In the Dark

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Literary_Dreamer, Mar 29, 2014.

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  1. Sirion of Alieria stumbled over through the door to his rooms, exhausted and miserable. His page had started a fire in the hearth—good lad—and the room was washed in its warmth. He collapsed in the chair closest to the fire and for a moment he thought he be overcome by his grief. His father, king of Alieria for twenty-five long years: dead. It was all so sudden. His father had been in perfect health a week ago and now he was gone.

    Sirion hardly knew what to think. He was king! A thousand times over as a child he’d idly imagined what he would do as king but Lord knew he’d never wished for his father to die, not once. Now it had happened and a very heavy crown awaited him. Of course he wouldn’t wear the physical crown until after his coronation which would be after an appropriate period of mourning for his father, the late king deserved every respect in death, but it didn’t make Sirion any less king in reality.

    There was so much to do. Sirion couldn’t even begin to wrap his mind around it, not right now. At least he had one piece of solid advice from his father. Just before he died, the late king had made Sirion swear to uphold every portion of the alliance with their southern neighbor. “We can’t afford to offend the one friend we have,” his father had said. If Sirion failed in everything else, he planned to get that right.


    “Absolutely not,” Sirion said. He was sitting at his father’s desk and he felt small, like he was a child again, but he was determined to sound like he knew what he was doing. His mother stood on the other side of the desk, draped in black for mourning, and for a moment he thought that she would become truly angry.

    If was a formidable thought. Queen Nycaise was beautiful but she was a faerie and faeries were not to be trifled with. Sirion had learned to fear his mother at a very young age when he’d complained about being forced to learn magic while the other children were allowed to go outside and play. He still bore a faint scar under his right eye from where she’d struck him. He’d rarely opposed his mother since.

    This situation was different, however. She was asking him to disobey an order from his king. His father had commanded him to uphold every particular of the alliance which would protect them from the encroaching enemy but his mother wanted him to break off his engagement with their ally’s princess. This wasn’t entirely a surprise, Nycaise had opposed the engagement since it had been agreed upon and that was sixteen years ago.

    In his younger years, Sirion had agreed with his mother that the engagement should be broken off. Of course, at the time he’d had no interest in marriage whatsoever and had been secretly planning to run off and join the dwarves in their mines because he believed that there were no dwarf women, despite being repeatedly told the opposite.

    Now Sirion understood the wisdom of the match and he had convinced himself that even if he did not have any affectionate feelings towards the princess—whom he’d never met—he could develop them once they were married. He knew as well as most that marriage didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the feelings of those involved but he hoped to be on at least friendly terms with his future wife.

    “You are making the wrong decision,” Nycaise insisted. “You are bringing a foreigner into our country and you are making her a queen. The faeries will not stand for it.”


    “No. I will not listen to your stupid little arguments. If you will not do as I request, then you are no longer my son.”

    “Don’t do this,” Sirion said weakly, then gathered his determination. “You will not do this. You will not make me choose between my duty and my family. If you will not receive me as your son, so be it but I am still your king and I will not be treated in such a manner by my subjects. Now please leave or I will have you removed.”

    Nycaise was staggered for a moment by the way her son spoke to her but she quickly recalled her dignity and swept out of the room, leaving Sirion to collapse into a ball of nerves the moment she was out of sight.


    Later that day, Nycaise sent a message to her son through her most trusted servant saying that he was right and that she wanted to have a private supper, just the two of them, so that she could apologize. Sirion mistrusted the offer of peace but what could he do? If he turned down the offer, he would look like the villain and if he accepted, he would have to risk whatever his mother had planned for him. There was no way for him to win. He accepted the offer.

    That evening, with great reluctance and uneasiness, Sirion climbed the stairs to his mother’s chambers. The draft, which was always in this part of the castle, felt like a bad omen and Sirion shivered. What did his mother have in store for him? Would she kill him? He didn’t think so—even a faerie woman couldn’t kill her own son and Nycaise wouldn’t risk having her half-faerie son be replaced by whatever full-human cousin was the next heir. Still, she was determined to have him not marry the southern princess, preferring a faerie bride for him, and she wouldn’t give this up so easily.

    He was let into the room by his mother’s lady-in-waiting and he saw the magnificent spread that had been laid out for supper. His mother had either sent the kitchen into a flurry or she’d conjured the food magically. If she’d conjured it, Sirion didn’t want to touch it. He might not want to touch it anyway. He’d reasoned that it was fairly unlikely that she would poison him but what about drugs? She could drug him and make him break off the engagement while he wasn’t in his right mind.

    He was staring at the food warily when his mother entered the room in suspiciously high spirits.

    “Ah, Sirion, my son,” she said, beaming in a way that put Sirion on guard. “I have reflected and seen how wrong I was. Your father has barely been gone a fortnight. We must stand together, console each other in our grief. Come. Let us be friendly again.” She held out her arms to embrace her son but Sirion didn’t want to get close enough to touch. Then he looked around and saw all of her ladies-in-waiting standing there, waiting and watching, prepared to tell all of the court that their new king had refused to make peace with his own mother.

    Reluctantly, Sirion stepped forward and as soon as he was within reach, she grabbed his left hand and pressed the palm of her right hand to the back of it. She began uttering a curse in the old language of the faeries and even though Sirion knew exactly what was going on, he could do nothing to stop it. He couldn’t move or speak and even if he could, his magic wasn’t strong enough to combat hers. All he could do was stand there as she cursed him. When she was finished, she removed her hand and a black curse mark was left on his skin. If it hadn’t had such a dark meaning, it would have been beautiful, a series of intertwining black lines forming a circular design on his hand. It could have looked like the body art that many faeries and elves wore but it wasn’t and as long as it marked his skin, he was cursed.

    “Now,” Nycaise said, clapping her hands to draw Sirion’s attention away from the mark on his hand, “let us have a feast to celebrate the annulment of your betrothal.”

    “I won’t break off the engagement.”

    “You don’t have a choice anymore.” The Queen Mother smiled, very pleased with herself. “If you so much as lay eyes on that princess, your True Face will be revealed.”

    “My what?”

    “Your True Face. You are half-faerie, my son, and your faerie half comes from the highest line of faeries, you should be proud. However, the appearance of the High Faeries was so frightful to the humans that when they conquered this land they banished the faeries from their sight. Eventually, of course, we learned to make ourselves more beautiful to them, but every faerie has a True Face and no human can bear to lay eyes on it. That is what will happen to you if you see that girl. Now shall we eat?”

    Sirion stood there in shock for a long moment before he turned around and marched out of his mother’s chambers. He told the two nearest guards to watch her room, that the Queen Mother had assaulted the king, and that she was under house arrest until further notice. Then he went back to his own chambers to ruminate over what had just happened.

    Sirion had never thought much about his faerie half before. He could do magic, certainly, and even better than most of his elven friends but he wasn’t allowed to do it in public because humans couldn’t do magic. He was able to see the faeries that were invisible to humans but he wasn’t allowed to interact with them because humans couldn’t see them. He was also stronger and faster than the normal humans but he was supposed to pretend that he wasn’t. Until recently, he’d attributed his mesmerizing good looks to being part faerie as well. But that, it turned out, was just a spell.

    The whole situation disturbed him and he didn’t sleep well.


    Castien, the son of the elven leader and close personal friend to the new human king, was watching the end to a traditional dwarfish gambling game which had been started the night before. Only two dwarves were left and it was getting quite heated. Castien found dwarves to be amusing because they were so hot-headed and stubborn and they almost always provided some entertainment for an elf like Castien who saw their antics as petty and foolish. Just as an actual brawl was about to begin, a messenger arrived with a letter for the king. Castien took the letter, promising to deliver it to Sirion, and gratefully escaped the Great Hall before any actual violence broke out.

    The elf found Sirion in his study, looking pale and tired.

    “Is something the matter, Sire?” he asked. Castien knew some elven healing magic and would gladly help his friend if he was ill but the king shook his head.

    “No. It’s nothing that can be helped,” Sirion said.

    Assuming that this meant his friend’s poor health was the result of his father’s recent death, Castien passed Sirion the letter and left. He wasn’t very far down the corridor, however, when he heard the king swear loudly. He returned to the king’s study and asked again, “Is something the matter, Sire?”

    Sirion didn’t answer immediately this time. He was staring intently at the letter he had just opened.

    “We cannot afford to go to war,” he said at last, putting the letter down, “but I do not know what else to do. I cannot marry the princess but she is already on her way.”

    “I do not understand,” Castien answered. “You were determined to defy your mother just yesterday.”

    Sirion sighed and held up his left hand, revealing the intricate black design.

    “A faerie curse?” Castien asked. He was an amateur scholar on the subject of magic—faerie, elven, dwarfish, all of it. “Why would a faerie curse you?”

