I'm glad you are liking it! I was a bit worried for a while, honestly. Leonis pretty much had to pry you away from your precious books with a crowbar! I bet you're having a good time because you took my advice and put yourself out there! I have been known to have my wise moments, no matter what you say Artemisios! I am looking forward to all the adventures you are going to tell me about. Actually, I hope this letter reaches you before you're on the road again!
King's Hook? Oh gods, Arty, we haven't played that in years! I am truly amazed that you lasted ten games! You must have had a lot of gold on you, I'd wager. You can teach me how to play like a master.
As for your horse, I consider him mine now anyway! He is a darling; I don't understand this devil business you are going on about. Maybe you were just never taught to ride properly – I have a very good teacher. Perhaps once you arrive back from Aurus as a 'man', you will have better luck?
Not long now until our wedding, is it?
Arty wanted more than anything to be down in the city at the White Oak but instead, he had to attend his going away masque. Unlike all the other courtly events, he couldn't slink into a corner and ignore everyone with this one. It was held in his honour so he had to go, unfortunately. And he couldn't act like a sullen child – how he was feeling on the inside – so he plastered a bright smile on his face, donned some sparkly clothes and fox's mask, and tried to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Even in his sunken mood, he could appreciate the length the de Morteau's had gone to to fare him well – or, more likely, show off their own money and power so he could run back to High Prince Leonis with it fresh in his mind.
Cynicism aside, the Great Hall did look beautiful. The theme of the whole thing, for some inane reason, was winter. They were a good five months away from that season – why they'd think it were a good idea, he'd never know. As such, the Hall was covered in crystal 'icicles', dangling down from the ceiling and glittering with light. They threw light across the rest of the white, icy room; highlighting bits with spinning shards of light. Enormous glass sculptures were featured throughout the room and Arty could already see beads of moisture gathering and running down some of them. On one of the Moon Goddess, it created the amazing effect that she was crying. Piles of 'snow' appeared throughout the room, generally gathered up into corners. Arty could see bored children attempting to make a snowman out of the fake stuff.
The occupants of the room by far outshone the ornaments, though. The theme was white, so everyone was looking stunning and like winter personified in every shade of white and silver. Arty himself was wearing a crisp white suit with silver lining, and his snow fox mask was decorated outrageously in huge amounts of fur and intricate detail. From where he was peeking in, he could see all manner of masks – gods and goddesses roamed amongst snow sprites, wolves, mice and even peacocks. Most of the masks only covered up the skin around their wearers eyes, but a few people had worn full face ones.
When Arty stepped up to be announced, there was much fanfare, since he was the guest of honour, after all. His entire title, including all his holdings and his relation to the High Prince, were spelt out while Arty stood there, clenching his fists in an effort to stand there straight. He wanted to run to a corner and finish the small book he'd stuffed into his pocket, but now was not the time. Despite sending him to another country to learn to be a man, he still loved his brother and would not disrespect him in a foreign country that way.
Finally, they were finished, and Julienne, the Crown Prince, met him at the bottom of the stairs with a charming smile.
"I'm not sure if you've met the Marquis of Dartara yet, but he's dying the meet you," he said enthusiastically, guiding Arty towards a couple before he could say a word. That was how most of his night was spent, being shuffled from group to group as he was introduced to just about every important person in Fienlend, including visiting dignitaries.
Arty was talked to about all manner of things: horses, crops, soldiers, what the drought was like in Ava, whether he thought the Uvicos Islands would be hit by another giant wave anytime soon. Surprisingly, he could hold his own in conversation fairly well, thanks to all his wide reading. He found himself getting into a long debate with one of the elderly Dukes about whether Tyron's theory on how the galapagods became extinct was correct or if Diedre had the right of it. Arty was seated next to this man during the dinner, making for some interesting conversation to lighten his mood.
His mind couldn't help wondering to his hooded friend. Was she here? She would have to be here. But he didn't even know her hair colour, how would he find her amidst the hundreds of guests here? The only way he could think of was to find the one woman who was going out of his way to avoid him. He didn't know how he would go about doing this, but it was his only worthwhile plan.
