Lady Erro chose a table near the wall where she could interrogate Master Tarnyn. Ynaselle and Alennia took two chairs next to them. Once seated, Alennia pulled her elbows closely into her sides and pressed her hands into her lap as if she were trying to shrink herself as small as possible. She kept her head bowed slightly, staring intently at her own gloved hands.
Ynaselle studied the girl. How could she be so different from her sister Nithnael? Alennia was as pretty as Nithnael. Tall, slim, and willowy, the sisters struck the perfect elvish figure. Alennia’s russet complexion and smooth skin glowed beneath a halo of raven-black hair. The strong cheekbones, broad bridge of her nose, and small mouth were the epitome of elvish beauty. Her long lashes veiled sparkling dark eyes making her look shy and innocent. She and Nithnael shared their beauty, but Alennia didn’t have Nithnael’s pride. Seeing Alennia made Ynaselle realize her childhood friend had always been vain. The sisters were exact opposites.
Alennia’s gaze drifted up from her lap to watch the dancers on the floor. For just a moment, Alennia’s eyebrows lifted and the corners of her mouth turned down in a brief moment of regret. The poor girl wanted to be dancing, obviously, but she was too shy.
Yes, Ynaselle wanted to protect this girl.
“Have you been to Heliohart before?” Ynaselle asked, turning her gaze to the dancers as well.
There was a pause from Alennia, but Ynaselle didn’t push. She kept her gaze on the dancers while Alennia gathered her courage.
“No,” Alennia said. “I haven’t.” A pause. “Mistress Tarnyn and Nithnael have, though.”
“You have come at an excellent time, then. Spring is wonderful in Heliohart.”
“I have heard.”
“The new season at the Theater of Severa will start soon. I read that they were going to show The Daughters of Trichechia Manatus this season. Do you like the theater?”
“I have enjoyed it when I’ve gone.” Alennia’s voice was quiet so that Ynaselle could barely hear her.
“I shall have to take you, then,” Ynaselle said. She smiled at Alennia’s surprised expression. “If you like. My brothers will not go with me often. My father isn’t in the health for it. So, you would be doing me a favor to go with me.”
Alennia smiled back at Ynaselle. “I would like that.”
“I hope, then, you would allow me to show you Heliohart, whatever your sister and brother haven’t shown you, that is. It is always a delight to show people a city.”
“If you like.”
“Where are you staying while your brother finds a house?”
“At the Brephochae,” Alennia said. The Brephochae was a popular hostel, featuring a beautiful garden, restaurant, and even a greenhouse with a lofty ceiling that allowed comfortable stargazing all year round. Lady Erro herself didn’t keep a house in Heliohart – she always kept a suite at the Brephochae.
“Of course. You shan’t be satisfied with anywhere else if you stay too long at the Brephochae,” Ynaselle teased.
“Oh, no!” Alennia turned to Ynaselle, earnest and apparently shocked at the suggestion. “I am certain I shall be happy whatever my brother chooses. He will do his best to find the perfect place for us.” Alennia nearly clapped her hands over her mouth, as if she wished to take the outburst back.
Ynaselle smiled and touched Alennia’s hand. “I am sure. Where are you coming from, moving to Heliohart?”
“Thrin. It is in the Court of the Mirror.”
“Ah,” Ynaselle replied. She had never heard of Thrin, but she knew the country around Flecterre, the capital of the Court of the Mirror. It was a beautiful land laced through with rivers. “Do the giant lilies still grow there?” She remembered visiting once as a child and touring in a long, shallow-bottomed boat. She had, with her mother’s blessing, climbed onto the water lilies and danced, to the party’s delight. Her father had been shocked that her mother had allowed her to do so.
“They weren’t blooming when we left,” Alennia replied. “But there is a lake near the house we kept there so filled with lilies that during the summer-” she touched Ynaselle’s arm “-when they bloomed, they blanketed the entire surface. We could picnic on them.”
“That sounds delightful.”
