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A melancholic lord of perhaps thirty looked down at his indignant son. “No arguments, Ædarik. Until the King decides to extend his protections to the East, you will live with your Aunt and Uncle in the Capital.”
“I don’t wanna,” the boy complained.
“Speak properly, boy. You are a lord, not some uneducated peasant. I will not have my last surviving heir represent our house inadequately with a pauper’s elocution nor will I risk him to poorly veiled incursions by Alaran and Karik.” The lord was growing angry. He didn’t have time to explain things to his son. The attacks had already taken both of his wives, all of his lovers, and every child he had ever sired, bar Ædarik.
“But my friends are here.”
“You can make new friends in Særis.”
“It won’t be the same.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“That’s not an argument. I’m not going. If you want the King’s help, why not just ask him? Then I won’t need to go anywhere.“
“I already have. Countless times. He considered the Ru’eni threat to the Ferran Principality of Llyr to be more important than the plight of his own countrymen. And like him, I will not change my mind on this matter. You leave on the morrow.”
In response, the boy stormed out of the office.
The sudden voice snapped the melancholic lord from his recollection of years long since passed. “Yes, Sena?” he asked the maid. She was young, roughly the same age as his son, with long, midnight blue hair kept in a well-maintained and braided bun.
“A report, milord,” the maid responded.
“Very well. Proceed.”
“Your sister sends word regarding your son. He has been performing remarkably well in his studies at the Azure University. He has also been engaging in one of the lordly schools of self defence. Talanking, with a weighted cane, if my informants are to be believed. Also some Telarik fencing for swordplay.”
“Good. It’s about time he learned how to defend himself. Anything else?”
“Yes, milord. Lord Fein wishes to speak with you. Something about moving on to the next phase. I believe he is worried about the continued stability of the caves with the increased seismic activity that has been happening in the area.”
“Of course. I’ll contact him immediately. Please set up the Speaking Crystal and make sure that the room is secured.” It was a simple request that Lord Edaris knew that Sena could complete with ease, but it was necessary. Not everyone in his employ was privy to the operation.
“Right away, milord,” Sena responded before remembering something. “One last thing. It has come to my attention that one of your son’s friends intends to invite him and some others to a party at their family estates.”
“And this matters why?” Edaris asked with a note of confusion.
“The friend in question is the son of Lord Feilan. Lord Feilan is already problematic enough with his eccentricities. We have had to cover up for him on countless occasions. I don’t understand why you have allied yourself with such a man?” The maid posited the question with a look of disgust and the slight crackling of electricity. She couldn’t stand Lord Feilan.
“Because the caves are on his lands and he was easy to manipulate,” Lord Edaris explained. “He wants to be free of the King’s watch, though for considerably less noble reasons than I. We’ll eliminate him when the time comes. Until then, hold your anger. He is useful.”
“Yes, milord,” Sena relented, the sound of electricity snapping in the air becoming notably quieter. “I also believe that Lord Landras, the friend in question, is hoping to set up your son with his younger sister.”
“I’ll speak with Lord Feilan and make sure that he behaves. As for the second point, some harmless fun won’t hurt Ædarik. It might even be a new and valuable experience for him. Is that all you have to report?”
“Yes, milord. Everything else I shall leave here for you to peruse at your leisure.”
“Thank you. If that’s everything, you are dismissed.”
Sena nodded and turned on her heel towards the door. Just before leaving, she looked at Lord Edaris one last time. “Will you be needing my other services later on tonight, milord?”
“Ah. Yes, that would be most appreciated.”
She gave him an excited smile in response and then left.
“I really should reward her more,” he said to himself when she was gone. Like him, she had lost practically everything when Alaran and Karik started attacking the Særis outlands. When he realised his plan, she was one from the first wave of adolescents that he took into his service, and unlike those that followed, she volunteered. The attack had left her broken. Now she had a purpose. Vengeance against the king that had abandoned her and against the countries that had taken everything from her. Edaris had given her that chance.
He knew that she would die for him, even without strange crests that had been given to him in a deal with the Al’duur of Dreis. She loved him and when she reached maturity, she had started offering her body to him. He accepted, though not because he desired her personally. It was more that he desired the sensation such intimacy could give and because they suffered the same loneliness. They were kindred spirits. It also made for a good reward. She had been exemplary in her services as both a maid and a bodyguard.
