Festival days were the hardest of the year for us. My Uncle Ahmaire, his wife, Leandra, and I must have been the only ones in the entire city who loathed festival days as much as the dreaded winter plagues from the lower city. The festivals and celebrations themselves weren't so bad and under normal circumstances, I am certain we would have whole-heartedly embraced the breaks as others did. They were certainly enjoyable events in the city and I adored them as a child, when—on a happy accident—my parents and I were on the continent for them. These weren't normal circumstances though, and my dear cousin made things too difficult for a festival to be met with much more than a sigh of discontent and resigned efforts to plan the normal courses of our lives around the city's festivities.
Not that most days weren't difficult, because they were. My cousin was difficult in general and her moods were impossible to predict, which made company hard to keep and outings impossible to plan ahead for. After seventeen years with her difficulties though, my uncle had made dealing with her a well-practiced art, as delicately managed as any courtier's pretty manners. For me and Leandra, having come into her life much later on, it was slightly more difficult (though I had more practice than she did, since I tried to have more interactions with my cousin than she did). We learned, though, and most days the four of us got on reasonably well, considering Ellie's condition.
That was what we all called it: her condition, and sometimes her "delicate" condition, when there were visitors involved. It was considered very, very poor form to refer to it as anything else, if it had to be outright referred to at all. Mostly, it was agreed to be better altogether if it were just not acknowledged, though of course that didn't stop people from talking about it.
In any case, festival days upset this delicate balance we all worked so hard to maintain. Strangers swarmed the city, reaching even so far as our family's great estate on the outskirts of palace property. Good manners required us to let as many stay as we could, of course, but strangers and Ellie had always been a mix with a very high chance for combustion and we were always reluctant to allow people to stay on. Ellie didn't always take our guests in stride and mostly they just upset her with their presence in her life. How she dealt with that was always a gamble.
When we were lucky, she simply hid in our rooms until they left. If we weren't, she would throw epic tantrums, capable of scaring even the palace guards. I myself had been witness to a screaming fit that had lasted an entire two days before a palace healer had been called to put her to sleep for a while. I had only been with her since we were twelve, but according to Ahmaire, there had been worse tantrums when she was still very young and they were still trying to figure out how to deal with her condition.
We have a house doctor now, to inject her with a special serum which supposedly calms her nerves. Really all it does is make her sleep, so the doctor is no better than the old healer was and I don't see the point in firing the last of the healers in our world. But apparently they are quite out of fashion now, and so a doctor it is for poor Ellie.
In any case, the point is that Festival days were hard and we usually only retained visitors for as long as it took them to meet Ellie. It was strange, therefore, that it was a festival that brought in our longest recorded visitor yet (barring myself, of course, since I was family and had to come live with them and so didn't count as a visitor). Our morning started out just fine; Ellie and I woke up and I dressed us both and then we went downstairs to help cook make her special festival cakes.
Mostly I helped, while Ellie rearranged things into size order and generally avoided eye contact. She never spoke and Cook, who'd been with us since Ellie was born, practically, didn't expect her to, so we worked well together, with her giving me ingredients to combine and then Ellie cleaning up our mess and stirring anything she was given to stir, humming softly under her breath and staring at our feet. The kitchen maids either stared at her and whispered to each other behind a hand or (if they'd been on staff for very long) just smiled at her and shook their heads. No one touched her, unless it was me or my uncle, and then it was always risky with how she might react to it, but that morning she seemed to be in one of her better moods and I chatted at her and touched her wrist gently a few times to stop her stirring or to get her attention. I could have sworn she smiled at me, but then she burped and I knew it had just been indigestion. Still, it was progress.
We finished in the kitchens and I had my usual lessons while a tutor was brought in to read to Ellie, though everyone thought it was useless and she was quite imbecilic. I didn't think she was, though and I insisted that she be allowed to do anything I was, if only adapted a little bit considering her limitations. So she was read to while I studied out of books and memorized formulas and passages and lineages. We did our maths problems at the same time, though hers were considerably more difficult than mine were and she breezed through them without blinking.
That, in point of fact, was how I knew she was intelligent and the tutor wasn't a waste of time. Even if she didn't respond like most people would and even if she didn't talk a lot or make eye contact or smile and even if she had strange panic attacks and bouts of random hysteria: I knew she was more intelligent than I was. I knew it in just the same way I knew I was the prettier cousin and that I would go to sleep at night and wake up the next morning and still be an orphan. It was just a plain fact to me, and I couldn't really explain knowing to anyone else because it seemed to obvious to me.
