At a far edge of Rarjuni system wedged near the border of Kowloon and the emptiness of unclaimed space, sat the growing colony world of Sansei as it answered the call of their sworn house, Whitemeadow. Sansei was not a prestigious world like Heled or Piyapon but its large fields were full of farms and its oceans were full of fish. In a universe of habitable systems, Sansei held its own. The capital of Sensei had been named in loving memory of Lord Sutauto’s late first wife, Yami, and it a city within a walled fortress. At the heart of Yami, stood the elaborate palace of the House Sutauto, cordoned behind more lavishly decorated walls atop a hill. Below the dancing banners of the Liangese House Sutauto and the Kowlooni House Whitemeadow, the citizens of Yami calmly went about their daily lives.
Lord Sutauto stared down from the window of his quarters towards the budding gardens below with a sense of pride and apprehension. The delicate green buds and tender sprouts that he had devoted his free time tending was his annual reminder, it was that time of year again. House politics would lead his family to Heled to fulfill their political obligation to House Whitemeadow at the Golden Week celebration and he would have to fabricate an excuse that would force his wife and his eldest daughters to present themselves to the Duke and Duchess in his stead. Time had boiled down the cold war between the Duke Aniseth Whitemeadow and Isao but the bed of coals still remained warm enough to keep Aniseth’s lingering animosity fueled and the curse forbidding even his presence before the Whitemeadows firmly in place.
"I know that I've said this for the past fifteen years, since the children started coming of age but I do not approve of any of them," muttered the ageless Taianese lord as he glanced over his shoulder at his wife, her hair was elaborately braided and she was still only partially dressed. He marvelled in her loveliness. The passage of time had accented her beauty rather than diminishing it, her human mortality made their love that much more real. He lamented that Tai Pan had perfected his genetic code and stripped him of the dignity of growing old beside his wife. When the time came for him to succumb to old age, he would be alone, widowed once more.
If Ilona sensed his concern, she did not give it voice. Her smile was full of loving warmth that travelled up his body when her hand lightly settled against his shoulder. "The more anyone tries to keep them apart, the more they will fight to cling together,” her voice was soothing and the touch of her breath against the back of his neck still sent shivers up his spine. “They are children. Love does not understand rules or curses." Her arms wrapped around him as she pressed against his back. The soft floral scent of peonies tickled his nose. "Koliada has blessed both of our households with prosperity and children. One day, Lord Whitemeadow will have a change of heart."
Her lips pressed against his neck. "Haruko, Tsukiko and Miyu are waiting for us to take them to the seamstress. Ren is waiting for his chance to participate in the tournament but, I fear 10 is a bit young to be in power armor. Our youngest are impatient, we shouldn't keep them waiting too long."
"Yeah, if the Duke does ever have a change of heart, awaken me from my eternal slumber, but you are right.” Isao finally turned to face her, returning her embrace before he kissed her cheek. “Get dressed, gods know that at least I know what you will be wearing,” he sighed as he pulled away from her and headed out of the room towards the doors of the main hall where he no doubt that his children would be waiting.
When Isao passed through the doors he was greeted by the warmth of the day. The main hall was illuminated by the larger and brighter of Sansei’s two binary stars through a skylight. The second star was not visible but it followed its sister with a softer luminescence that resembled a moon than a sun. The sight of his children waiting, animated as they entertained themselves, warmed his heart though he dreaded the direction that the conversation was sure to go. He silently watched them as a smile grew across his face, it reminded him that they were his true legacy, the real fruit of all of his labors.
Isao quietly closed the door behind him and settled down in a chair that gave his the best view of the whole room as he patiently waited for his wife to finish dressing. His dark eyes followed each child individually, the light smile ever present. He enjoyed the time with his family but what he dreaded most besides the topic of the Whitemeadows were the endless hours of his daughters trying on dresses.
One of his eldest, Tsukiko, was wearing a tight black tank top under an off shoulder white blouse over a short black skirt. She and her twin, Haruko favored their mother's figure and eye coloring but had Isao's raven black hair that they both wore cropped to just below their chins. Haruko was dressed in a looser fitted black blouse over a sleek black skirt. Both were young by tatya hini standards but they were adults at 20 as humans.