Meanwhile, the entire width of the country away, a young lord was roused from the same memory in the middle of a lecture. A piece of chalk had hit him square in the forehead. A squat old man with messy, balding, white hair and a similarly frazzled beard with the faintest remnants of brown glowered at him. “It would seem that Lord Ædarik is more interested in sniffing butterfly dust than he is learning about the heavenly majesty that is the divine anatomy of our world’s celestial mother, the Goddess. Yes. Yes. Disappointing. Mother knows when you are being naughty. That is why She has two eyes and why they are never closed at the same time. Except for that one time, yes.”
“Um, Professor?” another student interrupted, “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.”
“Who said that? Lord Devlin? Wait no, that’s Lady Deilin now. Ah! I see. It was Miss Linnet. Did someone make you an expert on Divine Anatomy while I was away on my exhibition? No? Then don’t interrupt me unless I ask you to. Questions are fine.”
Lord Ædarik sighed. He hadn’t planned on spending his afternoon in one of the lectures given by the infamous Dori Baille, Scholar of Divine Anatomy and certified nutcase. He was a genius in his field if you believed what he was saying and he didn’t make that easy. He was almost impossible to follow at the best of times and he had a creepy fascination with the Goddess’ hair, which was apparently, according to his most recent exhibition, green. Ædarik would have much rather gone to a lecture by Professor Nolus on Tactics Against an Awakened Force or Traveller Monk Vas’ class on Kairosi Philosophy. Instead he had been dragged along by Landras who seemed particularly interested in the subject at hand. Professor Dori was spouting his theory on the sudden increase of seismic activity and the strange events in the summer of five years prior.
“You see, it is my belief that someone called upon the Goddess’ ire. The events of five years ago screams of a threefold Resonance between the Goddess, Illyria and the Heart of the Sun. Did you not see Her eyes darken? Or did you not recognise how the weather was especially bad that year? Illyria shook and continues to shake even now. We had a catastrophic earthquake not two days ago and Chain of Fire is, well it’s on fire. The Goddess is angry and Her family shares in Her fury. How many people have died? The reports from the first few months show that numbers rose to the tens of thousands and that is in our fair nation and Llen Færa alone. Yes, most tragic. I can’t even fathom the numbers worldwide. This is why, if my theory is true, which I know it is, you should never call upon the Goddess’ True Name if you don’t truly mean to and don’t understand the consequences. Wait! I said that wrong. The validity of my theory should have no bearing on whether or not you should follow my warning. Follow it or beware. Yes. Beware. Did I do a good job, Mother? Yes, thank you.”
The lecture continued on in much the same way. If Professor Baille utilised his uncanny ability to belabour on anything other than his subject of choice, politicians would have hired him years ago to filibuster for days on end. When it was over, Ædarik rushed out into the grand halls of the Azure University, leaving his friends behind. He could finally relax his brain. There was no blocking out Professor Baille for extended periods of time and listening to him was an exercise in and of itself.
“Arik!” Landras shouted after him from the lecture theatre, “Wait up,”
“Why did you make me attend that lecture, Landras,” Ædarik called back.
“Because it’s interesting and has had a massive impact on us northern families,” Landras responded while stumbling out of the room, their other friends following up behind.
“You call that interesting?” Davra, the one commoner of the group asked.
“You can’t deny that he has a somewhat eccentric charm,” Lady Deilin remarked, shifting the hem of her dress awkwardly. She still wasn’t quite used to wearing the garment, but she has started smiling a lot more ever since her parents had come to terms with who she was.
“Is that what you call it?” Ædarik asked wryly.
“What? I’m just saying that a man that understands and acts on his passions is really attractive. If it isn’t dangerous or hurtful to others that is.”
“Dev knows what’s up,” Landras laughed. Deilin shrunk slightly at use of her old nickname. It hurt more coming from a friend. Everyone glared at him until he realised his mistake. “Oh, sorry, Deilin. I’m still not used to all this,” he apologised awkwardly, motioning towards her with his hands waving up and down her body. It served to only make her more uncomfortable.
“Perhaps don’t do that, Landras,” Ædarik said firmly.
