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Fantasy Til Death Do Us Part

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GetThree

Junior Member
#51
As the entertainer shuffled the bowls, he had sent the coin flying out by tilting the bowl such that it landed in his other open hand. When Irene had chosen the bowl on the right, where it should have been, the man slipped the coin into the left bowl. It was a game that, for any normal person, was unbeatable. Matthias watched the process with amusement, arms crossed as he leaned against the table the game was being played on.

Irene had a conflicted look in her eyes when the man asked to play again. “Do it, you’ll win this time,” he encouraged, earning a smug, shark-like grin sent toward him from the entertainer. Silly boy, it seemed to say. Matthias merely smirked back, flipping a coin over to the man. The man started once again and when he tried to take the coin out, using a small dose of wind magic, Matthias pulled it back in.

“The middle bowl,” he whispered to Irene and she, unexpectedly, followed his advice without question. The entertainer looked up at him with narrowed eyes, the end of his lips curling up into a sneer. As he flipped the container over, he tried, once again, to do his trick and, of course, failed. “Well, well, look at that. Looks like missy got it right,” he forced out in a cheerful tone, handing two coins back to Irene with a sour expression.

Matthias turned to the man who had been tricked, standing behind them with an expression that was no longer one of anger but anticipation. “How much did you lose?” He asked prompting the man to hold up all ten of his fingers. Idiot. Five more games to win, then. He tossed another coin over, the slight upturn of his lips growing into a faint grin as the sight of the entertainer’s irritation. The next five games went the same way as the first, much to the chagrin of the entertainer and the cheers of the small crowd that had gathered around them.

Afterward, as they extracted themselves from the crowd and left the entertainer, Matthias wondered why Irene hadn’t yet asked him how he had been so confident and won the clearly rigged game. However, he couldn’t think on it much. Unfamiliar presences started to follow them, coming the the sides of the streets. Five in total, none of them particularly strong, though perhaps stronger than the average civilian. Not really worth exposing his secret guard over, he decided, and signaled at them to stay put.

He turned the corner of an alleyway suddenly just as Irene was about to speak, making it seem like he was trying to escape from the group. They, of course, followed after, successfully corner him and Irene in a dead end. All were rather large men, dressed shabbily with tattoos lining their arms and necks. He almost regretted not just swallowing his pride and wearing Jaime’s old clothes. Now, they had to deal with these blockhead robbers.

“You know what this is, don’t ya, boy?” A bald man, seemingly the leader,started, flashing him a very charming smile. He smiled back, so warmly that you might have thought him and these men were old friends, shrugging. Beside him, he could feel Irene getting ready for a fight. If it wasn’t completely the opposite of gentlemanly, he would’ve let her beat these criminals up on her own to avoid harming the vest he had just bought.

“Hand over your purse and the pretty woman, we’ll let you run free,” the man beside him spoke up, a lecherous expression on his face. Be careful what you wish for, Matthias thought with no small amount of mirth at the situation, his mind once again flashing to Irene standing over his beaten captain.

“Don’t be a fool, Hans, boy’s prettier than his woman. Why not hand yourself over, honey?” A third robber said, inciting rowdy laughter from the rest of the group. It seemed none of them were in any rush to attack them, already assured of their own victory.

Matthias turned to Irene with an expectant look in his eyes. “Well? It’s your time to shine, Miss Bodyguard.”
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#52
She noticed them during the game. A pang in her gut, a poke at her subconscious, the sort of feeling that one is unable to explain but understands instantly. They were being watched. For a while, even. Irene only now was able to discern the eyes that were only upon them, that have targeted only them among the large crowd in the market square.

Careful, without rousing suspicion, she glanced around to spot their pursuers and listened to Matthias only enough not to alert him. She pointed at the bowls in silence, but her eyes searched the crowd for the eyes that were trained only on the seemingly rich and happy couple.

It was impossible. The crowd was far too dense and the longer the game of find the coin continued, the larger the audience became. Many eyes were on them now, especially Matthias, who attracted attention without intending to. Unsurprising, really. Irene fell into a familiar routine of being on guard, protecting a charge, ever watchful. It was a subconscious response to the situation that was familiar. A thought occurred to her as the game ended and they weaved their way through the crowd to lose pursuers and to find a nook to hide in: what sort of a person would want to return to this life? Perhaps, she thought with mild amusement that did not show on her face, I hit my head too much during training.

But they were unfamiliar with streets of Thean Gerith. Irene started to speak, to warn Matthias of the tail, when they turned into a narrow alley that led to nowhere. Cornered, the dead-end behind them and five men blocked the entrance to the alley at the front. Clothing lines blocked what little light came from the windows above and the street was engulfed in a dim darkness. Irene could only discern the silhouettes of the group that cornered them and as her eyes adjusted, she noted their appearance. Tattoos and shabby clothing. Sailors, her mind provided, or pirates. Thean Gerith was a port city. Unlike Matthias and Irene, the robbers were armed. Not for the first time she wished she still had her spear.

Irene put herself between Matthias and the robbers. As they spoke – idiots – she looked them over for weapons. Some short-swords and a morning star, possibly stolen. The insult to her person went over her head, completely ignored, as was the Miss Bodyguard. It reminded her of her early days as a bodyguard, when her reputation was non-existent and men with large purses and bellies believed they were going to get a whore to sleep with them if they hired her. They did not listen to her advice, either.

Idiots.

“Leave,” Irene said coolly, “while you can still walk.”

Laughter rose from the robbers and Irene shrugged. She wasn’t exaggerating. There were moments when her charges refused to continue being under her protection after seeing her in action, though their reactions were always different. They were pale in the face or green with sickness, about to vomit their guts out at having seen and heard her opponent’s bones break. They thought she was doing too much, that it would’ve been more merciful to kill with one clean cut. As if life was this easy. As if in battle, you had a choice of how the fight ended, how someone died.

The bald man looked to one of the men in the group, the one who leered at Matthias, and jerked his chin at the couple. He cracked his knuckles and headed for Irene. As he reached for her, Irene grabbed him by the wrist, twisted his arm until he let out a small squeal of pain as his arm popped out of its socket, and pinned it behind his back as she circled him. She grabbed him by the oily, unwashed hair, and smashed his face against the limestone wall. A sickening crack pierced the silence.
The others of the group stirred into action almost immediately. They reached for the weapons at their hips and steel hissed against leather. As the first man slid down the wall, leaving behind a trail of blood down the white stone, Irene took his sword and raised it above her head, the palm of her hand pressed against the flat of the blade. Steel rang and hissed as Irene angled the attacker’s blade to have it slide harmlessly downwards. She changed the grip on her short-sword and hit the man on the side of the neck with the pommel. He wheezed and crumpled against the wall.

