"Look!" Coryn barked out with a bit too much excitement and volume. "It's the Queen!" I almost think that she would have waved frantically, hoping that royalty would notice her and perhaps even acknowledge her, but she was taught some level of decorum in school. She merely wiggled in her seat with glee and breathed erratically. "Someday," she intoned, as Mulls sat next to her, rolling her eyes and mouthing the words that the older girl always said in these circumstances: "I will be her."
As they settled back into their seats in the section of the auditorium set aside for Misses, Mullicynda smiled the smile of forced serenity. Coryn was always dragging her to another contest as the older girl couldn't seem to get enough of them. There was always the ready notepad as well, for there were copious notes and observations to make as preparation for such competitions when it was her turn. Mulls enjoyed watching the beautiful events, but to my eyes, she seemed to enjoy them on the same somewhat detached level as the commoners that crowded the middle section of the hall from front to back, simply as a pretty spectacle. Although she understood that, like Coryn, she would someday likely be one of the participants on stage, she was not really excited about it at all. It was her courtesy to Coryn, who had begged the younger girl to accompany her, that had put Mulls in this place.
There was another young woman who looked just as non-plussed to be at this pageant. She sat next to the Queen, as was her right, though the two women really didn't like each other. The Grand Duchess was next in line to the throne, ready to step into the royal pumps the minute "the old hag keels over" as she whispered conspiratorially to almost anyone that she could manage to conspire with. Of course, the words "old" and "hag" were used in a context here that somewhat eludes me and probably you fine readers as well, for the Queen is as traditionally gorgeous as a regular beauty contest winner should be and is all of twenty-five years of age. The Grand Duchess is only a few months younger but it seems that spite and envy magnify every difference and as I look at her, I do think the Queen is infinitesimally more beautiful than her immediate junior.
It is not beyond the Grand Duchess to smile a little slyly these days, as another opportunity for the Queen to expire is coming in the not too distant future: she is once again pregnant. In any other culture, this would not be a cause of joy to one's enemies, having another potential heiress to the throne, but within the Convocation, things just don't work that way. All baby girls are taken straight from their birthing suites to the Royal nursery, where their preparations begin as future Ladies and beauty contestants. There is no distinction or even connection between a girl born to a sitting Queen and one born to a country bumpkin Lady that has never even gotten past auditions as no one seems to track a baby girl's origins. They are all Ladies, daughters of the first Queen Saradyo, and, at least before they start hating and wishing doom on-stage to each other, they are all simple sisters within the Convocation of Ladies. So, with sisterly concern, the Grand Duchess wishes not-too-quietly that the present Queen dies in childbirth, as is quite traditional for a royal expiration, and gives an obviously more worthy woman the throne.
As you will recall, I told you that Coryn was a rather typical example of a Lady. I hope my description of the Grand Duchess bears this out.
There is not time just now to talk further on such matters as the master of ceremonies has taken the stage and, for obvious reasons, all eyes are upon him with various degrees of longing and raw lust. It is the stunningly handsome consort of our Grand Duchess, who simply beams at seeing her current paramour raising such a stir, for she has him in her bed and every other Lady, the Queen included, does not. The man is doing a fine job, for as part of his role as a consort to such high Ladies, he is often pressed into this sort of service. Our less impressive Daavor would very much like to take up the "MC" training, but the opportunity has so far not arisen. What has also not arisen is anyone's notice of the small smile on the Queen's lips, for without the knowledge of the Grand Duchess, this master of ceremonies has slipped into her private chambers on some recent occasions and "spent some time", as it is said. There is now only finding the right timing to reveal this fact to her "next in line" to crush the Grand Duchess properly. In the meantime, everyone's eyes are sparkling as the man sings through his opening number to launch the pageant.
I must admit that I have always found things like beauty pageants and award shows imminently boring and I must apologize to you readers that do not agree, for I am not going to describe at any length at all the proceedings here. Everything is so scripted and, except for the few required "surprises", you can watch any televised contest from the comfort of your couch and get a better picture of what is going on than what I could ever describe here. I find the differences between this contest and those that our society would recognize to be a far more interesting topic to write about.
As an example, I find it intriguing that the present Queen and Grand Duchess, not very long ago, faced each other on this very stage, vying for the tiara that the Grand Duchess now wears. As there is no competition for the title of Queen, the royal crown is passed onto the sitting Grand Duchess only upon the death of previous Queen, as has been said, effectively leaving the pageant that decides the next Grand Duchess as the ultimate prize that can be won. The current Queen is only the Queen because, two contests ago, the current Grand Duchess stumbled with her flaming batons in the talent portion, this coining her latest nom-de-plume "Fire Witch". Not long later, the former Queen expired on the birthing table, the current Queen vacated her role as Grand Duchess, and her first runner-up managed to win the pageant for the empty spot. Uncomfortable though it may seem to us, this situation comes up on a regular basis on Firsthome and puts the worst of pageant enemies into the royal sky-box side-by-side, smiling broadly and waving that traditionally royal wrist-rocking wave to an alternately adoring and covetous crowd. What is back-stabbing in private is a beautiful unity in public.
Now that the breath-taking consort has finished singing and welcoming his adoring fans, the time has come to introduce the contestants. As the title being vied for this particular evening is "Princess of Fish", we are seeing a goodly proportion of Ladies that head up fishing households, as they have a bit of an advantage in the scoring of the judges and tend to flock to the opportunity. As this is something of a final "stepping stone" to the highest contests which decide who will wear one of the four ducal crowns, it becomes a more intense competition than most. Certainly, there are the fresh upstarts who auditioned for this contest as potential wildcards who actually win often enough to encourage even the newest Convocation School graduate to attempt to jump several rungs up the status ladder in this one single bound. The consort master of ceremonies is dutifully mentioning this as opportunity presents buxom girls that look to be not much more than twelve years old, presenting themselves beside obviously more mature and likely contestants.
