“Are you okay, ma’am?” said the girl, looking a little nervous. She was even newer to the post than Alanna and wasn’t sure how to behave in all situations, this being one that she had not come across before. “It’s dinner time.”
“Of course.” The Queen put the reader in her drawer and smiled up at the girl. “I’m ready, certainly. I was just reading a book. It’s called Watching - have you read it, Caterina?”
“Of course not. How silly of me - it was never made public. But I have access to all sorts of manuscripts, even the unpublished ones, so long as they were posted somewhere.” She smiled. That was one of the very few powers she still retained. That and the ability to officially declare war, although the decision was made by the Prime Minister and they decided everything about it. “Anyway, let’s go and eat. Though to be honest, I haven’t much of an appetite. I went down to the kitchens earlier.”
Caterina knew this was a habit of her mistress’s. “I see, ma’am,” she said politely. “They’ve made a roast, though, so I didn’t think you would want to be late. You have a guest, your majesty. Her name is Helena - I believe she is your cousin?”
For the first time since the girl had arrived, the queen looked enthusiastic. “Helena is here? Oh, I’m so glad. It’s been a very long time, you know. I’ve missed her.” She looked suddenly at her assistant. “Do you have any cousins, Cat? I know so little about you, and yet you’re here every day. We never talk; it’s odd.”
“I’m just a servant, ma’am, it’s not my place.”
“Tch, servants are a thing of the past. You’re my assistant, but I’m sure if only we talked, we’d be friends too, do you not think?” When her assistant did not reply she stood up and walked over to the door, which Caterina was holding open. “You’re a good girl, Cat. I really honestly do believe that we should talk more. It’s a pity you don’t seem to think so, but I’m sure you’ll change your mind soon enough.” Smiling, she passed out into the corridor and prepared to walk for five minutes just to reach her dining room, right on the other side of the building.
“Rather stupidly designed, isn’t it?” she said, looking disappointed. “You’d think they could have laid it out a little better. Personally, I find the shape rather old fashioned and out of date, and I’m sure they could have done better than that. This wasn’t built in the Second World War, you know!”
“Didn’t they build it on the site of the old palace, ma’am?” asked Caterina, looking terrified as though she might be told off for speaking, but Alanna just smiled at her and nodded in approval, glad that the girl was finally taking some initiative.
“Indeed, after it was flattened in the Third War. Oh, I hope that’s the last time my beautiful London is laid to waste ...” She broke off, because they had reached the dining room. A woman of about twenty was sitting there, but she stood up as the queen entered and ran over.
“Alanna, it’s been too long!” she said, hugging her younger cousin. “My, but isn’t this a fine place? I love all this wood and stuff, it’s so quaint. I simply had to come and visit you today, you know, since I was in the area. I must say, you’re looking grand. But tell me, is something worrying you?”
Caterina had left them and they were alone apart from the cook, dear Dina, and her assistants, who were bringing in the first course, a fine soup with freshly made bread. On an impulse, Alanna decided to tell her cousin everything. “I’m fed up of being just a figurehead,” she said, dipping her spork into the soup and finding out something else that was very irritating. “These things are so stupid!”
“Well, if you try and use it as a spoon the liquid just goes through the little holes that the prongs make, but if you try and use it as a fork the prongs are too short to really spear anything. It’s ridiculous.”
“What’s a fork?” said Helena. She, unlike her younger sister and her cousin, did not read old books, and knew nothing of their unusual and simple eating implements. She thought perhaps Alanna had finally gone crazy: everybody ate with sporks, so what was the problem?
“Forget it,” said Alanna, looking thoroughly fed up. “I’ll go and see if they’ve got any soup spoons. I’m not sitting here struggling with this thing for ten minutes.” She made to get up, but Helena pulled her back.
“Where are you going? That’s the sort of thing you ask a servant – sorry, an assistant – to do, not do yourself. You need to start behaving more like a queen, my dear, you’re simply too headstrong.” For all her slightly less royal birth, she was a proper lady and had very clearly defined ideas about manners, and unlike Alanna she had not gone to school but had been tutored at home.
Alanna sighed in irritation. “Why bother, when I’m perfectly capable of walking to the kitchen myself? It only gives them more work to do if I’m that lazy. Honestly, Hel, you should know by now that I’m not that sort of a queen. I don’t like to treat everybody like I’m the only person in the world that means anything.” She got up and marched over to her haven, where Dina looked up in surprise.
“Do you need something, Alli?” she asked, using the pet name that only she and occasionally the queen’s mother used.
“A proper spoon, instead of these ridiculous sporks,” she replied. “Will somebody please give me one before I cry? I’ve not had a good day.” A shining metal spoon, obviously hardly used, was pressed into her hand and she smiled at the donor, who was a handsome young man of about twenty three. “Thank you.”“You’re welcome, ma’am,” he said, retreating to his own place. Mollified, Alanna returned to the dining room and resumed eating her sleep, with Helena shaking her head in disapproval at her behaviour. She didn’t care. She was queen now, and the time of fussy manners at small dinners was past.