The music came to an end, and the dancers began to disperse. Jaonos plopped himself into a chair beside Ynaselle, a glass of wine in his hand. He smiled briefly at Ynaselle before finishing his drink. Nithnael stood beside Master Tarnyn, an imposing figure with her imperious airs. Ynaselle could guess how well they got along.
“Elanalue,” Lady Erro cried as Mistress Tarnyn returned with Vithian, “tell me where you have been looking. What houses are you considering? You should have consulted with me, first, of course. I can tell you the best places. I know all the little secrets in Heliohart.”
“I haven’t been much involved as you think,” Mistress Tarnyn replied. “Nithnael shall keep the house with Alennia while Tarnyn and I go to Faydark. I believe the favorite house has been on Durinian Street, but I prefer one on Fensense Square.”
“Fensense is an excellent place to be, don’t you think, Jaonos?” Vithian asked.
Jaonos shrugged and handed Vithian his empty glass, which Vithian placed aside on another table nearby. “Certainly. Classy old neighborhood.”
“They’ve got the large gardens that used to be so popular,” Lady Erro said. “Nothing like the newer neighborhoods.”
“Oh, I agree,” Mistress Tarnyn said. She glanced to her husband, who smiled indulgently, if briefly, at her. “But I think Durinian Street will win the day. Am I right, Nithnael?”
Nithnael’s face remained placid and impassible. She smiled shallowly and nodded. “Durinian Street is a prestigious neighborhood.”
“Certainly more fashionable, at the moment,” Jaonos said with a scoff.
“It may not have the large gardens,” Nithnael replied, her untouchable air slipping slightly with an icy reply, “but it hasn’t got the drafty attics or leaking windows, either.”
“And it’s got the right neighbors,” Jaonos replied.
“Lady Kit lets a house there,” Ynaselle said before Jaonos could say anything else. “And I understand Prince Lyra is considering letting a house there as well. And it’s not far from where we keep ours.”
“I’ve heard the little prince is planning on taking the southernmost house on the square as well,” Lady Erro said.
“That, I suppose, is the end of it, then,” Mistress Tarnyn said.
In the silence that followed, Ynaselle gave Jaonos a stinging glare. Jaonos was unaffected. “Oh, my, look at this,” Jaonos said to Vithian who still stood behind him.
“Hmm?” Vithian asked and looked as Jaonos pointed. “Oh.”
Jaonos pointed to an elf with platinum hair who was the only one not wearing the reds, blues, and browns of the Court of the Stag. “Little Prince Lianthorn has made an appearance.”
“What is he up to, I wonder,” Vithian said, leaning forward.
“He’s a visiting noble,” Ynaselle said, folding her hands in her lap. “Of course he would be invited.”
“Well no,” Vithian said. “Jaonos, did we tell Yna? Yna, he’s here to try to marry into Heliohart, I think.”
Ynaselle spread her hands, not committing to her own opinion.
“And, he was passing out dybla at Court. How would he get his hands on such a thing?”
“Prince Lianthorn’s new husband is Myracine,” Ynaselle said simply.
“What?” Both Jaonos and Vithian leaned to Ynaselle now. “How did you know?”
Ynaselle laughed and shook her head. “It was in the newspapers a few months ago. Don’t either of you read the newspaper? Little Prince Lianthorn probably has dybla because the entire Lianthorn Court was gifted with stones of it. Myracine can’t sell it, after all.
“Besides, if some of the rumors are to be believed, the Prince of the Blood of Lianthorn will also take a Myracine spouse, since any child of Prince Lianthorn’s most recent union will just be more little princes.”
Vithian’s mouth hung open briefly, as if he couldn’t form words to respond. Instead, with what Ynaselle assumed as embarrassment, Vithian stepped back.
“There’s your mystery solved,” Jaonos said. He sat up to look over the crowd for something more interesting. He waved over a young couple Ynaselle didn’t recognize, a honey-haired young woman and a dark-eyed young man. He stood and stepped away from the rest of his group so as to avoid having to introduce them. Ynaselle sighed.
