In other news, this is the end of Part 1 (and in the word document I've got going its much more impressive; page break, big centralized wording and all that).
I don't have a chapter ready to post for tomorrow, so if there is a delay in updating blame it on a suddenly busy social life. Anyways, enjoy chapter 11! (PS, this one has some PLOT!)
Robert stood at the top of the balcony and delivered another speech.
It was much busier at the dinner tonight than it had been last week.
Making his way down the stairs he picked out Marie, Delilah, and Madison in the crowd. They were sitting at table with mostly couples. He evidently would not be eating with them tonight.
Well, his parents had been bound to punish him for his defiance. It was just a matter of accepting it and moving on.
As the applause began to slowly die out he realized that he had was still standing atop the balcony, but with a frown on his face.
People were beginning to look at each other nervously, wary of what such a frown might mean.
“Ah, my apologies! I did not mean to ruin the mood! I was merely thinking that there are so many beautiful women here that it will be hard to choose which three to spend more time with!”
As the applause began again and people breathed sighs of relief he started down the staircase. This time he had had foreknowledge of the event, and so he would not need to go to his parents to have them explain it to him.
However, they had drawn him aside the night before.
“Robert. Your behaviour during the last dinner has set a precedent for chaos and rudeness to your guests, if you do not continue it tonight. So, you will entertain any who wish to introduce themselves to you before the dinner starts, and you will start the evening by coming over to talk to us”
He had not been given a choice in the matter, and so walked over to his parents table, this time with a smile on his face. If anyone noticed the discrepancy, they did not comment.
“Mother. Father. Here we are again. You are very much twisting this agreement within an inch of its life”
“We are following the rules as stated by you”
“Yes, Mother, I know. The words, but not the intent. Can the political lessons never stop, even for a moment?”
“Son, the political lessons won’t stop because when you are king the political maneuvering will never stop”
“I am not King yet though”
“No, you are not. Which is fortunate since you still have so much to learn”
Robert kept the smile on his face the entire time, and his parents maintained their neutral expressions. It would not do to let others see that the family was ever the least bit in disagreement.
Because his parents were wrong. The political maneuvering wasn’t only for when he was king; it was a constant.
“Well, I’m glad that you have such faith in my skills. I shall begin the dinner yes?”
“That would be a good idea Son”
He turned and walked off to the first of the tables.
It was going to be a long dinner once more.
The music swelled as he spun around, feet moving easily across the dance floor, steps that he had been taught since birth flowing in time to those of his partner and the music.
It was so simple on the dance floor. Like swimming, floating along, in time to the music, the life of the people, the energy in the room.
It was almost too simple compared to the rest of his life. The dance, the grace he felt now like the grace of when he was dueling or cutting through the waters…
It was good. A break from everything right when he needed it most. The dinner had been tedious. So many of the women had been overeager to talk to him, while others had done nothing but listened to his own stories. The food had been good, but had almost been ruined by the sheer stupidity of the event.
Once more, too many names to learn, too many faces to match them too.
Which was why he found himself dancing with Natasi. She had been much more reserved this time, much more proper. She had even apologized for her behaviour the previous time, telling how nobody had explained to her what that would mean in the islands and that it was more akin to “I hope to be invited back” or “I hope to see you again soon”.
However, that first introduction had been enough to ensure that he remembered her. It was nicer to see someone he knew rather than someone he didn’t, and, as an added benefit, she was a good dancer.
The two separated, Robert bowing to her, Natasi curtsying to him, as the music came to a halt.
“The next dance is the Destrian Waltz. Do you know it?”
“Yes, I do”
“Shall we dance it then?”
“If you wish. Should you not give these other women a chance?”
“No. Not right now. I’d rather dance with someone who I know than someone else”
The music started and he took her hands again.
This dance involved spinning, twirling, and changing partners often, all with the goal of racing your own partner across the room. It all depended on how you turned your interim partner as the music swelled, which partner turned the other with the most grace.
