After the confirmations ended the band returned and the dancing resumed. Liam seemed less inclined to join in this time, but that was fine with me. My feet were already aching quite a bit from the first round. He appeared lost in thought, toying absentmindedly with the hem of his vest. I felt that I should say something to reassure him, or to at least bring him back to the jovial state of mind he had been in earlier. I did not fancy going through the rest of my wedding night with a surly groom. I could think of no words that seemed appropriate, however, and so instead I shifted position so that I was a bit closer to him, our bodies touching as much as propriety would allow, hoping to lend him some comfort in the closeness.
I settled back to watch the rest of the dancers enjoy themselves. My hands itched for paper and my pencils, the partygoers reminding me ever so much of birds in flight, although with the women's bright gowns and the men's mostly somber vests and suits the coloring was rather reversed. I longed to capture the beauty I saw in their motions. I did my best to take everything in, memorizing as many details as possible, so that perhaps later I might be able to recall enough to draw a few scenes from the evening. We passed almost an hour in that comfortable silence, each lost in our own world, before Roslyn joined us. She sat down next to me on the bench with a warm smile.
"They are all rather a sight, aren't they dear?" She asked me. It seemed she had noticed how intently I was observing the others. I nodded politely, and she leaned over me to tap Liam gently on the shoulder. "Liam, darling, might you consider rejoining the party for a while?"
"Mother?" His eyes regained their focus as he turned to her, brought back from wherever his thoughts had taken him.
"If you don't mind, dear, I am going to steal away your bride for a little bit. I would like to show her off to a few people. She has done an admirable job of hiding herself away all of these years, and as a result is something of a mystery to all of the nobility," Roslyn glanced at me and smiled again, taking the sting out of the words. I managed not to cringe at the mention of being "shown off" but I did not relish the idea. Some of my reluctance must have shown through anyway. "Now, now, Laren, it won't be as onerous as you fear, I promise." To Liam she said, "Keras was asking after you, Liam. I believe he has wandered out into the entrance hall, if you would like to keep yourself occupied while we are gone." I did not recognize the name but Liam nodded and a small smile crossed his face, this one true, I could see.
"Thank you Mother, I will go find him." He stood and smoothed his clothing. Then he grasped my hand and gave it a brief squeeze, bringing it up to his mouth for a chaste kiss. "My lady, I shall find you again soon. Mother." He bowed his head to each of us and turned towards the doors leading out of the ballroom. I watched after him for a moment and then turned back to Roslyn.
"Now, my dear," she said, pulling me up and linking her arm through mine as she had earlier done with Father, "let us be about it. I promise we shall be quick, I know how tiring many of these people can be." I let out a small chuckle in spite of myself and she answered with one of her own. Yes, I rather thought I would get along quite well with Roslyn of the Stag. She led me around the edge of the dance floor and we proceeded to flit from knot to knot of people gathered at the end of the room. True to her word, Roslyn would introduce me to each person in a group, engage in a few moments of inane banter and then suddenly spot someone else she needed to introduce me to, pulling me along to the next group.
I cannot even begin to recall the names of everyone I met during this sedate mad dash through the nobility of Pelos. I do know that I was duly impressed with how deftly Roslyn handled each person. For the few moments we spent in each group she managed to make them the center of her attention, and seemed genuinely sorry each time we had to move on. Once we had worked our way through the end of the hall, we moved down the other side, stopping only here and there, and ending at my parents and Garrus. Even Mother was a relief to see after spending so much time meeting new people. The relief didn't last very long, of course, but for a few moments it was quite nice.
I could sense that Garrus was as overwhelmed as I and remembered his earlier discomfort at dancing. I wondered if he, too, had been subjected to a whirlwind round of introductions to the nobility. Some minor nobles felt very much at home among the upper strata, but most kept to their own circles and social events. I suspected that Garrus was one of these. After a short time Liam joined our group. He seemed in much better spirits and inwardly I released a sigh of relief.
"Would you care to dance some more, my lady?" I did not need the pointed glare I received from Mother to agree, and we excused ourselves, making our way back to the dance floor. "Laren," he began as we picked up the steps of the current dance, "I must apologize for my earlier distraction."
"There is no need, my lord," I answered. "The ball is full of so much activity, it can be quite easy for one to become distracted, I am sure. I myself have rather enjoyed the chance to just observe everyone here. There is so much to drink in." He relaxed a bit at this. "I am glad to see you returned to your jovial mood of earlier. I find I am enjoying the evening much more than I had expected to, and I have you to thank for that, my lord." I feared I might be laying it on a bit thick, but realized the words were true enough. They did seem to be what he needed to hear, as his face brightened in response. I added a healthy appreciation of flattery to the things I now knew about my soon-to-be husband, and we danced on.
