Prelude to an Afterword
by under the weather
I shut my eyes, smiling, and clung with all my strength to Vidanric as kisses rained on my hair, my eyes, and finally—lingeringly—on my lips…
After the world had turned a suitable distance under their feet, he tore his mouth away to plant a line of kisses from her shoulder to her jaw. "Mel." A kiss for her temple. She waited on his words, contentment granting her infinite patience. "You're a reckless fool."
"Hah," she responded, dark blue eyes flashing half a dozen emotions, none of which was her old defensiveness. "Then what a pair of fools we must make, necking in the middle of the Throne Room like a couple of outrageous flirts."
A smile deepened the corners of his mouth. "Well, I had thought it didn't much matter since everyone in Athanarel is…ah, indisposed at the moment." He cast an ironic glance sideways at the softly snoring guard sprawled on the floor. "But if your dignity demands it, my lady"—he dropped her onto her feet with a stately sweep of his hands—"I am yours to command."
She laughed out loud at the facetiously sober look he fixed her with and grabbed a handful of material near his throat so she could pull him into a smacking kiss, just to prove she didn't have an ounce of dignity in her body.
Releasing him, she stepped back in triumph, only to have her eyes fall on the giant goldenwood casting its shadow over them, then skitter to the glassy pebbles that had once been the sniveling Duke of Grumareth. Her heart, already beating quickly, thumped hard against her breastbone. Her eternally mercurial mood darkened almost instantly. The Marquis immediately enfolded her hand in his long fingers. Characteristically, he had read the open emotions on her face.
"Vidanric." She lifted her eyes to his gray ones under his newly furrowed brow. "I want to see them."
He nodded his understanding and led the way. They found Bran and his intended bride in Nee's suite of rose rooms, still at the table where an untouched meal was quietly spoiling. They had evidently come here after Meliara's ball to have an early breakfast before retiring to their beds. There was no sign in the rooms of any of the associates that Flauvic had threatened them with—either they had fled when the spell was broken, or they had never existed at all. Thus unharmed, Nee had fallen delicately sideways onto the cushions around the low table when the enchantment had been lifted, hair splayed in an elegant arc. Branaric, however, had slumped forward onto the dishes and upended a selection of pastries, one of which had left a long smear of fruit on his cheek.
Mel wasn't sure whether to laugh or sigh. The tall man beside her shook his head, but not at the sight before them. He slid his fingers under her chin and gently turned her face towards him. "We should bandage that," he indicated the still weeping cut on her throat and guided her away to her adjoining rooms.
She sat where he indicated and watched quietly as he occupied himself with drawing water for washing and searching out scrap cloth for binding. Normally she wouldn't have allowed this kind of fussing, but she saw how the whole affair soothed him. A busy body meant a less busy mind, and there were thoughts aplenty to be avoiding. It was one of his quirks that she had always known, but was only now coming to appreciate: he quickly and efficiently buried any inconvenient emotions in the monotony of work. But her hidden motive for letting him continue without complaint was to just bask in the pleasure of having his hands on her.
She reached up to touch his finished work, fidgeting with the fabric wrapped snuggly around her throat. He gave her a disapproving look when she tugged too hard, and she flashed him a broad grin. "Terribly fashionable, isn't it?"
"Tamara will turn positively green," he agreed thoughtfully. "It will be all the rage within days."
She choked on her laughter and on her bandage. Silently amused and strangely endeared by the strangled expression on her face, he leaned in to drop an impulsive kiss on her lips. "My wounds," Meliara observed when he drew back, "are not the only things that Tamara will envy."
"Indeed. I'd venture that there will be quite a few people surprised as much by the events that took place here in Remalna-city as by those that happened outside of it." He cupped her face. "Though I fear these past two days may have been a touch over-stimulating"—here a wry smile—"for you as well. Perhaps you should take your cue from the rest of the city and have some well-deserved sleep."
Her lips puckered with concern—for him, he realized with a little jolt of pleasure. "And you?"
He shook his head in answer. "I'm afraid I can't rouse a single person in this entire place, so I will have to go myself to search through the Merindar House and make sure there is no further treachery afoot."
Mel's hand fluttered to her bandage. She was thinking of being alone in this room, with Nee and Bran slumbering so unnaturally nearby—thinking of the dull ache in her neck and the blazing agony of a knife to her throat—thinking of a goldenwood tree sprouting unexpectedly in the Throne Room. How do we know he's going to stay a tree? If Vidanric saw the flash of fear in her eyes, he kept his mouth wisely closed.
"You silky-tongued liar," she accused, and his stomach plummeted with dread that somehow they had just taken a colossal step backwards. Then she smiled cheerily at him, and he remembered to release the air from his lungs. This new freedom between them was going to take some adjustment. "You just want me out of the way so you can take my share of the loot from under my nose. No, I'll not be duped. I'll just have to tag along on your heels and take inventory." It was just as well, she resigned silently. She was avoiding something, and he was avoiding something, so they might as well avoid such things together.
"My dear Countess," Vidanric strung out his words with genteel grace as he stood and offered her his hand, "you keep me honest."
Though they couldn't see it, their small smiles of relief were perfect mirror images.
