To her, he was a face in the crowd.
To him, she was everything.
He'd spotted her first at a Court reception. Tall, elegant, almost imperious in her bearing, she drew his eyes like the flame drew the moth. In a season where bright, springtime colors were in fashion, yellows and greens, brilliant reds and oranges, she was cloaked in cool violet and indigo-blue so deep as to nearly be black. The tightly corseted waist accentuated breasts that needed no such artifice, hips that the line of her sheath skirt clung to. Contrasts. The face, too, offered contrasts. It was beautiful, reflecting the fire of her body, and like her body was concealed between a superficial array of camouflage: hair pinned up ruthlessly and severely, deep indigo hair that if let loose would fall lushly to her waist, and steel-rimmed spectacles.
It was hard to know what to make of her. On the one hand, she might have been a lady, on the other an expensive courtesan whose patron enjoyed the artificial severity of a pose as a governess or teacher. Yet her manner gave the lie to that--her stern attitude was not a flirtatious artifice but seemed genuine and dismissive. She discussed politics, history, art, literature, and affairs of moment freely, but whenever the conversation turned to flattery and compliments, she slammed the door on such impertinences and not gently.
Hiram Courvoisier was entranced.
"Who is she?" he demanded of the young man standing beside him. Derek Marassou was Hiram's age, eighteen, and both were younger sons of nobility, which gave them a certain sympathy. Derek was the second son of Count Marassou, while Hiram was the third son of the Queen.
"Who? Lady de Sangri?"
"No, not her--there." Hiram nodded towards the woman. "The indigo-haired one."
"Ah, her," Derek grinned lecherously; unlike the reserved and studious Hiram he was already gaining a reputation as a notorious flirt. "She could work her magic on me any time. That's Opalneria Rain. She's a witch from the Silver Star Tower. Probably running some errand for Grand Magician Gammel."
"A magician..." Hiram mused. It had been Hiram's mother who had revolutionized the place of magicians in society. At best they had been suspected, dubious figures shrouded in superstition and fear; at worst they had been burned at the stake as devil-worshippers. Now, though, magic was becoming tolerated, even accepted. The attitude was by no means universal; there were still corners of the kingdom where the practice of magic could have a person driven out of town or burned as a witch.
Mage-talent ran in the Courvoisier blood, and Hiram himself had some basic ability in that area. The advantage of being a third son was the relative freedom it brought, and Hiram had used that freedom to study under some of the masters at the Royal House of Magic. Technically he could have qualified as an apprentice.
But it was a different kind of magic he felt now. It wasn't glamour in the sense of casting spells, but a basic, elemental appeal of woman to man, felt by so many people each day.
"You should go talk to her," Derek urged. "That's the point of a reception, after all, to meet people."
Hiram shook his head.
"No, I don't think so."
"But why, Hiram? She's stunning! A little older than I'd like a girl to be, but for one that beautiful, believe me, I'll make an exception!"
"That's the point, Derek," he told his friend.
"Look who she's with: the Chamberlain and Lady Anheuser."
"So, who knows just why she's here? If I approach her in front of the chief minister and one of the most influential dowagers in Court Society, it'll mean that I'm showing approval of her."
"Isn't that kind of the point?"
"Not in that sense. I'm talking about as a member of the royal family, as a prince. I wouldn't just be a boy trying to make an attractive woman's acquaintance, but the third prince of the kingdom showing open approval of a magician. I don't know what Ms. Rain is here for or what my mother's position on it might be, and I don't want to create an impression that I shouldn't."
Derek looked at him thoughtfully.
"Being a prince isn't as easy as it sounds, is it?"
"It's not hard. It's just...family obligations. You have the same kind of issues, I'm sure."
"Not so much," his friend countered. "Remember, my father isn't the political type. Just one of the many nobles of our country who spends three-fourths of the year attending to social matters and lets his employees handle the estates." He didn't sound at all bitter about it, just matter-of-fact. "But I suppose I know what you mean. One does have a duty."
Duty, however, did not keep Hiram's eyes from following Opalneria throughout the reception room. Nor did it keep thoughts of the beautiful magician from plaguing him at night, keeping him tossing and turning in bed until nearly three in the morning.
A few hours' fitful sleep did nothing to relieve the prince's mind, and so he did the only thing he could think of: he made sure to be in the gallery for Opalneria's appearance before the throne. The matter was largely mundane, a perfunctory hearing at best, one reason why she was there rather than Gammel Dore himself, and he didn't remember any of it later. What he remembered was Opalneria's poise, her cool and controlled voice with a throaty undertone of sensuality, the smooth efficiency of her manner as she addressed the business at hand.
