The palace was a massive old labyrinthine monstrosity of architecture. It had its own kind of beauty, to be certain. The first structure was the type of barrow that ancient elves had used to mark their territory, then a very early Prince Heliohart built a fort and a keep atop it. The Helioharts had been building onto it ever since. The wall that once surrounded the fort had been swallowed up by the palace as it grew. Towers, galleries, ramparts, a truly gigantic courtyard, and, at the courtyard’s head, a great clear dome much like the Red Dome, all stood at the heart of Heliohart, creating a palace so great that Ynaselle doubted even the princes had seen all of it.
The full moon shone serenely over the pearlescent walls. Banners in crimson, cerulean, and fawn displaying the Heliohart, the solar stag, in its regal glory. Other black and white banners displayed each of the thirteen constellations in turn, and Faydark’s own banner of halved sun and moon. The palace stood, bedecked and glowing, a beautiful beacon upon the Heliohart barrow. Hundreds, even thousands, streamed in, eager to hear the affianced chosen for their blood prince.
This ball was not the first time any of the Blackwells had been in the palace. Each Lord presented his or her children to the Prince, once they were old enough. Each child swore their allegiance to the Prince, after the Emperor, of course, as the Blackwell children had each done. Jaonos had been flippant, Vithian overeager, Ynaselle demure, and Othorion somber, but each had made their oaths.
Tradition dictated that visitors to the palace wear the Heliohart colors, so what Ynaselle saw from the balcony was a sea of red, blue, and brown. Ynaselle ran soft fingers over the light blue silk of her own dress as she tried to pick faces out from the crowd. Some she knew, most she didn’t, and almost no one she had any desire to see again. She sighed, turning back toward her family.
They looked mostly like a murder of crows. Flinar still insisted on wearing the mourning black, but he wore a neckerchief of blue that matched Ynaselle’s dress. Vithian wore the postulant grays and Othorion wore the navy harlequins. Jaonos, on the other hand, was an ibis in his bright crimson robes. He, of course, was not out of place with Lady Erro, who had joined them. She too had chosen to wear crimson, as dripping in rubies, garnets, and diamonds as ever. Lady Erro had no dearth of veils and feathered fans either.
“Anyone interesting, dear?” Lady Erro asked.
“I don’t think a single elf in Heliohart hasn’t been invited,” she replied.
Lady Erro tittered. “Oh, the wedding will have a larger guest list.”
“The city will be a riot of festivities,” Jaonos said, sipping his wine.
“And so it should be. Not everyday a blood prince marries.”
Jaonos drained his wine in one swallow, rolling his eyes as he did.
“When is the wedding planned, Lady Erro?” Vithian asked as he tucked the jeweled constellations back into his belt.
“Ideally on the Eve of Haethus.” She heaved a dramatic sigh and turned her face to Lord Blackwell. “I do love a winter wedding, don’t you, Flinar? Lord Erro and I were married on the Eve of Haethus. He didn’t want to wait so long, but my mother insisted. She was always very superstitious, my mother. Happy marriages start on the solstices, so they say. And she was right. Lord Erro and I were always very happy.”
“I thought it was the equinoxes,” Ynaselle said. She left the balcony to perch on the arm of her father’s chair. Lord Blackwell put a hand over Ynaselle’s and squeezed it.
“I thought the saying was that happy marriages start on the equinoxes.”
“It’s the winter solstice for luck,” Vithian said.
“No, it’s wisdom,” Jaonos said.
“‘Wise men marry in the winter,’” Lord Blackwell quoted. He took a glass of clear honey-colored taraska, a floral speciality wine from Passerine as a server offered it. Jaonos reached passed Vithian to take a glass, but Vithian refused.
“Wise men marry in winter,” Lady Erro agreed, taking a glass as well.
Ynaselle turned away from them, sipping her taraska to hide a smirk. She had remembered the rest of the saying. ‘A wise man marries in winter, because a winter wife is silent.’ That did not seem to have affected Lady Erro.
Her parents had married between Bilancs Feast and Antares Day. But, Haethus Eve was a traditional day for weddings.
“Is there a chance it won’t happen on Haethus Eve?” Vithian asked.
