The week leading up to the Solstice Ball was full indeed. I realized that it would behoove me to find out more about my husband-to-be, which meant braving a few of the social clubs in the Quarter of Trade, visiting with those few acquaintances I had been able to bear at the parties I could not escape attending. Everyone was eager to congratulate me on my pending nuptials, and I noted with some amusement that few seemed surprised to learn the match was arranged. Upon hearing that I had not yet met Liam of the Stag, those who had were more than willing to share their impressions of him. Such idle gossip normally bored me to tears, but in this case I drank in all that I could.
"Oh Laren," a girl from the House of Merchants sighed at me upon hearing of the match. I thought her name was Jayna but I wasn't certain. "Liam of the Stag? Truly? Your parents have done well by you! He is so beautiful and always so polite when he meets with my poppa. Someone like that will surely make a fine husband. I hope I am so lucky one day!" She giggled and fanned herself quickly with her embroidery hoop. I fought back the urge to roll my eyes, fixing as sincere a smile upon my face as I was able to manage. Jayna was perhaps fourteen, I thought, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to learn that beauty and a polite demeanor seemed such strong indicators of a "fine" husband to her. Not that either quality was a bad thing, I was just hoping for something more substantial.
"Does he meet with your father often then?" I asked her, hoping to glean some more useful information. Jayna just giggled and nodded, apparently unconcerned with elaboration. Instead she proceeded to tell me how striking she found Liam's eyes. Someone must have noticed my brief flash of irritation because a voice spoke up from nearby.
"Don't mind Jayna, Laren, she is fully engaged in hunting for a husband at the moment and easily distracted by thoughts of a pretty face." It was said rather fondly and brought forth another shyer giggle from Jayna. I turned to find Sara of Sylvans, no she is of the Sun now, she married a few cycles back, approaching us with a cup of tea cradled in her hands. "May I?" she indicated an empty seat next to me and I nodded eagerly. Sara was of an age with me and she and I had always got on rather well. I suspected she could give me a much better idea of my future husband than dear Jayna.
"Hello Sara!" Jayna greeted her. "You've met Liam before, haven't you? Tell Laren about him, she is ever so curious. She doesn't even seem to care how pretty he is," she shook her head at this, as if the very idea seemed unbelievable.
"I have met him once or twice, actually," Sara agreed as she sat down. She frowned slightly in concentration, as if she was trying to recall the encounters. "Every so often I accompany my husband to the courts when he is presenting to the Council of Peers. Liam of the Stag is often to be found at the courts as I understand it. He seems to have a fascination with the law. After presentations he often likes to go over the details with the presenters and discuss strategy and the history of any precedents brought up, that sort of thing. My poor Randall is never quite sure what to make of him, to be honest." She smiled as she said it and I knew it was an amusing memory for her rather than an unpleasant one. I hoped that meant that Jayna's description of him as "polite" carried over into his interactions in the courts as well.
"That certainly is interesting Sara, thank you. I hope Randall wasn't too bothered by him." I mulled over this new tidbit of information and Sara shook her head quickly, setting down her half-finished cup of tea.
"Oh not at all!" she insisted. "It rather worked out well for him. Liam was so impressed by Randall's most recent presentation that he was invited on one of Liam's hunting trips. He had the opportunity to make quite a few beneficial contacts in the process. I understand that Liam hunts often, his parties are something of a who's who of Pelos' younger noblemen. I must admit that I can much more easily imagine him engaging in such pastimes than in haunting the courts. It seems an occupation much more suited to a man of only thirty cycles."
"I see," I said, smiling at her with genuine thanks. I even included Jayna in the smile, although she seemed to have lost interest in the conversation and had gone back to her embroidery. Sara nodded at me and our talk wandered to other topics, though all the while my mind continued to ponder the subject of my soon to be husband. It was certainly a better picture of Liam than I had yet gleaned from anyone else. The sketch was starting to come together, now I just had to clean up the lines and fill in the empty spaces between them. I can admit that I was quite relieved to learn him only ten cycles my senior. It suggested the hope that we might find common ground enough to be able to actually speak with one another.