Vithian took Jaonos’s seat and smirked. “The Asteracas,” he whispered to Ynaselle. “They were at the Valstan Club. I’m not certain who they are, really.” He frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then stood to them.
As she spoke, a quartet of horns began trumpeting out the announcement of the next dance. Vithian stepped away with the Asteraca sister while Jaonos fetched Nithnael. Alennia was watching longingly as the dancers took their places.
“Would you like to dance?” Ynaselle asked.
The girl paled slightly and shook her head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t.”
“I’m certain you could,” Ynaselle said. “I’m certain you can.”
“Not in front of all these people!”
“Alennia, no one will be watching you especially! Well, except your partner. And when someone other than your partner watches you, they will see a pretty and elegant elf dancing gracefully, I’m sure. And you shouldn’t have to dance with a stranger. Any of my brothers would happily dance with you.”
“Your brothers are a pleasure to watch,” Alennia said with a small smile.
“As is your sister,” Ynaselle said. “She dances well.”
“She does everything well.”
The couples were forming into an old-fashioned reel, four couples formed squares, and her brothers and their partners were part of one square together, with young Master Pendanse and his partner. It was the Thoraci Reel, so there were twelve squares, and only twelve, so three couples were forced to take their seats when they couldn’t find their places in time. It was difficult to get enough elves together to perform the Thoraci, so it would be a delight to watch.
Ynaselle turned to Alennia to invite her to join herself in returning to her father’s balcony but stopped before she spoke. Alennia was looking at something over Ynaselle’s shoulder with a shy and unsure smile. Ynaselle turned.
Her heart jumped to her throat. Standing in front of her was the genial and handsome Lieranym Bryravn. He was crowned with golden hair that he kept out of his face with a golden comb shaped like a leafy branch that would have made Jaonos envious. His blue eyes were just as bright as they ever were and they sparkled with pleasure that, despite herself, she hoped was for her. He wore his half-smile that made him look like he was keeping a secret that he was eager to tell. And he spoke with his amiable almost playful tones when he said, “Ynaselle, I’m glad to see you’ve come back to Heliohart.”
Ynaselle opened her mouth to try to say something but found no words.
She had thought she would hate him after she had rejected his proposal. After as much as she knew about him, about his character, she thought the sight of him would repulse her. Instead, she found her heart pounding. She couldn’t breathe. She had wanted to see him again. She had wanted to speak with him again, to touch him. She felt a euphoria wash over her as she met his gaze. And it panicked her.
“Master Bryravn!” she managed. “What a delight to see you again!” Her voice was strained, far higher and tighter than she had wanted it to be. She swallowed, trying to recover herself.
Nym – she had always called him Nym – kissed his fingers and reached toward her. She found that her hands were shaking as she brought her fingers to her lips. She didn’t want to be so undone by his presence. She didn’t want him to see her so undone. Her eyes stung and she prayed she would not cry as she pressed her fingers against his.
“Lieranym!” Lady Erro called from where she sat, saving Ynaselle by waving him over.
Nym turned to Lady Erro and smiled again. “Lady Erro, I’m glad to see you’re well.”
“Of course, come here, dear, and tell me of your father and mother. Are they in Heliohart? Is your mother well enough to travel again?”
“My mother is never well without her little crystal jars and potions, you know,” Nym said as he walked to Lady Erro’s side. She made him bow down so she could kiss his cheek.
Once Nym had walked away, Ynaselle let out the breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. She felt warm, too warm. She needed to get air.
Ynaselle started to stand, but a wave of dizziness washed over her, and she had to grab the back of her chair to keep from falling.
“Yuven Ynaselle, are you alright?” Alennia asked.
Ynaselle tittered, but it was too forced. “Just a little warm, that’s all. Alennia, why don’t you come with me to my father’s balcony? We can watch the dance from there much better.”
She didn’t wait for Alennia’s response – she couldn’t. She couldn’t be near Nym without regret. Seeing him again, she realized she still loved him.