“I did the matchmaking,” Lady Erro bragged, “though Lord Darieth and Lady Glynmal are negotiating the wedding. I’ve done my part, and I won’t put my nose in their business.”
Ynaselle and Jaonos exchanged glances. They all knew Lady Erro would be examining the stitches on the bride’s dress to make sure they were straight if she was given half a chance. Lady Erro didn’t notice, and she continued, “However, I can tell you that those wedding negotiations between Courts can get very contentious. I helped to negotiate the wedding between Princess Omylia and Princess Thalia. It took nearly two years. I never thought they would actually marry.”
Lady Erro picked at a splash of garnets sewn in the pattern of a badger’s head, her red-painted lips pursed. “Speaking of,” she smoothed out the dress over her lap and knee, “what a shame that none of the Blackwell children have married yet. I’m certain your mother would have wanted to see you married.
“Oh, I understand Vithian, now. But you’ll graduate soon, won’t you?”
“I will take orders in the autumn.”
“So, we can forgive Vithian until then.” Vithian blinked, then frowned. He opened his mouth to speak, but Jaonos squeezed his knee and motioned him to stay quiet.
“And Othorion. Lieutenant Othorion. Your father tells me that you will soon be Captain Othorion, is that not so?”
Othorion had been toying with his gloves. Now he looked up, surprise and anxiety writ on his face. He glanced to Ynaselle, who was more immediately in his line of vision, then nodded. “I’ll be taking my exams beginning Rammas Feast.”
“And I’m certain you’ll pass,” Lady Erro said. She leaned closer to Lord Blackwell, raising her open fan to her face as if to whisper something private. Instead, she said loudly, “Admiral Ziphidae wouldn’t be such a fool as to refuse a Blackwell.”
Ynaselle felt for Othorion as a flush colored his cheeks and he slapped his gloves against his thigh. Othorion would never willingly accept a promotion if it wasn’t for his own merits.
“Well, we can forgive Othorion for waiting to marry,” Lady Erro continued, unperturbed. Ynaselle felt anxiety creeping up her back. “But, Jaonos. And Ynaselle. Surely you have no excuse for waiting so long. Ynaselle, you could have been married a year ago!”
Heat rose in Ynaselle’s cheek and her mouth went dry. She swallowed her taraska quickly to avoid answering. It wasn’t any use. Ynaselle stood and walked back to the balcony to hide her face.
“Oh, no one who knows the situation would blame you for refusing Master Bryravn. He treated you very poorly. What a waste, that the son of such a family be such a blackguard. No, dear, don’t distress yourself.
“But, Jaonos!” Lady Erro tapped her fan on Jaonos’ knee. “You’re the eldest here, and it’s high time that there be a new Lady Blackwell at Pheasant’s Cross.”
Jaonos placed his empty glass down on the table beside him, the crystal making a resounding clunk on the glass table so loud that, when Ynaselle turned back, she expected to see one or the other broken. A vein stood out on Jaonos’ temple, but as he turned to Lady Erro, he smiled a broad, toothy smile with clear, cold eyes.
“Lady Erro, I assure you, I have every intention of bringing a Lady Blackwell to Pheasant’s Cross as soon as I can. Unfortunately, I have yet to find her.”
“Well, if that’s the only thing stopping you, you can always make use of a matchmaker.” Lady Erro smiled coquettishly. “I know an excellent one if you would like her card. Not myself, of course, though I have made a fine match or two in my time. I haven’t the time, what with my duties to Court, but she is quite-”
“Leranue and I chose not to use a matchmaker for our children,” Flinar said. “Thank you for your concern, but I believe that they each will make the right decision in their own times.”
Lady Erro raised her hands in mock surrender while Jaonos stood to find himself another drink. Vithian and Othorion exchanged uncomfortable glances. Ynaselle sighed and looked back over the crowd, wondering if it had been worth returning to Heliohart. So far, they had been as unhappy in Heliohart as they had in Pheasant’s Cross.
Pipes picked up a lighthearted tune and violins sang out a counter-melody. The crowd separated, emptying the middle of the hall so that two lines of elves could form down the middle. A drum beat out a rhythm, and the elves divided into pairs.
