At certain moments in my life, I am achingly grateful for my many years of sitting through speeches, nodding through Father's lectures, smiling politely through courtiers trying to influence me. When I need to, I can put on a bland, princely mask and survive almost anything.
So when Emende introduced his fiancée, I only froze for a moment before placing a kiss on her extended hand and murmuring a greeting. If my gut was churning and Emende's odd behavior was all clicking into place in my head, well, at least I was reasonably confident that it didn't show on my face.
"Please, Lady Aliana," I said, "Feel free to join us. A servant should be by in a moment, I'm sure he could bring tea for you and Emende." I glanced at Emende for approval of this plan, but his face mirrored my own in its detachment.
"I'd like that," Aliana said smoothly, and floated past me to perch on the sofa.
Suddenly Emende was in motion, snatching up the letter from the table and crossing the room to close it in a drawer with a resounding click. His posture relaxed slightly once the letter was out of sight. "Prince Echarmonte has just arrived in Ayortha. We were renewing our acquaintance," he told Aliana.
If she noticed anything odd in his manner, Aliana didn't mention it. "I'm sure any friend of Emende's is a friend of mine," she said to me.
I offered her my best princely smile. "I appreciate it. And let me congratulate you on your engagement. I have to say, I'm a bit surprised. Usually this kind of gossip travels fast."
"I'm sure it does. But even gossip cannot travel faster than messengers, and our engagement is only a few days old."
So perhaps he hadn't forgotten my sister the moment he returned to Ayortha. That was something.
"Lady Aliana's father owns much of the land north of the mountains," Emende offered quietly.
"Emende – Prince Emende – has made us feel most welcome at court," she agreed.
I nodded. "And have you been here long?"
"Barely a sennight," she replied.
"Barely a sennight, and already engaged. That is quite fast, even by the standards of the royal marriage market." I paused. "Forgive me. That was impolite. I'm afraid I am a bit tired, and apt to say things I don't mean."
Aliana smiled graciously. "Of course. And you are right; it is quite fast. But Emende and I shall have all our lives to get to know each other, yes?"
Emende reached out to rest his hand lightly on top of hers. "That is right."
I didn't know how to respond without further offending my hosts, and neither of them seemed inclined to break the ensuing silence. I got the sinking feeling that I should get used to sitting in silence at the Ayorthaian court.
We were rescued by a knock at the door – it was in fact the servants this time, and they were quick about bringing a hot meal for me and cups of tea for the others.
The food was simple fare, meat and potatoes seasoned with herbs, probably the same that the kitchen staff were eating after finishing with serving the royal family for the night. I had never smelled anything more delicious. It took every ounce of enforced etiquette training to keep the movements of my fork dainty, deliberate, restraining the clink of metal against china to avoid ringing through the still-silent room.
Between bites, I studied Emende, wondering if he was as glad as I to have something to do with his hands. He'd relinquished contact with Aliana in order to hold his cup, and both seemed entirely preoccupied with the act of sipping tea, to the exclusion of any possible conversation.
"Your kitchens are excellent," I offered finally, once I had taken the first edge off my hunger. "I have rarely had a meal I enjoyed so much."
"Thank you," Emende said.
It was difficult to tell if this was Emende uncomfortable and shy, or merely Emende acting as usual in his natural habitat. I turned to Aliana. "I trust your journey to court was satisfactory?"
She nodded. "All was well."
Emende apparently remembered enough of Kyrrian conversations to rescue me before I either attempted another segue or ran from the room in frustration. "And you, Echare? I have heard rumors that you encountered ogres since last I saw you. No such adventures in your journey here, I hope?"
Grateful for something to talk about, I launched into the story of tracking the ogres on the path to Jenn, skimming over the parts best concealed even from an allied country. Thus passed a tolerable, if still slightly stilted, half hour before the servants returned to collect our dishes.
When they were gone, Emende stood, Aliana and I standing a beat later so as not to be seated in the resident prince's presence. He cast us a bemused glance before he realized. "You may sit," he told us. "I will go and check if Echare's rooms are ready."
I cast him a betrayed glance as he left the room. He either didn't see or chose to ignore me. The door shut behind him with a soft click.
I turned to Aliana. "Looks as if we're alone, then."
She didn't bother with a verbal response, only raised an eyebrow as if to say, obviously.
I sat, and in turn she lowered herself gracefully into a chair, folding her hands in her lap and crossing her ankles. Once she had settled herself into the formal posture, she didn't shift or fidget at all, not once in the five minutes we spent sitting in silence.
Everything about Aliana gave off an aura of controlled grace. Her dark hair was neatly bound up in a chignon, her gray dress so smooth it practically dared wrinkles to encroach, her eyes serene as she studied me in turn.
"You dislike me," she said finally.
"What? I… no… that is, I hardly know you, but from what I do know, I have no reason to dislike you," I stammered.
"And yet, it is true. You dislike me."
"Lady Aliana, if I've done anything to cause you offense—"
"It doesn't matter," she interrupted, "whether you like me or not. I shall marry Emende quite soon, and it's best if you don't get in the way of that." The words themselves were almost innocuous, but something in her tone gave them a menacing edge.
"I can't imagine how it would even be possible for me to interfere with your wedding, let alone why I would want to," I assured her.
"Ottomaio illi," she said evenly.
I shook my head. "I'm sorry, normally my Ayorthaian is passable, but I don't know what you just said."
She said nothing, only held my eyes. From behind me, the door clicked open again. "Echare," came Emende's voice, "your rooms are ready for you. If you would follow me?"
I stood, somehow unwilling to break eye contact with Aliana, stumbling around the corner of the sofa. At the last moment I remembered to take Ella's letter from the table in front of me.