Ellie finished my mathematics problems for me that day and we sat down in her room to rest a while. The lingering heat from the summer combined with our heavy skirts and hair made it impossible to function properly without at least one rest, even this far into the fall. When we woke up though, Ellie had one of her episodes and had to be put back to rest. Poor thing. The new maid, idiot that she was, had dusted while we were asleep and had neglected to put the books, vase and portraits on the mantelpiece back in their proper places. The confusion of waking up to that, as well as the new person in her inner sanctum caused my poor cousin to have one of her panic attacks.
I'll admit right now that those panic attacks had scared me witless when I first came to live with them. She'd just start shaking and then her breathing would hitch and she'd start to wheeze and breath harder and her face turned a funny color and her eyes bugged out. I thought she was dying every single time, but every single time she'd eventually been calmed down and then she slept for the next whole day.
And so it was for that particular day that we managed a first festival day without Ellie's presence in the dining hall. Consequently, it was I who was first introduced to our guests at the before dinner gathering in our front parlor.
When I was called down, I was greeted by a woman and her small child, who were sitting on the love seat immediately in front of the fireplace. I noticed them only secondly because our third and fourth guests stole all attention immediately. Our third guest was an unnervingly lovely man for all that he was unhealthily skinny, had a crooked nose and was wearing a pair of gleaming gold spectacles. Still, and maybe it was this that made him attractive, he seemed intelligent, had a dimpled, humorously crooked smile and the oddest pair of pale eyes with a mop of dark hair that gleamed and curled in a way that clearly made my aunt very jealous of him.
His companion was entirely different from him, though perhaps even more eerily beautiful. At just my height, with a rounder, broader face, he should have been plain-looking and easily outshone by his friend. Instead, he appeared to be on equal ground, as far as beauty went. He was blond, but that plain feature worked for him, off-setting his deep tan and sweeping messily into his face, bringing out the striking green eyes that seemed far too somber for a man so young. This one seemed joy-less and I would have dismissed him entirely, except that he caught my gaze and held it, daring me to look away from him first. This was very rude of him, and it made me slightly angry that he didn't drop his gaze immediately.
"Elaina" My uncle smiled at me, rising from his chair near the window, where he was conversing with our resident doctor. "We have guests." He added, unnecessarily.
I just smiled, my eyes never wavering from our fourth guest's gaze. When an answer seemed to be required, I nodded. "I see that." I smiled again, finally blinking and breaking eye contact, only to be drawn to the other strange man's figure. "I suppose they're here in the city for the festival weekend?" I asked, probably unnecessarily. I had never really been very good at small talk. It just seemed so awkward to me, speaking to people who hadn't even been properly introduced.
"Oh, yes." The woman answered, smiling at me and nodding. She, too, had a sort of otherworldly beauty to her. This was different though, with her pale, almost translucently clear skin and slanted, dark eyes. Everything about her was perfectly symmetrical and perfectly formed, and if it weren't for the freckles dotting her nose and cheeks, she would have been flawless. I would have been very jealous and very petty to her if I were the type of girl who cared about that. Instead I just smiled back and mumbled something about hoping they enjoyed it.
"Laina, dear, Rosalie and her daughter, Grace are going to bed after dinner tonight, but perhaps you wouldn't mind keeping her company tomorrow, at the fair?" my Aunt suggested, in her perfectly kind, perfectly quiet way.
I must have nodded, or indicated some kind of positive response, because Leandra smiled at me and she and Rosalie ducked their dark heads together over a bit of embroidery Leandra'd been working on for months now. My Uncle, too, seemed pleased that I would help keep the guests entertained and away from Ellie for their stay, though he didn't say or do anything that would prove he was affected either way. After a moment, I shrugged and let them all slip into conversation with each other, taking my seat across a chess board from Ahmaire and settling into the usual pre-dinner battle of wits.
The game went quickly, as was very normal, and I was setting up the next game when our blond guest requested if he and his brother in law could play the winner. I shrugged and looked at my Uncle for a moment, not totally unprepared for him to agree and give up his seat to my next opponent, but still seeking permission. Good natured as ever, Ahmaire smiled and nodded, getting up and relinquishing his seat to the blond, in favor of standing behind his wife and playing with her hair while she spoke to Rosalie. As for me, I simply shrugged again, blatantly past the point of caring what anyone else did, so long as it didn't hurt anyone else.