I was on the verge of asking Liam if we could stop for another break when a page approached us. "My lord, my lady," he said, bowing his head deeply to each of us in turn. "Prime Vinnis has requested that you make your way to the stage." He did not wait for our answer, but slipped back into the crowd, quickly disappearing from sight. If we were wanted at the stage, it could only be to make preparations for our wedding ceremony, which was to close out the ball. I looked around and saw that the dance floor was no longer as crowded as it had been before, and the couples still dancing were starting to flag. The end of the evening had arrived much more swiftly than I would have believed possible.
"Shall we?" Liam asked, offering his arm to me.
"Of course," I replied, offering a nervous smile. I took his arm and we made our way to the back of the ballroom, where Prime Vinnis waited along with our families. The time had come at last. Prime Vinnis greeted us warmly and then separated us, sending Liam and Roslyn to stand at one end of the stage while Father, Mother, and I remained at the other. As the band finished its final tune of the evening, the Prime mounted the stage and waited quietly as a page, the same one who had fetched us from the dance floor, called for the attention of the rest of the guests. Those still on the dance floor moved towards the stage and the crowd quickly filled in behind them. Most of the people seated along the walls got up to join the audience, and it seemed an announcement had been made in the entrance hall as well, many people streamed back in through the ballroom doors.
Prime Vinnis waited until a sizeable audience had assembled and then raised his hands for silence. Once more a hush fell over the crowd. Their attention seemed to be equally divided between Prime Vinnis, Liam and Roslyn, and my family and myself. I felt my face begin to flush as I realized how many eyes were on me. The longer the silence held out, the more nervous I became. Finally Prime Vinnis seemed satisfied and he began to speak, thanking his guests for such a successful Solstice Ball and inviting them to stand witness to one final ceremony for the evening.
Weddings in Pelos were usually quiet affairs, even among the nobility. The Prime's approval was required for any match of an heir to Head of a House, of course, but he rarely officiated the ceremony. Every Solstice Ball, though, closed with a wedding. It was tradition, meant to signal prosperity and growth in the coming harvest season. To have your wedding chosen to close the Solstice Ball was considered a great honor, and likewise to have so many witnesses considered a great blessing. Intellectually, I understood that Prime Vinnis was very publicly bestowing his approval of the match and that the House of Jade's standing in public opinion would grow monumentally as a result. I knew that Roslyn's influence with the House of Rivers likely had much to do with the Prime's decision to make our wedding the closing ceremony. But at that very moment, with all of those eyes upon me, I could not help but find the whole thing very inconvenient. I would have given almost anything to have been married quietly in the Quarter of Houses rather than in this overwhelming display.
"Friends, it is with great pleasure that I now introduce to you this year's Solstice couple! Laren of Jade, please come forward." Father and Mother each took one of my arms and together we three climbed the stage stairs, walking to the middle of the stage and halting before the Prime. "Laren of Jade," Prime Vinnis intoned, "Do you accept this match?" I glanced at my parents. Father beamed at me and Mother arched her eyebrows, impatient for me to get on with it.
"Then kneel, child." Father and Mother stepped away from me and moved to stand behind Prime Vinnis. I carefully knelt on the stage, my skirts flared about me like a pool of fresh blood. I bowed my head and waited for what came next, breathing deeply and trying to ignore the crowd. "Liam of the Stag, please come forward." Roslyn escorted Liam across the stage from the other end, stopping just before they reached me. "Liam of the Stag, do you accept this match?"
"I do." I almost looked up but stopped myself just in time. There was something fierce in those two words and I wanted to see his expression. It was not allowed for me to look at him yet however, so I kept my head bowed.
"Then kneel." I heard Liam settle on his knees beside me, and from the corner of my eyes I saw Roslyn move to join my parents. "Clasp hands." Prime Vinnis instructed. We did so. "Gaze upon each other," at the next order I raised my eyes and they locked with Liam's. The fierceness I had heard in his voice shone in his eyes as well, and his grip on mine was firm enough to be almost painful. For the first time since meeting him, I felt fear at the prospect of our marriage. I had thought that his mother was a woman not to be crossed, but only now did I realize the son should come with the same warning. I felt my eyes widen as my breath caught. Prime Vinnis was still talking, but I was no longer listening. I almost missed my cue when the Prime finished the ceremony and bid us to bow our heads once more. We did as instructed, each leaning forward slightly so that our foreheads touched as the ceremony called for.