Meliara scrubbed her fingertips on the sides of her tunic as she sat cross-legged on the floor of her parlor room. Seated at her side, Vidanric's attention never wavered from the page he was closely scanning, his face having fallen unthinkingly into its habitual blankness. She picked up her own paper once again, though her hands still seemed to burn where she had touched Flauvic's magic books. Life! How she'd been relieved to see those speedily locked away, no matter how she'd tried to assure herself they were just meaningless words without the proper training.
The letter in her hands was one of the few papers that had been left in the Merindar House, and Mel could easily see why the Marquise hadn't thought it of enough interest to spirit away with her. It was a dated correspondence between Arthal Merindar and her steward, full of harmless and extraordinarily dull talk of ditching and draining that area of land and patching this section of roof. Reminding herself of Vidanric's instruction to dismiss nothing as worthless, she concentrated doubly hard just to keep the words from dancing in front of her eyes.
She was concentrating so hard, in fact, that she didn't notice that Vidanric had fallen asleep until his paper fluttered unheeded to the floor and his head slumped onto her shoulder. She held her breath to keep from gasping, and sat in frozen fascination, watching as fraction by fraction his forehead lost its precarious purchase on her upper arm and half the Marquis landed unceremoniously in her lap.
Meliara would have taken the well-disciplined noble to be a light sleeper, but he seemed undisturbed by his sudden change in position. To all appearances, two failed coups and one exhausting courtship with a certain headstrong Countess had finally caught up with him. She allowed the air out of her lungs in a small sigh, satisfied that he was neither going to break in her arms nor suddenly wake up swinging his fists. Setting aside the letter, Mel slid her fingers into his now untidy braid, a bit surprised by the liberty she was taking with him. She stroked the fine blond strands of hair, thinking new, tender thoughts and finding it entirely impossible not to touch him.
Love was a wholly novel experience for her, though she now knew it to be the self-same emotion that had lurked behind all her old anxiety. She had to bite her lip to hold back a laugh. Was this the reason she had always been ill-tempered with him? Because she was yearning to touch him? No, she decided as her fingers skimmed his temple, it went so much deeper than that. It had been fear that made her sick to look at him. He was everything courtly and polished she'd been raised to distrust on sight, all in one neat and seemingly indifferent package. What a conundrum! The willful, half-savage Countess of Tlanth feeling an attraction for Galdran's elegant, arrogant former commander. She'd known no better solution for such a maddening problem than to drive it away with a stock of venomous looks and a bombardment of snide comments. But it hadn't worked. That was the wonder of it.
She hadn't managed to squash his interest, let alone her own. And despite a million or so reasons she shouldn't be sitting like she was at that moment, the world and a few friends and a handful of servants had tirelessly thrown them together time and again, allowing those feelings to build and bottleneck in that secret place where they'd been hidden. Considering that it was only in the past few days that any hint of this had begun to dawn on her, it was a miracle that she hadn't managed to stomp it all to pieces before it fell so curiously into place. At least she could take some consolatory pride in the fact that she was perhaps the only person who had ever so confounded and evaded the adroit Marquis; she held the illustrious honor of being the privileged aristocrat's hardest-won prize ever.
Without any warning, the tapestry at her door was swept back and Bran's lanky frame filled the doorway, and just as suddenly he stilled. She didn't even have time to remove her hand from Danric's hair. The two siblings stared at each other with dark eyes gone wide and round. Nee, curious as to the delay, wriggled her way underneath Bran's arm before stopping short herself.
Meliara blushed scarlet to the tips of her ears. She was utterly trapped, sitting in her own room with Vidanric Renselaeus, Marquis of Shevraeth and now undisputed king-to-be, cradled in her lap.
Perhaps Nee summed the situation up most gracefully with her surprised murmur of "Oh no."
At her soft voice, Vidanric opened his eyes, prompting Mel to suspect he had not been as deeply asleep as he wanted her to believe. She entertained several dark thoughts on methods of interrogation to be used at a later time. Meanwhile, the subject of her imaginings took in the scene before him with a hazy glance, then blinked once. The shadows of sleep were swept away as if someone had drawn the curtains in his brain, and he regarded the pair in the doorway with clear and serious gray eyes.
"I seem," he drawled with a hint of amusement that made Mel's cheeks flame more brightly, "to have misplaced my bedroom."
Bran—to his sister's eternal chagrin—howled with laughter until tears streamed from his eyes.
As soon as it was determined that all the citizens of Remalna-city were shaking off the somnolent side-effects of Flauvic's spell, several dozen newly woken runners were sent to all corners to inform the public that the Marquis of Shevraeth would satisfy their curiosity in person at the next bell-change. So it came to pass that some short time later, Vidanric stood in the Throne Room, one booted foot propped on the edge of the dais, silently contemplating the Merindar Flower—or really, the tree that he had become. In the corner of his eye he observed the unlikely crowd being funneled inside, bakers and seamstresses and merchants jostling elbows with professional courtiers. He turned his face to catch a friendly countenance, and Russav grinned at him, his dark head towering well over the rest. Seated in a carved bluewood chair just below Vidanric, Prince Alaerec frowned a little warning at his nephew, while at his elbow Princess Elestra's handsome features were smoothed into a polite expression that gave away nothing at all. They had a right to be anxious, Vidanric allowed, as this unexpected development had to be turned expertly to their advantage. There could be no lingering sympathy for any of the Merindars after this moment. The continuing and gradual change-over of power had to remain as flawless as ever.