Dinner was sumptuous, featuring many winter specialities like an enormous roast goose with winterberries. Their chefs must have used some kind of glasshouse, Arty decided, to be able to grow vegetables that liked the cold. Maybe it was underground? Or maybe they'd imported them. Either way, it was delicious.
After the dinner, everyone began to rise for dancing as the musicians struck up a livelier tune. Arty could see a few women heading his way with alluring smiles on their faces, so he ducked out of the hall as fast as he could. He wasn't exactly the best dancer ever – describing his dancing style as 'two left feet' was kind.
When the cool night air hit him, he released a deep sigh. Despite it being winter themed inside, the amount of people in that space had begun to take its toll, no matter how fast the servants beat their fans. He pulled off his mask and breathed in deeply. At first, he thought he was the only one taking sanctuary on this balcony, which showcased the glittering lights of Aurus perfectly, but then he heard a sharp intake of breath. Turning around, he saw a woman with a swan mask and a delicate lace dress perching on one of the stone benches. She was wiping away what looked like silvery tears from her cheeks and Arty's heart went out to her.
"Would you mind if I join you?" he said softly, sitting down on the bench next to her without waiting for a reply. She stiffened, spine snapping straight, but nodded jerkily regardless. "It is a beautiful night," he continued, at a loss of what to do now. He wanted to make this lady feel better, but he didn't have much experience in this area. He'd grown up the youngest of six brothers and so had only comforted Katalina, on very rare occasions. Should he put his arm around her? No, that would be too familiar. Should he tell her a story? What stories did he even know? And he was a horrible storyteller, too caught up in the ending to properly set it up.
In reply to his awkward statement, she nodded stiffly yet again. He huffed out a breath and turned to her.
"Is it a boy making you cry?" She had lovely, icy blue eyes that went well with the winter theme, and they were showcased when she widened them in surprise. After a moment's hesitation, she nodded. "If someone is making you sad enough to cry, they don't deserve to be in your life. They don't deserve your tears. Tears are special… or at least I've always thought as such. The story of the Moon Goddess's tears has always been a favourite of mine." Oh, great, he was rambling now. "Do you know of it?"
A smile touched her red-painted lips, looking a bit wry but still humorous.
"My mother used to always tell me it as a child," he continued, since she didn't seem to be very big on talking. "I haven't heard it in years, though, until last week a very talented minstrel sung it to me." He sighed. His hooded companion had loved it, proclaiming it one of her favourites, and they'd sat in silence for the whole thing then cheered loudly when it was over. "It was beautiful. What is your favourite ballad?"
The woman looked down at her hands and seemed to deflate. She took a deep breath and stood up fluidly. Something about her poise and grace was niggling the back of his mind.
Her lips parted and she spoke for the first time, in a low voice, "The story of the deal between the Sun God and the Moon Goddess."
Her voice was huskier than usual, but there was no mistaking it – this was his hooded woman. His hooded woman who had piercing blue eyes and light brown hair that curled around her swan mask, which still hid her identity.
He shot upright but she was already striding away, lace dress fluttering behind her as she fled into the Great Hall.
"Wait!" Arty called, running after her and into a Hall filled with white dresses and dark hair. She was gone. Once again, he'd let her slip through his fingers. Half out of his mind with longing, he hunted through the crowd until it was apparent she had fled completely.
"Are you alright, Artemisios?"
Arty turned and saw the Crown Prince of Fienlend standing there, cheery smile on his face and his arms clasped behind his back. Arty forced himself to lose the stressed expression and smile stiffly at Julienne in greeting.
"I was just wondering, Julienne, if you knew the identity of a woman in a swan mask and a lace dress? She has dark hair and blue eyes."
The other prince's eyebrows shot up.
"You've just given me a description of my sister, Princess Sarilla – I've barely seen her all night, where did you bump into her?"
There was a dull roaring in Arty's eyes. Sarilla. Princess of Fienlend Sarilla. Was it some trick of the gods that the youngest prince of Thieron would fall in love with the youngest princess of Fienlend?