Tsukiko was engaged in a quiet conversation with her younger sister, Miyu, but he gathered it was a friendly topic since both young women were smiling brightly. Miyu favored her mother’s hair coloring and his eyes with long, straight platinum blonde hair worn in high ponytails and dark eyes but her fashion sense was still a touch young, she was dressed in a frilly pink tank top over white leggings.
Haruko on the other hand, was playfully sparring her youngest sibling and only brother, Ren. At 10 years old, Ren was about as excited to go dress shopping with his sisters as Isao was. He was more casually dressed in denim jeans but it seemed that his sisters had convinced him to at least wear a blue short sleeve collared shirt. His son was also the only one of his children that completely favored his coloring which made Isao worry about how the Duke would treat Ren as he grew older.
Miyu was the first to notice Isao. "Hi daddy! Is it time for us to get dresses for the festival now?! Tsukiko was saying that you love it when we try on dresses all day!" She disengaged from her conversation with her sister and tackle hugged her father.
Isao shot a look at Tsukiko as he took the brute force of the teenager, "Did she now?"
Tsukiko grinned at Isao and winked at her father.
Ren stopped in the middle of his swing and got thwacked on the shoulder by Haruko's short staff. He made a face and let out a yelp.
Isao’s expression shifted from irritation to content as he sighed, "Your mother will be out shortly, and no more sparring, you'll tear your clothes." He looked to Haruko and Ren before smiling in his fatherly way.
Haruko frowned, "Sorry Renny, let me see your shoulder, I shouldn't have done too much damage." She set the staff into one of the many racks in the main hall and knelt down to appraise the damage.
Isao’s expression shifted from irritation to content as he sighed, "Your mother will be out shortly, and no more sparring, you'll tear your clothes." He looked to Haruko and Ren before smiling in his fatherly way.
Haruko’s eyes and hands glowed as she gently touched Ren’s injured shoulder after a moment, the glow faded and her smile returned. "There, all better." She kissed Ren’s forehead as she ruffled his hair.
"Ren, soon you'll be as strong as I was at your age. When the time comes, you may even be able to beat your old man at his own game." Isao walked over, taking Miyu with him, and placed a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder. "Now, we will leave as soon as your mother is ready. Until then, we'll talk. I trust all of you are well?"
The young women nodded. Tsukiko spoke first, "Haru and I were talking about helping with the tournament during Golden Week. They always need more medical staff during the games and we're qualified. Mother said that there would be certain considerations but she said that you and the Lady would have to give the approval. There was also mention of another tournament on Piyapon that the Meadow Wings were invited to."
Isao scowled, "You know how I feel about the tourney and the other reason I know you two wish to go so badly." He paused for a moment before sighing lightly, "Though it may be up for consideration. On the basis of Piyapon, I do not know much about it besides what you do." His scowl softened as he wondered if he was approaching the topic correctly.
"It's a showcase for new technologies and our best warriors. I thought we were to make appearances anyway? Mother says it's improper for us to not be in attendance of our Lord's ceremonies especially since certain... circumstances prevent the attendance of the head of house Sutauto," Tsukiko respectfully replied.
"We would rather be useful than be decorative,” Haruko added with a demure smile. “It's the best way for us to actually meet people our age that are of 'proper' social standing for courtship? We could go see what Lady Ginger's handmaidens are up to. I hear they have a party ship that does a month long cruise around the sector to paradise planets."
Isao’s insides twisted and coiled as he met his daughter's gaze. He sighed in silent resignation. His worry was obvious as he found the string of words to respond to Haruko. "You are your mother's children. I cannot stop you from doing anything, but I can at least voice my concerns." His gaze shifted between his eldest daughters, his stark blue eyes full of concern.
"Time will mend all wounds, physical, spiritual and prideful," Haruko soothed. Her pale opalescent eyes glittered in the light as she offered her father a reassuring smile.