That was probably the most productive session of information gathering I managed. I paid a few more visits to the clubs in the next few days, but I did not learn very much more of consequence. Still, I picked up bits of information here and there. I had started to assemble them in my mind, like the pieces of a puzzle, beginning to form some idea of the man I was to marry. He seemed to be very well thought of amongst the nobles of Pelos. I was given the impression that he was a kind enough man. In addition to his regular attendance at court and his very popular hunting parties, it seemed he was an avid rider as well. I supposed that I could work with that. Also welcome, though less important (or at least so I told myself), was the constant repetition that he was considered rather attractive. Though this did lead me to wonder why such a well-mannered, well-liked, and handsome man would have needed to have a marriage arranged for him, rather than making a match on his own.
I spent less time packing than you might think. Though I thought of my new wardrobe with mild trepidation, there weren't that many pieces in my closet I considered taking with me. A few vests, my nicest cloak, and my most comfortable riding clothes, along with two pairs of boots were all that ended up being chosen. The rest, I hoped, would be donated to a shop in the Quarter of Citizens that resold or repurposed unwanted garments from the nobility. Most of them, like the many party dresses squeezed into my armoire, would have only been worn once or twice. I hoped that some young woman might find my old things and appreciate them as I never could have. But the items I did take with me filled not even half of one trunk. I added a blanket that my governess had made me one cycle when I was a girl, and the few pieces of jewelry that held meaning for me. The rest of the space I left for the daily incidentals that I would not pack until the day of the ball. Two more trunks were filled with my books and drawing materials and...that was it really. It was rather saddening to look around my rooms, once packed, and realize just how little difference the removal of my items had made. This had been my sanctuary for as long as I could remember, yet it seemed I had left little of my own mark on the place. I did finally make my way to Renard's store. In addition to a few new books for myself, I purchased one I hoped would make a suitable wedding gift for Liam.
My dancing lessons, unfortunately, continued. If anything, they intensified. With my wedding making up part of the ball's planned ceremonies, I would be an item of interest to the other attendees. I was not to be allowed to shame my family by revealing my clumsy nature on the dance floor. I fear Master Ablard had his work cut out for him, but he was skilled at his craft. He managed to bring me up to "passable, at least" in a handful of currently popular dances. It should be enough to get me through the ball without too much embarrassment, I hoped.
I was also given instruction on my new House. House of the Stag is almost as old as Pelos itself, and I was shown genealogies and expected to memorize them. The current head of the House was Liam's mother, Roslyn, who had been born to the House of the Stallion and had joined the Stag upon marriage to Liam's father Williams. Liam had been just a boy, only four or five cycles old, when Williams died during an outbreak of some sort of exotic fever that had swept through Pelos before I was born. Many people had died during that outbreak, noble and common alike. Since Liam had been nowhere near of age, Roslyn had assumed the role of Head of the House. It was somewhat odd that Liam had not yet stepped up to claim the position for himself, but by all accounts Roslyn was a capable and well-respected leader in Pelos so I supposed that the Prime was content to let Roslyn remain as Head for as long as she and Liam deemed appropriate.
The Stag had certainly thrived under her leadership it seemed. Its prestige (and likely wealth) had more than doubled over the past twenty cycles. The House's primary source of wealth seemed to come from investing in the businesses of others, facilitating new ventures, and helping to pair Houses in situations where cooperation would be beneficial to both parties. I reasoned that this probably explained Roslyn's interest in an alliance with Jade. Having influence in one of the primary sources of shipping between Denara and Dumais could go a long way toward ensuring the Stag's success in future ventures. The Stag also had a very strong influence on shaping the regulations and decrees that governed businesses in Pelos. I was expected to learn the history of each motion proposed by House of the Stag since its founding. The amount of information was staggering, but I did find the lessons useful. They were a good map to the policies and alignments of the House, as well as how those policies shifted with each cycle. I would not be wholly unprepared when I entered my new House as wife of its heir.