"Out on the balcony," he said faintly.
"Oh of course, she does have a habit of escaping when any of these functions are on. I'm sure she didn't mean any rudeness on her part. She always likes to disappear… Artemisios, are you feeling well? You've gone quite pale."
Arty was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he now knew the identity of the mysterious woman that had never been far from his thoughts this past month.
"Actually, I am feeling a bit ill-disposed," Arty finally managed. "If you don't mind, I will excuse myself back to my rooms to get one night's good sleep before the journey ahead."
Julienne grinned and clapped him on the back. "Feel free! If I don't see you tomorrow, I wish you luck in your travels and your upcoming marriage."
Arty was out the door and heading towards the royal wing of the palace when Julienne's words penetrated. Upcoming marriage. What was he doing, what had he done? Fallen in love with another woman when he was to travel back to Thieron tomorrow and marry his best friend?
What was he doing?
But his feet were already moving without his command and suddenly he was in the royal wing, asking a servant for directions to Princess Sarilla's rooms. The servant looked at him dubiously but told him anyway and in no time at all, he was knocking on the intricately carved door. It opened under his touch, as if the owner had been in too much of a hurry to even close it behind her. Which she probably had been, escaping from him. He hesitantly walked in, barely glancing around the dimly lit room as he followed the bright light into the sitting room. There, sitting on a vibrantly coloured couch with lion's feet, was his hooded woman. Her delicate hands were covering her face as her shoulders shook.
He stood there, not knowing what to do and not knowing if he was capable of doing anything anyway. She seemed to know he was there anyway.
"I didn't want for any of this to happen," she said softly. Her face raised from her hands and he finally got a true glimpse of everything. And like he had thought, she was beautiful. Her face was unremarkable, tears streaming down her cheeks, but she just shone with life from the inside. It was utterly irresistible to him. She was utterly irresistible to him, in a cloak, as a swan, or as herself. "Going to the White Oak was my time, a time away from all this royalty rubbish! And then you had to go and stick your big nose into it!" Arty's patted his nose self-consciously. "And how was I or anyone supposed to resist you when you look like one of the Moon Goddess' angels and have eyes that could wrap an emperor around your finger? It's impossible, Arty, and turning you down was like kicking a puppy! But you're not a harmless puppy! You're insidious, that's what you are, and you've wriggled your way into my mind until you're all I can think about! You've made me fall in love with you, Artemisios, even though you're getting married in a week and I hate you for it!"
Arty's mouth was open, his mind not functioning properly.
"I… you… what?" he managed. Sarilla's brows shot down in a fierce glower. She stood upright, graceful even through her anger, and poked him hard with one finger.
"This was never supposed to be this way! I thought 'hey, he's fun to get more gold out of, I'll keep him around', but then you turned out to be intelligent and funny and happy all the time! Look at you, you're smiling even now!"
"You said you love me," he said. He felt like his mind was in honey, with how slow it was working. But it seemed to be just one revelation after another. He ignored the fact that she'd said she hated him in the same breath.
"That's because I do! But use your damn brain, Arty!" she cried, hitting him over the head in a sharp slap that made him wince. "You're getting married. I'm in love with a married man!"
He frowned. "Well technically, I'm not married yet…"
"But you will be!" she yelled. "You're going back your perfect little city to your perfect little bride to live happily ever after!"
"But what, Arty?" she snapped. "If I asked you, would you not marry her?"
He hated the vulnerability that crept into her beautiful honey voice and bright blue eyes. She was opening herself up to him, losing all barriers both real and of the mind.
And he would have to let her down. He was being asked to choose between his best friend and the woman he loved and it would tear him apart. He wanted Sarilla so fiercely his chest ached, wanted to sit in the White Oak and listen to ballads about the gods every night. But he had a duty. He had a responsibility to his best friend, the woman who had been with him through anything. They'd been engaged since before they were born, but what would both their families do if Arty broke it? Sell Katalina like a piece of meat to the highest bidder. Or throw her out. She would have nothing.
