Chapter 2.14.2: Trials and Tribulations: A Happening Banquet
Due to Duke Edelstein's impeccable planning, nothing changed in the Capital.
Although House Orleans's ancestral home was located barely a hundred miles southwest of the heart of the Empire (five times closer to the Capital than the former House Kirkland's ancestral home, Arthur noted duly), the attack didn't originate from there; it clearly came from the North, actually. May be Duke Orleans did not dare to risk damaging his ancestral home. May be Duke Orleans wanted to trap the Capital from two sides. In any case, Duke Edelstein had had ten thousands of able-bodied men, both from his wife's House's famed army and the Empire's barracks, stationed around the Capital and sent to the areas of conflicts. He'd even secured emergency lines of trade for necessities like staples and fuels; better prepared than sorry, as the saying went.
"There would be no need for you to be in the battlefield, Your Majesty," the bespectacled brunet had answered, rather loudly, in the Emperor's first small council meeting, as they discussed about the war and what Alfred's first edict should be .
"It'll be good for boosting the morale of the army," Lord Carriedo, reinstated Master of Ships  mentioned.
"It's only been a few days," Roderich raised his brow. Lord Carriedo ought to have hated Duke Orleans for driving one of his heirs, Antonio, into hiding. That he made a comment that didn't make sense; Roderich did not know what to make of it. "Our army is still doing well. The evacuated citizens are as happy as they can be. There is no need to compromise His Majesty's safety unnecessarily."
The olive-eyed male merely shrugged. "Let's get back to the edict, then."
A little over a week since the invasion started, a messenger turned up in the courtroom, looking rather pale. In normal situations, courtiers got jumpy every time a messenger showed up. This messenger's bloodless face did not sit very well in Alfred's stomach. "What happened?" he was almost afraid to ask.
"Y-your Majesty," his subject gave him a rather stiff bow. "I-I come bearing a message f-from…" he took a deep breath, "Prince Ivan of Braginski Dynasty," he finished the sentence in a rush.
"A Braginski?" A royalty from the very Empire that had attacked them. Alfred thanked the Gods he was already sitting. Rumours had it, this particular Prince was a bastard of the Emperor, born from an affair with Lady Arlovskaya. Normally bastard Princes were raised in the house the Ladies birthed them to , but Ivan's resemblance to the incumbent Emperor of the North was so uncanny their blood relation was undeniable. "What does he want?"
"T-the message says…t-that he is on his way here, Your Majesty. H-he apologises for having missed your coronation, but he would still like to congratulate you face to face…" once the messenger ended, his knees wobbled, his legs almost giving up on him it seemed.
Alfred bit back his automatic response that was 'face to face congratulations are not needed, thank you very much; please stay away from me' and peered at Roderich, who was standing next to the monarch, as though asking, 'now what?'
Alfred's dependence on him wasn't winning the Emperor any trust from his subjects, Roderich thought as he sent the boy a forced upward tug of his lips and an imperceptible nod.
Alfred read the signal correctly, and gulped visibly. "We should give him a warm welcome, then."
"His Royal Highness, Ivan Braginski, sixteenth in line of succession to the throne of the North, and his entourage have arrived," the guards announced.
Ivan Braginski was everything Alfred would expect from a Northerner, and everything he would not: a big-boned, seven-foot tall Prince, his skin so fair and his hair so white he looked more like a snowman than a human. His choice of clothing, a thick ankle-length beige cloak that had seen better days and did not fit the weather at all, did not help diminish his hulking, intimidating figure. Nobody could quite tell what his age was, but his chubby face, still not shed off his baby fats it seemed, and the childlike expression on his face, belayed how young he was, that he was still a teenager.
"Greetings, Emperor Alfred of Bonnefoy Dynasty," the royalty bowed as soon as he reached the centre of the medium-sized ballroom, rather intimate since only a few tables could be fit inside, yet it hosted a stage, making the venue appropriate to serving guests in a small banquet. "Late though they are, I hope you would still accept my sincerest congratulations and well-wishes for your reign," he stared at Alfred from under his bangs, pink lips moving smoothly over accented words.
He had such a big nose, Alfred noticed, despite the churning of his stomach, whatever is visible of his skin is so pale it's almost translucent.
"Thank you for your sincerity," he heard himself reply.