This was the start of a new era. Vidanric removed his boot from the dais, placing him on equal footing with the assembly and turned to face them. Looking out into a sea of faces, he was suffused with a sudden desire to have Meliara at his side. Surely it would have bolstered the image he was constructing for himself to have the diminutive Countess of Tlanth on his arm, especially now that he was going to make her a national hero twice-over with the tale he had to tell. But his real wish was just for a glimpse of her smile and a squeeze of her hand, and perhaps that glance from her eyes that always reminded him to be humble.
Instead, he had nearly shoved her into Mora's arms with the instructions that her mistress was not to stir a foot outside her rooms until she'd slept a full day. It was most likely for the best, anyway. Meliara would have only balked at the acclaim and insisted quite publicly that her role in the events had been entirely meaningless. And where was the glory in that? The whole city would be singing her praises within half a candle, and she would be the reluctant subject of every Court gossip for the next month. Yes, Vidanric was going to enjoy bending this to his cause very much.
Even in her absence, Vidanric himself cut a very fine figure as he addressed the crowd. He had hastily washed and dressed himself in handsome but subdued dark blue without any trimmings, and he had forgone the usual gems in his braided hair. It lent him a look of anonymity and approachability, but did nothing to extinguish his quiet dignity. His modest garb could easily have been dismissed as a flimsy disguise, though, if it were not for the sincere manner with which he carried himself. His pale eyes in his serious face seemed to regard each of them individually, high and low, with a kind of sympathy and the soft timbre of his voice in the full room was profoundly intimate. It was not merely because the story he spun was captivating that they hung on every word he spoke.
None of them could have guessed that the Marquis was silently entertaining himself with a less glamorous review of the events, one which he would later relate to his cousin with a few flourishes, grimaces, and laughs after the rest of the day's affairs had been settled. Russav might feign interest in the Merindar fiasco for a minute or two, but the Duke had been tied up in politics from a young age and they quickly tired him when he didn't need to know the details. No, he'd be much keener to hear exactly how Vidanric had conquered the indomitable Countess of Tlanth simply by doffing his gloves. And if he were feeling particularly bold, he might inquire as to Danric's satisfaction in the settlement of the pair's long-standing debt, at which time Vidanric would appear to be mortally offended. But, unlike during their misspent youth, they wouldn't settle this conflict with swords in a public place; rather, they would wage this contest privately with barbs and spurs over a glass of wine. Then, at the end of evening, Savona would drag a protesting but relieved Shevraeth off to his rooms for some delayed rest, and by the morning they would forgive each other graciously. Such it had always been between them, and Vidanric valued what little consistency he could find in his life.
The Marquis ended his address with frank assurances that those who had participated in the rebellion were being dealt with accordingly and that he was currently investigating anyone who might have been an accomplice of Flauvic—but at present there was no threat to Remalna. Then, kneeling on the cushion he often used for Petitioner's Court, he invited them to share their questions with him.
But if any among them had a concern, it was quickly drowned by the spontaneous cry that arose in the echoing room. There were numerous shouts of "Shevraeth" picked up a chorus of voices, and in the midst of the noise there were also calls of "Renselaeus" and "Tlanth" too. For the first time, Vidanric allowed himself a smile, quietly and modestly acknowledging their applause, and the invisible tension in his shoulders eased.
Those who had gone to Athanarel to see the future royalty for themselves left satisfied and passed the opinion along to their neighbors that, though he was hardly a expressive fellow, Vidanric Renselaeus was not nearly so cold as rumor would have it. It was the general opinion that he would make a fine king, particularly in contrast to Galdran. The hottest topic of debate in the city those next few weeks, then, was over why his coronation had still not been announced, and it was whispered that the Prince and Princess were planning the ceremony for the New Year in hopes that the Marquis could snag himself a bride by then.
Most sensible members of society considered the double attempt by the Merindars on their freedoms to be a grim experience and declined to speak of it in public, but the Duke of Savona, being a fashionable scoundrel, threw a ball. His theme for the evening was, predictably, a floral one, and he spared no effort in calling upon almost all the florists within a day's ride to ensure that the room was stylishly adorned with nearly every flower that grew within Remalna and some that were entirely exotic. He was censured for his audacity in most every circle, but when the event finally came about every popular and lively young person was in attendance despite any previously stated views on the matter.
No one, it seemed, could bring themselves to the slight the charming Duke, not even his hesitant guests of honor. They met at the top of the grand staircase in the gallery overlooking the ballroom, just as they had for Meliara's first ball at Athanarel. This time, though, there was no awkwardness between them as they took one look at each other and broke into grins. Some interfering servants had discretely seen to it that their charges were dressed to complement each other that evening. Mel's gown was a lovely pale shade of spring green embroidered with silver thread in spiraling patterns that approximated the petals of a flower. Vidanric had been outfitted in his usual darker shades, his chosen color being a deep, shadowy forest green also embellished with silver. And on certain interfering parties' insistence, there had been woven into each of their hair a single bloom from a red rose.
"If I didn't know better," he said with a low bow before offering his arm to her, "I would charge you with spying on me."