Because of the two dancing only one would make it out of the spin heading towards their objective, while the other would be sent backwards in the wrong direction, no matter who you paired with.
That was the beauty of the dance. It was supposed to signify the political situation in the Torin Islands.
For one family to advance, another had to be put lower on the ladder. For one family to grow stronger, the other had to be weakened.
It was not only the rules of the primal world, but of politics as well.
The dance was also a fun contest, best suited for aggressively minded people and competitive couples. The outcome of the race was often used as a deciding factor, or was gambled on.
“This dance is more akin to a race isn’t it Prince?”
“Yes, you could say it is. It does require skill with dancing, but its almost more dependent on your skill at manipulating people”
“Well, perhaps we could put a wager on it then?”
“What would we gamble?”
As they talked the two slowly danced their way over to the one side of the floor. Couples were moving about, each one taking a side of the dance floor, aiming for the opposite side.
The fact that there would be people moving in all four directions was what made it impossible to end up pointed in the right way. It also added quite a bit of confusion, and with all the twirling it was easy to lose ones direction.
And once you lost your direction you would often end trying to get back to the side you started from, only to realize when you arrived that you still had to try and get back to the other side again before the dance ended.
The best dancers could make it across the floor before the song was a quarter done.
“We would gamble on whether or not you keep me around for the week. If I make it across, you will. If not, then you are not obliged to”
“It seems like you risk less than you stand to gain”
They had reached the side and were waiting for everyone else to be ready.
“Yes. I do. But that is ever the way it is with any intelligent gamble, isn’t it? And you risk nothing either way, since if you accept the gamble, then it means that you are willing to risk losing”
“Which means that I would not be against choosing you to stay the week, which means that I was likely going to choose you anyways. So this gamble is not about winning or losing; it is about seeing if you stand a chance”
“You caught on as quickly as I expected”
“I am a fast study, and have been taught how to spot things such as this all my life. It really isn’t all that surprising”
“No, I suppose not. So, do you have an answer?”
“No delays with you are there? Right to the point”
“I like that. Yes, I will take you up on your gamble”
“Excellent. I look forwards to the contest as much as the reward”
Robert began to say something else, but was interrupted by the short trumpet blast signifying the dancers to be ready.
“Good luck, and see you on the other side”
The music began to grow louder and the couples began, taking their first few steps out onto the floor, twirling once, and trading partners on the diagonal.
Robert found himself dancing with an older duchess.
“Prince, you seem to have a wager resting on the dance’s outcome. I’ll let you get ahead, and in exchange, win it! I’m sure you’ve met my daughter Elena? She is the beautiful blonde woman in the blue dress”
Robert struggled not to roll his eyes. This was another large part of the dance. Dancers would often try and make alliances, broker deals, and wheedle, cajole, or bribe their interim partner into letting them get ahead. Many powerful alliances had been begun, and ended, over the course of a Destrian Waltz.
It made the dance slightly controversial, as a small wager could quickly become blown out of proportion and have results far beyond its actual worth.
It was Robert’s favourite part of the dance. Although the dance itself was a masterpiece, it was what could be accomplished during it that made it the most fun.
Unfortunately for him, he was the Crown Prince. He had few things to bargain with, and most people wished to please him anyways. It removed a lot of the fun from the dance.
“Ah, yes, Elena. I enjoyed her company at the table. Perhaps I’ll dance with her after this ends”
“That would be wonderful. Did you know that she-”
Robert tuned out the words, listening for the telltale swell of the music that would herald another change in partners coming up. The conductor was told to keep it confusing, having the pairings last for different amounts of time with each step.
The one rule was that the music had to get the faintest bit louder before the refrain that signalled the change.
That was how Robert performed this dance. He would listen for the swell, and time it so that as the refrain began he was in the optimal position. Those he was with were usually too busy trying to cut a deal to listen to the music, and so if he turned faster or slower usually would not think any different of it.
