Leiv choked back the hacking cough trying to push through his throat, breaths puffing through his lips in sharp, grunting staccato. There was a sharp tickle at the back of his throat where the rush of wind brushed over flesh already worn raw from the five previous coughing fits he had been forced to stifle.
Merciful Bellentir, what the hell was the witch hoping to achieve with all this incense, anyway. A mass suffocation of the entire royal family? It was one miserable way to execute a coup.
The smoke was noxious, the smell burning into his nostrils and trickling down his throat, leaving it taught and dry. His tongue was stiff and cracked, his ability to produce saliva having been completely nullified by the irritating fumes. Leiv kept his mouth shut and breathed as shallowly as possible, trying to keep what little moisture remained in his mouth in his mouth.
She said the scents were sandalwood and rosemary, with the slightest pinch of lilac powder. Leiv thought it was merely rancid. It smelled like a burning rat that had recently digested a rotten egg. Only worse.
And it was clinging. To his clothes, to his skin—blessings of the Almighty Valcolte it would be ages before he cleansed the odor from his skin—and saints have mercy, it was probably even now soaking into his food. Leiv felt the bile threatening to rise, and he was forced to choke back another rasping cough. It was a tough job, trying to keep his lungs from hacking their way from his chest. His throat was raw and sore enough from their three previous escape attempts.
He thought briefly of trying for his own escape. The plumes of smoke billowing from the incense burners scattered about the room were thick and dark; they would screen him perfectly for the few seconds it would take for him to vacate his chair and then the room. But even through the dense fog he could feel his mother's eyes on him, which in turn made the bruises on his shins pulse and burn in painful reminder of what he could expect if she thought him to be "acting up" again.
Although, specifically when the need to breathe became labeled as an act of defiance, he was not entirely sure. Leiv suspected it was about the time he had declared quite loudly that he would gladly marry the rock the old crone was carrying around with her so long as it meant he got to live outside in the fresh clean air. That had earned him a rather nasty bump on the head, and he had subsided with the commentary there after.
Leiv had every intention of walking away from this dinner on his own two feet. Shirok, willing, the smoke did not kill him first, anyway…
The woman ceased her incessant chanting, coming to a halt somewhere near the head of the table—a fact Leiv only knew because the smells of rotting moss and sea grass were much more pungent this close to the source. Honestly, how could the woman even stand to be near herself?
Setting the ridiculous lamp—the greatest source of all her poison smoke—upon the floor, she took a deep breath and released it with a slow, satisfied sigh. Leiv could not but find it horrifyingly fascinating that she did not so much as offer a dainty cough, much less topple completely over in a dead faint from such overzealous exposure to the incense. He might have admired it, were he not already so revolted.
Gracious Aydrelle, she must keep her house permanently suffused with the sickening mixture to be so wholly immune to it.
She took another unhealthy gulp of toxic air. "The air is now fully purified." Leiv would have voiced his differing opinion on that point, but that would require opening his mouth. "There is nothing to obstruct the process." And suddenly she was right behind him, bony fingers crooking into his shoulders, "Now, then Prince Leiv." She leaned over him so that he had an only too clear view of her wrinkly, gnarled face. Leiv imagined that if the smoke had a truly solid form, she would be it. "I shall need to borrow your ring, Highness."
Sure. Because he usually made it a habit of blithely handing over his signet ring to the multitudes of random strangers with rancid smells and crooked teeth who thought to ask for it. The woman obviously took him for some kind of fool. "In fact, Madame, I do not believe you—oof." A sharp, well-aimed kick to the shins brought him up short. Leiv snapped his head in the other direction to find his mother giving him a very evil glare. He shook his head minutely, returning the look with a severe frown of his own. Hand over his ring? Was she kidding?
Apparently not, because in retaliation, her expression only became more stern—High Balpheron, he had not even thought that possible—and her eyebrows raised in that way meant to serve as warning that she was poised and ready to strike again should he continue with his contrary behavior.