“Thank you, Arik,” Deilin smiled meekly. It was an odd sight to see. She was the tallest member of the group and before she had always expressed herself with an air of confidence. However, when she told everyone about who she really was inside, she admitted that she had just been acting in the way she thought people expected her to act, when in reality it was a lie that she had been telling herself and everyone else.
“Have you started your Hormonal Resonance Therapy yet?” Alena, the younger Ferran girl of the group asked hesitantly.
“Not yet. It’s incredibly expensive and the number of Doctors with the correct Gift that are good enough are few and far between. For now I need to make do with Alchemist synthesised hormones.”
“That’s great,” Landras interjected, “but before we go any further with that conversation, I’d like to invite you all to a party. It’s my sister’s seventeenth birthday and I have to go, but it will be so boring without any of my best friends.” He gave them a massive smile. He was absolutely awful at being sincere at times.
“Where is it?” Ædarik asked. “Somewhere in the city?”
“Noo no no no no. At our family estates. You’ll all be honoured guests of course. Even you, Davra. I don’t care if you are technically a commoner. Rank has no meaning here. And it’s not like you’re a peasant. Come on, I’ll even buy you a dress. Any one that you want. We can make a trip out of it. All of us.”
Ædarik had some sneaking suspicions as to why Landras was willing to go to such potential expenses for Davra, but he kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t about to ruin his friend’s chances by exposing his awkward attempts at courting. Davra didn’t seem to mind, thankfully. In fact, when the time came for them to go shopping, she called his bluff and ordered the most expensive dress she could find that matched her tastes.
A month later, the five of them were in a carriage en route to Landras’ family estates. They hadn’t quite anticipated that the journey would take quite so long. Originally they were going to take a ship for the entire journey. However, that plan came to an end around halfway, just before the Straights of Fire between the Isle of Llen Færa and the western coast of Særis. They ran afoul of a rogue wave, driving them towards land. The ship survived, but the damage to the mast was beyond what could be fixed at sea or in any meaningful amount of time. Fortunately, they had left with time to spare, allowing them to take the rest of the journey by carriage. It wasn’t quite as glamorous, but it was functional. It might have even been picturesque if it wasn’t for Landras’ complaints.
“How much longer, driver?” he asked through the window.
“We should be there by tonight’s eve, milord,” the driver answered quickly.
“Evening? It’s already been a week. You were supposed to be the fastest coach driver in port.”
“Imma trying, milord, but I can only push the belass so far.”
“Fine! Just know that I won’t be tipping you if we’re late.”
“Most understandable, milord…” Before he could finish, Landras closed the window in his face.
“You shouldn’t be so rude, Landras,” Alena scolded him timidly.
“We should have arrived days ago,” he complained.
“Considering the sea route, I doubt it would have been that much shorter,” Deilin opined.
“You don’t know that.”
“This route is like a third of the distance from the point where we landed,” she pointed out.
“But ships are fast.”
“Not that fast.”
“Well at least it was comfier.” He just wasn’t letting it rest.
“Enough Landras. You’re just making the trip feel longer with all this complaining,” Davra finally interjected.
“Fine!” he harrumphed, finally shutting up. The rest of the trip was rather uneventful. Which is to say, the entirety of the land trip was uneventful. Landras just liked to complain when things didn’t go his way.
When they finally pulled up, they were greeted by a towering and incredibly imposing castle with a depressing lack of colour. The intimidating form of the castle wasn’t helped by its location on top of a rather large hill. To celebrate the return of Lord Landras, they launched a boulder from one of their trebuchets into the nearby fjord, likely terrifying everyone in the village below.
“Your family certainly has a unique sense of style, Landras,” Ædarik remarked.
“I couldn’t have said it finer myself, Arik. I’ve missed this. My father let me use the trebuchet all the time before he sent me to get an education in the capital.”
“That’s not very… ah responsible,” Alena said quietly, her ears lowered and her tail still.
“What was that, Alena?” Landras asked.
“Nothing.” He failed to notice how intimidated she was by everything.
Deilin put a comforting hand on her shoulder and smiled. “It’s okay, Alena. We’ll go in together.”
Alena smiled back nervously.
“Shall we, Landras?” Davra prodded.