    Sirion cringed, he’d forgotten for a moment that Castien did not know that his mother was a faerie. “They do not want me to marry the princess so they’ve cursed me to stop the wedding. If I so much as see the princess, something terrible will happen.”

    “They want me to marry a faerie girl.”

    “They are fools if they think that will ever happen.”

    “But I cannot marry the princess. Something terrible will happen. But we cannot go to war. If fight with our allies what will we do when that…that giant to the east decides to attack?” He ran his fingers through his hair and stared at the letter on his desk.

    “Calm your foolish human head,” Castien said when he realized that the king was on the verge of panic. “…Sire,” he added when Sirion looked up at him sharply. He then picked up the letter and quickly scanned it.

    “She may not have left yet,” he noted immediately. “It only says that if everything goes well she’ll have left by now. But you’re right; we won’t be able to stop a war if you decide to break off the betrothal now. But it gives us some time. Every curse can be broken, even if it’s a faerie curse. We just have to figure out how. If we can’t break it by the time she arrives…well, you don’t have to marry her immediately…”
    • Love Love x 1
  2. "Please hold still, Your Highness," Mara complained while combing Luminai's auburn locks. 'Combing' may have been a bit unceremonious manner of describing it; in reality, she was slowly transforming her hair in a spitting image of a garden in full bloom with all the flowers woven in the complicated coiffure. The princess fidgeted a little, which earned her a resigned sigh from the maid.

    "I'm trying. Seriously, if I don't get to stretch out in next five minutes, I'll turn into statue and you'll have to send a cold, unfeeling piece of rock to the prince."

    "Highly decorative piece of rock, Your Highness," the old maid chuckled and reached for another flower. "You're pretty as a picture." Staring at her reflection in the mirror, Luminai had to admit she looked beautiful today. Even though the dress she was wearing restricted her movement and made certain activities - like breathing, for example - almost impossible, it accentuated her slender physique in a very flattering way. Its color, crimson like a blood, may have been considered a little bold for a young girl, but it contrasted with her milky-white complexion nicely and golden rim softened the impression just enough to preserve the slightly dramatic effect. The emerald around her neck complimented her green eyes, shimmering in the soft light of a lamp. Yes, attempting to reject the flattery would have been dishonest; too bad that road to such presentable state was a thorny one.

    "Oh, how much I envy you, princess. I once had dreams about exploring the world, but my duties have tied me here like a dog to his kennel. You'll get to see so much, Your Highness, and you'll also be crowned a queen. Are you looking forward to meeting your future husband?" Her royal parents wouldn't be happy to find out their daughter was being interrogated by a mere maid; they said close relationships between nobles and servants were improper. Smearing the contours of decorum in favor of the plebeians was apparently responsible for rebellions, famine and volcanic eruptions. Luminai didn't share that widespread opinion; treating servants with a healthy dose of kindness had its advantages. Besides that warm and fuzzy feeling she got for acknowledging them as fellow human beings, it opened her numerous doors that remained hidden from other aristocrats. Some were literal, like door to palace kitchen where she could nibble from delicious desserts, some less so. The maids and chamberlains had become her eyes and ears whenever the princess was deemed 'too young' to handle certain juicy details. Political problems or rumors about passionate forbidden love affairs; her personal army of spies covered it all.

    "Of course. I can't wait to meet him," Luminai beamed, managing to smuggle sincerity in her tone. The idea of her own parents wrapping her in a cute package and sending her off to a foreign land to marry a complete stranger didn't frighten her. It was no secret she was destined to seal the fragile peace between their countries by virtue of wedlock; they had raised her with that thought in mind, never failing to mention how blessed she should feel for that engagement. Luminai understood the importance of her sacrifice, but saying goodbye to everything she'd ever known and being forcibly thrown into alien world wasn't anything worth a celebration. To be honest, the princess had consciously avoided pondering over her situation too much, and now when the old king had perished and the deal was about to come into effect, her emotions were a tangled mess. Would she even get along with the prince? He wouldn't dare to mistreat her unless he desperately wished to risk their precious alliance, but that didn't guarantee any real love blossoming between them. You could call her naive, yet Luminai didn't want to bear children of someone viewed her just as a tool of diplomacy. Then again, her desires didn't matter; if she could prevent thousands of senseless deaths with her happiness being the only price, she'd do it. In a heartbeat.

    The throne room, place of audiences and strategic meetings alike, was usually buzzing with life, but when Luminai entered, only her parents were present. Official farewells had been exchanged yesterday at the feast held in her honor, yet mother and father wished to see her for the last time before leaving. "You look enchanting, dear," the queen Alyse remarked, serene smile gracing her features. Even though age had taken away some of the beauty that could be perceived in the portraits, the wrinkles around her mouth only testified of her benevolence.

    "Thanks," Luminai answered, not really knowing what else to say. Under normal circumstances, she could talk a bald man into buying a hair comb and make it seem like a profitable bargain, but sentiment was stealing the right words from her tongue. Their opinions diverged drastically time to time which had led to many arguments, yet her parents had always remained a certainty in her life, advisors who would never betray her and the closest confidants. The princess didn't fight this battle alone; even her father's gaze looked suspiciously glassy, which was a surprising turn of events as he usually kept his emotions under wraps. He rose from the ornate throne, clutched his daughter in a bonebreaking hug and grabbed her shoulders.

    "Listen well now, for this is likely the last piece of advice I am going to bestow upon you, and it's important. Don't seek out unnecessary conflicts; knowing you, they'll find you on their own. Be polite and warm-hearted, accept customs of your new home with an open mind, but never forget who you are. Observe and learn; information can be better currency than gold. Watch out for your enemies, for there will be many of those who won't like seeing a stranger on their throne." Luminai couldn't help but smile; practical to the end. How very typical of the king.

    "Don't worry, I'll watch my every step with double amount of caution since you won't be there to catch me."

    Three brisk knocks suddenly echoed through the hall and an elderly man in full plate armor, captain Ryns, emerged in the crack between the door. "I am sorry to disturb you, Your Highness, but your carriage is ready." As much as she'd miss her parents, Luminai had no particular wish to postpone her departure; clean cut was definitely better than tearful dragged out drama. Sometimes you had to remove the bandage quickly to save yourself more pain. Luminai curtsied in a manner that would have made her etiquette teacher cry in joy.

    "It would appear my presence is requested elsewhere. Goodbye, mother, father. I promise to write a lot."

    The carriage was among the comfiest and most elegant the artisans had crafted for the royal family, yet Luminai still felt uncomfortable in that cramped space; like a chicken in its egg. What a fitting metaphor. Once I step outside, I will be reborn as someone completely different. As a queen. The weight of the reality truly landed on her shoulders for the first time, and for a moment, the princess thought it was going to crush her. Had she really done everything in her power to prepare for the responsibility? Looking back at her old life, probably not; she had been exceedingly inventive when it came to circumventing orders and evading boring history lessons to participate in marksman competitions or numerous hunts. That won't help me much aside from dispatching inevitable assassins climbing into my chambers late at night. Might as well fire all the guards to alleviate the burden put on the royal treasury. Self-doubt decayed for now; Luminai would be fine if she could retain a sense of humor about this. To kill some time, the princess pulled out a book and delved deep into the story.
  3. Sirion stared into the mirror, paranoid that the curse was somehow taking effect prematurely. He'd been seized by the notion three weeks ago when they'd received the report that the princess had crossed the border and would be arriving in the capital in no more than a fortnight (granted that everything went as planned). Was there any change in his crystalline blue eyes? Had his pale blond hair shifted in tone? Were his already high cheekbones sharper than they'd been? What about his teeth? Was he growing fangs? Of course, none of this was happening; he had to see the princess before the curse would take hold.

    "See anything interesting?" Castien asked, looking up from the book of spells he was studying. "Your true love, perhaps?"

    "What?" Sirion asked.

    "Elven women look for their true loves in scrying mirrors," Castien explained.

    "It's the wrong type of mirror," the prince replied, thinking of the great obsidian scrying mirror in his mother's chambers.

    Castien stared at his friend for a long moment, trying to decide if it made sense for Sirion to know that or not. Then he shook his head and turned back to the book. "Rather than being afraid of the spell taking effect, shouldn't you be looking for a way to break the spell?" he asked, turning the page.

    "What does it even matter?" Sirion asked, pushing over a stack of old spell books. "We're never going to break the curse."

    "I never understand you humans and your pessimism," Castien said.

    "And I never understand you elves and your inflated sense of self-worth." Both men looked up at the intruding sound of a high female voice.

    "Elaisse?" Sirion asked. The young woman standing in the doorway, who looked like a younger, softer version of the Queen who was under house arrest for cursing her son, pouted daintily.