The light had gone out in Sarilla's eyes as she realised what the answer would be. The beautiful hope and the painful vulnerability were gone behind a shield of ice.
"You should go," she said frostily, crossing her arms over her torso and hugging herself.
"Sarilla…" he said, her name sounding perfect on his tongue.
She turned away from him.
"Just go," she said, and he heard the hitch in her voice that betrayed her. She was crying and he could do nothing about it.
The trip back to Thieron and up into the mountains was painful. He felt like his heart was literally being wrenched out of chest as it tried to stay back in Aurus with Sarilla. He was quiet, barely talking to anyone and burying his head in his books when he could. But for once, they weren't enough to distract him. He felt every step of his horse away from Aurus painfully. The week seemed to stretch on forever but then suddenly he was home, in the golden palace amongst his golden brothers once more.
"You left a boy and have come back a man, brother!" Leonis said, grinning. "You will have to show me your sword skills once you've recovered from your journey!"
Arty mustered up a weak smile as he was swarmed by his other brothers, all of them clapping him on the back and congratulating him on his month apart. His smile fell, however, when his wedding to Katalina was brought up.
"You'd better get your rest tonight, boy, because your wedding celebration starts tomorrow, bright and early!"
"Ah, in that case," he said awkwardly, "I'd better be getting back to my rooms."
"You still owe me a sword fight!" Leonis called after him as he made his escape, his other brothers echoing him.
Arty made sure to slam and lock the door behind him. His room looked exactly the same as he had left it, not even a speck of dust to change it, yet his whole perspective had been changed. He didn't want to go down that road and think about warming beers and soft ballads and Sarilla's snorting laugh, so he shucked off his dirty travelling clothes and climbed straight into bed.
He woke up a mere few hours later feeling dirty, restless, and heartbroken. He tossed and turned in his expensive sheets, trying to fall back into oblivion. It evaded him. Eventually, he threw off his sheets and out of bed, throwing on some clothes and storming out onto the balcony. There was a trellis on the wall next to the doors and he grabbed hold of it, scaling up the wall quickly and onto the roof. The sound of his breathing was so loud that he didn't hear the sobbing until he was already up on the roof.
As far as he knew, he and Katalina were the only ones who frequented up here. Not many other people could get up here or would be bothered to. His eyes adjusted to the dark night, now away from the lights shining through the windows of the palace, and he could make out a huddled figure sitting a few metres away from him.
"Kat?" he said hesitantly, softly. The figure stiffened before looking up, revealing Kat's pretty, tear stained face. "Oh, Kat," he said, sitting down next to her and drawing her to him with one arm. "What is the matter?"
She sniffled, wiping her tears away. She leaned into him.
"It's nothing," she said, a catch in her voice. Arty frowned at the obvious lie. He wanted to push it but from experience, that didn't work very well with Kat. She was stubborn as anything.
Searching for something to say, he ended up saying, "So we're getting married in a few hours." He tried so hard to force some kind of cheeriness into his voice but it fell flat, and he felt terrible. He didn't want to make it seem like he was reluctant, as that would make her feel even worse, but he honestly did not want this marriage to take place.
Instead of distracting her, it had the opposite effect. Her shoulders shook as another wave of tears overtook her and his eyes widened in alarm. She was sobbing into his shirt, but at least she hadn't pushed him away yet.
"Ah gods," he said, not sure what to do or say anymore. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, please don't cry, I'm so, so horrible at this…"
Especially since her tears were reminding him of the last time he'd comforted a crying woman. Sarilla.
"I can't so this, Arty," she said between sobs. "Gods strike me, but I can't go through with this wedding." He stiffened. He made to say something but her words were a torrent now that couldn't be stopped. "I know you need this, I know, and I'm being such a selfish mule but I just can't marry you! It's not that—you're a great man Arty, and any woman would be lucky to marry you, but I…" She raised her head and looked up at him, the moon's light catching the tears swimming in her eyes. "I've fallen in love, Arty, and I just can't do this to him, to me. I would be so miserable and angry at you and I love you, Arty, just not that way—"
"You've fallen in love with someone else?" Arty said faintly. She hadn't mentioned anything like that in her letters… but then again, neither had he. She shifted away from him, trembling.