"I don't feel that the minya hinya within Heled is cruel, our lives are tied to the Whitemeadows with silver thread," Ilona interjected from the doorway, wearing a long blue wrap dress accented with a white rose pattern. "Girls, you shouldn't tease your father too much, it's bad for his blood pressure."
Whitemeadow Manor, Guest quarters, Glass, Heled
Haruko grinned as Miyu twirled in her new sparkling, multi-chromatic dress for the ball. "It's a few days early for that, Miyu! Tsukiko! We have to get ready, the tournament will be starting soon!"
The teenager giggled as the colors on the dress danced and glittered in the movement of the fabric. "This is going to be great! Do you think Andris will like this? I want to ask him to dance with me first this year!"
Haruko wore the royal blue Meadow Wings ceremonial uniform with the white armband embroidered with a crimson rose that identified her position as a medic. The well-tailored jacket accented just enough of her figure for it to be flattering and feminine. A golden braided cord wrapped around her right shoulder and secured under her tall collar with the golden sigil of their noble house, a dragon in front of crossed spears. She adjusted her hair in the mirror before settling to pin one side back with a golden rose clip. "We should hurry before the tourny starts! Markos was saying they are going to compete. He and Andris will be switching places after the first fight."
Tsukiko pressed down on the cloth of her own dress, a vibrant red color based on the colors of their house. It was formal, but was loose enough to flow and breathe where it needed to. Her hair was done exactly like her twin sister’s, right down to the pin. “I wonder how well they will do? I don’t recall anyone from our house competing.”
Her face was jovial as she waited for her sisters. All of Haruko’s work in the mirror silently whispered for her to check her own hair for mistakes. She walked just into view of it with her hands trying their best before finding the sweet spot for adjusting the clip. Satisfied, she smiled and did a small curtsey, “Good day, Sir Andris.”
“I still find it strange that in other parts of Kowloon and really, anywhere else but here, people dance by touching each other. Have you noticed it? I’ve seen the footage from Lady Ginger’s galas, it might be fun to get away for awhile after Golden Week to go explore, go see what other noble women are doing. What do you think? Father seems to want us to go court other people, who knows what is waiting out there for us,” Haruko smiled as she watched Tsukiko adjust her hair. “You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to. We’re no longer little girls,” she added after a long moment of contemplation.
Miyu frowned. “Well, maybe the other parts of Kowloon are just..just uncivilized!” She huffed. “Lady Ginger might be the granddaughter of the Empress but she’s not the purest spring if the rumors and the footage from those parties are true! It’s that curse, right? Or was that just some fairytale Father made up to keep us away from the Whitemeadows?”
Tsukiko gave a very overexaggerated huff. “Father always overplays things.” She fiddled with the front of her dress before smiling contently. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to miss something like this. There isn’t enough excitement around here!” Her excitement was visible in her eyes and the look on her face. She turned to Miyu with the warm smile of an older sister, “I’m sure it will be absolutely ravishing fun.”
“Be wary of what you wish for, things might turn in a different way than you intend,” Haruko jokingly warned. “Kolaida will guide us towards the truest path if we are willing to listen. We might get the sign that we’ve been waiting for. Father doesn’t want us to go.”
Turning to face Haruko with a serious expression, Tsukiko spoke softly and tersely. “We will be fine. We are responsible for starting ourselves on our own paths, even with Kolaida’s guidance.” She finished by looking into the mirror before standing tall and walking towards the door. She placed her hand on the handle before turning back to her sisters.
“I believe Father doesn’t want us to go because of his thoughts of the Whitemeadows, but in the end he did allow us to go. So why don’t we go and follow our hearts, hmm?” She smiled warmly to both of her sisters and waited for them before she opened the door.
“As history teaches us, love is the only true adventure,” Haruko replied, following after her sisters.
Miyu smiled at her sisters but wondered if for all of their father’s warnings, that he did everything because he truly loved Lord and Lady Whitemeadow despite being out of favor with Lord Aniseth. She stole a final glance back into the darkness of their dressing room as Haruko closed the door behind them.