    "Don't tell me that you had no idea I was coming, little cousin," she said. "I wouldn't miss your wedding for the world, especially when Father forbade me from coming."

    Elaisse was the daughter of Sirion’s mother’s brother and she was one of the few faeries who did not want to see the faeries take over the monarchy. She had been raised among the humans like Nycaise and so she’d grown up very close to her cousin. When she was about fifteen, though, she’d told the human family who was raising her what she really was and had been sent back to her faerie family. The whole situation had been a headache for everyone involved and Sirion had seen very little of Elaisse since then.

    “If there is a wedding, I’ll make sure you have the perfect spot to be seen from,” Sirion promised, knowing that Elaisse liked to watch the faeries squirm as revenge for them sending her away to be raised by humans.

    “What do you mean ‘if’?” the faerie girl asked.

    “Haven’t you heard what happened? I thought that the faeries would all be abuzz with the news.”

    “I heard what you did to your mother. Father’s angrier about that than he is about you marrying a human.”

    “She encouraged an assault on the king,” Castien said, “She’s lucky that she isn’t in the dungeon.” His tone was cool and his face relaxed but elves were not known for expressing their anger the way humans or dwarves, or even faeries did.

    “An assault? On you?” Elaisse asked, looking at Sirion with incredulity. Sirion held up his hand and Elaisse gasped as she went for a closer look.

    “It means that if I so much as look at the princess, my appearance will take on the traits of a faerie True Face. The princess will never want to marry me then and, if she runs home to her father, there will be war. Even if she does marry me like that, it won’t matter because if the people so much as sense that I’m possibly part faerie they will rebel because the faeries have been trying for decades to get a faerie on the throne and the people don’t want a faerie king. Either way it seems like we’ll have a civil war and a war with the south.”

    “Calm down, Sirion,” Elaisse instructed.

    “He is calm,” Castien told her. “You have no idea how long it took me to get him that calm.”

    “He never used to be so jumpy.”

    “I think it’s the stress. His father died, he’s king, his mother is furious with him, he’s cursed, his bride’s arriving, there’s the threat of war and civil war, and an empire wants to take over his country. You might be a little jumpy, too.”

    “I am sitting right here,” Sirion complained.

    The conversation would have continued but a young and breathless messenger boy came running up to the doorway. He skidded and would have tripped and fallen but he managed to catch himself.

    “Her Highness,” he began but then choked on the words as he gasped for breath and had to start over, “Her Highness’s party has just passed through the city gates, Sire.”

    This wasn’t a surprise, reports had come in as the princess had passed through the nearby towns and it had only been a question of hours or maybe days as to when she would arrive. The fanfare in the city would be going on automatically at this point but the messenger was crucial for the nobility who had been arriving in the capital for the past month and would have to be dressed in all their finery and waiting in the Great Hall when the princess arrived at the palace.

    Sirion grew very pale.

    “Don’t panic,” Castien and Elaisse commanded in unison. Castien added a belated, “…Sire,” but Elaisse didn’t bother.

    “Now, I have to go get ready,” Elaisse continued, “because I have to be seen at the reception for the princess, even if it is only to infuriate my father. Castien, are you a Physician of the High Elf school?”

    “Well, technically,” the elf answered, “but that doesn’t actually—“

    “It doesn’t matter,” Elaisse told him without letting him finish his sentence. “We’re putting on a pageant and you’re Physician robes will do just nicely. I want you to wear them to the reception.”

    “But I was going to wear my regalia as an elven prince,” Castien argued.

    “Not anymore. You see, this is how we’re going to do it…” And she explained the plan that was forming in her diabolical faerie mind.


    As the Great Hall filled up with human nobility and the upper echelons of mainly dwarf and elf society, the question that was on everyone’s lips was, “Where is the king?”

    The faeries were conspicuously absent because of their protest to the king’s wedding. The only faerie in attendance was Elaisse, whose absence would have been preferred because she was known as the faerie who had infiltrated the Queen’s family, installing herself as the niece of the late king. Elaisse was personally amused that no one recognized the possibility that Nycaise might also be a faerie. There was a wave of comments when she entered on how she didn’t look like a faerie because most faeries let little bits and pieces of their True Faces show through to remind the humans that they weren’t humans.

    The comments quickly returned to the missing king whose absence was becoming more and more obvious and worrying.

    By the time the princess and her attendants arrived in the Great Hall, the king still wasn’t there. A panicked silence had fallen on the Alierians and the announcement of the princess and her party sounded too loud in the crowded room.

    Everyone was forced to wait in this condition for several long minutes until Castien burst into the Great Hall wearing his Physician robes. He bowed respectfully to the princess and then explained how the king had fallen very ill overnight and was too ill to leave his bed. He would greet the princess properly when he was well again but, for the moment, he shouldn’t have any visitors.

    Most of the Alierians present knew what a joke this all was. The title of Physician at the High Elf School of Magic was only the best translation from the elven language of a term for skilled magic users and it didn’t actually imply knowledge of medicine or the ability to use elven healing magic. If Castien had been an actual elven doctor, he would have had the king on his feet in five minutes. He had come in with such a fuss, though, that no one dared to contradict him.

    “Oh, my poor dear cousin,” Elaisse said, making a show of being worried. She turned to the princess. “I hope you will forgive him for his poor health. The strain has been great on us all this past month, losing our beloved king, but I think it was greatest for him—he was very close to his father. But a great feast has been prepared to welcome you, Princess, and I do not think that my cousin would wish us to waste it on account of his health. As the king’s closest relative, apart from his dear mother who refuses to leave her chambers so as not to burden you with her grief at what should be such a happy time, I shall be honored to play host to you tonight.”

    Again, there were many who would have argued with what Elaisse was saying but she was so bold about it that no one dared. When it was clear that no one would speak up against her, Elaisse suggested that the princess be taken to her chambers to rest up before dinner and the reception was dissolved as a servant arrived to show the princess to her rooms.
  4. "And when he held her in his arms, his body firmly pressed against hers, the world around them melted. His peasant ancestry, her father's disapproval, the fact she was engaged to the rich count; none of it mattered anymore. Maybe he couldn't take her as a spouse, but he would claim her innocence tonight and here, with only silent stars as witnesses to their love. Their hearts were beating in unison..."

    Luminai closed the book with a loud 'thud', her expression fluctuating between aggravation and disgust. Who writes this nonsense? Trees actually died for such abomination of literature? Contrary to all expectations, the princess didn't enjoy love stories much; once you've read one, you could say you've practically read them all. There was nothing inherently wrong with sappy romance conceptually, but she preferred it to be an icing on the cake, not the whole dish. This concrete book suffered from all the symptoms of a bad story; god-awful writing, so many plot holes she'd already lost count of them, zero characterization and... Well, to be honest, it wouldn't have bothered her nearly so much if it wasn't for the goal of her journey. While the volume could be rightfully called a waste of ink and paper, it was a standard wish-fulfillment meeting all criteria of its genre. The readers didn't choose such titles for the deep message or shocking plot twists. No, women tired of life just wanted to read a simple story about how love would always prevail. Needless to say, it wasn't a good selection of tale for someone being used as a shopping article. Oh, shut up, Luminai ordered to the annoying little voice in the back of her head. You'll get to be a queen, not a slave laboring somewhere at a plantation. People would kill for such opportunity. Besides, do you think the prince is especially happy about being forced to marry a stranger?

    The princess leaned back, closed her eyes and allowed the rhythmic clatter of horseshoes to calm her down. I should have taken a history book about Alieria to patch the breaches in my education instead. Now I'm just wasting my time. She'd been traveling mere few hours, but her body was already aching with numbness and boredom had already forced her to read over half of that terrible book. Sleep refused to liberate her from the tedium's claws, too. Staring out of the windows and waving at occasional subjects greeting their princess also got very old really fast, though she didn't have the heart to ignore them. After all, the citizens were one of the prominent reasons Luminai adored her country so much; they always made her feel so welcomed. If the love for royal family was faked to appease the customs, their acting talent crossed boundary of belief. The carriage suddenly came to a halt. Before she could question what happened, the door swung open and freckled face of Eneth peeked inside.

    "Do you have time for me, Your Highness?" Red-haired and tall Eneth was, for the lack of a better term, Luminai's maid of honor, though she wouldn't hesitate to use the term 'best friend.'

    "I am not sure; let me check with my chamberlain. He always invites important nobles at the weirdest hours," the princess smirked and changed her position a little to make place for her. "What took you so long? I thought I could never be able to use my vocal cords again due to such long period of silence."

