Jaonos knew that he would have to go to court. As the heir to the Blackwell family, he would take on his father’s duties upon his father’s death, but the whole thing left a sour taste in his mouth. He had fought with his father about it that very morning.
Jaonos had been lounging in his own room, a soundbeam playing light violin music in the background, when Flinar had entered. Jaonos hadn’t bothered to dress yet, and rather than join his family to eat breakfast, he breakfasted on peaches kept in a bowl by the soundbeam.
“Why are you not dressed?” Flinar asked.
“Why should I be?”
Flinar crossed the room and tapped the soundbeam, turning it off. “We have business at court.”
Flinar, of course, believed that both he and his eldest son had business at court, but Jaonos saw it very differently. Flinar had business at court. He was dragging Jaonos around in some foolish attempt to reform Jaonos into the heir of the Blackwell family he had always wanted.
“Take Vithian.” Jaonos just caught a scowl at the edge of his father’s lips.
“I had intended to, but not as your replacement.”
Jaonos didn’t bother to hide his scowl as he reached past his father and tapped the soundbeam back into life.
“Jaonos, as the heir-”
“Take Yna,” Jaonos snapped. “She’s far more eager to be useful.” He snatched another peach from the bowl and pushed past Flinar to stand at the far window.
Flinar slapped the soundbeam off once more. He did not follow Jaonos; he would not be reduced to chasing his own son across a room. Instead, he raised his voice, just slightly so that he would be heard. It was the closest Jaonos had ever heard him get to shouting. “And she is far more pleasant and far more dutiful and far more many things than you, but she is also my third child, and it would be an insult to present her rather than you to Prince Heliohart’s court.
“I cannot understand how you can so resent being born the first child of a family that is both powerful and wealthy, whose power and wealth will be yours in time, when you will never need earn it. Neither Vithian nor Ynaselle nor Othorion resent their position in life, and they shall have to make their own way, without your advantages.”
Flinar move behind Jaonos, who now found himself bowing his head, clutching the windowsill tightly, lips pressed firmly together. He had not meant to be bowed by his father, and yet, here he was.
When Flinar spoke again, it was much quieter. “I would bring Ynaselle if I believed that she would be accepted as my heir and proxy. She has the mind for it and the inclination, and, so far more than you, the sense of honor to perform those duties. Except she would not go in your stead, for that self same reason.
“Your sister supports you, your brothers support you, and your mother supported you. Do not spit in the face of their love for you by becoming the waste of an elf you wish to be. Get dressed.” He spat the words.
Flinar had left Jaonos to glare out the window, but, in the end Jaonos had dressed and joined his father and brother in the coach to be taken to the Court of the Stag. He was sullen as he sat across from Flinar and Vithian, but he refused to look at them, and he was sullen as they entered the Red Dome.
The Red Dome was the center of Heliohart. In it sat the thrones of the Prince and Princess Heliohart. The dome itself was constructed centuries before of a single titanic piece of gold ruby glass, a gift from Faydark itself for single-handedly protecting the Empire’s flank from a surprise orc attack. A cage of silver surrounded the dome, wrought in forms of stags and towering pines. A great stag head crowned it with antlers so broad ten elves could stand across it. When the sun was at its zenith, the antlers appeared to cradle it in its antlers. Its eyes were giant, bright blue diamonds, winking in the sunlight.
It was beautiful, of course, but the gold ruby glass cast an eerie red light on everything inside. It turned Vithian’s gray robes black and Jaonos’ blue ones gray. Jaonos hated it. It made him feel feverish. He caught a glass from a passing servant’s tray. He sipped, some sparkling drink made of rosemary. Alcohol was not allowed in the Red Dome. He sneered, but drank it anyway.
“Stop sulking,” Vithian hissed. Jaonos could smell lavender off his cup.
“It’s one of the few things I do well,” Jaonos replied. He placed his half-finished cup on a ledge built into one of the many columns inside the Red Dome. “Ask Father.”
Vithian stifled a sigh. “Where is Father?”
Jaonos glanced around the great hall that filled the majority of the dome’s space. It was bathed in a red light that washed out every other color, except where bowers stretched across columns. The bowers shaded the area beneath from the red light and gave off more natural colors.
There was a strong stag theme in the decor. Antlers and sculpted stag heads emerged as candelabras from each column. It only made sense, he knew. Myth held that once the sun had set the Heliohart carried it underneath the world where no light shone and safely back to the east where it could rise again. If the Heliohart ever failed, the sun would devoured by the eyeless, albino wolves that lived there. Jaonos would have just preferred more solar decor.
But, Jaonos couldn’t spot Flinar.
“Who is that?” Vithian asked. He motioned to an elf at the head of an entourage. This elf was a smiling youth, and when he stood beneath a bower, Jaonos could see his hair was a blonde so light it was nearly white. He wore pale purples, pinks, and light yellows, as did the rest of his group, and on his brow he wore a brass circlet.