What little time I had left after all of that was spent making my goodbyes. There were many members of the staff who had taken time out to teach me or encourage my own interests and talents throughout my life. I spoke with each to let them know my appreciation for the care they had shown. There were more than a few tearful hugs during those conversations. I also spent as much time with Father as his schedule would allow. Even just moving across the Quarter, I did not know when I would see him again after I left the ball. Mother even made a small effort to part on good terms. She invited me to attend an opera with her when Father had to cancel at the last moment. It would not have been my chosen method for spending an evening, but it seemed to make Mother happy that I agreed.
At last the day of the Solstice Ball--the day of my wedding--arrived. I had feared I would not sleep at all the night before but I was so exhausted that I slept quite soundly. I went through most of the day in a haze, wandering through the gardens and surprised at how calm I felt. After lunch a page found me and informed me that I was required in Mother's solar. Louise had arrived with our gowns for the ball. The time had arrived.
I should have long since ceased to be surprised at the changes the right wardrobe selection can have on your appearance, but as I looked at myself in the wall mirror hanging in Mother's solar, I still found myself rather stunned by the difference from my usual visage. A corset pulled in my waist enough to make it actually distinguishable, meanwhile pushing up my breasts to make them appear much fuller than they truly are. The gown, blood red as was traditional for a bride of nobility (and actually appropriate for me as I was still a virgin), had a full skirt over stiffened pettiskirts and left my shoulders bare. Coupled with the way Mother had ordered my hair pinned up, this showed off my neck quite well. Looking at my reflection, I almost felt graceful. I silently hoped that I did not break the illusion as soon as I stepped onto the dance floor. I had no doubts I would be expected to be present for the entire evening's festivities. There would be no sneaking off this time.
"Well, Laren, I do say, Louise has managed to work wonders once more." Mother stepped up behind me, a flat wooden box in her hands. I'll say, I thought to myself, I am amazed that I actually appear to have curves in this corset. I chalked that up to Louise's mastery. It crossed my mind to wonder how Mother had kept the woman from being snatched up into some other noblewoman's service for so long. "I would say that all you require are a few finishing touches and we shall be ready," she added, extending the box to me. I took it from her with a questioning look, I didn't for one moment believe that it was a gift from her. I doubted the rift between us would ever mend enough for that. Knowing exactly what I was thinking she smirked and answered the unspoken question, "They were your grandmother's. Garvin's mother, that is, she wore them on her wedding day. He felt you should have them."
Ah. Of course. I opened the box and let out a soft gasp. Jewelry rarely occupied my thoughts, but these pieces were quite beautiful. They were simple, yet startlingly elegant, even so. I had never met my paternal grandmother, but Father had once told me I was very much like her. Perhaps that was why he had never pushed me to deny my true nature. The box contained four items. My mother lifted out the necklace, a delicate silver rope chain on which hung flat oval blue star sapphire a little larger than my thumbnail, set on a simple silver disk. She fastened it around my neck, it fit closely, as a choker, with the stone resting in the hollow between my collarbones. Also in the box were a pair of earrings with smaller matching stones and a bracelet with a larger matching star sapphire in the same style. An attendant stepped up and took the box so that I could put on the earrings and bracelet, then stepped back murmuring that she would place the box with the last of my things to be sent to the House of the Stag when we left for the ball. I thanked her and Mother and I looked in the mirror together, gauging the final effect.
"Well, I suppose Liam won't be able to find much fault with you tonight at least," she said after a few moments. I ignored the barb and she continued, "As long as you don't embarrass us too much once the dancing starts, all should go quite smoothly tonight. If you do happen to find him disagreeable, daughter dear, please do me the favor of keeping a civil tongue until after you are married, won't you?" I drew in a sharp breath. That seemed a low blow even for Mother. Could she really imagine that I would come so close to fulfilling the arrangement with the Stag only to jeopardize it at the last moment? I noticed she was watching me very carefully and suddenly realized that she was testing me. I smoothed out my features and thought of the best way to reply.
