(And here it is. I’ve neglecting posting because I was actually stuck with some intriguing inspiration for a side story and some gap-scenes earlier than this, but those won’t be ready to post for a little while. But I’m happy about the momentum so far and looking forwards to new things. Enjoy! Word Count: 55,922)
The party was a magnificent affair. The Grand Entryway had been transformed in a matter of hours into an opulent ballroom. In addition to the hundred-foot dragon that loomed over the mass of dancing, eating, drinking, talking guests, tapestries hung from the ceiling representing each nation that had sent a delegate. A fifty-foot brown fox emblazoned against a field of forest green symbolized the West. A tremendous golden Palamino reared against a crimson backdrop, signifying the East.
Notably missing was the tremendous bronze elephant of the South – however, the oft-temperamental court of the South had politely declined the invitation, citing an internal conflict that needed all hands on deck back home. It wasn’t terribly unexpected and the Empress had attempted to be polite, which was more than her usual efforts. Thus the edgy peace remained between the four nations.
The sweeping strains of the string orchestra in the corner wrapped around the dancers and drew their emotions from one crescending high to impassioned lows, telling the narrative of the Northern kingdom’s rise to power through a series of notes and movements. The musicians, clad in black tunics with white ascots contrasting sharply around their necks, had practiced for months for this occasion. They were the best talent in the nation, and their skill was compounded by a gift from the West – a set of some of the finest crafted instruments in existence from the finest trees of the Western Wood.
Lords and ladies whirled about on the ballroom floor in a coordinated rhythm of bodies and fabric. Yet in a dance more coordinated than the one occurring on the ballroom floor, servants glided from table to table. Their silver trays sailed like ships borne over a sea of chaos, carrying the finest delicacies from all three lands made with the freshest Eastern crops. Braised rib of mountain lamb, fattened goose liver on slender wheat crisps, flutes of imported cherry wine aged in applewood casks, and Edmond’s personal favorite: Winterberry Dream tarts.
It was all going perfectly according to plan. And yet…
Despite the beautiful sights, sounds, smells and tastes, Edmond sat in his plush chair at the high table and saw nothing, heard nothing, noticed nothing. The ceremony of the occasion demanded his absolute best, that he was robed in his finest ermine cloak and traditional three-quarter-length tunic, the crest of the kingdom hanging about his neck and his family sword about his waist.
Heavens, what if someone were to mistake his departure from ritual garb as being some form of passive-aggressive rebellion. What a tragedy that might be, Edmond thought in a sour tone. Absently he swirled his glass of wine and stared into the empty air.
Alright, so perhaps the archduke’s warning had shaken him a little. It was as though he were a child again, and someone were trying to play a trick on him. He was adamantly certain that the word ‘fool’ wasn’t engraved on the ceiling, but once the trickster left the room, he couldn’t help but check – just in case.
He’d never assumed that the people around him were untrustworthy. Judgmental and snobbish, yes, and he’d spent a lifetime attempting to earn their approval; but the idea that the people he called friends were secretly plotting his downfall was had never entered his mind before. Having fought to be known as more than an accident his entire life, Edmond had never thought of himself as overly naive… But was it he that was too trusting, or was Archduke Xiu too apprehensive?
Apophis was out there, mingling with some counts and dukes from the central province whose names escaped him at the moment. Apophis, the most cynical youth Edmond had ever met, was mingling with a smile on his face and not a worry in sight. He stood there with a flute of champagne, wearing an embroidered tunic over his dress mail of all things and his family saber at his side. He was the portrait of well-managed suspicion. On the defense, but not isolated. If he could balance the two, why couldn’t Edmond?
His silent musing was interrupted by the sudden arrival of the Baron Samael and Marques Chilcott. Samael fairly crashed into the chair beside him, his face flushed with mirth and wine.
“I have to hand it to you, sire, you sure know how to throw a party and not enjoy it yourself.” Samael proffered, leaning close enough for Edmond to smell the sweat on his brow and the liquid on his breath.
“A man’s not allowed to think the night before he assumes the throne?” Edmond sniped, not looking up.
“Not that I have personal experience with it, but I’d think a man can do bloody well whatever he likes the night before he assumes the throne.” Chilcott replied, examining the rings on his right hand, frowning and polishing them against his opulent robes.
Samael frowned, narrowing hazy chestnut eyes. “That may be true; but why when you have a room of beautiful women here to court your favour and drink your booze would you sit up here and mope?”
“I’m not moping, Samael. I’m musing. You know, thinking kingly thoughts about kingly things. I’m sure you’ve never tried it.” Edmond griped, taking a sip of his wine and feigning aloofness.
Samael chuckled, taking the blow and deflecting quickly. “Seriously, Highness – do you even realize that every man in this room wishes he were you right now? Every eye is watching you. Every maiden is secretly hoping you’ll ask her to dance. In the off chance you’ve forgotten, the political atmosphere shifts and policies change depending on your actions and demeanor, so as your friend and adviser, I advise you to fetch a servant to remove the stick from your royal hindquarters and get out there.”
