Author's Note: Extremely late chapter. I'm so sorry. I really don't have much of an excuse. Writer's Block was a contributing factor, but mostly this chapter was neglected because I was lazy. There. I've admitted it. I've been reading stuff on Fiction Press instead of writing my story. Forgive me.
On a happier note, the world didn't end! xD And I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year.
On another equally happy note, look up there. Can you see it? Yes, WSoD now has a lovely cover which was drawn by Kohaku no Hime! Thanks again, Kohaku!
Now to business. Here's the latest chapter, and I hope you like it.
Beneath the Veneer
Miho slowed down as Serenity came alongside her, and as soon as she had breath enough, she began to talk almost as fast as she had been running. Most of it passed right over Serenity's head. The girl prattled on about the various dresses the princess had to choose from, the myriad ways her hair could be styled, how the right gems could set off her hair and eyes, and how "this cream did wonders for the complexion!" Serenity had never heard anyone talk so much about such superficial matters. The purple-haired girl was sure of her destination, however, and led the princess through the palace to the apartment which had been prepared for her. The suite had its own private bathroom, and the tub had already been filled with steaming water by the time they arrived. Serenity was grateful for the chance to bathe; she could have done without the hovering maid, however.
"Are you sure you don't need me to help you, Your Highness?" Miho asked for the fifth time as the princess began to undress.
"I'm positive, Miho. I may not have had so many lotions and oils to choose from since I was too young to bathe unaided, but I'm confident I know what I'm doing," she responded, keeping her irritation from showing in her voice with some effort.
"Alright," Miho said reluctantly. "I'll be just outside if you need me for anything." She gathered Serenity's discarded clothing into a bundle and left the room with it.
Once she was alone, the princess slid into the hot water and sighed in pleasure. She would have gladly let herself soak for hours, but she knew that was not an option. She lay back in the water for a few minutes, then set to work, washing the dust of travel from her hair and body.
Twenty minutes later, she emerged from the water, wrung out her hair and dried herself before approaching the long bench where an array of fine gowns and various other garments had been laid out for her. She selected a flowing dress in her favourite shade of blue, with gold embroidery along the hemline and the ends of the sleeves, and a high neckline sewn with white seed pearls. Thus attired, she exited the bathing chamber to find Miho waiting for her, a wide assortment of jewelry and other accessories spread out on the table in front of her. She smiled when she saw Serenity, her eyes roving over the gown she had chosen.
"That colour really suits you," she said. "Now all we have to do is add some jewels and style your hair, and you'll be ready to see the queen."
"I don't think that will be necessary," Serenity protested, feeling a little overwhelmed by the fortune in gold and gems glittering in the lamplight. "I can braid my hair, and as for other adornments—"
"Don't be ridiculous!" Miho cut in. "You're a princess, and you should dress like one."
One look at the purple-haired girl's expression told Serenity there would be no talking her way out of this. Still, she felt a little uncomfortable as Miho slid a dozen jeweled bracelets onto each of her arms, and fastened an ornate opal necklace around her neck alongside the star-pendant, which Serenity had not taken off during her bath. The maid then sat her unwilling mistress in front of the mirror, and began gathering up her long auburn tresses, combing them out and arranging them in an elaborate style that required seemingly enumerable jeweled hairpins to hold in place. She hummed merrily as she worked, apparently enjoying her task immensely. Serenity, on the other hand, felt like a life-sized doll belonging to some nobleman's daughter, and wondered privately how she was expected to sit up straight with all of her hair piled up on her head.
At last, Miho slid the last hairpin into place, and stepped back to admire her handiwork.
Serenity stared at her reflection for a long moment. She looked almost unrecognisable. At least the other girl hadn't insisted on applying make-up to her face, or she wouldn't have known the person looking out of the mirror at her.
"I still think this is a little ... over done," she said, half to herself and half to her new maid.
The maid in question merely laughed.
"Maybe if all you were going to do was see your mother today, but you have a welcoming banquet tonight, and you'll need to look your best for the suitors, now won't you?"
Serenity started up in surprise, whirling to face Miho.
Miho smiled at her.
"You are of marriageable age, Your Highness," she said matter-of-factly. "Since you're the only one of the queen's children left, you'll need to produce an heir as soon as possible. The king invited many noblemen to the feast tonight. I'm sure one of them will take your fancy. Some of them certainly took mine, but I'll never marry a noble now." The last sentence was spoken so low that the princess almost failed to hear it, and her mind was so full of what she had just been told that its significance did not register until later.