He gave his mother one last glare for good measure—he was not going to be the one blamed when this whole thing proved disastrous—and turned back to the old crone. He cleared his throat, doing his utmost to hind the wince from the pain that action caused, and tugged the ring from his finger. "Forgive me, Madame, for holding up your ceremony. Do please continue." He dropped it into her palm and turned away again, dropping his head to glare balefully at his plate.
Honestly, was any of this even necessary? He was not even interested in marrying. Twenty-odd summers was entirely too soon to be thinking about such things. Lord Galvestri, save him from women and their insane romantic ideals.
The woman clasped the ring between both hands, "The blessing of Venstreil is very strong; I can feel it." Leiv was ever so relieved to hear that. Especially as the ring had been forged from the gold mined in Elentiere's caves. Venstreil would—and in fact did—eat alive any man brazen enough to pluck the minerals from his mountains.
"Oh, Great Lord Galvestri, guardian of the northern forests; Blessed Aydrelle, protector of the eastern seas; Noble Melenik, champion of the western bluffs; Gallant Shirok, shepherd of the southern winds; Honored Braen, sentinel of the skies…"
Leiv blinked. What was she talking about? The only business Galvestri had in the north was if he was seeking a fight with Balpheron—which they usually said was over territory, but Leiv rather suspected it was something else, though what he could not say. Aydrelle was of a breed born in the fires of the volcanoes; technically, he was not one of the Greater Dragons, though to be fair, Cano Dragons were considered to hold the same status as Greater. If he went near water at all it was by accident. Braen had not wings so much as gossamer, wing-like appendages—the better to sail through water at perilous speeds. Shirok was a tree climber, inhabiting the forests on the southern isles; his wings were good for little more than gliding. Melenik… actually, she had Melenik right. Mostly. He was of the mountain crawlers; he just did his crawling in the canyons far, far to the south.
Never mind that if she was going to insist on asking for their assistance at all—for what, Leiv could not fathom—she was completely overlooking any sort of blessing from Valcolte, arguably and rightfully the highest of the Greater Dragons. Since the death of his father Korbrek nigh half a century before he was not often seen, but that made his role as their chieftain no less significant. That she chose to exclude him spoke clearly of her bias, the same bias that was shared by so many of the Lesser Dragons: what right did a misbegotten half-breed have to rule over any of them?
The Greater Dragons had accepted Valcolte's ascendancy without question. From his studies, Leiv would dare say they had even welcomed it. The Lesser Dragons, however, had not taken as kindly. Already held in lower regard than the Greater Dragons, they considered it added insult that the one who ruled them should be less than pureblood. They considered it further insult, his willingness to consult with and sometimes aid the king. The Lesser Dragons were a whiny bunch.
Though to be fair, similar feelings and grousing were more that adequately voiced by his father's people on a regular basis.
The old witch held her hands—still cupped tightly around his ring—high above her head, moaning and humming and sighing, and just generally making Leiv stare and wonder in apprehension. Was it truly possible that no one else found this to be even the slightest bit strange or suspicious?
"Ahhh…!" She gave one last, deep sigh and brought her hands down, holding them before her chest as though in prayer. "The Blessings of the Gods are strong."
"I assume by 'gods' you mean dragons?" To her credit, they did have some letters in common. Plus or minus a couple extra. The crone snapped her eyes open to look at him, but she said nothing. Not that she had to, really. The look in her eyes said it all. So did the not-so-subtle kick to his shin.
"Prince Leiv," the woman forgot offenses quickly, that was good to know—if only his bruises could fade as quickly, "I invite you to gaze upon the faces seated before you at the table." She swept her arm wide, gesturing across the length of the table at all the curious, wide-eyes guests filling up those seats that normally were so empty. Princes and princess and the sons or daughters of the wealthier merchants, all invited on behalf of this ridiculous match-making, bride-finding ceremony. "These are the noblest and fairest, chosen by the Gods themselves as most suited."
