Shimmer was doing her last touches on the porcelain corset when Levi walked into my room and fell on his back on the bed. Blaze knocked politely before entering and sitting at the window next to a nervous Yuki.
“How is Kit’s OCD?” I asked, hissing softly as Shimmer tightened the strings and pulled the obsidian trinkets into the middle, blood rubies dangling like spiders on the skeletal framework. She gave me a toothy smile before moving to my hair.
“They are worried about the rival kingdoms mocking your court, so excuse Kit’s need to perfect every little detail and make sure all is well. All they want is for them to respect you rather than mock you. The rivals can be quite vicious and have not been scared to hold back in the past,” Blaze explained with a sigh. “Don’t be surprised if Kit rushes in and out now and then unlike their original plan of staying out of the way.”
“Maybe we should consider giving Kit a long break after this?” Levi suggested, sitting up and smoothing his hair back out of his face. The suit he wore had an obsidian ribcage under the jacket, jagged spikes poking up from the gaps. One of Shimmer’s latest works. He caught my eye and smirked, causing me to scoff. Like I was looking at him like that.
“Kit will be back to themselves tomorrow,” Shimmer stated, stepping away from me and placing scaled high heels in front of me. Giving her a pointed glare, I slipped my feet in them. I knew by the end of the night, my poor feet would be throbbing and no one would even see the heels under the long, black skirt.
“I’m ready when you are,” I stated, taking a deep breath. I could hear the chatter as the other kingdom royals and thanes arrived down below. My nerves were making themselves known as my stomach clenched and my hands shook. Shimmer gripped my shoulder, sliding a knife into the hidden sheath strapped to my thigh.
“You will instil fear and respect from those milk-drinkers below,” She whispered, hissing breath making my neck warm. “Tell my husband that I will be in my chambers for when he gets bored of that chatter. Do not feel like you have to stay either, politics always find their way into these feasts.”
The doors to the banquet hall were slightly closed, the loud chatter and melodious instruments carrying towards us. Kit waited outside them, their expression strained under the stress. Kit took my arm and whispered good luck. Levi took my hand as they opened the doors, our titles ringing out as we stepped into the room. Heads turned in our direction before returning to conversations in quieter tones.
Niven and Bronte were the first thanes to welcome us as Yuki moved to the back of the room. Bronte gave Levi a heavy-handed slap on his back as Niven bent to whisper in my ear, words edged harshly.
“Watch out for Queen of Talay. She hunting your head, I feel it in my scales.”
Nodding, I thanked him as Mal and Fendrick came over. They wore their colours of Wylan and the attire of their territories. Fendrick looked slimmer with his smile and tight-fitting suit while Mal looked even friendlier and motherly with her curly hair tamed into intricate braids, makeup lightly done and lips pulled into a large smile.
The first royals to approach us as we went to grab goblets with dark red wine inside, were Sage and Klaus. Sage gave me a tight hug, squeezing my ribcage even further than the corset. Both wore Themis’s colours, Sage dressed in a sheer veil over his arms while dark silk-covered his torso. His boots came up to his knees, decorated with silver leaves. Klaus was dressed similarly but without the veil.
“Did your thanes make the journey?” Levi asked, tilting his head.
“Yes, it was difficult to get them here so I must apologize as the dark is not an elf’s most favourite thing in the world,” Klaus began, already being more talkative than our first introduction. “They are by the hearth, trying to chase away their fear. If you would like us to, I can call them over for an introduction?”
“No, no, that is not needed. I was just making sure you trusted us enough to bring them along with you,” Levi stated, smiling as he gripped Klaus’s shoulder. “Please, enjoy yourselves tonight and know that guestrooms have been prepared for you.”
As they walked away, another couple was coming towards us. The woman instantly took my breath away with her beauty. Her skin was a rich dark brown, pink scars pridefully exposed from her dress’s lack of sleeves. Her features were sharpened with the use of gold dust, her eyes becoming even more predatorial in their eerie lime-green. But what wowed me was not her looks alone. Behind her back, tucked neatly and close were wings. They were jet black, decorated with thin, dainty golden chains, feathers reflecting the light of the candles.
The man next to her, his head shaved so only light stubble remained, was a complete contrast to her. His skin was like milk, black tattoos weaved intricate patterns from exposed shoulders to clenched fists. His wings were caramel-coloured, black dainty chains decorated them. His eyes were a sharp forest-green, slightly angled compared to his wife’s.
“Evening, Queen Harper and King Levi,” The woman greeted, voice like velvet. She extended her hand and I took it, feeling her long, claw-like nails brush my wrist as we let go.
“Evening, Queen Wren and King Hadron. How do you find Wylan at this time?” Levi asked, smiling just enough to show his canines. The couple in front of us ruled over Gryffindale, our second pair of allies.
“Very different. Queen Nesryn never allowed us into the palace, we held many of our meetings in the forest,” Hadron said, glancing around, eyes slightly wide as he studied every detail within the room.