Nodding distantly and attempting to maintain a façade of calm, the prince felt his insides turn to ice. Of course – every man from coast to coast, from Castleguard to the northern ranges of the Wild, every man with the slightest trace of ambition coveted his throne. That’s why they were going to take action…
He shook his head to rid it of the sudden thrum of fear. No. He couldn’t allow his thoughts to head that direction. If he started to accuse everyone around him without grounds or evidence, he would wind up a paranoid old man like Xiu, jumping at shadows and never truly living. In which case, he’d be happy for someone to put him out of his misery.
Releasing a slow breath, Edmond replied, “Fine. But I’m going to need something a lot stronger than wine for this.” The prince beckoned to a servant attending the table and murmured something in his ear. Soon enough, the servant returned, bearing a small glass containing a milky green liquid. Maybe the burn of the alcohol would melt the frozen fear inside.
“Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder,” Samael said with an approving grin.
Edmond murmured his thanks and then turned to his friend, raising his glass. “Cheers.”
Samael and Chilcott returned the toast, watching in apparent amusement as the young prince tossed the shot back and made a face.
And at that moment, the herald brought his trumpet to his mouth and announced the arrival of Lady Jocelyn Tiamat, Princess of the West.
Delayed by the gathering storm and swiftly collecting snow, the princess had inadvertently come at the perfect time to ensure that every eye was on her as she made her entrance.
She didn’t walk so much as she glided into the room. She was taller than he’d imagined, her face rounder and cheeks still flushed from the chill. Her hair, the deep emerald green of all regal Westerners, was pulled up in a complicated-looking half-bun and hung about her shoulders in thick, dark ringlets seemingly untouched by the journey. Her dress was made of jade satin, the straps hanging off her shoulders and a delicate chestnut corset cinching about her waist. From there, the gown blossomed outwards in intricate layers of silk and taffeta embroidered with complex designs of leaves.
About her neck hung an intricate weave of amber and emerald ivy, and about her bare shoulders she clutched a translucent chiffon wrap that appeared to fall short in its role of keeping her warm.
The flush of her face reminded him of their childhood days chasing each other through the trees. She had become an elegant creature, tales of whose beauty and wit trickled north and approached the status of legend. Yet he knew that her father wouldn’t have let her travel all this way without training her in the ways of her people. She was beautiful, but deadly – like so many creatures from the forest.
Edmond rose gently, captivated. He made his way down from the table and crossed the room, all fear and reserve left behind as a pleasant, warm glow effused his body. He approached the princess, and as he drew near, the coward in him that shriveled in fear at the countless tracking pairs of eyes ceased it’s sniveling and retreated. Before the lady, the formal greeting in the Old Tongue flowed from his lips. He punctuated his salutation with a bow and a flourish. She replied effortlessly in the same language, curtsying graciously.
The ritual complete, his lips were drawn into a grin as natural as air into his lungs. She remained his inspiration.
He switched to the common language. “Princess Jocelyn, it is always a pleasure to entertain you. Might I extend my gratitude for your making the long journey north,” Edmond said suavely, taking the hand she proffered and kissing the back of it.
She offered him a measured smile. “Prince Edmond, it’s a pleasure to be here. Allow me to again register my complaint that your country is preposterously cold, but the warmth of your hearths usually seem to make up for that fact.”
His face cracked into a grin. She hadn’t been here five minutes and was already insulting him. Just like old times.
“You look… healthy. I haven’t seen you since you were last in a hair-pulling mood.” She continued, examining him in a calculating way that should have made him nervous.
“Fortunately for you, I seem to have grown out of that. I see that you’ve grown as well – might I trouble you for the pleasure of a dance this evening?” He replied, giving her an indulging look.
She laughed. “Edmond, look at this dress. I am a layer cake. My father didn’t send me here to dance, he sent me here to be looked at – which, come to think of it, leaves me with a number of questions about my father’s motives.”
Edmond returned the laugh. “Perhaps we could sit down, instead. Would you care for a drink? Something to eat?”
She acquiesced and, taking his arm, they passed around back to the high table (which Samael and Chilcott had conveniently vacated in anticipation of his next move). Chatting amiably over a course of roasted veal tenderloin and crispy sweetbreads, Edmond noticed in passing the alcohol processing through his system, causing a bizarre sense of clear-headed drunkenness. He tasted the sight of his meal and inhaled the intoxicating hues of Jocelyn’s cinnamon eyes. It was intoxicatingly beautiful, and he felt his earlier anxiety melt away in waves.
An endless parade of individuals passed by the table as time passed, offering birthday wishes to Edmond, which he graciously accepted while wishing they would simply walk away and leave him with the gorgeous creature that had become of his former childhood playmate. An inner voice reminded him that, if nothing else, he was quite a handsome man and she would be lucky to have his attention, and if the Winterberry Dream tart had been mind-numbingly scrumptious under the influence, what would her lips taste like?
As she sipped a cup of tea to finish the meal and he nursed another glass of wine, she gave him a sickeningly sweet grin and leaned closer as if to share a secret. “So Edmond, I’ve been wondering all night – what is it that has you so petrified that you’ve resorted to getting royally plastered to avoid thinking about it?”
