The bathroom is a congestion of boiling vapour and orange-blossom water. There is an alcove behind the cavernous bath, it drips with dew, melting off the edges of the plaster mise en scene on the wall. There is a pile of white towels mounting on the cold mosaic floors.
The ladies cluster together like apricots on a platter and Laila Rose is the centrepiece, firstborn crowned, enveloped in the creamy, opulent lather of her bathwater. Her subjects bring her jellied raspberries which she caps onto the tips of her fingers and with soft hands and sharp nails they paint and peel her face with masks of orange-gold honey.
Eventually, she arises from the bath, gasping wisps of steam and studded with drops of diamond dew. How easily she emulates her ancestors then, star-stuck and constellation-threaded as they had been in the beginning times when they first emerged from the crystallised cradle of amaranthum, their skin incandescent, hair that bled molten starlight down their backs, their bodies carved like bronze or marble - like the pieces of art you were never allowed to touch.
They used to say it was that the Vysterians who had stretched towards the stars with such love and longing, serenading them in their language of cast wishes, until one couldn't help but reach back. And thus she fell, a body snatched from orbit, collapsing into a collision of heat and fire that cracked, like lightning, a crater through the soil and hollowed out a womb from which the Solarite grew.
And the Vysterians, they brought them flowers and fruit, they brought them honey and wine, in exchange for just a speckle of their crystal dust, the amaranthum which would then go on to form the lifeblood that pumps through the veins of their homes, their factories, their farms.
Now Laila's ladies swaddle her in mounds of white towels before she is escorted before the spectral gloom of the mirror. Here, they begin to paint her for performance for today was a day of festivity and finery, quite like all days in Soleterea, yet no Solarite would know a day as festive and as fine as this one, which stamped a millennium since they descended to earth and traded their celestial lives for mundane ones.
She is groped in silk-velvet, it is studded with jewels that sparkle like captive stars. Her hair bleeds gold down her shoulders, soon to be spiralled into calligraphic curls secured with more gems that rival her celestial counterparts. Enchanted hairpins make careful work of her sunlit tresses, imbued with the life to entangle themselves within her hair from the simple tap of a fingertip.
An excitement fizzled in her, not quite unlike sparkling nectar, for never before had she been standing at the precipice of a pageant quite this grand. She had barely passed her fiftieth earthday, practically an infant, a blink of the eye for her immortal counterparts, yet to a Vysterian she'd be a third way through her lifespan. Thus she still held the unblemished wonderment that only youth could provide, one that had not yet become overcast with the monotony of age.
"You've outdone yourself, Amalea," she lavishes praise from lips stained berry-red to her foremost lady-in-waiting. The dress she had made was abyssal black, offset only by the twinkle of gemstones and the deep grooves in the neck and back that brazenly displayed her golden skin.
"You're worth it," Amalea whispers low into her ear and seals it with a chaste kiss to her cheek. Her jade-green eyes caught hers in the mirror as they traded the warmth of a smile. "Now I will leave you my lady, but I expect many letters and many calls until your valiant return,"
Laila takes up Amalea's hands and presses them both to her lips to linger. She would miss her dear friend, her bubbling effervescence. Festivities for the millenium anniversary would take her cross-continent from the steaming jungles of Thalistan to the steep mountains of Aikha. She was excited for the prospect but weary also to face it without her ladies at her side, their frothing merriment.
"Just try to rid yourself of me," Laila vows with a sly wink.
And then she was alone as the ladies began to pirouette out of the room like feathers off of a dandelion, leaving her to face the mirror and tuck a stray curl back into place.
"You look exquisite, my princess," a voice croons from behind her.
A smile coils like ribbon on her cherry-tinged lips as she watches the golden fingers of Leander encircle her throat and clasp onto it a labyrinth of diamonds. "I thought I told you no peeking," she chastises his impudent reflection as she traces the floral and foliate patterns of the cool stones.
"I'm afraid I could not help myself, the suspense was agonising," her personal guard pleas, taking her hands to swivel her to face him as he descends to his knees. "I do hope you can forgive my transgression, for if not, my punishment is yours to do with as you may see fit,"
He allows his head to wilt like an autumnal blossom, lifting gradually to exhibit that crooked grin that leaned ever so charmingly to one side. He could sense the absence of any true anger in her for their empathic connection made plain any emotion she happened to feel.