"As you say, Mother. You look extraordinarily lovely tonight." A flicker of a smile, there and gone so quickly I could have imagined it. I had passed the test. If fate was kind it would be the last she had to administer to me, though I did not believe I would be so lucky. My compliment was sincere enough, Mother did look quite beautiful. Her dress, in a garnet hue, had a similar skirt to mine, but Louise had given her sleeves, short ruffled frilly things that on any other woman would have looked silly. They seemed soft and elegant on my mother, and coupled with a dipping heart-shaped neckline had quite a striking effect. She wore garnets to match, set in gold, thick cuff bracelets on each wrist, and a heavy necklace that filled in the space her dress did not. Her hair hung loose in ringlets, with gold and deep red ribbons woven into many of the curls.
"Thank you Laren." A knock sounded at the door, signaling that the carriage had arrived to take us to House Prima. "Now, it is time we were on our way. We have quite an evening ahead of us, do we not?" We donned the cloaks we were handed and left the parlor, heading swiftly to the main hall. We were silent as we walked, and in short order we met up with Father, who was waiting for us by the entrance.
"Such lovely ladies I have in my party this evening!" Father exclaimed. "I shall be the envy of all of the Houses tonight."
"You always are, dear heart," Mother said, taking his arm. I knew she was not referring to me. Father extended his other arm to me and together the three of us left the manor. We climbed into the waiting carriage and were off within moments. As the carriage turned out of the drive onto the private street that would eventually take us to the main roads of the Quarter, I could not stop myself from looking back, just once. I drank in the sight of the House of Jade. It was home, it had been for my whole life. But as we moved and it fell from my sight, I knew that the next time I saw it I would be a visitor, not a resident. I would never see it the same way again.
During the ride to House Prima I was left mostly to my own devices. Mother and Father chatted about their expectations for the evening, mentioning those they hoped to see and those they hoped to avoid. Father dreamed aloud of the feast that would open the evening. He was always delighted to be invited to table at House Prima. The Prime had ways of ensuring he kept the best chefs in Pelos working only for his House.
I listened idly to their conversation, paying more attention to the scenery out the window. Perhaps I should have been making the most of my last few moments as a child with her parents, before I went off to presumably start a family of my own. When I tried to think of a way to enter the conversation, I found I had very little to say. The questions that burned inside of me could not be answered by them, and I would likely learn their answers soon enough. Mother and I might have reached a truce of sorts, but I did not doubt that it was shaky at best, and engaging Father in a discussion would only have alienated Mother, renewing her ire. Instead, I slipped into the familiar pattern of sitting quietly and losing myself in my own musings while they occupied themselves. It was, perhaps, the most fitting farewell, now that I think upon the matter.
Unsurprisingly, the driver seemed to be following the more scenic route to House Prima, taking the road that followed the bend in the South Claret River north around the edge of Peregrine Lake and eventually leading to House Bridge, one of two bridges that spanned the lake to the eye-shaped island in its center upon which House Prima sat proudly overlooking all of Pelos. Perhaps a week ago I would not have noticed how few ships seemed to be passing under the bridge as we crossed, but now the lack seemed rather obvious. As our carriage pulled up in front of the seat of Pelos' government I could not help but admire the palace. Its striated grey marble always brought storm clouds to mind. I had only seen the palace twice before in my life, and it seemed to me unchanging, stalwartly guarding against chaos despite the furious imagery its exterior always evoked from me. I found my eye drawn to the massive dome that topped the palace. It was the only such structure in Pelos and a marvel of engineering and architecture according to every book I had ever read that mentioned the subject. The fact that it was several hundred cycles old only made it that much more impressive.
Exiting the carriage we made our way sedately up the wide expanse of stairs that led to the palace's entrance and paused at the top of yet another set of stairs, waiting our turn to be announced. I took the opportunity to observe my surroundings. The entrance hall of the palace itself was almost large enough for the ball, though of course it would not be held there. Much of the entrance was the same grey marble as the palace's exterior, but where the outside was austere the inside was brilliantly splashed with color everywhere the eye seemed to look. Banners bearing the sigils of each of the noble Houses hung along the walls, suspended from the room's high ceiling. I located Jade's sigil with little effort--a sinuous black winged serpent clutching a pale lily in its front claws, backed by a field of green to match our name. Inadvertently I found myself also seeking the sigil of the Stag, finding it directly across from Jade, a magnificent tawny stag with golden antlers against a forest green field. Rich velvet curtains in deep blues and reds hung at regular intervals to the left and right of the entrance, concealing doors and passageways. Halfway across the room twin staircases curled up to meet each other at a landing in front of the doors leading into the ballroom. Peacock blue carpets lined the staircases, while a third, emerald green carpet, led between them to the banquet hall underneath the ballroom.