Jaonos frowned. He should be able to tell by the colors. His mother had quizzed him on each Court and the colors they wore. And the emblems. What emblem did this man wear? Jaonos just glimpsed a broach at the elf’s breast and wrinkled his brow.
“Is he wearing a stick?”
Vithian nearly choked on his drink. “No, he can’t be.” Vithian squinted, then turned away, almost embarrassed by it. “It must be a branch of some kind.”
Then Jaonos noticed the circlet was not smooth, but thin spikes emerged along its length. Thorns. “He’s from the Court of the Thorn. Lianthorn.”
Jaonos caught sight of his father then. He took Vithian by the elbow and ushered him over, sliding in beside Flinar as he spoke to the Lady Erro, a distinguished old elf who had long ago had to draw her arched eyebrows onto her forehead. Each year they grew more arched. She wore, as far as Jaonos could see, a dress the color of a robin’s egg, but the jewels she poured over herself like streamers, were blood red.
“Father, what in the heavens is a Lianthorn doing all the way over here on the other side of the Empire?”
When Flinar turned back to his sons with a frown on his pale lips, Jaonos was at first going to object that he had spoken in quiet tones and that, surely, no one had overheard them. Then, he realized that Lady Erro had just been saying something of the impending marriage of the eldest child of Prince Heliohart. By the purse in her overly red lips, he was certain it was going to be quite interesting gossip.
“Lady Erro,” Vithian began in an attempt to smooth over the interruption, “it is an honor to see you again after so long-”
Flinar cleared his throat, and Vithian silenced himself. “Lady Erro, you remember my two eldest sons, Jaonos and Vithian.”
Lady Erro was still smiling. It bothered Jaonos that he could not tell whether it was real or not. “Of course,” she said. “Master Blackwell,” she pressed her fingers to her lips than against his fingers. “And am I to call you Priest Blackwell now?”
“Postulant, your grace,” Vithian said, touching his lips with his fingers and then pressing his fingers against hers.
“Yes.” She said, then turned her gaze back to Flinar. “Yes, but it is too late for any more suitors for the young Blood Prince Heliohart.”
Jaonos glanced back at the elf from Lianthorn. He might be a prince of Lianthorn, but certainly not the Blood Prince. The Prince of the Blood was the next in the line of succession, the first child of a Prince. Next is the Prince of the Emporer, who would go to serve the Emperor in Faydark, and then the Prince of the Spirit, who would join the priesthood. Any other children, the Little Princes, would be married off if possible, or serve as emissaries or serve as senior knights in other Courts.
“So the arrangements have been made?” Flinar was asking Lady Erro.
“I made them myself.”
“When will the announcements be made?”
“Oh, not for some time yet. But I’m glad you’ve come back to town, Lord Blackwell. You should be in town when the announcement is finally made.”
“And who is the intended?”
“Lord Blackwell!” Lady Erro placed her hand over the ruby brooch at her throat. “I would never betray the confidences of my prince.”
A servant arrived, offering the four of them glasses of something that might have been a saffron tea, but, as always, Jaonos could be certain of the color. Lord Blackwell took two, offering one to the Lady Erro, who demurely accepted it. “I would never dream of asking you,” Lord Blackwell said.
Jaonos sipped his tea, thoughtfully. There were plenty of families in the Court that could supply a suitor, but Jaonos doubted Prince Heliohart would marry any family within the Court. Lord Blackwell certainly hadn’t tried to offer Ynaselle up, though she would have been acceptable. No, he imagined Prince Heliohart had higher aspirations and so it would be a child of another Court.
“Is it the Princess Erminea then?” Vithian asked.
Jaonos winced as their father and Lady Erro turned to Vithian, with looks of disappointment and shock, respectively. Jaonos couldn’t imagine what had made Vithian think bumbling out a guess like that would be seen as anything other than naive at best and offensive at first. Lady Erro was bound by the utmost secrecy, after all. Flinar said nothing, allowing his glower to silence Vithian, who blushed and looked away, muttering an apology into his glass.
“Of course.” Lady Erro smiled blankly as the servant made her way to another clique of nobility. “Let us just say that a little bird shall join our stag upon that dais.”
She was, Jaonos guessed, referring to the Court of the Swallow, ruled by the Passerine family. They were vulgar in that the Court of the Swallow was a younger court, not nearly as storied and august as the Court of the Stag. However, Passerine had developed a good deal of trade outside the Empire with the humans and even, rarely, the dwarves. It wasn’t a bad tie to have.
“Not a daughter to be got of, of course, so Her Majesty Myrrh shall have to be Princess of the Chamber for her brother, but,” Lady Erro made a wide motion with the red-feather fan she carried.
