She looked at herself in the full view mirror in distaste and made a face at the reflection.
"If you're not careful, your face will freeze like that, Cora," her friend warned her as she swept up the princess's long, dark hair. "And then what will his eminence think of you?"
The princess screwed her face up even more, her blue eyes narrowed. "I don't want to meet his royal godliness," she muttered. "It is easy enough for Papa to ask me to marry the prince, saying he 'understands my feelings.' But he will not be the one spending his whole life with his eminence and his family! They think they have descended from the gods!"
"No, they think they are gods," the other girl disagreed, and they both laughed. She took a box containing glowing white gloves and slipped them onto Cora's arms over her rough and calloused hands. "But a prince is a prince, as a crown is a crown, my dear princess, and that is all the King sees."
Cora turned from the mirror carelessly as her ensemble was finished and sighed. She was the second child and only daughter of King Emerus of Sanjia, and her marriage was to be a political match. She was born in a country of long springs and summers, and short, cool winters. It was a place of ease and comfort, where the royal family was no stranger to the common people. And yet they still were a graceful family that could fulfill their social expectations of curtsying to ambassadors, flattering foreign royalty, and dancing with princes and princesses. They could play the expected royal family of beauty and grandeur as easily as planting seeds and shaping clay into vases. Other countries looked down upon the peculiar Sanjian royal family that went among their own people and learned trades; outsiders thought it savage and unnecessary, unbalancing the system of hierarchy. But being peculiar as they were, the Sanjian family did not care for others' opinions.
"I look a fine mess, Aydri," Cora said, smiling wryly, "but the messier, the better, for I do believe that his royal godliness will find the sight of me insufferable, no matter what I do. He thinks we are a savage and uncivilized people." Her voice was cheerful and pleased at the idea.
Aydri thought that the prince of Amalur would think the exact opposite, but her princess did not want to hear that. Instead, she nodded in agreement. "I think it is now time you present yourself to the court. The royal godly family is to be expected soon, and you could not miss their entrance, for I am sure it will be quite grand."
Cora rolled her eyes. "I will see you in the ballroom, then."
Her footsteps were silent on the staircase covered with thick, plush, white carpet. Her gloves remained a glowing white even as she ran them along the railing of the staircase. At the base of the stairs, she took a left, then another sharp left down a long corridor. Then she made a right to a large set of ivory doors. Two dignified footmen stood at the doors. The one on the right opened both large doors, while the other took a few strides forward.
"Her greatness, Princess Corana Duvo," the footman announced in a carrying voice.
All heads turned and all voices hushed to view the princess as she made her entrance. Murmurs echoed throughout the ballroom. "How lovely she has bloomed!" "She will please the prince!" "No man could say no to such beauty!"
Cora heard all this as she made her way to the dais where the king and queen were waiting for her. But what they were not counting on was for such beauty to say no to the man, she thought. She smiled with her teeth gritted, nodding her head toward the courtiers as she glided past them. Then she took her place beside her mother on the dais.
"Is it just me, or do you also feel like a prize cow being displayed?" Cora said between her teeth as she continued to smile.
The queen, Bella, chuckled, as she continued to stare out among the faces of the courtiers as new arrivals continued to arrive and be announced. "My gem, you are too harsh upon the courtiers," she murmured. "It is all they know, this splendor and beauty. They have always frowned a little upon the royal families for their 'peculiar' behavior."
"I suppose I shall feel even more like a prize cow on display when his royal godliness arrives."
Bella almost laughed outright as she covered her red mouth with a gloved hand. "My gem!" she whispered, her voice still containing laughter. "I do hope you do not intend to call Arlan that to his face."
Then the king, Emerus, leaned over toward his daughter's ear. "My gem, please try to be as charming as you can muster yourself to be," he said, almost pleadingly. "I know that the Corsuth family is not like us. But they are wealthy and powerful, a good ally through blood. I need this match."
Cora sighed, but she smiled at her father. "I will do my best, but I cannot promise anything else. If he turns out to be arrogant, then I cannot be but my worst self."
"Just try to be pleasant. You are a diplomat as well as a princess. And part of your job is to make compromises, and to hide your feelings. Please, as my little diplomat, do your best. For me."
