds back to his feet with a staggered bit of acrobatics. "Don't be alarmed; I am fine," he assures before picking up his bottle.

At the address of the blonde-haired sort, Wulfred looks in his direction. It takes all but two seconds to recognize the difference in station, and he tips his head in a sign of respect between titles. "Your Highness," he says, sliding on his foot in order to approach both Prince Jurian and Lady Joy's table. For those clever enough to see, his stumble is practiced. He does not even lose a drop from the cup in his other hand that he poured for himself. "Sire," he continues. "I did not know you graced us with your presence. Please, you needn't buy. I will gladly let you have this bottle."

A situation saved is a drink earned! The redheaded lady's own smile blossoms to something approximating its original proportions; she offers the prince another, shallower curtsey, because she happens to know (she has often been told) she curtseys extremely prettily (in her it's a gesture of pride rather than humility), and the guard who has been standing two paces behind her all the while wearing his No. 3 Air of Blandness draws out a chair for her.

"Gracious indeed, Your Grace… Though I suppose you think I'm making it up, to scrape acquaintance," she suggests in a merry confidential murmur. "Ask your cousin, then, the next time you see him, if he knows a Lady Hastwyck." This so her new friend will be aware that her husband was the head of his house, however humble it may have been — humbler, of course, now that she's through with it… "He will," she promises gently.

Then at the advent of Wulfred and his bottle she looks up and releases another peal of her low, rich laughter. At him, near him, and also just because she's having an amusing time all of a sudden. She glances from him to the dragon — poised, expectant, waiting to see what will come next.

Jurian squints at Wulfred when he goes stuffing lacy handkerchiefs in his sleeves. "Here, is that yours?" he asks in a relatively quiet, but still accusing, tone, pointing at Wulfred's wrist. Then he looks at the bottle he's been gifted with obvious distaste. He stops a barmaid to order a fresh one. Then his eyes are back on Joyeuse, his manner calming again. "Lady Hastwyck," he repeats. "And I am called Jurian."

At the ultimate insistence of joining both the Prince and Lady Hastwyck, Wulfred sets both glass and bottle on the table so that he can address the handkerchief. "This?" he asks, pointing out the obvious. From this distance, it's fair to assume that this gentleman is either a mummer of classic tradition or a well-seasoned drunk. His wine-stained teeth and glassy eyes suggest more of the latter than the former. "I'm afraid this belongs to one whose acquaintance I've not yet made," he tells Jurian. "I feel as though I might ingratiate myself to them if I returned what was theirs. A kindness to be repaid, if you will. You might say I'm a practiced recoveryman. Not a cutpurse, mind you."

The suddenly distracted Lady Hastwyck investigates her own rather looser sleeves, each of which has a secret pocket stitched inside — and peers down into her lap — and then runs a long-fingered hand distinguished by an enormous ruby ring over the folds of sandsilk at the bosom of her gown, which, though not particularly low-cut, it must be said is undergoing a certain degree of strain. "… It is mine!" she gasps, though in the moment any gratitude she feels is all for he who has pointed it out.

"Why, Prince Jurian," and her grey-green eyes framed by laughter lines gaze appreciatively into his rather wide violet ones, "it's too good of you, to be concerned for my property when we met but a moment ago — and," she quirks an eyebrow at Wulfred, scoring one off him without being in the least offended by his words, "without a thought of repayment, I'm sure. I know I'm a little careless sometimes," she confesses, this too to the prince, "but it is such a pretty handkerchief — and with my initials stitched upon it, too, so it would hardly do for anyone else. Jay Aitch." These letters spelled out to Wulfred with an air of glowing feminine triumph, for their presence proves it to be her own: she extends her hand, palm up, sleeve falling away from a shapely wrist, expecting the restoration of her hanky.

Jurian looks Wulfred up and down. "So you say," he replies, doubt heavily implied. "But indeed you picked it up without a word." He doesn't go so far as to make an explicit accusation or complaint, however. He nods once to Joyeuse, for her recognition of his great service, then sits back, fully expecting a transfer of the goods.

