There was much excitement throughout the city of Rhyls that day. As the sun shined down onto the typically quiet city, people rushed about trying to get their errands done so that they could see the grand procession. It wasn't every day that the Emperor of the Five Kingdoms came to call on the noble house of their city. For many this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see those that ruled them. Everyone was anxious and eager to see, not only the Emperor, but the Empress, and the Heir Apparent to the throne. It was said that the whole royal family was coming, along with many of the lords and knights of the Empire. Children dreamed about being knights but most would never live to see a real one, but today that all changed. The children running around Rhyls with their wooden swords and fake shields, would get to see what real knights of the Empire looked like. Men who were considered heroes and had songs sung about them by bards in the streets, were coming to Rhyls.
Despite the excitement below, Lucrezia of House Icillius couldn't have been less impressed with the coming events. For everyone else it was an honored visit by the royal family, but for her it was the first trip with her affianced, and her first real introduction into the family she would be marrying. Most women in her position would be thrilled at the opportunity to marry the heir apparent to the imperial throne, and to one day be called Empress of the Five Kingdoms, but Lucrezia didn't want that at all. She understood her duty as a highborn lady of Darlton, but in her heart she longed to marry for love, not to be sold off like a prized mare.
The poor could marry for love, the lower classes had much more freedom than those born above them. For Lucrezia she had been a pawn in the game of raising the station of her house since the moment she was born. That was the fate of all highborn girls, and even more so if they were as beautiful as Lucrezia was. With her golden hair, blue eyes, heart-shaped face and bow lips, Lucrezia was often hailed as one of the most beautiful young ladies in the five kingdoms. She rarely felt it, but many had bid for her hand, it was only when the Emperor had shown interest in matching his oldest son and Lucrezia together that Lucrezia's father could not object to such a union. Lucrezia considered herself fortunate in the knowledge that her father had held off approving a union as long as he could, giving her time to find the man of her dreams and marry for love, but he could stall no longer.
Below her, Lucrezia watched the people of her father's city go about their lives with hardly a care in the world. It was a time of great peace; there had not been a war anywhere in the Empire in nearly forty years, but it was a fragile peace and peace built on fear and oppression. Lucrezia had read the stories of the northern realms and the persecution they suffered at the hands of the Empire and she wondered how long a peace like that could last. The more she read, the more it intrigued her. Lucrezia's sister often thought that she wasted her time reading about places she'd never see, and that she would spend her time enjoying the luxuries of their position, but Lucrezia knew that in a world run by men, knowledge was the only real weapon a woman could wield and she planned on being well armed if she was to live in the capitol.
Living in the capitol was a frightening thought for a girl who had spent her entire life within the city walls of Rhyls. It was hardly a large city; in fact Rhyls was one of the poorest cities in Darlton. The city only had a population of seventy-five thousand people all living in small wooden cottages, save for a few mansions belonging to the merchant class. The cobblestone streets were in disrepair, and the wall that surrounded the city was dilapidated and the western bastion had begun to collapse. Vines grew across most of the rest of the city wall as nature tried to take the land back. The once proud statue of Maximilian Icillius that sat in the center of the city had numerous pits in it, vines growing up the back legs and the left arm had fallen off under the weight of the previous winter's snow.
Lucrezia often wondered why her father didn't try to put more effort into keeping the city looking beautiful. She knew that the Emperor had offered funds from the Imperial bank, but her father had always refused. Whenever she would get up the courage to ask her father why he would not take the loans her father replied, "How will it look to my people if I have to borrow money to fix my own city? That is the way of other houses, not House Icillius. We will not be in debt." That said it all; pride. Her father's pride was allowing the city to fall into ruin and it broke Lucrezia's heart.
It was not through the extravagance of her father or mother that had lost the Icillius' all of their money, but rather the extravagance of her grandfather; Lucien Icillius that had bankrupt the accounts of the ruling family of Rhyls. The man had thrown lavish parties for all the families of Darlton, sent them countless expensive gifts, all in an effort to raise the station of his house and become one of the great lords of the Empire. It had all failed, his children did not marry into great houses, and Lucien's legacy was one of poverty and the reminder that he didn't care for his own people.