"I'm so sorry, Arty, oh gods, I know you need this marriage…"
He frowned. "Wait, what? I don't need this marriage; you're the one that needs it."
This seemed to shock Katalina enough that she froze.
"I need it?" she echoed faintly. "Whatever for?"
"But… your inheritance, Katalina. You coming of age today means that if you marry, you can receive your inheritance and if you don't, your father could just marry you off to anyone."
Katalina was staring at him as if he'd grown another head.
"I have my father wrapped around my finger, Arty," she said. "He'd never marry me off to just anyone."
Arty's mouth was hanging open in shock. He'd been killing himself over this, dying inside, and she didn't even need this marriage like he'd thought?
Threw his head back and laughed – what else was there to do? Katalina was still giving him a strange look, so he explained.
"The only reason I was going through with this ridiculous arranged marriage was because I thought you needed it," he said earnestly. "I… I've fallen in love with someone else too."
Katalina gasped, lunging forward and grabbing onto his shirt.
"Really?!" she cried. "Where is this poor woman? Why haven't I met her? Is she part of the court here or is she part of the servants? Oh gods, that would be so romantic…"
He was still chuckling; feeling like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.
"I met her in Aurus. She's the Crown Prince's sister."
"Princess Sarilla? How come you never mentioned anything about her, you wretch?" Katalina hit him over the shoulder. He winced a bit – she may be delicate, but she had a mean punch.
"How come you never mentioned anything about falling in love either?" he countered with raised eyebrows. This seemed to calm her down and a small smile came onto her face. That one expression was filled with such gentle emotion that Arty knew she was thinking about the man she'd fallen in love with.
"I did mention him," she said. "He works in the stables – he's the one who taught me how to ride." Arty remembered all the references now – the pleasant scenery, that amazing teacher… how had he not picked up on that before now?
"Well, Sarilla is the one who helped me with my King's Hook skills."
"Oh, tell me, was it love at first sight? Did you meet at a ball and see her from across the room and know she was the one?"
Katalina really had been reading too many of those romantic novels that were so popular amongst women at the moment.
"I met her in a bar, actually," he said. He hadn't realised it until now, but his lips had curved up into a small, mirroring the beautiful one Katalina had earlier.
Katalina gasped. "How scandalous! Tell me more, I want the whole story, all the details."
And so, until the sun came up and lit the land with rosy light, Arty divulged every detail of his short time with Sarilla and he, in turn, listened intently when Katalina gushed about Antony.
The palace was in an uproar by the time they came down from the roof. The whole place had just about been upended in the search for the two of them. The wedding was supposed to take place in a few minutes time but when the servants made to hurry them off to get ready separately, Arty tightened his grip on Katalina's hand and they walked into the throne room together.
The servants had done a marvellous job decorating, transforming it into a paradise of white lace and flowers. The place was filled with guests from many countries and the murmuring increased when they saw Arty and Katalina walking to the front of the room. Arty cleared his throat and the murmuring died down. Leonis stalked towards them, face dark, but Arty didn't give his brother time to stop him.
"Ah, the wedding is off!" he said, without any preamble. He'd never been a charming speaker and had always thought that being blunt was the best option. He also wanted to get this over and done with and back to Aurus in the shortest time possible. "I'm truly sorry that you all came this way for nothing, but I'm sure the wedding feast will still be available, if you all want to make your way there…"
"What is the meaning of this?" Leonis hissed. "This marriage has been arranged since before you were born and you decide now to call it off?!"
Arty, for once, didn't even fidget as he met his brother's gaze head on.
"Katalina and I have both come to a mutual agreement. Circumstances changed and, as the two people getting married, we have decided that our best option is to call it off."
"Circumstances changed? By all the gods, what is that supposed to mean?"