    "I'm sorry, princess. That would be a horrible loss for our world," Eneth said with more sarcasm than her position enabled; the cheekiness could cost her a tongue in less tolerant company, but Luminai didn't mind. As long as they were alone so no rumors could spread, she was content with overly familial treatment. Actually, someone challenging her to a verbal joust instead of perpetually showering her with praise felt like a fresh breeze. Her mood improved almost immediately.

    "It's wise of you to recognize this sad fact. Anyway, why have you been neglecting me? Could it be, just perhaps, for the pretty blue eyes of a certain young knight? Maybe I won't be the only one getting a husband from this trip."

    Eneth's cheeks gained a color of a ripe tomato. Her soft spot for Gavion was a common knowledge amongst everyone sans the target of her affections, yet she still hadn't managed to build up a resistance against wisecracks about this topic. "You know he isn't aware of my existence."

    "Then we'll get you two properly introduced. How about renting you a shared room at the next inn we stop for night?"

    "Your Highness, you can't!"

    "I guess you meant to say I shouldn't, since if I really wanted to play a matchmaker, I could do just that. Future queen, remember?" Luminai said, joking tone in her voice coming to the surface.

    "I pity poor folks of Alieria; they're expecting a sweet, benevolent monarch and they'll get this tyrant."

    "Tyrant, you say? I'll show you practices of a hardened torture technician," Luminai blurted out and tossed a pillow in her friend's face.

    The endless debates with Eneth both soothed her spirit and made the time flow faster, but there was little room in her mind for doubts that objectively speaking, they were actually slowing down constantly. It didn't surprise anyone, much less Luminai who knew from tales of diplomats how tiresome could the travels to Alieria be. Gods who had shaped that corner of the world in the dawn of ages had for some bizarre reason insisted on endowing it with narrow, twisted paths especially unsuitable for carriages. The southern horses used to forgiving plains and straightaways struggled with the hilly terrain and demanded much more frequent pauses; Luminai often thought they could envy even snails for their speed. Speed wasn't the only only problem, of course. With the carriage bouncing over every pothole, the she would soon turn into one big bruise. The princess even contemplated the idea of saddling one of the horses even riding off to the sunset - she was a fairly good rider - but arriving to meet her husband all sweaty, unkempt and likely with dress damaged beyond point of recognition would probably cancel the peace treaty just as effectively as declaration of war. The trials I overcome daily just for beauty.

    After few days, Luminai started supporting opinion that mother nature herself was conspiring against them; a raging storm had caused some trees to fall over the road, trapping them in the nearby tavern until the situation got resolved. The innkeeper received them with all the reverence she deserved as a member of a loyal family, but there was still a notable tension between her guardians. Every deviation from the plan, no matter how minor, could mean a possibility they hadn't predicted, a new safety hazard. They had sworn on their honor to keep her out of the harm's way, and they would see to it. As a result, Luminai ceased to possess any illusion of privacy she might have had; knights followed her everywhere like faithful golden retrievers, their armor clinking as a glockenspiel in the wind. While this display of responsibility radiated care, it also cut short her contact with Eneth and the princess couldn't wait to get back on the road. Even the nomadic lifestyle full of discomfort was better than being babysat by a bunch of grown men. Still, Luminai took great effort to put on a thankful mask; she didn't want to establish a reputation of someone who scolded her subordinates for doing their job.

    Alierian capital, mighty and majestic in the scarlet glow of the setting sun, was finally in sight. Luminai couldn't stop herself from leaning out of the window and gawking at the local architecture in wonder. It all seemed so foreign, like a whole new universe just few days distant from the one she was so familiar with. She had seen the pictures, yes, but they couldn't compare to the reality. The houses were structured in a specific way, more sturdy than the ones in the south; from what she could say, some of them had also been partially embedded in the ground to preserve the heat.

    "See, Eneth? That's just so clever."

    "I don't get you, princess. We've finally arrived, minutes divide you from meeting your fiance... And you still choose to marvel over smart design."

    Well, thank you for reminding me so tactfully, Luminai thought as the nervous butterflies in her stomach started to flap their wings furiously. Is this how prisoners sentenced to death feel? Dammit, take a hold of yourself. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale... When Ryns opened the door of the carriage for her and helped her down, it was still too soon. On the other hand, she doubted she could ever be more ready than this; to clarify, not at all. Crowd assembled in a safe distance from her party erupted in a salvo of rejoicing. Luminai repelled all the negative emotions and concentrated on what her etiquette teacher had hammered into her head; walking briskly, but not fast enough to make it seem like running, keeping her back straight and looking 'regal'. Regal expression could be achieved through imagining you're currently explaining that yellow snow shouldn't be eaten to a particularly slow child; at least that was how Luminai forced her facial muscles to form into that strange mixture of clemency and strictness.

    "Her Highness princess Luminai of Sel Vanua and her companions," announced the herald when she entered the main hall. Sea of faces immediately turned their attention to her; Luminai felt like a rabbit watched by a pack of wolves. For a fleeting second, she wanted nothing more than to jump through closed window, escape to the wilderness and live as a hermit until the end of times. The moment of weakness passed, though. The princess was raised for this; she wouldn't disappoint her parents who had entrusted the future of her land in her hands. Polite smile played on her lips as she looked at the throne... Which was surprisingly empty. Before she could as much as raise her eyebrow, a man wearing a peculiar robe hurried to explain the situation. Relief washed over her, though nobody would be able to guess it from her body language; Luminai didn't wish for prince to succumb to the mysterious illness, but gaining a little more time to adjust to the court before meeting her fiance was like dream come true.

    "There is absolutely nothing to forgive," Luminai answered to Elaisse, the polite smile never leaving her face. "Matters of health are not to be taken lightly; I can only pray for his early recovery." The princess resisted asking what sickness prevented him from seeing her personally despite her own curiosity; inquiring further would be impolite. Moreover, it could easily be something embarrassing and undermining his respect with all the nobility present within earshot wouldn't be a good course of action.

    "I'm hardly a holy woman to spend whole night in prayers, though, so I and my companions gladly accept your invitation to the feast." Diet of bread and dried meat was already getting annoying and breaking out of that routine would be pleasant; besides, this banquet would be her first chance to get to know this court. The one who planned to survive in the nest of venomous snakes that the aristocracy usually was never denied themselves an opportunity to dig up some information. Information can be better currency than gold, indeed.

    The retreat in her richly furnished chambers didn't revitalize her much - she would have to sleep half a day to recuperate from the journey fully - but the few hours provided did help her to groom herself a little bit. Luminai changed into new attire, blue elegant dress from satin, and Eneth combed her hair again. Powder disguised the sleepless nights she had endured in the carriage while a touch of rouge emphasized her lips decently. The princess made her way back to the great hall; the tables were buckling under the weight of deliciously smelling food, most of which Luminai had never seen before, and the room was buzzing with chatter. She assumed her position at the place of honor next to Elaisse, but raised a glass of wine before sampling the meal.

    "If I may have your attention?" Luminai asked and waited for the nobles to quieten. "I would like to propose a toast before we engage in this wondrous feast. It's not everyday occurrence to receive such a warm welcome, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Here's to Alieria and Sel Vanua; may our friendship flourish forevermore." Luminai smiled charmingly at the guests, sipped from her glass and sat back on her seat. Her toast had been brief, politically correct and perhaps a little naive; her father would be proud. Naivety was seen as an obstacle by many - and rightly so - but it also could be worn like armor. Anything that would make your potential enemies underestimate you served your purposes. Speaking about enemies... Luminai turned to Elaisse and waved her lashes.

    "Thank you once again for being my host tonight; it's a shame my fiance neither his mother could participate, but at least I will get to know other future members of my family. Cousins, huh? Are you two close?" The princess had no idea what to think about this woman yet, but she intended to cement her opinion before the end of this event. Small talk would play a big part in that process.
  5. “A feast in honor of my wedding and I don’t even get to attend,” Sirion complained when Elaisse and Castien returned with the news of how the reception had gone. He understood only too well why he couldn’t go but the prolonged stress had made him grumpy, to say the least.

    “You are the king,” Elaisse told him, “you can do as you please. Attend the feast if you choose, but remember that even kings must suffer the consequences of their actions.”

    Sirion scowled as he forced himself not to react with violence towards his cousin. She knew exactly how to be the most infuriating person in the room. Castien was nearly as bad by not saying anything and agreeing by silence with Elaisse.

    “Now,” Elaisse continued, taking the role of distributer of tasks, “Lord Castien should change into his elven regalia. I will change into my dinner attire. His Majesty, will stay where he is. I will send Milliani up with a plate of the food from the feast, if that will appease you.”

    “That will do,” Sirion conceded with a sigh. Milliani was a faerie woman from the lower echelons of faerie society who was the head of the kitchens and had been both Sirion and Elaisse’s wet nurse. She was too low in rank to be a part of the faerie conspiracy and was very useful for her discretion on certain sensitive topics. Sirion was particularly fond of her, having received from her the motherly affection that had been lacking in the Queen.

