Chapter 11 - Political Waters
I had given up all notions of ever really playing a major role in this family or our Kingdom a long time ago. As the youngest son of seven with two sisters, not even my all-powerful mother could arrange a deal to marry me off to one of the elusive princesses of the world. And honestly, I was okay with that. I loved it here in New York City and really didn’t want to have to move to go live in a country I didn’t know. Plus, being the youngest meant that there were a whole lot fewer expectations of me and I was granted more freedom to do what I wanted to do, instead of what duty demanded of me.
That didn’t mean that I didn’t yearn for the touch of a female Valkyrie, and unlike the vast majority of our kind I had grown up with a loving mother and playful sisters. I mourned that my children would never know that kind of love and always carried around a gaping hole that I can only assume is where a female would fit into my life. Don’t get me wrong, I was beyond happy for my two brothers that are blessed with having wives, but when my mother told me of an unattached female who was recently discovered in the West, I knew that I had to meet this Delia Ray Olsen.
--Ethan Deveroe, Prince of the Americas Northeast Kingdom
The next morning I was enjoying my second cup of coffee made from my own coffee maker after taking a ridiculously long shower when there was a knock at the front door. I checked the peephole and saw that both Mathis and Sean were standing on the porch and I opened the door to let them in. After getting them each a cup of coffee we settled into the dining room and they explained how this whole homeschooling thing was going to work.
First, I was going to work with Elijah and or Mathis in the morning learning about Valkyrie history, government, and politics that they deemed most important for me to know. Then, I would have a couple of training sessions in the afternoon that would rotate with all of my Gifts. Because of Elijah’s extensive library and the Oakland’s Clan training areas, all of this would occur at the Oakland Clan House.
However, today would be different. Today, I was to get a crash course on everything I needed to know for the dinner with the royals tonight. And the kicker was, while tonight was supposed to just be a small dinner so that the Collins’ Royal Line could get to know me and formally apologize for the whole Kaiden trying to stab me thing, Friday was the start of Regina’s Matching. Apparently, I was required to attend the entire week-long event.
Sean and Mathis spent the first couple hours of the morning telling me of dozens of different ways that I could offend the royals, while also reminding me that I held a unique level of power and autonomy because I had five Gifts and wasn’t aligned with any royal family. This meant that if I got into trouble I wouldn’t have the resources backing me up to stand up to the Collinses, but they also were going to go out of their way to win me over and would let a lot of what I did or said slide. The entire lecture seemed very hypocritical and made my head hurt. In the end, I understood that the bottom line was to try to be on my best behavior and act politically, but not to let anyone walk over me.
When I asked about the Matching, they told me that all of the important Valkyries within the Americas West Kingdom would be there plus almost most royal families around the world would send a small contingent of age-appropriate princes or powerful people of authority. These kinds of events weren’t just to celebrate the young female coming of age and forging an alliance between two kingdoms but were also used as political summits. Lots of different important conversations and deals would take place over the week-long event. Friday night was the kickoff ball for Regina’s Matching. I had to learn how to ballroom dance before then and I also needed to be fitted for a ball gown.
I balked at the idea of a real-life ball and told them that I wasn’t Cinderella and they were most certainly not my fairy godmother. But then Mathis gave me another lecture about keeping an open mind and how these events were an important part of Valkyrie tradition that I should be proud to be included in. I caved pretty quickly under the pressure of his possible disappointment.
“This is an opportune chance for you to see how a Matching proceeds and make some initial connections in our world. You said you turn eighteen in three months, it will be tight but Dad and I think that we can pull off planning your Matching in that amount of time. I am sure that once people meet you, they will forgive us the faux pas of sending out invites so close to the event,” Sean said in an offhand way and I had to take a deep breath to keep myself from flying off the handle again.
“And if I don’t want to have a Matching?” I asked in a forced calm.
Sean must have realized that he had overstepped and started backpedaling. “Well, even if we don’t use the Matching in the traditional manner, you still need to have some sort of introduction into our society. Just because you have a Matching doesn’t mean that you have to pick a royal clan to join. Like we said before, ultimately it will be your decision.”
My head buzzed and I knew that my uncle didn’t really believe what he was saying.