Serenity knew Miho was not at fault, but the fact that everyone, even Roland, had kept this rather important detail from her made her want to tear down the complex edifice that was her present hairstyle. It took a considerable amount of willpower to keep her tone calm when she spoke again.
"Well, I suppose that does explain all of this," she said, indicating her finery. "I'd better meet with my mother before this banquet begins. This information has at the very least given me a safe topic of conversation."
"Alright then!" Miho said brightly. "I'll lead the way, shall I?"
"By all means," Serenity said with genuine appreciation. "I'd sooner get hopelessly lost than find her apartment on my own. I was too young when I left here to remember the layout in detail."
Serenity's memories of her mother had faded with the years, but on seeing her again, they returned in a rush. The changes the princess had expected to see—greying hair, the beginnings of a network of frown lines around the eyes and mouth, any sign that the years were taking their toll—were absent, but Coraline was still a changed woman. Her skin was pale and her eyes had no sparkle in them. She looked sad and care-worn. When she set eyes on Serenity, however, a warm smile graced her features and some of the colour returned to her cheeks. As her daughter approached, Coraline rose from her chair and pulled her into a tight embrace.
"Serenity, how you've grown!" she exclaimed.
"That can happen over ten years," Serenity told her as she returned the hug.
"True enough," Coraline said with a faint smile. She released her daughter and looked her over more carefully. "Miho outdid herself," she remarked, gently touching Serenity's hair.
The mention of her current attire reminded the princess of what she wished to discuss with her mother before all else.
"Miho told me there was to be a feast tonight in my honour," she began.
"And so there is," Coraline affirmed. "You didn't think my only daughter's return would not be celebrated, did you?"
"No, Mother, but that wasn't all Miho told me."
"Indeed?" Coraline sounded very slightly uneasy.
"She said that Gozaburo had invited a number of noblemen to the feast. According to her, I am expected to marry one of them."
Coraline's expression grew sober.
"Dearest, no-one is expecting you to marry tomorrow," she said. "It would be best for the kingdom if you chose a husband as soon as possible, however. It is quite remarkable how many nice young men Gozaburo found at such short notice. I would rather all that effort was not wasted."
Serenity did not fail to notice how quickly her mother had jumped to Gozaburo's defense. She had no desire to argue with her mother on the day of her return, so she sighed and nodded in apparent submission.
"Very well," she said. "I'll consider my options, but don't expect me to choose someone immediately."
"Good," Coraline said with a smile. "Now, let us speak of lighter matters."
As it turned out, Gozaburo's prohibitions left Serenity with very little to talk to her mother about, and soon she excused herself, claiming she needed to make last-minute preparations for the banquet. She was all too aware of the invisible barrier the years and Gozaburo's influence had erected between them.
The extravagance of the welcoming feast and the ball that took place afterwards was almost too much for Serenity to take. She found herself wondering how Gozaburo had managed to arrange everything at such short notice as the night wore on. Food and drink were plentiful, and the performers who provided the music for them to dance to were exceptionally talented.
The nobles Gozaburo had invited, Serenity quickly discovered, fell into several categories: self-absorbed youths with faces as handsome as their heads were empty; ambitious men of varying appearance, some of them old enough to be her father, who only wanted her for the power she could give them; perverted individuals who drank more than was wise and made no effort to hide what they desired from her; and a few who would have appealed to the princess if not for the fact that they didn't seem to want to be there in the first place—she suspected these last had been pressured into coming by their families, perhaps to prevent them from marrying beneath them or some other utterly stupid reason. She was not usually a judgmental person, but many times throughout the night, she found herself wondering whether her mother had encountered any of these men, and if so, what had warped her idea of 'nice young men' to include them in it. She could never later put names to their faces, as there were so many that it was hard to keep track of them.
Gozaburo did not approach Serenity once throughout the proceedings, and had still not done so when, weary from over a week of travel and the night's events, she retired to her chambers. She was barely aware of her surroundings as Miho dismantled her hairstyle and helped her change into a silk nightgown, a fact that did not escape the maid's notice, for she did not press her mistress for the juicy details of the ball. No sooner had she lain down, than Serenity sank into a deep sleep from which she would not wake until late the following morning.
Gozaburo was waiting for his stepdaughter when she finally came down to the dining-hall for a late breakfast. Compared to the previous night, she was plainly dressed, her loose blue gown devoid of embroidery and the only item of jewelry being her star-pendant.
"I trust you slept well, my dear," the Kaiban greeted with the same almost-genuine joviality he had exhibited the day before.