The first two floors of the palace were divided into four quarters like Pelos itself, housing all of the public areas of the building. Each face of the building had an entrance leading to its own section of the palace. We had entered through the east face, which led to the part of House Prima used for public events such as tonight's Solstice Ball. Entering from the south would bring one to the merchants' center, where trade negotiations could take place and be regulated. The west entrance led to the courts and chambers for the Council of Houses. To the north were the Guild Halls, where the Quarter of Industry's business was conducted and regulated. Atop all of this sat a smaller round third floor, which rested directly underneath the dome. It was in this third floor that the House of Rivers resided. Many of the books I have read speculated on the function, if any, of the dome itself. Most seemed to concur that such secrets rest only with the dead and with the current House Prima, however.
Eventually we reached the front of the queue and were formally announced to the party.
"Garvin, Head of Jade!" I noticed a few heads turn at Father's name. The page quickly followed up with, "Carren of Jade! Laren of Jade!" Even more heads turned at my name. It seemed word of tonight's events had spread throughout the Houses. I felt many assessing eyes and suspected more than a few found me wanting. I would not let them get to me, however. I've gone this long not worrying about what others think of me, after all. What's one more night? I affixed what I hoped was a pleasant smile to my face and followed my parents down the short flight of stairs to mingle with the rest of the guests until dinner was announced.
As we entered the fray a woman broke away from a small knot of people to make her way towards us. "Garvin!" she exclaimed, placing her hands on Father's shoulders, "Here you are at last. It is good to see you and your family," she looked at me with a winning smile and then back at Father. I noticed, with an inappropriate amount of amusement, the way Mother's eyes narrowed at this woman's familiarity with Father. "Laren is every bit as lovely as you said, I see. This will be a rather eventful night for both of our families! Come with me, there are some people who have been asking after you."
I realized at once who the woman must be. She was Roslyn of the Stag, my soon-to-be mother-in-law. I found myself surreptitiously scrutinizing her, trying to assess her as much as possible in these first few moments. She was ten, perhaps more, cycles older than Mother but still quite beautiful. The hair framing her face was a deep auburn that would flash red as it caught the light from the lanterns scattered about the room. Her eyes were a pale blue but held a deep warmth within. At the moment she was smiling and looked terribly kind, yet I could see under the surface the potential for sternness if you stepped wrong with her. She actually rather reminded me of one of my more memorable, and favorite, tutors. Overall she gave off the impression that she was a woman who brooked little nonsense but was pleasant enough if not crossed. I instantly liked her. The feeling was increased when she took Father's arm and led him back to her original group, beckoning for Mother and I to follow and blithely ignoring the very unpleasant glare that this elicited from Mother.
Fighting the urge to giggle at my mother's reaction, it really just wouldn't do, I turned my gaze to the group of people toward which we were headed. A man in the group had turned as we approached and I realized he was watching me in particular. When I saw him, my eyes locked with his and all traces of the giggle bubbling in my throat died right there. Liam, I realized. The gossips in the clubs had done him little justice. He was indeed quite handsome. Where the angles in his mother's face were softened his were sharply defined, a square jaw and pointed chin, with a razor straight nose. Each piece of clothing he wore seemed to be perfectly in place, though I noticed that he had left the collar and top button of his shirt undone. It gave him a calculated yet rakish appearance. Liam's hair was a pale brown, almost blonde, and he wore it cut short. I suspected this might have something to do with the hint of curls I could see where there was any length to it. His eyes were the same pale blue as Roslyn's, but again contrasted. Where hers held hints of a deep warmth, his instead suggested ice. Jayna had not exaggerated their striking nature at all. There was an overall haughtiness to his demeanor, but it seemed to fit him well.