She chuckled as she stepped to his side. "I have heard it said that you are more meticulous about your clothes than half the ladies at Court. Perhaps someone thought I could benefit from your example."
His gray eyes were narrowed with humor as he affected a wounded expression. "Only half? Someone has been doing me a great injustice."
Her laughter rang out freely over the music playing their entrance. Her face was alive with emotion, the effect of which was not lost on anyone present, especially not the Marquis. It seemed the warmth of her features reflected even on his usually cool expression. She craned her chin up to gaze at him, displaying the faint pink scab on her throat. "Don't look so worried. I still think you vainer than any of 'em."
"Thank you." Voice grave, eyes smiling. "You know your good opinion has always meant more to me than anyone else's."
Before she could decide if his comment was entirely serious or not, they were within reach of Savona, who greeted them with a small, mischievous smile and a grandiose bow. He signaled for the musicians to pick up a different tune, and his cousin swung the Countess away in the first steps of the dance.
It was noted by the observant guests—of whom there many—that the Marquis partnered one dance each with the affianced Lady Nimiar Argaliar, the newly married Lady Renna Khialem, and the politically influential ambassador from Sartor. The rest of his dances—five—he reserved for his former adversary, Meliara Astiar. Those who discerned this were divided into three groups: the first, who had predicted the pairing all along and did not speak of it for fear of offending those who would be disappointed by Shevraeth's choice; the second, who were indeed thwarted in their own attempts to grab the future king's attention and did not speak of it out of shame; and the last, who had been completely oblivious to the affair the whole time and did not speak of it out of the humiliation of being the last to know.
And though none of them breathed a word of it to anyone else, by the next morning the whole palace knew that the unlikely twosome was, for lack of a better word, twoing.
Savona, one of the most prominent of the first group having been privy to his cousin's private agonies over the insensible Countess, watched with no little interest as the pair took their third turn around the room. He grinned to himself, having already twisted the events in his mind to flatter himself that he was the sole person responsible for the coupling, since they would never have stopped tripping over their own feet without his meddling. Satisfied, he turned that rakish smile on the lovely lady at his side. Tamara watched him warily out of the corner of her unrivaled blue eyes as he led her away to dance, as if she were afraid that he might chew her up and spit her out.
Quite the contrary, Russav was determined to treat his striking companion like a queen this evening, until she forgot all about her frustrated designs on his serious cousin. The past year had been an endlessly turbulent one for the childhood sweethearts, but the Duke had never been able to completely put the lady out of his mind. He was quite sure he loved her, in a rough sort of way, and that she had always felt the same. Even so, he would never accept as his wife anyone who saw the Duchy of Savona as a consolation prize. In the end, Russav never took second place to anyone in anything, and this affair would be no different.
Sometime later, when all eyes were otherwise occupied, Savona escorted the matchless Tamara up the stairs to the relative privacy of the dark corners of the gallery and stole a few kisses. With his darling lady leaning ever so pliant against his chest, he silently resolved that his ball had been a magnificent success.
The courtship that had begun by letter now proceeded in the public eye at its own pace. When time could be stolen away from governing, there were dinners and formal affairs, days at the races, walks in the gardens and rides in the country, and on the occasion they found private time for just the two of them, they retreated to the little alcove in the library. There they would stay to all hours of the night, Mel supported against Vidanric's shoulder and half-asleep, as they rehashed the painful and sometimes painfully amusing details of their checkered past.
When she was not at Danric's side, Meliara spent time helping Bran and Nee arrange the last details of their nuptials or in the company of Princess Elestra. Elestra had taken a compassionate interest in the motherless girl, and she devised any number of activities to forge a bond between them. While the friendship between the two was reward enough in itself, Vidanric's mother also served as a quiet and impeccable model for the younger woman on how a lady of state should conduct herself. Of course some of the lessons were lost on the formerly barefoot Countess, but she learned as best she could and invented the rest with her artless charm.
Though the new couple was mainly wrapped up in each other, they were not completely immune to the gossip surrounding them. More than one wondered as each day passed why there had still been no engagement announced, and in truth, sometimes the Marquis pondered the same thing himself despite having promised Mel his patience. If he had been some minor baron or even the son of farmer, he felt sure she would have married him in a heartbeat, but the life he had been assigned came with a few considerable strings attached.
Strings which Meliara suddenly felt wrapped tightly around her heart, as if they might rent it in two. She was standing one early morning under drizzling skies, her gown slowly wilting, having twice refused Savona's offer to share his rain canopy with her. She leaned her face into the shoulder of Vidanric's handsome gray, blindly stroking its neck. The horse craned his head around, snuffling her fingers curiously, but she could only frown with effort of willing herself not to look at Vidanric as he dashed off last minute instructions to several of those who had gathered to see him leave. He was to ride directly to the northern edge of Remalna where there had been some raiding parties crossing the border over the past week in order to chase the bandits himself and bolster morale among the troops stationed there.
Mel was understandably if somewhat irrationally cross with him. A few months ago she wouldn't have cared if he'd single-handedly gone up against a thousand bloodthirsty pirates, but now she worried after his safety like he had all the strength of a newborn babe. Which she absolutely knew to be untrue, and knowing that made her all the more cross with herself. Love was a terrible thing sometimes, for it made a woman quite mad.