    “Very good, Sire,” Elaisse said in half-mocking tone as she curtsied low and then left the room. Castien followed her example with a bow and the king was left alone.


    Elaisse arrived early, dressed in sumptuous faerie-spun silk which was known for its light yet warm and durable quality and its ability to change colors. Elaisse’s dress cycled slowly through a series of colors such as red, blue, green, yellow, and even rare pink. Her long black hair was in a million tiny braids and caught up elegant golden pins. She took what should have been Sirion’s place at the table, even though she had no right to, and just as before, the nobility who took their places along the high table in order of rank did not dare to oppose her.

    When Castien arrived, he was dressed in the regalia of an elven prince with a living crown of golden ivy. His hair was pulled back from his face and ears, revealing more clearly than before his elven traits. His clothing itself was nearly as fine as Elaisse’s, being of elven construction, but it did not change colors and was made of earthy tones. He took his place at the second highest remaining seat, across from where the prince would sit.

    All eyes turned to the princess as she entered, waiting to see if she would make a mistake. Her toast was simple and pleasing, though it would not have pleased the faeries had they been there. Most present greeted the toast with polite applause, except for the dwarves who banged on the table keeping with their noisy customs but they were far down the table as all of the highest ranking nobles were human. The only exceptions to this rule were Elaisse, who looked human and was the king’s cousin and Castien whose close relation to the king (along with a number of pending appointments that would elevate his rank) was the reason for his placement rather than his status among the elves.

    Elaisse listened carefully with a neutral expression as the princess spoke to her and then it came time for her to respond. “Close is a relative term, Your Highness,” she said. “I am as close to my cousin as may be permitted by the distance of our homes. My father’s lands are further north yet than this and the roads are completely impassible for most of the year, making my journeys to court far less frequent than I would like. I am fond of my cousin, though. He is one of the few good men in the world, or this part of it at least. I must admit that I know very little of what it is like in Sel Vanua.

    “But,” she continued, deciding to direct the conversation away from Sirion before any detailed questions about his absence came up, “our ambassador in Sel Vanua sent many instructions to our kitchen staff so that they may make dishes that are familiar to you. Some of them, I believe, are on the table tonight, but mostly these are traditional Alierian dishes that are only prepared at the greatest of celebrations. Even the kitchen staff wishes most heartily to welcome their new queen.”
  6. Pure and distilled truth was a rare commodity among the nobility; many of them didn't hesitate to sweeten their opinions with a dash of carefully measured white lies to spare the feelings of someone standing on a higher rung of a social ladder. From certain point of view, whole etiquette was nothing more than a perspicacious collection of deceit crafted for every situation imaginable. Other lies weren't nearly so innocent; those woven to lure you into the web of intrigue or falsehoods guarding secrets so important that getting closer to truth could easily tarnish some assassin's blade with your blood. Luminai deliberately tried to spot those little signs that revealed pretense, but if anything, her conversation partner seemed to be a bit more sincere than the conventions generally recommended. Glorifying the king was in line with expected behavior - after all, biting the hand that fed you wouldn't really make sense - but simultaneously convicting Alierian population of having black hearts did surprise her a bit.

    Either she's brutally honest and uncaring of what people think of her or she's just painfully unaware of consequences tied to her words. Based solely on her kinship with her fiance, Luminai guessed the first option was more probable; life in the high society usually taught anyone who wasn't hopelessly dense that single wrongly placed word could trigger an avalanche of of catastrophic proportions. Certain special individuals enjoyed the fuss around them, however. Could Elaisse be one of them? If so, the princess would love to get closer to her. Her own position of queen wouldn't allow her to commit many sins against good manners, but watching someone causing scandals effortlessly could be a great hobby. It was too early to make a proper judgement, though.

    "It's delightful to see a piece of home so far from it, even though it's only on the table. I think I'll taste Alierian meals first; isn't there a saying that claims the essence of culture is most accurately captured by its food? Well, if not, it definitely should exist. I can't imagine a more pleasing way of absorbing information," Luminai answered with a hint of smile and started paying attention to the dishes arranged in front of her, firmly decided to act as if she'd never eaten anything better even if it tasted like a sand. The princess cut a bit of a stew and transported the small bite in her mouth; the meat was tender and juicy, yet it felt a little bland to her. The chefs of Sel Vanua prided themselves on using abundance of various herbs and spices mixed in perfect harmony, creating flavors that were both exotic and hard to match. Luminai supposed it would take a while to get accustomed to the new type cuisine, but the transition could have been a lot worse. The princess had heard scary stories about countries where they prepared insect as a delicacy and took it as a mortal insult when their guests weren't able to consume the bizarre treat.

    "Exquisite, I have to say. Your kitchen only employs the best amidst masters of their trade," Luminai commented in between cutting the meat into smaller slices. She made a mental note to send one of her people to thank the cooks personally; the era of sneaking to the kitchen to beg for extra sweets had passed long ago, but building good relations with the servants couldn't hurt. The princess looked up to survey the other aristocrats in her proximity discreetly. The ones sitting the closest to her must have been the most important people in the room, people worth contacting. Too bad nobody was in a hurry to introduce themselves thus inform her of their title which robbed her of opportunity to strike up a real conversation. Addressing someone with a wrong title would be a big misstep; she assumed her host would get to announcing their names to her eventually and she didn't want to press her too much about it. For now, Luminai would be content with memorizing the faces. The discretion fell out of the window, though, when she noticed just who was sitting opposite her. Attendance of a royal doctor was a little weird - especially seeing him occupying such a privileged spot - but it didn't beat weirdness of the fact that his clothing closely resembled that of a noble lord or that he didn't seem to be entirely human. Many books mentioned denizens of Alieria didn't consist of human race only, but other alleged races were depicted in such ridiculous manner Luminad had dismissed their existence as a superstition. Well, apparently I've been unfair to all those authors who knew so much more than me. To her horror, the princess realized too late she was gaping at the physician rather impolitely.

    "Forgive me for staring; I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable. It's just that your presence reminded me of His Majesty's condition, and I've gotten a little carried away. I hope his illness isn't too painful. Do you have any prognosis on when he might convalesce?" Luminai asked, hoping to camouflage her faux pais.
  7. “You didn’t make me uncomfortable, Your Highness,” Castien told the princess with all of the mildness of his people. “I know quite well that there are no elves in Sel Vanua—we do not like the heat—and it would have been foolish of me not to expect a reaction of some sort. You may rest assured that His Majesty is not in any danger from his illness and that, barring any unpleasant surprises, we may expect a recovery before long.”

    “I am glad to hear it!” Elaisse said enthusiastically, shooting a hard look at Castien to remind him not to make any promises he couldn’t keep. The elf might be optimistic about their chances of rapidly breaking the curse on the king but Elaisse wasn’t so confident. She knew more about faerie magic than Castien did and she was afraid that it might be a stronger curse than they could cope with in a week.

    As the feast progressed in the Great Hall, Milliani fussed in the kitchen, preparing a plate to take to the king in his chambers. She had already sent a plate up to the Queen Mother with one of the maids but she would bring the king’s meal upstairs herself. Her pale blue fingers moved deftly, placing each plate on the tray.

    “Now Raisie,” she said to her daughter, Raisa, who had nowhere else to go so she wandered around the kitchen, “You’re going to stay here with Melda while I take this upstairs.”

    The stoic young elf woman who was second in command of the kitchen nodded solemnly. The faerie child shrank away from Melda and shook her head emphatically. “Uh-uh. Melda’s scary. Wanna go upstairs with Mama.”

    Milliani told her daughter again, firmly, that she would be staying with Melda in the kitchen but when she went to leave the kitchen, Raisa followed. The faerie woman tried twice to put her daughter back in the kitchen but gave up after that for fear that the king’s food would grow cold.

    When they reached the king’s chambers, Raisa barreled in and jumped on the king’s bed. “Why you not at the feast, Si-on?” she asked.

    “Raisie!” her mother scolded but Sirion only laughed indulgently. His affection for Milliani extended also extended to her children (she had five in all) and especially to Raisa, on whom he had a bad habit of doting despite her mother’s desperate attempts to raise her with awareness of her social position.

    “I’m sick,” he told the little faerie girl.

    “Kiss it better,” Raisa said, leaning forward to place a kiss on the king’s forehead. “Better?” she asked.

    “Much,” Sirion answered. “Now how shall I repay you? Would you like a mission?” Missions was a game that the king played with Raisa because she was at the age where she wanted to help everyone with everything but it was hard to find things for her to do when the servants had important jobs to do. Sirion had started giving her simple tasks to do (which he could have just as easily done himself) and calling them “missions” which made Raisa feel important.

