Poison, Chapter Five: The Lord Regent

Estelle gently turned and pulled the large brass handle, entering the dimly lit hallway. Burgundy paint, gold paneling, paintings of landscapes, and small tables decorated the corridor. The guest quarters and public rooms were the same. The rest of the castle, servant quarters and most of the rooms down below were not so nicely done, stone walls remaining instead of paneling. Estelle was glad for these changes, walking in dancing slippers was more comfortable on flat wood than rounded stone. Candles stood in holders on the small tables, they were only lit at night for the windows that appeared when the corridor touched an outer wall usually let in enough light.

It took Estelle nearly ten minutes to cross the large castle to the ballroom. She was already on the second floor, so at least there was no vertical movement. The noise increased steadily as she went forward, closer to the top of the staircase she would descend. A general murmur could be heard through the green velvet curtains hiding those at the top of the stairs until their time came to descend. Estelle, upon entering the circular shaped waiting area looked for the familiar faces she knew were there.

Silver hair told her where her aunt and uncle stood. His grace, Ramsey Trahern, was not a tall man, nor was he very old, only forty-seven, yet he was easily recognizable. Estelle thought him sweet. He was kind, and compassionate, just and not intimidated. These things come with age, he once told her. His face drooped slightly, giving him slight jowls, but the only wrinkles were at his forehead and around his eyes. Equally happy and concerned throughout his life it would seem. He spoke animatedly to Cora; she didn't want to know what about. Cora looked oddly young, it must have been the ivory gown, green didn't seem to be her best color. Cora's graying chocolate hair perched in a bun atop her head with strings of pearls woven through the strands, a pretty effect.

"I don't understand," Estelle murmured quietly, "Where is everyone else? At least Irwin should be here, should he not?" She heard boot heels click lightly on the floor as someone came up behind her and gently touched her elbow. She suppressed a flinch.

"He has already descended, long ago." Keane told her, bending slightly to whisper in her ear. "And you were right; I should have withheld my compliments until you were clean." He murmured flirtatiously.

"I was nearly late?" She asked turning her head so she could see him better, touching her closed fan to the back of her hand the dragging it up to her wrist. Welcome company, but not so familiar.

Keane straightened, but still spoke low, "Nearly. Ah, your aunt and uncle now leave. We still have a few minutes." His hair had been tied back in the customary fashion, only in private with friends would it appear down. She wanted to see it down.

"You are so lucky black goes with everything," She whispered back. Black breeches, boots, and waistcoat, but an ivory shirt and silver lining on the waistcoat. "Including yourself. You match so well."

"Even if he looks like death." Vladimir came up on her other side. Belatedly, Estelle remembered to curtsy to them both. "I apologize, your highnesses, I did not pay you the respect I should." Her head tilted down, Estelle did not see the slightly menacing look pass from Keane to Vladimir, a "now look what you've done, you ruined it" look.

"Estelle," Keane said, taking a hand and making her rise, "Please—"

"The Duke and Duchess Ramsey and Cora of Trahern!" An unfamiliar herald called out. Estelle clinched her jaw at the sudden loud noise, but turned around to see the curtains part to admit her aunt and uncle.

"With whom will I be descending? I apologize for my ignorance, no one thought to tell me what is expected." Please, she prayed, please don't let them think me stupid.

As Vladimir wouldn't look at her, it was Keane who answered. "With the both of us, lady, we are to present you to the Regent."

"Oh, thank you." Present her? But an older sibling, family member, or friend of a higher station traditionally did that.

"We are happy to do so. I'm afraid you will be walking between us down the long stair; if you think you might slip; try to regain your balance our arms.

Estelle nodded, the reason people typically descended in twos and usually a man and a woman was so the woman could use the banister and have her escort assist her if she slipped on her skirts. She held her hands in front of her skirts. "My lord Vladimir, I just noticed you too wear a dark color. Yet you do not fear looking morbid?" She had remembered to pay attention to him this time, he was just as important as Keane; she could not afford to not commit him to memory as well. He stood taller than her and so close to the height of Keane she couldn't tell the difference. He was a brunette, his hair falling past his shoulders, though it too was tied back. Perhaps these were the men that made the fashion? His eyes were hazel, she noticed. His face was darker than hers and Keane's. It looked more… weathered. Had Gailea said it was Keane who toured the countryside with his men hunting down bandits? She would have guessed it was Vladimir. Of course he would wear black. The station of Prince, Regent and royalty all incorporated black into their colors. The Regency was black and gold, Lothomonad black and crimson, Misae was black and blue, Wylin black and silver, Eraddig black and green, Kern black and ivory, and Tavarius was black and bronze, until she lost it all. Vladimir dressed almost exactly as Keane, except instead of ivory, his shirt was sapphire. How odd that he too wore silver accents and trappings. Well, they are presenting me and thus should correspond with me, unless Vladimir knows of another woman wearing silver.