Aliana smiled. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Prince Echarmonte. Welcome to Ayortha."
"Thank you," I said.
Emende offered her a bow. "Lady Aliana, you may stay here if you wish."
"I thank you, but no. I will see you tomorrow, Emende." All three of us walked out, Emende and I turning right, Aliana turning left and gliding off down the corridor until she disappeared from sight.
"Emende," I said quietly, reverting to Kyrrian, "what does 'ottomaio illi' mean?"
He glanced at me in surprise. "Where did you hear that?"
"I…" I swallowed. "What does it mean?"
"It does not translate well. It is… a warning, I suppose. A thing to say to your enemy, to let him know he is an enemy."
"Right." I swallowed.
We came to a door and Emende paused at the threshold, watching me. "Lady Aliana is a kind woman," he blurted out, apropos of nothing.
I couldn't quite agree, so I remained silent.
"She is just the sort of woman I always knew I would marry," he continued. "She makes sense."
"Then I'm happy for you," I said in a measured tone.
He went to open the door, but his hand lingered on the handle. "Do you plan to write to your sister?"
"I promised her I would, yes."
"Thank her for the letter, please. And tell her that I wish her a good life. Tell her… tell her that I hope she dances often."
And with that vague message, he scurried away.
I entered the suite slowly. It was almost identical to the guest suites at home, consisting of a sitting room, study, small servant's quarters, and a larger bedroom for me. I wondered idly if I was meant to keep Sir Richard in the servant's quarters, and shuddered at the thought.
I was tired, but I felt all the strain of the last few hours gathered in a ball at the base of my spine, and I was sure that I wouldn't be able to sleep until it had dissipated. I turned from the bedroom to the study, sitting at the desk and unfolding Ella's letter with a sigh. I would reread it and draft a reply. That was sure to put me in a better mood.
Dear Emende, I read, and abruptly set the paper down, rubbing at my eyes. Obviously I'd left Emende's rooms with the wrong letter.
I shouldn't read it. I knew I shouldn't read it. I could only imagine Cecilia's reaction if she found out I'd read it.
On the other hand, it might be better to know what she'd said. She'd seemed confused when I talked to her. I was the one who'd spoken of love, not her. Maybe there was no reason to be upset on her behalf.
I knew it was only a sophism, an excuse to satisfy my own curiosity, but still, I opened the letter again and scanned through Cecilia's familiar scribble.
You've ruined me.
I'm sure you didn't mean to do it, but the fact remains. Before I met you, I was so bored and lonely, but I was used to it. I barely even noticed most of the time. Now you're gone, and my dumb brother's going to be gone for a year, and everything is just dull.
That wasn't how I meant to start this letter. It needed to be said. But what I really want to say is, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for rejecting you and kissing you and confusing you, and I'm sorry that I didn't find a way to make it up to you before you left. I'm sorry I didn't even talk to you before you left. I'm sorry it's been months and I'm just now working up the nerve to send you a letter.
I'd never kissed anyone before you. I don't know if this is how kissing normally goes. But I keep thinking about it, Emende. I'll be walking along, perfectly bored and thinking about nothing in particular, and I'll flash back to your lips touching mine.
The night of the ball, you said you weren't much of a dancer. You're not. Frankly, you're terrible. But when we were kissing, it felt like dancing. It made me feel the way I feel when I dance. Like there's a balloon tied to the bottom of my ribcage and if I move just so, I might be light enough to let it carry me away.
I don't know what any of that means. I don't think I'm in love with you. I'm sure I'm just being immature and flighty, and once I'm married off to the highest bidder in the surrounding kingdoms, I'll forget all about you. I don't plan to ever fall in love, you know.
But I'm writing you this letter anyway, because I think you deserve to know. Maybe you could write back, and we could be friends. I could use a friend. When we're both a little older, ruling over two different kingdoms, we can trade stories about unruly subjects and ridiculous courtiers.
Or we could marry each other. I think I might be all right with that. I like you a lot more than I like Viceroy Gareth of Pu, considering that I've never even met Viceroy Gareth of Pu. Our parents would probably approve. I'm sure that's the least romantic marriage proposal you've ever had, assuming you've had marriage proposals before. Think about it, though.
I set it down on the desk, frowned, picked it up and read it again. I didn't know if this was better or worse than what I had been expecting.
Cecilia was never sentimental. For her to admit that she couldn't stop thinking about Emende… that was big. And a marriage proposal, even one supposedly born of expediency, threw me off balance. It wasn't a love letter, not exactly, but Cecilia wouldn't be happy when Emende didn't write back.
I didn't like the idea of her finding out about the engagement, in a day's time, maybe two. A royal messenger would appear at breakfast, carrying word from all the neighboring kingdoms. Would she stiffen when they mentioned Emende's name? Would she go back to her rooms and cry? Or would she shrug off an outcome she'd obviously known was possible?
I found pen and parchment tucked into a desk drawer, and penned a brief note. It was doubtless too late to reach her before she found out, but at the very least I could send her Emende's message, such as it was, and a noncommittal account of Lady Aliana. By the time she received it, she would be past the first shock of the news, and would appreciate being able to hear it confirmed and move on.
I leaned back in my chair and stretched. I imagined how I might feel if I got word that Ella was to marry someone else. Even the thought made something twist uncomfortably in my chest.
Tomorrow, I would have to reclaim my own letter from Emende. I could tell Ella how quiet everyone was here so far, and she could provide me with some much-needed conversation.
In the meantime, I rang for a servant and handed him my note for Cecilia. "Make sure this gets out with the first post tomorrow, please."
That duty discharged, I collapsed on the bed and slept.
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