The shrieks that split the night air set the theme of the night perfectly. Chaotic and filled with far too many winged women for the comfort of the two girls climbing up the mountain steps. Where they were at the bottom of the crevasse that housed the winding steps through the heart of the giant stone peak they could see each of the ethereally beautiful women as they lounged across the many bridges interlocking above them.
Near all bore flagons of ale, all laughing and shrieking drunkenly into the night as if they held no care in the world. At several points entire buckets of the drink seemed to spill down onto the steps below and none but them seemed to notice.
“Valkyries, always the star of the party,” Rowan muttered, distaste bitter on the back of her tongue.
Slightly ahead of her on the steps, Jessibelle’s grin was evident as she stared above her, drinking in the sight of the women overhead as if this were the first time she was seeing anything of the like. Rowan only wished that were true.
Perhaps she wouldn’t hate the creatures nearly as much if half her childhood spent waiting on the girl next to her weren’t filled with being thrown from great heights by the very beings above her. To this day every time she heard one of their calls the bones along her right side ached in remembrance of the pain of breaking and mending.
“I thought they didn’t show up to places like this. The great mountain caverns never did agree with their need to be able to fly away at any second.”
Jessibelle shrugged off her words as if they were little more than musings. “They are one of our few allies, why would they not be attending the gathering of allies?”
Rowan frowned, unable to find a response.
Since all of their allies were gathered tonight, it made sense that they would as well, even if they didn’t care to grace any of the previous ones. Tonight was special after all.
Rowan didn’t take her eyes of the women overhead until they cleared the final few steps, beginning their decent down into the caverns below. They were lit with the orange glow of lanterns strewed artfully about the ceilings. The floors had long since been smoothed by thousands of years of foot traffic from the past participants of this very ritual every year on the mark of the solstice.
The very evidence of their presence could not only be seen in the years of wear, but also carved on the very walls surrounding them. For every inch of the tunnel hundreds of names in languages old and new were ticked into the stone, a custom of those worthy enough to be allowed in the lower caverns. Most of those closest to the entrance were written in languages so old they were lost even to those native to their region, and the further they walked they could watch the very words change and take the shape of their current tongue, finally ending with Jessibelle’s own father and mothers as they stepped out onto the bustling ballroom below.
Rowan wondered how the tradition would continue now that the wall was filled to its base, but quickly let go of the musing as her charge scurried quickly forth leaving her behind.
“Princess!” she called, taming her annoyance under the sudden presence of hundreds of royal eyes.
They were dressed in their finest, though she expected no less. Men and women alike shone brightly in their expensive dyed clothing, even the warriors of their kin dressed naught in their usual armor but in frilly silken cloth. Most were beautiful beyond compare, but nothing less could be expected from those bred to be the finest of their races.
Elves, demons, and the occasional Valkyrie made up most of those in attendance, the closest of their allies. The others were fewer and far between, most unable to make the dangerous trek up to the heart of the continent. Though all were born of different cultures and regions, they all were connected in the simplest of ways, the sheer influence of their own power.
Near everywhere royals all held themselves the same, swaying to the same rhythm as is born to it. Even the nicer of their kind still bore the faint impression of a rabid animal hiding behind a mask of porcelain, ready to toss it aside at any moment and devour any who showed even the faintest hint of weakness.
It gave her the creeps.
That was why she wasted little time on her way to find her friend. It did not take her long.
She was where she always hid away on these very nights, tucked away in a little cove along the upper edge of the large cavern. The two of them had been lucky enough to spot it on during their first celebration, making it their little hiding place from the bustle down below. Back then the little stone nook had seemed too large to have been neglected by the other party goers, but now as she stepped in to join her friend she knew exactly why no one hid away on nights like these.
You didn’t travel thousands of miles to be a wallflower. You did it for power and position.
“I knew I’d find you here. They should call you Jessibelle the Predictable instead of The Chosen,” Rowan mused, stepping forth to her friend’s side to better look over the gathering below.
From the cove they could see everything from the entrance to the large feast tables that lines the other half of the room. The grand feast was still teeming with life, mostly with the kings and queens of the surrounding tables still engrossed with their conversation as the lesser noblemen broke off to mingle and set up the alliances and deals that would build the markets for the upcoming years.
She could even spy Jessibelle’s own parents present at the grand table, the elven king engrossed with all of the others as he led the heart of the conversation. It was as it always was, eerily similar to every year she had witnessed before it.
This year was going to be different though, if only slightly.
“I’m going to sit there.”
Her friends whispered words drew her attention from the party and back to her, taking in the pallid tone of her earthen skin. Where just moments before she had been teeming with excitement, now it seemed the full weight of the night had finally made its presence known.
“Yes, you are eighteen. I’m surprised you haven’t been summoned over there yet.”
Jessibelle shook her head, gesturing down into the crowd. “My mother sent the servant out to find me a moment before you arrived. I just haven’t worked up the courage to go just yet.”
So they were already aware of their presence. Rowan had hoped to remain under the radar for a moment longer, if only to allow them both a second to collect themselves before the princess was thrust into her place as an up and coming diplomat.
Still, she couldn’t be surprised. Word traveled fast in these circles.
“You’ve spent plenty of time amongst their ranks already. Each family seated there you’ve had company with both with your family and alone. This is just like any other celebration,” she told her friend, giving her a confused look.
Never had the princess shied away from being the center of attention. It was always Rowan’s duty to be the one to watch quietly from afar and hers to be the shining figure that represented the future of Haven’s leaders. Jessibelle took on the role as if she was born from it, ferrying them from kingdom to kingdom as she worked her natural born charm on all those who dared witness her presence.
Most importantly she seemed to enjoy the role. Unlike her younger brother, a job like this was one she welcomed with open arms, never so much as flinching under the heavy stares of even their most brutal enemies.
What was so different about now?
Finally she spoke, seeming to pull the words forth with great shame. ”We sat with them, Rowan. Everything I did you were by my side. It is going alone I fear.”
She couldn’t help the scoff that escaped her lips. Jessibelle whipped around, angered at her friends laugh, only to be steadies by both of Rowan’s hands upon her shoulders.
Meeting her eyes, she bent so her forehead rested upon the princess’. “You have nothing to fear. You are more than capable of handling this on your own, don’t underestimate yourself.”
Her friend’s lips thinned into a tight line, but after a moment she nodded. Slowly, she saw the determination bleed back into her eyes, chased quickly by an anxious grin.
“You’re right. I’ve got this,” she replied with a beaming smile. “No need to get all caught up in my head.”
Before she could reply, Jessibelle ducked from her grasp, turning on her heel and making her speedy retreat. Rowan could do naught but stare after her, bemused by her friend’s ever changing attitude. One second the girl would be fearing death, and the next smiling as she walked into a crowd of people who hardly cared if she lived or died.
Just like usual.
She smiled fondly as she watched her friend go, deciding to stick back in the darkness of the cove. She would be no help in her friends shadow, most likely only being an unwelcome distraction.
Up here she could not only be on her own, but better survey the beings below. Rowan had her own things to worry about after all, or rather a certain that no doubt had come with the rest of her sisters that evening.
Of course, she should have known better than to believe she could hide from Frey.
From just behind her the sound of the woman’s voice was deep melodic, crooning out her words as if they were lyrics. “Well, well, would you look at how touching this is. The shade demon looking after her angelic princess. You truly do never leave her side.”