“Yes of course. Where are my manners. Right this way, esteemed guests of mine.”
“Stop being needlessly dramatic,” Ædarik laughed.
Landras guided them towards the entrance to the main keep where an army of servants awaited them. The maids and manservants whirled into action as they approached, taking hold of their belongings and taking note of who everything belonged to. Then the head butler took charge and led them into the keep.
As they got closer, it became clear that the walls weren’t plain stone as Ædarik had believed from further away. Instead they were painted a deep purple that was reminiscent of some of the star clusters in the night sky. It was an interesting choice for a castle, but who was Ædarik to judge. If it was meant to intimidate, it was certainly doing its job. The inside of the keep was somewhat brighter. Once you got past the first portcullis, the entryway full of murder holes and the second portcullis into the actual entry hall which was much larger than would be typical of a castle very clearly designed with war in mind, that is. It spoke of conflicting extravagances.
“I will take you to your rooms post haste, my lords and ladies. The maids have already drawn private baths for each of you. When you are ready, I will show you to the dining room where you will sup with Lord Feilan and Lady Larissa. Lady Ashlin will also be in attendance. Consider yourselves privileged to be meeting her before her formal debut. If you have any requirements, feel free to ask me or any of the maids if they are not clearly in the middle of a task.” The butler spoke with an old measured diction, as if he had practiced elocution since he was just a babe.
Each of them were given their own luxuriously decorated rooms with all the amenities they could ask for. As promised, they were provided with full baths and they were all offered assistance with bathing, grooming and make-up if they so desired. Ædarik politely declined, though he was sure some of his friends would accept.
Sometime later, they all reconvened in the main entry of the keep, waiting on Landras so that they could be shown to dinner.
“He’s taking his sweet time,” Davra complained. “I could eat a horse.”
“That’s a colourful way of saying you’re hungry, Davra,” Deilin giggled.
“It’s the truth. He spent all that time complaining and now he’s making us wait.”
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” Ædarik reassured her. “He probably spent too long in the bath.”
They waited for five more minutes. Then ten. It was fifteen minutes when Landrass finally put in an appearance.
“Sorry I’m late,” he apologised. “That bath was simply divine and I had so much grooming to do.”
Everyone stared at him. They too had done some much needed grooming and the girls had also had their make-up done. Yet none of them had taken anywhere near as long. He didn’t even look like he’d done much more than shave and slightly style his hair.
He threw up his arms in response to their gazes. “What more do you want from me?”
They didn’t have anything to say to that.
Seeing that their conversation was over, the head butler guided them down a long corridor and into the family’s more intimate dining room in the private wing of the castle. They were greeted at the door by Lord Feilan personally. It was Ædarik’s first time seeing the man and he was not what he expected. Before him was a late middle aged man, a similar age to his father, with dark green eyes and a face like a raven, his hair being a fitting charcoal black. Somewhat strikingly, he also sported a three peak chinstrap and an immaculate moustache. He also seemed to share little in terms of looks with his only son with the exception of general build and hair colour. Apart from that, it seemed like Landras favoured his mother.
Lady Larissa greeted them from her seat. “My apologies,” she said, “I would stand, but I unfortunately was injured in a horse riding accident some years ago and too much movement causes me great pain.”
“Perfectly understandable, Your Grace,” Ædarik responded politely.
“Larissa is fine. You are guests here after all.
“Likewise, feel free to call me Feilan. If you must use honorifics, lord is fine. Now please be seated. My daughter will arrive shortly. I’m told she is nervous about meeting so many new people at once.”
“Isn’t it a bit late for her to be shy of a few new people, Lord Feilan?” Davra asked. “Her party and debut is in just a couple of days.
“Exactly,” Feilan guffawed. “I said the exact same thing to her this morning.”
“Yes, dear,” Larissa chided. “Now let us drink while we wait.”
On her signal, everyone was served a beverage of their liking. They didn’t need to ask; the drinks had already been individually prepared.
“Sorry, I went and told them your favourites in advance,” Landras admitted.
“Of course you would,” Ædarik laughed.
