The sweet sounds of orchestra music wafted over the hall, mixed with the clinking of champagne flutes and the low murmur of the elite guests. Each socialite was dressed in their finest: long ball gowns baring just enough skin for the women, while their counterparts wore fine tuxedoes, including gloves. Eyes were friendly and lips were smiling, but beneath those perfect faces laid personal agendas and private loyalties waiting to be unleashed. London was truly a two-faced place.
Artemis had never felt comfortable at these soirées. It didn't matter that she had long, blonde hair, or that she spoke four languages fluently, even that she was a princess of Norway, the farthest-reaching empire in the modern age. To them, her hair would always be unattractively thick, Vietnamese would always be her first language, and she would always be the daughter of a whore the crown prince happened to fancy before tossing away. Contrarily, Artemis's father—His Highness the Crown Prince of Norway, Oscar Lawrence Bernadotte—thrived on the attention his daughter's ethnicity gave him. People admired him for "giving up his ideals for the good of his country" as Lawrence put it: he married a woman from the nobility of Vietnam within the year the Asian country was conquered. But Lawrence had never loved Paula—the name she chose when she joined him in Norway—and within ten years of her daughter's birth, she had disappeared. For the last seven years, Artemis had been pampered to the point of suffocation, and been totally miserable in the process.
Sighing quietly, she let her eyes roam the hall, blinkingly ignoring the looks she received ranging from curiosity to discomfort to downright loathing from both men and women. Being the only "foreigner" in the upper crust of society, she was used to it by now.
Finally she saw whom she'd been searching for: her father's brother, Oliver Queen. After a difficult childhood, Oliver had left Norway immediately after being granted his inheritance at eighteen. With a changed last name, he had build Queen Trading Companies out of nothing. Although he hated visiting Norway and did so only rarely, Artemis and Ollie—as his close associates knew him as—were very close. He had known her mother and adored his niece.
Politely excusing herself from the circle of women attempting to achieve the good graces of the princess, she walked calmly to him, turning heads with every step. Ollie turned and smiled warmly. "Artemis," he said, taking her hand as she curtsied.
"Uncle Oliver, how are you?" Artemis had to remind herself it was not proper to throw her arms around a man no longer looked upon favorably by her family, though she longed to.
"Most well indeed. Everything fares well with you?" Only his intense eyes told Artemis he asked a more serious question: are you still being hurt?
She answered, "Oh, I cannot complain." I cannot complain, literally. If word makes it back to him it shall become worse. Ollie's eyes narrowed and Artemis cleared her throat, suddenly realizing they were not alone. "Ah, my apologies, I seem to have overlooked your companions. Please forgive my absentmindedness, Mister…"
"Wayne," said the black-haired man. Though he seemed nothing more than another gossip, something about the way he held himself told Artemis he was more than that. "Bruce Wayne, of Gotham City, New Jersey. And you must be the niece Oliver has regaled us with tales about, Miss…Bernadotte, correct?"
Using her most polite and friendly tone, she corrected him, "Princess Astrid Bernadotte of Norway, Mister Wayne." Though she hated the prefix, if people noticed Mister Wayne calling a princess by anything than her proper title he would be the subject of scorn and if there was anything Artemis loathed, it was gossip.
"She prefers Artemis, gentlemen," Ollie's interruption caught Artemis by surprise, although she only raised an eyebrow at her uncle. It had never pleased Lawrence that his daughter preferred her Greek name to her Norwegian one, although he preferred own Italian one, and he forbade her from either introducing herself as such or responding to it. Only Ollie and her close friend Jade—her maid and mother's close friend—referred to her as Artemis, and only in private. For her uncle to tell these men was his signal to trust them.
Nodding simply, she turned to the next man. "And you, sir?"
The blonde inclined slightly at the waist, "Barry Allen, of Central City, Illinois. Pleasure to meet you, Artemis."
Never had Artemis felt such genuine friendliness coming so soon after meeting someone. She smiled and, for the first time in a while, it was genuine. The smile only increased when Diana, princess of Themyscira, an island-nation off the coast of Greece, joined their conversation at the side of Mister Wayne. Although it would be foolish to assume that the two royals didn't know each other, he introduced them anyway. "Diana of Themyscira, may I introduce Astrid Bernadotte of Norway."
"We've met," said Diana, reaching out to squeeze Artemis's hand gently. "But it's been too long, Artemis; how are you?"
"I am well, thank you. And you?"
Flipping a long strand of dark hair out of her eyes, Diana said nonchalantly, "Unfortunately, people don't seem to understand the value of peace, so being a diplomat will never be anything but frustrating."
"Your honesty is refreshing, Princess," said Mister Wayne dryly.
"And appreciated," added Artemis.
Mister Allen chuckled. "At times like these I value being born a mere peasant."
"You have no idea," muttered Ollie.
Artemis asked, "What country are you negotiating in currently, Princess?"
"Please drop the title, Artemis, or I'll use yours." Diana smirked at Artemis's abashed face. "I'm in between Columbia and Afghanistan right now."