    “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Raisa cried, bouncing up and down.

    “All right, go get that box over there and bring it to me.” He pointed to a small carved box across the room and Raisa jumped down from the bed and ran to get it. It was heavy and hard for the girl to carry but she managed to get it over to the king without dropping it or spilling its contents. The box contained the many gilded brooches Sirion used to hold closed his cloaks and mantles but what he pulled out was a delicate and feminine necklace.

    “Sire…” Milliani gasped.

    “This belonged to my grandmother and she wanted me to give it to Princess Luminai when she arrived in Alieria but I’m sick, so I can’t. Would you bring this to the princess, Raisa?”

    “You cannot be serious, Sire!” Milliani cried.

    “Why not? I trust Raisa and I believe her mother is the only person in the castle I trust to get this necklace to the princess discreetly.”

    “I understand, Sire. But if I may be so bold as to ask, why do you not just give the necklace to Her Highness yourself when you are well?”

    “Because I am afraid that I will be ill for a very long time and I want the princess to receive the necklace before it ceases to be a welcoming gift.”

    “Very well, Sire. Rasie and I will be sure she receives it.”

    Milliani presented the food to the king, then, and informed him that she would return for the tray later. Then she left, taking Raisa with her. Once they were in the corridor, Milliani tried to relieve her daughter of the necklace but Raisa would not relinquish it. Not wanting to start a fuss over it, the faerie woman let it be and they made their way down. On their way, they passed a peep hole that was made for the servants to watch the feast and make sure that none of the nobles lacked anything. Raisa begged for her mother to lift her up so that she could see all of the nobility and Milliani gave in.

    “Which one is the princess?” Raisa asked.

    “She is the lady across from Lord Castien,” Milliani answered, mentioning Castien because Raisa knew him from the many times he had accompanied Sirion to the kitchen.

    When Raisa had had her fill, Milliani put her down and before she knew what was going on, the blue-skinned and winged little faerie girl had run through the door into the Great Hall and up to the princess. She tugged on Luminai’s sleeve and said, “Princess, I have a present for you.” She held out the necklace to the princess.

    Milliani chased her child out into the Great Hall and fell to her knees beside Raisa, begging the princess for forgiveness and mercy, saying, “She’s only a little girl, she didn’t know what she was doing. Please forgive her. Let her go. If you must punish someone, punish me!”
  8. Her little evasive maneuver failed spectacularly; Castien looked right through her trick, yet he let it slide without becoming offended by her uncultivated staring. From what Luminai knew, he was surely in minority with that kind of forgiving attitude. Overlooking the mistake in the context of her being a foreigner only made sense, but the passionate nationalists rarely missed a chance to rub a newcomer's ignorance in their face. Attaining superiority through humiliating others was something deeply ingrained in human nature and getting to humiliate a princess could be a big ego-booster for just about anyone. Still, even though he hadn't reprimanded her in any way, Luminai almost wished her old etiquette teacher could be there to whack her over head with his cane for that crime against good manners; she needed to be more careful from now on. Showing her lack of understanding how Alieria worked was an elementary mistake and one that would easily give her opponents upper hand. Just focus.

    "That's fortunate news. I see His Majesty's health was entrusted to the right person," she smiled and decided to honor the chef's craft by taking care of the giant portions of meals brought to her. The princess didn't stuff herself much, yet she took effort to sample everything; a graceful lady should eat like a bird, not gorge herself as a famished hound. Moreover, interrupting the few weeks long diet composed entirely of very simple food with sudden burst of gluttony would probably upset her stomach and she didn't wish to fall ill along with her future husband. Spending her first days in Alieria moaning with pain in her bed wouldn't benefit her plans of charting the metaphorical terrain. Luminai glanced in the direction of her companions sitting further down her table; they seemed to be mingling with the Alierians well, at least from her limited perspective. Of course, the word 'well' encompassed everything from pleasant chat to not starting a brawl in the middle of the dinner, so it wasn't that much of a success. The princess obviously doubted trained men would cause trouble just for the sake of it, yet the prospect of peace between Alieria and Sel Vanua was still relatively new while mutual animosity ran deep. Father had always instructed her to expect the unexpected.

    The slight pressure at her sleeve alarmed her - Luminai didn't like having her personal space invaded and wasn't used to dealing with it often thanks to her status - but when she looked down at the supposed intruder, her worries melted. The blue skin didn't matter at the moment; she only saw a kid, and exceptionally cute one at that, trying to give her a present. After the initial shock from recognizing Castien's elven traits, her mind had become a lot more open to the possibility of other races co-existing with humans in the land of mysteries that Alieria was and the child looked positively non-threatening. Without really thinking, Luminai picked up the little girl and put her on her lap with genuine smile brightening her face. The mother's reaction couldn't have surprised her more had she began to juggle with torches on fire for their amusement. Luminai's eyebrow went up in universal expression of astonishment.

    "Calm down, I promise on my ancestors I am not going to eat your daughter." She was seriously tempted to add a joking 'She's too old for that; in Sel Vanua, we only kill newborns for the purposes of cannibalism as their meat is wonderfully juicy,' but the fright reflecting in the mother's eyes nipped that idea in its bud. "Nobody is going to punish anyone."

    Luminai turned to the small girl nestled on her lap and ran her hand through her hair gently. "Hey there, little lady. You see, in my country, it's customary to give something in return when you receive a gift, and right now I don't have anything to reward you with other than my gratitude. That would be a poor exchange for such a beautiful jewel, so keep your family heirloom for when you're old enough to wear it. I'll remember your kindness either way." The princess didn't feel particularly inclined to accept such evidently expensive presents from commoners when they had to cherish every coin; the girl had probably looted family jewelry box just to please her future queen and keeping it wouldn't be fair. Besides, it was likely a memento of some sort, a link to better times. Or stolen artifact, but Luminai didn't want to ponder over that possibility too much.
  9. Raisa blinked in confusion when the princess told her to keep the jewel, she hadn't expected her mission to fail like this. "But..." she said, but trailed off because she didn't know what to. Milliani didn't know what to do, either. The princess had mistaken a gift from the king as her daughter's family heirloom. She couldn't give the necklace back to the king and she certainly couldn't keep it, Sirion trusted her to get it safely to the princess. She looked around franticly for help from someone, anyone.

    Castien picked up on the poor faerie's panic first and spoke up. "I do not believe that this necklace is a family heirloom," he said, to Milliani's emphatic nods. "Milliani, here, may be the finest cook in the kingdom, but her family is poor and not likely to own a stone like that. If they did, it would be of faerie make but judging by the design, that appears to be human-work."

    "I agree," said the young man who sat next to Castien and had been concentrating at staring at his plate all through dinner until the child had arrived. "I recognize that setting and I think I know from where but," here he looked at Elaisse, "he wouldn't be that stu... I mean, he wouldn't, would he?"

    Elaisse had been watching the scene with a bemused smile up until now, but she hadn't paid much attention to the stone. Now she looked at the necklace more carefully. "He just might," she said after a moment.

    "Of course," the young man added when his veiled suggestion had been taken seriously, "I might be wrong."

    "Then take a look at the thing," Elaisse commanded, beckoning him over.

    When the young man stood, awkwardly, it became clear that he was really quite young, much more boy than man. He was maybe fifteen or sixteen with pale blond hair, green eyes, and a dusting of freckles. He wore the livery of a royal squire, despite the formal occasion and his clearly high rank, and it was clear that he'd just had a growth spurt because, although his clothes fit him perfectly, he hadn't yet gained the weight to fill out his new height and so looked almost scarecrow-like.

    He managed to make it around the table without tripping and falling on his face, but only just. He then crouched down by the princess's side and addressed the little girl on her lap.

    "Hello, Raisie," he said, smiling as warmly as his obvious nervousness would allow.

    "Hi, Jev," she replied, regarding him suspiciously.

    "May I see your necklace?" he asked. Raisa shook her head and held the necklace close to her. "I promise I'll give it back. Promise. Have I ever lied to you?"

    Raisa thought a moment then slowly extended the hand that held the necklace and dropped it in his hand. He looked the necklace over carefully then turned to Elaisse. "I'm sure now," he said. "This is my grandmother's necklace. I remember because they forgot to take it out of her chest of jewelry when she died and they had to go through my mother's things to find it." He handed it back to Raisa. "You were doing the right thing, Raisie. Try again." Raisa was about to turn to the princess when Elaisse spoke and poor little Raisa stopped, confused again.

    "You might want to explain to the good princess who you are," she said, "or she might be a bit confused.” The young man's eyes widened as he stared at Elaisse in what was fast approaching terror. "...Or I can introduce you..." she amended, then turned to the princess. “May I present His Royal Highness, Prince Jevan of Alieria, cousin to the king, and the heir to the throne...until your first born son takes his place. His grandmother was the king's grandmother."

