The dining room of Bornesher Castle lay behind the leftmost door in the grand entry hall. A glittering chandelier hung above the table, matched by sconces on the walls and candelabra on the table, whose wood revealed itself to be a rich red, polished to a brilliant gleam. Beautifully carved chairs of the same wood surrounded the table, though only fourteen were set. The settings of crested plates, glittering utensils and chalices, and silver serving trays were as beautiful as the rest of the room and laden with delicacies. A roast boar dominated the table, steam curling about it, and fine wine gleamed dark in the chalices.
The table could not compare to the finery of those milling around it. The contestants dressed in their finest clothes for their first meeting with Princess Esmeralda. Lucien looked around at all those around him. He sat in a sea of crushed velvet, fur trim, gleaming silk, and glittering jewels. Even Kadir was dressed in full elegance, in a long shirt of ivory silk, decorated with braided linen and beads. A gold colored silk sash wrapped diagonal across his chest, knotted at the hip opposite his sword. His hair, which he usually wore bound back in a bun, had been undone to fall as a thick mane of black curls.
Lucien did not let himself study the clothing around him too deeply. His clothes lacked the glittering thread or jewels of many of those around him. He wore a simple velvet tunic whose only decoration was a silver wolf’s head clasp for his cloak and jet buttons. His hand drifted to the clasp as if he could seek comfort from his family crest.
Kadir’s hand squeezed on his arm. “You shouldn’t worry so much. You’ll have a permanent frown by the time you’re thirty at this rate.”
“Easy for you to say,” Lucien protested. “You look like you belong.”
“As do you. Just because your clothes aren’t covered in jewels does not mean you don’t deserve to be here.” Kadir grinned conspiratorially, leaning close to whisper in his ear, “Besides, you could best most of these peacocks in combat, and that’s far more important.”
Lucien smiled finally. He didn’t doubt Kadir’s assessment. As their friendship had formed, Kadir had given the young lordling tips and training that had improved his swordsmanship by leaps and bounds. Only his mentor bested him now. “Between the two of us, we certainly could. Thank you. You always know how to make me feel better about myself.” He glanced about the room. “I imagine you know some of these people.”
“Most of them,” Kadir confessed. “Though I’m not friendly with many. An exception approach, though.”
Lucien glanced in the direction of his friend’s gaze to the woman crossing the room. Her black hair was braided in small rows tight to her skull before expanding in a dark cloud behind her. Her umber skin carried an internal glow reminiscent of the golden sun setting in the windows. An emerald dress clung to her upper body but left her strong arms bare. The skirt hung free and flowing from her hips, with a high slit that allowed for glimpses of her legs as she strode up to them. The woman marched right up to Kadir and planted a kiss on his cheek.
“Hello, handsome,” she purred. Her voice flowed like molten gold. “It’s been a while.”
“Too long,” Kadir agreed. “I’d say I’m surprised to see you, but that would be a lie.”
The woman laughed, a deep, rich sound. “When have I ever turned down a chance to best a room full of men, or flirt with beautiful women?”
“Never. But I’m being rude. Princess Delu of Bemmed, may I introduce you to Lord Lucien Alane of Theoria.”
Recall hit Lucien like lightning. The name was that of a powerful warrior who Kadir said had wrestled a lion and won. They were one of the few warriors and knights that had ever defeated the Malkasar champion. “An honor to meet you, your Highness,” he said as he bowed.
“Please don’t call me that, either of you,” the woman scoffed. “Delu Lionsbane is my true name.”
“But it would be a shame not to tease you,” Kadir said, grinning at her. “How was your trip?”
“Boring. The sea was far too dull. The most exciting part was getting stopped by bandits in whatever kingdom it was, but they ran as soon as I knocked their leader unconscious.” She rolled her dark eyes at the memory. “And all these stuffy Vlidious nobles. At least you’ve finally come to save me from a slow death of tedium.”
Lucien couldn’t help but chuckle. “I doubt you would die, but we’re glad to stop it from happening.”
Delu gave him a look over. “Lucien, yes? Kadir’s mentioned you before. You’re quite good with a sword yourself.”
“All thanks to him, really. I was average at best.”
“Lucien is far too modest for his own good,” Kadir interrupted. “You could teach him a thing or two about self-pride.”
Before the Bemmedian princess could reply, a trumpet sounded. The trio turned their attention to the doors where a herald stood. “Introducing their Royal Majesties, King Renard Bornesher and Queen Aleinora, and her Highness Princess Issabella.”