Being the gracious sort that he is, Wulfred offers the Lady Hastwyck a smile and nary a glance at her decolletage as she checks herself for signs of her handkerchief. As she confirms that the product is indeed hers, Wulfred carefully folds the fabric together before offering it to the woman. "It is yours," he assures, allowing the exchange to take place without so much as an inquiry regarding rewards. "I suppose it would have been easier to look for a host with the same initials. So fortunate that I found you in short order. Might I interest you in a drink?" Whether or not the drink is for him or for her is purely suspect.

Reunited with her handkerchief the lady looks about the table and glows. Perhaps after all it was more of a team effort. Well, she's got it back now, hasn't she, and that's what matters. The holding of grudges is not her sport. She unfolds it and inspects its condition and her slightly-unnaturally-reddened lips form a pout as she sees what it has suffered, first upon the floor, then in that fellow's cuff… An idea occurs.

"Udo!" she declares, waggling the lacy little thing over her shoulder to summon her guard — who, being still two paces behind her, doesn't require much summoning. "Will you run across to Dora and fetch me a fresh one? If she hasn't packed them all, I suppose. Don't worry, I shall be quite safe here for five minutes," she promises him, though a keen observer might suspect that Udo, departing the winery with the handkerchief held at arm's length, betwixt thumb and forefinger, has his doubts.

Lady Hastwyck watches him go for a pace or two and then turns back to her self-appointed companions of the afternoon, her ropes of white-golden pearls gleaming in the candlelight with every shift of her lively form. The barmaid has just brought the encouragingly expensive bottle summoned by Prince Jurian and poured for two, but not three: her own cup is quickly in her hand and she raises it to him in a toast: "To new acquaintances?" Then she remarks in a mischievous aside to Wulfred, "Well, at present I must say nothing interests me more than this drink… It's the '06, isn't it, Your Grace? What a splendid year—! So marvelously full-bodied, don't you think, and with that hint of dark cherries…" Mind you, she's not consciously describing herself. She's just a passionate devotee of oenology. "The '07 simply wasn't the same," she confides gravely, once again leaning nearer over the table. "I might have known you'd share your cousin's fine palate."

Jurian lifts his glass in a vague gesture. Then he looks to Wulfred. "Well, if you didn't want a bottle off me, what is it you /do/ want?" he asks, with the assumption that Wulfred is fishing for /something/. Then his eyes are on Joyeuse again, and it seems as though, in his delicate state, he can hardly decide whether to dismiss the talk of wine, which he certainly knows less about than Joyeuse, altogether, or whether he should pretend to know more than he does. In the end, he says, "I have had so much of wine in the last few days that it all begins to run together. The wedding, you know."

"Your Grace, what I want is of no consequence to those of royal name," says Wulfred with as much pomp as one can muster while being under the influence. "But since it is you that asks the questions, I shall tell you no lies. I simply wish to have a drink, not a bottle." He holds up his cup, which is poured with the bottle that still sits on the table. "I have what I want, and I want what I have. I am at peace, you see."

He looks over to Lady Hastwyck once more, cradling his cup. "And I shall rest on my virtues knowing that I returned to you that which belongs. I apologize if it has been sullied in my care. You really ought not to allow it to land on the floor, lest it be soiled or someone return it to you for the sum of five silver stags." Whether or not that is the aggregate sum that the woman carries on her person appears to not be up for discussion.

Back to Jurian, he says, "If you feel out of sorts after a lengthy bout of drink, might I recommend a raw egg with spiced compounds both dry and wet? Some call it an undercity oyster, and it is known to make the head feel smaller."

It will soon become clear to these men of such different social standing, if it hasn't already, that drinking with Lady Hastwyck is an expensive proposition and probably ought only to be attempted by Targaryens. She's already halfway through that first cup, which when she put her hand upon it was in danger of brimming over… She brightens taste by taste. "Oh, yes—!" she sighs. "Dear, dear Lady Marsei — she's my cousin, you know, on the Tully side — I'm afraid I was rather late in arriving, but I wouldn't miss her wedding day for all the world." Her lips curve into a slower, dreamier species of smile. "I must thank you, truly, Prince Jurian, for helping me to pass this idle hour, and to feel as though I've at least begun to enjoy the festivities… Those raw egg drinks," she murmurs, "they're an absolute horror going down, but they do help. My maid has a very fine recipe, if your servants aren't acquainted with the preparation."