I was about to try once again to explain that I was not going to get engaged at the age of eighteen and would not be used as some sort of political chess piece, but then the doorbell rang and both Mathis and Sean left the room. I was surprised when I saw that Felix was standing on my porch next to a short man in a full three-piece suit. Sean greeted both of them and then ushered them into the living room before introducing the man I didn’t know as Hearld Oswald.
Herald was the premiere Valkyrie clothing designer and was here to provide me with something suitable to wear tonight and then to take measurements for my ball gown. He was an outlandish man that I immediately took a liking to even though he had no problem putting his measuring tape in all sorts of places I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.
Felix and I talked while I tried on at least a dozen different dresses. He told me that while Regina was beyond pissed last night after our little confrontation at the school, her outrage didn’t end up spreading to the rest of the royal family. So that was a relief.
Herald and Mathis finally agreed on a simple black cocktail dress for tonight, but Herald was quick to reassure me that he would get me into some color for the ball. I could care less, and my only request was that I would be able to move freely. I would hate to have to need to cut up a custom dress because I needed to fight and the stupid thing was too constricting.
After the decisions on the clothes were made, Mathis was quick to kick both Herald and Felix out of the house because he wanted to spend a couple of hours training before we had to get ready to go into the city for dinner. We used this first training session assessing my abilities, or at least that is what Mathis called it.
First, he and Sean made a series of statements and I told them if they were lying or not, and I actually learned a lot about them. It was like playing two truths and a lie. Mathis was about to move on to my Tracking Gift when I asked if he wanted to test my ability to also tell the truth from a lie from written material. This seemed to shock the old man and they spent the next half hour writing down more tidbits of information, having me read newspapers, and taking standardized multiple-choice tests to prove that I could indeed use my Truth Gift in this way.
Then Sean took off and fifteen minutes later Mathis directed me to use my Tracking Gift to find him. I pictured Sean’s face in my mind’s eye and then felt the sure knowledge that if I walked west I would find him. After walking directly to Sean within a grocery store, Mathis declared that I was sloppy, but had a lot of raw Tracking talent.
I didn’t really know what he meant by that but considering that I had just learned of this Gift a little over a week ago, I decided to take it as a compliment. When we got back to the house Mathis had me demonstrate holding multiple Shields and he asked me to make as many as I could at one time. I had never done this before and was excited to see what I could do. It turned out that I could make and hold four different Shields that I could individually manipulate. But if I tried to make the fifth one, they all just merged together to make one big shield that was big enough to shield the entire duplex house.
Sean and Mathis were fairly quiet after that one, and I think I was starting to scare them a little with my power level. I was having a blast and it felt great to finally stretch and push my Gifts in this way.
After letting the huge Shield fall, Sean asked to see all of my weapons. I walked over to the picnic table in the backyard and started calling blades and placing them on the table. Once I was done the surface was completely covered with gleaming metal weapons all with my beautiful and simple filigree and flower markings. In all, I could call on thirteen different types of weapons including throwing knives, throwing stars, daggers, three different types of knives, short swords, long swords, katanā, kukri, machete, staff, and a spear. I felt a kinship to these blades and ran my fingers softly over their surfaces while looking over at my blood relatives to find them staring at the table in absolute awe.
“Have you trained in all of these weapons?” Sean asked in a breathy whisper and I reminded myself that I didn’t completely trust these people yet. The look in Sean’s eye was starting to dangerously resemble the greed and envy that hunted my father’s gaze when he looked at me.
“Yes, but I have to say that I am not very good with the spear. It is long, heavy, and I don’t really think there will be a situation where I will need to use it,” I admitted and switched to look at Mathis. Plain and simple pride shone through his eyes and a huge part of me wanted nothing more but to continue to show off for him so that he would always look at me like he was now.
“We can work on fighting with a spear, but mostly they are good for hitting long-range targets,” Mathis said and I thought about the possibility of being able to hit things at a longer range than I could reach with my throwing knives. “Just so you are aware, it is very unusual to be able to lay your weapons down without them dematerializing. This kind of subtle show of power alone will say a lot to our society and will gain you respect. I suggest trying to display this in some manner at the initial stages of the Matching.”