"You are mine now, Laren," Liam whispered in my ear, so low that I could barely hear him. He squeezed my hands sharply, just once and repeated, "Mine. Do not forget that," he added, pulling me to my feet as instructed by Prime Vinnis. No one else had heard the exchange, but no one had been meant to. Liam let go of my right hand and we turned to face the audience. I somehow managed to smooth my features, though my mind was racing, trying to process what had just happened. Prime Vinnis stepped up behind us and placed a hand on each of our shoulders.
"Laren of Jade no more," he proclaimed, "be true to your new House, bring it nothing but honor and worthy heirs. Liam of the Stag, show your wife what honor means." Louder, and to the audience, he called out, "I give you Liam and Laren of the Stag!" The crowd cheered and Prime Vinnis clapped his hands twice. At this signal, the loud boom of the main doors in the entrance hall being thrown open could be heard. The ball was over.
Dismissed, the crowd began to stream out to the entrance hall and into the night to find their waiting carriages. Liam and I waited on the stage until the room had emptied of all others except for our parents. Prime Vinnis had quietly exited through a hidden side door once the crowd began to disperse. Father hugged me and shook Liam's hand and he and mother made their way toward the exit as well. Roslyn hugged us each in turn and followed them out, leaving me alone with my husband in the empty ballroom.
I have never felt so unsure of myself in my life as I did at that moment.
Roslyn had arranged for a private carriage to take me and Liam back to the House of the Stag after the ceremony. We did not speak as we waited for the carriage, I could not even begin to think of anything to say. By the time we had climbed inside and were on our way to my new home, Liam was once more all smiles. He leaned back in his seat and stretched out his legs, an artful slouch that I was clearly meant to admire. I likely would have, had my head not still been spinning from the ceremony. Would he always be like this? Were his moods always so stormy? How will I ever keep up with him if he is so quick to switch between hot and cold? Liam gazed out the window of the carriage, humming one of the tunes to which we had danced. I took advantage of his moment of preoccupation to study his profile. He certainly seemed relaxed now, a small smile played across his features and the light from passing street lamps gave his pale skin an almost translucent glow.
"You know, when Mother told me we were to be married, I was more than a little surprised." His statement caught me off guard, it came so suddenly in the quiet calm we had been wrapped in. "I have to say, Laren, you are not what I was expecting at all." He turned to me then, still smiling slightly as his eyes traveled appreciatively over my form. I fought another blush and was thankful it was quite dark inside the carriage, despite the well-lit street outside.
"I..." I was unsure of how to reply, but he seemed to be waiting for a response. "How so, my lord?" He arched an eyebrow.
"Call me Liam, my dear. There is no one else to overhear us, we needn't worry about propriety." I nodded, thinking furiously. Was that an invitation to speak my mind when we were alone together? Or merely reinforcement that in the presence of others I should display a proper level of subservience? Before I could answer, he continued. "You are not so meek as I thought you would be, given what I was able to learn of you before tonight, for one thing."Learned from whom? Learned what? His smile widened. "I am glad of it, however. Though I am also glad you have shown you understand the importance of loyalty. Loyalty is a strong currency in the Stag, you'll find."
"I see." I answered, "If I may ask--"
"What, exactly, did I learn about you?" My face flushed again as he chuckled and I nodded. "Not very much actually. Mother was right, you have kept yourself well hidden. We might be able to use that to our advantage. But mostly I learned that you are known to be quite fond of books and rather less than fond of social engagements. I am sorry to say you will have to learn to at least give the appearance of enjoying such events from now on. As heir to the Stag I must attend my fair share of functions, and my wife will attend them at my side." His light tone did not waver, but the implied command was clear.
"I suspected as much." I matched his light tone as best as I could, and was rewarded with another chuckle, this one deep and throaty, that caused a quiver of anticipation to shoot through me. Damnation! How could this man make me terrified one moment and then full of desire the next? I will never survive a lifetime of this. Perhaps I would grow used to it in time. Perhaps the fear would diminish as we grew to know each other. I could only hope so.
"You have also displayed a healthy sense of humor this evening, my dear Laren. One that is more than welcome. That we may laugh together bodes quite well for us, I think. I have hope you will do well with the socializing, my dear. You held up admirably tonight, better than I had hoped for, I will admit. You might even grow to truly enjoy the events."
I let out a huff of breath to indicate my thoughts on that but said nothing.
