Hell is High Society

Marth Lowell flashed charming smiles, raised his glass in too many toasts to count and forced his eyes to twinkle, and in his opinion, he was doing a damn good job of it. Keeping his good cheer was an exercise of character; for some idiot reason, he could say anything, do anything, and still the tiny piece of gold on his head made everyone have to call him Highness and race to kiss his feet. He was realizing more and more that the things he'd done as a teenager were going to define him for the rest of his life.

Be gracious and smile, said the snob in him. Act like a well-mannered tittering fool, and people will exclaim about what a lovely young man you are and then give you trade agreements.

Rebuilding Altea had always seemed like something that would have its own reward. The war and the fighting and the washing the blood out of his clothing every day was the just prelude to kingly duties, holding conferences and treaty meetings, writing legislations, speaking on that awful podium in front of the castle, but none of it was work. It was the thing to do, the only way to see his people and his country become the place of miracles he remembered through the rose-glass of childhood.

And that was supposed to be it. Mind your country, mind your business. Chasing some wonderful, naïve ideal of glory and restoration was a burden enough without everything suddenly becoming so… public.

Waves of toadying people in thick robes bowed at him no matter how much he waved his hands and said it wasn't necessary, and the people who knew him seemed to greatly outnumber the people he knew. Prince Marth Lowell of Altea, Son of Cornelius IV, Blood of Anri Flowing Through His Veins, twenty this year – one of those "boy kings" that had finally turned out right – was a celebrity. An icon with a crown. He had no idea where it had come from, and he wasn't sure he liked it.

Just a few years ago, he'd wanted this like no other thing. It had been like some unreachable thing on a pedestal, this royalty… it felt like only a faint recollection after the war replaced it in his memory, but he could still smell the rich mahogany and remember the feel of furs and silk. Otherwise it was just a concept, the thing that kept him fueled with rage and revenge like he thought he should be. He'd endured shame and exile, raised an army, rebelled, killed people just to be returned his birthright, but even that seemed to have been without substance. A concept, the glorious fantasy of a sixteen-year-old who'd had too much sadness in his life not to pursue the one thing he could still hold on to. He'd known all along that he wasn't being too honest with himself about what he really wanted out of all that war and bloodshed, but being thrust into a reality full of people who talked for hours but had nothing to say was ruder of an awakening than he preferred.

Marth excused himself with a smile and a very wooden laugh, pretending to spot someone he knew across the room, and extracted himself from the circle of foreign dignitaries that had been occupying him for the better part of the hour. They saw him off with smiles and bows and exclamations of praise, and he wanted to throw up.

The ballroom was full of beautiful women, and it was a testament to who-knew-what that the old crones looked just like the thirty-year-olds and the children were decked out in jewelry and makeup worthy of ladies three times their age. Some of them had hair piled down to their knees, penciled-in eyebrows, waists so thin he could put his fist around them. The one and only time he'd dared to comment to a Macedonian ambassador that he had a beautiful wife, he'd been told that that was his thirteen-year-old little girl, thank you very much, and then – to his horror – that if His Highness wanted to spend some time alone with the lady, he should just say the word. God help all the deluded fools in that room that dressed up their daughters like courtesans and paraded them around like war trophies… hell with that, God help him. Sometimes he couldn't even believe he was actually a part of this crazy society.

His general and chief retainer had nudged him as he'd exited the carriage more than three hours ago, warned him with a sly "go get 'em" wink that all the single women came to these things, daughters and sisters and mistresses – goddesses in glowing dresses who would apparently kill one another for a spot on his arm. But quite honestly, that was where he felt he differed from most of his contemporaries: he was here for business, because, sad as it sounded when he thought about it, business was all he'd ever known. Base camp during those years of nomadic preparation had been a meeting place of tactics and battle plans; as his comrades laughed around the fire and cuddled together, talked and laughed and grew closer to one another, he'd sat alone, weighed down by all his misfortunes, dreading the day his fear and fatigue would catch up to him and convince him that he was doing the wrong thing. His men had chased women, his women had chased them back, and all the while he had stood in the background, a troubled orphan thinking about war and war only.

It was only lately, closer and closer to his twentieth birthday, that he felt the cold nipping at his heels. Was he even capable of connecting to people? The excuses seemed neverending, and they convinced him too easily. Next year, he always told himself, next year or the year after, when Altea was really truly back on its feet, then he'd settle all his personal issues and find himself someone to settle down with. Right now, of course, he couldn't possibly stray from his responsibilities, not when his country needed him so badly, but... someday there would be someone to share his secrets, laugh and cry with him, someone who wouldn't care that he was damaged, or broken, or whatever else.

A loud voice to his left jolted him back to his senses. He was trapped – a paunchy man in a long furry tunic was coming his way, and he was flanked on his other side by a gaunt-looking ambassador. Duke Akanea and Magistrate Talis: one of them was bound to shriek in his ear about tariffs, and the other had the look of someone with human development woes. Both the last things he wanted to discuss.

The stone fountain was the nearest cover; he ducked quickly behind it and scouted out his retreat. The refreshment tables were to the left; he could knock them over and create a distraction, or he could take a hostage and demand they let him out immediately…

The stained-glass door behind the tables would have to suffice. He pushed off on one heel and darted as inconspicuously as possible around columns and pillars, quietly pushed down on the handle and let himself out with as little noise as possible. He shut the door behind him as silently as he could, and when it was safe, loosed the ragged sigh he'd been bottling up all evening, resting his head against the red glass and attempting to calm his rapidly beating heart.

So this was to be his fate. Getting his boots licked by those less powerful than he was – until the time came when his was no longer the most promising, the most dangerous nation, by which time he would be so broken by this godforsaken cult of manners and fake smiles that he would be the one doing the bootlicking without a second thought. When would it end? Someday, a year from now, two years from now, someday…

"I was going to tell you to get your own balcony," came a voice behind him, "but hell… you don't look so good either."

Marth was too tired to be startled by the sudden voice. He should have taken this into account before throwing himself out here; such a tactically perfect hiding place could not have gone unnoticed.

The girl behind him was sitting against the railing, knees drawn up to her chest, an untouched wine glass sitting by her side. Her eyes were blue, her hair blonde, and by God, she was so beautiful that he felt like he should be on his knees kissing her hands or something, and yet all he could think was please, don't make me go back there, because if you tell me to leave, I can't say no

"You can stay," she said finally, and his heart jumped with relief, "but don't expect me to talk, okay?"


A/N: Modestly retouched, from Chapter I. Try to ignore my "look we met on a balcony escaping from a stuffy party" plot device.