He must have noticed my faltering because he offered me a small, unsure smile. Somehow that simple gesture managed to set me completely at ease. I offered him one in return, and dipped my head in a brief bow, which he returned, and quickly caught up with Roslyn and my parents. Roslyn apparently did not miss much and seemed to have noticed the exchange.
"Ah, but first there are introductions to be made, of course," she stated serenely. "My son, Liam of the Stag." He bowed his head again and Roslyn turned to my family. "Liam, please meet Garvin of Jade, his wife Carren, and their daughter Laren." Father extended his hand to Liam, who grasped it firmly. We said a polite round of hellos and then Roslyn pulled us into the larger group, I confess I do not recall any of their names, though they were given. Liam stood next to me but did not say anything, he seemed content to simply watch the rest of the attendees, so I did the same. Occasionally we would catch each other's eyes and trade those small smiles again. It should have felt very awkward, and yet somehow it didn't. I was quite grateful for that small blessing.
When the page announced a group of arrivals from the House of Blades, Liam surprised me by leaning in closer to whisper in my ear. "I'd watch out for those two, were I you," he said, indicating a set of twins who had been announced as Sebastian and Nathaniel. They were of a height with Liam, slender like the blades for which their house was named. They were dressed alike, perhaps to enhance their identical features. The only differences I noted were in their hair (Sebastian's chestnut brown hair was long enough to pull back from his face but ended in a short tail at the back of his head, whereas Nathaniel's tresses hung straight and ended below his shoulders, the top of it pulled back and braided to keep it clear of his face) and their eyes (Sebastian's were a bright cerulean blue while Nathaniel's were storm cloud grey, matching the marble of the palace). Both were tanned a golden brown and they seemed to exude an aura of cockiness the like of which I had never encountered. "They are notorious lotharios with little respect for a lady's standing or honor," Liam whispered, "You will be a particularly tempting target for them tonight."
As he said this last he brushed my waist gently, indicating my bridal gown. The brief contact caught me off guard and caused me to shiver slightly, despite the warmth generated in the room by the large crowd. The words were said lightly but I detected a hint of disdain in them nonetheless. Aimed at me? I could not help but wonder. But no, Liam's gaze was still focused on the twins, following them as they descended into the room. As if feeling Liam's eyes, Nathaniel turned his head and saw Liam. He smirked and I felt Liam stiffen slightly. There is bad blood there, I realized. Perhaps later I could ask Liam for the details but now was not the time. Nathaniel's eyes shifted, and noticing me, he gave a dashing grin and winked, then turned back to his family and continued past us.
"Then I shall simply stick close to you this evening, my lord." I said it with a confidence I did not feel, but I suspected the words were reassurance he needed. He did not know me, did not know how fickle a woman I might be. His words were a test as much as a warning, I knew that much. I had plenty of practice with that kind of exchange from years of living with my mother. I stepped slightly closer to him and casually slipped my arm through his, smiling up at him as I added, "If there is no opportunity for them to be tempted, then they needn't embarrass themselves by wasting their time, and we might enjoy our evening undisturbed." For just a moment I thought I had gone too far, overstepped some unseen boundary. His eyes remained hard, considering, as he looked down into my face. Then in an instant they softened and the ice I had imagined earlier melted, replaced with the same warmth I had noticed in Roslyn's eyes. The tension seemed to flood out of him and he smiled, a bright, brilliant smile that made the breath catch in my throat. Ancestors be my guide! What have I gotten myself into? The true import of what lay in store for me that evening struck home then. In a few hours' time this man would be my husband, and we would be...together. I could feel the blush start to creep up my neck and into my cheeks. I was sure the entire room was staring, watching and knowing exactly what I was thinking.
