Dressed in fine linen and velvet, Lucien took his place at the seat of honor.
He had found his finest tunic, a pretty thing of green velvet with silver brocade trim. His black shirt tunic was mostly hidden, revealed only on his forearms where the tunic’s sleeves fell open. He had left his shirt untied at the throat, complimenting the deep opening of his tunic. The green velvet fell past his knees; the long part he had not buttoned, not needing the extra warmth of the garment, instead leaving it to flap behind him when he walked. He had pinned the pink rose to his breast. It had not wilted in the slightest since Esmeralda had graced it to him.
Princess Esmeralda far outshone him. Her gown of pink silk shimmered at even the slightest movement. Freshwater pearls stitched to the bodice added to the fine beauty of it. The sleeves, whimsical things of gauze, started parallel to her bodice and fell loose around her arms, down to her wrists where they cinched down to cuffs also trimmed with pearls. The voluminous skirt sparkled as if bedecked with a field of stars. The whole gown rustled as she sat down.
Esmeralda cast him a secretive smile. “I confess I prefer my gardening dress sometimes. My formal gowns are lovely, but heavy. And there’s beauty in simpler things as well. I feel like you might agree with me on that.”
Lucien laughed at her observation. “I do. I think our cultures have slightly different views on fashion.”
“As you should, so far north.” She held out an arm for emphasis. “What good would this do your queen? Not that it does me any good come winter, either. But I didn’t invite you to sit with me to talk fashion.” Esmeralda gave him a long look at they were served their first course. “How do you feel, being here now that you’ve won the joust?”
Lucien had expected the question since she handed him the rose. He had mulled it over in the hours since, over his celebratory drinks and the praise of some of the other competitors. Did he imagine the change in their glances at him? Was the honor and respect in them false? Or had it always been there, and he had ignored it, insisting to himself that he did not deserve it?
“Better,” he finally replied. “A bit more surefooted. Perhaps I just needed a reminder of myself and who I was.”
“I’m glad. If I cared for the status of who I will marry at the end of this, I would have invited only princes. I’m much more interested in other aspects.”
“A political alliance, then,” Lucien mused. He had wondered as much and wondered more in relation to it. “If that’s so, why invite me? We’re already allies.”
“So we are.” It was King Renard who answered him. Lucien felt his face heat some. He had been so absorbed in Esmeralda that he had forgotten her family sat with them, also. Yet King Renard did not seem at all troubled by his lapse in manners. His smile put the young lord at ease. “But it is an unofficial thing. Valtair would come to my aid if I asked, and I to his, but perhaps not with the full strength either of us could afford. But if we were to forge a deeper, stronger bond, nothing would stop us from giving our full strength to the other.”
Lucien considered, and found himself soon agreeing. Theoria’s army consisted not only of human knights, but elven warriors, mages, other fair folk. It was one of the kingdom’s greatest strengths, the mingling of magic in the army. The abilities of the fae could be cataclysmic when used for violence. But King Valtair would not send those forces lightly, and there could easily be circumstances where Grismere could use such strong aid.
“You have as much to offer as all my other suitors,” Esmeralda said. “Perhaps more, even, then some. I certainly haven’t enjoyed my conversations with everyone.” The smile she cast was secretive again, reminding him of their quiet time together at the tulips. When she spoke next, it was to shift the subject once more. “Your horse was incredible today. Tell me about him?”
“Darkfire is my surest companion,” Lucien replied. “He’s the bravest horse I’ve ever known. I rode him the day in the woods, racing with the wolves. He never shied once from them. It wasn’t a surprise that he came to enjoy jousts so much.”
Esmeralda shook her head, marveling at his words. “A horse that races with wolves is a fine one, indeed. I don’t think I could ever do such a thing.”
“Perhaps you’d surprise yourself if the moment came.”
“Maybe,” she laughed, “but my mare certainly wouldn’t. She’d run, but only to get away. She’s not nearly as brave as your Darkfire. You have such lovely horses in Theoria.”