"We shall see," he said, "we shall see. I don't know why you are so surprised that I should want to learn more about you. Can you honestly tell me you did not ask any questions of your own about me?"
"I..." Well, he certainly had me there.
"I thought as much," he chuckled again. "Tell me Laren, what did you learn of Liam of the Stag? I'm curious."
"I learned a few things," I admitted. He leaned forward now, waiting for me to share, "The consensus seems to be that you are quite well educated, enjoy the study of the law," he blinked at that, as if surprised it was something I would have heard. Curious, I thought, I heard mention of his constant presence in the courts more than any other bit of gossip. I continued, "you are also said to enjoy horseback riding and in general very well thought of." Remembering his positive reaction to the evening's earlier flattery I added, as if it was an afterthought, "Oh, you are also considered quite attractive by the young ladies of the nobility."
"Am I? He sat back and smirked, clearly pleased, and also clearly aware of the truth of the statement. In another man I would have been annoyed at the arrogance, I knew, but he was so easy in it I could not help but be more amused at the quality. By this time I had relaxed again, I was feeling more comfortable than I had since arriving at House Prima. I decided to see if his arrogance could stand a little bit of teasing.
"So it would seem. It was often the first thing I was told about you, even when it was not asked. Everyone I spoke with seemed to feel it very important that I know this fact." He leaned forward again and took my hand in his.
"I hope you weren't too terribly disappointed by the reality, in that case," he said with mock sincerity. He leaned in even closer and his free hand cupped my cheek, one finger gently stroking my ear.
"Not at all," I breathed in the second before he kissed me. It was not a chaste kiss, but rather a deep, intimate, searching one. My eyes fluttered shut and had I any breath with which to do so, I would have moaned. Liam's hand slipped around to the back of my neck and I scooted forward on the bench, trying to get closer to him. My free hand found its way to his arm and I realized I was pulling him closer as well, kissing him back just as eagerly.
We broke apart just as the carriage came to a halt.
"Ah," Liam murmured, "we're home."
We entered the House of the Stag with our fingers linked. I had only quick impressions of my new home--rich wood paneling lining the walls, the flash of golden antlers on the massive banner bearing the House sigil in the entrance hall, thick carpets lining the corridors, carved stone railings on the stairways--I was still dazed from the kiss in the carriage. I felt a yearning deep within myself, it was new, like nothing I had ever felt before. I thought I should be frightened of the feeling but I was more excited than anything else. I let Liam pull me along to wherever we were going, and he seemed content enough to do so. It was late enough in the evening that few lamps were lit and fewer servants were out and about. Those we did see stopped what they were doing to bow their heads deeply as we passed. A distracted part of my brain noticed a few men in guard uniforms as we made our way deeper into the building.
"I hope you don't mind if we save your tour of the House for the morning," Liam said to me as we rounded a corner and headed down a corridor that was darker than the others had been. "It is rather late, and I find I am more than ready to retire for the evening." The look he gave me at this left no doubt that sleeping was the last thing on his agenda at the moment. Another series of shocks coursed through my body in anticipation.
"Of course my lord."
He stopped at a large set of heavy wooden doors, pausing for a moment to look me over. I thought he might say something then, but he did not. Instead he turned and opened the door on the left, stepping inside and gesturing for me to follow. When I had crossed into the room I turned around to find that he had closed the door behind himself and was fastening a set of bolts. No, he would not want to be disturbed on this night.
I looked around the room, taking in the rich furnishings, but my eyes were mostly drawn to the very large four-poster bed that I could see through the open doorway to my right. My heart was racing and I was unsure of what I should do, but I felt strangely calm. My eyes found Liam again and I saw that he was watching me. He stepped closer and then walked around me in a wide, appraising circle. He came to a stop behind me and I heard him move closer. I jumped a little when one of his hands skimmed my bare shoulder, surprised at the touch.
"This gown seems constricting, my dear," his voice ghosted in my ear, "it is high time we got you out of it." He began unfastening the long line of buttons that ran down the back of the gown, quite deftly, in fact. I soon felt the top of the gown fall away from me. It slid to my waist, held in place still by my full underskirts. He next went to work unlacing my corset. Though I had not perceived any difficulty breathing during the evening (none due to the corset, at any rate), the difference once it had been loosened was measurable. He tossed the corset to the floor, leaving me naked from the waist up.