"Quite well, thank you," Serenity responded coolly,, taking her seat at the single long table reserved for the royals, which stood at the front of the room. She made sure there were several empty seats between herself and Gozaburo, but the other man, who had long since finished his own meal and had been simply awaiting her arrival, got up and came to sit directly opposite her.
"I did not have the opportunity to ask whether you enjoyed your homecoming celebration," he said casually, leaning a little toward her. Serenity was privately glad the table was wide.
"I won't deny that the quality of the entertainment was exceptional," the princess responded truthfully.
"I'm glad you thought so," Gozaburo said with a smile. The man then beckoned to a couple of servants who had been standing uncertainly at the side of the hall. "Go and fetch some food for the princess," he ordered.
"A light meal, Please," Serenity added in a gentler tone. "After the feast last night, I doubt I could handle a large serving of anything."
The two servants immediately hastened to obey, exiting through a side-door. They returned a few minutes later, setting a large bowl of oatmeal before the princess. Gozaburo did not comment, but he regarded the food with obvious distain. Serenity ignored this, thanking the servants before beginning to eat.
The king waited until his stepdaughter was nearly finished before broaching the subject she had been expecting him to bring up all morning.
"Your mother told me you had learned of my little surprise in advance. That Miho can't keep a secret to save her life, bless her."
"I assume you're referring to the potential husbands you chose for me." Serenity's tone was surprisingly calm. She met Gozaburo's gaze before continuing. "I will not condemn myself to a loveless marriage. None of those men could give me anything but that."
"My dear," Gozaburo said, a steely note entering his voice, "the future of the kingdom hangs in the balance. I have no children of my own, so it falls to you to ensure Domino has a ruler in years to come."
"The crown had plenty of heirs before you exiled them," Serenity retorted, her eyes never leaving her stepfather's face. "I have eleven brothers. Our dynasty was secure before you scattered us to the winds. Your problem would be easily solved if you allowed them to return."
"That is not possible," Gozaburo said harshly, all trace of geniality gone. "You are aware of the circumstances surrounding their banishment."
"I may have been young at the time, but I knew my brothers better than you did, and they were not murderers. They may not have liked you, but they had their morals and did not turn from them for anything."
"As you said, you were only a child, not even six years old. You cannot tell me you understood everything at that age." Gozaburo's tone was slightly condescending.
Neither of them had noticed they were no longer alone. Coraline was standing just inside the entrance doors, listening to their conversation. And in the far corner stood Roland, his figure hidden by shadow. He had slipped in through the servants' entrance soon after the discussion began, and was straining to hear every word.
"Even if one of those noblemen had appealed to me, I would have refused to marry him before my brothers were summoned back to attend the wedding," Serenity informed her stepfather now. "If you're not willing to do that, then I won't marry anyone, no matter how charming they may be."
It was at this point that Coraline made her presence known.
"What exactly is going on here?" she asked, approaching the table. Her tone was mild, but at the sound of her voice, Gozaburo's head snapped around to look at her.
"Coraline, dearest! How long have you been there?" he said, plainly startled.
"Gozaburo, why are you speaking to Serenity that way, and what's this about—"
"Serenity," the Kaiban said, turning back to his stepdaughter and speaking over his wife, "you've made your point clear. We will discuss this further at a later time. For now, I wish to speak to your mother alone." Serenity opened her mouth to protest, surprised by his sudden change in demeanour. "Leave us!" he snapped before she could get a word out.
Realising there would be no arguing with him, the princess rose from the table and left the room, utterly confused by this turn of events. It never occurred to her to eavesdrop, although she knew her stepfather's behaviour was passing strange.
Roland remained in his corner, still as stone, though not from enchantment this time. So it was that he witnessed proof of a suspicion he had harboured for some time now.
"Gozaburo, what is going on?" Coraline asked again, a puzzled frown on her face.
"Nothing, dear," Gozaburo answered, locking eyes with her. "Nothing at all." There was a peculiar resonance to his voice that made Roland shiver.
Coraline's face went suddenly blank. Her eyes turned glassy.
"Nothing at all," she repeated in a flat, distant tone.
"You will forget the conversation between Serenity and myself." This was plainly a command, however softly spoken.
"I will forget the conversation between you and Serenity," Coraline repeated in that same flat voice.
"You have no children save Serenity."
"I have ... no children ... save Serenity." It took some effort for Coraline to repeat this, but she did so nonetheless.
"Very good." The Kaiban blinked, and Coraline's trance broke. She still looked dazed, however, and it was only when Gozaburo spoke again that she appeared to regain full awareness. "Coraline, you look pale. Perhaps you should rest awhile."