Both ivory doors were suddenly flung open, and all heads turned in that direction. A man dressed in red and gold, the colors of Amalur, stepped forward with slow, deliberate steps. He drew in a deep breath, let it out, then said,
"Your greatnesses of the royal family of Duvo, may I present their eminences, King Aramuth, his queen, Lancia, Prince Arlan, and the Princess Milisa from the house of Harmen." The man bowed again, then walked backward a few steps, and stepped aside.
Then emerged a tall and broad man with shining fair hair. His hazel eyes were droopy, his chin weak. On his arm hung a small, dainty woman dripping and glittering with gems sewn into her clothing. Their movements were precise and slow, so stiff they were in trying to achieve dignity and royal grace.
A young man followed the couple, the man that Cora would be given to. He was tall, like his father, Aramuth, was broad in the shoulders, though he was lean and of a wiry build. His posture was straight, his stride long and easy, one of an athlete. His skin was pale, his dark curly hair unruly and wild, some falling into his light green eyes. He was dressed in fine and elegantly tailored clothing, the colors perfectly complementing him.
He did not look at Cora, but instead bowed his head to whisper something to the woman at his side, which Cora assumed was Milisia. Arlan's expression was one of almost boredom. Whatever he had said made the young woman giggle. To Cora, they appeared to be less dignified than their parents, but she wasn't sure if it was a positive quality.
At last, the Corsuth family reached the dais and bowed. "Your greatness, and my friend, Emerus," Aramuth said. "It is indeed a great honor to be welcomed here at your court."
Emerus stepped down from the dais and embraced the other man. "Indeed, it is an honor to receive you," he said.
Their greeting was coolly polite with an undercurrent of dislike. The two men were hesitant to make such a match, for each thought that the other's habits and characters were unsatisfactory. Emerus had no dignity or pride; Aramuth had no humility. But they did not think that because of their own differences, their children should be kept apart. And never had peace come so cheaply as the price of a wedding ring.
Emerus then bowed over Lancia's hand, and inclined his head to the prince and princess. "Your eminence, Arlan, you are most welcomed, as are you, my dear Milisa."
Arlan bowed gracefully. "Your greatness, I am honored," he murmured as his sister curtsied. He turned to Cora, who had followed behind Bella down the dais steps. He took her hand lightly and kissed it. "Princess Corana."
His brevity annoyed Cora, as well as his indifference, his forthrightness to kiss her hand, his look of boredom, as well as his rudeness to ignore her and her family as they walked toward the dais. She disliked him immensely.
"My lord," she said coolly as she pulled her hand from his. She drew herself up to her fullest height of her tall frame.
Arlan did not seem disconcerted by her coolness. Instead, he smiled, as if humoring her, which made her angrier. Then he bowed again and backed away from the dais.
At last, all the guests had arrived, and the Duvo family was free to mingle among the guests. Cora immediately sought out Aydri.
"He is a prig," Cora hissed as she accepted a glass of wine from a passing servant. "If I am forced to spend the rest of my life with a prig, I will shrivel up and die. But then, that would not be so horrible, would it? It would be a release!"
Aydri shrugged as she nibbled on a wafer. "He is handsome enough, you must admit. And perhaps he will improve on further acquaintance." Her eyes were twinkling.
Cora gave an unladylike snort. "That, my dear, is doubtful."
Arlan was born in a country of four distinct seasons, a rainy and cool spring, hot and humid summers, a chilly and windy fall leading into snowy and cold winters. It was also a place of distinctly different social classes. The royal family saw their people as the working class of the country to produce goods and materials. The family itself stood on traditions and customs that were to be followed rigidly.
Aydri's eyes were looking over the princess's shoulder, and she stifled a laugh. "I think his royal godliness is about to ask you to entertain him," she murmured as she discreetly moved away to speak to another young woman.
Cora gritted her teeth and clenched her wine glass. She sensed his presence, though she did not turn. She felt his eyes on her, but she still refused to look his way. Instead, she looked out at the other courtiers, laughing and talking, drinking and eating, all enjoying themselves amidst the splendor of the court ball. Cora found it all suffocating and tedious. She would rather spend her time riding her horse across the meadow to visit her friend, the weaver. She herself was becoming quite a skilled weaver.
"Your greatness is looking rather lovely tonight."
At this, she turned to see Arlan, one hand holding a wine glass, the other in his pocket. She wanted to slap the haughty look off his face and gouge his eyes out as they looked her over rather unabashedly. Instead, she smiled graciously, slightly bowing her head.
