The sun came through the crystalline windows of the throne room and lit up the marble, enchanted floor in an array of colours. Prisms danced around the room, illuminating the flutes of the grand, glistening columns that stretched and twisted up to hold up the ceiling, with elaborately carved capitals. The ceiling mosaic was lit up in such a way that it looked like the night sky, sparkling with thousands of stars that shone their brilliant light back down like a gift.
Tucker hated the throne room.
“Stop fidgeting with your cuffs.”
He ground his teeth together and pointed kept his gaze downwards, past the dais that elevated them above everyone else in the chamber. “Sorry,” he said through his teeth. He didn’t have to turn to feel the effects of his mother’s tearing gaze.
“What was that?” Her tone was sharper than any of the weapons in their armoury.
Stop fidgeting. “I said, I’m sorry, mother,” he said, unlocking his jaw and lowering his tone politely. The tiny scraps of defiance left in him wailed. It felt like his chest was rattling. He wished he could crawl out of his own skin, wished he could sprout wings and take off and fly far, far away. His collar was too tight, and it was itchy. Every breath felt less than the one that came before.
“I expect that you’ll be a perfect, charming young man with the Lady Sybille and her father arrive, won’t you?” The Queen’s voice was pressing. It wasn’t a request, it wasn’t a question.
He squirmed in his seat. Don’t call me that. I hate it when you call me that. “Of course, mother,” he said.
Though he knew he would find no comfort, he twisted in his throne—lowered ever so slightly below his parents’ thrones—and glanced towards his father. As if he were somewhere else entirely, the King kept his gaze forward, his face unyielding save for the slightest down twitch on his brow.
You married her. Say something, you coward. Do something useful for once.
The doors into the throne room parted like a split river, sending in near blinding sunlight into the chamber that lit up the floor and rippled like a pale ocean. Or what Tucker imagined the ocean would look like—as if he would ever see it. As if he would ever see anything beyond this horrible city.
He straightened in his seat, lest the Queen say something. The light illuminated two figures, though he could make out nothing about them as they entered. The door groaned shut, and for a moment, he could see the two, solemn jade chimeras that stood sentinel outside. And then they were gone. He blinked, trying to dismiss the light that had burned against his eyes.
The man leading the two strode forward with confidence, though still his shoulders were hunched, and his neck bent forward just so. As with any great person who strode through the doors of a room when his mother was present, this man was no exception. He was, otherwise, tall, with dark hair pulled back into a bun. His skin was light brown and weathered from sun exposure, and he led a young girl with a hand on her back.
Tucker didn’t want to look at her, but it was instinct that drew his eyes. The need to take in the new person.
She was small, smaller than he’d thought. She had a mess of tawny brown curls fluffier than most cats he’d seen, neatly plaited partially back. Her face was paled and smooth and, even from up on his throne, he could see all the paint covering her up. She wore a beautiful lavender dress and looked like she wanted to do nothing more than crumple to the floor. Her expression was hard and set however.
“Lord Janvier,” the Queen said, both sitting tall and reclining in the throne, looking effortless and absolutely imperial. “And you must be Lady Sybille Janvier.”
The girl curtsied, dipping so low to the floor that her knees must be touching it. She looked remarkably composed, much more so than he felt.
“It’s an honour, truly, Queen Juliette,” Lady Sybille said. She rose, and then dipped once again, facing his father this time. “And King Lysander.” And then, a final curtsy, she faced him. He fought not to squirm. “And Prince Tucker.”
He was going to be sick.
Tucker rose to his feet, legs shaking underneath him like it was his first time getting on an airship—he’d never been, only heard stories of the airsickness—and descended the dais. He stopped in front of Sybille.
Up close, she was not as small as once believed, but still nearly a head shorter than him. Her eyes were bright, bright grey. She watched him levelly, coolly. His heart stuttered at that gaze, and bite his tongue hard, until he had fought off the instinct to look away.
“The honour is all mine, my lady,” he said, his tone light and cordial but his stomach anything but. He gently took her hand, steady if only for all the training he’d spent hours and hours and hours going over with his mother.
Which meant he was not the one shaking. He almost faltered as he felt the girl trembling, before he recovered and bent to press a kiss to the back of her hand.
She was just as terrified as he was. This was not a particularly good thing to have in common to build a marriage upon, but it was something.
As he began to pull away, her sleeve adjusted in such a way that he noticed two things. 1) Sybille had a pale dusting of freckles on her arm, and probably on her face when it wasn’t painted so. 2) There was a purple discolouration on her arm that wasn’t a birthmark.
He glanced up and met her gaze. There was a flash of terror across her face before she smoothed it out. He glanced towards Lord Janvier, but the man was still staring up at his mother.
“I’ve been longing to meet you for a very long time, my prince,” Sybille said suddenly. Her fingers tightened on his, just for a moment. “I’ve heard of you, your thoughtfulness and intelligence, as well as your beauty. I see they were not wrong, though perhaps a bit diluted.” She bowed her head. “If you’ll permit me to say so, your highness.”
He let go of her hand. “You’re permitted,” he said, in a soft and much too quiet voice. He did not glance back at the Queen. He would hear about that later.
“My darling princeling, take Lady Sybille out to our sculpture garden. I believe your father, Lord Janvier, and I have business to discuss,” the Queen said. “A lot of planning, I should say.”
He swallowed, hard, and his mouth tasted like iron. Planning for a wedding that won’t even come around until my trueblood ceremony. He offered his arm to Lady Sybille, straightening his spine like a string was attached to his spine, and keeping his posture as immaculate as drilled into him. “What do you say, my lady?”
Lady Sybille bit into the corner of her mother, almost imperceptibly, before she smiled sweetly and took his arm. “It would be my absolute pleasure, my prince.”
And so he was to spend an hour with the woman he was meant to spend the rest of his life with, and all he could focus on was no simply passing out.