And just like that, my little bubble of pride popped. I was reminded that to Valkyries everything was about power games. Luckily the doorbell rang just then, giving me an out from this conversation. Instead of going through the house, I walked around using the side yard and found Jonas standing on the porch about to ring the doorbell again.
“Hey,” I called, suddenly feeling a little shy after the amazing night we had.
Jonas spun around and treated me with a brilliant smile, causing the butterflies in my stomach to wake up in a big way. He strode off the porch in long confident strides and didn’t hesitate to reach and cup my cheek before sweetly touching his lips to mine in a chaste kiss. “Hey,” Jonas replied. “I missed you.”
I felt myself blush and smile at the same time. I loved that he had missed me and my Truth Gift let me know that he meant it.
“Missed you too,” I admitted and he leaned in to give me another longer kiss that we just about to heat up when I heard a throat clearing behind us. I jumped away from Jonas as if he was on fire and felt the instant dread in my stomach like if I had been caught doing something wrong. Jonas didn’t let Mathis intimidate him though and he smoothly walked behind me and loosely wrapped his arms around my waist.
“Hello Jonas,” Mathis stated in a not unfriendly but definitely serious voice. “We were just in a training session. What brought you by today?”
Jonas smirked at something and if I had to guess I would say that he was picking up some interesting emotions from Mathis. I looked beyond my grandfather and could just make out that Sean was pacing back and forth in the backyard with a cell phone pressed to his ear. “I wanted to ask Ray if she wanted to come to my clan’s family barbeque tomorrow night,” Jonas replied and my attention was snapped back to the man behind me.
I turned in his hold and looked up into his eyes that were covered up by blue color contacts and asked in a skeptical tone, “You want me to go to a Blade Clan event? Alone?”
Jonas turned serious and replied, “Not alone, with me. I know you have had some run-ins with Blade, but really they are not bad people. The barbeque is low-key and relaxed and I would like you to get a chance to get to know some of my family in a less stressful atmosphere. Plus, it would give us a chance to spend some time together. I am assuming you will be attending the Matching, so you will be really busy next week.”
I thought it over for a moment before deciding he was right. I couldn’t let a couple of power plays between me and the Blade Clan stop me from spending the afternoon with the guy I was starting a relationship with. “Okay, that sounds nice.”
Jonas smiled down at me and if Mathis hadn’t been standing right behind us I would have leaned up and taken another kiss. Just then Blake’s huge truck pulled up and the twins plus Max jumped out. All of sudden, I felt slightly uncomfortable within Jonas’ hold and when I caught the look of surprise and hurt on Blake’s face I pulled away.
“Hey, Jonas,” Connor clipped out in a tight voice. “What are you doing here?”
Jonas flinched and I saw his eyes cloud with pain as he hunched his shoulders. He was withdrawing before my eyes because he was being bombarded with the guy’s emotions. I couldn’t deny that I was curious to know what he was picking up, but I wasn’t brave or brash enough to ask. I concentrated and Cloaked everyone’s mind and was happy to find that it was easier to do than the day before. Guess practice makes perfect.
Jonas’ shoulders relaxed and he gave me a small grateful smile before replying, “Just stopped by to ask Ray something, but I can see you guys have plans.”
Jonas then closed the distance between us and laid his hands on my shoulders as he bent and gently kissed my forehead. “See you tomorrow, babe,” he murmured and then walked away like he was completely impervious to the thick tension his actions had caused.
“You and Jonas?” Blake asked in a harsh tone that sounded way more like Connor than him.
I looked him in the eye and refused to be ashamed. I didn’t want to hurt Blake, but I didn’t really owe him an explanation on this. “Yes, me and Jonas,” I confirmed in a steady voice and Blake was the first to look away while visibly clenching his jaw. “What are you guys doing here?”
“We came to hang and help you get ready for tonight,” Max explained, cutting the tension between Blake and me. “We weren’t invited tonight, but as your honorary clan, we get to accompany you to all of the Matching events. We’ve all heard about them, but I can’t believe we actually get to go to Regina’s.”
Max’s clear excitement at being included in the upper echelon of the Valkyrie world was a wonderful distraction from all of the other drama happening. We spent the next couple of hours talking together about the Matching and what their day at school had been like. Even Blake forgot about his sour mood after a while and I loved every moment of it.