"Now that you mention it," Coraline said, swaying slightly where she stood, "I do feel a little dizzy."
"Shall I escort you, Your Majesty?" Leichter said as he entered the room, followed closely by Nezbitt.
"Thank you, Leichter. I would appreciate that," Coraline responded.
The warrior crossed to her and laid an arm around her shoulders, allowing her to lean against him. It was in this manner that the two exited the hall. Nezbitt was left alone with his master, or so it appeared.
"What happened, Sire?" the mage asked Gozaburo. "I assume you did not summon us simply because you had to fortify the memory-binding enchantment on the queen again."
Gozaburo's expression hardened.
"The girl is being obstinate. She refused to choose a husband from the wide selection I provided her with." His mouth curved in a humourless smile. "So it is fortunate that we planned for such an event."
Nezbitt's smile looked more like a sneer as he responded.
"I always wanted to be a prince."
The rest of the day passed all too quickly for Roland. He had miraculously remained undiscovered until the two sorcerers left the dining-hall, and since then, he had been making surreptitious preparations. He had come to a decision almost as soon as he learned of Gozaburo's plans for Serenity, and although the prospect of what he was about to do was terrifying, his resolve was firm. He had failed the princes ten years ago; there was no way he was going to do the same for their sister.
He was waiting for her outside the door to her chambers when she returned from her evening meal, which had been mercifully uneventful. Her surprise at seeing him there was plain.
"Roland! I wasn't expecting you to be here. Is anything wrong?"
Roland took a steadying breath as he turned to face Serenity.
"Princess, has Gozaburo spoken with you since this morning?" he asked. He was almost certain he knew the answer, but he had to be sure.
"No," Serenity said, bemused. "Was he supposed to?"
The former chancellor did not reply immediately. He was relieved that Gozaburo had not yet made his move, but that did not make his self-appointed task any easier. He moved closer to her, his eyes never leaving hers.
"Serenity, you have to leave," he told her in a low, urgent voice.
"What? Why?" she asked, stunned by the sudden urgency.
"It's difficult to explain," Roland said. "There is only so much I can tell you." A tingling sensation ran the length of his spine, setting his nerves on edge. This was as close to triggering his enchantment as he had ever come, and he knew the warning well by now. He made himself go on despite it. "I was present when you confronted Gozaburo this morning. I heard everything. Sound carries clearly across the dining-hall when there are few people in it." Nothing had happened yet, but Roland knew he was very close to the point of no return.
"What does that have to do with me leaving?" Serenity asked.
"When you refused to choose a husband yourself, he chose one for you. He plans to force you to wed Nezbitt."
He had not expected this statement to activate the curse, but it was immediately apparent that it had done so, for a chill enveloped his legs from the knees down, and he suddenly felt an urge to make for the top of the tower where the princes had been enchanted. He looked down at his feet briefly, but saw no apparent change.
It must not be able to take effect until I'm where it wants me to be.
He resisted the urge, looking back up at his princess.
"Who's Nezbitt?" she asked him. "I know the name, but I can't place it."
"He is one of Gozaburo's associates, the man who took you from the palace," Roland explained. He had put the pieces together while he had been Gozaburo's captive before the princes were cursed.
Serenity paled, fear flickering briefly in her eyes. Then the emotion changed to a mixture of anger and disbelief.
"He can't be serious!" she burst out. "That man must be three times my age!"
"Not quite, but close enough," Roland said soberly. "He is not seeking your happiness, but his gain. Once you've given birth to a child, regardless of its gender, I shudder to think what he might do to you. Gozaburo is ... a very dangerous man." He had not specifically said he was a sorcerer, but even so, the enchantment told him instantly that he had said too much, for the chill advanced up his body until he was cold from the waist down, and the urge to turn and run to the tower doubled in strength. It took all his will to remain where he was.
The effort must have shown on his face, for Serenity's expression changed to one of concern.
"Roland, are you alright?" she asked.
"I'm fine, princess," he said, trying to sound convincing.
Serenity laid a hand lightly on his arm.
"No you're not. You're trembling. What's wrong?"
"There's no time for me to tell you that, princess," Roland answered. "It is not me you should be concerned about." He dared not explain further. He had learned the nature of his enchantment through an enlightening dream he had had soon after the princes' banishment, and knew he would only have one more chance to give Serenity the information she needed.
"Alright, if you're sure," Serenity said, though she still looked worried.