    Jevan nodded, "She willed that necklace to you, princess. I don't know how Raisie got it, though I have an idea, but it is yours, Your Highness, so you need not have qualms about keeping it."
  10. The conversation was lingering on the edge of Luminai's understanding until it disappeared behind the horizon, possibly to never return again. It felt like listening to a group of friends joking among themselves and not getting the punchline since you hadn't been present when it had been born. The increasingly cryptic remarks bothered her, yet she tried her best not to look irritated or confused; right now, the princess was thankful for all those boring needlework lessons she had had to sit through in her childhood. Concealing her annoyance was the only skill she had honed to perfection there, yet until now, Luminai didn't think punctured fingers and sour mood were worth the investment. One part of her wished nothing more than to simply ask 'what's going on', but the more sensible part of her personality warned her it wouldn't be exactly polite. I'm a queen. I can't afford to be seen as a bratty kid demanding clarification for everything immediately when they're clearly going to have to explain themselves sooner or later. Patience is a virtue, Luminai repeated to herself the mantra she had heard so often. This wasn't Sel Vanua with all the courtiers being used to their adorable little princess sticking her nose where it didn't belong and finding it cute. Those people were going to judge the slightest fault with gusto.

    Thus, Luminai just watched the events unfold without complaining, slightly pensive expression on her face as she cradled the equally puzzled girl on her lap. Are they suggesting the necklace is indeed stolen? It didn't seem that way as their tone lacked the necessary accusation, but her mind couldn't offer any other justification for what she was witnessing. When the young man in an expensive robe spoke, Luminai looked at him properly for the first time; her attention had been reserved mainly for Castien and Elaisse, so he had been expertly avoiding showing on her radar until now. Observing him properly, the princess thought his elusive nature may have been intentional. Some people blended in crowds naturally as they didn't possess any defining features, but not standing out in such refined clothing required a serious talent. It wasn't strange he likely didn't wish to attract curious stares, though.

    His visage reminded her of a barely hatched chick and Luminai felt a sting of sudden sympathy; this could very well be the first formal occasion he attended on his own. Becoming invisible wouldn't be an irrational wish at all; she knew very well how stressful it could be, especially if your family rubbed salt in your wound by constantly making you nervous with remarks like 'try not to shame our name.' The weight of responsibility was almost soul-crushing; she still remembered her own initiation to the noble society. Her brothers had found the idea of their usually lively sister so terrified from mere social contact so hilarious they had done everything within their power to turn her debut into a living nightmare. Luminai had been very thorough with her revenge afterwards; Devan who hated all reptiles with passion had kept finding frogs hidden in his clothes for a long, long time. The odd spiritual kinship she felt for the boy on the brink of adulthood somehow cracked the ice and she started smiling at him. It wasn't a lukewarm stretch of lips enforced by conventions, but a real, slightly lenient smile that could be translated as 'I feel your pain.'

    When Elaisse introduced prince Jevan, the mist of obscurity got lifted and Luminai comprehended what the gift really meant. "It's an honor to meet another member of my new family. And I think I also have a theory regarding your grandmother's heritage," she said and accepted the necklace, admiring its delicate design. Why would king choose a child as his messenger, though? This castle is full of servants, all way more competent to handle the task. More competent and not so attention-bringing, might I add. And more importantly, why didn't he give it to me personally? Such important present is ill-suited to receive from a stranger. All those questions could be answered with a simple 'it's a local tradition', but the perplexed faces of Alierians around her didn't suggest this possibility. Still, Luminai considered this token of concern endearing in a way. "Thank you for delivering it to me, Raisie. You've done well." The princess undid her own necklace and put on the new one adeptly; a mirror to check her appearance would have been ideal, but she was sure it complimented her dress well.

    "I meant it when talked about exchanging gifts, though, so you can keep this. I have a feeling your benefactor wouldn't appreciate it much anyway," she smirked slightly and gave her the old jewel. To be honest, Luminai didn't have much of a relationship with her gemstones; yes, they were pretty trinkets, but she owned so many of them she probably wouldn't even notice absence of a single stone. Her gaze wandered to the timid prince. "So how are you enjoying the feast so far, prince? The food is really delicious, but something is missing, if you ask me. The musicians are here solely for decoration and that is a shame. Would you care to invite me for a dance?" Luminai wanted to get him out of his shell somehow; besides, she had already eaten enough and a little exercise could only help her after the weeks spent crammed in the small carriage. Jevan would be a perfect dance partner for her as he was a king's close relative and still more child than adult. Nobody could conceivably accuse her of a scandalous act.
  11. Jevan stared at the princess, mouth slightly agape as she spoke, unable to muster the courage to cut her off. When she stopped speaking, it took him a moment to find the words he needed and even then he stammered, “I-I couldn’t possibly—“

    “Nonsense,” Elaisse said. In keeping with the traditions of her people, Elaisse was a great lover of dance. She had learned many of the traditional faerie dances from her aunt along with her cousin and they, in turn, had introduced those dances, along with a large number of human dances, to Castien and Jevan who had been the only two children available to be taught. Neither of them had attained the level of mastery that belonged to those with faerie blood, but Elaisse knew that Jevan was a very good dancer as far as humans went from experience. Only his debilitating shyness was holding him back from dancing with the princess and Elaisse wouldn’t have it, not when the princess’s interest would allow her to invite everyone to dance and she would be able to participate in one of her favorite activities.

    “Your future queen has asked you to dance,” she continued, reminding Jevan that while Luminai wasn’t currently of a higher rank than him, she very shortly would be and it would be best not to annoy her. “And I personally agree. A good dance is called for. Can’t we have these tables moved?”

    At her question, a large number of strong young servants came forward and pushed the tables towards the edges of the Great Hall so that there was a large open space in the middle of the room. Those who were still eating could continue but those who wanted to dance had the room to do so as well. Most of the younger humans were eager for a dance and jumped up, while their parents remained at the tables whether they were eating or not. Likewise, the younger elves were more playful than the elders and so also joined the dance. Most of the dwarves preferred to continue eating but banged on their tables in time to the music.

    “A reel, a reel!” Elaisse cried to the musicians who immediately followed her command, as if they were as tired of playing background music as Luminai was of hearing it.

    All of the dancers waited as the music began playing, for Jevan and Luminai to begin, which was pure hell for poor Jevan. He couldn’t control his shaking as he took the princess’s hand and led her out into the open space. He told her, very quietly because he could barely bear to raise his voice, that she only had to follow his lead since it wasn’t a very complicated dance. He was sorry but he didn’t think that the musicians knew any dances from Sel Vanua.

    The dance was very simple in comparison with the almost impossibly complicated faerie dances Jevan had learned as a child and he quickly became accustomed to it. Still, he couldn’t look the princess in the eye so he just stared blankly over her shoulder, trying to pretend that there wasn’t anybody watching them.

    Very shortly, the other couples joined them on the floor, including Elaisse and Castien who were one of the most graceful pairs dancing even if they weren’t a respectable pair. That took some of the pressure off of Jevan and he relaxed just enough to say to Luminai, “Poor Sirion. He’d hate to know he was missing this. He loves to dance and he’s much better than I am.” He laughed for a second until he remembered that he was talking to Luminai and that he shouldn’t be talking about his cousin so casually or forgetting honorifics like that. He turned red immediately. “I mean,” he said, “obviously, His Majesty is skilled in a great many things one of which happens to be dancing and I’m sure that he regrets very much that he can’t attend this magnificent event, even if,” and Jevan knew that he should stop speaking at this point but his mouth didn’t seem to agree, “he really, really hates these events where he has to play nice with these ‘jewel encrusted vultures’ but,” Jevan turned a deeper shade of red, “I’m sure he is actually very ill because he wouldn’t miss this just because he doesn’t like the other nobles. Si- His Majesty knows exactly how important this is, maybe even more than anyone else here. He may have even placed his mother under arrest for opposing it. But you can’t EVER tell anyone that I told you all of that. I don’t know why I told you any of it in the first place. I’d make a horrible spy.”

    “It looks like our dear Prince Jevan is telling the princess everything he knows,” Elaisse noted dryly as Castien spun her around the floor.

    “It is fortunate that we were careful not to let him know about the curse,” Castien replied.

    “For a member of the royal family, he is painfully inept at keeping secrets,” Elaisse said.

    “Honesty isn’t a bad quality,” Castien returned.