The thought that she was related to a man like that disgraced Lucrezia who often did all she could for the poor, volunteering to work in sick houses, and care for the elderly. She was known around town as the "tender rose of Rhyls," but Lucrezia felt like it wasn't enough and every time she would try and push her father, and try to get him to see the situation, he would bellow at her, and quote some line about pride and family honor. Lucrezia had long learned to keep silent and do what she could, when she could.
Lucrezia gazed down into the city she loved so much, the people she loved so much and felt a twinge in her chest, the feeling of heartbreak realizing that very soon she would leave all this behind and be dragged into the snake pit of King's Island; the capitol of the Empire. She had talked with many who had been to the capitol, and all of them said the same: King's Island was home to over a million people, and the higher up the social ladder one was, the more dangerous a place it became. A person could have enemies that they didn't even know they had. It was a city where people both poor and wealthy were only interested in serving their own personal interests. She could be hailed as Empress one day, and have rotten fruit thrown at her the next. It was a fate Lucrezia feared more than anything in the world.
The sound of voices rose from the city below her, and she could see the people running towards the main road that led to the gate of the Icillius castle. Her blue eyes danced across the scene and to the gate of the city where the two horsemen rode through the gate holding purple banners with a gold stripe along the edge and the sigils of each of the ruling families of the five kingdoms arranged in a circle and connected as though they made up the top of the crown. Behind them were four more soldiers, riding in a column of two. All of them had deep purple cloaks on and bright silver armor and helmets. Their spears glinted in the sun as they rode down the street to the applause, cheers and love of the people of Rhyls. With each step they made closer to Rhyls keep, Lucrezia felt the knot in her stomach grow tighter as if someone were behind her tightening her corset. There was no more stalling the inevitable now, the Royal party had arrived, and the next step in Lucrezia's life was about to begin.
Lucrezia's mind was pulled from its thoughts as she heard strong and determined footsteps coming up the steps behind her. The sound of hard leather tapping on the stone told Lucrezia that her time alone was over, and that she would soon have no privacy at all. Taking a deep breath Lucrezia waited for the inevitable words that would force her to walk down the steps and into the courtyard and stand with her family as they welcomed the Royal family into their home.
"Lucrezia..." A stern voice sounded next to her, "What are you doing up here when you should be down preparing to present yourself to your future husband." The woman behind her looked to be in her late thirties, with bright hazel eyes and straight blonde hair that was done up in a tight bun behind her head. She wore a gown of sapphire blue with silver trim and a cloak of light blue wool over her shoulders to keep the chill of the mid spring day off of her. Her face was stern, but loving with pride etched all over her smooth features.
Lucrezia said nothing in return for a moment before turning to her mother and offering a soft smile, "Just watching the Emperor and his entourage arrive. They are marvelous to watch. The crimsons and gold." She had become an expert at playing the perfect lady captivated by fine things, when really it was the grit and grime of life that held her interest.
Lady Florentine regarded her daughter for a long moment before nodding. She wasn't sure if her daughter was faking her enthusiasm or not. She felt disturbed by this since she thought she should be able to tell when her daughter was lying to her or not, but in this case Lucrezia's enthusiasm seemed well enough intentioned that it could be genuine, but she also knew her daughter's position on arranged marriages, so she couldn't be certain. As the trumpets sounded from the outer gates of Rhyls keep, Florentine realized she didn't have time to sit and dissect her daughter's reply. "We need to get down with your father and the others now."
With that Lady Florentine turned and walked down the stairs, the cape billowing in the wind behind her as she turned into the cool wind that reminded everyone that winter was not completely behind them yet. Lady Florentine held herself high, though inside she always wondered if she could have been a better mother. In the last five or so years, she had become rather estranged from her husband. No one spoke of it, but ever since she had given birth to a stillborn son, Lord August has distanced himself from her and the entire family. It was no secret that he had taken a mistress, and it was also no secret that Lady Florentine had found a lover of her own. She was not proud of it, but felt as though she needed some sort of connection. What bothered her most about all of this was the effect it was having on her children. Lucrezia had seemed immune to the dishonestly of her parents, but her younger daughter Vita seemed to have taken the behavior as acceptable and that was something Florentine was not happy with.
As Florentine and Lucrezia reached the bottom stairs Florentine looked at the members of her household standing on the platform. It seemed everyone was there, except... where was Vita? A long and frustrated sigh came from Florentine's throat as she saw her husband walking down the stone steps from the main door of Rhyls keep. She knew he would not be happy if this did not go perfect. She turned and looked at Lucrezia, "Where is your sister?" She asked in a firm but hushed voice.