Gravel kicked up into the air as a blade whizzed past Irene, striking the ground where she stood a moment before. Her foot rose to meet the third attacker’s leg, kicking his knee in a way that it was not supposed to bed and sending him to the ground screaming.

The bald man charged at the same time, a morning star raised above his head and Irene knew that blocking it was pointless. The blade would break if she tried. She danced out of the way and her fist sunk into his stomach, hard, forcing all air out of his lungs and stepped to the side. Bringing up an arm up and around his neck, clasping it tight as his momentum finally stopped, Irene kicked at the back of his knee to force the man to the ground. Limbs flailing, the leader fought against Irene’s arm as his breath left him before he finally lay still in her arms. Her arm clasped tightly for a moment, just to be sure, before she unceremoniously dropped him.
He was still alive, all four of them were. Four. Where was the fifth?
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#53
Matthias watched the fight with an unusual state of relaxation for a man watching his “princess” go up against a team of robbers. He had turned the corner to the dead end to cause this situation. Insects are never found on their lonesome, when there is one, there is a hundred others. If they had continued on without forcing this fight, who knew how many more of these men’s comrades would have joined their ranks?

Just this five was no problem for Irene on her own. Though, he supposed, he should take down at least one, for the sake of appearances, if nothing else. The only problem was that none of them were even looking to attack him, as if he wasn’t even an involved party. He wasn’t sure if he should feel insulted at being this underestimated. He could see why, of course. His slim figure, his expensive clothes, his “Miss Bodyguard” he had following him around. Surely, a rich boy with no idea what he’s getting into. His face, too, those damned delicate, androgynous, pretty features of his that were good at attracting attention but rarely for the right reasons.

Only when Irene had knocked two down did one of them finally turn to him, apparently having realized he couldn’t deal with the woman. It was, ironically, the one who had wanted him to “hand over” Irene. If you wanted her, you should’ve gone to her, he thought as he moved, swift and seemingly effortless, one hand grabbing the oncoming punch and the other rising to strike his attacker.

His fight was over in one move, allowing him to once again stand back and enjoy the fight taking place. When Irene was done, he was almost disappointed. “Done?” He asked in a playfully bored tone, swinging an arm over her shoulder as he dragged them out of the alley.

*****

To be chosen as part of Prince Matthias’s elite hidden guard was an honor. They had to undertake many difficult tasks but he complained about none of them, wearing the scars from those missions like badges. Their task this time, however, was a rare and exceedingly simple one. Follow the Prince and Princess, stay hidden, get rid of the distractions.

Though the five main members of the pesky robber group had been led away by his Prince, they stayed behind in the market to take care of quite the number of remaining thugs lying in wait. To these foolish men, disturbing their Prince and Lady Irene’s date, how could these loyal soldiers show mercy?

Once the couple had left the alley, looking even closer than before, him and two others moved in to clean up the debris. They had gotten the local security to come over to a certain isolated road, where they had piled the men, unconscious and ready to be arrested. It was hard, almost impossible, to haul around fully grown men through alleys without being spotted. Luckily for them, enhancement magic was a great tool.

“Wait, Ty,” his fellow guard called, sounding rather shocked. He did not stop and turn, too focused on not dropping the bald man sleeping soundly in his arms, only making a vague humming noise in return.“This man’s dead.”

He paused then. Letting the man in his hold fall unceremoniously to the floor, he moved to the body the younger soldier was pointing at. Indeed, one of the robbers was dead. His neck was bruised badly, purple and black concentrated around a single, small area where he had been hit. This was a hit aimed to kill, done without the slightest hesitation about taking this man’s life.

“Do you think Lady Irene did this?” The three of them were gathered around the dead man, puzzled. Neither of the Imperial couple were people to harm without need. It must have been called for, then. These men were armed, after all. Maybe their Prince was about to be stabbed and the Lady had no choice.

“So what if she did? If our Lady could kill to protect the Prince, doesn’t that make her even better for him?” Ty said and the other two nodded their agreements. The body was thrown away, a river that was dirty and insignificant like the unfortunate robber, without any extra words.

*****

“It’s getting late,” Matthias observed, looking up at the pitch black sky that stared back through the cloth ceiling of the market square. For some reason, the market seemed to fill up even more the later it got and they were having a harder time than ever trying to navigate the streets.

“We should find somewhere to rest and eat,” he suggested, wanting to extract himself from the dizzying crowd. This was the negative of his constantly enhanced vision. Sometimes it saw too clearly, to the point of pain. He could simply stop the magic but that often left him feeling vulnerable and paranoid.

He found a tavern nearby, more bustling than he would have liked but still better than the street, and pointed at it, tugging at Irene’s hand to pull her along with him out of the mass of humans.
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#54
Irene glanced up as they neared the tavern. The Brass Minotaur, the placard read as it hung above the door on rusting chains. The wind shook it, made it rattle its chains and hit the slated roof. The words were so washed out from the rain that only the figurine of a minotaur of dim brass was recognizable nailed to the plaque.
The moment the door was opened, a waft of hot air enveloped them in a warm embrace. One of the long tables was pushed closer towards a hearth in the back and a crowd had gathered there, blocking most of the light. Torches were set up in sconces on the walls and firelight danced on the surfaces of goblets of wine and bowls of fruit, steaming meat and cold cheeses. More dishes came from the kitchen at the back, brought over by a plump girl in a cotton dress with a veil draped over her shoulders that did little to hide the plump breasts bouncing at her every step.

The feast on the tables dwarfed in comparison to the still-life composition sewn onto an old tapestry that hung above the hearth – bejewelled silver goblets filled to the brim with wine, large bowls stacked with smooth and ripe fruit, and the dishes of meat and fish were mouth-watering. It was out of place, put up perhaps in a desperate attempt to decorate the otherwise naked walls.

Irene let go of Matthias’s hand as he went to the kitchens to order them dinner. Curious, she went to the hearth to inquire what the commotion was about. But there was no need to ask. Two men were locked in an arm-wrestling match. Their faces were red and glistened with sweat as they struggled against each other’s hold; muscles bulged under their clothes and their fingers whitened from the strength of their grip. When an arm hit the table, a loud shout echoed through the building as the group began to cheer, throwing bags of coins at each other in an apparent attempt to make good on their bets. The man that lost got up from the bench and stalked off, rubbing his hand in barely concealed irritation, and Irene took his spot. The crowd went silent and then laughed, but Irene only smiled.

Thankfully, they agreed to not bet on a woman or request a participation fee. Another deal was made – whoever loses, drinks. And so, Irene agreed.

She had won the first match, then the second. Her opponent’s hand hit the table’s surface each time, his body leaning and twisting to the side along with his hand. He groaned in frustration, his muscles bulging and his forehead turned deep red. Each time he lost a rematch was demanded and Irene obliged, if only to finally show the man that no matter what he did he was going to lose. If there was coin on the line, he would have lost every single silver that he had to his name.