“Well, I certainly won’t force a matchmaker on you,” Lady Erro said, fanning herself so vigorously that Jaonos’ long hair was being blown into his own face. “But, there’s a dance and I see four very eligible young elves who should be out there dancing. At least allow me to help them find partners.”
Flinar sighed, rubbing his temples, but there was a slight smile on his lips. He patted Lady Erro’s hand and nodded. “Of course. They shouldn’t be forced to sit out every evening.”
Lady Erro stood and waited for Jaonos as he rolled his eyes, stood up, straightened his robes, and offered his arm to Lady Erro. She smiled broadly at Jaonos and led him down the stairs and into the main hall.
Most elves recognized Lady Erro and greeted her, bowing, kissing their fingers, smiling. Lady Erro kissed her fingers back, leading the four Blackwell children through the crowd. Many of them, they already knew – after all, the Blackwells were an old family in the Heliohart Court – but as each was unmarried they were forced to rely on Lady Erro to initiate more intimate acquaintances, especially since their father was not well enough to do so himself.
Lady Erro came to a stop in front of a tall dark-skinned elf, a high lace collar circling his neck over a very dark brown coat. Ynaselle was surprised to see his dark hair cut so short as to nearly leave him bald – a man who so hardly cared about the latest fashion to keep hair long and stock straight. He was surrounded by four women – two were tall, slim, and dark-skinned, with the same straight nose and pointed chin as the man. The others were shorter, with round cheeks and bright, dark eyes.
“Master Tarnyn!” Lady Erro cried, tapping her fan against her chin.
The gentleman turned to Lady Erro, then kissed his fingers and touched them to hers. A brief, uncomfortable smile touched his lips as he said, “Lady Erro, I hope you are well.”
“How could I complain? But I haven’t seen you in so long. Have you finally returned to Heliohart for good?”
“Only temporarily,” Master Tarnyn said. He motioned to the short, round-cheeked elf whose arm was through his. “You know Mistress Tarnyn, of course.”
“Of course, dear girl!” Lady Erro and Mistress Tarnyn exchanged greetings.
“We are happy to be back. Tarnyn and I are searching for a house to keep here-”
“So, Master Tarnyn is to return to Faydark alone!” Lady Erro feigned being scandalized.
“-for his sisters,” Mistress Tarnyn finished, an ironic smile on his lips. “Of course, I will go back to Faydark, too, as soon as all our business is settled.”
“Ah, yes,” Lady Erro said. Now, she stepped back slightly, motioning to each of the Blackwells. “Allow me to introduce you to my dear young friends. Master Jaonos Blackwell,” she motioned back to Vithian and Ynaselle who moved to stand beside them, “Postulant Vithian Blackwell, Yuven Ynaselle Blackwell, and of course, Lieutenant Othorion Blackwell.” She leaned toward the other round-cheeked elf, holding the fan up as if to whisper a secret. “Soon to be Captain, I’m certain.”
“My sisters,” Tarnyn said. The taller, prouder dark-skinned elf wore a gown as scarlet as blood and as cluttered in rubies and garnets that Ynaselle couldn’t help but wonder that Lady Erro and she dared to stand so close. “Yuven Nithnael Tarnyn.” He motioned to the other, who constantly looked away, nervous and shy. “Yuven Alennia Tarnyn.”
“And my sister,” Mistress Tarnyn said, motioning to the girl Lady Erro had whispered to, “Yuven Merioleth Vetsian.”
“Nithnael,” Ynaselle gasped. She was shocked she hadn’t recognized the tall elf before. It had been years since she had seen her childhood friend, but she could just recognize the pointed chin and her large dark eyes. Her complexion had grown lighter – Ynaselle supposed that she spent less time in the sun than when they were children – but Ynaselle could just see the grinning, laughing playmate from school.
“Oh, do you two know each other?” Lady Erro asked.
Nithnael’s deep indigo eyes narrowed slightly as she looked Ynaselle up and down. Then, a smile crossed her lips, parting to show perfect white teeth. “Ynaselle,” Nithnael said with a smooth, honeyed voice. “My dear, hasn’t it been so long?”