Ivan nodded before he turned to the entourage standing behind him. "Your Majesty, please meet my sisters, Katyusha and Natalie Arlovskaya ," not denying the rumours at all apparently, Ivan pointed at two lovely ladies. The one clothed in indigo gown was a perfect epitome of an Ice Queen, slim and tall with long straight platinum hair framing a lovely, beautiful face, long-lashed almond-shaped eyes pointed and a little chilly. The other one was short-haired and bustier, with large, heavenly looking breasts her aquamarine blouse failed to contain, tantalizing cleavage spilling over her collar. The latter looked somewhat flustered. Both of them curtsied. "Your Majesty," they greeted him, the former's voice as cold as she looked.
Ivan looked pleased as he pulled on the arm of a shorter, slighter brown-haired man, looping a big bear arm around the brunet's shoulders. "And this is my banner man, Toris Laurinaitis," he chirped.
The smaller green-eyed man looked positively terrified. "C-co-congratulations, Y-your Majesty," he stuttered.
"Thank you," if Alfred had thought it strange, he didn't showcase it. He gestured at the empty chairs behind the long banquet table, which had been set for his guests. "Please take a seat, Your Highness, make yourself at home."
As they began to dine, Mei, in her ensemble of customary bright-coloured Eastern and Western fashion fused together, entered from the side and walked up to the Emperor. "Your Majesty," the pretty flower addressed her husband, "The Peony and Chrysanthemum are ready with the performance."
It was one of the flowers' duties to entertain guests of the Emperor. Roderich and Arthur did put up a performance for the Wang's when they first arrived, so this time the two had taken up the responsibility (or rather, Kiku volunteered, Mei responded enthusiastically and Yao stuck with them).
"Okay," the Emperor smiled, not giving it much thought (must be some stuffy music, he'd dismissed), "Let's have it."
Mei curtsied and walked back where she came from. The diners conversed as they waited, and were surprised when the lights were suddenly out. "Hey, what-" a buzz of outrage broke.
It died the moment tunes of a string instrument bounced off the walls of the dining hall. Yao could be seen on the left of the stage, his figure bathed by candlelight, poised behind a wide wooden contraption, long steel wires stretched across a series of ivory bridges. His face looked like a doll, sporting a serious expression as his fingers plucked deftly, his right and left hand moving in different tempos so fast it was overwhelming.
Alfred couldn't help but pay attention on the exotic music.
The sound was soon joined by a steady, low-pitched flute, pleasantly countering the strings' hurried notes. The lights returned to the room, gradually, and Alfred could see Mei standing on the right of the stage, her slender form adulating as she blew into the long, woodwind instrument her fingers were curled around. Alfred nearly choked when he abruptly realized that arousal was creeping into his mind as he watched the way she handled the bamboo. There was nothing lewd about it, yet he was so mesmerized…
Then Kiku appeared on the centre of the stage, swathed in baggy, long-sleeved kimono Alfred had often seen him wear, yet this must be the first time he'd seen this particular style. The wide golden belt holding the robe together was tied on the front, and the collars were pulled down so much of Kiku's slender shoulders and neck was shown, smooth skin gliding over muscles and the knobs of his spine as he danced gracefully, his limbs dragging through the air slowly, an act requiring intense concentration and complete control of one's body. He was an art in motion, his hands twirling and flipping two wide paper fans with wooden ribs in complicated moves with the expertise of a circus acrobat, never faltering as his feet, clad in high-heeled wooden sandals, glided across the stage. Glimpses of his thighs entered Alfred's view when Kiku's strides turned larger, his long legs taut, lean and creamy, but those flashes weren't enough, were never enough . The lower part of Kiku's short, silky black hair was pulled up and fastened with dangling hair accessories, his nape teasing Alfred when the flower bent and cocked his head. And Kiku's eyes. Oh, his eyes; the black kohl extending the line of his sharp, cat-like eyes, blood red shadows deepening his lids.
Kiku met Alfred's stare, briefly, in the middle of the performance, the lower half of his face hidden by the fans, and the Emperor sucked his breath. He'd felt like those twin depthless dark pools had burned him, the heat going straight to his groin.
Alfred honestly didn't know where this arousal came from. Barely over ten days ago he was queasy at the thought of having anyone in his harem other than Arthur.
May be Alfred was too terribly nervous during the coronation, shaken by his recent discovery of how powerless he truly was, and frightened by the people he'd thought he knew. But in the ten days, he'd been observing Roderich closely throughout the crisis, and Alfred felt more assured day by day as he was able to correctly guess Roderich's plans and decisions more frequently. As Alfred realized that maybe he wasn't that bad at being a ruler, his former self was returning.