"Both countries warring within their own boundaries, yes?" All the adults looked at Artemis quizzically. "Yes?"
"For a princess not even assured of the crown, that education seems a little…" Mister Allen trailed off.
"Expansive?" Ollie offered.
Smiling tightly, Artemis said only, "My father sees it profitable that I am aware of the state of affairs."
Replied her uncle darkly, "I bet he does."
Mister Wayne spoke before Artemis could think of a response. "I am sorry to depart, Artemis, but my sons have been unattended to for more than twenty minutes, and I worry for the guests' safety." Nodding his head, he said with a firm promise, "Until next time, Princess."
Artemis nodded back. "Have a pleasant evening, Mister Wayne." Diana laid a gloved hand on her shoulder and gave her a significant look before following him into the crowd. Mister Allen muttered something about being right back. Turning back to Ollie, she asked, "How is Connor, Uncle? And Roy?"
Grimacing good-naturedly, Ollie responded, "Connor is in school now, in America. Between his martial arts lessons he barely has time for schoolwork," he gave her a sidelong glance. "I knew introducing him to your mother was a bad idea."
A sad smile tugged at her lips. Ollie went on, "Roy's traveling right now."
"He's actually in Asia right now."
Reluctantly, he muttered. "Vietnam."
Artemis went silent as the hot flush of jealousy subsided somewhat. "Oh." Then she changed the subject. "And Miss Lance?"
Now grimacing for real, he muttered, "Living in New York."
"Again?" She laughed at the thought; Dinah Lance and Ollie had been dancing around each other for years. Suddenly Mister Allen arrived once more, this time in the company of two redheads. The girl couldn't be older than Artemis, but the boy towered over her.
Mister Allen spoke first. "Princess, may I introduce Wallace West and his sister, Margret Findliath."
Wallace took her hand and bowed over it. Margret curtsied, then flashed a shy but true smile. "It is an honor, Princess. I go by Megan, if it does not bother your highness."
Artemis was unsurprised that they knew who she was, for all European royalty were very well-known. But she did not expect such direct, yet very polite, honestly, especially from someone she just met. It was refreshing. "Of course, Megan. Your last name; are you descended from the Gaelic king?"
Beaming, Megan nodded. "Yes! My family takes our genealogy very seriously."
"I can sympathize," responded the princess dryly. "So, how are you two in company with Mister Allen?"
"They are my fiancée Iris's niece and nephew. Her sister Mary, Wally's mother, is wed to Megan's father John after their respective spouses passed away," Mister Allen informed her. "In fact…" he looked towards two women speaking amidst the crowd. "I believe that's her now; if you'll excuse me." He nodded respectfully before disappearing into the throng of suits.
Ollie rested his hand on Artemis's bare shoulder and said, "We'll speak later, yes?" He gently squeezed her arm before following Mister Allen. Belatedly, Artemis noticed that the woman Miss West was speaking to was the aforementioned Miss Lance, getting looks of both adoration and jealousy in her scandalous black dress.
"Princess, I must compliment you on your dress. It is simply lovely," Megan's soft voice drew Artemis's attention.
"Oh," she looked down to her deep blue skirt; Jade had picked it out since Artemis had never really been comfortable in dresses. "Thank you, and the same to you." Realizing she had not yet spoken to the other redhead, she asked, "Wallace, was it?"
He winked roguishly. "I prefer Wally, but call me whatever you want."
Artemis raised an eyebrow, making sure to conceal how taken aback she was at his flirting. If there was one thing she was inept at, it was interacting with men. "Mister West, then. Are you in residence in Central City as well?"
"We are currently living in London with Mother while John completes some business, but we are based in Keystone City usually. Have you ever visited?"
She smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid not. The only traveling I've done is within Europe."
"Not even Vietnam?" Although his voice was pleasant, Mister West's eyes were sharp.
Megan gasped as Artemis blanched. "Wally." Artemis didn't blame her for her nervous glances; the princess had enough power to ruin lives, even if they were not her subjects, if she so chose. The subject of her birth was tense at best, and never brought up in conversations. And for some reason, this boy bringing it up, completely without provocation, angered her.
"No, actually," Artemis said with forced calm. It would not do for a princess to lose her temper. "I never saw any reason to."
"Well, your mother hail from there, does she not?" both Artemis and Megan could easily see past his façade of innocence, but after dealings with politicians, she knew that it was purposeful on his part.
She clenched her jaw. "My mother was a foreign princess the crown prince married in the attempt to resolve distrust between the countries of Vietnam and Norway." That was the official story, at least.
Megan had gone silent, hands held in a death grip. Her brown eyes flickered from her brother to Artemis.
"How romantic," his tone suggested everything but; vivid eyes probing her own experimentally. Without looking away, he addressed his sister: "Megs, isn't that Kory? You should go say hello."