Suddenly, Ynaselle felt self-conscious of her appearance as she had never done before. She knew that while she might not be beautiful, she was still comely, and that she had the quiet dignity all – well, perhaps most – Blackwells had. But, beside Nithnael’s measured smile, steady gaze, and altogether sophisticated demeanor, Ynaselle felt almost uncouth.
It was a silly thing to think, she said to herself, and pushed the feeling from her mind.
“Indeed it has! And you look well,” she said as cheerily as she could. She turned to Lady Erro. “Nithnael and I were schoolmates when we were children, at The Tressera School.”
“Ah,” Lady Erro said approvingly. Plenty of high society elvish families sent their daughters to Tressera.
“I hadn’t thought I would see you here. I thought you would return to Elasmobranch,” Ynaselle said to Nithnael. She took Nithnael’s hands, but was surprised to find them limp, even as Nithnael’s pleasant smile never left her face. Ynaselle let Nithnael’s hands drop, and the taller elf folded them gracefully before her.
“As Mistress Tarnyn said,” Nithnael replied, “my kind brother is letting a house for Alennia and myself.”
“Perhaps we shall see more of each other, than?”
“Perhaps,” Nithnael said. She slid her gaze over the other Blackwells, but paused on Othorion. “And it’s Othorion now?”
A flush colored Othorion’s face, but he smiled, dipping slightly in a bow. “Lieutenant Blackwell,” he said.
Ynaselle was mortified. She glanced back to Vithian, who had also noticed the slight, and couldn’t hide the offense from his face.
Many knew that Othorion had been born as Nuala and had even accompanied Ynaselle to Tressera as a child. They had spent two years there together when Othorion had confessed that he had never felt like a girl and wished to follow Jaonos and Vithian to the Durino School instead. It had been a tearful confession, and Ynaselle had mourned losing a sister, but found joy in gaining a brother. Othorion returned home and had been allowed to grow up as a man. She had never seen him so happy as the summer after he left Tressera.
While many knew about this development, it was highly inappropriate to mention it at all, and that Nithnael would do so sent an icy knife through Ynaselle’s ribs. Lady Erro immediately stepped in to smooth over the wrinkle.
“Well, isn’t this lovely, old friends coming together again,” Lady Erro said. “And what lovely music. We’re I younger, I think I would like to dance.” She gave Jaonos a meaningful look, who immediately perked up.
“I think you’re quite right,” Jaonos said. He offered Nithnael a winning smile and offered her his hand. “Shall we?”
Nithnael smiled more genuinely than she had yet, and Ynaselle got the impression of a viper. She took Jaonos’s hand, chin tilted back proudly, and allowed him to lead her onto the floor. As she left, Ynaselle felt Othorion’s tension disappear.
Vithian stepped forward next, offering his hand to Alennia, who blushed immediately.
“May I have the honor?” he asked her.
Alennia’s eyes grew wide, and Ynaselle read panic in them. “I…” she murmured in a sweet voice, “I don’t…”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Ynaselle said quickly. “I’m not much of a dancer myself. Come sit with me, won’t you?”
Vithian and Othorion exchanged a glance as Ynaselle began to lead Alennia toward a couch. Master Tarnyn and Lady Erro were beginning to follow them. Vithian shrugged and said, “Mistress Tarnyn, may I?”
Ynaselle covered her mouth to conceal a smile. Of course Vithian would ask another man’s wife to dance. While Master Tarnyn frowned, though, Mistress Tarnyn smiled and took his hand. “Well, of course!” she said.
As they walked onto the dance floor, Lady Erro shook her head and said to Master Tarnyn, “I don’t know about that man.”
Othorion turned to Merioleth and offered her his hand. Before he could even ask, she took his hand and said, “Let’s.”
“Nor I her,” Master Tarnyn said gravely.
Lady Erro slipped her hand around Master Tarnyn’s arm. “Now, Master Tarnyn, you must tell me what is happening in Faydark. It has been so long since I visited the Emperor’s Court. And, of course, you must tell me why you have decided on Heliohart to keep a house.”
“Mistress Tarnyn chose Heliohart,” Master Tarnyn said flatly.
“Hmmm, try to keep your secrets, Tarnyn, but I will find them out.”
“You do have an impressive habit of it.”
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