Several more patrons of the Minotaur gathered around the table, whispering bets to each other. After the third loss, the man – someone from the crowd called him Rufus – pushed back his bench so far back it toppled over and fell on its side. He stormed from the table, his steps uneven and swaying and muttered all sorts of vulgar curses under his breath, storming past Matthias like a whirlwind of anger. A woman had beaten him in a match where strength mattered above all. Irene was not surprised to see him react in such a way.

Two more men asked for a match and both of them were beaten. The thrill of winning was so nauseating that it dulled out the pain in her biceps and her hand. It was a good kind of pain.

Winning was easy enough. Rufus had been drunk even when they started, his core unstable and swaying under the influence of cheap wine. All Irene had to do was lean forward in the match and work his strength to her advantage. Regardless of the opponent, she would pull on the man’s hand towards her in order to force it away from his body. His leverage would be put out of balance even more and instead increase hers. The grip would slip, and she would move her own higher up the man’s hand. With some opponents it was harder, but Irene changed her strategy accordingly. Their hand would be forced back, thus increasing her own power, and exposed their wrist by twisting her hand towards herself. Each man entered the match thinking they would win, and each left slightly more drunk, nursing their wounded pride with drink.

“Anyone else?” Irene asked and leaned back, the knuckles of her left hand massaging the palm of her right. The drink at her side remained untouched.
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#55
Matthias spent barely a tenth of an hour at the counter to order their food and drinks. He bought something light for himself and a meal for Irene. He would have bought a full meal for himself too, but the last time he ate too much commoner food, his body had staged a great rebellion against him and taught him that his citizens had very resilient stomachs the likes of which he did not possess.

He turned back to where the customers were seated, only to discover that the cheering crowd that had been there before had grown even larger and that his beloved princess was nowhere to be found. Damn the Saints. He headed to the core of the mob, sensing Irene amongst the throng of drunk men. A rather large man stormed past him as he headed toward her, looking angrier than a teased bull.

He arrived just in time to see Irene completely crush a man’s dignity, her hand pushing her opponent’s onto the table with a bang to the roused cheers of the crowd. He scoffed at her challenge and pushed himself to the front of the crowd, sliding into the chair across her.

“Me,” he replied to her challenge, propping his arm up for her to take. “How about it, Princess?”

The volume of the masses rose even higher, some encouraging him to defeat the lone woman while others told him to get off the seat and let a “real” man take his place. Those particular comments made his grin even wider. All these real men couldn’t defeat a Lady but had the strength to yell at him? Please. Jaime’s girlie had more guts than them.
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#56
The crowd parted around Irene, a ripple in the otherwise perfect circle of people. Thinking it was some other person joining to watch the competition – if it could even be called such a big word, given the location and the sobriety of Irene’s opponents – Irene focused on bringing some feeling into her sore muscles. An aching elbow and stiff fingers: a sacrifice she was willing to cope with for just one night.

This was fun. Even the growing ache in her muscles wasn’t enough to stop Irene from enjoying this.

During one of such moments when another challenge was over, and Irene was victorious, the crowd roared with laughter around her. Walls and floor shook, the table rocked on the floor as people pushed, reaching towards their coin purses and set down their drinks or picked them up instead. Someone plopped down on the bench beside Irene and lifted his arm, ready to drape it over her shoulder but decided to softly punch her on the shoulder instead. He missed, his knuckle grazing her arm only and he would have nearly toppled over the bench, drink with him, had his hand not caught on the side of the table. He slurred an apology and Irene nodded in response and raised her eyes to look at her next opponent.

Irene had to admit, Matthias being her opponent stunned her into silence for a fraction of a moment. Then, she smiled and leaned forward on her elbow, a silent agreement to a match she knew he’d never win.

It was over quickly and not in Irene’s favour. Just as before, Irene sought to offset his balance, but Matthias caught onto her intentions quickly and adjusted in his seat without dropping his smile once. It remained stuck to his face, unwavering, as if he was enjoying a cup of tea in the gardens on a summer day. The back of Irene’s hand hit the table’s surface with a soft thunk and her body followed, the bench’s legs scraping against the floor as it was pushed back. Irene stared at it, her brows knit together in a frown, and she yanked it away when Matthias let go. He did not so much as break a sweat.

The crowd was cheering the entire time until it was obvious that Irene wasn’t going to win. Silence engulfed the tavern as they watched their favourite contender lose and then the men went to Matthias to pat him on the back and congratulate him, while Irene’s mug was pushed closer to her by someone who not even a minute ago was cheering for her. She picked it up and without breaking eye contact with the Prince, emptied the entire thing in one go. The wine had gone warm and tasted earthy.
Setting down the mug harder than intended, Irene faced Matthias once more. “Again, pretty boy.”

Irene lost two more times and both times she emptied the mug, chugging down that wretched wine that had gone straight to her head. The third time Irene lost, the match was over in moments, for she was no longer able to summon the strength to deal with Matthias. Matthias. Mountain bury them both, what sort of a supernatural creature was he? That smile, that Wyrm forsaken smile, it remained there no matter how Irene pushed against his arm, how she struggled to manipulate their grip to her favour, but nothing worked. Matthias always adjusted his hand on hers and never once did his hand touch the table, and he was always, always, smiling.

The last time Irene drained her mug, she was almost happy for the wine’s existence. Sweat glimmered in miniature beads on her forehead and temples from exertion and the hearth’s roaring fire at her side. Irene wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand and nearly slammed down the mug. It fell on its side and rolled off the table. She ignored the crack of clay as it landed on the floor.

Leaning forward, Irene pointed at Matthias and struggled to keep her eyes from roaming his face. That beautiful, perfect face, which must have been sculpted from the purest marble in existence. It was the only explanation.

“You win this round, pretty boy,” Irene said, ignoring the slur in her voice, and pushed away from the table.

One of the men reached for Irene to help her up but she shook her head and nearly tripped on the bench. Bad idea to shake her head, the world went swimming. Everything just seemed so light. “Hands off,” Irene commanded the man and pushed his hand away, “I’m a married woman. Almost.”

The bloody bench refused to move from the table and Irene cursed it vividly in Izmarian. One of the men, one with darker skin like hers, choked on his drink at hearing the word combination she used. No one tried to touch her but one of the nearest men kept his hands raised in case Irene toppled over. She abandoned the idea of circling the bench and instead unceremoniously stepped onto it and jumped off.

“I am starving,” Irene declared and started pushing through the crowd, heading for the exit. On the way, she nearly ran into one of the beams supporting the ceiling and glared at the piece of wood as if it had greatly offended her.
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#57
Matthias watched Irene stomp off, mirth dancing in his eyes as she swore at all the inanimate objects in her way like they had done her great wrongs. He was glad that she had taken care to avoid the wine when they were at Court because Irene was far from good at handling her alcohol. If it weren’t for the way she had chugged down the entire mugs of wine, he would have thought this was her first time drinking.