Lucrezia looked around and let out a sigh that was very much like her mothers, "I'll go find her." She had long resigned herself to being her sister's keeper as much as Vita's own teacher was. It was tiring, but Lucrezia knew that it would be better if she found her sister than if her mother or father found her.
"No you won't. You must be here when the royal party gets here so you can be properly introduced to your fiance. Priscilla will find her." Florentine said firmly, "Now hurry and get on that platform." She turned and looked at the young blonde standing with the people who worked and served the Icillius household. This included their Master-at-Arms, all of the Ladies in Waiting, Lord August's steward, and their master stable hand. "Priscilla, come here if you would."
The busty young blonde walked across the courtyard, her shoes crunching on the ruined cobblestone. Her blonde hair was done in a small braid that curved around the side of her head and hung over her left shoulder. A small bird pin, which had been a birthday gift from Lucrezia, was placed in it. She wore a brown-colored dress made of a fine fabric and a plain black cloak over the top. Her face was round and pale and she had light blue eyes that seemed the color of morning frost. Priscilla Gallio was considered strikingly beautiful, though a bit plump. Lucrezia's father had tried to marry her off several times but Lucrezia fought hard to keep her. Priscilla was not only Lucrezia's Lady-in-Waiting, but also her best friend and in a world where Lucrezia had no power over her own fate, she was not about to loose the one person who she considered dearest to her heart.
Priscilla curtseyed before Lady Florentine, "Yes M'lady?" She said in a soft, meek voice.
"Would you please go and find Vita and inform her that her mother expects her to attend upon his Majesty's gathering immediately!" Florentine was trying hard to maintain a level of decorum expected of a woman of her station but inside she was furious. Florentine was a fair woman and would not take her anger out on Priscilla but the tone in her voice made it abundantly clear that there was no room for argument from her daughter. Vita would join them immediately if not sooner, or she would face the consequences.
"Yes M'Lady." Priscilla said curtseying again before walking down the path to the side entrance of the Icillius estate. Having followed Lucrezia around on many of her expeditions to find her wayward sister, Priscilla knew the most likely location that the rebellious adolescent would be. Pricilla also realized why Vita acted out the way she did and while Priscilla did not approve of the behavior, she did understand the model that Vita was being given.
Priscilla walked through the halls quickly. The stones seemed to radiate the heat from the hearth fires and offer a comfort to her chilled bones as she walked down the stone chipped, tile floors. Large candle chandeliers and wall sconces lit the way down the halls to the room at the end of the hall on the third floor of the west end of the castle. Priscilla took a moment to collect herself before knocking on the door, "Excuse me Lady Vita, but your mother was rather insistent that you join them outside to welcome His Majesty and his entourage."
Through the heavy oak door with its ornate iron hinges bolted to the wooden beams, Priscilla could hear the sound of a girl giggling before a loud sigh. A few moments later the door opened and a blonde girl stood before her in little more than a light blue silk robe with silver trim. The robe was hardly tied shut, which left little of Vita Iscillius' body to the imagination. Priscilla looked down to avoid staring at Vita's exposed body. Vita, who was the same age as Priscilla and a year younger than Lucrezia's seventeen summers, stood with one hand on the door, and a silver goblet of Einsburg wine in the other. Her golden hair was disheveled and the look on her face told Priscilla that Vita was in no condition to be meeting the imperial royal family.
"Tell my mother... that I have no interest in meeting the Royal fucking family, or watching my sister get married to that upstart peacock." Vita said through slurred words as she leaned on the door.
Priscilla looked into Vita's slate blue eyes and offered a sigh, "I will tell her that you are feeling ill. But even your sister won't be able to protect you from your parents' wrath this time."
"Or tell them that." Vita said, "But leave me alone, I'm engaged in more important negotiations." With that Vita shut her door and the giggling started again.
Priscilla sighed and started walking slowly back down the hallway as the giggles turned into moans. This was not unusual behavior for Vita at all and were her teacher not down with the other household staff waiting for the Imperial Family to arrive, she would be kicking whatever gentleman seemed to be suiting Vita's fancy this time out of her room and severely disciplining her, but no matter how many times Vita's instructress did this, Vita still found a way to rebel in the same manner. It was always the same story with Vita, and Priscilla secretly wondered what it would take to make the young girl understand.