The guys were surprised that I didn’t take more time to get ready, but I didn’t own any makeup and didn’t really know how to do anything fancy for my hair. I just took a shower, blow-dried my hair, and slipped on the black cocktail dress. I figured I would look like the poor country cousin next to the rest of the royalty, but the guys were all rendered speechless when I emerged from my bathroom in a dress and heels. I took that as a compliment and got into Sean’s fancy rental car with a little more confidence than I had before.
We drove towards San Francisco but veered off towards the southern coast and after a forty-five-minute drive in light traffic we pulled up to an absolutely massive set of gates. Actual guards were stationed at the gate and not only checked all of our IDs but also ran mirrors with long sticks under the cars. Plus one of the guards asked Sean multiple questions about our purpose here. I assumed that he was a telepath and was probing us to make sure that we didn’t mean the royals any harm. After we passed through the gates I decided to Cloak both Mathis and Sean’s mind, knowing that it would annoy Hernan and be a way I could subtly flex my power.
There was a surprisingly long driveway lined with trees that finally led to a truly magnificent building much too big to be classified as a house. I now understood why Regina called it a palace. Personally, I thought it looked more along the lines of a historic museum. It was a massive rectangular building made up of what looked like marble or granite sitting on a cliff that led to the Pacific Ocean. Five stories high, with jutting balconies and impressive-looking windows.
Sean pulled the car up to the front door and handed the keys to a man I assumed acted as a sort of valet. Then we were ushered through the large double front doors that opened into a foyer with twenty-foot ceilings dotted with crystal chandeliers that definitely was made to induce the wow factor. And I was duly impressed. This was by far the nicest building I had ever walked into, but I managed to maintain my poker face.
Some kind of maitre d’ looking man greeted us and instructed us to take the elevator up to the roof garden. Holy bananas! They had a garden on their roof?? We did as the uptight man suggested and rode the large and elegantly decorated elevator up six floors. The doors opened on a big open area with stone floors and walls that were decorated with boxes blooming with all different types of colorful flowers. There were dozens of people milling about the softly lit space, grouped loosely around different small high topped tables that all contained platters of food.
“I thought this was supposed to be a small dinner with the Collins’ Royal Family,” I whispered under my breath and tried not to panic at the number of eyes that were slowly starting to focus on me.
“So did we,” Sean murmured back and placed a hand in the small of my back. The familial bond sent cool reassuring waves through the contact, and my shoulders relaxed. “Just take it one moment at a time.”
An absolutely gorgeous middle-aged woman in an ivory gauzy elegant floor-length dress approached and greeted us with a wide smile and an outstretched hand. “Oh, it is so good to finally meet you, Ray. Welcome to my home, and please feel free to call me Florence,” the woman purred and I felt the urge to reach and touch her. Because she was offering her hand, that is exactly what I did, and an incredibly strong clan bond bloomed between us.
I understood that this was Florence Collins, the Queen of the Americas West and the most powerful supernatural in this Kingdom. Time to jump into the political waters.
“Your Highness, thank you for inviting us into your home, it is absolutely beautiful,” I responded in an equally warm voice. I knew that I had made the right decision not to actually call her Florence when she gave me a little approving nod before she turned and started introducing us to all of the other people that were there.
First, we met the eldest Collins prince, Damon, and his fiance Noemie Guerrier who was the crown princess of France. Damon looked like a dark-haired version of Kaiden, but I could tell with one glance that the brothers were polar opposites personality-wise. Damon was serious, brooding, and calculating whereas Kaiden was frivolous, shallow, spontaneous. At first glance, Noemie looked like a fairy straight out of a Disney movie because she was so small and had narrow petite features. Neither offered to shake my hand, but I could feel their eyes linger on me long after we had moved onto the next party of people.
Next Florence introduced us to her husband, King Adalberto Collins, and her brother Eli Norwood who had married the queen of the Americas South and now was also a king. Adalberto was a dashing man with striking South American features and kind eyes that sparkled with humor. Conversely, nothing about Eli was kind or soft. He emanated strength and control. I saw nothing within his cold eyes and felt like something he wanted to trap and dissect when he looked at me.