Most would let the results of the deal decide who had the advantage, and perform an extra half spin if necessary to get into the correct position.
Robert eschewed that, always launching himself towards the next position before the others could say a thing.
And there it was.
He let go the duchesses’ hands, winked at her, and performed the half step and twirl that led him to the next floor tile.
Only certain ballrooms could hold a Destrian Waltz, as the positioning of the floor tiles was critical. Each tile had to be big enough for two to dance on, but small enough that there were enough tiles for all the couples. The transfer from partner to partner always happened from one tile to the next.
In the chequerboard pattern on the floor it was easy to remember; stick to your colour.
Unfortunately it seemed that the other person destined for this tile had not made it here yet. At the early stages of the waltz before the four sides mixed it was always a risk that you would spend a stanza along, unable to advance.
He took the time to observe the other dancers in the room. Some of them were stuck like he was, while others were lucky enough to have their partner arrive at the same time as they did.
Natasi was one such, dancing with a tall young man who looked gangly but was surprisingly graceful.
That was something else that Robert had noticed. A great many young men who were looking for marriages had gathered at the dinners, hoping for a chance to meet someone who Robert’s own actions would discourage. They reminded him of carrion birds, picking over that which others did not want.
Then again, it was just that. Robert did not want a good number of these women, and certainly not in this scenario. He did not want to dance with them, talk with them, dine with them, or be with them.
He wanted to be able to do this in his own way, to maybe travel from one Duchy to another, meeting daughters, fathers, mothers, sons and cousins in this way. He would rather try and learn more about the people as he went instead of being forced into doing things this way.
The music swelled again and he readied himself to receive a partner. The other worry at this point when he was alone on a tile would be that he would end up with two partners, as women who saw him alone tried to be the first to get to his tile.
As the refrain sounded a woman twirled into his arms and began the dance again.
“Do you have a wager riding on this?”
“Of course. Thats all the fun”
“Is it a big wager?”
“Are they ever?”
The music began to swell and Robert spun the two of them up just enough so that he would be the one to advance.
“Well, this has been a short interlude Robert”
Wait, that meant that she had noticed the swell as well and-
Madison spun him around quite quickly as the refrain began and stepped lightly backwards onto the next square.
“Good luck Prince”
He shook his head and turned to the next partner.
“Prince! Do you remember me? I’m-”
“Lady Elena. Your mother already spoke to me. Blue dress, blonde hair, beautiful woman. Of course I remember you”
The woman’s eyes had gone wide.
“I’m Lady Liira”
Robert tried to find something else to say, but the music swelled and he shrugged.
“Won’t forget you again I’m sure Lady Liira!”
He swirled backwards and onto the next tile. It was a good lesson. Don’t not pay attention, and if someone is going to introduce themselves to you, don’t interrupt them.
Whether he made more mistakes like this or not, it didn’t matter. Either way, the dance was just beginning to get interesting…
He spun from his last partner and into the arms of his next.
He had made it about halfway across the room, and the song was about a quarter done. Not the best result, but not the worst either. He had been delayed those first two refrains, and then one more later, which had really put him behind the pace.
However, Natasi had been delayed even more than he had, which was good.
He had also stopped listening to the older women, ignoring them in favour of observing the room and stepping onto the next tile at just the right time. While he supposed it was rude they were not even the focus of the evening, so it didn’t particularly matter.
And at this later stage of the Waltz many people became as focused and intense as he was, so nobody should be offended.
The one quarter mark was the beginning of the end. Once it passed into the halfway mark if you were not at, or about to reach your side, you could discount yourself as a player or a serious contender for any prize. The only possible thing that you could salvage at that point was if your partner was further behind than you were.
He spun from partner to partner, doling out compliments to the ones who were here to see him, and silent concentration to those who were not. It did not matter either way. He was almost across and Natasi was…Next to him!
The tile to his left. Somehow she had caught up. Had she cheated? Had she…no, he had changed directions!