The muscles in his right arm ached slightly from holding Irene off, her grip stronger than he had anticipated even knowing what he did of her. If it weren’t for all his experience in smiling through pain, his face would have been almost as twisted as her previous opponents.

Before she could fully escape him, Matthias stood and followed through the crowds after her, grabbing her by the shoulders and pulling her back to their table. “The food’s the other way, Princess,” he reminded, speaking as he would to a confused child as he led her back.

Irene’s muscles tensed at the touch and then relaxed when Matthias spoke. “You know,” she told him as they headed back into the tavern towards an empty table, “I hate that word. Princess. Call me by my name. Irene,” she drew out the name as if she found Matthias sadly dim-witted.

“Yes, Irene,” Matthias repeated after her with a small chuckle as he sat her down, raising a hand to the server bringing their food over. His patience for drunk people was bottomless, being surrounded by bad drinkers, also known as basically half his men. He wasn’t particularly amazing at holding his liquor himself but he figured out his limits after the first few times and never drunk enough to get wasted after...well, some mistakes were made.

The food he had ordered was just some bread and cheese for him and Irene both, along with soup for Irene. “Eat, then we can go back home,” he spoke, taking a spoon and placing it safely into Irene’s hand pointed the right way toward her food.

“I don’t have a home,” Irene said through a mouthful of soup. She dipped the spoon into the soup and then held it out to Matthias, placing a hand underneath to catch any drops. “Open up, your Highness. Don’t be picky.”

Matthias stared incredulously at her, acutely aware of the men who had witnessed their arm wrestling before watching them with no small amount of shock. He wouldn’t understand their relationship either, if he were a spectator. One moment, she’s angry that she couldn’t beat him in an arm wrestling match then the next, she was trying to feed him. He moved Irene’s hand away from his face with a sigh, pointing the spoon back at her own mouth. “Hurry up and eat, Irene, it’s going to be too dark to ride at this rate,” he spoke, more complaining to himself rather than actually expecting Irene to understand.

Irene ate the spoonful without protest. While eating, she kept staring at Matthias as if he was some mystery that she had yet to solve. Leaning forward, she propped both elbows on the table, rested her chin on a hand and with the other waved the empty spoon at him, declaring with finality, "You're boring."

Surprisingly, she did not throw up the soup nor demanded that Matthias taste it anymore. After his refusal, Irene looked almost upset and when the soup was finished with surprising speed that you would not expect from someone as drunk as her, she let go of the spoon and let it fall into the empty bowl.

"Maybe," Irene began as she turned on her seat to get up, "Rafael can show me a good time. Make me feel like a prince. You sure don't."

She got up and started for the exit again. She swayed and had to move from beam to beam for support, but otherwise could walk without tripping over her own feet. Matthias followed after her, trying to stop her from stumbling off into the market, only to get shoved away.

“Prin- Irene, sweetheart, you’re tired and need to rest, alright?” He tried persuading, his eyes already searching the vicinity for an inn of some sort where they can be alone and his citizens will be safe from this maniacal woman. His hand around her waist was the only thing anchoring her to him and also possibly the only reason why Irene had yet to fall face first onto the floor.

“You can visit the brothel another time,” he promised, a note of exasperation entering his voice.

Irene's hand reached for the arm snaked around her waist. "I'm not tired," she huffed and tried to pry Matthias's fingers off her waist, while her other arm automatically went around his. She paused and looked down, confused and angry with her traitorous body, and pushed against Matthias to free herself from him.

"Let me go," she demanded. "I want to feel like a prince. You're just jealous because it will be me." Irene squirmed in his hold to face Matthias and jabbed a finger at his chest. “You’re lying. You…you people are always lying.”

A group of men stumbled out of the tavern behind them. Several were nursing a clay jug of wine, others were too drunk to stand and looked like they were about to throw up. They pushed past the couple but one of them paused and looked at Matthias and at the struggling Irene suspiciously. One could see the thoughts turning round in his head, lurching forward from their cobweb-encased state of immobility as it struggled to assess the situation through a haze of drink.

He pivoted on his heel and came to stand before Matthias. A mountain of a man, he was at least two heads taller and much broader in shoulders than the Prince. With bleary eyes he stared Matthias down. “There a problem here?” His speech was slurred, almost unintelligible.

“He won’t let me go have fun.” Irene reached to grab the drunk by the shirt and he stumbled forward. “Take him off me, would you?”

The man took Irene by the wrist and pulled her towards him. “Lady doesn’t like ye. We can show ‘er a good time.”

“No, no,” Irene protested and clung to Matthias instead. “I want Rafael.” Her arm around his waist refused to budge even as the large man tried to drag her away. Matthias grabbed onto the drunkard’s hand on Irene and twisted just enough for the other man to feel some pain.

“It’s just my wife misbehaving, there’s no need for your help,” he told their interruption, his voice firm but friendly. The man looked reluctant, but at the sight of Irene holding almost desperately onto Matthias and with the ache in his wrist, he pulled away and stumbled on after his friends.

With that done, Matthias turned back to Irene with pursed lips. There was no way he was going to get her anywhere while she was on her feet. He supposed that meant he had to sweep her off them. His one hand still around her torso, he bent and placed another hand under her knees and lifted her into what could be called a bridal style hold. A moment full of romantic possibilities, a scene that remained fantasy in many Ladies’ imagination and it was coming true for Irene. Matthias scoffed. If only the bride in his arms was not out of her mind and demanding they visit a prostitute.
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#58
Irene gasped and fell limp in Matthias’s arms. Her first thought was that she was flying, and the world was an ocean of colour through which she was gliding effortlessly, slowly, through a crowd that parted only for her. Everything was unbelievably light and so was she, weightless and carried by strong arms through a stream of people. The world swayed like ocean waves, rocking her from side to side like a boat in a storm.
Her second thought was that she was going to throw up.

Suddenly nauseous, Irene ran a hand over her face and remained relaxed in the arms of a man of whom she forgot completely during those first moments of being swept up and carried through the streets. Her head fell back, and Irene kept a hand on her forehead. It was pleasantly cool against her fever-hot skin.
Where did she want to go? Her mind provided an imagine of a dark-haired boy without a name to go with it. It floated in the haze of alcohol along with her original destination. None of it mattered now, anyway. She was flying.

The sky was so strange – orange and red and blue. These sun-bleached colours that alternated at random, with lines of black in between. Irene watched the stars through the gaps in the cloth ceiling and let it hypnotise her with its strange beauty.