Whereupon she turns to Wulfred. "And I must thank you, too, for at least not leaving my handkerchief on the floor and underfoot any longer than it was," she laughs. The mention of coin doesn't seem to have registered with her. In fact she rarely carries money. Ladies don't pay for things. Men pay for things. "I beg your pardon, but I don't believe you said your name—?"

The discussions of names both grandiose and relevant to present company are not lost on Wulfred, despite a commoner's utter lack of connection to those of proper bearing. He instead confides himself to his drink, taking a generous swallow or two of the contents of his cup while keeping his eyes on the Lady Hastwyck. He removes a trace of wine from his lips with a wick of his tongue, offering a courteous smile to the woman as she espouses her experience with the undercity oyster. Perhaps an epicure of drinks after his own heart.

"My name, milady?" he asks next, raising a gloved hand to his chest. "I am called Wulfred," he tells her, "A dunner with proxy power and authority of the city to collect all debts public and private. I know that you did not ask what I do for a living, but I felt it relevant to milady's curiosities. You may forget me, if you choose."

The widow Hastwyck — whose fortunes have fallen precipitously at least once in her life — breathes in sharply, and draws away from the self-proclaimed dunner as though he revolted her more even than a raw egg adulterated with spices. Her gaze comes to rest again upon Prince Jurian; after another dainty gulp of wine, which suffices almost to empty her cup, she addresses him again. "Are you particularly acquainted with Prince Dhraegon, Your Grace…?"

"Eating undercity oysters sound like a vile way for a nobleman to die," Jurian tells Wulfred. He seems a bit put-out that there is no clear way to rid himself of the man's presence, given his noble contentment. He can only accept the advice of drinking raw eggs from a noblewoman, since he nods at her description. "I seem to be always replacing my servants these days. So many are dunderheaded or prattle-mouthed." But his brows then shoot up on the topic of Dhraegon. "Uncle Dhraegon?" he asks. "Intimately. For all his simplicity, he has shown me better kindness and hospitality here than any."

"I am acquainted with the king, or rather those that serve him and handle his affairs." Detecting that she does not prefer his company for being a dunner, he configures in another drink that practically empies his cup. "Rather, I shall endear myself to the both of you no longer. I appreciate the opportunity to make your acquaintance, but it may be best that I curry favor with my legs and be off."

No. Not endeared, precisely. Lady Hastwyck flicks a cautious glance dunnerwards but leaves the fellow for Prince Jurian to deal with. She's thanked him for rescuing and returning her hanky, she's asked him his name, she hasn't raised a fuss over the prospect of his sitting down so near to her, she's done all a noblewoman could possibly be expected to do, hasn't she? "You wouldn't die of it, Your Grace," she promises the prince, her mien brightening again for him, "in fact it's rather the opposite." Her hand rises to her bosom and she inclines her head in his direction and lowers her voice to explain that: "One lives." And then, after taking up her cup again and incidentally draining it: "Oh, I'm so pleased to hear you speak well of the man my friend is to marry… as she speaks of him," she utters sincerely, proving there's a second lady at least in Oldtown who can regard the impending nuptials with not only a straight face but a glad heart.

Jurian makes a quiet grunt. "Yes, one wonders what the rest of them /are/ saying about dear Uncle Dhraegon when we are all out of earshot," he murmurs, not to be overheard. He doesn't seem to mind keeping wine flowing for Joyeuse, even though it is dear. "But you favor the match?"