In his focus and haste to cross he had doubled back once and then headed forwards again, allowing her to catch up.
This was going to be close then. a true race, where one misstep would mean losing the bet.
He had not had this much fun in ages! It was not only the gamble, the thrill of it, but the fact that she was such a good player and that the outcome was already decided! The fact that the wager was not worth a thing, as a win for one was no different from a win for the other, two events with the same outcome.
And still it was a race, a challenge to try and win, something that needed to be done, something that could not be lost!
He spun onto the last tile before the end and took the hands of his partner. Natasi grinned at him as she laced her fingers with his.
“What a coincidence. We end up on the same tile at the end”
“I think less coincidence and more design?”
“Of course. What else would it be?”
She smiled at that as the music began to swell.
Now, he had a choice. He could graciously lose, and let her know that he was losing on purpose. But that might insult her, and would be less fun. And he was not sure if he even wanted to lose on purpose.
He wanted to try and beat her. He really did.
So, as the music continued to swell he squeezed her hands tight and began to spin ever faster until it was impossible for the two to easily see what they were looking at beyond.
He was counting the steps he had taken and as the music reached the crescendo and the refrain began he held her hands tighter until he was half a spin away from being the first one to the end.
He tried to take a step backwards, and as he had hoped she tightened her grip, pulled him closer, and spun another half turn. She loosened her grip, winked, and spun once more, twirling away onto the final tile.
They both promptly fell down, dizzy too much spinning.
Oh well. It had been a good game while it lasted.
Robert climbed up the stairs to his room. The dinner and ball were over and most of the guests were on their way out.
His parents were not happy with him for the ‘stunt he pulled during the waltz’ but most others had seen it as innovative and ultimately flawed ploy to try and win. In that situation, on the same tile as your original partner one tile from the end, most people would have tried something similarly desperate.
So his parents really couldn’t fault him, although they always would.
He undid the buttons on his shirt as he walked in and draped it over a chair. His undershirt he left on, but he slipped out of his shoes as well. Steven knew not to bother him here after an event like this; he would stand on his balcony for a few minutes, have a cup of cold water, and then go to bed. He didn’t want to talk, he didn’t want people fussing over him, and he didn’t want to bother properly changing.
He pulled off the tights his parents had given him and tossed them in the general direction of the shirt. Pulling on the pants of his beloved military uniform he walked over to the balcony.
He kicked at his rucksack as he went by it. It sat there, below the pedestal for the water jug, every day. It was packed, he could leave at any time. It had coin, clothes, a cloak, enough that he could go out and make his way across the world however he wanted.
It stayed there as a reminder of what he could do, and what he had to do, a reminder of the differences between responsibility and pleasure.
It was an idle fantasy since he would ever be able to use it.
The view from his balcony looked down on the lower wing. All the lights leaving the end of it, all the ose who had come only for the night, who could leave without fear of darkness, or who had been hurt so badly that they had to leave and not return.
He hated all of them.
He hated everything to do with the stupid process.
He had ended up choosing Natasi and two people he barely knew and didn’t particularly like, the lesser of the thirty or so evils that he was forced to suffer through.
He hated, hated this. Hated the balls, hated the dinners, hated how he could crush the emotions by accident, like snuffing a candle and at the same time barely caring anymore because they were coming to him and what did they expect to just have him sweep them off their feet into his arms and what? No, it was their fault.
He had had too much to drink tonight. He knew that. Could feel it.
Robert looked down at the bottle in his hands and blinked.
He wasn’t even sure how that had got there. Had he brought it up with him? Or was it one of the ones he kept in his sideboard for show but never actually drank?
At this point it didn’t really matter. He was a bit too drunk and annoyed to care.
He almost wanted to throw the bottle at the lights below.
But that would be horribly bad of him, might injure someone, and would waste the probably very expensive liquor.
He reached over and placed it on the stand next to the water glass and went back to staring.
The door to his chambers clicked shut.