He approached quietly, but her whole body prickled with awareness of his proximity. Without a word, he took the reins from her hands and tossed them to a groom, so with no further excuse she had to turn her eyes to him.
His face was a restrained blank as he regarded her under the wide brim of his dark hat, which made her want to curse at him all the more. She was sure that everyone present could see quite clearly that she was very nearly in tears, and he had his convenient Court mask to conceal his own thoughts. It simply wasn't fair.
"If the weather takes a turn for the better, I should be back in time for your brother's wedding. If not…" He let the words trail off for a moment, and then shook his head. "Well, we just won't let that be an option, will we?"
"And you'll be safe?" Her voice sounded dangerously tremulous to her own ears.
"Always." He picked up her hand. His face was just as emotionless as ever, but she could have sworn she'd seen a flash of something like a cloud passing over his gray eyes. "Mel?" he asked, his voice low and private. "Why so grim? You look like you've just seen Galdran's ghost."
As a joke it wasn't much, but the very weakness of it made her realize he was struggling just as valiantly as she was. He just had more practice at it was all. That flash of emotion she'd almost missed—how could she not have known instantly?—that had been his concern for her. Wasn't he even now delaying his urgent business just to soothe her childish tantrum? Abruptly, she felt like an awful, selfish creature for asking to be put first. Was that not why she admired him? Because he took on the responsibility of the world without showing the strain, because he cared a little too much about everything, because he could always be counted on to make strong decisions. If she had asked it, she felt sure he would have delegated the whole issue to someone else in order to stay and ease her fears, but that would be undermining the very traits she dearly loved.
Without even speaking, he'd finally put some well-worn doubts to rest. She'd asked herself often enough of late: Could she give her heart away to someone who gave his to duty? Could she marry the man and the title? And the answer now was unconditionally, Yes. Looking down at her, unsettled by her silence, she could just catch the flicker of compassion in the backs of his eyes, feel it in the quick squeeze of his fingers round hers. He loved her enough to stay, and in turn she would have to love him enough to let him go time and again. It was enough just to know that, no matter how many times he rode away from her, he'd ride equally as swiftly back.
She squeezed his hand back and put an admittedly unsteady grin on her face. "Why would anything like that ever make me gloomy? No, I was just thinking that I'm going to miss your horse, that's all."
"My horse?" he repeated dryly. Then he laughed softly, privately relieved that whatever was on her mind had obviously eased. "Maybe I shall bring you back your own, and next time you'll have a reason to miss me instead."
He pressed a kiss into the palm of her hand, mounted in one graceful motion, and was gone within moments.
As if waiting to fill the sudden vacancy in her life, Savona glided up to extend his canopy over her head, taking her arm and giving it a brotherly pat. "I daresay, if you catch a cold while he's away, Danric will have my head. And though I fancy it a handsome thing, I'd prefer it be displayed no where else but my own shoulders." She cracked a real smile at him, and he used the distraction to begin guiding her steps back to the Residence. "You see, the only person's safety you should be concerned for is mine. Danric is perhaps the most cautious person you'll find this side of Sles Adran," he said casually, as if he were simply carrying on a standard conversation and not comforting her. "Though—" He stopped to consider, his dark brows rising to let in an impish light. "If you're ever going to marry the poor man, you'd best do it as soon as possible. Then, if anything, ah, unfortunate were to befall him, you would at least be comforted by having his personal fortune at your disposal." He fixed her with a leer that was supposed to be exceedingly un-brotherly, but it was so ridiculous it tickled a laugh out of her throat. "It might benefit you in the future, my dear Meliara, to know that I happen to have a fond place in my heart for rich, beautiful widows."
Despite some minor disruptions, Branaric and Nimiar were married at midsummer just as planned.
That happy morning, Meliara stood in Nee's room, only half dressed herself, watching as Ilvet adorned her mistress's hair for this most joyful of occasions. She frowned unconsciously as the maid adjusted the lady's pearl headdress. "…received a letter from Oria," she was saying to her almost-sister. "I'm afraid the servant's wing is not quite finished yet. Some kind of trouble with the stone shipment. But doubtless you can improvise for a few weeks. Oria herself oversaw the new furnishings for your and Bran's rooms, which I'm sure is a vast improvement over anything I would have done. I really do hope it's too your liking. But I know that if it's not, you'll have 'em all whipped into shape within the first few days." A little self-mocking smile curved her lips. "As Bran'll surely tell you, it's been a long time since a proper lady was Countess of Tlanth."
As Mel was speaking, Nee had quietly dismissed Ilvet and swiveled to get a good view of the other young woman. Meliara flushed prettily when her rambling came to a stumbling halt, having realized at last that she was babbling, and there was a certain sadness in her blue eyes as she let them fall to her slippered feet. Nee felt a twinge of sympathy, but nothing in the world could ruin her good mood. In fact, she took a little bit of enjoyment out of the expression on Mel's face. Nee liked that, being able to read the emotions on someone's face like the words on a page. Wasn't that why she'd been so smitten with the brother to begin with? He was a fresh breeze in the stuffy air of Court; she'd loved inspiring those madcap smiles and tracing his temper like a storm across his face, been far more flattered by his blunt speech than any flirt's sugary tongue.