When the audience was over, Hiram's feelings were ten times worse. He had to meet her. He absolutely had to. Surely, there must be some way he could arrange it without compromising duty. It was just a matter of being appropriately careful. He'd ask his mother first, yes, that was the best way, to see how the ground lay and then make plans. With luck there'd be no particular political concern and he could simply approach Opalneria openly, pay a call at her lodgings, but one way or another he would find a way to meet her.
It wasn't until that afternoon, though, that he had a chance to speak privately with Her Majesty. As State dinners were so often held at eight or nine, the queen had adopted the foreign custom of taking tea in her own chambers during the late afternoon and had a fixed rule that she would attend to no business, but only personal matters during that time.
"Mother, I need to talk to you."
"Of course, Hiram." She glanced at the maid who'd delivered the tea cart and dismissed her with a flick of the eyes. When they were alone, she said, "I presume this is about Opalneria Rain?"
"H-how did you--?"
The Queen smiled. Even though she was in her late forties, she could have passed for half that on looks. Her expressions, though, gave the game away. She could look wise and kind, or stern, or clever and knowing, but ingenuous was beyond her. This was a woman who could never be mistaken for an unknowing innocent.
"I saw you in the audience hall. You were...shall I say...transfixed."
Embarrassed, Hiram frowned.
"Was it that obvious?"
"No. You're my son; I'm naturally going to be aware of what you're doing, even in a crowd. If someone was taking the trouble to watch you closely they'd have seen it, but you weren't making a slack-jawed, gaping spectacle of yourself, if that is what you are afraid of."
"But you did see, and of course you're right. I did want to speak to you about...Ms. Opalneria."
"Is there," he began, suddenly hesitant, "anything about her that you would consider sensitive?" When her smile widened he hurried to add, "In the political sense, I mean?"
"No, not at all," she said, understanding at once. "I must say, I don't know many young men that would think of things like that in the first throes of an infatuation. I really appreciate that you're a reliable person."
He shuffled his feet, embarrassed again.
"So no, there's nothing to stand in your way but the potential gossip over the age difference, but what's eighty years or so?"
"Mother, did you say--?"
Her Majesty nodded.
"Ms. Opalneria is one of the kingdom's most powerful magicians, remember? Her apparent youth is largely the product of magic."
Hiram though about that, then shook his head.
"That's not important--or if it is, it'll be because a woman her age might not want to be burdened with a young man's feelings. I still have to meet her. Does she had a room in the palace, or did she take lodgings in the city?"
"Hiram...Ms. Opalneria left this afternoon, not long after her audience. We had nothing left to discuss, so she returned to the Silver Star Tower."
It was a sudden shock to him, a reaction as if his heart had suddenly been cut out of his chest and only a hollow gap left in place. In truth, that reaction shocked Hiram even more than Opalneria's leaving did. He was taking it hard--incredibly hard, like he was being separated from something as important as sunlight or water.
Was this love, then? The "love at first sight" that singers and storytellers were so fond of as a plot device? Hiram had doubted such a thing existed, but maybe this was the truth of it.
He'd only seen Opalneria twice, never even had a single face-to-face interaction with her, knew nothing about her as a person and yet the news that she'd gone out of his life hurt like nothing he'd ever felt before.
"Oh, you have got it bad, haven't you?"
Hiram took a deep breath, then nodded. There was no point in denying it. The topic might have been embarrassing--no boy wants to discuss his emotions with his mother!--but if he was going to act, he'd need her support. When one was a prince, family obligations had to come first; being selfish could end up hurting far too many people.
And an emotion much more powerful than mere embarrassment had a hold on him.
"I need to follow her," he declared.
"What, to the Tower?"
"If that's where she's gone."
"I believe it is. But Hiram, please think things through."
"Mother, this is something I have to do. I can't--I can't see straight--"
"I know, and that's why you need to stop and think." Her eyes fixed his, and she said in the voice she used for royal commands, "Sit. Down."
He sat. She took a sip of tea, and then another, forcing several moments of silence before she spoke..
"What do you plan to do, Hiram? Are you going to travel to the Silver Star Tower, bang on the door, and pour your heart out at her feet?"
"I--" Of course, he hadn't thought that far ahead. How could he? He was only reacting to the shock of Opalneria's absence.
"You'd be doing that in any case. Why else would a young man, a prince no less, travel all the way from the capital to meet a woman with whom he has no prior relationship if not for love? What would you do if she laughed at you? Called you a little boy and shooed you away?"
