“Therefore, my dear scholars, eat and enjoy the night! You all deserve it!” King Bernhard said, lifting his cup.
The crowd cheered, and the hall erupted with chatter and laughter. A group of musicians, who were invited for this occasion, began playing music on one side of the hall. The servants weaved through tables and chairs, delivering food and drinks.
The king returned to his seat after seeing to it that everyone was having a blast. Lia had the mistake of staring too long that His Highness caught her eyes. His smile widened and moved his hand up to his mouth, a gesture that Lia assumed to mean to eat lots. She returned the smile, but her facial muscles felt stiff. She grimaced at the thought of looking constipated because of that. It was bad enough to be caught starstruck with the king. But she did not have to worry for long when one of the ministers caught His Majesty’s attention and proceeded to chatter, forgetting Lia in the background.
‘What am I even doing here?’ Lia wanted to smack her forehead as she sat in the table -- the same one the king was using, along with other palace officials. ‘Really, Lia. What have you done?’
A week after the exam, she received a letter stating that she passed and that she was invited to a banquet for the scholars. She thought that it would be a good opportunity to observe and familiarize herself with this new environment. Lia expected to be the wallflower the entire night.
As the self-appointed observer, she chose an unremarkable outfit -- her old trusted chinos she reserved for special events. Not a common choice for women, but it was simple and formal. Inconspicuous even. Just what she was.
When she arrived, she realized how underdressed she was, especially when she stood side-by-side with other scholars. If she had not shown the acceptance letter at the entrance, she might have been sent to the servants’ hall instead.
The usherette guided Lia to her seat. The closer they got to the table, the nearer Lia wanted to faint on the spot.
Old people -- ministers, she reminded herself -- filled the table. They were chatting animatedly. In the midst of the group, Lia found the young miss from the examination day and another young man wearing somber clothes with an equally somber face. Her eyes swept to the last person in the table and froze. It was the king.
King freaking Bernhard.
This only meant one thing: she was one of the top three in the exam. Tim once told her that only the highest-ranking scholars would be able to share a table with the king.
Panic rose to her chest. This must be a joke. There must have been a mistake somewhere.
“Is this,” she croaked and stopped. She controlled her voice and tried again, “Is this where I’m going to sit?” ‘Please, tell me it’s not.’
This was not part of her plan. Where did she go wrong? ‘I thought I purposely wrote the wrong answer?’ But no, she must have gotten carried away when answering.
“Yes.” She beamed. “The three examinees that got the highest scores have the privilege to share the same table as the king.” When she noticed that Lia was not reassured, she added, “Don’t be nervous. Our king is very kind. You just have to enjoy dinner.”
‘Easy for you to say…’