The fact that I didn't know his name didn't stop me from soundly defeating the blond within ten minutes of playing. His friend and I, however, were still locked in an intense game when it was time to adjourn for supper. That, too, bothered me because I had never been this evenly challenged in a game of chess. Still, I was pleasant enough through dinner, quiet and distant, but pleasant enough that I danced politely through enough of a conversation to realize that the blond was named George and my chess equal was called Edward. Our dinners rarely were anything special, and that one was no different. We were quiet, polite and flawlessly hospitable to our guests, but it wasn't anything like the dinners I'd had with my old family and that made me even quieter as I mourned that loss.
When my quiet seemed to make our guests slightly uncomfortable, Leandra kicked me under the table. It didn't stop her new friend, Rosalie, from asking about the quiet though, when I smiled and apologized to everyone.
"It's festival night." I said, after a moment, shrugging. "I'll brighten up when it's time for the new year and the happier times. Just as the story of our great Lady and her Prince's beginning, which we celebrate tonight, says is appropriate." I added, lying a lot and using the festival's meaning to do it. I was fairly sure I'd be banned from the next life for that, but couldn't really find a reason to care anyway.
The rest of our guests seemed to accept this, and Rosie's daughter didn't care either way, as long as she got to make a complete mashed up mess of her food on her plate. Edward raised his eyebrows at me, though, making me flush, thinking at least someone was perceptive enough to catch out my lie. Our eyes were linked for a moment before he smiled crookedly and nodded at me, requesting that I join him in the city for the festival's kick-off.
Normally I would have said no. Normally I would not have been caught dead anywhere near the city on a festival night. Normally no power on our planet could have compelled me to accept his invitation. This wasn't normally though, and by some unholy power his eyes seemed to drag an acceptance out of me. Worse, I actually found myself wanting to go with him, to walk through the streets and participate in things for once, instead of sitting in my castle tower, watching over the festival from afar.
I thought about that while I dressed for the evening in the traditional white of all unmarried girls attending the festival. Worry lines developed between my brows while I chewed on the inside of my cheek and stared through my reflection in the looking glass. From what I remembered of past festivals with my parents, we could expect a traveling acting troupe through the city, replaying the fateful first laugh of our beautiful lady goddess, celebrating her mate's ability to make her happy, to lift her heart and create light in our world again. There had been a mage fire show in one city, I remembered vaguely, smiling in anticipation. Surely, the greatest city in the world would have a mage fire show to rival any other.
That would be exciting enough, I figured, anticipating the thrill of the dark night exploding suddenly with vibrant colored flames in the sky. There would be gift-giving, and singing and a boat-race and… I sighed, focusing on my reflection in the mirror for the first time and brushing my blonde curls over my shoulder. Another moment passed and I just shrugged at my reflection, knowing that the stranger—Edward, I corrected myself quietly—was likely waiting for me. My purse was probably unnecessary, so I just grabbed a few coins and tucked them into the folds on my sleeve on my way down the stairs.
"Try to have fun, Elaina. You look lovely." My uncle called to me, smiling from the doorway of his private study.
I just rolled my eyes at him and nodded, accepting Edward's arm and slipping out into the night, barely pausing to pull the hood of my cloak over my head to block out the snow drifting down from the sky. He was silent and courteous, and of course gorgeous, but the walk into the city was awkward nonetheless. To be sure, if I'd grown up far away from Ellie, with my real parents and in full possession of the self-assurance and possession that had been my gift before their death, this would have been easier. As it was, I hadn't had much use for flirtation and the refined art of conversation carrying with strangers in my current household.
If I were brutally honest, I didn't really care about carrying on a conversation with this intruder. I was too busy trying to figure out why I'd agreed to go out with him. What if Ellie needed me? I frowned a lot on the way there but Edward didn't seem to mind, or notice, even.
"Ahmaire worries a lot about you, beautiful Elaina." He said slowly, as we were entering into the library's garden grounds.
I frowned at him for a moment, unsure how I felt about being called beautiful Elaina, but eventually decided to just shrug. Too polite to ignore his offer for conversation, I sighed and flipped my hood down again, liking the way the flakes sparkled in his hair and wondering if they'd do the same in mine.
"I suppose he does, yes, strange Edward." I finally answered, lips curving a little bit in amusement at myself.
He snorted at my return on his name for me and studied the sky for a moment while we strolled. He bought us both a pack of sweet roasted chestnuts from a vendor and crunched down on one before responding.