He answered slowly, almost as if it pained him to speak with her. This did not bode well. "I considered it, I must admit, but some of us look better in it than others."

Keane smiled, "And you, dear lady, will make it look much better than all of us combined." Vladimir looked away again. "They are about to present us, let us go. Val, would you mind walking on Lady Wylin's left and I shall be on her right?"

"Of course." He went up to stand behind the dark curtain, waiting for them to get in position. Estelle bent slightly to lift her hemline; she had a sudden fear of falling, and approached the curtain beside Vladimir with her heart beating quickly. Again Keane came up beside her, just touching the inside of her elbow. She felt her body straighten perfectly, like a horse in show. Expecting the noise this time, Estelle did not flinch inside her solid poise.

"The Prince Keane of Lothomonad, the Prince Vladimir of Misae, and the Lady Estelle of Wylin."

"Once a lady, always a lady." Estelle said through a smiling mouth as the sheets of cloth pulled aside, greeting them with the sound of people talking. Of course, they were watched eagerly, and not everyone was looking for a fault, but here were their superiors, and a young woman who walked beside them of no status, even though she too would soon join their rank. The walk down the marble stairs seemed excruciatingly long to Estelle. She was being presented again; every eye of every eligible man would be resting on her and weighing her worth. At least Worden, may his reign be long and peaceful, awaited her at the end. His majesty, the Lord Regent Worden, was only forty, and in her eyes, maturely handsome. Despite she had never seen her ruler very often; they had always been what she would describe as "friends". He had been her father's friend, and it was to his side she had first been brought to when her parents had died.

Keane looked at her from the corner of his eye, as if he sensed her nervousness or sadness, but did nothing. They were not so close he could, and nor would he since too much tradition was in this ceremony. Estelle looked straight ahead, and met no one's eyes except for the Regent's. They reached the floor in step and she realized they were slowing their strides for her; they're making me look good. Faster, Essie, don't take forever. Of course, she couldn't move much faster without stepping on something, fortunately, however, the length between the floor and the dais wasn't very long.

Dressed in the colors of office, gold and black, the Regent sat in a red plush chair, watching their movement with scrutinizing crystal blue eyes. He had tawny brown hair and a close-cropped beard. She forced an amused smile to stay dormant at his clothing black and gold did not suit everyone. She noticed his attention was not on her escorts, but on her alone. Her eyes twinkled with the attention. She stopped nearly ten feet from the dais and curtsied low enough her head was eighteen inches lower than it was. She would be so glad when she would have to descend only a few inches: her knees were already beginning to ache.

"Lord Keane and Vladimir, I must thank you for bringing to my attention the fiery beauty that resides here at Trahern. You may rise." They had bent themselves at a thirty-degree angle, why they even bothered, Estelle couldn't say. "Lady Estelle, please rise." Estelle could almost feel her knees grind as she went back to her fully vertical position. "It is well to see you again, the years drift by slowly without you being at Court. Your birthday is coming soon, is it not?" That is what she would call a leap in subjects.

A slight buzz rose behind her, birthdays were always magnificent when the full court was present. "Your majesty, I am so insignificant I can't even imagine you know I exist, let alone miss my slight company. However, my birthday is near, my lord. I shall turn eighteen in five days time." The noise level rose slightly, a coming-of-age could potentially be fun, and for someone of Estelle's granted rank, it would be spectacular.

"So most of Court shall be present for your ceremony."

"It would seem that way, my lord." Estelle made sure he face was carefully smooth, she did not think she would enjoy where this ended.

"I pray you are still fond of masquerades, lady?"

"Very much so, lord, masks allow a certain freedom we are otherwise deprived of."

"That is well then, my dear, for your brethren, your companions, and myself have undertaken the great task of setting up a masquerade for you to accompany the ceremony where you rise to your proper station."

Estelle felt her eyes opened wide from shock and a slight presence of fear. "My lord, I am extremely grateful, but no one shall have time to get all of the costume and dress required for such events in time."

Worden's laugh was deep and rich, it was flavorful, like a very old red wine. "Lady, these plans have long been in place, it is only you who have not known." Which meant they had their costumes ready and she had been measured and had a costumed created without her knowledge. She prayed it wouldn't be anything too embarrassing.

Regaining her composure, she inclined her head, "In that case, I must congratulate everyone on hiding this from me and I thank you for remembering me during these hectic times." Her voice was raised to allow them all to hear, and her face did seem like she was gratefully concerned.

"It was our pleasure; you must speak with me soon, Estelle. We have much to talk of."