"The drag—er, gods—just happened to pick all the richest in the kingdom, I noticed." It was almost worth the stinging pain as his toes were trod upon by a very heavy, booted foot—great, now Father was actively taking part in the torture—when the crone's demeanor slipped just the slightest, eyebrows drawing forward in the smallest of glares.
"Take heed, young Highness. We are but moments away from knowing the Gods' will; your mockery will be taken in account should you persist. I can do nothing to aid you once their decision is made." Leiv opted not to respond. The day the dragons had power enough to sway fate would be the same day Leiv did. Which was to say, he was lacking in any concern.
"Please, Madame Wincrest, let us learn the future the Gods have granted my son." Leiv fought valiantly not to roll his eyes at his mother's—by Righteous Aydrelle, his mother! "Tell us, what must we do." Here of course she gave Leiv an even more severe glare.
At which point he did roll his eyes. Honestly.
"Prince Leiv, I am going to roll this ring upon the table, whosoever it stops before shall then been your appointed bride, as chosen by the Gods."
"By all means." Because the sooner the farcical charade ended, the sooner Leiv could retire to his rooms to enjoy a tray of untainted toast and tea.
Crone Wincrest shook her cupped hands vigorously, then opened them, releasing the ring into the air. It soared up some distance before falling with a plunk to the table where it spun in place for several seconds before rolling a short distance. There was a delicate clink as it met with the edge of a plate and came to a full stop.
Several seconds of silence followed. "The umm…" Leiv cleared his throat, folded his hands neatly before him upon the table, "The gods appear to have umm…chosen my father." He managed to keep a straight face only through sheer force of will.
"Divination is an imprecise art." Crone Wincrest sniffed disdainfully and reached out over his shoulder to retrieve the ring. Leiv rolled his eyes at the explanation. "It is difficult enough under the most ideal circumstances. It is even harder when the participants show their skepticism." She gave him a hard, pointed glare; Leiv stared blankly back at her. He was rather disinclined to believe that he was the ultimate problem in this.
"Now then," she cupped her hands around the ring once again and shook them, "we shall make another attempt." As before, she tossed the ring into the air and left it to fall upon the table. This time it landed with a muffled splash in a pot of creamy soup. One of the servants immediately rushed forward to retrieve it, digging it out with a spoon and wiping it clean with a damp cloth. Leiv made a mental note not to return it to his finger until it had been more properly cleaned.
"More imprecision?" He suffered another frosty glare from the old hag as well a bone crushing kick from his mother. The crone cupped the ring once more in her hands, shook vigorously—and for a much longer time—and released it into the air. Again and again and again. It was a slow torture, made worse by Crone Wincrest's insistence on supplying still more incense and adding more scents to the noxious mix, and Leiv was actually starting to feel slightly ill. He laid the blame solely on her poisonous smog; he just wished he were not the only one who appeared so affected. Maybe if Mother lost her appetite, she might be willing to call this ridiculous thing off.
Suffering as he was, Leiv refrained from any further comment. He just watched somewhat drowsily as the crone tried time and again to find him a bride. However, the gods were not proving very accommodating. So far, they had chosen for him one of his father's massive hunting dogs, the pile of freshly chopped wood stacked beside the fireplace, and the barrel of ale his father insisted be kept near to hand while dining. Under the circumstances, the last option hardly seemed such a bad choice.
On the sixth attempt, the ring rolled in a perfect, precise straight line, somehow managing to miss all the platters and dishes and cups strewn about the table. Leiv felt the briefest flutter of apprehension that his fate might yet be sealed that night, and he would be trapped with some dithering fop for a bride, but the ring never stopped. It rolled clear to the end of the table, dropped to the floor with a metallic chink, and continued on across the room and through the arched entryway that lead out to the main hall.