The doors swung open and the three members of the royal family entered. King Renard came first, with his queen at his side. Her pale blonde hair made a crown of braids around her head, upon which sat a true crown to match the king’s. Their youngest daughter, Issabella, followed after, her dark hair unbound. The princess, only fifteen, glanced shyly at the bowing nobility.
“And her Royal Highness, Princess Esmeralda.”
As soon as his eyes found her, Lucien felt his breath stall. Her hair, golden as honey, fell in rich curls to her waist. A delicate silver diadem glittered in her hair as she walked. Across the distance, he could see the gray-blue of her eyes as clear as day. Her face could have been that of a classic sculpture, so effortless was her beauty.
Princess Esmeralda crossed to the head of the table, with her father at her right and her sister to her left. She gestured to the table, and all the competitors took the cue to find their seats. Lucien found himself with Kadir and Delu, much to his relief.
“Sit, please,” Esmeralda spoke. Her voice, lyrical and honey sweet, filled Lucien’s ears with warmth. As everyone sat, Princess Esmeralda folded her hands upon the back of her chair. “I thank you all for accepting the invitations sent to you. It is an honor to have such fine and honorable nobles as all of you.” She swept a gaze over them all, her soft mouth curving into a delicate smile. “But perhaps what you do not realize is that I am the one who invited you here, not my father. This is my competition. I am not a mere prize to be won; it is I who will test and judge you. But first I wish to know you. Tonight, we shall dine, and after we shall drink and speak as equals.” She extended one hand and gestured to the table. “Enjoy your feast, my welcome gift to you all.”
The princess took her seat as servants swept to the table. Lucien found his plate heaped with rich fare. After nearly a moon of travelling, he dug into his plate with utmost enthusiasm. The roast boar and spiced potatoes far outshone the simple fare he and his party had eaten for their journey.
“I can’t say it’s a surprise,” Kadir mused to his friends. “Her Highness is known for her independence and cleverness.”
“Better traits then beauty,” Delu agreed, “though being pretty never hurts. And pretty is an understatement. Such beautiful hair, and a strong face. She would not shy from battle.”
“Do many women fight in Bemmed?” Lucien asked. Most of his cultural knowledge was landlocked to his own continent.
Delu leaned forward to look at him past Kadir. Her eyes sparkled at his question. “Oh yes. Anyone may be a warrior, no matter their gender. The Vlidious idea that only men can wield a sword is absurd. Princess Esmeralda looks as if she may be of the same mind.”
Dinner sprawled before them. Kadir and Delu told each other about their adventures since their last meeting. It was full of daring swordfights and run ins with pirates, facing off with powerful beasts and acts of great daring. Lucien listened, cutting in now and then with questions and exclamations. It was only as dinner rolled in – light and flaky pastries filled with sweet berries – that the pair finished.
“And what of you, young lord?” Delu asked. “What adventures have you had?”
Adventures. They were for men like Kadir, who had wings fettered to their feet since birth, always itching to fly to some new place. Lucien travelled when needed, to joust or spar for honor and glory, to endure politics, to follow his duty to his father and his king. Adventure found him, not the other way around.
And yet it did at times find him. “I ran with wolves once, when I was only sixteen,” he said. His voice, often firm and measured, took up a languid quality as the memory swept over him. “I had snuck out of my lessons and taken my horse into the woods. It was winter and there was snow, anyone could have followed my tracks. I went out on my own, having a mind to try and shoot a winter turkey. Instead the pack found me.”
He could remember them as clear as day. The Alane family used the wolf as their symbol, for courage and tenacity, but also for the simple fact that their modest castle was in wolf territory. “The wolves ruled this land first,” Lord Alane often said, “and they will rule it after us.” To hunt wolves in their lands was forbidden, unless the hunter had proof the wolf was endangering themselves or their livestock.
Their howls serenaded Lucien to sleep on many nights, but until that point, he had never seen one in the flesh. To see a whole pack, with only his horse and his bow and arrow for protection, had made his muscles snap taut and his eyes grow large.
The head of the pack stared at him as he stared at it. He studied every detail: the harvest moon yellow of its eyes, the patchwork of gray and brown through its coat that let it melt into the forest’s shadows, the slight red stains on its chops from its last meal, the one large paw lifted in mid stride. He imagined the wolf studied him with the same wary fascination.