Unlike other races, elves had a strange regard for sex. Where dwarves did not seem to have the concept at all, orcs found it irrelevant, and humans got squeamish about the whole thing, elves found sex to be something of an inconvenient fact. They were far more concerned with rank, and that had to do with family and birth order. The eldest child of any family was the heir of that family, regardless of sex. And that child would need a spouse. The common elves may be able to find spouses based on love, but the aristocracy found spouses for their eldest children based on an arcane set of rules and traditions that sometimes meant that two sons or two daughters would marry.
In cases when couples cannot produce their own offspring, the next eldest sibling of the correct sex is made a Lady or Lord of the Chamber. Prince Heliohart would be marrying a man, and so it was his sister who would be made to bear the next generation of Helioharts.
Jaonos recoiled at the idea, but it had been done for so long that no one else blinked an eye.
“Do you suppose, Lady Erro, that Lianthorn hoped to secure the marriage instead?” Vithian asked.
“More pity them,” Joanos said.
“And Prince Heliohart will attend them?” Vithian asked. “He’ll let them stay without telling them? Shouldn’t he save them the embarrassment and send them away now?”
Lady Erro tittered, hiding her face briefly behind the fan with false demure. “My, I’ve never known a postulant so interested in the workings of court.”
Jaonos glanced up from his glass and saw his brother grow paler, and his father frown once more. He sighed. Vithian always tried so hard to be a good little priest, but he was always stepping over the lines of etiquette. Not that Jaonos had had much respect for those lines himself.
“What is that Lianthorn is handing out?” Jaonos asked, only half meaning to save his brother from the embarrassment.
“We shall see soon enough,” Lord Blackwell said.
The Little Prince Lianthorn had been making a circuit of the hall, making a gift of a small pot to each noble he met. As he circled to Lord Blackwell and Lady Erro, he bowed his head in greeting. Lord Blackwell, Lady Erro, Jaonos, and Vithian all bowed as well.
“Lady Erro, may the stars shine upon you,” Lianthorn said. This close, Jaonos realized that Lianthorn was still rather young to be acting as an emissary, younger even than Othorion. He was pleasant looking, though, with his platinum blonde hair and his clear gray eyes. Jaonos imagined he favored his mother.
There was something about his air, though. The way he looked around the room with half-lidded eyes, or stood as straight as a rod when he walked, or kept his chin tilted up, or pressed his lips tightly together when he smiled. Something about him irritated Jaonos so that he just wanted the little prince out of his sight.
“And upon you, Prince Lianthorn. Please, allow me to present you my friend, Lord Blackwell,” she said, motioning to Flinar with her fan.
“May the stars shine upon you,” Flinar said, and bowed again.
“And upon you, Lord Blackwell.”
“These are my sons,” Flinar said, “Master Blackwell and Postulant Blackwell.” Each bowed in their turn, but before either could speak, Prince Lianthorn continued.
“You are blessed,” Lianthorn said in a way that said he didn’t care. “Allow me to present you with a gift for your hospitality to us.” Lianthorn then reached into box. First he gave Lady Erro a pot, and then Lord Blackwell.
There were a few more niceties said back and forth before Lianthorn continued his circuit, but Jaonos was more concerned with the pots that Lady Erro and his father had received. The pots were small, made of amber glass and cut to resemble a deformed pine cone.
“Shall we see what this little gift contains?” Lady Erro asked with a smirk at the corners of her lips. She tucked her fan under her arm and twisted the top off of her amber glass cone.
“Ah,” Lord Blackwell said, and opened his as well. An earthy, musky scent wafted out of it, not unpleasant. “Do you know what this is?”
Jaonos took the pot from his father and smelled the waxy, pale substance inside it more deeply. It was a clean scent, though it hung in the nose and sinuses for a time. And Jaonos could just detect a spice flavor in it. Jaonos frowned and handed the pot to Vithian, who sniffed it as well and shook his head. There was something familiar about that scent, but he couldn’t place it.
“It’s dybla,” Lord Blackwell said, smiling. “Interesting.”
Lady Erro’s eyes shined as she pulled her pot of dybla closer to her chest. “Oh, my, what a gift, indeed?”
“What is dybla?” Vithian asked, leaning toward Lady Erro to sniff the substance once more. She tapped him on the forehead with her fan and pulled away.
“Dybla was once a highly prized oil. It was used in perfumes and, oh, all sorts of things. It made everything else smell so…” She drifted off in her own reverie as she found herself unable to explain it.
“It’s made from the oils of the pothop. It’s a shrub that only grows in a very small region,” Flinar explained.
“Myracine,” Lady Erro said dreamily.
“The Court of the Leaf?” Jaonos asked.
“Mmm,” Lady Erro confirmed.
“It’s illegal to buy and sell, but a gift, well.” Lord Blackwell held his pot up to his nose again and his brows wrinkled slightly. “But, yes, it grows in the Court of the Leaf’s lands.”
“Then why would Lianthorn have it?” Vithian asked. “If Myracine can’t sell it-”
“And I’ve never heard of a priest so interested in trade, either,” Lady Erro exclaimed, clapping the cap back onto her pot and squirreling it away in an inner pocket.
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