"Why do you suppose that is, funny Elaina?" he asked me.
"Because…" I sighed, chewed my lip "because he thinks I've been forced to grow up before I should, I suppose, nosy Edward."
He laughed at that. "I apologize, I suppose I am nosy. Forgive me, Elaina."
"You're giving up the game already?" I arched a brow at him and adopting a faintly irritated look that I hoped would make him laugh. It was weird, but I really wanted to hear the sound again. I was rewarded after a moment, when he huffed out another laugh and shook his head at me. Still, he didn't speak again for a while.
In fact, we'd made a slow circuit of the library grounds—apparently Ahmaire had made him promise to take me no further than the library grounds' territory—and seen three troupes act out the meeting and courtship of our goddess and the trickster prince, her new beginning, new happiness and new life; we'd witnessed jugglers and singers and dancers galore before he sat down with me on the steps to the great library's entrance and shared another bag of roasted chestnuts. I was beginning to grow silent and mournful again, wondering why this great city's celebration seemed so much… more somber than the ones I remembered attending with my parents in various other countries and cities.
"What makes you so somber and quiet, beautiful Elaina? There is a festival going on, is there not?" Edward asked me, nudging my shoulder with his.
"Wouldn't know it, would you, though?" I asked in return, seriously. "In all the cities I've been to for this festival, I've never seen any as joyless as this seems to be." I frowned. "Look at everyone! There should be laughter and flirtation and couples dancing and promising to meet later. There should be more outright merriment, rather than this…quiet appreciation for the miracle of the Prince's entrance into our lady's life." I added, frustrated.
"How many have you been to?" he asked me, ignoring the frustration for a moment.
"I lost count after my eighth, to be honest. My parents and I used to travel too much to ever go to the same city twice, but we always managed to be in a big city for the festival of lights and the new year." I said slowly, sadly. Strangely though, I didn't feel wrong telling Edward about my life before. It should have concerned me, but I felt nothing more than peace with him.
"Ah. So… how long has it been since you and Ahmaire and Leandra stopped traveling and stopped attending festival?" he asked quietly, trying to figure how I couldn't have seen this trend coming.
"Ah… well, for me… I guess, since I came here. I don't know about Leandra, but probably since she and Ahmaire got married and Ahmaire hasn't gone to a festival since his first wife died." I replied, still slowly. It was true enough, in its way, I supposed. I didn't know much of Leandra, but Ahmaire had stopped going to festival when Marietta died, which was, coincidentally, when Ellie had first showed signs of her… difference.
"Oh." He frowned. "So they aren't…" he raised his eyebrow, rather than finish his question.
I just frowned back at him for a moment, a horribly private person who would never usually care to answer his questions so easily. Oddly though, I wanted to answer. I wanted to talk to him, wanted to open up and wanted to share the things I wouldn't usually do.
"No." I finally said, biting my tongue before I could tell him all about the shipwreck that had killed my parents, how I had somehow managed to find my way to Relmain and Ahmaire and Leandra. I wanted, desperately, to tell him everything and because I wanted to, I stopped myself from doing that.
"I am being nosy again, beautiful Elaina, I am sorry." He said, after a moment, realizing that he would not be getting anything else from me about that subject.
I just nodded and dropped my chin onto my knees, letting the sorrow wash through me and then fade away again. Slowly, it ebbed and I turned my thoughts again to the festival. It was different, I was sure of that, and Ahmaire had said something about things not being quite right in the temples lately. Surely, I wasn't the only one to notice these things and be disturbed by them. By all accounts, our lady was a joyful, buoyant goddess, one who would not appreciate being celebrated with such solemnity. From what I had heard and what I gathered from the writings, she would want us to celebrate her union with the Prince with whole-hearted joy and freedom, if at all, she'd appreciate it if we didn't take ourselves—and her—too seriously. She certainly never seemed to. I frowned. And certainly, she loved color, so why was it that everyone was wearing black or white? And where were the mage-fire shows. Last I had heard, Relmain's great central library drew the largest gathering of mages known to the world…so where was the evidence of their existence?
"you are very far away, beautiful Elaina." Edward whispered to me after a moment, somehow managing to leave me with the impression of having my cheek stroked without him ever touching me in any way.
"Sorry." I smiled a little. "I was just thinking… Ahmaire says I do that too much." I shook my head, wondering why I'd said that, exactly.
"Ah, and what were you thinking?" he asked me, politely.