They engaged in casual conversation while they waited for Ashlin to arrive. Thankfully, they didn’t need to wait too much longer as the door opened in just under five minutes and she was introduced to the room. She surprised Ædarik even more than Lord Feilan had. She was slender of frame, almost too slender, and her skin had a slight touch of bronze. She wore a petite black dress which would have been seen as scandalous in a court setting despite being perfectly modest. It also complimented her most striking features perfectly. Such features came in the form of her long, perfectly straight, magenta hair and rose coloured eyes. The colours were rare. Exceptionally so, but that was par the course for the nobility. What really made it strange, was the fact that no one else in her family bore traits with even a semblance of similarity. Even the texture of her hair was different. The more Ædarik looked, the more differences he noticed. He didn’t even realise he was staring when Davra elbowed him in the side.
Ashlin curtsied shyly to everyone, trying to make eye contact with everyone but Ædarik. An odd gesture, but he paid it no mind. Instead he was distracted by Landras kicking him underneath the table and winking at him. Not wanting to be caught in whatever he was trying to insinuate, he turned to Ashlin. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Ashlin,” he said, standing up and taking a bow. “I must say that you look beautiful beyond compare.” They weren’t the words he would typically use to describe her. They weren’t entirely contrary to his opinion of her looks either. It was more that he felt like ‘pretty’ described her better; striking also. However, ‘beautiful’ had a much more regal sound to it and compliments never hurt anyone.
He was not expecting Ashlin to blush quite as much as she did. “Th-thank you, milord,” she stammered while trying to curtsy again.
Seeing the exchange, Deilin placed the middle knuckle of her index finger to her forehead in a rather unladylike manner while Davra laughed under her breath and Alena’s tail swished back and forth. All three of them read between the lines that Ædarik was missing.
“Quit standing there, dear sister. We’ve been waiting forever. Surely our guests are getting hungry,” Landras remarked. The irony of his statement was lost on no one.
The first night at Castle Draskaan was rough despite all the comforts they were offered. Lesser earthquakes disrupted Ædarik’s sleep multiple times. By the time morning came about, he was starting to realise Landras’ fascination with Professor Baille’s lecture. At breakfast it became clear that everyone had had similar experiences and were coming to the same conclusion as he was.
“My apologies, for the restless night,” Lord Feilan apologised solemnly. “The earthquakes have been coming more and more frequently with each passing week. Thankfully they are too weak to do any real damage to anything other than a good night’s rest.”
“That’s the truth if ever I’ve heard it,” Landras yawned.
Thankfully, the next night was notably quieter, allowing them to be fully rested for the party the following evening. The preparations were long and arduous as everyone wanted to look their best. Everyone had at least a little make-up applied, even Ædarik who usually avoided it. Of course, the girls went above and beyond. They were, after all, proud young ladies of the Azure and Ferran Courts. And Davra, who was a special case. However, they only wanted to show up the other guests, so they offered to help Lady Ashlin with the latest fashions from the capital, making sure that she would be ever so slightly more majestic than they were. She awkwardly accepted their kind offer and they worked their magic.
While they waited for Lady Ashlin to be ready and for the ladies in their company to make their own appearances, Ædarik and Landra waited in the great hall in a quiet corner where they could talk alone before mingling with the other guests.
“So…” Landras started awkwardly.
Ædarik looked at him quizzically. “Yes?”
“What do you think of my sister? She’s a real beauty isn’t she?”
“She is extremely pretty, yes,” Ædarik admitted.
“I was hoping you would say that.” Landras sighed in relief. “Would you perhaps consider courting her?”
“Well she is about to become the most eligible bachelorette in the north.”
“Is that really how you want to be describing your own little sister?” Ædarik asked somewhat uncomfortably.
“Ignore that. Listen, Arik. She has a massive crush on you and I’d much rather call you brother than some random lord from a lesser noble family.”
Ædarik was no stranger to people finding him attractive, but this was unexpected. “How? We’ve only just met.”
“I may have told her about you in the past. She’s a romantic, waiting for someone to sweep her off of her feet.”
“And I’m that person? How much of what you told her was true?”
“Enough. Trust me.”
“I trust you as far as I could throw you.”
“That hurts,” Landras said with mock objection.
“Deal with it. Did you not think of telling her that sometimes it’s better to take the initiative when it comes to love?
“When did you become such an expert. That might work with peasants and commoners, but the courts have certain protocols. A lady courting a lord is practically unheard of.”