“They’re our own breed,” he replied, not without some pride. Theorian destriers like Darkfire were one of the kingdom’s most valuable assets, both for economic and military reasons. “Horsemen claim they are descended from the wild horses found native to the land, though I’m not sure how true that is. But I can say they were bred for their strength and courage. My father breeds them himself.”
“You had the pick of the herd then, I imagine.”
“I did,” Lucien agreed. “My father took me to the stable on my fifteenth birthday. He had all the newly broke foals lined up, Theorian destriers all of them. ‘Take your pick’ he said, and I went one by one down the line, touching them, walking some, noting how they responded and listened. They were all perfectly behaved, but Darkfire... There was something about him. We understood each other from that first moment. He was the only one I rode, and as soon as I was astride, I knew he’d be mine. Sometimes I believe it was preordained in a way.”
“Fate meddles in smaller things,” King Renard intoned. “Destiny weaves its web through many details. You would not be the young lord you are without your horse; you would not have the honor and pride of so many tournaments, perhaps, and perhaps without those you would not be here in Ivermon with us, or even sitting here at our table.” The twinkle in his stormy eyes was as bright as lightning against thunderheads. “Why not believe it always?”
Lucien considered before answering. “And do you think you were preordained to be king, then? Did destiny’s web lead you here as well?”
King Renard laughed in a deep, booming voice like summer thunder. “Alister Alane has raised a fine man in you – clever and quick of wit. Perhaps so,” the king continued, “but I think what put me on the throne is my name and my blood. You see, King Reynfrey had many sons who later formed our greatest houses. One such son, so they say, was named Bornesher. And Bornesher had many sons of his own, and on and on, until myself. I have not had any sons, but I have been blessed with two beautiful, intelligent daughters who will carry on my name and legacy, and King Reynfrey’s as well.”
“It is even more of an honor to dine with you all tonight,” Lucien said. “King Reynfrey was a great man, and you follow in his steps well, your Majesty.”
King Renard smiled at that comment, clearly pleased. When Lucien glanced at Esmeralda, he saw her smiling as well, dark eyes twinkling. Lucien returned her smile, delighted that he could bring her that happiness.
The rest of dinner seemed to fly past him in a rush of conversation and excellent food. As the dessert plates were cleared, Esmeralda’s delicate hand touched his arm. “Walk with me, will you?” It was no demand, no order, but a friendly request, a desire to share his company. Lucien agreed without hesitation.
He stood first, giving the princess his hand. Hers fit perfectly in his, small but not entirely soft; there were tough spots on her fingers from her work in her garden, and perhaps other hobbies he would learn later. As the guests began to trickle out of the dining hall, Esmeralda led him towards a bank of large windows which touched the floor. As they approached, Lucien saw that one pane was in truth a glass door, outside of which stood a balcony.
A royal guard opened the door for them and they stepped out into the night. Esmeralda led the way to the edge of the balcony where she stopped, leaning forward to rest her forearms on the stone rail. The gentle breeze set her hair fluttering. Lucien gazed at her for a moment as she gazed out over her city. He found himself struck anew by her beauty. Her face bore a proud, regal look, with strength and softness both in the line of her jaw. Her mouth bore that small, secretive smile he already found endearing; after all, he had yet to see her share it with anyone else. In the moonlight, her eyes gleamed as dark as the night sky.
“Is it very different from home?” she asked him, still gazing out over the city.
Lucien turned to look over Ivermon. It was far larger than the village sequestered under Darkelm Hall, the old, ancestral home of the Alane family. Their serfs lived in small homes, designed to be kept warm in the dead of winter. Yet he recognized the curling smoke from chimneys and the glow of firelight in windows.
“In ways,” he answered, leaning against the railing next to her. “It’s much larger. But then, I’m not one of Valtair’s sons. They would tell you Silinia is like Ivermon, but built with different materials. More stone than wood.”
