Idalia raised the jasmine tea to her lips, inhaling the scent before she let it tingle across her tastebuds. She lowered herself onto the chaise lounge, pushing her skirts back to above her knees to free her legs as she crossed them. A strand of mahogany hair fell across her vision as she leaned forwards to place the tea cup and its saucer on the low table, and she swept it back deftly, returning it to its immaculate do.
“Thank you for having me, Lady Schmutzleben,” Idalia said again, her tone sincere and gracious.
The woman opposite her relinquished her own beverage to the table, meeting her gaze with sparkling green eyes. “It’s my pleasure, I assure you.”
“Adelheid apologises,” Idalia assured her. “She sent me in her stead; she’s been so weighed down by her duties. She couldn’t spare a moment of her time.”
Giselle laughed heartily, her loose blonde hair falling around her. “I understand completely. My cousin always took on more than she could reasonably handle. I take absolutely no offence; your company is just as welcome as hers, milady. You may stay as long as you like. It’s always an honour to host the Wasserste, especially since your brother announced his engagement to our Erdefunfte.”
Idalia smiled, folding her hands in her lap. “Yes, Tylion proposed. They’ve been betrothed for years now, of course, but he wanted to make it official.”
“When is the wedding?” Giselle inquired, taking another sip of sweet tea.
“In the coming spring,” Idalia answered, grinning despite herself. “The winter shouldn’t be too harsh this year; the flowers will be budding by the time the big event comes to pass.”
She could see it in her mind’s eye now, the white blossoms scattering their petals across the verdant fields, wreaths hung in silver across the Wasser palace, her home. They would hold the ceremony there, she was sure. Tylion would insist on it. The great spires would be draped in blue and green, to symbolise the two realms’ union. She imagine Greta draped in pearls and gold, petals adorning her dark hair as she took Tylion’s arm to walk the circle of Mothers, prayers of prosperity and guidance falling from their lips in unison. Greta would be swept up in Tylion’s arms and carried across to their little white boat, and they would sail across the great Wasser lake that adjoined the Wasser palace to the privacy of open waters, joyous in each other’s company.
Tylion would be dressed in his formal military attire for the event, Idalia didn’t doubt, though she suspected he would soon abdicate the position. With the close of their elder brother Melior’s funeral, the realm had paid their respect to the passed leader, and they now looked to the remaining Wasserste heirs to lead them.
Tylion had not yet met to discuss with her their standing in the matter, but the siblings had arranged to meet later in the week, now that Idalia was relieved momentarily of her duties on the High Council. She looked forward to seeing her sisters-in-law again at the Erdefunfte Palace, and to inquire as to how Svetya was handling her new responsibilities as Great Mage in her mother’s wake. She could empathise; there had been too many losses in their lives in recent months. Both the Erde and Wasser Realms deserved some stability for a while.
Tylion would no doubt intend to clarify her position on which of them would assume the role of Great Mage. Idalia’s mind was clear on the matter – the choice was obvious. With her new and continuing responsibilities to the newly established High Council, she couldn’t afford to give her home realm the attention it deserved. Needless to say, the conflict of governing both the High Council and an entire realm carried too much weight for her; she was wary of abusing power ever since Melior had joined Heike’s forces and led their realm into her fight.
Idalia had already decided where she stood. Tylion was in the most suitable position to take on leadership of the Wasser Realm. With a new bride and the promise of family to come, as well as the diplomatic nuances the union of the realms would lend to the affair, Tylion was the obvious choice to be crowned Great Mage.
She was proud of her brother, and of the life he had created, of the life he had protected when Heike had murdered their elder brother and driven their family into hiding with her mere presence in their Realm. Tylion had turned to his wife and her family to protect him; Idalia, brotherless and abandoned, had fled the Realms altogether and taken shelter with the Devonian army marching to the Six Realms’ door. With Adelheid’s steady guidance, war had been averted, and Heike banished. With all the grief that had arisen, Idalia was relieved there had been no more bloodshed for the Realms.
“I hear your brother is the favourite to be Great Mage,” Giselle said, prompting her from her reverie.
Idalia chuckled lightly. “Yes, the position will suit him very well.”
“A new commander will need to be appointed in his stead,” the Erdeborn mused. “Does he have someone in mind?”
“His lieutenant, Eimern Befreien, is preparing to assume the title,” Idalia explained. “She’s proven herself very capable. She took responsibility for the Wasser Army when my brother had to flee for his safety. And she integral in convincing our soldiers to join with the Stahls to defend the Realms.”
“I heard there was quite some animosity between them.”
“Yes,” Idalia said sternly, distracting herself with a sip of tea. “They did not take kindly to the Stahls threatening their commander and heir; nor to Korol Stahldritten torturing their citizens. Melior’s death was the catalyst for a tension that’s been growing for nearly three centuries. We had hoped his union to Heike Stahldritten would dispel our families’ long-standing hatred. Unfortunately, it seemed to be the perfect stage to unite it.”
“My condolences for your loss,” Giselle said solemnly, concern touching her brow. “How have you been coping?”
“Better than you’d imagine,” Idalia said with the touch of a soft smile. “His funeral properly marked his passing; we had our opportunity to grieve. I’ll always carry his loss with me, but I’m no longer bitter. I feel sorry for your Realm’s loss; to have lost three members of your noble family in such a short time…It’s a terrible state of affairs.”
Giselle nodded, smiling sombrely. “We had our funerals, too; we had our opportunity to mourn our loss. Elke Erdefunfte was one of the best Great Mages this realm has ever had. She will be missed most by her people, the people she protected. We try not to dwell on loss too much. I’m most sympathetic to Petra Erdefunfte’s child – to lose not only a mother, but a grandmother and an uncle as well…”
“I trust she’s being cared for by her aunts?”
