“Higher, your highness!” The clash of our swords nearly drowns the captain’s voice out. Lifting my sword higher, I blink the sweat from my eyes. Seeing an opening, I send a small burst of flame towards my opponent. He jerks back, and I lunge forward, using his distraction to my advantage. Just as I withdraw my sword to attack again, the soldier miraculously regains his balance and strikes. Parrying his blow, I dance back, on the defensive. Dust clouds around us as we fight, making it hard to see. I squint, trying to keep anything from getting in my eyes. A piece of my hair comes loose from its braid and sticks to my cheek. Rolling to evade my opponent’s sword, I come up behind him, and before he can react, lay the tip of my sword at the base of his neck.
“Surrender?” My breath comes in pants from the hard fight, and my arm quivers under the weight of the sword. The soldier nods, and I lower my weapon. Wiping the sweat from my forehead, I walk towards the armory, anxious to get out of the armor I was wearing. The captain of the guard follows me in. “How did I do today, Captain?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him nod in approval. “Quite well, your highness. Indeed, you managed to best one of my highest ranking men.”
Finished with removing my armor, I take my leave of Captain Davery and go to my chambers to prepare for tonight’s dinner. The vampire embassy from Lysian would arrive, and there would be feasting and dancing in their honor. Along with several high ranking diplomats, the crown prince of Lysian and his two cousins would also be in attendance. Throwing the doors to my chambers open, I stride in. My ladies-in-waiting hurry to draw a bath for me.
“What will you wear to the dinner tonight, Princess Rionach?” Lady Serafine stands by my shoulder, anxious to get me ready before the vampires arrived. As Lady of the Bedchamber, she had rank over the rest of the ladies and therefore was the one I used most.
“The silver dress, I think. I haven’t had a chance to wear it yet.” I’m whisked away into my bathing room.
The water is cold, which suits me just fine. One of the ladies-in-waiting hands me a bar of soap and lathers my hair. As soon as she is done, I dismiss her with a flick of my wrist, sinking low into the tub. My mind whirls with curiosity about the vampires. A match between myself and their prince could prove highly advantageous to both our countries. Still, the typical faerie-vampire prejudice runs high in both my parents, and, according to the rumors, the vampire king. Sighing, I call for a towel and stand up, water sluicing down my body.
Wrapped in a robe, I pad to my closet, where Lady Serafine hands me my undergarments. After being laced into the dress, I sit down in front of my vanity, and another of my ladies-in-waiting, Lady Isilene, combs my hair. Just as she finishes, a sharp knock sounds at the door in the sitting room. One of the ladies bustles off to receive the visitor. Stepping into delicate dancing slippers, I glance at myself in the mirror. The silver sets off my blue eyes and dark hair, and I smile bitterly at myself. As I line my eyes with kohl, the lady that had gone to the door returns, holding a jewelry box.
“Who was it?” She seems nervous to answer, and glances away before speaking.
“It was a messenger sent by the elvish prince, your highness.” My lip curls in disgust. At least one of these women would be working for him as a spy. Perhaps, if my revulsion got back to him, he’d reconsider me as his bride.
“And what did he want?”
“Prince Blathen sends you a gift, my lady.” I give the jewelry box a cursory glance and say, “Well, let’s see it, then.” She gives me the box, and my ladies-in-waiting gather around me, giggles and whispers exchanged between them.
When I open the box, an eyeful of glittering diamonds greets my eye. Matching earrings have been included with the necklace, and two small notes are pressed against them. Pulling it out, I read it aloud. “Your royal highness, I send these trinkets in the hopes that you will wear them tonight. Your humble servant, Prince Blathen Aethelstan Kadwen Grigori.” Flicking the note aside, I reach for the second. This one is from my mother, the queen, instructing me to wear the necklace tonight. Apparently, my mother was satisfied with his fortune. Wishing that he isn’t twice my age, I ask Serafine to fasten the necklace.
As it settles at my throat, it feels more like a collar than a necklace, proclaiming to the world that Prince Blathen owned me. Dread clutches at my throat, and I glare at myself in the mirror. “Everybody out!” My voice is harsh, and the ladies file into my sitting room.
I seethe in silence, cursing my mother for her greed and my father for being so blind. I dig my nails into my palms trying to keep my calm. For the thousandth time, I wish for reliable information about my people and my country. What I need are spies. Suddenly, I feel suffocated in my room, regardless of the high ceiling and huge windows. I stumble out onto the balcony, gulping deep breaths of the warm summer air. As I stand there, notice a large party riding toward the gates, and narrow my eyes in anticipation when I recognize the Lysian colors. They dismount, and are led to their chambers, where they will be allowed to refresh themselves before formally received by my father, the king. Shutting my eyes to the world, I take a deep breath, forming my face into an expression less mask once more. Smoothing any wrinkles from my dress, I step into my sitting room, where my ladies wait, my chin high, eyes cold.
“Your highness, is there anything you need?” Serafine looks past my shoulder, as if afraid to meet my eyes. I wonder briefly how cold and unfeeling I look before putting it out of my mind. None of these ladies deserve my kindness, vying for power and gold as they do.