Andris went through some of his sword forms again, weaving the slender estoc he carried back and forth under and over. High guard, low guard, into a swallowtail form that smoothly transitioned into a flurry of lion blows. Before he could become tired, he switched back into the fluidity of swallowtail, and caused his tip to dance parrys.
From a young age, Andris had learned to keep up with the times. Since his father had been named the Duke of Rarjuni, their area of space had prospered, becoming not only a primary arms manufacturer in the sector, but also opening trade with the Alliance to the west and the Ersetu to the east. The first wealth of finance had come from the necessities of the second; the causeways were dangerous, and often prone to banditry, though his father’s Wings company had largely managed to moderate the danger. Still, the world had grown progressively more deadly over the years, and every year created some new destructive toy to find its way into the hands of evil men. It was smart to understand each.
An array of the universe’s most modern weapons lay out on racks, tables, and the small space for practice had been cleared next to the targets. Andris had been given a paladin armor - red and blue, gilt with gold - to use in the tournament. That had been Kowloon’s contribution to the growing arms market between the races; the Magisters had created it through a merger of magic with technology. It represented the pinnacle of combat, able to turn aside bullet and laser with relative ease.
Melee had become more viable. The slender, solid-blade estoc he practiced with had been developed to pierce armor. Wielded by someone whose strength could be enhanced by something like a Paladin, it was one of the few things that could do lasting harm to another gentlemanly combatant without causing destruction to the surrounding countryside.
He stopped and looked back to the doorway where his father, the Duke, had entered. Time had been kind to the Duke; a casual observer would say he was the same age as his son, and maybe younger. Andris had filled out like a human, with broader shoulders, a wider jaw, and he had even started to develop a little stubble - uncommon in elves, but possible. He looked twice the man that his willowy father did, or ever would. And yet, nobody could deny that Andris was his mother’s child; his shock of red hair, almost curly and certainly wild, attested to that, compared to his father’s straight, inky black curtain. The elf had bound it back, today, with a blue metal clasp that bore his sigil, though otherwise he seemed garbed for court or business in the traditional black and gold robes of Kowlani nobility.
Andris stopped what he was doing to salute his father, putting the hilt of his sword to his forehead, with the blade vertical. Aniseth nodded an acknowledgement, and moved into the room, his eyes half-veiled with his own peculiar serenity.
“How long have you been watching, father?” he asked, breathless.
“Long enough,” Aniseth answered, gliding over to the table with the weapons and picking up the second estoc, about as long as a rapier, but flat on the edges. It was a thrusting sword. His father tested the weight. “Are you prepared for the tournament?”
“Yes. I’ve been practicing. Mother has been teaching me.”
His father looked weary, and a little bit skeletal, not at all as he usually looked. Andris knew there must be something on his mind, so he waited patiently. Aniseth rarely spoke off the cuff. As far back as Andris could remember, he had guarded his words as well as his actions, and had been quite enigmatic.
“Your mother taught me as well.”
Andris blinked. “I thought you always knew?”
“No. I used to be a tailor,” his father admitted, giving Andris a wan little smile. “After you were born, and when your mother was well enough, I asked if she would teach me to defend myself. I have only been practicing since then, though I will never be her equal.”
Aniseth wavered the tip of the blade fluidly, circling it in the lilting way that swallowtail dictated, keeping it ready for the first and final killing thrust. Andris watched his father warily, wondering at it.
“I have been told the general’s daughters have requested to be of use in the tournament,” he said, finally, rewarding Andris’s patience. Andris felt his heart leap. He had been courting Tsukiko, and felt that they had been making progress. He had known she would be coming, but how had his father? Mother. Of course. Andris braced for the admonition, but it never quite came. Instead, he watched his father’s sky-blue eyes wander him over, never quite looking him solidly on.
“I know, father,” Andris admitted quietly. “I am not go to near her, not to touch her, and not to talk to her.”
“Have I ever told you why?”