Noise became a constant melody of voices and laughter and cheering. Forcing her gaze away from the surreal sky, Irene watched the crowd. Every face was a blur and every silhouette grotesque, blobs of colours that rose above Irene intimidatingly. Disapproving eyes stared at the couple and whispers like rustling leaves filled her mind, overpowering the cacophonous noise of the market square enhanced by senses driven to their limits by cheap wine.

Irene pulled herself up in Matthias’s arms and wrapped both arms around his neck, her face hidden in the nook between his neck and shoulder. A floral scent lingered on his skin and Irene inhaled deeply. There was a hint of ink and parchment and mint, too, and a note of smoke from the hearth in the tavern. Irene pressed her nose against his neck and traced a hand over his skin just below the jaw, revelling in its delicate softness. Her fingertips travelled farther up, over his jaw and towards his cheekbones as her mind painted its outline from touch alone.

Resting a temple on his shoulder, she looked up at Matthias and continued exploring his features with featherlight touches. Irene brushed a thumb over his lips and caressed his cheek, fingers tracing the shape of his eyebrows.

“You are so beautiful,” Irene breathed and her eyes fell to his lips. Any thought that came to mind was only of the Why not variety and each came down to the desire to touch and taste and smell. As her thumb traced his lips, Irene wondered what it would be like to kiss them, if they are going to taste as sweet as the scent that lingered on his skin.

Why not?

Her other hand began an exploration of its own. It ran over the ridges of sinewy muscle of his back, over the shoulder blades and the corded muscle between, until she brought that hand up to brush over the nape of his neck until her fingers curled into his hair. It was soft, too, and though it was cropped short Irene enjoyed the silky-smooth feeling of it between her fingers. When he walked by a torch, its firelight set Matthias’s hair ablaze with golden light, a halo reminiscent of a crown. It enhanced his features, painted them with an otherworldly beauty, and all Irene could do was stare and touch and desire to see more and feel more.

They rented a small room in an inn not far from the market square. Patrons seated in the first floor in the common room watched the couple with barely concealed interest, laughing in encouragement or frowning at the shameless display of affection. The inn-keep had a lopsided grin as he accepted payment from Matthias and found the clinging to him woman amusing. She refused to be put down, her arms locked around Matthias’s neck and her face still pressed against his skin.

“Have a good night,” the inn-keep told them gleefully and pointed up the stairs to the second floor, “your room is the second on the left.”

Matthias thanked the man with a stiff smile, struggling to hold onto Irene with one hand while taking the keys from him with the other. He headed toward their room as briskly as he could with an Irene hanging off him, wanting to put her down as soon as possible.

On their way to the tiny, bare enclosed space that was called a room, he met with an unforeseen obstacle. The staircase. For all that enhancement magic could do to make her lighter, it could not help him make her shorter. Going up steps while trying to maintain a balance between holding her long legs low enough not to slam her knees into his face and high enough to keep them from dangling and hitting the floor was a strenuous task. Climbing the stairs had never been such an awful experience for him.

Finally, when they arrived at their resting place for the night, Matthias took the final few steps of his arduous journey toward the small bed and bent to lay the woman down on it.

Irene did not let go of Matthias. The door had shut silently behind them, closing off the bright light from the hallway. They were left in dim darkness illuminated only by the faint line of moonlight passing through an arched lattice window above the bed. Without sight, Irene relied on touch and loosened her hold on Matthias only when the bed was under her. It was hard, its wooden surface covered by a thin linen case stuffed with straw, and at the head was a rolled-up, moth eaten blanket.
The bed was as narrow and simple as the room they rented for the night. In her peripheral, Irene thought the space to be oddly shaped, with uneven bare walls and a tall ceiling. Aside from the poor excuse of a bed, a wooden basin to wash in and a short stool were crammed into the room.

Matthias stood directly in front of the window. She gazed at the intricate pattern of light and shadows across his face and admired with a strange fascination the way moonlight shone against his skin. It was milky-pale, an ethereal glow so akin to a pearl’s, and Irene was reminded of the day she saw him in the bath and thought that he was the most beautiful being she’d ever seen.

Irene sat back and raised her knees to her chest and moved farther away as her fingers curled into Matthias’s shirt and vest and pulled him closer. Even in the scarce moonlight his eyes were almost impossibly blue.

“Your eyes are like starlight,” Irene whispered and pulled him down towards her, wanting, needing, to touch him. All thoughts except for that need were discarded. Alcohol gave her stupid bravery and fuelled desires that she normally would never be aware of. Be what may, she was going to deal with the consequences later.
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#59
Regret was not a feeling Matthias could claim to be familiar with. His every action was taken only after considering all factors, including its potential problems and possible outcomes. He had very few moments in his life that he would look back on and wish he never did what he did. This was turning out to be one of those very few.

Why had he agreed to let Irene go to town? Why had he led them to that blasted tavern? Why had he let her touch her wine? Why had he assumed she would be good with her liquor? Now, he was stuck here in this tiny room, on this tiny bed, with his drunkard of a bride. He was exhausted from an entire day without rest, so much so that he could probably even bring himself to fall asleep on this cold straw mattress if he was allowed. Unfortunately, he was not.

Matthias had one knee on the bed, the other foot straining to stay on the floor with how far onto the bed his body had been dragged. His whole body was tensed. Irene was so close that he could see his reflection in her eyes and her hands were splayed on his chest, touching, feeling. Soft breaths were the only noise in the room as its two sole occupants studied each other, one with a mixture of amusement and incredulity, the other with an odd sort of admiration.

If my eyes are the stars, yours must be the moon. The thought sprung into his head, unwelcome but pronounced. He might have said that out loud as a joke, if he weren’t so sure that any such comment from him will only fan the flames of this awkward flirting that Irene was attempting.

He tugged her hands away from him with a sigh. Another regretful point in this mess. He had noticed before on more the one occasion that Irene was beautiful. He would, in any other situation, not refuse her advances. And, yet. Out of all the times that she could have chosen to approach him, why did it have to be when she was this intoxicated?

He stared at the woman who had grabbed tightly onto him when she was in his arms, as if he was the air in her lungs, and wondered if she was always this… affectionate when drunk. That probably meant he had to separate wine from Irene at all times, lest her hidden nature is revealed to the Court. Though, honestly, that would be a sight to see. Shame that he could never let it happen.

“Go to sleep, Irene,” he murmured, adjusting so that he was sitting comfortably next to her, at the edge of the bed, leaning against the cool brick wall.

Irene ignored Matthias. She did not protest as she stubbornly did before nor did she look like she's heard him at all. Indeed, Irene moved towards him and swung a leg around him, climbing onto his lap. When he pulled her hands away from his chest, she caught onto his wrist and pulled his hand to her lips, brushing them against his fingers, leaving featherlight kisses on his palm while breathing in the scent of him, that floral note that lingered on his skin.