“My dagger, if you please, Lady Serafine.” She nods and goes to fetch the ceremonial dagger and its belt. The sliver plating gleams red as the sun casts its final rays through my windows. She fastens the belt, and I slide the dagger into its sheath at my waist, careful not to cut myself on the razor-sharp edge. No faerie would ever go without a weapon, even at an important state function like tonight’s.
I meet my mother outside of the doors to the ballroom. When she sees the necklace, she gives me a cold smile. “That is elf made, is it not?”
I nod. “Prince Blathen had it sent to my rooms as I was getting dressed. I thought I would acknowledge him by wearing it.” Neither of us mention the note she had sent me, aware of how public a place we are in. Turning away she dismisses me without so much as saying a word and sweeps into the ballroom. Just before she disappears, I call to her, “Where is the king?”
She pauses in her steps, and turning back, says, “Your father is ill, and unable to attend tonight. I will take his place and preside over any meetings that may occur.” She disappears from my view, leaving behind the faint smell of roses.
My thoughts whirl around in a veritable hurricane. I had turned sixteen eight months ago, and had officially been declared princess heir. In the event that my father couldn’t do his duty, I should have been the one to preside over the meetings and make decisions for him. Still, I decide to take it up with her tomorrow. Showing an enemy a weak, divided front would be of no use to me. Standing up straight, I traipse down the corridor to the doors of the ballroom, smile in place.
As I enter, the herald announces me to the room. “Her Royal Highness, Rionach Aisling Liadan Vaelclann, Crown Princess of Valkyr, Lady of the Silverlake, Shieldmaiden of the North!” Courtiers part down the middle of the ballroom as I walk in gracefully. My sister, Kerissa, has already arrived, and sits gossiping with other ladies of the court. The dancing has started, but not many couples grace the dance floor. Most of the courtiers stand in groups near the doors, circling like vultures, eager for the vampires’ arrival. Someone clears their throat near me, and I turn to see Lord Nikolas, one of my suitors. Rumor had it that his sister, a fabled criminal and now queen of Erisek, would be in attendance tonight.
Keeping my musings to myself, I smile at him and allow him to take my arm as I say, “Lord Nikolas, a pleasure. I trust you have enjoyed your time at court?” He grimaces handsomely, shaking his blonde mane away from his eyes.
“Princess Rionach, I must confess, the faerie court is trying. There are hidden traps and pitfalls everywhere I turn.”
I laugh, surprising myself by genuinely enjoying his company. “You must stay longer, and discover the snakes disguised as beautiful ladies, too, my lord. It is only then that I might permit you to leave.” He glances sideways at me as we promenade through the room, pausing to speak to nobles here and there.
His voice turns more serious as he asks, in an undertone, “Have you heard the rumors that my sister is visiting tonight?”
I look at him, confused by the sudden change in tone. “I had, but I believed that they were simply rumors.”
He sighs. “If only they were. She insisted on coming when she heard that Prince Alexander would be here tonight.”
I stop in my tracks. “What business does she have with the vampire prince?” In my mind, I add, and why are you telling me this?
“Your highness, my sister and I have been previously acquainted with his highness. She and the prince were close-“
I cut him off. “Close?” My eyes go wide.
He blushes as he grasps what I mean. “Oh, no, not like that. They were simply good friends, your highness.” I nod, only half-believing him. As a server passes us, I take a glass of thrallwine from him. The amber liquid is so imbued with faerie magic that it nearly glows in the low lighting.
“Why are you telling me this, Lord Nikolas?” I watch my sister dance with a visiting sorcerer and narrow my eyes at them.
He looks at me appraisingly. “Because she’s asked me to tell you that even if you don’t know her, she would do anything to support you and your country.”
I think rapidly. “Does she speak as queen of Erisek or as a pirate?” I hold up my hand, as he starts to speak, not finished with my questions. “And when she says she’d support me, does she mean the royal family of Valkyr? Or does she speak to me, directly?”
“To your first question, princess, I believe she speaks as both, although she is not currently acting as queen, as I am sure you have heard.” I nod. Everyone throughout the realm had heard of Queen Arianna’s running away from her castle, though nobody knew quite why. “And she speaks to you and you only, princess.”
I take a deep breath to steady myself against this huge wave of information. Only an hour ago I was wishing for spies, and now this man was telling me I had everything I wanted and more. “Why didn’t she tell me this herself? Why ask you to speak for her when she could speak with me in a few hours’ time?”
He smiles crookedly. “Tell me, your highness, if a foreign queen who was known for being a ruthless pirate approached you while you were alone, would you listen to her or would you call for guards? She will still seek you out tonight, princess. She simply wished for me to warn you.”
I smile at him, suddenly aware of all the nosy nobles around us. “Point taken, Lord-“ I get cut off when the doors swing open and two vampire guards walk through them. My hand goes instinctively to my dagger as the room goes silent. I tense, waiting for something to go wrong as the prince steps through the door, looking around the ballroom in badly concealed awe.