He hadn’t. Andris, stunned, didn’t dare to speak. He had the feeling suddenly that he was about to learn something, the answer to a question that he and his brother had been begging to ask, over and over again.
“You are old enough to know the truth on the matter. The general” - Aniseth’s way of referring to Isao Suitato - “once slept with your mother. It took me many years to kill those rumors, and yet they are true. We dueled. The first fight I ever stood up for myself in was with the General, who mocked me to my face, and refused to even acknowledge me as worthy of firing at. I shot him through the chest. I would have killed him then, had I aimed a little higher.”
Andris’s mouth went dry. His mother? She was totally devoted to Aniseth. They completed each other in a way that didn’t allow Andris to think that the rumor could have been true, that his mother would ever do such a thing. He was about to ask, because he had to ask why, but Aniseth continued.
“And yet, your mother taught me to use the pistol that I shot him with, and long ago I forgave her. What she did, she did for herself, without regard for what I felt or for what he felt. Still, that was the first lesson that I have ever learned about being a true noble - that you must rule by your own hand. If you trust anyone - your loved ones, your family - you should know that the trust is only your own to give. Do not be fooled by lust, or love, or what you see in the world. In twenty years, I have built this Duchy to power through reason, through acumen, and through close observation. I gave up my former calling to devote myself to what I have had to become to make our family prosperous. Therefore, I wish for you to develop your own self and sense of direction, Andris. Not even magic will replace your dignity or your pride.”
Andris protested, “Tsukiko isn’t like that! She’s kind, and gentle - and father, she’s beyond your feud.”
“She is not.” His father lifted the estoc. “Human hearts will always waver, and you are no human at all. Have I taught you nothing, in twenty years? You are enamored of a slattern from a treacherous bloodline, and treacherous blood runs through her veins.”
Andris, a bit sluggish, almost forgot to parry his father’s first thrust. The swallowtail form came easily to him, and he parried, thrust - back-parried. He performed a round, only to find that his father, an arm behind his waist in true fencing fashion, pulled aside at the last moment. Agitated, Andris redoubled his efforts, pressing his father back, though not perturbing the slender man.
He wanted to prove Aniseth wrong. He wanted to hit his father, for the first time in a long time, and his gut hurt with the sudden anger. For his mother’s honor, for the honor of Tsukiko and her family, he wanted to prove his father wrong. Thrust after thrust, parry after parry. The fencing ring resounded with the effort he put forward. He stopped remembering the motions after a while and when he hit his father, it was with the side of the estoc - a blow on the shoulder.
His father knocked him to the ground with the hilt of the weapon, striking his face, and he tasted blood from the split lip. When he tried to rise again, he bumped the tip of his father’s slender sword against his chest and stopped before he impaled himself, blinking away sudden blinding tears.
“Fight like this in the Arena, and you won’t be able to take her father’s place in my Duchy.”
Andris’s mouth opened, and closed, and when he wiped away his tears he could see that his father was as angry as he was - and yet it was a cold anger that chilled him and stole the nerves from his legs. Mirrored in his father’s eyes was an anger that had been nursed over twenty years, forged into a blade as deadly and slender as the one pressed against his chest, and it cut like ice.
“She’s not like that,” Andris protested again, rallying around the pain, the realization of his father’s mood, and his own dazed confusion.
“The only reason the House of Sutauto has not rose up against yours, Andris, is because I had your mother and her mages place a geas on him and his commanders never to lift a finger against me - against your mother - or against you and your siblings. Had he his own mind to play with, he would have attacked us long ago. His wife is a pale imitation of your mother and his daughters are set to woo you away from your family.”
“More is at stake than your choice of sexual partner, Andris. Do not be a fool.”
His father put up the blade to let him rise. Andris didn’t take the bait. Something about his father, standing there in his dark clothing with knuckles white on the blade, made him wary of trying.
“Something is wrong with this planet,” his father said, his voice growing less forceful and more reflective, more like his usual self, though the conversation was made no less strained for it. “If you do touch Tsukiko, it will break the geas and begin a curse. At the time, I had not understood what magic meant, but it may curse both of our families. I have not yet warned your siblings, but I thought you might be the first to try breaking my rule. Remember that when she comes to you. Sasha thinks that she may do so.”