Liam's hands slid up my back and then around to my front, cupping my breasts and squeezing them gently, eliciting a gasp from me. I turned my head to try to gain a glimpse of him and was rewarded with a soft chuckle and a kiss on the nape of my neck. His hands fell away and moved to my underskirts. The ties holding them up were quickly undone and they fell to the floor with my gown in a pool around my feet. All that remained to cover my modesty were the short silk drawers that had been under the skirts. Liam's fingers skimmed across the small of my back, dipping under the edge of the drawers to graze the top of my bottom.
Suddenly he pulled me to him, tight against his front, cupping my breasts again, squeezing more roughly this time, sending sharp jolts of pleasure throughout my slight frame. I could feel the hard length of him through his trousers, pressed against my bottom. He buried his face in my neck, lapping at it, nipping and suckling. His hands slid down to my hips, pulling at the ties on either side of my drawers, and they too fell away. Moving suddenly once more he spun me around to face him and crushed my body to his, kissing me fiercely, his hands roaming everywhere on my exposed skin.
I kissed him back and worked my hands between us, starting to tackle the buttons on his vest. I got them undone and he allowed me to pull the vest off of him, then returned his hands to their exploration of my body, still kissing me all the while. I next set to work on his shirt, my hands shaking as I worked my way down the row of buttons. I pulled the shirt loose from his pants and once enough buttons had been undone, I slid it off over his head. When he broke the kiss I took advantage of the moment to step out of my slippers and kick my clothing to one side. Then I laced my fingers behind his neck and pulled him down to me for another kiss, causing him to loose another of those deep chuckles that went straight to the center of me. I could feel the heat of him now, with our bare chests pressed together, but still we were not close enough.
As that thought crossed my mind, Liam scooped me up in his arms and carried me into the bedchamber. He lay me down on the bed and stepped back to remove his boots and trousers. I was breathing heavily as I watched him, admiring the flush in his pale skin, and pinned in place by the intense look in his eyes. When he was as naked as I he paused for a moment, and we drank each other in. Then he climbed onto the bed and pushed my thighs open, settling himself over me.
I could feel the hardness against my leg and the briefest flash of fear flashed through me. I must have tensed up in that moment, because Liam leaned down and kissed me very gently on the lips.
"Relax, Laren, it will go so much better if you do." I nodded, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. He trailed a finger along my cheek and down my neck. Then his weight was gone. My eyes flew open and I saw that he was sitting back on his haunches, regarding me carefully, a small smile on his face. I allowed myself to look at him in turn, my gaze lingering for a moment on his manhood, jutting up rigid and thick from between his legs, before moving back up and meeting his eyes. He leaned down again and kissed my neck, then moved lower, kissing again. He proceeded to leave a series of soft fluttering kisses all over my body, lightly running his fingers along in other places as he did so. Liam continued this until I was moaning and shivering in pleasure, my head tilted back and my eyes closed once more.
Only then did his weight return to settle over me again. When I felt him begin to enter me I let out a little sigh of relief. He pressed forward slowly, carefully, and I opened my eyes to look at him. The muscles in his neck and arms were taught, strained, he was clearly holding himself back. Why would he be--before I had time to finish the thought the pain came. A cry escaped my throat before I could stop it. As if that had been a signal, Liam slammed forward, sliding the rest of the way inside of me, his thighs meeting my own. I cried out again, the flash of pain was so intense I could not stop myself. It hurts so much! I could never have imagined such pain mixed with an experience I had believed would be pleasurable. I felt tears flowing down my face.
Liam remained where he was, very still, clearly waiting. I realized after a few moments that the sharp pain had been replaced by a dull throb and I felt myself begin to relax again. Sensing this, Liam began to move once more, slowly at first, but then his rhythm picked up. The pain faded away, quickly replaced by more jolts of pleasure, and when I cried out again it was not because I hurt. Soon Liam's breathing became harsher and his thrusts stuttered, and then he was still again, all of the tension gone from his frame.
He gingerly pulled out of me and rolled over to lie by my side. We were both breathing heavily and I realized with some dismay that the pain was starting to return, though I was thankful it seemed to only be the dull throb again. I turned my head to look at Liam, apprehensive, but he gave me a lazy smile and pulled me to him for a slow sweet kiss. He scooted me around so that I lay with my back to his front, his arm thrown over me and holding me close. I could hear his breathing evening out; he was falling asleep. A yawn welled up in me and I closed my eyes again. Sleep sounded absolutely delightful.
"Mine," he whispered once more, before drifting off completely. This time the word was said with simple satisfaction, without the intensity that had so frightened me earlier.
Yes, I suppose I am, was the last thought I remembered having before falling asleep myself.