This dragon is such a civil sort. The merry widow appreciates his courtesies, and indicates as much by means of some of her most charming and well-lubricated smiles… "Well, in truth I've never met your uncle," she admits, lifting her shoulders in a small shrug. "But I know better than to believe gossip — and I know my cousin has made up her own mind, and she is happy — yes, I favour it," she agrees simply. "There were some who spoke unkindly of my second marriage, Your Grace, to Lord Hastwyck. There will always be some who think they know better than the two people directly concerned and their close kin — and that's absurd, isn't it?"

Jurian seems pleased enough that Joyeuse is polite about the match. "Yes, and very presumptuous," he agrees with her, "for anyone to believe they know the affairs of families like the Hightowers and my own. But they will grow bored of the gossip soon enough. Something else will eclipse it," he predicts.

In the professional opinion of the twice-married and much-pursued Lady Hastwyck, whose daughters have different fathers, whose Dornish ways still after all these years inspire comment… "Not very soon," she sighs, having given the matter a moment's thought; "any tale with a prince in it, and a renowned beauty, and a city given over for a week to pleasures in their honour, is bound to linger till someone else makes a truly great effort to create talk, I think. But, Your Grace — as long as it's not your turn then or mine," she laughs, "I'll be so glad for your uncle and my cousin when that day comes." She indulges in another long communion with her cup of wine, and breathes out of a small sound of contentment. "And I hope tomorrow you and I might find a moment to drink the health of the new couple, if you haven't too many calls upon your time at the wedding feast…?"

Jurian seems amused that the lady can appreciate not being the subject of gossip as much as anything else. "Well. I think I will be talked about before long, but I do not expect that it will come with smirks or laughter from the smallfolk," he further presages. "But yes, perhaps I will see you at the feast," he says, without promising anything. "There will be people everywhere, but opportunities as well."

What the lady can really appreciate, is the company of a lord who is first of all not a lord but a prince, who secondly knows how to pour wine, and who most importantly has never in all his life heard of her. He'd have shown it by now if he had. It's a little wedding miracle, just for her. "Well, then! If you wish to be the new tale on everyone's lips, Your Grace, I shall rely upon you to consign the bride and groom to a comfortable married obscurity, as your gift to them," declares Lady Hastwyck, beaming, "and I shall listen closely to hear of you…"

It has been longer than five minutes; but only now does the long-suffering Udo return, to place on the table within her view a fresh, starched, impeccably folded handkerchief, almost identical to the first specimen, with her fanciful curling initials uppermost, embroidered this time in red silk thread rather than teal-green. Her eye falls upon it and then her hand: "Oh," she sighs, "could she not find one to match? Packed, I suppose." Her words were for her guard, strictly rhetorically; she adds to Prince Jurian, over the rim of her cup, "I took a chamber at the Golden Maiden last night, for I didn't know how many hundreds of wedding guests might have come before me and I didn't want to upset the Hightowers' housekeeping — but they've asked me to stay and so of course everything's in such a state… I don't believe," and this is a reference to his earlier remark about the number of servants he has to let go, "there are any really good servants. Those friends of ours who claim to possess such paragons are only fibbing to inspire our envy."

Jurian does not appear to know of the legend of Lady Joyeuse. But from what he has said, it appears he has not lived in the Reach very long. He seems quite pleased when she goes along with the notion that he will soon be talked of without inquiring tiresomely into detail. He fixes the lady with a satisfied gaze, then eyes the handkerchief. "Yes, you see," he says of it being the wrong color. "There aren't. And some people are too timid and allow their servants to rule them from below."

Well, he's a prince, isn't he? If he seems to think he'll be talked of soon, chances are he's right. He may not be correct about the substance of the talk — but how amusing if he were! In short, Lady Hastwyck is perfectly content to nod and smile and glitter and gleam and drink his wine, for as long as continues to flow. Honestly. Less than a full night and a day in Oldtown and she's found a new prince who matches her previous one. It's fate! "… I don't suppose I'm always firm enough," she confides with another wistful sigh; "I find it such a trial, especially if I'm a little tired—" Overhung. "Or if I'm in such a hurry I'm willing to make do just to have something settled. I'm sure you've much stricter principles than mine."