Crone Wincrest started after it, muttering about how the room obviously had not been purified enough. "Perhaps if I added some sage to the mix, that would help clear some of the negative energies…"
Leiv, however, was not interested in seeing the ceremony continue any further. He was tired and miserable and had not even the energy to find humor in the situation. He stood. And perhaps that was not the wisest move, or maybe he simply moved too fast because his vision swam, and he latched on to the back of his chair before he fell over. Stupid smoke. "Do not bother yourself, Madame Wincrest. I can rather assure you your services are no longer necessary." She stopped, and all eyes turned to him. His father appeared perplexed, his mother stunned, and their guests vaguely relieved.
"Leiv, what are you about? Sit down right this instant."
"No, Mother." Though the way the room was wobbling, that probably was a good idea. "If it's not worked the first six times, it will not work the seventh. And I, for one, do not intend to suffer through this, anymore." He took a small step back away from the table when it appeared she had an intent to kick him.
"Dear, you're being entirely unreasonable. We are talking about your—"
"What is unreasonable is allowing this game to continue as it has. If you will excuse me, I am going to go find my ring—assuming it's anywhere to be found," he cast a significant look at Crone Wincrest; she returned it with a glare of her own, "and I promise you now, you need not await my return."
"But Leiv, dear…"
"I do not care to hear it mother; I will make my decision in my own time. Good eve." Leiv executed a short bow—because they way he was feeling, a more elegant one might have proved disastrous—and turned to leave, frustrated and disgusted and sickened by the entire affair.
"But sweetie, you need to—"
He had barely moved two steps when he was brought to a quick, sudden, and entirely ungraceful halt when he collided with a wall that had not previously been there.
"—watch where you're going…" he heard his mother finish quietly.
Leiv stuttered and stumbled and likely would have tumbled in an embarrassing heap were it not for the heavily gauntleted hand that reached out to grab him, steady him. "Thank you…" He shook his head to clear it of its newly formed cobwebs and blinked blearily up to see what had ruined his exit. Wesson Arian, one of his father's dragoons.
"Excuse me, Highness. T'was not my intent to impede you." He smiled, that really pretty one with the dimples, but it vanished almost immediately, transformed into a concerned frown. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, yes. Thank you." If he was thinking thoughts about dragoons' dimples, he quite obviously was not fine, but that was neither here nor there. Leiv shook his head again. He was on the verge of losing both his mind and lunch it seemed.
"Are you sure? You look a bit pale."
"Wesson!" His father's jovial, surprised voice interrupted them as he stood up to come around and greet the soldier himself. Of all the regiments and guards he possessed, King Luther Shilak favored his dragoons the most. Leiv suspected it was due to a romanticized belief that they played with dragons. Or maybe it was the much over-romanticized dragon-slaying ideal.
Neither of which they did, though there was the negotiable inbetween of fighting them. Leiv had seen the kinds of injuries those journey's could produce, though, and could confidently say his father would never have survived one. Of course, his father never could have passed the initial training, so the point was rather moot.
"Back from Triven already, are you? That didn't taken very long."
Wesson shrugged. "The dragons did not put up much of a fight." He smirked. "And Colt can be very persuasive when he puts his mind to it."
"He does enjoy his brawls." Luther clapped Wesson on the back, and really it was not fair that Wesson could still stay standing, not when the act of raising his own hand was threatening to topple Leiv over. He was actually grateful now that Wesson had not yet loosed his grip on Leiv's arm. "But he is a man bred to it, so I suppose it cannot be helped. So tell me, Wesson, what brings to our cozy little supper?"
Wesson seemed to remember himself, then, and he inclined his head in lieu of a bow. "Pray forgive me for disturbing your meal, Majesty, though in truth, it was the prince—"
The dragoon turned back to him, brow furrowed, face showing true worry and concern—likely he had noted the slur in Leiv's voice. Or maybe the way he was very obviously wobbling and wavering. "Yes, Highness."
"Th… tha…" Leiv shook his head, blinked. "Thank you."
"For what, Highness?"
"For catching me…" Then he lost consciousness.