With deft fingers she undid the button of the vest and when it opened, Irene slid a hand under his shirt. Her palm was coarse and calloused, fingers cold as they brushed with the rise and fall of his ribs. It was as if she wanted to explore the ridges of his muscles, memorize the curves of his body with touch alone. After placing a soft kiss to the center of his hand, Irene lowered it to rest flat against her thigh and leaned in to cup the side of his neck, brushing a thumb over the line of his jaw.

In that moment, Irene looked at Matthias as if he truly was the stars in the sky, her eyes searching his for a wonder only she could see. As if his beauty was worthy to be beloved and admired, rather than desired.

Paralyzed in his surprise at the turn of events, Matthias was motionless and silent, fighting back the irrational impulse to hold his breath. He was uncomfortable being in this position, underneath her, where Irene held most, even if not all, of the control. He could shove her off, of course, but his body was a traitorous one and enjoyed the warmth of her skin on his.

Her hips on him was moving dangerously as she explored him and he reached out to still her. He did not go further, did not touch her like she did him. There was certainly the urge to. How could there not be? He pulled his lower lip between his teeth, shut his eyes tightly and tried to relax. His breathing was heavy and his hands twitched where they lay idle with every move she made.

She leaned in closer and her fingers curled into his hair and it seemed like she was going to kiss him, but instead pressed her face against his neck and inhaled, breath warm against his skin just under the ear. And lay there, her hands having forgotten their exploration slid down, limp.

Matthias opened his eyes, gaze traveling down to the sleeping woman, whose head laid on his shoulder, her face the picture of innocence. Damn the Saints, he cursed in his head, not for the first time that day. He swore to himself was never going to let Irene get drunk from now on, if this was what he had to suffer as its consequence.

His head fell back against the wall as he released a sigh. What an anticlimactic ending, he thought with some mirth, though he was thankful she passed out before doing anything worse. She had better remember all that she had done tomorrow, so he could get her back for every embarrassing moment she put him through this evening.

Lifting Irene from her seat on his lap, Matthias laid her down on the bed. Massaging his own aching muscles, he stared down at the woman with conflicted emotions. He was a liar, a good one at that, but he was not someone who lied to himself. He had enjoyed the trip way more than he had expected himself to. He had revealed way more of his true face to Irene than he intended, had felt more at ease around her than he should around someone meant to be a pawn.

A player shouldn’t grow too fond of their pawns. They were pieces meant to be sacrificed.

He paused at the thought, frowning, before shaking it off. He lay beside Irene, as far away from her as he could on the minuscule bed, and prayed he didn’t have dreams.
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#60
The tavern was still and the streets outside were as calm as one would expect them to be in early morning. Shops were opening all around Thean Gerith; merchants prepared their wares in the market tents and women lined the streets, all sorts of produce laid before them as they sat down on low benches. Sun shone bleakly above, a lone disc in a dark-blue sky barren of clouds.

Irene’s dreams were shockingly empty, devoid of anything or perhaps they were full of something and she simply could not remember. Nothing felt amiss except for the odd sensation of loss despite the quite familiar surroundings. She had not opened her eyes but knew that she was on a thin mattress of some rundown inn and the sky outside was still dark, the sun having had just risen from beyond the horizon. It was cold, and the blanket draped over her legs did little to ward off the chill that settled overnight.

And yet, it was comfortable. Ordinary…

…and utterly wrong.

Memories of last night’s events came flooding back like a tsunami, threatening to pull her under, drown her in shame and embarrassment that followed the realization of just what she’d done and said and tried to force on—

Her eyes snapped open and Irene sucked in a breath. She winced, shutting her eyes tightly once more to shield them from the light coming through the window, but mostly not to see the face of a man who lay mere inches from her. Their limbs were not entangled like that of lovers’ and it seemed they never touched even in sleep. Her muscles were stiff, as if she’d slept as far away as possible from the man the entire night, which was a feat in itself considering the narrow bed and the subconscious human need to stay warm.

Pain gripped her head in a vise the moment Irene stirred. Silently, she swung her legs off the bed and sat up, a hand braced on the edge, fingers curling into the mattress, and the other reached up to her neck to grasp at the collar of her clothes to check that it remained untouched, that her clothes were still on and the wretched black ink had not peeked through the folds of the tunic’s neckline.

A rather morbid but relaxing thought broke through the pounding pain: if Matthias had seen the Mark, Irene doubted she was going to be allowed to wake up in such a peaceful manner.

Leaning forward on her elbows, Irene pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes and remained still. Any movement increased the pulsing agony behind her eyes, on her temples, at the back of her skull.

Gods above, what a fool she’s been. A careless little fool. Irene ran a hand over her forehead to push back loose strands of hair and pinched the bridge of her nose as her lips flattened into a pale line. Dread drained all colour from her face. Had they continued what she started, had Matthias responded to her shameless and rather forceful touch, their agreement would’ve been doomed. A dangerous lie exposed because of a night of harmless drinking.

How long has it been since she drank last? Years, perhaps. It became evident very early in her youth that she was a lightweight. Abstinence from alcohol was a result of switching to a healthier lifestyle but mostly due to the many mistakes that happened while she was intoxicated. Those mistakes were forgivable, silly little events that she remembered fondly instead of with embarrassment.

But Irene was no longer twenty. She was nearing thirty. On top of it all, the mistake that would have happened had she not miraculously passed out was not going to be just a tumble in the sheets, fun for one night, no strings attached. Irene’s imagination had conjured up a dozen and more possible outcomes by the time she did what she’d always done after waking up in bed with someone – she left.

Irene made it as far as the door. Each step was a sledgehammer to her head and each breath sent her stomach churning. As a result of years of training, and running from one-night flings, her footsteps were silent, and Irene would have fled had she not come to a realization that made her inwardly groan. How do you run from a man in whose house you live?

Her hand paused on the door and Irene inhaled deeply through her nose. She glanced up at Matthias who still slept. The early morning sun had just peeked over the bottom of the lattice window. Cold rays of sunlight kissed his skin and hair and with no small amount of shame Irene recalled what she told Matthias the night before – that he was beautiful. And he was. His features relaxed in sleep, enveloping him in an aura of peace, serenity, even innocence. He had not continued what she began, of that Irene was certain, and nothing happened between them. Not really.

Slowly, Irene returned to the bed and sat down on the edge. She looked at Matthias for a long breath, gathering the courage to wake him up, and finally put a hand on his shoulder. She shook him ever so slightly and whispered, “Wake up.” Her voice was hoarse, throat and tongue dry and as rough as sandpaper. She craved water and nothing else, for any thought of food made her stomach queasy. Any mention of wine was sure to make her throw up.
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#61
The hand on his shoulder was a sudden, unexpected disturbance. Matthias jerked away from the touch and sat up, hand reaching for a weapon that wasn’t there. There was a split-second of tension, the time it took him to recollect where he was, who he was with and what he had been doing. Right. Irene. Thean Gerith. Wine.