"You are quite right, my lady, quite right indeed!" He let out a deep chuckle and brushed a thumb across my cheek lightly, breaking the spell that seemed to have been holding me in place. I blinked, trying to regain my composure. A muted thump sounded behind us and he turned his head toward the source. The great teak doors to the banquet hall had been opened and the crowd was flowing into the room beyond. "Ah, and it is time for our dinner! Shall we, Laren?" I did not trust myself to speak, so I only nodded instead, letting him pull me through the crowd behind our parents and to our seats at one of the exquisitely set tables. He smiled at me again as we were seated and I offered him a shaky smile in return. His confidence seemed to have grown with my nervousness.
As it turned out, we were seated at Prime Vinnis' table. Along with the other members of the Prime's own House of Rivers were representatives from the Houses of the Griffon and the Moon, who with the Stag formed the triumvirate of most influential Houses in Pelos outside of Rivers. In addition to Roslyn and Liam, at the table were two of Liam's cousins, Walther and Hensley of the Stag, who were sons of his father's cousin Samuel, I remembered from my lessons. Also present were my parents, my cousin Garrus, and his wife Adelyn. Under other circumstances I would have been highly uncomfortable, or at least extremely intimidated, to dine in the company of such powerful people. I was still in something of a daze, however, and somehow managed to muddle through it just fine. For the most part I remained quiet, taking in the conversation of others and focusing on not spilling anything as I ate. Liam was seated across from me and made occasional small talk, but I sensed he did not want to discuss anything of note in such a public venue. He was also frequently drawn into the conversations his mother was having with the Heads of the Moon and the Griffon. The realization crept in that this was only the beginning of such events for me. Liam was his mother's heir, of course, and Roslyn would likely be pressured to step down from her role as Head of the Stag before too much longer, now that Liam was both old enough and actively working to continue the family line. I blushed once more at the thought of what that would entail.
Garrus was seated next to me and he seemed to be in much the same sense of befuddlement as I at finding himself in such company. I had not spent much time with my cousin but I remembered him fondly from our few encounters at family functions. He was small in stature and stocky, with a very bookish air about him. Perfectly understandable for an accountant. His skin was the same honeyed tone as mine, his hair the same deep black, his dark almond shaped eyes tilted up ever so slightly. He looked, I realized, very much like Father. I wondered if that, along with his competence in financial matters, had influenced Father's choosing of him as heir. We spoke a few times throughout the meal. He seemed very kind, and grateful although a bit surprised, to find himself suddenly so elevated within the House.
The meal was drawn out over two hours, with multiple courses served at intervals, but once the final course had been cleared away, Liam was right back at my side, escorting me out of the banquet hall and up a curved staircase into the ballroom. I looked longingly at the padded benches and cushioned chairs lining the walls to either side of the room, but my betrothed passed right by them, pulling me into the center of the dance floor as the first tune began. I do not know what Master Ablard would have made of my dancing, but I managed to keep up with Liam, more or less, and avoided stumbling or stepping on his feet. He seemed to be enjoying himself quite a bit as he led me around the floor for what seemed to be hours, though I knew it to be nowhere that much time in reality. I was surprised to realize that in fact I was enjoying myself as well. Dancing with Master Ablard was no preparation for an evening spent on the arm of Liam of the Stag. I received several more of those brilliant smiles that stole my breath, and I feared I was grinning back at him like a loon. If I was, he did not seem to mind.
Father cut in once and Liam relinquished me, partnering with Roslyn for that tune. I searched for Mother, surprised she would allow Father to dance with another woman, even his own daughter, and found her not far away partnered with Garrus. Her face wore a strained polite smile as he carefully led her through the steps at half the pace of the music being played. When the song ended, Father gave me a quick hug before giving me back up to Liam. I thought I saw tears in his eyes as he turned toward Mother to rescue her from my cousin. Thankfully, Garrus looked just as relieved to be free of Mother, making a beeline for Adelyn, who was seated on one of the benches. I laughed a little at the sight, glad to find another thing I had in common with my father's chosen heir. Liam laughed with me, pulling me close as the next song started, a slower tune this time.