"And you are looking rather extravagant tonight, your eminence," she replied sweetly.
For one short moment, he did not seem to know if he should take her words as a compliment, but then decided to ignore them. "Should you like to dance, your greatness?" he asked.
"If you continue to call me 'your greatness' I will slap you. I do have a name, and I have grown quite fond of it over these last eighteen years."
Arlan lifted a quizzical eyebrow, but then seemed to shrug. "As you wish, Corana. Now, would you care to dance the next song with me?"
"I suppose," she answered in a bored tone. "I do not care much for dancing."
He smiled at this, and not a pleasant smile. "There have been rumors that reached our court that the family of Sanjia preferred such savage things as learning trade and farming and doing crafts." His voice was mocking and disapproving.
Cora only smiled serenely. "We are not too proud to learn from others," she said, her voice calm and light. "We are not buried in silk and jewels and other courtiers falling head over heals to please us, nor servants standing at our side with golden trays to hand feed us because we cannot trouble ourselves to dirty our hands with food, nor tire our arms to lift a fork or spoon to our mouths. My family has been this way for generations, and we've not only found success, but also pleasure."
"Success!" the prince repeated, laughing. He bowed, a mocking smile on his face. "Your greatness, I believe it is our dance." He took her hand in his, clasping it lightly, and lead her onto the dance floor. Then he placed one arm around her waist and held her hand in his remaining one with a firm and warm grasp.
"What kind of success can be found in a royal family who does not leave work to the peasants and tradesmen?" Arlan asked in disdain.
"We give our people encouragement to love their work and work for us because they love us. When they see us doing their jobs with enthusiasm, then they think, we will do the same job with just as much love and enthusiasm for our royal family. They know that we appreciate their hard work."
"People will work regardless because it is their job and duty to the state," Arlan said curtly.
"Where is the harm in doing a day's work?" Cora challenged, her dislike for this prince deepening with every moment.
"The harm is that you belittle yourself, your stature, your rank. Your job is to ensure the laws of the state, and the way to enforce them is to act stronger and superior. It is the way with my hunting dogs. I train them, command them to hunt, and then reward them for a good day's catch. If they misbehave or fail to catch an easy prey, then they are punished. I do not show them undo affection, for otherwise, they would become spoiled; they would turn into royal pets, and then their job would not be fulfilled. They know who is in charge. It is the same with people. If they love you, get to know you, then they know you will trust and love them, and they may easily take advantage of you with no fear of punishment, for they have never known fear. The day they take advantage of your trust, they will not heed you when you try to rein them in, for they've always relied on your kindness and so-called trust."
"People are not dogs," Cora said disdainfully. "People have feelings. And my people are kind and loving people. They have been for generations. I am assuming from your outlook on humanity that your people can be nothing more than savages, no better than the aforementioned dogs."
The prince threw his had back and laughed, dropping his hands down to his sides. Some of the other couples paused to stare, but then anxiously continued to dance. Cora glared at him, then stalked off the dance floor, leaving him laughing still.
"Insufferable!" she muttered under her breath as she swept toward a servant and grabbed another glass of wine. She leaned against a nearby column and drank deeply, relishing in the warm, burning sensation making its way down her throat and into the pit of her stomach. "Insufferable ass!"
Her older brother appeared at her elbow. A stern and reproaching look was on his face. "Really, Cora, I expect many surprising things from you, but leaving Arlan on the floor!" His words would have been sharper had he not been smiling. "I suggest that you apologize."
"Apologize? Why should I? If he truly wants one, he'll seek me out and demand one. But really, I think he is the one who should apologize for his rudeness to laugh in my face and step away from me in the middle of a dance. You've never laughed in a princess's face during a dance, have you, Ranson?" Cora kissed the side of his face, and then walked off.
She felt a hand on her arm. She looked over to see Arlan, not looking a bit abashed. A smile still lingered on his face. "I suppose decorum demands that I apologize. How may I make it up to you?"
He did not sound at all sorry. "I want absolutely nothing from you," she said coldly, "except to leave my presence. You obviously have no respect for me, think me nothing but a fool, and what's more, make me look a fool in front of my own people. There is nothing more you can do for me."
The prince's face hardened at her words. With a fierce scowl and a curt bow, he strode away. Cora watched him go with a faint smile of what she liked to name victory.