"As my lord says." She bowed her head; she could only imagine what that conversation would be like. At the dismissal she curtsied and backed away two steps before turning and heading to the left, towards the general area where she always met Gailea at these social events, near the windows. Gailea's black hair was not so common as one would think.

"Essie," Gailea hissed, swiping open her fan and waving towards herself. Come here. "I felt myself go red for you! To have that dumped on you in front of everyone! I'm so sorry I couldn't tell you, I promised I wouldn't, but don't worry, I helped choose your costume."

"I feel slightly better, I must admit, knowing you had a hand in this. You look charming." Gailea wore a dress that hung off her shoulders of a powdery blue color, slashed intricately in a net pattern that peeked silver.

"At least this night and the last night are the only days I have to wear our colors."

"Can you believe there are eight more days of festivities?" Estelle asked with a sigh.

"We leave on day nine. I don't remember this room being so big, did Cora renovate?" Gailea smiled with glee.

"A few summers ago, she and uncle decided to save this room for formal occasions. You'll notice there is no red carpet on the floor or stairs, thus giving the illusion of space, and since it is not divided, it can be used for either ceremonial purposes or leisure. The palace has them separated, does it not? I don't remember and yes, I promise I shall visit once you are back there. The glass windows and doors where we stand are a true luxury, leading to the private lawn and gardens. As I'm sure you have seen, the doors leading to the dining room are on the back wall to our left next to the stairs. I think the servants come out of the doors on the East wall, across from us here, to deliver food, drinks, calls, and so forth. The ceilings are two stories high, white paneled with gold gild, as are the walls that are not glass. One amazingly large and beautiful crystal chandelier lights the room, mainly, in the center of the room, and as you can also see, there are little candles on brackets lining the East and South walls where the balconies cast shadows."

"You speak as if you made the plans yourself," Gailea said, meaning she had been slightly overwhelmed and bored at the fountain of information.

Estelle smiled, "I am in here often."

"Doing what?" Gailea always had an insatiable curiosity.

"The light is beautiful at sunset; I wish I could paint a picture of it. Perhaps I will show you tomorrow?"

"Perhaps tomorrow, we shall see what your family has prepared for us. I don't suppose you know?"

"No, I think Cora purposely left me out of the arrangements. I'm very opinionated apparently."

"Apparently. I think they said dinner would be ready in a few more minutes, and then we are to dance afterwards. Nothing too fast I hope, else someone is likely to collapse from cramps."

"It is only an introductory, a dance catch up on old times, they will play things slow enough for one to talk through." Estelle spoke lightly; she would not favor these first few dances. "With whom are you attending this night's festivities?" She asked, only now remembering she was supposed to be with Keane.

"Are you trying to incite jealousy in me? I know Keane is accompanying you, did you leave him somewhere?" She subtly stood on her toes to look above the roving heads of people, then her ruby lips parted in a smile. "Ah, here is Keane comes to his fair lady's side now, with Vladimir. Do you think him a hanger?"

"Vladimir? You are asking me, is this a test? I have not known either of them long enough to judge. I am surprised Vladimir is not with another lady, but I do not think he is simply attached to Keane, they are friends, and I see no problem with him with us. Do you?" While she did not have reason to defend Vladimir, he had not been particularly friendly to her, after all.

Gailea touched Estelle's gloved arm gently, her own pale blue clothed hand bedecked with silver and white gold. "I have nothing to show he is not what he seems, but he always seems on edge, and that makes me uncomfortable. I suppose I find him odd, and that bears watching."

Estelle slowly pulled her arm away, shaking her head. "As I have said, I do not know them enough to pass judgment, he is most likely tense because we little people are always watching him and trying to be his 'friend'. I'm sure he is a nice person. Hush now, here they are."

"Along with five other true hanger-ons."

"Be nice, Gailea." Estelle chided her gently, turning to meet the new comers. She smiled softly.

"Duchess," Keane said almost clicking his heels together as he bowed over her hand. Estelle saw Vladimir incline his head.

"Your highness," Gailea responded sweetly, curtsying gently.

"Lady, I though you were in agreement with me I was to be your companion, I feared you had run off with another." Keane did enjoy flirting it seemed.

Estelle inclined her head, looking mock affronted. "I promised, you, Lord Keane, my company tonight. I would not break my word. I simply do not have the countenance to hold anyone's attention for long, and so to keep them riveted in the future, I must leave before they take their fill." She raised her lashes to see who had issued the low chuckle and realized with pleasure it was Vladimir.

"Is that why you never grace court, Lady, so we will want what we cannot have? How very cruel of you." A woman in ruby and white came to enter their group.