"Rise, you fool," she sighs, hooking her fingers beneath his chin to elevate him to full height as she herself stood. "I had been expecting you earlier I admit,"
"I was rather preoccupied with the finishing touches to the security measures before our empire-wide excursion," he says, fanning out his arms like a great bird.
"Mhm," Laila hums idly and smooths her lip-stain "I'm assuming you have secured our carriage then?"
"I checked it," he confirms "checked it twice in fact, you are most secure, my lady," he slumps casually onto her curvaceous velvet armchair, one ankle propped on his knee. "I even took the liberty of sampling some of the delicacies from the carriage cart on your behalf. Poison is an elusive killer, one can never be too careful,"
"I'm certain you did,"
"Fortunately, I was able to conclude the only immediate danger to your person happens to be a patissier who really loves her buttercream,"
"Well thank the stars I have you keeping my best interests close to the chest," she says, with an amused roll of her eyes for he knew as well as she that poison cannot harm her. She traverses the space between them, the skirt of her gown billowing like black waves as she comes to find rest on his lap.
"My lady, you seem troubled," Leander deduces, though for him it was never the case of an educated guess for her emotion filtered through him like a prism, he could sense every kaleidoscopic shift. One of the many enhancements he'd undertaken by swearing himself before the royal seal as her protector.
"Pre-parade jitters, it shall be fine," she says, her earlier sparkling fizz had now decanted to a more gaseous anxiety. With the event beckoning so near she could've used Amalea's easy wit, or her company at all. It didn't seem right that she had to part with all her ladies for the journey.
"It's a good thing I brought you this then, isn't it?" he says and from within his gem-encrusted sheath he produces a vial of liquid in sunset pink.
She gasps aloud, palm cupping mouth in a fanciful gesture before she plucks the vial between her fingers and de-materialises it for safekeeping. "You are heaven sent, Leander,"
"Thank me later,"
Though thoughts of a later and what it may entail were immediately halted by an urgent knock at the door and a declaration that her carriage was ready and waiting. Eagerly, Laila elevates from her seat upon Leander's lap and gathers her skirts, casting a silent enchantment upon her dress which mutated the formation of its gemstones to mirror that of the sky.
With her spell complete, she slides her arm into Leander's waiting elbow and allows him to escort her to the festivities she'd been awaiting since morning light.
The parade was first.
Parties had detonated the streets in a raucous foam of laughter and drinking. The nectar was free-flowing, it sparkles in the streets like spilt diamonds. Decanters fountain with it as the ringing chime of clinked glasses echo from rooftop to rooftop. The streets are littered with blood splotches of rose petals. There are many fireworks and many streamers and macarons stuffed with ripe cherries. Stores embellish their doorways with lotus flowers and brugmansia.
Laila takes the window seat beside her mother who waves towards her subjects serenely. Her deep velvet gown rippled like liquid each time she leant towards them from her seat, as vibrant as Vysterian blood fresh from the vein. Sewn into her neckline was a gold chain hood embroidered with gemstones that cast off half-rainbows into every corner.
They journey across all six nations within a few weeks, and Laila watches the colourful metamorphosis of her kingdom take shape before her eyes cradled within the ornate bars of their gilded carriage, as the noble families of each state open their gates and their arms to them for a solitary evening before they are due to move on. Her stomach clenches when they reach Mortos but she is relieved to find that they pass through the frozen country almost as soon as they land upon it.
Thus comes their return to Crescent City and their castle of blown crystal, hoisted by ivy-strangled pillars that were once said to shoulder the homes of the gods. The residents drift within these walls with second-grown skins of silks and chiffons, all the rooms ablaze with the thrum of frantic energy that comes only when a ball was beckoning over the horizon.
The ballroom itself was the pride of the palace, a hazy daydream of soft-toned murals, gold leaf adornments and decorative stucco. Etchings of a marble frieze expanded over every wall depicting, in such high definition that could only come from divine fingers, their fall to earth and subsequent rise to imperial prominence. By the time the royal carriage arrived, the gilt gates had already opened and bodies flooded all four walls like a Malakian wave. The room was eager and alive with chatter, coddled by the rosy-orange glow of the lighting.