Something distracted Alfred from the periphery of his sight. He thought it was Lilac; the girl had been trying to catch his attention throughout the occasion, but when Alfred spared a glance, he was surprised to find that it was Arthur, who'd been tapping his finger restlessly. He looked slightly pale. Upon noticing Alfred's gaze on him, the Rose smiled, shook his head and made a gesture of loosening his collar. I'm fine, just a bit stuffed, he seemed to say.
Alfred shifted his attention back to the performance as the music reached a feverish pitch, Yao's hands a blur of pale skin and the gold of his fabric. Kiku danced as though he was a butterfly, flimsy wings fluttering frantically as the creature tried to escape an invisible danger, before the music climaxed like a huge wave crashing against rocky shores. Kiku dropped to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut off.
Then, painstakingly, Kiku rose to his knees and raised his arms, his body curving backwards in a perfect arc till his head and the tips of his fingers touched the floor. He was breathless and pink-cheeked. It was so exotic Alfred could picture the Easterner arching flexibly just like that in his bed as he gripped those thin hips and pounded hard into-
"Bravo!" Alfred's fantasy was interrupted by Ivan's loud applause. The big-boned Northerner had rose to his feet and were clapping enthusiastically. "It was a wonderful performance, da?"
"Yes," the Emperor clapped too, his face flushed red, his bright blue eyes gleaming. "It was magical."
The trio bowed to the compliments before joining the rest at the table, the flowers taking their seats around their Emperor. The ambience of the dinner had completely changed, the air charged with tension. Most ministers ignored it nonchalantly, although some of them couldn't help but fidget uncomfortably.
"Your Majesty must be wondering why I insist on dropping you a visit, da?" Ivan broke the strange mood unexpectedly. "Especially since one of our Houses is working with yours on a coup?"
Alfred blinked at him incredulously, not knowing whether he loved the violet-eyed Northerner for his bluntness, or he was wary because apparently this royalty's mind didn't function as a normal person's mind should. Tentatively, he gave a nod that could be mistaken as something else when need be.
Ivan's lips curled eerily. "House Mikhalkov's actions were taken independently, da? Braginski Dynasty did not play any part in the coup at all. In fact, we did not condone it."
Alfred was one second away from breathing in relief. "Then-"
"But," the pale-skinned Prince interrupted, "it does not mean that Braginski Dynasty disapproves either."
The tension returned to the dining table, something of a different nature entirely. Alfred squared himself and clenched his fists tightly his nails were digging into his palm. "…What does Braginski Dynasty want?" he barely managed to dislodge the statement off his throat.
"Don't be so defensive," Ivan's expression had not changed at all throughout his blackmail. "It would be wonderful if you have a Braginski as your Empress Consort, da? Then we can assist you in warding off the coup."
Alfred's thoughts whirled at a thousand mile a minute. Roderich, who'd been trying to catch his gaze, waved the pocket watch clutched tightly in his hand at him. Buy us some time, he meant.
I know, Alfred glared at him in frustration.
The interaction did not go unnoticed. "Braginski Dynasty cannot promise to stay out for long," Ivan added happily.
Alfred inhaled sharply. "I-" he opened his mouth without knowing what to say.
Thankfully, he was saved by the sound of a crash.
"Oh, God," Arthur blinked at the shards of the wine glass he'd let slip to the ground and the stain on his thick ivory-coloured robe. "I'm so sorry, that was terribly clumsy of me," he stood up to gather the mess, a napkin in his gloved hand, when Alfred saw the begetter's green eyes rolling to the back of his head before he crumpled and fell.
"Milord!" Arthur's lady-in-waiting cried and caught her master on her lap before he could hit the marble tiles and the broken pieces of glass.
"Get a doctor!" Alfred kneeled next to the older blonde. "Hurry!" he shouted.
Arthur didn't respond to the commotion, his body dead as a ragdoll.
1. An Emperor's first edict is considered important in this AU. It sets the tone of his reign, so to speak.
2. Master of Ships: again, borrowed from Game of Thrones' small council, the head of the navy.
3. History says Henry VIII had many, many affairs, and sons out of wedlock, but the only one acknowledged was Edward.
4. Ukraine's human name, including her surname, is not known, though most people refer to her as Katyusha Braginskaya. I've decided to leave her out of royalty.
5. The instrument is a koto (.org/wiki/Koto_(instrument)). The flute is dizi .org/wiki/Dizi_(musical_instrument). The song I imagined them playing is Rin's Murasaki no Yukari, Futatabi (youtube .com/watch?v=wo4-mmiNoKA) without the drums.
6. Inspired by dances in 'Memoir of a Geisha'. The fan dance is on the second half, the slow dance in the first half. youtube .com/watch?v=Q1NL2RzugVE