“And what of your home? Darkelm Hall, yes?”
“Much smaller than your palace,” he replied, words tinged with a chuckle. “And far more modest, also. It’s named for the elms in the woods, the darkness of the forest in winter. But it’s charming, cozy even. Theoria is cold, so very cold in the winter, but Darkelm is always full of roaring hearths at all times. We keep warm well.”
Esmeralda gave a little laugh as she plucked at one gauzy sleeve. “I’d freeze right through in this thing.” As she spoke, the wind gusted higher. It carried a colder edge to it, and as it cut through the princess’s gown, she shivered.
Lucien hurried to undo his long velvet tunic. Esmeralda caught his intention and began to shake her head. “Oh no, please, I’m all right-”
Lucien did not pause, though. He draped the heavy garment over her shoulders. The green velvet seemed to swallow her whole, and its length, falling mid-calf on Lucien, touched the ground on Esmeralda’s smaller frame. She gave another shiver as he wrapped it around her, and her small hand grasped the front to hold it closed around her.
“I don’t need it,” Lucien replied. “So I insist.” Though the breeze was cool, it didn’t bother him, even in only his linen shirt. He was used to far worse this time of year.
“Thank you, Lucien. And thank you for joining me at dinner tonight. You were wonderful.”
“I was? I thought I was just polite.”
Esmeralda laughed a little. “You were, certainly. The thing is, when we have guests dine with us, they often do everything they can to ingratiate themselves with my father. I suppose I can’t blame them, he is our king, after all. But it’s disgusting to watch. They simper and fuss and compliment him constantly, in every tiny detail, plenty of which he never had to do with. They ignore the rest of us. You were different. You spoke to me as an equal, as I wanted you to. You spoke to me the most, even.”
“As I should,” Lucien replied. “You asked me to join you, specifically. It would be rude to ignore you.”
“Others likely will. They’ll forget it’s my opinion that matters the most in this. I know what they say, that I’m just a girl and I shouldn’t be a queen, that it’s silly of me to choose my own spouse. They won’t win if they think that way.”
“They shouldn’t,” he agreed. “This is your kingdom, you are the heir to the throne. You deserve to rule it. Whoever you marry, they’ll advise you, but it’s your rule which should be heard. Your legacy, and King Renard’s and King Reynfrey’s all.”
Esmeralda brought one hand from under his vast tunic, grasping Lucien’s tight. “Thank you,” she whispered. Her voice had grown thicker, and Lucien saw her eyes gleam with unshed tears. “That is... You are...” Her words failed her. Instead, the princess stepped closer. She leaned up, her breath warm against Lucien’s cheek. He felt his heart skip a beat when her lips touched to his cheek ever so softly. Her lips felt soft as the rose petal pinned to his tunic, and the perfume of roses clung to her skin and hair.
When she stepped back, she shivered again. “I’d love to stay out here all night and talk more, but I’m afraid I’m a little cold, even with this lovely coat of yours.”
“A fur would be better, I daresay. I’ll walk you in.” Lucien took her hand again and led the way back in. Once inside, Esmeralda led him back to the hall where his guest room was located. She stopped at the start of the hall.
“I’m afraid we part for tonight,” she murmured. “Thank you for joining me.” With reluctance, she shrugged out of his velvet tunic and handed it back. “I’ll be watching you closely tomorrow, Lucien. I hope you do well.”
The words swelled pride in his chest. “Thank you, Esmeralda.” He hesitated, then asked, “We’ll speak again soon, won’t we?”
“Of course,” she promised. “Very soon. Goodnight, Lucien.”
He watched her turn away, guards appearing as if from nowhere to accompany her safely to her own chambers. Once she had gone, Lucien went back to his room. He prepared for bed swiftly in solitude, making sure to unfasten the rose from his tunic and lay it on the stand by his bed. As he laid in bed, drifting towards sleep, the rose’s perfume wrapped around him, and for a moment he felt he could once more feel the princess’s kiss on his cheek.