Unfortunately for Christopher, no Solay apart from him had dressed formally, not even the High Queen, who sat in soft and loose fabrics. She was sitting beside a man with thick, wavy hair the same colour as Christopher’s - a man who Emerald assumed was Queen Anita’s Prince Consort. Instead of a great round table like that of the Phases, the Solays dined at various rectangular tables in the room. The walls of this room were decorated with tapestries and paintings of Aurélius or the Sun, and thick gold curtains were drawn against the slowly deepening night.
Christopher led Emerald to sit at the same table as his parents, who smiled and greeted her, saying, “Good evening.”
The Prince Consort’s eyes were a lovely blue - the High Queen’s brown was closer in resemblance to Christopher’s interesting, changing eye colour.
“Good evening, Your Majesties,” said Emerald, curtseying before taking a seat opposite Queen Anita as Christopher sat opposite his father and gestured for her to sit beside him.
“Son, what special event is taking place tonight?” the Prince Consort asked Christopher (confirming that he was indeed Prince Consort). His expression was one of amusement and he gestured at his son’s suit to clarify the question.
Christopher was wearing a tight mask of casualness, though it must have been hard to hold his head high in attire that was utterly out of place.
“Why, Her Highness Princess Emerald is dining with us this evening,” he answered, pretending to be surprised by his father’s enquiry.
The Prince Consort smiled and took a sip of the wine from the glass before him.
“I see,” he said, still amused. A smile corresponding to his played on the face of the High Queen.
“I am flattered by your wearing of the suit,” said Emerald, feeling she had to say something to try to lessen the awkwardness for Christopher.
He smiled wryly, showing that she had not quite spoken words to make him feel better but he appreciated the effort all the same.
“Ah, never was a woman more charmed than when her suitor appeared in fine attire!”
This comment came from none of those seated; Emerald turned to see two boys standing a short distance away, regarding the scene with smiles of faked fondness. They looked like brothers and both had soft brown hair, though the elder’s eyes were green while the younger’s were light blue. The elder looked the age of Andrew Phase and the younger a little younger than Tamina Solay though older than Milly Solay.
Christopher could no longer prevent embarrassment from entering his features.
“She is our honoured guest,” he mumbled.
“Yes; greatly honoured by your attempts to impress her,” said the younger boy, winking at Christopher. It sounded like he was the one who had just spoken when Emerald had not been looking.
“I must say, I have never heard of wooing by attire,” commented the elder.
“I have to remember this method for when I fall in love,” said the younger.
Emerald wished she could make them stop but it seemed wrong of her to say anything, she being the guest in the Palace.
“That is enough now, boys,” said the Queen, fortunately.
Emerald glanced at her and saw that she looked amused by the boys’ teasing of her son. But this was not such a crime when she had asked them to stop.
“Yes, Aunt Anita,” they chorused, and they took their seats on Christopher’s right.
Christopher appeared mortified by his mother’s intervention.
“May I dine in my bedchamber?” he asked quietly.
Queen Anita looked sympathetic but pointed out, “Princess Emerald is here, Christopher. You are the Solay with whom she desires most to converse, I should imagine.”
“That is true,” said Christopher in a voice that was barely audible.
“Incidentally,” said Queen Anita, “Emerald, these boys are my nephews, Kyle and Ray. Kyle is the elder and Ray the younger.”
“Hallo,” said the boys cheerfully.
“Hello,” replied Emerald calmly, keen not to display too much friendliness towards Christopher’s tormentors.
Dinner arrived, carried in by servants whose white suits were not unlike Christopher’s in style.
“Look, it is your Formal Attire Brothers,” Emerald heard Ray whisper to Christopher. Christopher’s neck reddened.
“Ray,” said Queen Anita sternly.
“Sorry, Aunt Anita,” he said automatically.
“So can anyone sit at the Queen’s table at dinnertime?” Emerald asked Christopher, hoping to distract him from the taunts of his cousins.