And now the handsome Count was about to carry her off to a new life, away from the stifling Court where she had spent her terrifying youth, to his isolated mountain castle where everyone would speak plainly with her and treat her respect, without ever looking down their noses at her because she wasn't well-bred enough. Everything was going to be just fine, and now only his sister still needed to see that.
"Don't be so worried, Mel." Nee intoned gently, and the auburn-topped head lifted. "I'm going to take good care of him."
Meliara's lower lip wobbled for a moment before she promptly burst into tears, and Nee rose to take the smaller woman in the circle of her arms. "N-n-n-never thought he wo-wo-would do s-so well for himself as t' find s-s-s-someone like you," she stuttered as she scrubbed ashamedly at the wetness on her cheeks.
Nee laughed, and as she pulled back there was dampness spilling from her own eyes. "Quit that," she scolded lightheartedly. "No one is allowed to cry at my wedding."
It was Mel's turn to chuckle moistly, and she sat down hard. "Don't know what I'm going t'do without you," she mumbled into the palms of her hands as she finished clearing her face.
"What are you talking about?" Nee returned to her seat, and Ilvet materialized neatly to begin where she had left off. "I'm not usually a proud person, but I do believe I did a marvelous job with you—not that you don't deserve some of the credit. You're going to knock them all on their ears with your brilliance."
"That'll be a change," Mel responded with a sincere smile that lifted Nee's heart. "Usually it's me that gets the knocking."
The two women were entirely composed by the time Nimiar knelt on a cushion across from Branaric as the traditional ceremony was being spoken over them. The couple had eyes only for each other despite the rather sizeable crowd that had come to celebrate the marriage, and Bran was wearing a silly grin that completely undid any decorum the occasion warranted.
Meliara's eyes, however, were wont to wander. She was seated in a position of honor as the groom's sister, and beside her was the person next highest in importance, who just happened to be the Marquis of Shevraeth. He'd only just returned that morning, and they hadn't yet had a chance to exchange more than a quiet greeting, so she kept sneaking surreptitious glances in his direction. He looked tired but composed, and gravely serious—so completely out of place at a wedding.
Eager applause rippled through the assembly as Branaric unabashedly crushed his new wife into a whistle-worthy kiss, but Mel didn't see because she was once again stealing a glimpse of Vidanric, her lips pursed in thought. And so it came to pass that Meliara Astiar graciously relinquished her title of Countess of Tlanth to a worthy replacement and decided to take up an entirely new one.
Danric caught her staring this time, and turning his attention from the proceedings, he lifted one brow in a silent question. She shook her head, grinning wildly, and tore her gaze away. He would have his answer soon enough.
True to the pact that she had made with Nee, Meliara danced at her wedding—though if she had known at the start that dancing would be done in the arms of Shevraeth, she probably would never had left her home that spring. The music rose to a beautiful crescendo as the spinning pairs eyed the newly married couple, and the steps brought Mel close enough to Vidanric to lean in and whisper in his ear.
"I think I want to marry you."
Any other man might have whooped in surprise and delight. As it was, he hissed his breath between his teeth, grabbed her up in his arms and pressed an ardent kiss on her lips. Then astonishment quickly gave way to other things, and he set her back on her feet before fixing her with a frown.
She laughed softly and stepped back into him, mimicking the pattern of the dance. "I know." She stretched up on the toes of her slippers and stole a second kiss from his willing mouth. If anyone present noticed the display, they mutely hid it behind delicately fluttering fans.
Of course, Bran and Nee were the first to be informed of the good news, but afterwards it swept so rapidly through the kingdom that by the time the newlyweds reached their home in Tlanth, the whole county was abuzz with ecstatic talk of how the mysterious Marquis had stolen their little Countess away to be his new queen.
The whole world seemed to pick up a blistering pace after that, like a horse startled by thunder, giving Meliara a very accurate glimpse of what her life would be like ever after. The Prince and Princess orchestrated the introduction of their soon-to-be daughter with relentless and flawless polish in an endless parade of social functions, the culmination of which was the ball celebrating the younger Astiar's adoption into their family. It was a stiff affair attended by everyone with any pretension to political importance from every surrounding nation, who came to bow to Vidanric Renselaeus and fawn sweetly over the unusual beauty of his chosen bride. Mel hardly remembered to breathe half the night, and she only managed not to trip on her train and choke on her food through the grace of Danric's steady hand on her elbow and the absurdity of Savona's dark eyes rolling exaggeratedly at her over the rim of his cup.
To make amends for the atrocity of the whole evening, the Duke kindly threw a party late the next afternoon for his "favorite cousin"—as he had begun to affectionately refer to her—and the guests were limited exclusively to her young friends at Court. It was there that her natural smile made its reappearance after a few days anxious absence.
Sometime during the white, she turned that smile on the man walking at her side as he led her, not to the Residence Wing as she was expecting, but out into the gardens. "Lost your way?" she inquired.
"Hmm?" Unusually distracted, he shifted his eyes from the pale horizon to her face. He looked simply thoughtful, which Mel appreciated. He hardly wore his mask around her anymore, not even when they were among company, like he had in the beginning. It had been slow progress, but endlessly rewarding. "Oh no," he murmured vaguely as her words registered, "not at all."
