Alba came out of her rooms fully dressed, holding her notes for the day. As she lifted her gaze from the page she took notice of an old man reading a book in the middle of the hallway. He heard her steps and stopped reading. A warm flash of delight appeared in his sharp grey eyes.
Even though Andronikos Dragases had passed seventy winters, he still walked straight, standing thin and gaunt like a yew branch. He wore his usual Chancellor uniform, black robe with golden buttons and a thick collar that made him look a bit like an Italian priest.
Alba had always refrained from making the comparison out loud though. While the Chancellor shared her healthy contempt for Austrians, the only thing he loathed more were what he called ‘Papists’.
How he came to serve in Eridania had been, for the longest time, anybody’s guess.
“Ah, Princess,” he welcomed her with a nod. “Good morning! It is nice to see you up so early.”
“I had hoped it wouldn’t be reason for surprise anymore?” She mused. At least not after six months since she had been forced to pick up the reins of the kingdom.
“Apologies,” he muttered, passing a hand over his bald and shiny head. He adjusted his glasses over his hawkish nose and brushed his fingers down to his short grey beard. “Sometimes I still wake up thinking I must ready one of your classes. Allow a bit of nostalgia to your old tutor.”
“I’ll allow anything, but only before breakfast. Did you eat anything already?” She handled him her notes and he began to skim through them as they walked down the hall. A few servants were already up and running, and they bowed at their passage. Alba gave them a quick wave of her hand, but other than that she was mostly focused on Andronikos.
“At my age two slices of fruit and a handful of nuts are more than enough. You, on the other hand…”
Alba blushed a bit – she had tried to play her pallor as a consequence of mourning, but after six months, and under Andronikos’ expert gaze, she knew he was one of the few she couldn’t fool.
“I ate something in my rooms already.”
He quirked an eyebrow.
“Last time I checked there were no orders given to bring any kind of sustenance to your rooms. And I did check yesternight.”
“I am not really starving.”
“Leave the rest of your day to do that in your stead. Let’s go eat something, Princess. I shall revise your notes as we sit.”
Alba rolled her eyes, but now that she was out of the Catacombs, the thought of the Witch was fading and more mundane worried were surfacing – she agreed with a nod and the Chancellor guided her towards one of the many studying rooms that disseminated this part of the palace.
She roamed her eyes over the white-washed walls. Save for certain rooms such as that of the Audiences, her Father had decided to forget about the past and cover most of the walls in uniform white, painting over the faded frescos she remembered from when she was a child. Now the thick columns, wide arches of the ceilings and geometrical fugues of the porticos and tall windows met each other in a stern concerto that gave the Cittadella the look of a drawing for an architecture student.
It was functional and what was most important: it was cheap.
As with many other things, sacrifices had to be made.
“Here will be perfect, we have a meeting in the Music Room anyway,” he said opening his collar and withdrawing a heavy set of keys the hard cloth kept against his chest. He chose one and opened the door, revealing a small room with a single window, completely covered in old books. “Would you kindly bring us a cup of tea, biscuits and nuts for the Princess, and a bottle of water for myself?” He appointed a servant, who nodded and turned towards the kitchens. “After you.”
Alba entered, coughing a little at the amount of dust that had been collected.
“Every time I come here there’s more and more books piled up.”
“There is no end to the Catacombs,” Andronikos explained taking a seat next to her. “So far we have removed everything up to the Sixteenth Century, but we have so many more secrets rooms to look into.”
“Anything valuable?” As much as she despised the bourgeois, there were always a few of them interested in ancient trinkets.
“Princess, the value of knowledge by itself is beyond compare. I thought we had been over this.”
“Yes, but with the value of knowledge and one corona I can buy a loaf of bread,” she retorted.
“Tch. I suppose I can look into my contacts. I suppose someone in Rome, Paris of Saint Petersburg could be interested in an illuminated manuscript or a first edition…”
“That’s the spirit.”
He shook his head and silently dropped the topic, drawing attention back to her notes.
“Moving on, I really appreciate how you codified and organize all your appointments. This is a very good skill to have for a future monarch.”
“I suppose I couldn’t sleep through each and every one of your lessons.”
“Not for a lack of trying, Your Highness.” He shut the notebook and handed it back to her. “I will have to make a few amendments to your schedule, I am afraid.”
“Oh for the love of God, don’t tell me another of my Ministers wants to meet me today,” she groaned.
“Not one – it would be two.”
Alba threw her head back.
“Go on. Let’s try to make it all fit.”
As luck would have it, the servant came back right then with their breakfast, and Alba was secretly glad her old Chancellor knew her so well. She ate the two peaches and drank the tea as he rummaged through their notes, writing down appointments and trying to find a moment for all of them.
It seemed her day had just got even heavier.
Munching on a biscuit, Alba’s mind wandered back towards the Catacombs, and what she hoped to finally take out from there.
Could she trust Andronikos enough with the result of her secret studies? Besides, he had been in the Catacombs already, he knew they held much more than they seemed to, and he used to be Father’s oldest and most trusted friend.
Yet she hesitated. Their Chancellor had always been a strictly-rational man and even when Father begged him to listen to him, even through the feverish delirium, he had tried to pull him back towards what he believed was a solid shore instead of following him in the sea of madness and crazy theories and baseless legends.
If he couldn’t humor him even at his worst, even when he had needed him the most, would he trust a former student of his?
Even if she outranked him now.
… maybe in a few more days.
If she failed once again.
A few days, perhaps.
And wasn’t summer about to start some weeks down the line? She’d tell him in summer.
That was a good plan, she decided.
“That would put them all in good order,” Andronikos said as he gave her notebook back, a new version of her list of appointment (one longer and more condensed) written on the next page.
“Not a good day.”
He seemed to hesitate.
She knew him as well.
He only hesitated when there was some really bad news.
“What now?” She groaned.
“You have one more appointment. It’s not for today. I managed to delay it to tomorrow.”
She frowned. Who could it be?
Andronikos let out a long and tired breath.
“Karl Heinrich Sparagmos, the Duke.”
Author’s Notes: I’m trying to contain chapter length to about 1200 words for this new web novel. I hope you’ll like it. At any rate, it’s so full of character interactions, it’s different from Patina. I like to try something that’s different!
Thanks for reading!