Antonello stood at the foot of the stairs in his best dress uniform. It was on the schedule that he was to escort his Knight Commander from the stairwell to the main hall where their esteemed guests waited for the ceremonies to begin. He smoothed the hem of his jacket and straightened his collar. His father had drilled the proper etiquette into him over the years, not that it was necessary, Lord and Lady Whitemeadow were worthy of his deference. He was early and busied himself by reviewing the itinerary for the day and cross referencing the checkpoints where he would turn over his escort to Destiny and vice versa. The plan was to take turns guarding the Whitemeadows throughout the tournament. Their children were trickier but the elder Whitemeadow triplets were allowed to roam freely as this was their birthday celebration. He knew that Andris and Markos were bound for the tournament floor while he was unsure of where Lark was hiding and Anastasyia was on probation for pushing drunk guests off the anti-grav platforms last year.
His thoughts were interrupted as the soft clicking of high heels drew his attention to the top of the spiral staircase. He felt his breath catch. He wondered if it was a trick of the light or clever tailoring that caused the gown to shimmer with starlight as Lady Aleksasha descended, the fabric clinging and accentuated her curves while the light further emphasized them. He became increasingly aware of how low the neckline was and how high the slits were with each brief flash of smooth, sun kissed skin.
Antonello’s gaze eventually reached Aleksasha’s neck and he noted that her coppery tresses had been pinned up to expose yet more elegant flesh. It was the thought of Lord Aniseth dutifully braiding Aleksasha’s hair up that reminded Antonello to breathe. He tried to ignore the rising flush of his cheeks and inwardly cursed his hormones as he quickly bowed. “M.. my lady!”
It was her soft touch on his shoulder that broke the spell had been cast by her appearance. Aleksasha's eyes glittered mischievously, she must have known how she made him feel. He looked down in deference as he calmed his heart beat.
"Antonello, have my sons hatched their plan to sneak into the tournament yet? Or do they wait for me to move to the box?" She mused brightly.
"Nothing escapes you, my Lady. Do you wish me to summon them?" His face was hot again as he looked back up at her. She beamed.
"No, I suspect my husband will call their attention. There is much to do today. We have business to attend to away from the games," her hand shifted from his shoulder to cup his cheek. He felt the heat rise to his face as the the blush on his cheeks likely matched the shade of his eyes at her touch. “My sons are preoccupied with romance… Surely, you must be seeking a lover as well? You are of that age where the clash of swords and the burning of plasma is not enough for you," she continued.
He almost bit his tongue. "It's not proper to discuss such things with you, my lady. I do not want to distract from the day's agenda with my love life.." Or lack thereof. He cleared his throat and offered his arm, hoping to remind the Lady of proper decorum. “Are we to meet your husband here or in the meeting hall?”
Antonello breathed more easily when the lady seemed to be satisfied with her teasing and accepted his arm.
Aleksasha paused as she considered the question. “I would spare him a few moments, he might have become otherwise engaged.”
He shifted as they waited, enjoying the respite, no matter how short lived it might be. He gaze drifted upstairs for a moment before it turned to his companion. “I am surprised you are absent your uniform this morning.”
Her smile was there in her voice and made her eyes glitter in the light. “Are you concerned that I am under-dressed, Sergeant Mathias?”
Antonello awkwardly cleared his throat. “Not at all, Knight Commander, it’s just that every year you come down those stairs in uniform. I can’t remember a tournament day before the ball where you’ve been in a gown.” I would have liked some warning, he thought sheepishly.
The answer came, not from Aleksasha, but from the slender man who had, eventually and at length, followed her down from above. Aniseth Whitemeadow, Duke of Heled, Earl of Eloss, and a former ward of the Lord Empress, descended the stairs with a straight back and a precise manner. He wore an elegant red doublet and a fine blue cloak, mantled over in the arms of his house and chased in silver, with gold embroidery on the doublet. Dark hair, which he yet kept long, had been braided tight in the Taianese style and lay over his shoulder, opposite his coat of arms chased by the elegant gold supports of his rank. He had elected for more businesslike pants, pressed and sharp, tucked into a pair of slender but striking boots.