Sighing, she dug her heels in, forcing him to pull up short at her side. "Not a step further until you tell me what's on your mind," she demanded.
"Mel," he said, casting her in his gray eyes like he were seeing her for the first time that evening. "I…" It was one of the few times she had ever seen him at a loss for words, and his frustration with himself thinned his lips. Her nerves wound themselves into tight knots in her stomach. After a few moments, he finished hesitantly, "You shouldn't let them get to you, you know."
"Who?" she asked, perplexed.
"Everyone," he said with an expansive shrug that took in their surroundings. "My parents, especially. You should know that they adore you, just as you are. Your rustic manners have had a more significant effect on all of us than I'm sure half the Court would care to admit. It's only that matters are stressful right now, with all the visiting dignitaries and such, and we're all so concerned about showing the right face to the kingdom and to the world. This is bigger than us." He took up one hand and then the other in his own. "But I don't want to lose sight of things that matter. I want to you to remember that I chose you not because I wanted you to become queen, but because I wanted you to be queen."
She stepped closer so she could squint up at his face in the early morning light. "I don't think there's a difference."
"Then you're not listening." It wasn't a reprimand. Now that he'd said his piece, his expression had relaxed and his tone was gentle. "I've told you before that you have qualities no one else here has. You shouldn't have to conform to anyone else's ideal. In time, they are going to accept you as you are." He released her hands with a kiss for each one. "It's only a few more weeks. It will get easier once they've all left, and we can take up the run of the kingdom ourselves."
She leaned into him, and his arms came around her. It was a sweet-sounding promise. "Easier?"
He laughed at the eagerness in her voice. "For the most part. It's not as if we'll lounge around all day eating chocolate, but we'll have the liberty to be ourselves. If you like, you can romp around the gardens barefoot, or stomp into Petitioner's Court in your muddy riding clothes, or carry your sword with you to dinner in case there's a duel over the dishes, and you can demand the same of everyone else. All the fashionable young ladies will fanatically copy you, and everyone will scurry to carry out your silliest whim."
"This ordering-about," she posed speculatively, glancing at him under her lashes, "will it include the king?"
He lips came down on hers in a fleeting kiss. "Most certainly. No one will be a more dutiful servant than he."
She grinned wickedly and wrapped her arms around his neck, dragging him nearer. "Then kiss me again." Vidanric chuckled low in his throat before proving beyond a doubt that he would be true to his word.
The majority of Meliara's anxiety those subsequent weeks was directed towards learning the complicated words of the upcoming coronation. The traditional recitations at any wedding were difficult enough to memorize, but the marriage of the king and queen required additional vows, upon which was also piled the abundance of arcane phrases they were required to say before they accepted their ceremonial crowns. She practiced as often as she could with Vidanric, but he was just as often drawn away for some matter, so she muttered them to herself as she paced her room.
It was much to her surprise that one day, in the midst of this routine, Savona announced himself at her tapestry, invited himself in, and offered to go over her lines with her—though she rightly surmised that he had been expressly sent on this errand by his cousin to relieve some of her fears with his easy smile.
She stopped striding and folded her hands behind her back, looking at him where he had nonchalantly settled himself at her writing desk. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Practicing for your own wedding?" she inquired sweetly.
He leaned back, flipping his fan over in his hands, and sweeping it in the semi-circle of Intimate Confidence. "Some days," he admitted with a coy smirk. "And then…" The expression dropped away to leave his face bleak. "There are days like today, when I think I will enjoy the liberty of bachelorhood forever."
"You make it sound like a death sentence."
The glimpse of gloom vanished quickly into his gaudy veneer. "Quite the opposite. Nothing would make me happier. With the exception that you might one day leave my dour cousin to take up with me."
"Now that sounds like a death sentence." She sneered playfully at the injured pout that crossed his lips. "If you can't tell your favorite cousin what would truly make you happy, then who can you tell?"
"Ah," he sighed theatrically, gesturing with his fan like a fencer admitting a point. "If only you could speak with her. She acts as if you hung the moon, ever since you saved her reputation. She's a prickly sort, but exceptionally loyal."
"Hah," the diminutive lady challenged, "what could I advise her on? How to lose a war? Or ruin an antique rug? Romance…" She waved her hands expressively. "That's not my strong suit. Besides, I would only get a knife in my back for all my nosing around in her business. We all know her only real joy is making you squirm, and your only joy is bemoaning that fact. Why would I meddle with that? I've learned well enough by now not to stick my foot into a trap when I see it."
"Your candidness is refreshing and your advice flawless." He shook his head in amazement, his fan rearranging itself into a salute to her. "Such wisdom and such naivety. You don't do yourself justice. You know everything of love. You've found it, haven't you? One day, you'll have to acknowledge these hidden talents of yours."
She opened her mouth to refute him, but she was cut short by Vidanric's entrance. There was a flicker of humor around the corners of his mouth as he observed the pair, and he drawled, "Am I interrupting something?"
Russav cast his cousin a heartbroken expression. "Only the lady's latest rejection of my affections."
"Just as well then," Vidanric commented, "because I was about to present her with a token of my devotion." He gestured for a servant to bring forth a package, which was promptly unfurled for further appreciation. "Her wedding dress."