"I am. Now listen carefully, because I can only say this once. I've saddled my horse for you, and packed some provisions for the journey. He's waiting for you in the stable-yard; all you have to do is untie him. Enandros is reliable, and swift when he needs to be. He will shorten your travel time considerably. There is a second entrance to the palace that few know about. The gate is near the stables and is unguarded, so you'd best use that as your escape route. Gozaburo must not know you are gone until you are too far away for him to easily find you."
"Where should I go?" Serenity asked, the seriousness of the situation now sinking in. "I can't return to Merilyn. They'll suspect her immediately, and if Gozaburo is as dangerous as you say—"
"You must travel west for a time, then turn south," Roland explained quickly." In time, you will reach the edge of a forest, where you should release Enandros and proceed into the woods on foot." He braced himself before looking her directly in the eyes. "Don't ask me how I know this, but that was the journey your brothers made when they left." Surprisingly, nothing happened when he said this, perhaps because he had not learned it from Gozaburo.
Hope lit Serenity's eyes.
"Do you think I'll find them there?" she asked, desperate to learn more.
"Perhaps, if you make haste," Roland said quietly, "but things may not be as you expect." The moment he said this the chill encompassed the rest of his body, and his face lost all colour. The desire to make for the tower was now almost irresistible, but he held his ground long enough to have his last word. "Please, Serenity, do as I have asked, for all our sakes."
Then he turned from her, and forced himself to walk normally until he was out of sight. He did not hear her following him, and he was glad of that. He had no desire for her to see what would befall him. She had another goal she must pursue.
Once he was sure the princess would not hear, he let the enchantment have its way, and his legs became a blur as he ran towards the tower. Fortunately for him, Serenity's apartment was not too far from his destination, and he had soon reached the stairs leading up to the top of the tower without anyone seeing him. The pull of the magic was so strong by this point that he literally flew up the stairs, his toes barely brushing the stone as he ascended. Almost before he realised it, he was on the battlements, standing precisely where he had been ten years ago, when Raphael and his brothers had changed before his eyes. He was now facing the setting sun, which seemed strangely appropriate.
As he stood there, his gaze fixed on the western horizon, he felt his legs stiffen. He looked down, and saw that they had turned to black marble up to the knees. He had barely straightened when the curse advanced, stopping briefly at his waist, as the chill had done earlier. As he waited for the spell to finish its work, he felt strangely calm. He had done all he could, and he accepted his fate. Some part of him knew his sacrifice would not be in vain.
When the black marble enclosed him completely, his expression was serene.
Serenity's mind was whirling with everything Roland had told her. When Nezbitt had been mentioned, a vivid memory had flashed through her mind: a man with thick eyebrows and penetrating hazel eyes leaning over her; a cold voice telling her she was an inconvenience that needed to be dealt with, and she should be glad he wasn't going to kill her. She had been a child, and absolutely terrified of him. The best that could be said of him was that of all the peasants in that region, he had left her with Landon and Merilyn. The very idea of marrying him was repugnant.
Then there was the knowledge she had been hoping to gain from coming here. He had told her where she could find her brothers, or at least start looking for them. She knew it had cost him to tell her, though she could not imagine at that time the magnitude of the price he had paid. The hope he had given her had convinced her to go through with his plan.
She turned to enter her chambers, intending to gather a few items she might need on the journey. When she opened the door, however, she found Miho backing hurriedly away from it, looking slightly guilty.
"How much did you hear?" Serenity asked, her surprise making her sound more stern than she had intended.
"Everything," Miho admitted, her expression sobering. "You're going, aren't you?"
Serenity entered the room, closing the door behind her before turning to face the maid.
"Yes, Miho, and I'd rather you didn't tell anyone, especially my stepfather."
"I wasn't going to," Miho said, her tone unusually solemn. She lifted her chin, a determined glint in her eyes. "If you're set on leaving, I want to help you."
End Notes: I was planning on including a little more in this chapter, but I decided to leave it here, because it's fun keeping you guys in suspense.
Roland's enchantment was inspired by another fairytale I read a while back called "Faithful John". The hero of the story is a loyal servant who protects his master (who's a king, obviously) from being killed three times. He acted without explaining his actions, since if he told his master of each peril, part of him would turn to stone. In the end, he was forced to explain and ended up as a statue for years. I won't say how he was released, as it's a bit gruesome, and in any case, it isn't relevant to Roland's curse.
The horse's name is an anagram of Anderson, a homage to Hans Christian Anderson, who wrote the story this fanfiction is based on. I did briefly consider naming him Kazuki, but I changed my mind.
I may come back and tweak this chapter a bit later, but I'm happy with it for now, and I hope you are as well.
And if you're going to favourite and/or alert me, please review. I would love to hear from you.
Until next chapter!