Ynaselle didn’t even know if Nym loved her still. He was far calmer, his voice, his posture, was normal. His hands didn’t shake. His smile was easy. Was he affected at all?
Tears stung her eyes once more. She wasn’t certain if it would be worse if Nym no longer loved her, but the thought of it made her heart ache.
Ynaselle found one of the side stairways, which were covered unlike the grand staircase at the head of the hall. She hurried up the stairs, where they turned, and she could hide from prying eyes. She was certain Nym had been watching her, and it made her feel naked and vulnerable. When she stopped, she was panting. She had run up the first flight, she realized, and she was very nearly sobbing.
Ynaselle pressed her forehead against the cool stone of the wall and forcibly slowed her breathing. She refused to cry. She had already wept as many tears as she was going to do over Nym.
The Blackwells had known the Bryravns for generations. Each family were in high standing in the Court of the Stag, after all. But, the Blackwells stayed in the north of the Court at Blackwell and the Bryravns were in the west at Bryravn. Her mother had invited the Bryravns, two sons and three daughters when she had thrown Ynaselle the party to introduce her to society.
The nobility, the aristocracy, and wealthy families threw parties for their children when they were old enough. It was an introduction to society, a way to formally declare their children to be old enough to participate as adults. And, of course, as marriageable. Parents might negotiate a marriage during one of these parties. Matchmakers were often invited, either to act on behalf of the child being presented or sent from other families.
Her mother hadn’t invited any matchmakers. She had invited the Bryravns.
Nym had caught her eye from the beginning. He had always been handsome, but it was his easy temperament that had first attracted her. He didn’t have the stiff, arrogant air of many elves, especially the elvish nobility and aristocracy. Instead, he joked, laughed, and spoke with everyone as if they were already his friend. It was charming in the most unaffected way possible. Everyone was taken in by him, and Ynaselle was no exception.
Ynaselle turned to see Alennia standing a few steps below her, her dark eyes wide with concern. She was reaching a tentative hand toward Ynaselle, eager to help but hesitant to disturb.
Weakly, Ynaselle managed a smile. She took Alennia’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m well, I’m well,” Ynaselle said, though she could hear the strain sound in her own voice. Ynaselle took a deep breath, trying to push the memories from her mind. She would need to be able to be around Nym without losing her composure. She had decided to refuse him, and she would not regret it.
Alennia did not seem convinced, concern still writ on her face, but she did not push. She squeezed Ynaselle’s hand back and gave Ynaselle a small smile.
“Come, Alennia,” Ynaselle said. “My father waits in the balcony. I should like to introduce you to him.”
“The Lord Blackwell?” Alennia asked. The concern was gone, now replaced with anxiety.
“Of course! You know Lady Erro. My father is no different.”
“My brother knows Lady Erro,” Alennia said, but she followed Ynaselle as led her up the stairs. “I don’t know anyone.”
“You know me.” Ynaselle smiled. “And my father is hardly anyone to be feared.”
Flinar was still sitting by the railing, watching the dance below. The suite was already decorated in the blacks and silvers favored in the Blackwell livery, but Flinar had turned the lumen darker after Lady Erro had taken his children down into the main ballroom. Now, Flinar sat in darkness, the light from the ballroom casting deep, almost ghastly, shadows over his face. For a brief moment, Ynaselle felt she was looking at a skull rather than her father’s face.
Ynaselle touched the lumen, sliding it just bright enough to dispel the deathly mask from her father’s face. “Father, forgive me for disturbing you.”
Flinar was drawn from his revelry and blinked at the change of light. “Ynaselle,” he said and smiled. “Who is this with you?”
“This is my friend.” Ynaselle drew Alennia from behind herself. “Yuven Alennia Tarnyn. She is a friend of Lady Erro’s.”
Flinar kissed his fingers at her and Alennia, uncertain what to do, bowed her head and nearly touched the floor with her knees in a bow. “Master Tarnyn’s sister, I should think. You went to school with her.”
“Well,” Ynaselle said, sitting beside her father. “I went to school with her elder sister, but I am friends with both.” Alennia was left standing, a frightened look on her face, and Ynaselle and Flinar both motioned to another chair.