Had he left it open then and the wind closed it?
No, it would have slammed then, and there wasn’t any wind anyways.
And he didn’t think he had left it open.
He turned and saw a woman coming towards him. She was dressed in a fancy way, looking like she had come from the ball, although he did not recognize her.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of-”
Robert stopped mid sentence as he really noticed her for the first time. She was tall, and slim, although she did have quite a few curves. Her features looked like they could possess a stern beauty, but they were not looking stern at all right now. Her eyes were wide with surprise and her mouth was slightly open. Her face was framed by a halo of wavy blonde hair that almost glowed in the moonlight, the only source of light in the room. As she slowly swayed towards him she looked to be in danger of coming out the top of her dress.
Robert’s mouth had gone a bit dry. Just a little. It was probably because he was just thirsty.
He grabbed the bottle of wine and took another swig.
Much better. Sort of.
All he needed to do now was talk, and not be rude. That might be kind of difficult when she had invaded his room.
“Dear Prince. My name is Juniper Aveu Glante. It means brilliant, or stunning, as I’m sure a knowledgeable man like you knows. I am so so sorry that I missed your dinner and ball. I really wanted to be there, but I was delayed on the road. Do you think that we could have a dance here instead?”
She had come very close now and gently took the bottle from his fingers, placing it on the stand.
“I hope that you don’t mind my being so forwards, but I have known for so long Prince Robert, that I loved you, ever since I saw you from afar long ago”
That didn’t quite ring right. Robert was pretty sure he had never been in a situation where someone could have ‘seen him from afar’. But his brain was working too slowly at the moment.
“Please, can we have a dance here? Just one? Maybe a Destrian Waltz, and I have an interesting gamble. If I win, we’ll get married”
She grabbed his hands and pulled herself against him, arms suddenly around him, lips moving towards his.
Robert had still not quite managed to say anything beyond a confused ‘uhhh’.
“And if you win, you can take me, here and now, consummate our love with a fiery passion and-”
“What. Are. You. Talking. About?”
Robert’s mind finally kicked into gear, then overdrive as her words registered.
He not so gently pulled his arms free, flinging hers wide and then shoving her away. He didn’t care at the moment that he may have touched her in a way he should not have. He was too angry.
He also knew that it was the fact that he was drunk that made him so angry, but he didn’t really care.
“You come in here, and you try and challenge my honour, you presume too much, you come in and here and try and throw yourself at me and you think that I’d be foolish enough to let you and that I would want, accept, reward this behaviour with my love, you think, that I could for one minute love someone like that, who threw everything away, the potential for a future, my honour, her own honour, my duty to find someone to marry who is good for the realm, gods woman I don’t even know who you are! You could be some dockside whore from Belnar for all I know hired to trick me out of all that I own and could ever own, trying to make me betray the trust the people and my parents have put in me although there is precious little of the latter and do you know what is the worst?
“Thats this is their fault! They’re the ones who arranged this insane event, this dinner, where foolish people like you can just waltz into the castle and talk to me and do whatever you like because there is a dinner and ball happening and whoop-de-do-da do they never ever, does anyone ever even stop to consider what I might want from life?"
His words a roar he grabbed the sword from one of the wall decorations and, tearing it from its sheath pointed it at the woman.
With a squeak she fell backwards onto the bed, terrified of the vision of rage and insanity.
“Do you really think, do any of you ever even stop to think?”
Twenty two years of pent up frustration poured out of Robert as he flailed the sword around and advanced on Juniper.
“Did you ever think about what would happen to your family or mine if we had done what you suggested? Did you ever think about what would happen if I had already been betrothed and then because I was drunk or foolish listened to you anyways? Do you have any idea what that would have done to the world, to Destria to the Torin Islands? Do you? Politics are important woman! Think before you act next time you foolish airhead!”
He sheathed the sword and belted it on.