“Are you still bitter that Lady Amalandis confessed to you before you could work up the courage? At this rate, the same thing will happen with Davra.
“You think she likes me?”
“Goddess knows. I’m just saying that her confessing is more likely than you even considering it in earnest.”
“I’m getting better.”
“Sure you are. Hang on. I think the ladies just walked in.”
Right on schedule, their three female friends walked in, looking absolutely stunning. Deilin stood in the middle, flanked on both sides by Alena and Davra. She wore a deep, sea blue dress that grew lighter and lighter the closer it got to the ruffled hem, giving the impression of rolling waves as she walked. It paired nicely with a dark brown wig that she wore down with several elaborately braided loops. She wasn’t quite comfortable with her natural hair yet as it was still on the short side and she yearned for long graceful locks.
To Deilin’s left, the considerably shorter, doll-like Alena smiled with a confidence that neither lord was used to seeing. Her long tawny brown hair was woven into a waterfall of curls and her light green eyes were lined in an alluring black with a touch of a blush on her pale olive cheeks. Her blood red dress hugged closely to her petite form. Similarly to Deilin’s dress, it had a ruffled skirt, though with less body and an opening on the side to reveal her leg. The dress also featured a rather attractive bodice that led into a rather daring cut for the bust. Of course, it was also modified to allow for her tail to be free.
Last but not least, there was Davra, who had emptied Landras’ coffers a month ago to buy the dress that she now wore. For the cost, it was deceptively simple. It blushed gently like a ripened peach and the fabric flowed freely from the waist down where it was caught by a woven gold belt. The fine straps rested delicately on her shoulders and her ample curves filled out the bust and hips of the dress, only adding to its graceful form. To compliment the dress, she wore her hair in a loose, wavy ponytail, letting her golden locks do all the talking. From across the dance floor, she gave her lordly friends a sly wink from her wing lined eyes.
“Breathe, Landras,” Ædarik cautioned his friend after they saw the gesture. “Breathe.”
“I’m fine, Arik. I think I just took an arrow to the heart.”
“Just ask her already. I thought it was obvious before, but this is killing me.”
“I can do it. I can.”
“Later though, when the party is in full swing. I think I’ll need some liquid confidence first. Let’s go greet the ladies and mingle.”
For a good while, they mingled. And danced for a good hour while they waited for Lady Ashlin to put in an appearance. Ædarik danced with all three of his friends in that time along with a few other ladies of the court. He even danced with a shy young lord of around eighteen years of age. Landras had been significantly less adventurous, either due to his lack of confidence or his focus. When he finally got round to dancing with her, it ended with fleeing from the room and her being rather taken aback. Ædarik was about to go after him when the moment they had all been waiting for arrived.
A herald entered the room accompanied by the rolling of a drum. When the drum stopped, he spoke. “Introducing Her Grace. Lady Ashlin Mariel Eladris of House Takiir, most illustrious daughter of Lord Feilan Eldras Alarik Tenten and Lady Larissa Meiliin Rua Ken of House Takiir.” When he finished his announcement, the drums started again as he made way for Ashlin. Ædarik’s jaw dropped when he saw her. She glowed. She actually glowed. Somehow the maids and his friends had figured out a way to make her positively radiant. Her face was like a diamond in a sea of brilliant magenta. The dress was equally stunning. The deep purple was of the same colour as the castle walls, only more vibrant and featuring a swirling galaxy and colourful nebulae. Like her face, the strategically placed crystalline star clusters glistened with every step, changing colours as they moved. Ædarik was not expecting that.
“Wow,” Alena said out of nowhere, stepping in beside him. “I knew she was going to be stunning, but this is something else.”
“Alena! When did you get there?”
“I was nearby when I saw you gawking, so I walked over. You should be careful. If I was standing in front of you, your jaw would have hit me on the head.” She was smiling sardonically at him, her tail swishing mischievously behind her.
“What’s gotten into you, Alena? You’re acting differently.”
“No I’m not. This is how I always act at parties. It’s not my fault you’ve never seen me at one before. I’m like this back at home as well.”
“Fair enough.” There wasn’t much else he could say to that. “Would you like another dance? I think I could do with a distraction.”