Jurian drinks rather more slowly, watching the lady thoughtfully. Perhaps he notices her pace, but says very little about it. Though is it politeness that stills his tongue? "I believe a servant should count himself lucky to work in a great house, and behave accordingly. There are any number who would jump at the chance, so there is no good in keeping an incompetent one on."

Ah, yes. Her pace. As hectic as her conversation can be in certain moments. She'll have that bottle finished in no time, and with apparently no ill effects beyond the brightness in her eyes and the fact that as her thoughts wander hither and yon she's saying 'Your Grace' somewhat less frequently. "Oh, I do think you're right," she says at once; "the comfort and the security of such employment…" The comfort, anyway. "One never sees the servants of a great house looking skinny, does one?" she teases. "In fact I wonder sometimes whether they might not eat better than we do, for they take their meals in the kitchens, rather than after each dish has been carried along draughty corridors…" She lifts her eyebrows, suggesting her suspicions as to the effect of this journey upon the temperature of the dinners of the nobility. "My guard is quite new," she adds, well within that stalwart fellow's earshot, "three months now, after I was obliged to turn away the other — just as you say, supposing he was in charge of me rather than the other way round, and growing insolent, too." She lets out a distracted sigh and, yes, sips her wine. "I was too kind to him, you know."

"I suppose they have their pick of the leftovers as well," Jurian agrees, bobbing his head slowly. Then his mouth twists in disgust. "Insolence. The more you give the smallfolk, the more jumped-up they become. It is the same with dogs."

That's further than Lady Joy is willing to go — the Servant Problem saddens and occasionally vexes her, but she's not really capable of much in the way of ill will. But allowances must be made for the passions of princes (such is the way of the world) and she feints, diplomatically, towards: "I had a lovely little dog once, a long while ago… I spoiled him dreadfully and somehow it didn't spoil his character in the least; he was always very gentle, and he followed me everywhere I went, and he never barked when I was sleeping, unless there was a knock at the door of my chamber or something else that would have woken me in any case. I suppose there must always be good examples and bad ones, don't you think, Your Grace, among the Seven's creatures? I'm only sorry you've had the misfortune to meet with so many of the latter kind."

Jurian looks at Joyeuse as though he had no idea what she is talking about. He tilts his head slightly, eyes round as he blinks once. "Are there?" he wonders. "With smallfolk and dogs, it is hardly my concern. I do not interact much with either."

"Well, of course not," is Lady Hastwyck's easy answer — the wine is seeing to it that she doesn't really feel the burden of this conversation, though make no mistake it's upon her, "and I suppose I don't either, in the normal routine of things, except to offer charity where I can — or," she laughs, "a bone! Still, I hope you shall soon be blessed with at least better servants than you've had to attend you of late, now that we've admitted the best ones must be a myth… They do make a difference to one's comfort."

Behind her Udo, who has had to listen to all this whilst affecting not to have ears attached to his head, clears his throat. She looks over her shoulder, displaying her pearl-swathed throat to great advantage; "Oh, what is it?"

"Milady, I was to tell you that Dora's almost done with your packing, says she won't be but another moment."

"Oh, well, then," is her vague comment upon the subject. "I ought to take my leave of you, Your Grace," she admits, giving her lower lip a reluctant nibble, "and pay my respects more formally at the Hightower… and I was so enjoying our talk!" His wine. "I'm not the least bit sorry now that I mistook you for your cousin… If I hadn't, I should have missed the pleasure of making your acquaintance for another two days at least!"

Jurian doesn't take any note of poor Udo, only nodding along vaguely to the lady's conversation. "Indeed fortuitous," he agrees mildly. "Enjoy your stay, Lady Hastwyck, and I am sure to see you at the wedding."

By pure coincidence the last of that bottle of the superlative '06 is in Lady Hastwyck's cup as she utters her fond farewells to this new prince — and on its way down her throat before she rises with another silken rustle and, handkerchief clutched in her left hand, treats him to another display of her exquisitely polished curtsey technique. As steady as she was before. How does she do it?

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