Some women are on-stage because they wear tiaras belonging to the next lower level below title for which all are competing. In this case, as we are witnessing the selection of a new Princess of Fish, the "automatic" contestants include the Countesses of Carp, Trout, Anchovy, and Mackerel. This last mentioned, the particularly stunning Yvette, is the clear favorite to win, but there is always the chance of a faux-pas in one section of the competition or another, making the way clear for someone unexpected. Besides these four, various Baronesses, named for lesser or more common fish breeds, have guaranteed spots on stage as well, leaving a few positions for those wildcards who I and the master of ceremonies mentioned before.
One interesting wildcard is an older woman (all of twenty-six) who held this very Princess title in the past, gave it up graciously a few years back as no Lady can compete for a crown she currently wears, but is now eligible to win it again. She had even gone beyond the Princess level and once won the title of Duchess of Aquaculture and sat on the Ducal Court herself. Beyond this, she had been a fine contestant in the last pageant for the crown of the Grand Duchess, giving the current title-holder that we already saw conniving in the royal sky-box a good challenge. However, this particular Lady obviously lost that competition, served her two years as Duchess, and now must find some place for herself in whatever circumstance becomes available to her. As the consort announces this previous winner, a ripple of "oohs" and "aahs" rise from the crowd and the confident smile of assumed winner Yvette tightens with apprehension.
This is the kind of drama that makes contests on Firsthome so followed by everyone and that presents the only interest I can muster for such things.
The contest proceeds as you starry-eyed readers might expect. There are various stages that highlight the various attributes that are required from not only a fine example of a Convocation Lady, but more specifically the figure-head of all things fishy among the Alaed. The ranks of contestants are whittled down as the judges rate each young woman's prowess in matters of hair, smile, personality, and how one fills out a form-fitting leotard. In the case of this particular pageant, each contestant in the semi-finals gives an elaborate presentation on how she is best suited to encourage the fishing industry, typically employing large panels of painted cloth on-stage that have depictions of fisher-folk happy in their service. The favorite Yvette has added a bit of spice by having stagehands move the panels about in cadence to a musical accompaniment as she walks among them and gives her impassioned speech of how much she loves and cares for her wonderful workers and their increased output. The crowd, especially those commoners in Yvette's current employ, cheers enthusiastically and the judges tabulate their scores accordingly.
In the latter parts of the somewhat long process, stretched over nearly a week, the field of Ladies is eventually whittled down to five finalists. I would personally have wondered off long before day three, but as this is a culture seemingly centuries before the concept of switching television channels, this contest is one of the only entertainments available this week. The Ducal Court, among its many duties as the high arbiters of pageantry, also makes sure that there is a rather constant yet not overlapping schedule of events to keep both Lady and commoner enthralled. It wouldn't do to have a contest, especially one on the level of choosing a Princess, poorly attended in favor of some other distraction. The five young women are present on-stage, the master of ceremonies is looking as fresh and virile as ever, the interview portion has just been completed, and any commoner who was as uninterested in the preliminaries as I am have finally succumbed to the excitement of the moment and crowded into the large hall for the final results. It is finally time to reveal the next Princess of Fish.
Coryn and Mullicynda are in their reserved seating. The older girl has been whispering to the other for days now, picking apart every flaw and highlighting with contempt the winner of each stage of the contest, swearing that she would have bested them, all the while also scribbling madly in her notebook every idea that she thought would profit when her own chance to really compete finally came. Mulls was characteristically studied in her nonchalance, but the crackling excitement was even getting through to her and she was inching toward the edge of her seat.
A Baroness was here, as well the Countesses of Trout and Mackerel, the former Duchess of Aquaculture, and of course Yvette the favorite. There had been plenty of drama as a sixteen-year-old beauty, freshly graduated from the Convocation school, had done very well in the semis, but the judges had quietly decided that there would be no "surprise" upsets in this case and the obvious maturity of women three or four years older would win the day. The younger woman had been sent packing and these finalists were here, dressed in thier most Princess-ly gowns, ready for a crown to be placed on their heads.
I find this the perfect time to interrupt the climax of these proceedings to explain something about the Alaed culture as it may jaundice whatever picture you expectant readers had in your heads regarding this scene. I specifically use the word "expectant" as each of the women on this stage is, to use our cultural term, "expecting". They are not so much expecting to win as they are pregnant. The Baroness and the Countess of Trout are not very far along at all, but the Countess of Mackerel and Yvette look to be within seconds of needing the birthing suite. A product of our culture would find this an odd feature of a beauty contest, given our penchant for the appearance of virginity among our "scholarship" contestants, but for a Lady of the Convocation, especially a highly placed one, fertility is the most vaunted trait that can be displayed. Where our culture would fashion a formal dress to often hide a woman's delicate condition, the gowns worn by these "far-along" women are cut to call attention to the pregnancy and, as much as is possible, enhance it. It even looks as if the "old" Duchess may have had a pillow sewn underneath her crowning outfit to make up for her pathetic three month along torso.
So, it becomes my duty to report that, although the former Duchess clearly won several key phases of the contest, the favored Yvette was given an unsurprising victory, winning "by a belly" as it is said quite openly among the girls in the Misses section.
"I knew it," Coryn whispered. "I knew she would win."
Mullicynda simply smiled her serene smile and nodded.