“I would love to dance, Lord Ædarik,” she smiled winsomely. “Thank you.”
He promised to himself that he would be better prepared next time.
After an hour of mingling, Ashlin approached Ædarik, having just finished talking to Deilin, Davra and Alena. She curtsied slightly and he bowed, making sure to go lower than she did, even if only slightly. It was her party, after all. “I’m honoured that you have found the time to speak with me, Lady Ashlin. I do apologise as it seems that your brother vanished just before your arrival and he is yet to return.”
“There is no need to apologise, Lord Ædarik. If anything, I should be the one to apologise for the untoward suggestion that I am about to make.”
“If I may be so bold to ask, would you mind joining me on the dance floor?” She looked at him with the sincere, hopeful eyes of a young woman in love and it made his heart skip a beat.
I was not prepared for this.
“It would be my pleasure, Lady Ashlin. And if you wouldn’t mind, would you address me as Arik? It is what my friends call me.”
The result of his response seemed to almost occur faster than he could give it. Ashlin’s face immediately brightened and she was practically jumping with joy, her hands in his. “Yes, of course, Lord Arik.”
The couple drew countless eyes, not just because of the pairing, but the fact that it was Ashlin’s debut dance. It wasn’t anything flashy, nor was it close to the best dance of the night, but it held a profound meaning for the young bachelorette. What it meant for Lord Ædarik, he wasn’t yet sure, though he knew that Ashlin had touched his heart in some small way. The one thing he was sure of, however, was that Lord Feilan had been absent for the entirety of the dance.
Lord Feilan never returned to the party and as the night drew on, Ædarik found himself in desperate need of the bathroom, having drunk a fair bit. On his way back from relieving himself, he realised that he had accidentally done so in the private lavatory as opposed to the guest ones. He assumed it wouldn’t matter when a noise from deeper within the wing drew his attention. Lacking the inhibitions to warn against investigating further, he wandered in towards the sound. He did his best impression of what he believed sneaking should be like in his inebriated state. Miraculously, he didn’t get caught. Or maybe not. There was a disturbing lack of servants in the wing.
The noise was getting louder the closer he got. He barely realised that he was holding his breath. “You weren’t seen, were you?” a voice asked from a nearby room. Ædarik immediately sobered up and retreated into the shadows. For the first time in his life, he was actually finding a use for his Gift. He listened closer. He could hear a girl struggling in the room.
“Of course not, milord. We made sure she was silent for the entirety of the way here as well.” Ædarik didn’t recognise the voice that was speaking. He did however, recognise the voice that responded and his heart sank.
“Excellent. And Lord Fein is none the wiser?” It was Lord Feilan.
“He hasn’t indicated anything to the contrary, milord.”
“Absolutely capital. I should have you men rewarded. Perhaps you would like to partake in one of the girls?” Ædarik had to swallow the vomit from hearing the suggestion. He tried to shut out everything. He heard everything. He cursed himself for being unable to act. He wouldn’t let that girl go back to whatever hell she had come from.
“Lord Edaris!” Sena called out to her master, word having just arrived from Castle Draskaan. “Lord Ædarik disappeared during Lady Ashlin Takiir’s party.”
“Fuck! Gods be damned, what was Feilan doing at the time?”
“He refused to answer, milord.”
“That raven-faced bastard! I swear, if he was indulging in his twisted perversions instead of keeping my son safe, I’ll castrate him myself.”
“I’ll make sure to blunt the knife for you, milord.”
When the men left with the girl, Ædarik followed. Wherever they were going, there would be more like her. He would rescue her and then he would rescue the others.
Author’s Note: The first part of this chapter was really fun to write. That is to say, most of this chapter was really fun to write. Especially coming up with ideas for the dresses and writing the descriptions. One of them is a reference to a very popular JRPG. I wonder if you’ll be able to guess which one. Dori is also one of my favourite characters. The last part, however, was very difficult to write. I had to redo it several times to get it to a level that I hope didn’t go to far. The original draft was actually really traumatic for me. Normally I’m fine with letting my writing effect me emotionally. It’s not like I can do much to stop it with my BPD. However this time it went too far and I don’t want to inflict that on other people. I hope that you are able to enjoy this chapter even with the especially dark scene towards the end. This marks the start of Act 2.