Halfway through the evening the band retired to rest a little and refresh themselves. The deep booming sound of a gong rang throughout the room and all eyes turned toward a small stage that stood at the far end of the ballroom. I had not noticed it until then, having been kept more or less in the center of the crowd by Liam. Prime Vinnis stepped up to the stage and a hush fell over the room, like a wave rushing across a shore.
"Friends and honored guests, thank you for joining us this evening!" His voice boomed throughout the room, carrying quite well. "I hope you have all been enjoying yourselves thus far." There was a murmur of polite assent at this. "The Solstice Ball is, of course, one of my favorite events every cycle. Not the least because it is on this night that we reinforce the stability of Pelos by confirming all newly named House heirs." A small smattering of applause met the statement. The nobility of Pelos liked nothing so much as to be reassured of its security. The naming of an heir was not considered official until it was confirmed by the Prime at Solstice. For the most part the confirmation usually just saw the children of the various heads who had reached their majority and were thus eligible to be officially declared heir to their Head of House. Occasionally, as with Jade tonight, a Head without a natural-born heir would announce the man chosen to succeed him. The Head of such a House was required to submit the identity of his chosen heir to the Prime ahead of time for approval, although the Prime had until the actual confirmation itself to decide whether or not to deny such a request. It was a rare instance and usually resulted in quite the scandal. I did not expect any surprises in regards to Garrus' confirmation, though. Prime Vinnis would not have had Garrus dine with us at his table if he did not approve of the appointment.
A page stepped forward next to the Prime and unrolled a scroll of parchment. Few documents were kept in such a way any longer, but the confirmation of heirs was a ceremony of tradition, and so the scroll and parchment were necessary. The page called off the name of the first House heir to be confirmed and a young boy and old man stepped forward. They knelt before the Prime and he intoned the ritual imploring of the Ancestors to serve as shining examples for their descendants. He placed a silver sash over the boy's shoulder and bid both men to stand. They moved to the back of the stage and the page called the next name on the list.
I was scanning the crowd for Mother and Father when I felt Liam's arm wrap around my waist in a rather possessive manner. I turned to him but found that he was not looking at me. I followed his gaze and saw that Sebastian of Blades had made his way through the crowds to stand near us and was staring in rather frank admiration at...me. Liam was facing away from me, glaring at Sebastian, and I could see tension in the set of his jaw. His whole body felt tense, I realized, taking advantage of the closeness to gauge the situation. I narrowed my eyes at Sebastian, and gave him my best false smile, the one my mother always used to indicate to me that she had no interest whatsoever in my current topic of discussion. I then moved slightly, stepping between the two men. I knew I did not block Liam's line of sight completely, he was just tall enough that his eyes were above my head. I placed a hand on his shoulder and stretched to the tips of my toes to grab his attention.
"My lord," I said quietly, "I find I am unused to so much dancing. Might we not find a seat during the confirmations at least?" I kept my tone light, not complaining, just voicing a sincere query. He looked down at me and blinked in surprise, coming back to himself. I saw him start to look back up at Sebastian and then forcibly stop himself. Though he smiled at me, I noted that the ice was back in his eyes.
"Of course, Laren," he answered. Without looking back he turned and we made our way through the crowd to find an open bench along the wall. I hoped that Sebastian would take the hint and not follow, but I did not look back to check. It did not seem like the best idea. I have got to find out what is going on between those Blades and Liam, I told myself. The situation was clearly not a friendly rivalry as I had initially assumed. I was beginning to suspect my bridal gown had much less to do in making me appealing to Sebastian and Nathaniel than the fact that it was Liam I was set to wed.
We found a seat easily enough and Liam focused his attention on the confirmations. I paid little attention after Garrus was confirmed, thinking to myself about what I had learned already that evening. It seemed Liam was the jealous type. I would have to watch my step with him until I learned how far that extended. I hoped he was not as bad as Mother was about Father, but if he was I would just have to bear it. He is lucky I am so solitary, I suppose, I told myself. It would be hard for him to worry that another was trying to steal me away if I rarely spent time in the company of others. A small smile played about my lips. I doubted I would be so lucky, but for a moment I allowed myself to dream that I had found an excuse against attending the many social events that would come with my new standing.