Cora danced most of the night away. She danced with her father, the king Aramuth, her dear brother Ranson, and other men of the court and delegate of Amalur. They at least did not drop her in the middle of a dance and burst out laughing. The ball stretched into the early hours of the morning. She did enjoy dancing and the beauty and splendor of the evening. She did love her beautiful silver dress, her jewels, but she loved her simplest dress, her rope necklace a small girl had made her, and riding her horse across quiet, grassy fields.
She loved her people of the country and city who were not noble of blood. They loved her for who she was, not just because she was a princess. They knew no political ambition, so they had no reason to befriend her to gain her father's favor for this title or that piece of land. But most people of her own status loved her for her power, wealth, and her father's good opinion. She almost wished she would fall in love with a farmer or a wood carver just to spite the world. But she knew that she would never fall in love again.
In a pause from dancing, she stood against a pillar, drinking another glass of sweet wine and reveling in the light-headedness that it brought. It had been a long evening, but few other people seemed to tire from the endless dancing and talking.
A shadow fell across her view, and she looked up to see Arlan staring at her over his wine glass. This was a man who did not love or desire her, did not even desire her father's good favor, but rather, Arlan desired his own father's favor, and married her to increase his own power and wealth. And did not love him in return.
She scowled at him. "If you wish to dance with me, then you shall be disappointed," she said coldly. "I will not make the same mistake twice."
Instead, he leaned against the pillar beside her and did not say anything for a few moments. He finished his wine glass and took another from a passing servant. He was pleasantly drunk, but still retaining firm control over himself and his thoughts. "Cora, I won't ask you to dance with me again," he said at last. "I have ever tried to be somewhat diplomatic. But oftentimes I fail miserably." Now his voice was wry, his mouth quirking to one side. "The fact that our fathers want us to marry is clear and unchangeable, for it is a good match, in truth. The only option open to us is to become allies."
If anything, this was not what Cora had been expecting. But she knew he was right. How many times had she seen a marriage go asunder, then the other noblemen, and women, play the husband and wife against each other, if they were powerful and important enough to be concerned with. Lands and wealth had often been lost this way.
"I cannot enter into an alliance without knowing or respecting the other party," Cora said briskly as a glint of humor glittered in her eyes. "For now, we will be in the negotiation stage until we have taken our measure of each other."
Now Arlan's half smile became a full one as he raised his glass. "My lady, I do so accept your generous terms."
Suddenly, a quiet overtook the great hall. Cora saw her father holding the attention of the room as a servant silently motioned both Cora and Arlan to the dais. She slowly made her way to her father's side. All eyes were upon them.
"My good people," he said in a carrying voice, "today we are here to make a pact, an alliance. As you can see, my only daughter, my gem, has grown up into a lovely young woman. And here stands a handsome young man, the prince Arlan." He again took hold of Cora's hand, then took Arlan's hand and joined them together, placing his own on top of them. "It is my wish, and the king Aramuth's wish that these two be joined and be the living link between us."
Aramuth nodded as he placed his own hand over Emerus'. "It is indeed my wish," Aramuth said. "We have too long been less than friends. It is time we became true friends and allies."
These words were met with a lusty cheer arose from the courtiers' throats, a cheer of approval. Faces lit up with delight, and hands were brought together with enthusiasm and eagerness.
She glanced over at Arlan in one brief look, but his expression was inscrutable. He had not put down his wine class, but seemed to have found something interesting to study at the bottom of it. He looked over and saw her looking at him. He smiled a meaningless and empty smile at her, then stepped forward and kissed her on the cheek. It was a cold, impersonal kiss, and it made her heart weep. The prince's action brought louder cheers of approval from the courtiers. Because she knew it was expected of her, she kissed him in return as an acceptance of him.
Beaming, Emerus signaled the musicians to play and ushered Cora and the Arlan to the dance floor again.
Cora's face had become pale, and this did not escape Arlan's notice. "Does this make you feel like our fathers have gained everything and we have gained nothing?" he asked sardonically. "I feel like a piece of livestock, perhaps a prize bull, that has just been sold at auction."
This elicited a surprised laugh from Cora, albeit a weak one. "I feel I am the prize cow being put on display, as well," she said, surprised that he should voice the same words she had been thinking earlier. So he was more vulnerable than she had thought. But then perhaps it was the wine speaking.