"I'm not a child!" he snapped, clenching his hands into fists.
"And that's not what I asked."
No, he realized, it hadn't been, although the sudden burst of petulance suggested an answer.
"It would hurt," he admitted, "a lot. I'd be humiliated and disgraced. But it's a risk I'd have to take." He realized as he said it that he couldn't imagine Opalneria saying such things, couldn't imagine her face in that scornful expression or the hurtful words coming out in her voice. It needed the intermediary of the Queen saying it to make it real.
Surprisingly, he found that bothered him.
"All right, then." She set the teacup aside and folder her hands in her lap. "Consider this. What if she says yes? What if, witch or not, she's always treasured a girlish dream of a prince on a white horse coming to sweep her off her feet?"
Those visions were easy to come by. Opalneria's eyes shining with love, her lips soft and warm under his own. Yes, it was easy to imagine that!
But Hiram was a smart young man. And while there was a fundamental directness in his nature that made him poor at the arts of deception, he'd been taught since childhood by masters in the arts of subtlety, none more so than the woman sitting across from him. He realized what it was that she was really asking.
"I...don't know," he admitted. Visions of romance were easy and joyful to conjure up. But could he imagine talking with her? Growing old together? Tackling serious problems? That wasn't so easy.
"Then you have a problem, don't you? Swallow your feelings and do nothing, approach and be rejected, or approach and be accepted without real understanding. Those are three bad options."
He was glad that she'd included "do nothing" as one of the bad options. That was the facile answer to his quandary and that she didn't consider it as such said she was taking things--him--seriously.
"You're right. Those are all bad options. I wish...I just wish that there was some way I could meet her, get to know her. For all I know I might just be struck by admiration of her manner, her beauty and bearing. Or I could be infatuated. Or..."
"Love at first sight?" She smiled, but only a little.
"If only I knew, then I'd know the right thing to do. But without really knowing her, I'll never know my own feelings."
"If I can establish what my own feelings are, then I can decide what is the right thing to do." The question was how. Opalneria was a professor at the Magic Academy, she traveled infrequently and the Silver Star Tower wasn't like Court Society, where one was forever dropping in on one another for extended visits. In fact, the only--
"A student," he said aloud. "I can enter the Silver Star Tower as a magic student. I have talent in the area, so I'd make a viable apprentice, and regardless of how things work out between myself and Ms. Opalneria I can learn something valuable for the kingdom. If the Crown is going to take the position that magic should be supported and normalized, then we should have closer ties to--and knowledge of--the ways in which it is taught."
"Very good," the Queen approved. "May I suggest an amendment to that plan, though?"
"In what way?"
"I believe an incognito may be useful for this little project. Should things not go well, it would be much easier for an ordinary person to withdraw without creating a stir. You can reveal the truth in a manner of your own choosing if it becomes necessary. I'll let Professor Gammel know the truth, of course, but he won't share your identity with anyone else, including Ms. Opalneria. Though if you do choose to profess your love to her, I strongly suggest that you tell her the truth beforehand, or at least immediately after you receive an answer. Women do not take kindly to secrecy and deception in a relationship."
He considered her suggestions, nodding as he mentally accepted each one.
"Yes, yes, you're right..." Hiram came to his feet as resolution began to take hold. "I'm going to do it. I can't spend the rest of my life waiting and wondering if I should have taken a chance."
"Good for you. Let me know when you've decided on an alias and I will write to Professor Gammel."
He cupped his chin, unconsciously adopting a thoughtful pose.
"I'll keep Hiram, I think. It's not so rare a name as to be an immediate giveaway and I won't have to worry about misremembering it." He paused, then asked curiously, "If you don't mind me saying it, why are you being so fully supportive of this plan, Mother?"
"I don't mind at all. I've been trying to impress on you and your brothers the importance of asking that kind of question, in your own minds, since you were children." She ticked off the points on her fingertips. "Firstly, a tie to the Silver Star Tower is as good or better an alliance-marriage than I could expect from a third prince anyway. Secondly, you need more to do with your life than just being an extra member of the family and magic suits both your talent and temperament. Thirdly, you're my son and I want you to be happy. I don't know if you and Ms. Opalneria would suit, but you deserve the chance to find out." She smiled at him. "Happy now?"
"No, not yet," he said, then smiled back and added, "but thank you for giving me the chance to find out if I will be."
A/N: The OC names are all cameos from my earlier GrimGrimoire fanfics--Lady Anheuser and the de Sangri family name from "Life in a Bottle," and the Marassou family from "The Hollow Heart."