“There’s a rota,” he told her, and she was gratified to see gratitude in his eyes. “At dinner, it is me and a different two relatives each night. At lunchtime, however, it is always Tamina and her sisters who have the privilege of sitting with her.”
“It is good that there is a system in place to ensure that it is not always the same people,” said Emerald, smiling.
Christopher smiled in response.
Emerald commenced eating. The meal was light: pasta served with tuna, mayonnaise and sweetcorn - incidentally one of Emerald’s favourite dishes.
“My compliments to the chef,” she said afterwards, as she wiped delicately around her mouth with her napkin.
Queen Anita smiled.
“I will have a maid deliver them,” she said.
“Oh, careful that he doesn’t steal her heart,” said Ray.
Christopher smiled, looking a lot happier now that he had eaten. He also looked more comfortable sitting amongst his cousins.
“How could he?” he said to Ray. “He dresses so poorly.”
Kyle and Ray were silent while Emerald grinned.
“Mother, may I take Emerald to the courtyard?” asked Christopher.
“Not tonight, dear,” said Queen Anita, her tone kind despite the prohibition in her words.
“Not even with an accompanying maid?” asked Christopher, careful not to make his tone annoying.
“Not even then.”
“May I escort to her chamber?”
“With a maid if she consents.”
Christopher turned to regard Emerald.
“May I?” he asked, and there was a hint of shyness in his eyes that was slightly endearing.
“The attire served its purpose,” whispered Ray.
“Ray!” said Queen Anita sharply.
Christopher rose to his feet.
“Let us go then,” he said to Emerald.
Queen Anita murmured a few words to a maid who had stood close to her throughout the meal and the girl nodded, joining Christopher on the other side of the table.
“Good night,” she said to the four Solays who were still seated.
“Good night, Emerald,” said Queen Anita with a kind smile on her face.
Emerald turned to leave and saw that most of the Solays had already left the room. Only one or two remained, deeply immersed in conversation.
She followed Christopher from the room, the maid in her turn behind her.
“I am sorry if my cousins’ comments embarrassed you,” Christopher told her as they walked.
“Oh, no, I felt sorrier for you,” admitted Emerald.
Christopher looked at her sideways.
“Yes - I thought they were being quite unfair.”
Christopher shrugged his shoulders, smiling wryly.
“They are like that. Though Kyle can be a kinder soul when away from Ray. I think Ray reminds him of the freedom one has at the age of ten years. Being with him releases his inner child.”
“Childhood is so fleeting,” mused Emerald.
“Was yours? Have you forgotten how to feel carefree?”
“Almost,” answered Emerald sincerely.
“Then when I am permitted to take you to the courtyard, I will dance with you until your inner child is set free.”
“Do you know why Her Majesty forbade it?” she wondered.
“It is where she became betrothed to my father,” replied Christopher instantly. “Perhaps it is too romantic a place for us to visit at this stage.”
Christopher noticed and was at once apologetic.
“I am sorry, Emerald. That was unthinking of me. If things come to pass, they come to pass...” He trailed off, looking very embarrassed. “And I have unnecessarily given more meaning to my previous statement. I apologise, Emerald.”
“I forgive you,” she said, though she was still quite embarrassed.
It was perhaps for the best that they fell into a silence that lasted until they arrived at her chamber. As they stopped at the door, Christopher smiled.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Emerald,” and she was confused until she remembered that it was only today that they had met. “I look forward to Friday.”
“As do I,” said Emerald, smiling.
“Good night now,” he said.
She thought that he would leave then but he stayed for another moment, picking up her left hand and kissing the back of it with an almost intimate tenderness.
He let it drop, gazing intently into her eyes.
Her smile faltered a little in the thudding of her heart but she managed to say “Good night, Christopher,” without collapsing into him.
Christopher nodded to her and walked away.
She watched him until he disappeared, the only thing on her mind the memory of that gentle yet thrilling kiss, and then turned to open the door of her chamber. Moments later she was readying for bed.