“Please, Yuven Tarnyn, sit,” Flinar said. “Lady Erro has told me about you, a bit. Oh, don’t be surprised, Lady Erro has opinions and stories about everyone she’s ever met. I believe she knows everyone in the empire, let alone the court.
“She thinks very highly of you. Quiet, polite, dutiful. She tells me you’re quite talented, a musician. The harp, I believe.”
Alennia kept her gaze averted. Her hands were clenched at her knees, her arms stock straight. Ynaselle was nearly surprised Alennia wasn’t vibrating she was so high-strung.
“I do like to play,” Alennia said in a voice so small it was difficult to hear over the music, “but I shouldn’t call myself a musician.”
“And modest,” Flinar said. He smiled at Ynaselle. “I do like her.”
Ynaselle smiled and nodded. “As do I.”
“Do you think she should like to see Pheasant’s Cross?”
Alennia’s head snapped up, and Ynaselle saw the surprise and concern on her face. Ynaselle imagined Alennia had spent little time away from her brother and sister and to ask her to travel so far from home without them must sound as terrifying as walking barefoot into a volcano. Ynaselle smiled reassuringly at her.
“Master Tarnyn is finding a house for her and the other Yuven Tarnyn in Heliohart. I doubt they should want to quit it so soon.”
“Perhaps so,” Flinar said. “Well, there is time. Everyone grows tired of Heliohart after a while.”
“Besides, I plan on inviting all the Tarnyns to dinner soon.” She smiled at Alennia, who looked very relieved to learn she would not have to be away from the safety of her family.
“Excellent,” Flinar said and laid a hand over Ynaselle’s.
Ynaselle smiled at Alennia, who smiled back, but all three paused as they heard rumbling on the stairs. They each turned as Vithian burst through the archway. He caught himself, mouth open, about to speak, and immediately shut his mouth again when he saw Flinar, Ynaselle, and Alennia sitting calmly in the Blackwell balcony.
“Ah,” he said as nonchalantly as he could manage. He straightened his soutane and smoothed his robes. “Ynaselle, there you are.”
“Here I am,” she said. “Did I miss anything?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” Vithian said. “I’d just come to see where you and – er – Yuven Alennia had run off to.” He blinked and offered Alennia a sheepish smile. “Lady Erro sent me to find you.”
“We had best go down to the ballroom,” Flinar said. “The Prince and his entourage will be making their appearance soon, and we should be there to greet them.”
Ynaselle and Alennia stood, and Vithian offered Alennia his arm to walk her back to where Lady Erro and everyone else now sat. Flinar seemed to struggle as he stood, leaning against the arm of his chair for a moment.
“Father?” Ynaselle touched his arm. Was he breathing heavily?
“Come along.” Flinar straightened and motioned toward the arch. Ynaselle took his arm and together they descended the stairs.
Ynaselle watched her father as they walked to rejoin the group. She wasn’t certain, but she thought she noticed a gray tinge around Flinar’s eyes and mouth. He didn’t lean on her, but he seemed to be walking more slowly than normal. Ynaselle tried to hide her concern when Flinar met her gaze. She knew better than to voice her concerns to him, but she wondered how well her father had recovered from the past winter’s illness and malaise.
“Lord Blackwell, I’m glad you have deigned to join us,” Lady Erro said as they approached. She shooed Master Tarnyn out of his seat so that Flinar could sit beside her. Master Tarnyn kissed his fingers, bobbed a bow, and politely stepped away to stand beside his wife.
“I’m too old for these sorts of things, you know,” Flinar replied.
Ynaselle was relieved to find that Nym had left, so she took her place beside Othorion, who was still happily chatting away with Merioleth. Ynaselle smiled to herself as Othorion finished a story about losing their prized doe while trying to learn to ride without a saddle against their parents’ better advice and how he had spent nearly the entire night searching for her only to learn that she had returned to the stables after he had fallen. Merioleth laughed with him, a lovely, brassy laugh that felt so very genuine that Ynaselle couldn’t help but smile as well.