“Of course,” Giselle insisted without hesitation. “Svetya and Daniya have moved to adopt her. I think it will be good for Beide, having family close.”
“I would have thought Tylion and Greta would have taken care of her, especially given Svetya’s responsibilities?”
“I’m sure they will take her with them to the Wasser Realm when they marry,” she assured. “The change of scenery will do wonders for Beide, and I suppose she’ll stay with them there once Tylion is coronated. But for now, she needs to be with family, at the Erdefunfte Palace. All of Petra’s sisters are there; I’m sure she would have wanted her daughter close to them in her absence.”
Idalia sighed, swirling the amber gold of her tea in its cup. “So many funerals. I do not envy them their sorrow.”
“And you, as well, milady.”
“The weight of Melior’s loss has passed,” Idalia assured her with a small smile, brushing back a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“I meant your friend, the Feuer Commander.”
Idalia’s mind could draw him in distinct clarity, even now, four months after his death. She had long since put her feelings for him to rest; they had not been intended for each other. Their romance had been brief and sweet, and she was grateful for it. But it was not a foundation upon which either of them could have built a lasting relationship.
It didn’t make her heart ache any less at the thought of him. “His name was Coiriuil,” Idalia supplied, “Coiriuil Sklavesman.”
“It was a terrible loss, and a terrible thing to endure.”
Yes, an arrow embedded in one’s lung was as horrible for the afflicted man as it was for the one who had knelt at his side until his last breath had slipped past his lips. Aurel had been a wreck after Coiriuil’s death – Coiriuil’s murder. He had been inconsolable by all but Brunhilda.
It had taken time, but the Feuer Realm’s new Great Mage had come to terms with his grief. And from his loss had sprung hope; Idalia had been a guest at his and Brunhilda’s wedding ceremony, and she was certain she would never see a happier couple in all her days. It made her immensely glad that she and Aurel had set aside their original betrothal; he deserved someone as attentive to his needs as Brunhilda. As faithful a wife as Idalia would have been, she could never have loved Aurel as Brunhilda did, nor have been loved as much as he did her. It was all for the best, in the end.
Idalia shifted, uncrossing her legs. “All this talk of loss is putting a damper on things. It’s time to move on; time to talk of new opportunities, of fresh starts. Which makes me wonder what it is you plan to do with your time now, Lady Schmutzleben?”
“I’d planned to stay at my father’s home,” she replied with a kind smile. “I’m sure he’s eager to teach me all the ins and outs of the family business.” Her words had a hint of bitterness to them that Idalia didn’t miss.
“You don’t approve?”
“I understand the necessity of the slave trade. I just don’t understand why slaves are robbed of so many rights. They deserve basic humanities.”
“There is a way to work towards better laws,” Idalia reminded her, “if you’re as passionate as you seem.”
Giselle laughed. “Do tell. What do you have in mind?”
“Adelheid wants more accountability on the High Council; better representation. She plans to have two nobles from each realm on the council by the end of the month, and five Devonians.”
“She’s ambitious,” the Erdeborn conceded.
“With Svetya having to relinquish her position on the council, Adelheid was hoping you’d consider taking the seat alongside Emmerich Totersieg.”
Giselle’s eyebrows arched on her head, genuine surprise painted on her rounded face. “A seat on the council?”
“You’ve already shown that you have a mind for politics,” Idalia pointed out. “And it would be the perfect position from which to launch campaigns for better slave rights, if you so choose. I’m sure you’ll find support in the Ether Palace.”
“I must say, it’s very enticing,” she admitted.
“What’s enticing?” a voice called from the doorway. The two women’s gazes snapped up to the blonde figure approaching them who stopped to peck a kiss on Giselle’s cheek. “Did Johann make more pastries?”
Giselle laughed, the sound like chimes in the wind. “No, no,” she insisted, meeting his emerald gaze. “Idalia was just suggesting that I take a seat on the High Council.”
“Idalia?” the man repeated, his gaze travelling to her. “Surely not Idalia Wasserste–”
He stopped then, stunned as he stared at her, and Idalia had to admit the surprise was mutual. He was very handsome, with soft curls of well-maintained blonde hair, which seemed to perpetually fall into his glimmering green eyes. He was a picture of health and heroism, and as if in a stupor, he extended his hand to her, bowing slightly. Idalia caught a glimpse of his sculpted collarbone before her gaze rose to meet his, placing her hand in his.
He kissed her knuckle gently, his lips soft and rose, hesitant to relinquish her as he straightened. “It’s an honour to host you,” he said quietly.
“A pleasure to be here,” Idalia responded, and meant it.
“Kristof Schmutzleben,” he introduced. “I’m Giselle’s older brother.”
“Idalia Wasserste,” she replied faintly. “But you already knew that.”
“Adelheid, our cousin, used to be her lady-in-waiting,” Giselle explained.
“She always spoke highly of you on her visits,” Kristof assured her with a brilliant smile.
Idalia smiled, despite herself. “I’m glad.”
Kristof seemed to shake himself awake from a dream. “Uh, I’d better go back to searching for father, Elle,” he said to Giselle, before turning back once more to Idalia. “Will I see you at dinner?”
“Of course,” Idalia assured him, and was rewarded with another small smile as he strode briskly from the room.
“Did Adelheid mentioned us to you?” Giselle asked curiously, watching her as she stared after Kristof.
“She mentioned you both,” Idalia replied, supressing a grin that tugged at the corner of her lips. “But she did not tell me that much.”
Idalia found herself suddenly very eager for dinner to come around; she supposed it had something to do with her newly acquired appetite.