    “Unless, of course, your life depends on a lie,” Elaisse said, “which may become the unfortunate truth for poor Jevan if we don’t find a way to keep him away from Sirion. If he learns the truth, he’ll tell it to the first person who looks halfway trustworthy.”
  12. Predictably, Jevan's expression closely matched that of a kicked puppy when Luminai suggested to dance. The princess almost felt a little guilty for dragging him into spotlight upon hearing him stutter in order to produce a decent excuse, but ultimately, she knew the path to confidence led through conquering your fears. Becoming potential target of all those thrill-hungry bored lords and ladies for the first time had always been a baptism of fire more than anything; his nervousness would surely fall apart on the parquet. Luminai had always considered dance to be a great stress relief. The discipline was simple enough, the steps set in stone. If you weren't very familiar with the dance in question, you could always let the rhythm guide you. While dancing, all you had to do was to focus on that simple discipline, ideally without stomping your partner's feet to the ground; all the truly tricky nuances of interaction stayed at the door. The princess prepared herself to give Jevan a gentle nudge, but Elaisse won this battle in her stead with skill of a veteran jouster. She still couldn't decide what to think of her host. The resolution emanating from her figure was certainly an appealing trait and her sharp tongue also scored some points with her, but people with similar qualities were both wonderful friends and redoubtable enemies. Luminai didn't know where to assign her yet.

    As the dancing floor grew in size rapidly, the princess stood up from her seat and straightened her dress before heading to the parquet. Normally, she would have been more anxious about performing a dance she hadn't had a chance to practice, but her own doubts paled beside Jevan's timidity. Knowing there was someone who apparently felt even more like a fish out of water than her comforted Luminai. "Alright," she answered to his instructions. "I'd just like to say beforehand that any injury I might inflict upon you isn't an expression of hostility towards you, my dear prince. That's an unfortunate side effect of my clumsiness. I'm leading a valiant fight against it, but I can not promise there won't be any casualties," she said quietly in hopes if lightening the atmosphere. Jevan gave her no indication if it worked or not, preferring to remain in his protective shell, yet she could sense a slight panic from his body language. Aware that the eyes of everyone in the hall were glued on them, Luminai put on a polite smile and let the prince show her the ropes.

    The princess was actually far from inept when it came to move-related department, but she needed some time to get adjusted to Alierian style of dance; Sel Vanuan dances were a bit more temperamental in their nature and Luminai had to contain herself a bit. The flow of music certainly helped, yet it couldn't erase the muscle memory entirely.

    Many other couples joined them soon, which made Jevan crawl out of his comfort zone; she had to chuckle in response. The prince's spontaneity was refreshing, even though completely unacceptable by standards of aristocratic society. "Is that so? In that case, I am happy I can take an advantage of you to train my own technique before getting to dance with His Majesty. I'm afraid my current abilities would offend him," she laughed. Luminai wondered whether Jevan knew meaning of phrase 'digging yourself deeper,' because he was doing exactly that with every uttered word. Not that she planned to criticize him for not being able to shut his mouth in the right moment; that was a rare feature that had to be nurtured. Moreover, hearing something truthful about her future husband planted a strange excitement in her heart. Jewel encrusted vultures? What a cute way to address your subjects. Luminai genuinely liked it; such way of speaking hinted that there was a real personality hidden under all the titles and regalia. The revelation about his mother, however, didn't bear such pleasant connotations. The same mother that was supposedly so struck with grief from the former king's death she couldn't attend the feast, at least according to Elaisse? Fascinating. It seems not everything is all sunshine and rainbows in Alieria. Had she opposed their engagement so vehemently the king had no other choice but to imprison his own mother? Why? Was she one of the sworn nationalists?

    "I can't? It almost sounds like you're ordering me around, prince," Luminai smirked before her lips stretched into a sincere smile. "No, I'm just kidding. Honesty doesn't deserve to be met with betrayal. Your secret is safe with me. I wonder why His Majesty's mother wasn't looking forward to my arrival, though. Perhaps she was worried I would have crooked teeth or some other deformity?" the princess said with a humor resonating in her voice; maybe he would elaborate a little on that unsettling topic. She immediately vowed to get as much information from Jevan as possible. The opportunity to talk with him without interference was limited by a single dance and Luminai wanted to make the most of it. "I have to admit your court is large, prince. Far larger than the one I was used to and frankly, it's a little intimidating. The faces are as numerous as grains of sand in a desert. Could you maybe describe me some of them so I don't embarrass myself?"
  13. Jevan was caught a little off guard by the princess’s joke. If he’d been a little quicker, he could have teased her back but by the time he thought of that, she’d already informed him that it was a joke and the moment was past. Sirion would have been fast enough to catch it, he though, and he wouldn’t have hesitated. Jevan wasn’t sure why, but he though the princess would have liked that. The king and the princess would get along well, he thought, and he was happy for that. An arranged marriage wasn’t always a good match for the two involved but this time it looked like it was.

    The princess went on to ask about the nobility in the room.

    “The court only looks this large because everyone is gathered for your wedding and most of them will return home after that. In a country such as ours, where travel can be so difficult, most of our nobles prefer to stay close to home and only spend short amounts of time at the king’s court in the summer. By the time autumn arrives you may find yourself quite lonely. You’ll be officially introduced to everyone by the king when His Majesty has recovered his health but I suppose I can point out some of the more important persons around the room.

    “The lady in blue,” Jevan nodded his head in the direction of said lady, “is my mother, Lady Alainne, and she is talking with Lady Ysopa who is the wife of Duke Orland, the most powerful noble outside the royal family. He has strongly traditional views that don’t necessarily agree with the king’s ambitions. He’s dangerous and so is his wife. I wouldn’t suggest letting them get you alone. His son, Gracien, is dancing over there,” he nodded his head again for direction, “and we’re still trying to determine where his loyalties lie, with his father or with the king.

    “The others won’t be so arrogant as to allow you to embarrass yourself. The only thing you should know is that the older they are, the more likely they are to ascribe to traditional values, that our non-human citizens are little more than beasts with voices and should be treated likewise. They would not approve of your actions tonight with the faerie child but you’re lucky that they will likely ascribe it to your youthful innocence and perhaps to unfamiliarity with our customs. Even if you don’t feel that way, I’d advise you not to correct them until after your coronation.

    “The king does not agree with the traditional viewpoint and he’s been trying to change the country ever since he came of age six years ago and was permitted to sit on his father’s advisory council. That is why there are so many non-humans present tonight, in honor of His Majesty. The customs of our human court do not differ drastically from that of your homeland, from what I’ve learned, at least, we’ve had to make concessions to the harsh land we live in but we were once Sel Vanuans ourselves. The non-humans are not so similar and they can be much more temperamental and they are all eager to meet you to see if you agree with the king.

    “Ralgil is the dwarfish prince. You can see him over there, the taller one with the red beard drinking with the other dwarves. Dwarves are very stubborn and a bit crude. They respect you more if you match them in stubbornness, don’t give in and don’t back down. The nice thing about dwarves is that they are generally honest, they’d rather face you head on than go behind your back and they expect the same from your. If they request an audience and you decide to grant it, don’t be timid and don’t hold back. They’ll respect you more for saying what you mean and displeasing them than saying what they want to hear even though it’s less than the truth.

    “The elven prince is Castien, whom you’ve already met. He isn’t hard to please. He’s gone through all of the traditional elven schooling which made him old and wise in the head, even if he’s not old in the body. Of course, all of that elven schooling has also made him very hard to trick. He’s a Physician of the First Class, which is a very prestigious title for elves. He is well versed in magic and respected enough that he is the only non-human who is permitted to sit among the human nobility. He is also the king’s oldest and closest friend.

    “The faerie prince is not present today and I believe it will be a very long time before you meet him, if you ever do. The upper ranks of the faeries are against your marriage to the king. They had a wild idea, supported quite openly by the Queen Mother, that he would marry a faerie girl. Your arrival shattered that dream and they are now boycotting the festivities. There is only one faerie present who is not a servant. Lady Elaisse may look like a human but that is just a magic spell. She is, in fact, the daughter of the faerie prince. After the daughter of the Queen Mother’s brother died, the faeries replaced her with Elaisse. When Elaisse grew up and learned what she really was, she told her ‘parents’ and it was a scandal that ripped through the entire court. She was, of course, sent back to the faeries but she was raised as a human and doesn’t get along with the faeries so she keeps returning to court, or so she says. Faerie magic is so much more powerful than any other magic in the land that everyone is too afraid to send her away. Besides, the king grew up with her, she and Castien were the only friends he had as a child, and he would never turn her away if she asked to stay here.

    “Did I do a satisfactory job at explaining the court to you?” Jevan asked uncertainly. As he said this, he noticed that the music had slowed, signaling the end of the song. “If you want to continued talking, I s-suppose we could dance another song or you could request a dance with Castien, but only if you don’t mind being seen dancing with an elf,” he laughed nervously, “and then I can go sit with my mother. I am supposed to be escorting her tonight.”
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