With the two kings were two boys that were obviously siblings who maybe a year apart in age and just a little older than I was. Their names were Everett and Yates Norwood, but before I could say more than a general hello, Regina hurried over and pulled me away to meet some of her friends. By this point, I was already forgetting people’s names and starting to feel overwhelmed so I pushed back against the fabric of reality until I was cloaked just enough that Regina forgot I was there and her friends recentered their attention to Regina. I watched their interactions for a few minutes, decided I didn’t want anything to do with that group of people, and walked over to the short stone wall so I could see the breathtaking view of the ocean below me.
“That was truly an impressive getaway and I am begging you to please tell me how you pulled it off. Usually, I get stuck with Regina’s groupies for hours before I manage to sneak away,” a voice said to my left. I tore my gaze from the incredible view to study my new companion. He was only slightly taller than me and of American Asian descent, so he had beautiful almond eyes that were an unaltered vibrant shade of green. His hair was thick and styled so that it stood up to give him another inch or so of height and he was impeccably dressed in a clean and simple black suit with a crisp white shirt.
“Maybe I am just much less interesting than you, and the popular kids have no problem dismissing me from their little group,” I replied and liked that his lips tipped up in a sly smile.
“Somehow I doubt that is true,” the mystery boy stated and I wondered how old he was. I would place him in his early twenties, but I always did have a hard time correctly guessing the ages of people of Asian descent. “I might just be the least interesting person here. I spend most of my time either reading for fun or reading for class.”
That piqued my interest because I was almost positive that this guy was too old for high school, which meant he was talking about college. As far as I could tell, not many Valkyries went to college. “What are you studying?”
“I’m premed at Colombia,” he said and I could tell from the way he said it that he loved it there.
“My friend Max is going to be premed too,” I responded to keep the conversation going.
“What do you want to study?” he asked, sounding genuinely interested.
I turned to face him and gave an honest answer, “I have no idea. I was planning on taking the general education requirements during my first year and maybe trying out some business, psychology, and criminology classes to see what interested me most before declaring a major.”
I blew out a breath and looked over my shoulder at the mass of powerful and influential supernatural creatures in fancy clothes. “Yeah, I am thinking that boat has sailed,” I murmured and silently mourned the loss of the simple life goals I used to cling to with everything I had. My still-unnamed companion recaptured my attention by gently touching my elbow. I saw that somehow he understood what it was like to have to accept a new and possibly unwanted future.
The moment was starting to get intense so I broke the tension with the only thing I could think of. “I know that you guys have parties like this all the time and all know each other, but I have to admit that I have no idea who you are,” I blurted and his lips once again tipped up in a smile.
“I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. I’m Ethan Deveroe,” he said and held out his hand for me to shake.
I took it and replied, “Ray Olsen.”
Ethan’s smile grew and he told me, “I know. To be completely honest, you are the reason my mother, brother, and I came out here a couple of days before the start of Regina’s Matching. Your uncle told us about finding you, and we didn’t want to wait to meet you.”
“You know Sean?” I questioned, all of a sudden feeling like I had been set up in some way.
“Not directly. I know that the Olsen Clan is a solid clan that keeps an eye on the Boston area, but I haven’t ever met any of your family before,” Ethan said and I scanned the crowd to find that Sean and Mathis were talking with a lean woman with dark coloring that didn’t have a single hair out of place. Her dress was by far the fanciest in the room. Ethan must have seen where I was looking because he said, “That’s my mother, Anne Deveroe, Queen of the Americas Northeast.”
Ah, so she was the Queen of the Kingdom that Sean and Mathis lived in. Now it made at least a little more sense why Sean would be informing another royal family of my existence. Before I could comment about him being yet another prince I had recently been introduced to, Kaiden popped out of a thick row of bushes to our left and I had to restrain myself from calling my katana.
“I was specifically told that you weren’t invited to this little get-together,” I said in a low voice edged with a hint of danger. Ethan whipped his head around to see who I was talking to.
“This is my house, I can go wherever I please,” Kaiden sneered back. “And I want what you took from me. Give it back.”