Othorion leaned toward her when he had finished and asked. “Yna, is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Ynaselle said, nodding. “Everything is well.”
Othorion nodded to himself and whispered, “I’m sorry we all abandoned you like that.”
“Don’t worry yourself,” Ynaselle replied. She noticed that Merioleth was very politely turning her attention entirely away from them.
A single bell intoned a single piercing note, spreading out over the ballroom to silence it. Each elf took their places along the walls, clearing the room from the main staircase where Prince Heliohart and his family stood with their guests of honor. Prince Heliohart stood as proud as always. At one time, he would have been thought handsome, though he had grown pale and gray, bent with age. He stood beside his mousy wife, each crowned with antlers and wearing long, flowing blue and red robes.
A few steps before them, the Prince of the Blood of Heliohart stood also crowned with antlers, though not so grand as his parents’. Beside him stood another elf, this one wearing the white robes and a brass band around his brow. He wore the colors of the Court of the Swallow, and he and the Blood-Prince Heliohart stood hands pressed together.
The Voice of the Court stood to the side, her melodious voice spreading over the ballroom as the chord ceased.
“Elves of the Court of the Stag,” she cried, “pay heed. Prince Heliohart, Lord of the Court of the Stag, the Braccura Constellation, Servant of the Emperor, and Protector of Faydark stands before you.”
“We pay heed,” came the response for all the elves throughout the ball. So many spoke that no words could be distinguished, but the hall echoed thunder.
“My friends and fellows,” Prince Heliohart voice boomed over the ballroom, picked up and amplified by the soundbeams throughout the room. “I am honored that you all have joined me to celebrate this momentous occasion.
“Today I stand before you to humbly announce my son’s engagement. The Prince of the Blood of the Court of the Stag is henceforth engaged to Prince Passerine of the Court of the Swallow. Please, join me in in welcoming him into our Court.”
The court murmured their welcome in another thundering response. Prince Heliohart went out, describing the pride and joy they all should feel over the impending union, the greatness of the Court of the Swallow, and so on. Movement caught Ynaselle’s attention. She turned to see the Little Prince Lianthorn, red-faced and furious, storming toward a side staircase, his pink, purple, and yellow robes swirling around him. His own entourage followed him hurriedly, retreating from the Court of the Stag. Ynaselle supposed that he would no longer be enjoying the hospitality of the court.
Ynaselle turned back as Prince Heliohart and his family descended the stairs. They each bowed as they made their way across from the stairs to the dais where they would sit and watch over the hall for the rest of the evening.
Once seated, each major family climbed the dais and welcomed the Little Prince Passerine into the Court. Lady Erro went up after fetching her eldest, as did Lord Blackwell, with Jaonos, who looked sick of the whole thing.
“Isn’t this exciting?” Merioleth said, hanging tightly to Othorion’s arm. “A marriage! When do you think the wedding will be?”
“The Feast of Haethus,” Ynaselle said. “‘A wise man marries in winter.’”
“It’s a pity it’s so long,” Merioleth said. “I don’t think I’ll be in Heliohart so long.”
“Neither shall I, if it’s any consolation,” Othorion said.
“Oh, but you’ll be captaining a ship!”
Othorion laughed but shook his head. “I certainly hope so.”
Ynaselle felt a twinge in her chest as she watched Lord Bryravn and Nym climb the dais as her own father and brother descended. She reminded herself that she would have to overcome this. If she stayed within the Court of the Stag, she would always be in the company of the Bryravns, and her heart couldn’t break every time she saw him.
When Flinar joined them again, he looked tired, the wrinkles in his face more deeply etched. He took Ynaselle’s arm and this time she was certain he did lean on her for support. “Come, Ynaselle, it’s late. Let us go home. I don’t wish to stay any longer.”
The thought of weddings must still sting her father when his own wife was dead, just as Ynaselle’s own missed marriage to Nym stung her. She nodded. “Neither do I.”
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