This evening we were all wearing purple, our faces silver from the nose up, our eyes thick with kohl. Even Pontikel’s. The banquet thrown to officially welcome the elves and the Wuhn for the wedding was in an enormous hall in the Palace of Spires. It was the same hall, Druskin informed me, where the wedding would be held. Above our heads, the vaulted ceiling was painted with moors and mountains and illuminated by enormous, glittering, chandeliers. Three tiers of balconies wrapped around three sides of the hall, joined by sweeping staircases. Three tiers of balconies where courtiers walked and mingled and looked down on the dancing and feasting below. I groaned inside. A gifted bowman could easily slip into the furthest corner of the room and have a clean shot at the dais.
I didn’t allow myself to look long, none of the other leanyodi did more than glance at the golden, ornamented room. It was not all of us, this time; just me, Brell, Karolya, and Hadella. The Countess was announced by a crier, and presented herself to the royal family before taking her place at their table. Hadella sat with her, and the rest of us sat at the next table down. The tables were piled high with bread and decanters of mead and jugs of beer crowded around them. Brell poured us both glasses of mead. I accepted with a smile, and turned my attention to the rest of the people in the room.
There was certainly plenty to look at. All the clothes were spectacular, silks in rich colors, ornate brocades—full skirts and long coats everywhere. The royal family were all in red, with high golden feather collars and gold circlets. Their faces had a faint gold sheen, as if they’d been powdered with gold dust, and even the king’s eyes were winged with kohl. Gray twisted through King Keleman Magyar’s black hair, but not yet through Queen Olyami’s. They looked regal, exotic, and keen eyed. Prince Domonkos and Princess Sarika were also at the high table. Domonkos was handsome, Angari black hair shining in a pair of long braids, strong jaw, probably thirty years old, and looking at the Countess with the pride of an older brother. Sarika was younger than I’d expected, she looked perhaps fourteen, though it was hard to tell for certain under the makeup.
There were guests from other countries, breaking up the sea of black hair and painted faces of the Angari nobility. I spied a group of Magadarians, in their tailored waistcoats, Haimish lords in their robes, red-headed dwarves from Anlor, and a small group in sleek, deep blue clothes, and draped in pearls. I realized after a moment that they were nymphs—probably from the Azulimar Sea which made up Angareth’s western border. Then, of course, there were the elves. The entire company from Terrimbir was dressed in shades of green, their black hair in hundreds of tiny braids, or teased into shapes, or shaved entirely. They practically dripped in gold. The High Lord Istvan Terr, his Lady Yrzabet, and of course Ilya and Aurel, were seated at the high table with the Angari royals and our Countess. I looked for hints of Ilya’s irreverence, but he was as cool and polished as a stone in the Juni River.
“I think I’m going to enjoy this treaty,” said Brell.
I turned to look at her.
She gave me an impish grin, “Well, look at them.” She tipped her chin toward the elves. “I love their hair.”
I arched a brow, but smiled, “Their hair is pretty spectacular.”
“Brell,” scolded Karolya.
“I know,” Brell waved her hand, “Momentous. Controversial. Blood of generations. Forgive me for accepting the future and finding joy it.”
“Could you accept the future a little more quietly for now?” said Karolya, sipping her own mead.
“Why? Hadella can’t possibly hear us from the head table.”
“There are other people in the room,” Karolya’s tone turned dry.
I put down my glass. “Hadella disapproves?”
Karolya gave her a sharp look, but I got the feeling it was more for being loud. She turned to me, “Hadella…” she sighed, “…thinks that this whole thing is a tremendous insult to our ancestors.”
“Which is ridiculous,” Brell leaned forward, “Since I’m sure our ancestors would see this as conquest.”
My lips tipped up, “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”
“While we’re keeping our voices down,” said Brell, “How did you end up in the company of Ilya Terr on the way here? Galo wouldn’t tell us anything.”
I took a slow drink, looking at Brell over the edge of my glass. “We bumped into him,” I said at last. That’s all Galo had said that first night, as the leanyodi began to arrive and each gave her a questioning look when they saw our companions.
“That’s it?” asked Karolya.
“Apparently, we were not the only ones who saw the need for stealth on the journey.” I shrugged, “It’s strange, but true. It was entirely accidental.”
“You are all hiding something,” said Brell.
“But not this,” I replied. I didn’t really know why we’d gone from asking the king to disgrace Adorjan to not even telling the leanyodi the full extent of what had happened on the road, but we had. Then again…perhaps it was for fear of all those rumors I kept hearing about.
Brell dropped her eyes to my cheek for a moment before looking away. They all knew about my bruise, though Galo’s cream had prevented coloration quite effectively and it was just a bit sore to the touch now. I’d told them one of the horses tossed his head and accidentally hit me in the face. Some of them believed me.
The banquet was everything I’d hoped—huge roasts, mounds of root vegetables, even more fresh bread, all spiced to perfection. Once the food was mostly cleared away the dancing started. Lines of nobles, all glittering in their finery, turned in the intricate steps of line dances. Even the king and queen participated. I saw Ilya Terr approach the Countess and invite her to dance. When a good-looking young man approached us and asked Brell, I decided it was time to move. I didn’t know these dances, and any leanyod would. Discretely, I excused myself to Karolya and made my way to the nearest stairs and went up to the second level.
There were plenty of people on this level, but nothing like the main floor. Curtains and tapestries helped contain the noise, and also created little alcoves where people could have private conversations. I kept my steps silent, uninterested in drawing attention to myself, listening to the snatches of conversation around me.
My ears snagged on a man’s voice, speaking Terrim, and my stride faltered.
“…it’s not as if you’re having to marry an Angari.”
“It’s disgraceful! Linden thus polluted.”
“Keep your voice down, Balint,” the man sounded amused, “You’re not in Terrimbir anymore, you might start a fistfight here if someone hears you.”
A snort. “As if they would understand our tongue.”
Balint was the name of Terrimbir’s ambassador. But the other voice…I forced myself to keep walking. I couldn’t be sure. It’d been years, and hearing his voice in a different language…perhaps I was imagining it. The men were leaning on the balcony railing, so I angled toward the outer wall and paused to admire a tapestry. Then I turned around and swept my eyes casually over the area as if I were looking for an open spot on the balcony. The ambassador from Terrimbir was standing at the railing, his black hair shaped into a tall column, his posture stiff. Next to him, a broad-shouldered man in a dark jacket lounged against the wall, looking over the balcony with his arms crossed. I could just make out his familiar high cheek bones, though his face was turned away. “By Fornern.” Bel Valredes.
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