I forced myself to visibly relax, displaying that I didn’t consider him a real threat, and gave him a cocky smile before replying, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Kaiden’s face grew red with anger, maring his otherwise flawless beauty. “I am talking about my dagger. You took it away from me and now I can’t call it. I don’t know how you did it or how you are keeping it from me, but I demand that you give it back to me now,” Kaiden practically yelled and my thin cloak wasn’t enough to stop him from drawing attention to this unnecessarily dramatic situation. The background chatter of people engaging in different personal conversations died off and I could feel the heavy weight of many eyes on me.
Bananas. It looked like I had two choices here. I could either try to deescalate this situation and be political or I could put Kaiden in his place and do a little flaunting of my power level like Mathis wanted me to do. I figured a spoiled little brat like Kaiden could benefit from being taken down a level. I pushed free of the small Cloak I was maintaining so that my stronger than normal allure would hold his attention and then spoke in a clear authoritative voice.
“Oh, you mean the dagger that you called and tried to stab me with inside my own clan house because you wanted to remain the only Valkyrie with Truth in this Kingdom. You don’t get to have that back. I am keeping it as penance for your rash and childlike actions. And if you ever come at me with a weapon again, I am going to do much more than just take your blade. I will take your sorry excuse for a life. Do you understand me?” I asked in a harsh threatening tone while taking an aggressive step towards the immature prince.
Kaiden actually flinched away from me before turning and nearly running down a small path that led back into the thick bushes. I maintained my pissed-off glare and turned to stare at the now motionless crowd of queens, kings, and princes. I may not be royalty, but I was not going to let a single one of them take my freedom away from me. It would be better if they learned that sooner rather than later.
After a small pause, both Mathis and Sean broke from the group of onlookers and strode purposefully to my side where they also decided to stare down the mass of important Valkyries. Their message was clear, they would stand with me. At that moment, I absolutely loved them.
Seconds after Sean and Mathis reached my side, Hernan Collins also stepped forward and did his best to take control of the situation. “Once again, I must apologize for my nephew’s actions Valkyrie Olsen,” Hernan said in a polished voice that dripped with sincerity. “He can be resistant to change, but I have no doubt he will soon get over his worries and you will get a chance to really get to know the strong and kind man that he is in his core. In the meantime, let’s remember that tonight is about you getting to know the rest of the family. Our cooks have prepared a magnificent feast, and after dinner, I would love to personally give you a tour of our home.”
Hernan was lying when he said that he thought that Kaiden would get over his problems with me but honestly, it would be better for me if Kaiden kept acting this way. It gave me one hell of a good excuse to not spend time with him and block any notions that he and I should get married. So I decided to follow Hernan’s lead and allowed the issue to drop.
The servers must have taken Hernan’s words as their queue because just then strings of dazzling lights were turned on illuminating two rows of decadently decorated tables to our left. After a brief pause to ensure there would be no more drama, the crowd started slowly walking in that direction. Hernan still had his attention trained on me and I knew that he was waiting for some sort of response.
“A tour sounds lovely,” I replied in an equally polite voice and reflected that I was already sick of playing political games. Maybe I should reconsider trying to hide in the human world again because being invisible was so much less work. Hernan gave me a triumphant simile, told us that he would find me after dinner, and basically melted into the crowd. That man was almost as good at making himself invisible as I was. When he was out of earshot, I let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I had been holding and turned to find Ethan was still standing there, shoulder to shoulder with Sean. I was a little surprised to still see him there, but I liked the look of slight humor that lingered in his gaze. I had a suspicion that Ethan thought this whole thing was just as ridiculous as I did.
I introduced Sean and Mathis to Ethan and he ended up returning the favor and introducing me to his mother, Queen Anne, and his older brother, Prince Darron. Then we were ushered to the tables, where I was seated next to Queen Florence, her husband, Damon, his wife, and Regina. Over the course of the next couple of hours, I tried some really fancy and complicated food, turned down several offers for alcoholic beverages, and quietly listened to the entire Collins Royal Family describe to me in detail everything I was missing by not living in a palace like theirs.
I was bored out of my mind and completely disgusted with the sheer amount of excess that these people bathed in when there were so many people barely scraping by in the real world. If Mathis and Sean really thought that I wanted to live my life like this, they really didn’t know me at all.