“We plan on changing that, but it is still early days and I am sure you don’t need two novices messing around,” I joked, slipping my arm through Levi’s as I noticed the Queen of Talay marching her way towards us. Wren smirked and rolled her eyes, already sensing the woman’s presence.
The Queen of Talay, Naomi, was unmarried and known for her cunning moves that only benefited her. She was half-elven, her mother’s gene’s strong in every sharp bone, slanted black eyes. Her dark hair was the only thing that linked her to her father with its blonde streaks.
“Already starting your war meetings, I see.” Naomi smiled sweetly, looking us over with boredom clear in her eyes. “Before I forget, the royals from Arryn are unable to join. The roads are very bad this time of year, you must understand.”
“A shame then. Maybe next time we will have the pleasure of meeting them,” I said, squeezing Levi’s arm as the first courses were being served at the decorated table. “Dinner is ready, let us make our way to our seats. Queen Wren, King Hadron, you and your thanes do not have to worry, we have vegetarian meals prepared with mutton slices since it is a special occasion.”
Wren and Hadron nodded their thanks, leading the way to the table. I touched Naomi’s forearm and nodded to the seat next to me. She gave me a quizzical glance before following.
“What are you doing?” Levi whispered as he sat at the head of the table.
There was tension nearing the end of the table where all thanes sat, patiently waiting for the first bite of the first dish to be made. Levi made a small toast before giving the go-ahead to eat, which both Klaus and Sage did immediately, followed by their thanes. Smiling at Levi, I took my first mouthful of mutton and spiced vegetables.
The little conversation came from the thanes even though the Mirk brothers tried their best to get Naomi’s thanes to speak. At our end, Sage and I spoke much with Hadron and Wren while Levi gently bumped his knee against mine and Klaus seemed lost in thought.
“Sorry to interrupt this wonderful conversation you are currently having, but Queen Harper, do you by chance know how to play?” Naomi interjected, nodding to the four musicians playing. Trying to conceal a snort, I blinked twice and acted embarrassed.
“Only a little bit of violin, mostly the cello. And you, Queen Naomi?” She smirked at my words as the thanes silenced their little chatter to concentrate on ours.
“A true queen learns to play every instrument, how to recite poetry and excel in archery as well as paint portraits and landscapes. Of course, I know how to play this pathetic string instrument in front of me,” She stated, lifting her chin in her drunken confident state.
“Prove it.” Sage’s words were simple yet sharp as he smiled. “If a true queen can play any instrument, pick one of these and play it for us. Prove yourself.”
“I have nothing to prove,” Naomi snapped, smirk gone and replaced by a sneer.
“Should we place bets on who can play the best?” Klaus suggested, showing me, he had been listening from the beginning. “Queen Harper against King Sage and Queen Naomi?”
“I like this idea. My love, will you participate?” Hadron asked Wren, helping to spearhead the challenge. Wren glanced at her nails and shook her head.
“The strings are not Winged Folk made, I will sit this one out, but by all means, you three go ahead,” Wren stated, bumping my arm with hers. “Come on, don’t let the suspense kill us.”
Sighing, I began to stand, thinking of a melody that I still remembered. Sage was already up, flexing his fingers as he spoke to the guitarist. Naomi was the only one still sitting until she got a hard kick from Wren who smiled innocently. Only then did she look at the remaining three instruments. A cello, violin and harp. She took the cello, giving me an evil smirk. Too bad I lied about being a cello fan.
Thanking the young woman who had the violin, I placed it under my chin. I could feel the muscle memory in my arms and fingers, the song already naturally picked.
“How are we doing this?” I whispered as chairs were turned for a better view of us. Naomi shrugged, rolling her eyes as she sat on the celloists seat.
“I will go first, of course,” She stated, already jumping into playing the instrument. It was an intricate piece, difficult and required all her attention and the audience.
“You know Earth world music?” I whispered, stepping back to stand next to Sage. He nodded and moved his hand side-to-side. Some. “You want to do a duet?”
He grinned and nodded his head. “Are we going to sing as well or only play?”
“Depending on the song.”
"I See Fire?”
“Classic. Let’s do it.”
When Naomi finished, the thanes and other royals clapped respectively. Levi and Klaus watched us, already knowing something was up as Sage sat down on the chair and I stood by him, ready. Naomi glared at us, openly clenching her fists.
Confidently, I started, leading Sage as he began to strum the guitar in rhythm. Our voices joined soon, gripping the people in front of us. No one said no to adding our voices to the melody. I lost myself then, remembering how I used to play for my father and how he would sing along if he knew the lyrics. We had spent so many days like that.
When we were finished, we were breathing heavily, grinning at each other. The thanes and royals were slow to respond, clapping a second later as someone whistled. Sage placed the guitar down and gave me a tight hug before we walked back to the table and our seats to resume our meals with a fuming Talay Queen.
Once the courses were finished and everyone sent to their rooms, I spoke with Wren. She promised to write as soon as she and Hadron returned to their kingdom. An owl would be her messenger while Sage bid her goodnight, promising to do the same with Wren. His messenger was a hawk.
“Your mom would be proud,” Were her last words before her thanes and husband departed.