As was custom, her mother arrived first to be received by the guests in order of importance. First, the members of the electoral college, then the sworn noble families and finally the ambassadors. Live music serenaded the masses with whimsical piano pieces that were paired with the modest plucking of a bass guitar and once the orchestra slowed to a simmering tune of frail, diaphanous strings Laila knew it signalled the end of greetings.
With a dramatic gesture of her fingers she stripped the room of lighting in anticipation of her arrival, her luminescent gown the only source of reprieve from sudden visual obscurity.
Through her illusory charm, her gown had taken on the astronomical glow of the sky. Each time she took a step down the carpeted hall, clouds oscillated and swelled through the velvet skirts of her gown and obscured the complex pattern of constellations that drew themselves into her bodice until eventually the patterns began to recreate themselves, scrawling their way over the expanse of her arms to the tips of her fingers. Her hands thus began to crackle with this radiant electricity and when she snapped her fingers, every light source in the room ignited.
The crowd erupted in an uproarious applause at her display and from her throne of gold leaf and lacquered wood her mother gave a slight approving incline of her head. Thus the celebrations continued, the music graduating from its gentle simmer into a boil-over of strings, bass and piano all crammed together in a jaunty composition. Laila navigates her way through faces both old and new, all easily identified by their distinctive frocks as pertaining to their six nations united under one flag.
As she walks she could see various Guardians collected in conversation and, with some displeasure, Alarik Woolfe among them with his exuberantly coloured frock. He was effortlessly intermingled with Lady Catalina of Malakia, her floaty chiffon dress gathering like seafoam at her ankles, laughing with the steaming warmth of a furnace at something she'd said.
Laila's eyes narrow perceptibly at the sight of the merchant prince. She neither understood nor agreed with her mother's decision to invite him, though she deciphered some of the logic behind it. She couldn't help but acknowledge him as a blight on her otherwise opulent tapestry. Proof that ennoblement was not simply god-given but could be blagged and bought into with the right whittled silver tongue and exceptionally smooth fingers.
She sought to approach the crowd, the full trumpeting skirt of her gown sweeping a pathway through a spattering of rose petals and fairy glitter. Her fingers secure the stem of a gold-rimmed flute sparkling with nectar along her journey, which is then poised delicately between the sensuous curve of her lips. She meets a brief halt from her exploration when the exposed small of her back is enclosed by a hand and paired with a voice:
"Might I steal you for a dance, Your Radiance?" Darius Calantis bares his teeth in a mocking imitation of a smile. He was garbed in Mortesian black silks with globules of rubies encrusted into his velvet long coat like speckles of fresh blood.
How presumptuous of him, to lay hands so brazenly upon something he could not hope to claim. And yet, he did not refrain from desiring it and oh, did she know the language of desire as well as a second tongue. She had feasted upon the wishes cast towards the heavens from those below, so hopeful and heartfelt, so eager to reach towards something higher than themselves, as though by doing so their feet would catch a foothold on the ladder of social mobility. She is the physical manifestation of every I wish and I want.
She supposes Death cannot help but reach for what is live and pulsing. For that is what he was, living pestilence, the exhaust fumes of several smoking chimneys. Cursed Occassi and his arsenal of black magic. Even now with his hand so close to her back she can feel it sparking off of him like static, like a thousand spindly cockroach legs.
"You may," she grants and takes his hand, sterilising him under the cauterising heat of her palm, burning bright as the star core that powered her very essence.
He slides his hand around her supple back and drags her to him, shackling her to the gated bars of his ribcage. She hadn't been prepared for that, being so close to him.
Her glass topples slightly and splashes with a lively fizzle until she dissipates it into the air and rests her palm atop his shoulder. "I didn't expect to see you tonight, Lord Calantis," she says as they begin their first pivot. She angles herself to avoid the brunt of his dark decadent scent. "It's been near impossible to persuade you past the gates of Mortos,"
"And miss the party?" he expresses in feigned astonishment and twirls her like the point of an axis. "Perish the thought," he draws her back into his embrace "one thousand years of Solarite dominance, now that's something to mark down in the history books. Not quite the two thousand of my genealogy but well… who's keeping track?"