He stepped down onto the landing of the stairs, and looked Antonello in the eyes. Time had worn on Aniseth. Twenty years of growing, not as an elf in protectorate but as a full man, with a full man’s problems, had given him a sort of strange, elegant patience that some translated as a reluctance for speech. He hadn’t hardened, at least not outwardly, but his eyes were cool, and blue, and eerily knowing. As though he could see into Antonello’s thoughts, and soul, and he knew.
Yet it seemed more like sympathy, when he offered just a bit of a smile. “She has a certain effect on men, and today, we must impress a few rather troublesome ones. I myself go now to see if I cannot persuade a pair of mothers to part with their daughters, though I do not dare hope I could make as much of a dashing impression on them, as I expect my lovely lady wife may, at her own task.”
Antonello bowed to Aniseth, his expression shifted to one of relief. He tried to hide his curiosity at the statement about “a pair of mothers”. He thought of his friends, the twins and their desires. He wanted to know but it also was not his place to ask. “My Lord, if the dress is meant for the mothers perhaps, if I am not out of line, suggest something with a higher neckline?”
The Lord touched at the loosened collar of the doublet, and mused, “Really?” at Aleksasha, more jovial than offended. “Should I button it, do you think?”
Lady Whitemeadow stifled an uncharacteristic giggle at her Sergeant’s suggestion. The laughter lingered in her eyes as she gently touched Aniseth’s jaw as she considered him and the button. “Which way do you prefer? I imagine it would be more comfortable unbuttoned. If you were intending to woo the mothers a touch of neck wouldn’t hurt. You are the Duke, do what you will boldly and they will question their own husbands’ wardrobe as being out of fashion.”
“Ha,” he replied, reaching up to take her hand and kiss her fingertips lightly. “That is true, isn’t it. I suppose that I could come up with some interesting fashions, and see how far they could chase them, before they realized.”
Quietly, their escort waited patiently, glad for the reprieve from the teasing, no matter how short it might be. The Whitemeadows still had time before the meeting was to start but they dictated this schedule.
“I think they could do with some extravagant feathers for the spring,” she suggested as Aniseth’s lips brushed against her fingers. “I wonder if you could design Kirikuu feathers to continue glowing. It could be the new hot thing.” She was all smiles and laughter, Antonello tried to remember the last time he had bore witness to such an occasion. The only memory that stirred was when she heard that Anastaysia had gravity bounced a guest before she remembered that she had to be angry. And the Duke was usually a grim-faced shadow, haunting the study and his office in endless meetings, either of his small council or of the guilds of merchants and tradesmen, or lesser noblemen - and his mood, now, seemed as stark as Aleksasha’s.
“We shall see.” For a few moments, Aniseth gazed at his wife, seeming to take her in and with nothing, at that moment, but easy and ready affection in his expression.
Mathias, the guests are starting to arrive. How far out are you? The quiet voice of Sergeant Jory chirped in Antonello’s mind through his RCOM implant.
Jory, we are on the way, maybe five minutes, he replied through the link as he redirected his attention to the Duke and Duchess. “My Lord, the guests have started to arrive,” Anton interjected politely.
It was like Anton had broken a sort of spell. The Duke looked up at him, and some of the mirth went with the moment, ceding to the more normal expression of thoughtful appraisal he usually wore, though Aniseth gave his wife’s hand a last gentle squeeze before offering his own arm in a more noble and austere manner.
“Thank you. I suppose we should not keep this any longer than we must. After all, it was difficult enough getting them here, away from the games for a while, and if we do not work swiftly enough, I am afraid that half of them might run away.”
There was a spark of mischief as she looked back to Antonello. “Bid our sons good luck in their games today, try to keep them out of trouble, Sergeant,” she added with a wink as the large elaborated embellished red doors opened.