Shock washed over him like a wave of cold water. Was he really that translucent? Was he that obvious to those people who might or might not be watching him and plotting his demise? “I-I’m not certain what you’re referring to.” He lied, eyes fluttering to the rest of the room nervously.
“Come now, you can’t fool me. You’re pale as a ghost – paler than normal, for you – and you keep looking around like the devil himself is at your heels. And I recognize the Green Fairy when I see it. Whose kingdom do you think it comes from?”
Edmond sighed and set a hand on his forehead, distressed. “So I am that obvious, after all.”
She shrugged gently, setting her cup back on its saucer and resting her chin on folded hands. “It’s been a few years, but I’d like to think I know you pretty well. What’s bothering you – pre-coronation jitters? I understand nervousness about taking responsibility for the kingdom. My brother is going through something similar. He’s already having trouble sleeping and keeps snapping at his advisers, and he’s not due to accept the throne for a year now.”
Chuckling slightly in dismay, Edmond shook his head. “That’s not even slightly my concern.”
He pondered for a moment opening up and asking Jocelyn for her advice, but she was a year younger than him and the princess of another country. Come to think of it, the inner voice reminded him, her kingdom probably stood to gain from his demise. She might even be one of those secret sharks that Xiu had warned him about.
He glanced at her sneakily from the corner of his eye. Jocelyn didn’t look like a secret shark to him. But that’s how secret sharks operated – secretly, he supposed.
“Edmond, if there’s anything that I can assist you with…” She said cautiously, brow furrowing in concern. But was it real concern, or strategic concern? Was she playing him, and if so, to what end?
He let off a stream of curses in the Old Tongue. “Enough of this political tomfoolery.”
Jocelyn bared blinked an eyelash. “If you’re tired of it now, you’ve got a long, hard road ahead of you. And that hardly seemed a good use for your dialect courses, Edmond. That tongue is meant for inter-kingdom diplomacy.”
He waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively, his hand slipping from the table. “I could show you another use for that tongue.”
Anger flickered across her face and faded as soon as it appeared. Her heart-shaped lips thinned into a line. “Please, Edmond. You don’t want this conversation to take that path.”
“How do you know? Maybe that’s exactly where I want this conversation to go.”
Setting his glass on the table, Edmond turned to face her directly, vacant powder blue eyes taking in everything from the flush on her cheeks to the pink in her fingers and the light goosebumps on her upper arms. He reached out to brush his hand against her shoulder and watched an involuntary shiver run down her spine. “You look cold, Josie. I know a couple of things that could warm you up…”
She leaned back and stared at him, deadpan. “Please, you sniveling boychild. Tomorrow you ascend to the throne; try to pretend for a moment that you’re a man.”
He chuckled again, taking another sip from his glass and savouring the sweet tang of the cherry liquid. “Don’t take that patronizing tone with me. Unless your father, your brother, and three other men drop dead, you’ll never have power over the Western throne. The only use you have to your family is to be married off for political favour. Take a look at your options, Josie. It’s me or that dusty grump in the East.” His hand slipped subtly from the table.
Jocelyn went white with anger and before he could return the glass to the table, she slapped him cleanly across the face. The glass slipped from his fingers and shattered on the ground. The noise seemed unusually amplified to Edmond’s addled mind, and it took a few moments for him to realize that the music had stopped, motion stopped, conversation stopped. The room held its collective breath.
“Don’t ever mistake me for a common whore, Prince Edmond. That was your mother, not mine.” Jocelyn spat, gathering her dress and standing abruptly. The only sound to be heard was the clack of her heels making their way directly across the marble floor.
She paused in the doorway and turned, the timbre of her voice carrying despite shaking in rage. “And though I may be a mere woman, make no mistake: I will ensure that my father makes you and your kingdom pay for those words.” With that, she turned in a whirl of emerald sating and swiftly exited the Grand Entryway.
Paralyzed, his heartbeat pounding in his head, Edmond watched as Apophis, moving faster than Edmond thought was possible given the time-freeze that had enveloped the rest of the room, made his way to the high table. The Viscount clapped Edmond amiably on the shoulder and said in a bright, merry voice, “Friends, our dear prince would like to thank each one of you one more for traveling all this way to wish him well the night before his birthday. Regrettably, he finds himself overtired and will be turning in early. He has a big day ahead of him tomorrow.”
Forcing an uncomfortable laugh that was echoed by many in the room, Apophis helped Edmond to his feet. “The Prince would like to extend his invitation to stay as you’d like and reminds you that the ceremony will begin bright and early in the morning.”
Slowly, hesitantly, the music began to play once more as Apophis forcibly encouraged him out of the hall. But even the joyful strains of the orchestra couldn’t overcome the frustrated whispers of the nobles watching them leave.
“The Common Heir’s done it again…”
“That is what we have to look forward to?”
“He’s a royal embarrassment…”
“If King Richard could see him now…”
The warm haze of the alcohol was beginning to fade away, leaving Edmond with a chill in his stomach once more. The sting in his face would fade quickly, but the moment of weakness would herald disaster. A curious coppery taste filled his mouth and with a rush, he suddenly understood to what Xiu had been referring.
Blood in the water.