People were beginning to file out, most with annoyed expressions on their faces. Arty couldn't find it in himself to be guilty.
"We can't marry each other when both of us love another," Katalina said defiantly, giving Arty's hand a tight squeeze.
"Both of you… ah gods," Leonis muttered tiredly, rubbing his face with a hand. "You two have always given me a headache."
"Well then, aren't you happy that we're getting out of your hair?" Arty said hopefully.
"You were away for one month, Arty," Leonis said, giving them both stern looks. "How did both of you manage to fall in love?" Arty and Katalina looked at each other and shrugged. Leonis sighed in defeat. "Fine, both of you, get out of my sight. All these decorations may be wasted but I sure as anything am not letting all the wine in there go to waste."
He strode out, running a stressed hand through his neat blond hair and messing it up. It felt good to put his brother so out of sorts, for once.
They were both alone in the opulent throne room, surrounded by empty chairs and unneeded wedding decorations.
"Well what do we do now?" Katalina said, looking around with a lost expression on her face. "That went a whole lot easier than planned."
That was probably because Leonis had intercepted Katalina's father the Duke on his way towards them. Arty could see him pacifying the older man out in the hallway.
"I'm going to Aurus," Arty declared. "Via the stables, of course. I think introductions are in order – I have to give my approval to this pleasing scenery of yours."
Arty had thought about riding up to the palace and demanding to see the princess, but instead he had finally decided to go with his gut. And so there he was, sweaty, dirty and tired from his long ride here, waiting at the White Oak at the table closest to the performing minstrel. The barmaid had given him a wide smile when he'd entered, even wiggling her eyebrows a little, suggestively. He couldn't help but send a wink back.
He wasn't feeling so confident now, however, with his beer half gone and warming to the room's temperature. He'd paid the minstrel a few gold coins to keep singing religious ballads all night. He sighed and stared desolately into his half empty glass, watching as the water on the outside trickled down onto the wooden table.
The door opened with a creak, as it had been doing all night long, and some other sense made him perk up and look towards there.
And there she was.
Leaning against the bar with her usual effortless grace, covered from head to toe in her fine, velvet coat. Like the first night he'd sat at her table, she turned towards him and hesitated before walking over. She sank into the chair opposite him, looking wary and ready to bolt at any moment.
"Artemisios," she greeted cautiously. "Funny seeing you here. Last I heard you were marrying some pretty lady in Thieron."
"Well, that is a funny story actually," he said, stamping down his nerves and leaning forward. "You see, it was called off by mutual agreement. A great big misunderstanding, you could say – both of us thought the other needed the marriage."
"That is an interesting story," she murmured.
"Katalina, my best friend and the woman I was supposed to marry, fell in love while I was gone, which strangely happened to me as well. I fell in love with a beautiful, alluring woman whom I couldn't take my eyes off from the moment I saw her, even if I tried." Sarilla was so still that Arty could tell that she had caught her breath. "And I've come back here to apologise for leaving her and beg her forgiveness. And also to beg for another go."
The silence that stretched between them was killing him.
"I asked you," she finally said softly. "I asked you to stay and not marry her, yet you left me."
"She's my best friend, Sarilla," he said earnestly, eyes wide and pleading. She had once said that he could achieve anything with his puppy dog eyes, and he planned to put that to the test now. "I had been under the impression that she needed the marriage and would've been tossed out otherwise. I love you, but I couldn't let that happen to my oldest and dearest friend. Not when I thought she was counting on me."
Sarilla didn't say anything, but he could feel her eyes on him. Judging. Assessing. Finally, she shook her head so her hood shimmied down, revealing her face and those piercing blue eyes. A smile curved her lips, making her whole face alight with joy.
"Another go, you said? That could be arranged."
A/N: This is for the SKoW prompt competition, and the prompt was: It was an arranged marriage with both sides too considerate of the other to notice just how much they were each suffering.
Honestly can't believe I wrote 12k in three days. Thanks to my wonderful ADoR girls who helped motivate me!
(Mr Ree, here is your mention)
Merry Christmas everyone!