He relaxed his posture with a soft sigh, running a hand through his hair as he fought against the remaining forces of sleep clouding his mind. He blinked up at Irene, squinting slightly as his bleary eyes struggled to adjust to the light. She looked normal, if slightly dishevelled, except for the look of absolute trepidation that twisted her face.

Matthias thought back on the events of the previous night, to wandering hands and whispered sweet nothings, to her weight in his lap and her breath on his neck. All that, yet their evening had ended in nothing but a space about an arm’s width apart as they slept, one defeated by alcohol and the other by exhaustion. How delightful. Perhaps, he should simply be grateful that she had not vomited on him as the drunken were wont to do.

“Morning,” he greeted pleasantly, finally rising from his stupor. He stood, stretching like a cat as he walked past Irene toward the miserable thing that served as a table. He paused to button up the vest that Irene had undone in her...excitement last night before grabbing the keys. If they actually had a mirror here, he might have checked to see if he looked fine or like he had been assaulted by a drunk woman. Unfortunately, there was no such luxury in this shabby inn. No matter, they simply had to make the walk to their horses as quickly as possible.

It was the first time he had found himself in a place like this, disorientated and alone with his company of the previous night. However, he had seen Jaime survive this awkward circumstance countless times before and was pretty sure he could deal with it. Whether Irene could, though, was a different question, considering the mortification written all over her expression.

Surely, with her tendency toward drunken bursts of affection and low alcohol tolerance, this wasn’t her first time in this situation. In fact, since he hadn’t even responded to her advances, shouldn’t it be nothing for her to get over? Or, perhaps, he was wrong in his assumption that she was always clingy when drunk and she had been all over him last night due to her own unspoken desire?

Your eyes are like starlight. Matthias’s lips quirked up in amusement as he turned to look at Irene. She had looked at him like he was something to revere, her soft touch travelling his body so carefully like she was scared to bruise him. It had been almost overwhelming. Looking back on it, though, it was rather humorous. With her strained attitude and avoidance of him, he hadn’t expected such a bad actress to be so successful in hiding such strong opinions.

“Shall we leave?” He asked, finally, after nearly a minute of staring at her in silent humor. He straightened out his clothes slightly as he gestured to the door with a jerk of thumb. A hint of mischief could be seen on his face as he continued, sarcasm laid thick in his drawl. “Unless you want me to carry you there too, Irene?”
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#62
Gods above, does he know?

He does.

He must.

Irene remained as still as a statue on the bed as Matthias rose and bid her a good morning as if the events of last night were nothing out of the ordinary for him. They stared at each other, Irene with barely concealed mixture of trepidation and incredulity and Matthias with amusement sparkling in his blue eyes. Unlike her, he appeared to be in high spirits. But, unlike her, he did not drink an entire jug of wine the night before. And while Irene could understand that, she could not wrap her mind around why Matthias found the situation humorous. He had been assaulted by a drunken woman, his fiancée or not.

At least, he is not angry.

No, Irene thought with a pang of cold fear, Anger was better. Anger was vocal, it demanded to be seen and heard. It was impossible to tell what Matthias was thinking and the way he looked at her, lips curled into a barely noticeable smile, sent a chill down Irene’s spine. Aristocrats wore masks of different emotions so skilfully that they could be planning a rival’s murder while enjoying a pleasant conversation over a cup of tea with the said enemy. Cold fury could be hiding behind his small smile.

When he finally spoke, Irene had already started preparing a speech to explain what he’d seen, if he’d seen it. Leaning forward on her elbows in defeat, Irene pressed her hands to her face and groaned. Fool. Stupid, stupid fool. She was lucky the handover explained her sickly disposition, otherwise Matthias was sure to suspect that something was amiss. Embarrassed with herself for the irrational fear of being discovered in her lie and ashamed of what she’d done to him, Irene wanted nothing more but to revert the time and leave the room when she still could.

“I’ll walk,” Irene sighed through her hands and pushed herself off the bed. A hammer of pain hit her head as if it were an anvil and she staggered, resting a hand on the side of her head in a pointless attempt to calm the pulsing agony in rhythm with her heartbeat.

He called her by her name, Irene realized with a slight delay. No princess woke up with a severe hangover in a rundown inn in a city she barely knew. Even here, Matthias remained immaculate, somehow elegant in slightly wrinkled clothes and messy hair. Royalty to the core, that one.

Well, it was pleasant not to be called Princess even if the circumstances behind the request were embarrassing to remember. Something good has come out of that drunken whine, even if Irene did not expect Matthias to actually listen to her.

The inn-keep had given Irene a stare on their way down the stairs and raised a hand in greeting that Irene responded to with a nod and averted her eyes quickly, supressing yet another groan. When they stepped into the streets of Thean Gerith, she breathed in the fresh air and ran her hands over her face to brush back the stray strands of hair. The market square was blissfully empty and none of the merchants started their callouts yet, but there was still a fair amount of noise. Rattling wheels of carts. Crashing crates and flapping fabrics in the wind, unfurling rugs. Heels and hooves against the cobblestone. Each sound, no matter how minimal, increased the headache that Irene was trying drive away by rubbing her fingers in circular motion on her temples.

“Listen,” Irene finally said after they left the inn behind them and started for the stables, “I apologize for what I did last night. I meant none of it. It was the wine. Please just...forget it ever happened, alright?” A poor attempt of an apology but it would do.

Irene braved a look at Matthias’s direction and regretted it. Her apology earned her a quick glance over the shoulder and a raised brow. Matthias hummed in acknowledgement, seeming like he would spare her and say nothing. However, he was not someone with so much mercy. She should’ve known.

“You meant none of it? So you don’t think that I am beautiful or that I smell marvellous? I’m hurt, Princess,” he replied after a beat, using the same crooning tone he had before.

“No– “ Irene turned to look at him and winced, the headache intensified by the sudden motion. “You are and–“ She breathed a sigh and waved a dismissive hand at the Prince. “You know what I meant.”

They crossed the market square and without the crowd of last night blocking her vision, Irene spotted the inn that summoned unpleasant, shameful memories. Being carried through Thean Gerith wasn’t the worst of it. Calling what she’d done and said whilst in the arms of a man who currently found the situation amusing humiliating was a monumental understatement. Still, it was better than the alternative of waking up in the brothel, which Irene and Matthias passed and she could hear the rhythmic, tandem panting coming from the rooms above even at this hour.

A stable boy had just climbed out of the loft under the roof when Irene and Matthias arrived at the public stables. He bowed to Matthias and cast a wary glance at Irene but said nothing and helped the two of them ready their horses.