“I turned to leave them,” he continued, “but they followed. At first, I thought they were hunting me. It was only when they were on my flank that I realized they never once snapped or lunged. We simply ran. I’ve never known a thrill like that since then.”
“A marvelous story.” It was neither Delu or Kadir who spoke, but another. Lucien, startled from his daze of memory, twisted to see Princess Esmeralda standing behind his chair. Dinner had finished and most had cleared away from the table, finding other places to talk.
The princess smiled, a small expression. Her soft eyes glanced away from Lucien. “Forgive me for eavesdropping. I wondered what could keep you all so riveted here when everyone else had drifted elsewhere. I couldn’t imagine riding with a pack of wild wolves. Weren’t you afraid?”
“No,” Lucien replied. “If I’m honest, I’m much more afraid now than I was then.”
His response startled a laugh from her, and Esmeralda brought a swift hand over her mouth. “Afraid now? What for? I’m only a princess.”
“It’s a fine reason, I think. To embarrass myself before you would be a slow, agonizing end.” So saying, Lucien rose, bowing to her. “You honor me, your Highness.”
“You honor me by coming, Lucien. But don’t you remember what I said? We are equals here.” She gestured for him to come with her. “And I would like to know you as such.”
Lucien stole the briefest glance at his two friends. Kadir raised a sharp brow while Delu rolled her eyes, clearly thinking him hopeless. The young lord plunged onward, extending his arm to the princess. Her hand fit comfortably in the crook of his arm as they moved away from the table.
“I do not feel like your equal,” Lucien confessed. “You invited princes and princesses, dukes and barons. Why me?”
“Why not you?” she replied. “Would you question my choice to invite Sir Kadir the Bold?”
There was no hesitation in him. “No. Kadir is an incredible man, and would make a fine leader.”
“Yet you doubt yourself. I wrote to King Valtair, asking him to choose the family who he would trust to take over, if he and his line were to suddenly end. He thought it an odd request, but his answer was Lord Alister Alane – your father.”
“And you chose me based on that alone?”
Esmeralda smiled up at him. “I did. And I dare say I made a fine choice in doing so. A man brave enough to gallop with wolves and talk to princesses is one who would make a fine king.” She stopped, turning fully to face him. “Tell me, Lucien. What do you think of fae and magic?”
“I think both were here before simple man. What makes it our place to think we deserve a place more than them? Why can’t we share the world?”
She nodded, the modest sapphire in her diadem shimmering with the motion. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Before she could continue further, there was a heavy rapping sound. All heads turned towards the doorway. Another herald, dressed not in the Bornesher colors but instead in deep evergreen and gray, stood with a large staff in hand. “May I introduce Prince Rasmus of the Bosnas empire,” the man intoned.
From the shadows of the open door stepped Prince Rasmus. He wore simple traveling clothes of leather and wool. His hair was pale blond and his eyes the color of ice. His cold eyes searched the room, finding Princess Esmeralda. Without hesitation, he made his way towards her. The princess stepped away from Lucien to meet him halfway.
When they met, the Bosnan prince sank into a deep bow. “Forgive my late arrival, your Highness. I have travelled far to come, and the Beartin Sea is an unpredictable master.”
Princess Esmeralda seemed to study him for a moment. “You are forgiven,” she replied. “Welcome to my kingdom, Prince Rasmus. I was not expecting you until much later tonight. But you may sit at my table and eat now, and we shall talk after you have had your fill.”
The prince bowed again before taking a seat. Servants rushed to wait on him. Esmeralda turned, looking back briefly at Lucien to gift him with a smile before she moved on, now coaxing Kadir off to a quiet part of the room.
Lucien retreated to the table again, sitting in what had been his spot. Delu lounged in her chair, languid as a lioness. In one hand she cupped her wine glass, swirling the last of its contents. “You’re a deceptive one, little lord. Your modesty and manners hide quite the charmer.”
“I only spoke the truth. I’m not used to princesses at all.” King Valtair only had sons, and the princesses who came to tournaments rarely spoke to him, only granting him a favor and a shy smile if he won.
“And princes?” Delu’s eyes slid down briefly to Prince Rasmus, who had taken a seat near the head of the table.
Lucien looked at the prince also. “Princes I’m used to. He won’t pay me any mind.”
“Not any of us,” she agreed. When Lucien looked back to her, she was grinning. “And that will be his downfall.”