Context for Today's Excerpt: Anna disguised herself as a boy, Albert, and set off looking for adventure. She tried to foil a kidnapping the night before, and failed. (Although in the process she injured the mysterious kidnapper she calls "The Gentleman in Black" in the hand.) As a reward for her attempt, she was given a job as a stableboy in the royal stables of her tiny country.
* * * * *
An Excerpt from Chapter 5 - "The Royal Stableboy"
(In Which Anna Comes Face to Face With Two Troublemakers, One With Two Legs, The Other With Four....)
* * * * *
Safely shut in my room, I stripped and tried on the livery. The trousers were too large, but with the help of a belt it did not look too bad. The jacket was long enough to conceal the worst of it, and the pant cuffs were hidden in my boots. The only trouble was a bit of bagginess around the knees.
I was nervous. I supported the queen, but that did not stop me from being excited about meeting Prince Hugo. He was, after all, the Prince Hugo. I looked in the mirror and carefully adjusted my cap. Hans burst in without knocking. I noticed he had a cap on now, and without the silly feathers. He did not say anything, but he glanced at me and went to the mirror to adjust his own cap.
“You say it looks smart?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Especially on you. Yours fits.”
“Not that it matters,” Hans said, looking back at the mirror. “We can never look too sharp for Uncle Wil, and nobody else will notice.”
“Somebody might. Maybe Hugo.”
“Oh, yeah. Hugo.”
“He’s pretty bad, you say.”
“It’s not really him,” said Hans. “He rides in a carriage usually and doesn’t come back here. It’s the people with him. They won’t really be so bad, though. Not for you. It’s me who it’s rough on. Hugo’s got this nephew, Tybalt von Stenbau....”
“That viscount you were talking about.”
“Yes. He hates me, and his horse hates me too. Every time he comes he seeks me out, because he knows I’m afraid of his horse.”
“Point him out to me and I’ll take the horse first,” I said.
“He won’t let you. He hates me.” Hans gave me a resigned smile.
“We can try,” I said. “Maybe we can shake him up a little.”
“If you really want to,” said Hans. “I won’t complain. The horse is dark grey, kind of unusual because it doesn’t have any dapples. Just solid color, with a black mane and tail.”
“Is it really that awful a horse?”
“No worse that Sea Sprite, probably. But Tybalt makes it hard by giving a lot of instructions, and I guess once I let him run over me the first time, he just plain won’t obey.” Hans shook his head. I could not tell if he meant the man or the horse.
From the gateway of the stable yard we could see a number of carriages and horsemen approaching. It was a large group, though at that distance and angle I could not see how many carriages. The whole speeding mass made a lively clot of motion on the roadway, with the carriages trundling and horsemen darting in and out. It was moving very fast, too fast for the people who were beginning to gather along the street. Then it passed from my view as it entered the center of the city.
“That’s all we’ll see,” said Hans. “The carriages will go to the front, and only some of the horsemen will come back here.”
“Quite a show, though,” I said. “So many. They must be coming to stay a while.”
“If you’re courting a queen, you do it in style.” He let out a short laugh and ran a finger around his collar.
“What have you heard about the wedding?” I asked. “Is it certain?”
“Well, there are still only rumors,” he said. “There’s been a lot of visiting back and forth, but as you say, it looks like Hugo, and Sigmond and the rest of their lot are here to stay. I bet there will be an announcement very soon, or none at all.”
“Maybe while I’m here,” I said.
“You’re not staying?” he said, looking around quickly.
“Only for a while,” I began to say. A loud clatter of hooves interrupted me.
“Here they are now,” said Hans. A small group of horses entered the yard, making more clatter than their number seemed to account for. “There. That’s the one.”
I turned in the direction Hans pointed and ran to take the bridle of the tall, slate grey horse, which was the one making most of the noise. I stopped short, however, when I saw the rider. His lean form swung down gracefully, in spite of the animal’s stamping and shying. It was no other than the Gentleman in Black.
My hand took the cheek piece of the bridle, of its own volition, for my mind was too stunned to command it. The rider turned and reached out a gloved hand to snatch it away. The glove was bulky, as if it had a bandage under it.
“Where’s that other boy? I want....” He stopped as he saw my face, his mouth open in surprise. Then he closed it and smiled. “Hello, Pipsqueak.”
“I have a name, sir,” I said. “It’s Albert.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon. Albert. Of course.” He said it with half a grin and half a look of mock seriousness. The horse threw its head up and backed off. I went with him, for it was useless to try to pit my weight against his.
“See here,” said the rider. “I don’t want you snatching at his mouth with the reins. Take him by the cheek piece. Oh, so you have.”
When the horse saw that I was not going to fight with him, he relented to a few gentle tugs and I led him back. The rider rocked back on his heels and played with his riding crop. He was still dressed in black, but now he had on a long grey overcoat with a black fur collar. He wore a cap too, which was pushed too far forward. He nodded thoughtfully as I came back to him.
“See to it that he is well walked out. He’s had a hard ride. Loosen . . . oh.” He paused as I reached back to loosen the girth. “When he’s cool give him plenty of water, but be sure that it isn’t too cold. I want it tepid.” He started to turn away and the horse laid back his ears, baring his teeth at me. I had, at least, control of his head and he could not bite me.
“Sir? What’s his name?” I asked.
“Regis,” he said, turning back again to face me, “because he’s nobler than anyone here.” He shot a glance at the palace. “Excepting me, of course.” He paused to look me up and down. “Somebody get this boy a proper set of clothes,” he said loudly. “His pants are falling down.”
He turned heel and walked briskly away. My pants were not falling down, but I was embarrassed all the same.
I was not sure what to do. I had to report this to the marquis, but I also had this horse to care for, a horse which was ardently trying to follow his master. I pulled gently on him, and after a short battle I had him walking forward at least, though not entirely in the direction I wanted.
Since the culprit already knew I recognized him, and had not yet run away, and as I had his horse, I decided that it would do no harm to finish my work before I sought out the marquis.
Regis was very uncooperative for the first few minutes. He planted his feet suddenly and even gentle coaxing would not budge him. Then he exploded into a stomping fit and while I was occupied with his feet, his head snaked around, teeth bared. He hit me in the hip, but he did not bite because he snapped his head away too quickly. I took a hold of his snaffle rein to get more control. I did not care what my orders were, and I had no intention of snatching at the animal’s mouth.
The animal’s mouth, however, had every intention of snatching at me. He bit at me again, at my arm, taking a mouthful of sleeve and tugging. He paused, one ear coming forward.
“You’re all bluff!” I said to him, and he laid back his ears again. I scratched his forehead and called him a silly boy. The ears came up and he started walking. I think he was too tired to play anymore.
We turned in our circuit to walk in the direction of the palace. I looked up at it and saw, on an upper balcony, a slim dark figure leaning on the balustrade. He was watching me. I did not know how long he had been there, and I stopped. In a moment two women came out and spoke to him, and he went in with them. I turned to Regis and felt his chest. He was cool enough, and I felt a sudden urgency to see the marquis.
* * * * *
Tomorrow, I'll post a little more about the writing of this clip.
If you'd like to read more of The Adventure of Anna the Great, you can find it in ebook form at Amazon's Kindle Store, Kindle UK Store, Smashwords. and Barnes and Noble's Nookstore. Look for it at Apple's iBookstore, Sony, Kobo and Diesel, too.