I thought for a moment, torn between honestly answering, as was habit with him now, and lightening the mood. Finally, I smirked and pointed to a man walking with his young wife a little ahead of us on the path.
"I was wondering what it was like to be him. Surely it must be uncomfortable, being that sure of yourself, having that much self-importance stuffed into so small a space." I shrugged offhandedly.
Surprised, Edward just stared at me for a moment before laughing and shaking his head at me.
"I am not sure that I believe that was what you were thinking, witty Elaina, but it is certainly true. He does look self-important, doesn't he?"
I smirked and nodded, about to reply when the sky above the tree-line lit up a bright violet. Startled and ecstatic, I twisted to see the fire exploding different colors in the air. Finally, some proper celebration; finally, some proper excitement for this holiest of holy evenings was being shown. The first explosion of color emitted a sound that, to the mortal ear, resembled a light, femininely god-like laugh and I sighed in happiness at the display. It was better than anything I'd seen in any other city and the colors and excitement relieved me after the straining, weird display of decorum from earlier. At the end, the colors and shapes and explosions all came together at once, orchestrated beautifully, perfectly, in order to steal my breath. Excited, I grabbed Edward's hand impulsively and sighed, sinking into his side a little bit in a highly improper manner. I was beyond caring about that, though.
"Edward, isn't it perfect? Don't you think this is amazingly lovely? The Lady would be pleased, don't you think?" I gasped at him, only turning to look at his face after the last shower of color had faded.
His face was unaccountably grim, though, and he just helped me to my feet, wrapping my cloak around my shoulders firmly.
"We should get back, Elaina." He said, quietly.
"But, Edward… we have plenty of time before festival ends, plenty of time before Ahmaire expects me…" I frowned, confused as to why he seemed so serious after that fantastic display.
"Still," he frowned, already leading me back.
I shrugged and we walked in silence for a moment. "But that mage-fire, oh Edward, it was so lovely, so perfect, the best I'd ever seen." I sighed at him.
"It was stupid of whoever did it." He finally said back to me, slowly. "And you would be wise not to be heard praising the display."
"but…" I frowned and then laughed. "It was just a mage-fire display. Just a celebration of the Lady, how could that be stupid?" Silly as I was, I laughed again and shook my head at him.
"And mages and mage-fire are very much in poor favor right now. Anyone harboring a mage is looking for trouble right now." He said quietly, almost fretfully.
"In other countries, maybe." I smiled. "But this is Raudaine, the biggest and most forward thinking country in the world. We've always had mages. We've always had magic. For the Lady's sake, we have the ruling family of mages on the throne and have had since the first century." I rolled my eyes. "How could mages be in poor favor, silly Edward?"
"This is no joke." He muttered, grimly, pointing me in the direction of a street-vendor who'd been selling magical gift-eggs. As we watched, he was dragged off the streets by the guard. "Think, Elaina, you've seen how other countries regard magic with suspicion. You've seen the fear that magic causes people. You have to know it would have spread here eventually."
"But…" I frowned, horror dawning. "Edward, those were uneducated countries. People who didn't know any differently about magic." I protested. "not here."
"Times are changing, Laina" he said softly, almost regretfully. I even missed the nickname he gave me in my growing horror at what he was saying. "Magic is being taken as a serious threat. People are afraid of it, the crown is changing hands and our new governors are not inclined to be gentle with those who are involved in magic."
"But—" I bit my lip and started to think about that, recognizing the sense his predictions made and starting to grow afraid. "Edward… the Adares." I frowned again, wondering how they could let anything bad happen to the magical community. They'd been their protectors and champions for too long for it to be possible that they'd let this new era dawn without a fight.
"—would be better off hiding out until this bloody transition is over." He cut me off gently. "It would be better for all magically inclined people, really, if they saved themselves and hid out until this age ends and they can once again come out in the light." He sighed regretfully and stopped me at the foot of the stairs leading to my part of the house. "Sleep, Laina, We'll have a lot of talking to do with Ahmaire tomorrow."
"We?" I asked him, smiling a little, despite my fear.
"Of course." He smiled, bowing over my hand and readying himself to depart, properly.
"Edward… I'm scared." I admitted, quietly.
"Good. It might keep you alive through the massacre that's about to happen." He replied, equally quietly, sighing and then granting me a crooked smile and a regretful glance before heading up his set of stairs.
I watched him go and allowed my brows to knit in fear and confusion while I made my way to my own bedroom. Considering the amount of things I had to think about and worry over, I doubted I'd get any sleep that night.