Laila bristles in his embrace, leans her hand against the marmoreal wall of his chest. "I believe that's meant to be you," she informs him "you are or at least were our Mortesian scholar,"
"You still seem rather sore that I left," he notices, and was rather aggravatingly amused by it.
She glances away from him for a very long time. "I'm not,"
"Upset that we never got to finish our tutoring?"
She glances back at him, her eyes a searing hot crystal blue.
"No matter, Your Radiance, I am not here to dredge up past memories, rather than to kindle new ones," he says and leans so close, his breath steaming in her ear and yet his chest was stiffened and immovable as a boulder, like no life was capable of pumping in him so he siphoned it slowly from her waning will. Even now she could feel her skin begin to sag in his presence. "I have some news,"
She trembles in spite of herself, hating the magnetising draw she felt to him like the interior of his chest was molten iron in the place of a heart or the coruscating celestial body that occupied her own centre.
"It's about Dominus,"
Her eyes snap to his instantly with such a fierceness that she could sense Leander approaching, alerted by her sudden elevated pulse rate. She wards him off with a reassuring nod and turns her attention back to Darius. "You've discovered him?" she asks, her voice warbling with a slight tremor. She moistens her lips with a wet glide of her tongue before continuing. "I need to know… how did he pass?"
She feels her nails inch further into the velvet of Darius' coat as he looked upon her, his cognac eyes orange in the light. "He isn't dead,"
He cocks his head westward to indicate her mother's presence. "Uh uh," he says, and pivots a full turn with a swipe of her skirts around the ballroom floor. "Your lady mother wanted me to keep this conversation quite private," he presses his lips to her temple "meet me in the usual place,"
He was gone within a flurry of smoke before she could bite back with a whip of her tongue that there was no usual place. Not for them. She casts a cursory glance around the festivities and gradually allows herself to melt into the smog of perfume and sweat to make her escape from the room.
She awaits him on the balcony, the air almost duplicitous in its frigid warmth, like an embrace that was given only under duress. She paces the expanse of the gold-flecked marble, awaiting the length of his shadow to stretch out across the floor, signalling his presence. When he does not come, she retreats into her bedroom and disintegrates her dress into floating atoms.
Flecks of gold and silver gyrate upwards like embers from her thighs to the ample shelf of her breasts until the only barrier that remained between her and the moon was the giftwrap of floral lace that still obscured her alabastrine form. Like a present on mid-winter morn with the ribbon-belt to unlace with quivering fingers.
She begins to do so now until she senses that same static charge in the vicinity of the room, skittering like a colony of sugar ants against the nape of her neck. His hands were on her not long after, the deep olive of them almost eclipsing her rosy brown fingers.
He puts his lips to her neck and she shivers for how cool he was, lukewarm and tepid, like stepping into the water of a bath you'd left neglected for too long. His lips begin to climb beneath her jaw when she finally puts a stop to it, pivoting in one balletic step.
"Ten years I don't hear from you, and now this," she hurls towards him, her blue eyes setting hard as aquamarine. "Did you really think you could come back and kiss me and everything would be fine?"
"You know I had no choice, Laila," he tells her, each word came strained as though weighted with his obvious regret. "Wherever they command me to I go, it's not a matter of wanting,"
"You had a choice to say goodbye," she launches back, stepping away from him to cradle the nearest chiselled bed-pillar. "And you couldn't even offer me that,"
"There wasn't enough time and your lady mother would never have allowed it." His voice begins to soften rather notably on the latter half of his sentence.
Her rage unfurls around her like the corolla of her namesake, a pulsation of thick, breath-snuffing velvet. "You had enough time to tell her about Dominus," she seethes "and how dare you come to her first with that information, if you knew he was alive you ought to have come to me. He was my betrothed, not hers," she punctuates this with a stamp of her foot, almost petulant in nature, but she no longer cared. He had not yet felt the full extent of her temper.
He took it in a stride as always, his expression damningly impassive as he slides his arms around the notched curve of her waist, they were sleek and craggy and just as stone-hard as the rest of him. She could feel her back straightening against the firm wall of his chest. "I had to go to her first and you know it. You think I didn't want to come to you the minute I knew? But as of now, he is a national threat, I would've thought that you would be able to see this," Darius reasons, he palms her cheek to face him over her shoulder "it is why I came to your lady mother first with the news, as proof of my loyalty, in the event that she somehow procures the knowledge of me knowing otherwise,"
She pivots to face him. "If my mother happens to find Dominus before I do you know what will become of him,"
"Oh yes," Darius says "I'm pretty much guaranteeing it,"
"He's your brother," she exclaims in astonishment and her eyes at once seemed as wide and guileless as windowless doors. "How can you condemn him to banishment?"