Sergeant Destiny Jory gestured to Anton to initiate the turnover of his escort duties. He noted that even Destiny was out of uniform for the occasion and clothed in a flattering emerald green tea length gown with practical dress flats. Her golden eyes met his and he nodded. Definitely not what I was expecting today. But I always forget just how gorgeous Tina really is. He saw the variable RCOM / Wing gauntlet on her right wrist, posing as an innocuous piece of thick, gold jewelry and was reminded that his friend was properly armed in the event something went wrong.
Antonello bowed, “By your leave Lord Whitemeadow.”
“You may go.”
Anton left the two of them there with Jory, though he couldn’t help glancing back at her, and at the noble pair, as he left them to return to his other duties.
But he couldn’t quite get the image of Jory in a dress out of his head, and it chased him down the hallway where he retreated, cheeks flushed.
And it was a sight. The manor-house of the Duke of Heled lived up to the city’s name; the great hall, where most of the guests would be entering, was vaulted high with a dome which filtered Heled’s reddish light through a series of stained glass window panes, so small and intricate that they might have been gemstones, in all shades of blue and red. It lit the hall’s white marble flooring with a cascade of the House’s twin colors, like a thousand shards of light on a thousand gleaming stones. The carpets were a deep gold color, not cloth-of-gold but woven with patterns that complimented the light show that the noonday sun put on for her. Breathtaking did not begin to describe it. The livery of the house, coiling dragons and winding roses, chased the pillars that supported the balcony far above and gleamed powerful and proud.
The house had merged trade with war, and had come out the better for it. Jory had become a little jaded to the beauty over her time passing in and out of the House, but with a new dress on, and the whole place glowing with light in preparation for the festivities, it felt like she walked through it anew and it still struck her as one of the most beautiful buildings on the planet. And the nobility among them, festooned in all the colors of the rainbow, in gowns and suits and tailored vests, whether those styles were Taianese, or from the Alliance to the west, or the more fantastical and archaic style of the elves of Heled. It all added to the cacophony. Blue and red, gold and silver, black and white tinged, as always, with the gentle red glow of a dwarven sun catching on every thread of embroidery or glint of jewelry; all of it danced together as neatly as the system’s new nobility.
The house would be open to the public but this also meant that their enemies could enter unobstructed. Destiny remembered hearing of the abduction of Lord Whitemeadow and the framing of Lady Whitemeadow for the deed. She was certain that the distant memory of the event was why the festivals and the open houses were allowed. This made the Whitemeadow family relatable, you saw them as people and therefore harder to hurt. They were wealthy but they never mistreated their citizens. She could not remember a time where there was murmurings of dissent towards the Whitemeadow system.
It was a bit archaic, this blood nobility thing, but Aniseth had raised people up from nothing into new names and lines. Hadn’t the Empress done the same with the elevation of that Creature fellow into Lord Du Rochen decades earlier? Wasn’t it the dream to raised up from poverty into the realms of the upper class? That sort of dream could burn like a candle in the heart of anyone who worked hard for a living in this almost barren waste.
Destiny wondered what might have happened if her father hadn’t stayed on with the Uial Lug Free Company as it grew into the Meadow Wing Forces of Heled. Their own household had grown in prominence and soon, she would claim the Lieutenant's seat at the table alongside Aleksasha as her father had before her.
Cheerful gossip and the clink of glasses brought Destiny Jory’s thoughts back to the present. Bodies twisted and pressed around her as the honored guests, the nobility, wandered around the foyer to gawk at the glittering baubles that adorned the room. She remained immobile as she waited. I am just another pretty statue for them to stare at, she mused to herself as the large crimson doors parted.
A golden aura illuminated Lord and Lady Whitemeadow in the center of the doorway, surely an effect of their presence and the lighting drew all eyes to them. She was more interested in the golden haired Sergeant that stood behind them like a pale shadow and her eyes shifted from the couple to their escort. Her neutral expression melted as she finally smiled, noticing the light blush on his cheeks. Should have warned him that we’d be dressing up for today.
Let’s get this party started.