“Well, I am done here. I am done with all of this, I am done with you women, and I am done with my parents and I am done with the insanity that comes from this marriage business done in this way. I’m leaving, do you hear me? I’m going to leave and explore the world for myself and there is nothing that you can do about it, nothing that you can do to stop me from doing this you foolish foolish stupid fool! Do you really think, really, no. We’ve been over this. You don’t. None of you do”
Calmer now he took a breath and walked over, throwing the rucksack over his shoulder.
“You should learn. Go home, and learn what it is that you’ve done here tonight. Learn why it is a bad thing. Turn every negative into a positive you poor stupid puppet”
As Juniper sat up and began to cry he took a running start and leapt through the large glass window beside the balcony.
Juniper screamed in fear and terror as glass shards flew everywhere and the Prince she had come here to marry dove out the window to his death.
She didn’t think to run forwards, or she would have seen the small glowing symbol below that gave him the power to glide like a bird as he circled down and off to the west, far far away before he would touch down.
Robert smiled as he glided.
He was, he was sure, for the first time in his life truly free. No cares, no worries, no parties, no balls or dinners, no overbearing parents.
Free to make his own way in the world, free of the plots of others.
Unfortunately for the prince he was wrong about both of those.
“What have I done, what have I done, what have I done? I’ve killed him, killed him, he’s dead now, I’ll be hanged for treason”
“No, my dear, don’t worry, you won’t be”
Natasi slipped in the door and ran across to sit next to Juniper and hug her tight.
“Don’t you worry my dear correspondent, you won’t be hanged. I’ll make sure of that.
“Besides, Robert isn’t dead”
Juniper turned to regard the woman who she had confided in via letters since she had met her in the court of her father while visiting the mainland.
“Of course not my dear. Here, let me dry your tears. And drink this” She held a cup to Juniper’s lips as she dabbed at the tears “No, no, don’t worry, his house is master of the Sigil of Air, remember? I made sure that he had mastered the Basic, enough so that he could glide, and not fall, before letting you come up here”
“Letting me come up here? It wasn’t your idea for me to do this, wasn’t you who decided I do this”
Juniper slowly began to stop crying as Natasi hugged her tight.
“Ah, dear Juniper. I’m sorry for this. I’ve deceived you all these years. You really don’t have many options left to you at this point, everything else decided by me. I’ve been working you, working on making you both malleable, and then implanting these ideas. You would never have resented Tomas so unless I suggested it”
“What? What are you saying?”
She tried to pull back but with sudden strength Natasi held her in place.
“You see my dear, you’ve just done something wonderful. With everyone thinking him dead Destria will be thrown into chaos. And with you the cause the Destrian Dukes and Duchesses will turn on each other until your dear Tomas arrives looking for you. The man who you were trying to escape all your life, the one who you had worked so hard to get away from.
“And so you came to Robert, the only one who could possibly save you. But, when Robert spurned your affections, turned you down, you poisoned him, maybe even stabbed him, and then killed yourself with that same poison. Because you are insane my dear”
“What are you saying? None of this is true! I’m not going to kill myself and Robert isn’t dead!”
“No, he’s not. Because we need him alive so that I can marry him once the Torin islands are at war, complete and utter. But, if Robert were to return, married to the daughter of one of the strongest merchant-lords of Lothyr, with the armies of all of Lothyr and much of the mainland behind him, what then? The people who hate the war and those who love Robert will be more than happy to unite beneath his banner.
“And Robert will be able to unite the Torin islands once more. He will be the Emperor, and I will be the Empress. And I will rule this part of the world, every Lord, Duke, Duchess and Lady loyal to the Sigil of Emotion!
“As for you my dear, I tell you this because you have already been poisoned. It is too late now for you. But don’t worry. You’ll go down in history as the woman who set fire to the Torin Islands”
As Juniper’s vision faded to black and she collapsed, the poison having run its course Natasi walked to the balcony, her feet crunching on the glass shards.
“What was begun so long ago shall soon come to fruition. The Clan Inari shall rule once more!”