"Because if Dominus so much as steps foot on Mortesian soil I know I will be among but the first of his victims," Darius tells her with ease and a lethargic lift of one shoulder as though it troubled him not to admit it. "It's hardly a difficult choice to make, him or me, and I fully intend to hold onto what's mine,"
"Of course you do," she declares with an acerbic derision. "But then I wonder, what is it that to you are loyal to other than your own ambition?"
"Ambition is a rather potent force, one you shouldn't be so quick to disparage considering your own desires," and here he pauses as a flicker of something sly and knowing encroached upon his features "or are you still playing at being the White Witch?"
She swivels away from him with a pouty harrumph. "How did you even come to know of any of this?"
"That I'm afraid I can't tell you," he admits, one hand slidingly nonchalantly into his pocket "how about we say a little birdy happened to whisper it into my ear?"
Her thin, pale brow scales upwards but she knows better than to press for information. "Yes well, be sure to send some of those twitterings in my direction next time, won't you?"
Darius chuckles. "You know, I have missed this," he admits and takes a rather daring step forward to drag her to him by her hips. "You giving me a hard time,"
She puffs out a derisive snort. "Not enough to call or write evidently,"
"And how would that have worked when you know full well how closely monitored communications are with the royal family?" Darius pauses for a brief lacuna "Laila, I'm only here for the evening and I'd rather not spend the entirety of it fighting when I could be making love to you instead,"
Her body tenses in his grip and she soon frees herself from him to slide onto the monogrammed sheets that clothe her mattress. "And what makes you think that's going to happen?" Her golden brow arches upwards in inquisition.
"Do you not want me to say goodbye to you? Belated, I realise, but I did imagine it going something like this," he says and curves a finger through the loop of a ribbon hole to tug it free.
She watches the silk unfurl along with the rest of her will, her bottom lip dimpled between her teeth before she leans up and says. "Once," and she pulls him close, pressing her lips to his and just feels him melt against the plump softness as she coaxes open his mouth to sigh and follows it with the soft glide of her tongue.
He tears her undergarments away, his own clothes melting off his skin with a quick conjury as he presses her to the mattress, causing her hair to fan out like sunset. They make a bed of each other between the cradle of her whittled willow limbs, the pillowed warmth of her body. Every inch of her was a call for him to rest against her, sink into her. She never thought she'd hear him sound so relieved.
Once soon bleeds into several times as she realises just how much she'd needed that familiar weight between her thighs and the surge of electricity crawling up her abdomen.
They find newer ways to tangle themselves together until they were both sated and she lets Darius kiss a final path from her shoulder down to the small of her back before she expresses. "You need to go before Leander comes to check on me, he'll be able to sense me from a mile away,"
"Are you still toying with that poor boy?" Darius murmurs into the crook of her neck, he sounded amused.
"Was I supposed to take an oath and live out my days as an Aikhan priestess until your return?" Laila retorts, swivelling onto her back to tug him up to her by his tousled dark hair. "I highly doubt your time in Mortos was lonely,"
His eyes pin her down like an anvil, orange in the glow of the rising dawn. "There have been companions yes but none quite so close to home,"
"Perhaps I enjoy the closeness," she tells him and traces the angular plane of his stubbled cheek. "Less easy for you to escape from me that way,"
He leans in to kiss her again, his mouth moving along hers in slow, sensuous glides before she shoves him away with a suppressed moan.
"Go," she commands with all her princess petulance. She turns away from him so as not to see him when he does eventually leave. Instead, she plucks a filmy negligee from thin air that settles upon her shoulders as easily as morning dew. She doesn't look back until the shadow of him had been entirely peeled from the room and not even his scent remained.
Her throat began to bud with an undecipherable emotion as she comes to consider that perhaps the non-goodbye had been the easier path. At least then she'd had her anger to cradle her in the aftermath. Now she didn't even have that.