There were traditional colors which the bride and groom wore on their wedding day, but sometimes these were replaced the colors of their house; in the particular case of the king and queen, they would be wearing the green and gold of Remalna. Her dress was positively the most exquisite piece of art she had ever seen worked in cloth—and the most outrageously lavish—with several varieties of precious green stone decorating the neckline and links of gold sewn right into the pattern to refract the light in ways that dazzled the eye.
She stared at him with startled blue eyes, barely managing to breathe, "It's…impossible."
"Are you suggesting that I can't afford it?"
Before Mel could stutter an answer, Russav released a cheery bark of laughter. "You mean Arthal Merindar can afford it."
The ghost of a smile at the edges of Danric's mouth bloomed in a full-fledged grin, though his tone was still dry. "She made a substantial donation to the state treasury, as well as to my coronation. I'm certain that she sends her regrets that she won't be able to attend."
Meliara tried to look suitably disapproving at the morbid humor, but she couldn't help cracking a small smile. It was easier to disparage one's enemies—especially deceased ones—with a few jokes than to sit around feeling sorry for them. Shaking her head at the men, she summoned Mora, and the two of them retreated to her bedroom to fit her in the gown. When she returned a short time later, the cousins exchanged approving looks and set about flattering the blushing lady. Not normally susceptible to their sugared charms, she nonetheless felt a small rush of pleasure, spinning once in place to relish the distinctive swish of the weighty skirts around her ankles. It was doubtlessly a heavy garment, and at the end of the long day of ceremonies at New Year she would unquestionably be dragging underneath its burden, sweating and silently cursing. But the responsibility of royalty was supposed to be heavy, and for the first time since she'd agreed to marry Vidanric she felt positively queenly. It was a moment to savor.
Savona towered up to his full height and came forward to seize her wrist. Turning it over, he examined an area where her skin was visible through a fashionable slit cut into the sleeve of her gown for ventilation. "Here!" he declared with triumph. "I have just the thing for your nerves, Mel. We can ink your lines onto your arm, and if you ever lose your place you need only look down."
"Absolutely not," Vidanric protested, looking aghast.
Russav sent Meliara a conspiratorial smile. "No, I suppose not. If the king were to rise the morning after his wedding covered in black blotches, people might begin to ask uncomfortable questions."
The lady flamed a brilliant shade of crimson, and Vidanric hastily ordered the Duke out into the hall to seek other amusements.
As it turned out, Meliara managed just fine without her new cousin's counsel, though she would never be able to vouch for the fact herself. Vidanric rarely moved his gaze from her face during the entire ceremony, signaling to her the cues to speak or turn or kneel with a gentle touch on the back of her hand or a slight lift in his brows. He had to smother a smile, though, when he recognized the glazed appearance of her eyes. His gallantry, he surmised, would go unrewarded because Mel was far away as her body responded automatically; when later pressed, he was sure she would never be able to recall a single detail of that day.
It was not until the middle of the night that life returned to her, as the last of the endless line of guests paying their respects to the newly crowned rulers filtered away into the ballroom. A laugh rippled through her, chasing away the blankness in her stare and reanimating the whole of her slender form. She turned the full radiance of her face to her new husband.
"I am queen," she announced to him a bit giddily.
"I believe that's what this whole business was about," he said wryly, his brow furrowing with confusion.
"But I lost the war."
It was his turn to smile. "But you lost the war," he agreed.
"Things have a funny way of working out, don't they?"
"Indubitably." He was thinking fondly of a scrawny, filthy, fevered scrap of girl he had nearly hanged a year and more past as he offered her his arm and escorted her down the steps to the celebration in her honor.
The king and queen made a fine appearance together, dancing figures parting and coming together again in the midst of the revelers, but it wasn't long before their guests lost sight of the royal pair. It was understandable that they could be lost in the overwhelming crush of the crowded room, though none could fault them if they had actually done the unthinkable and fled their own coronation. Princess Elestra, seated in a bluewood chair, smiled enigmatically at her husband, recalling the sight of a tall blond slipping clandestinely out a serving entrance with an auburn-haired woman on his heels, as she assured some inquisitive party-goers that her son was around…oh, somewhere.
Not that it much mattered since there were festivities enough for the two to attend over the course of the next month. And though they enjoyed the company enthusiastically, it was with no small amount of relief that they saw the last of their visitors sent safely home. At last, they were able to take solely upon themselves the daunting but gratifying task of governing the state, and the even more daunting task of writing cordial letters of acknowledgment for every extravagant and sumptuous gift they had received.
Seated at her new writing desk in her new royal apartments, Meliara glanced over her shoulder as Mora brought forth another present to be appraised. Setting the small wooden box down at the queen's elbow, the maid offered her mistress the accompanying note.
My dear child,
If there were anything in the world that your heart desired, it would be my delight to bestow it on you. But since I know there is naught that you want for, I thought perhaps instead you could offer the world a gift.
Consumed with curiosity, Mel lost no time in throwing open the lid of the goldenwood container to reveal the contents. Barely containing a heady grin, she reverently lifted the object forth for admiration, running her hands worshipfully over the soft blue silk covers of the journal. Shoving aside the stack of letters she had agonized over all afternoon, she called for Mora to bring her a fresh pot of ink.
My hearty thanks to all of you that made it this far. It's been fun—and hopefully not too out-of-character.