Obviously torn, Megan twitched one way, then another, opened and closed her mouth, but eventually gave her brother a look half pleading and half stern, before melting into the crowd. Once the gentler soul was out of sight, Artemis caught Mister West's eye and nodded towards the balcony. He nodded and they both began moving through the crowd, occasionally pausing to chat with another socialite. By the time Artemis felt the warm night air on her back Mister West was leaning on the marble holding two champagne flutes and staring unashamedly. Without so much as batting an eyelash Artemis accepted one of the flutes and tipped her head back towards the stars.
Finally he said nonchalantly, "No one believes that story, you know."
"I am neither deaf nor blind," she answered remotely. "But no one has dared to bring it up in proper conversation before, and I was content to ignore the issue. So," her brown eyes studied him peripherally. "Why did you?"
"To see if you are worth fighting for."
The princess turned to face him directly, eyes wide. "I beg your pardon?"
But he seemed to not hear her. "The loyalty you display towards your mother is admirable. Did you know her well?"
"No, she…died when I was very young."
For the first time that night Mister West's eyes softened. "You have my condolences."
"And you mine, Mister West."
He gloved hand brushed hers momentarily, but purposefully, and she flinched as through burned. "Wally," he said seriously. "At least in private."
It took Artemis a moment to find her voice. "Do you expect that to happen often?"
"Oh, we'll see." Mister—no, Wally—grinned, drawing back, and Artemis realized she hadn't known how close he had gotten. "Would you like to dance, Princess?"
Artemis recognized the title as a signal to watch herself and gave him a minute nod. "It would be a pleasure, Mister West."
Together they walked towards the dance floor, Artemis affixed at precisely the correct angle on his arm. She nodded stiffly to her father, who was speaking to Paula, the current queen consort of Norway and Lawrence's close confidant. Artemis detested her but was wary to announce her feelings. Both adults barely glanced at her, but Ollie winked and Dinah waved.
Seamlessly, Wally drew Artemis up in his arms. She couldn't help but notice how muscular he was; how gently he seemed to hold her. Her brown eyes met his green ones, and to the music they moved; no words were needed. Time seemed to pause, and the world faded as they danced. They never looked away from each other.
All too soon the music ended and he led her away. Artemis was practically humming with energy, and he breathing deeply. "Well, your dance education hasn't failed you, Princess."
"How kind of you," she replied primly.
"May I inquire to the duration of your time in London?"
She teased, "But of course."
"I misspoke," he amended, smirking. "How long are you certain to be present in London?"
"To whom does this concern?"
"My dear sister has few friends and I only wish to see her happy."
"What of this Kory?"
Wally grimaced. "If you thought Megan was energetic, you have not had the pleasure of meeting her cousin Kory Anders."
"My question is still unanswered."
"Megan's health is my concern," a smile tugged his lips.
"Oh, is that all?" Feigning hurt, Artemis pouted. "I was so hoping to make more of an effect on you."
Wally grinned. "Oh, you have."
Despite herself, Artemis blushed. "You flatter me, Mister West."
Now it was he who pretended to pout. "Is that all? Well, the night is young."
Paula and Lawrence started drifting towards the exit, not bothering to look back. If it wasn't for Artemis's instincts, she would have missed them. As it was, she said rather distractedly, "I shall be visiting my uncle for tea on the morrow. Perhaps Megan and Mister Allen could join us."
"And I, Princess?"
"And you, Mister West, shan't miss it for the world." Inclining her head regally, she said, "This banter has been most enjoyable and I do wish to extend it, but I must bid you farewell."
His green eyes flickered to the crown prince scanning the crowd lazily. "I understand. Princess, may I say," he bent over her hand once more, but added a kiss this time, with an unnoticeable brush of tongue that almost made Artemis faint. "It has been utterly enchanting."
Faintly, she said. "Exactly the world I would use. Good night," she paused, then said in a lower voice, "Wally."
He winked again. "Artemis."
As she swept away, neither a hint of blush on her cheeks nor a smile on her lips remained, but her brown eyes sparkled. She was intrigued by this boy and planned to have Jade ask around about him later. The banter and intensity Wally offered was unmatched by any other man she had come across. Even his physical appearance was unique, and he held himself as Artemis had learned to: as though the observers' presence had been noted but dismissed. She admired that.
Yet she could not yet trust him simply because Wally could follow her in a conversation and make her heart race. Tomorrow, Artemis decided, she would arrive early at Uncle Ollie's and ask if the men she had met tonight—Wally included—were part of the small band of rebels Artemis was a part of, for she felt as though they were all too striking and secretive to be mere bachelors and businessmen making their way in the world. Tomorrow she would consider it all, but for tonight…
A small smile graced her features only after she was alone. You were correct, Wally, she thought as she slid into bed. I was enchanted to meet you.
So this is something like seven pages on Microsoft Word, and over sixteen handwritten ones. It's probably one of the best things I've ever written and it was a lot of fun. Song is inspired by Taylor Swift.
For everyone waiting for the last chapter of Of Daffodils and Stargazing, it will be coming...eventually. Inspiration just...dried up. But I'll finish. Cross my heart.
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