"Indeed, that is all we are. Blood money."
She looked at him in suspicion. "And I thought you would have been the dutiful and proud son of the great king Aramuth, eager to do anything and everything for the good of himself and his country." She could not keep the taunting out of her voice.
His face darkened and his hands tightened on her hand and waist. "And what else do you think of me?" he asked in a low voice.
"You are a fop, dressed all prettily in your fripperies; arrogant, too proud. You don't care to learn from others, you don't know what the real world is like; you don't know your people you are to rule, you don't truly see the workings of your country. Oh, you may stride around the nice cities occasionally, like an overseer. But you are nothing more."
"If we are speaking candidly," Arlan said coolly, "I think you are completely spoiled and thoughtless, if not a half-wit. You have no sense of propriety or rank. You do not know your place, of which you will quickly learn in Amalur."
Any feeling of kindness that Cora may have felt towards Arlan had now quickly disintegrated to ashes. "I see," she said slowly, fighting to keep control of her voice. "I thank you for your honesty."
The dance ended, and Cora curtsied, smiling brightly. "My lord, a pleasure." And before he could catch her hand or speak, she strode away, clenching her fists and grinding her teeth at his nerve, his arrogance. She eyed a servant and beckoned him over and murmured a few words to him. He bowed and hurried off.
All of this Arlan noticed with narrowed eyes. He waved his own manservant over. After a few words, the man dashed off in the direction of Cora's servant. Arlan was of a curious nature, and when it came to his future wife, he wanted to know all of her activities.
"Oh, Aydri, I wish you could have seen the look on his face!" Cora was laughing heartily as she brushed out her hair. "He did not expect me to actually answer him when he asked me what I thought of him."
The other girls smiled and chuckled. "Indeed, I should think not. He seems the type of man who expects his women to be soft and gentle spoken."
"If all else should be horrid in my marriage, I can at least look back with pleasure upon the look on his face!" Cora suddenly dropped her brush and turned to Aydri. "You will come with me to Amalur?" she asked fearfully.
"Of course!" Aydri said without hesitation. "For certain, it will never be boring between you two!" Then she became earnest. "Honestly, dear, there is nothing for me here. My chances of marrying well are as good, perhaps better, in Amalur as in Sanjia. Better because you will be there with me to advise me, show me royal favor!"
Cora could only laugh with Aydri and shake her head. "Royal favor indeed!" she scoffed. "I am sure they will look down upon me for my 'odd' ways and will pay me no heed. I will merely be a political pawn." She made a face of horror and displeasure. "But then, I wish to be no more. I will be a stranger in a new country, and an outsider." She reached over and took Aydri's hand in her own. "But with you there, my friend, the isolation and exile will not be so bad."
Aydri squeezed the princess's hand with assurance. "It will not be the cold, dark prison cell you are making it out to be, dear," she said confidently. "You are still a princess, will be a queen when the king dies. And perhaps," she hesitated, "Arlan will prove better on further acquaintance."
"Not likely," Cora replied dully. "Oh, Aydri, I just long for freedom, to be my own woman! I wish I could just stay here, be at Ranson's side when he becomes king, marries and has children. I could be the spinster aunt who will teach them all the naughty things they should not know, like putting ink into their enemies' tea to blacken their teeth for weeks! Or put a pin on the seat of one's tutor. I want to be here, to watch over the land, my people."
"But it is not to be," Aydri said gently. "You will have to adopt a new land, new people, and they will come to love you as Sanjia has. No one could not love you." She paused, eyeing Cora. "And Arlan surely is not all bad. He was brought up respectably, seems well-mannered. I am sure he will not abuse you."
"I do not know which is worse, abuse or indifference. Or humiliation."
"What do you mean?"
"If he flaunts his concubines at court, that would be worse than abuse or indifference!" Cora was becoming panicked and angry. "That I could not bear. To be publicly humiliated. The courtiers would blame me, saying I did not do enough to secure his affections or keep him in my own bed."
Aydri began to frown. "You are becoming too fanciful, and you must stop," she ordered firmly. "I will be at your side, Cora. You will have nothing to fear from anyone."
Cora was not so sure. She knew how the foreign royal courts looked down upon her family, and she would be the foreign one in the Amaluri court. Foreigners were not often looked upon with friendliness.