Estelle blanked, what was her name? She looked to be in her mid-twenties with dark auburn hair and a face that had just enough flesh to miss the "thin" measurement. A glance at her hands only revealed a signet ring, Baroness, but not married. "Baroness, from what I hear and know of court, some of our brethren could benefit from being deprived of something that is only what it appears. We mustn't strain minds that would search for something that isn't there."

The circle had grown to hold eleven people; at least she recognized eight including herself, Gailea, Keane, and Vladimir. The other four were two countesses, one baron, and one duke Three faces, however, remained unknown. All of them laughed, quietly, but they did. Flatterers, she thought dully. She didn't think her retort was that funny, she had been insulting most likely at least half the Court and none of the people were her very close friends. Estelle hid her disappointment though, it would not be right for them to see, maybe they did think it was funny, maybe they were semi-intelligent.

"From what I hear, lady," the Baroness started again, why was she with people so far above her station? She must be looking for someone who will take her on, "That might be just as well, they might have to look at the origins of such a flawless thing and see what they can shred there."

Estelle opened her fan and hid part of her face behind it, but in a way the inside of her hand could be seen. On the defense but an open hand. "If that is so, perhaps I will continue to stay away until called." She swept her hand down in front of her, the back of her hand facing out and closed the fan. Subtlety needs to be watched, be warned. She smiled and laughed, holding up her hands as if to defend herself as the protests rose from the crowd. "Perhaps I will reconsider, maybe I shall come soon." Soon is such a relative term. She would have to prepare the Wylin lands and estates for its mistress' return. The red haired woman said nothing, but smiled as if she had been joking.

Estelle wondered how much of her fan language had been understood, obviously, not much. The use of fans did not come into fashion except under rulers where things could not be said openly. A few decades back had been the last serious use. So most of these people would not understand if anyone other than Gailea did.

Gailea came up to her side when they saw people starting to move towards the North wall. An older servant approached their group to declare supper was being served. As the group moved away, including the red woman, Estelle held back, waiting for them to pull ahead, "Gailea," Estelle intoned, her voice a note higher to produce a sound of genuine interest, "Who is that woman in red and white? I do not know her." Had her words been a true warning or an under toned threat?

"Nor should you," a voice sounded almost a foot above her head and to the right. Estelle felt the tendons in her neck tighten in surprise. Why did she keep forgetting Keane was right there? Because you are not used to having someone doting on you like this.

"Why should I not know her, your highness? She seemed acceptable. Unless you are speaking of her station?" She took the proffered black and silver clad arm when she paused, it had been so long since she had seen the colors together in so long she had not noticed they were her own. She looked up into his face, silently taking note of the way his dark eyes were narrowed and brow slightly furrowed as he glared after the Baroness.

"Her title is not what concerns me, but the way she tries to crawl up the social ladder at everyone else's expense. The Baroness Deirdra of Sovann is not to be taken lightly," he slowly led her after the others. She was dully aware of Vladimir and Gailea following behind. "She will hound you for weaknesses if it will serve her purpose." The tail of his hair swung as he shook his head. "My advice is to avoid her if possible."

Estelle watched red and white ruffles sway and disappear as they passed through the large doors. "I don't suppose you are going to tell us how the dinner arrangement was prepared, Estelle?" Gailea's voice sounded behind her, mischief ringing clearly.

"I'm afraid not, dear friend, Cora felt I might give something away. Cora seems to think I'll do many things, come to think of it." She twisted her slender neck just enough for Gailea to catch a glimpse of a smile that said Cora might have good reason to mistrust her.

"I wonder if it has anything to do with that maid who claims the estate is haunted by wolves and other such animals." Gailea shot at her, testing her reflexes? Typical.

Estelle's face adopted a mournful look, as she explained to Keane and Vladimir, "That poor woman, she was cursed with nightly visions that would not leave her be until she left the estate, leaving behind a fair amount of valuables to appease the spirits. We are fortunate the gift worked, for I have not heard of anymore demons." A corner of her mouth twitched, she was so out of practice! Anyone could read her expression anymore and see what she was thinking. It would not do. Her thoughts turned back to Deirdra's last words. She wished she had a better black opal, one that would tell her of malevolence without alerting the whole room. Threat or warning, threat or warning? By Keane's words, it would be a threat; however, she couldn't form any true conclusion until she learned more. A thought for storage.

The great mahogany doors were held ajar by a pair of fine looking young serving men. Well, they weren't exactly holding the doors open so much as standing in front of them. Leaving a marble for wooden floor, they passed through the entrance into the large dining area. "Now this was clever," Keane vocally applauded.

((Please leave review to tell me what you think, liked, didn't like, or how I could improve. All critiques are welcome, and I thank you now for those of you who are so thoughtful as to review my works. Good tidings upon you. However, I thank all of you for reading thus far. Chapter Six shall be coming soon.))