“They’re fed,” the boy told Matthias. He patted the stallion’s neck gently, brushed back its mane with his fingers and watched Irene as she adjusted the straps of the saddle of her horse. “Great horses, sir. I never seen any like these before.”

Irene was not as excited about the horses as the boy was. When the mounts were dressed to ride, he left the two seemingly rich customers and hurried off to busy himself with other tasks. Irene led her horse outside into a small courtyard and felt the boy’s attention on her, but his gaze lingered on Matthias the most.

It was by some miracle that Irene did not throw up when she climbed into the saddle. Each movement the horse made sent her’s stomach churning unpleasantly. She kept pulling on its reins to slow down the creature even further, though the streets were empty, and they could send the stallions into a gallop to reach Matthias’s residence faster. The thought alone of riding through the streets brought another wave of nausea, this one unrelated to the wine.

When they left the city gates behind and entered a more rural, farmland area, Irene thought to direct the horse to walk on the grass to muffle the sounds of its hoofbeats. Shouting stall keepers and chatting families walked by them with little notice as they made their way out, the sun still several hours from being at its zenith. Minutes of awkward silence went by and Irene felt thoroughly miserable, her attention diverted jointly between the open streets and Matthias riding on his horse at her side.

An eternity may as well have passed by the time his residence came into view and Irene pressed against the stallion’s sides to quicken its pace. If she were to throw up, so be it, at least she’d do it on the land belonging to the man who was to blame for her condition. The gates were opened, and the guards nodded their greetings. Several stable attendants came rushing towards the horses to help lead them inside. Irene dismounted when the horse had stopped and thanked the stable hands in a whisper, her voice too raw to be any louder.

The servants looked at Irene curiously as she passed through the hallways leading towards her rooms. They bobbed curtsies and offered greetings, but Irene was too sick to utter a word. Her chambers may as well have been on the opposite side of the house from the stables with how long it took her to reach them. The doors were opened for her silently as they always were, and the attendants rushed out of the room as per their usual, wordless agreement. A breakfast wasn’t prepared yet, but the bed has been made and a new set of clothes and fabrics had been left on the chair beside it, as usual. Irene beelined for the little table by the window where the servants always left a pitcher of water and a bowl of fruit. She always picked the dates from there first but now the thought of their sweet taste was sickening, bringing bile to the back of her throat. She drained the pitcher, set it down and went to lay down on the bed, bringing the covers over her head to shield her eyes from the sun streaming through the opened windows.

She pushed back the covers and looked to the doors, about to call a servant to request that no one to disturb her but paused at the realization that she knew none of their names. They never introduced themselves and she never asked. Her fault, Irene supposed. Almost a month of living here and Irene knew next to nothing about the hired help and hadn’t even seen most of the house, let alone the grounds. To acquaint herself with this world was equivalent to accepting it. She was standing on the precipice of change and, perhaps, now it was finally the time to move forward.

Irene rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. The back of her arm was pleasantly cool against her forehead and she lay there, motionless, simply looking at the pale crème ceiling, mind empty of thought. Shame still seized her heart and her stomach churned and head pulsed in agony, but beneath it all was joy. As brief as her moment of freedom was, it was still sweet.
 
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GetThree

Junior Member
#63
As the sounds of Thean Gerith faded behind their backs so did the conversation between the two of them. The ride back to his residence was as quiet as the ride from it had been. They were both distracted by their own thoughts. At least, Matthias was. Irene might have just been trying her best not to throw up.

The trip to the town had been an eye-opening episode, in reference to many things. Even so, he felt relief that it was over and that he was returning home. As much as he had appreciated the experience, the life of common men perhaps simply wasn’t for him. The noise, the overwhelming crowds, the familiarity of strangers on the street, all of it only served to dizzy him. Just by looking at them, it would seem like he had had a better, easier time in the city compared to his worn companion. In truth, being in such an open surrounding, with so many people he did not know, brought him discomfort where Irene seemed to find peace.
When they arrived at the residence and he was back in his chambers, the first thing Matthias did was to take a bath. The streets of Thean Gerith were polluted with so much dirt and litter that he felt filthy just by having walked through it. He was familiar with the feeling of dust on skin from his time spent in military campaigns, but that hardly meant he enjoyed it.

He had just finished dressing after, feeling refreshed, when a messenger knocked on his door carrying an envelope sealed with the Vaether insignia. A frown formed on his face, an instinctual reaction to seeing his family’s emblem on any letter that wasn’t his own. It would almost definitely not be welcome news. As his eyes scanned the loopy script on the parchment, that suspicion was confirmed.

A gathering in the Gardens in three days, the participants being the Court and the occasion being, well, nothing, as per usual. Both he and his Princess were invited. Pleasant. Irene was going to be absolutely delighted.

“Mikas,” he called to the boy arranging flowers across the room, who practically skipped over. The younger had been mysteriously cheerful ever since they returned from Thean Gerith. Matthias suspected the guards had told him their fantastical version of the happenings during the short vacation. “I’ll be having breakfast with the Princess in her lounge,” he told the blonde and the boy’s steps were impossibly even more merry as he went to relay the message.

One might expect that them once having been lovers would have turned Mikas against Irene or, at least, her relationship with him. However, it was rather the opposite because the boy thought Irene a good match for Matthias and that, since it was so, he might as well have a “real” marriage. That idea was inconceivable to Matthias. From the start this union of theirs was a purely political one, stemming from them taking advantage of each other. That such a start could have a warm, happy end, was unlikely to say the least. Even though it was going well enough now, she would eventually discover the true extent of his and his family’s cruel, ruthless nature. From what he had seen of her thus far, she wasn’t going to like it.

He entered Irene’s chambers without requesting entrance. He doubted that she had managed to pull herself together enough for a meal in that short a time. He sat down at the table, eyes glancing over the prepared food. All of them were pretty tame, nothing that might cause Irene’s already unwell body to suffer even more. The corners of his lips twitched again at the thought of a drunk Irene. Since he already saw that side of her, perhaps now it was his chance to see what a hungover Irene was like.

Irene entered the lounge shortly after Matthias’s arrival and did not look surprised at seeing him already there, waiting for her. Water dripped down from her chin, the droplets sliding down her neck and disappearing behind the high collar of her blouse. The tunic and pants she’d been wearing during the visit to City of Nobles have been replaced by a fresh set of clothes, this time in the colours of deep maroon that comprised most, if not all her clothes. And, as usual, she preferred to wear something more fit for a man. The dresses have been abandoned in favour of comfortable high-collared shirts and pants, much to her tutors’ displeasure with her taste of fashion. To see her wear an elbow-sleeve blouse with a high neckline and pants several shades darker, almost brown, was no surprise to anyone anymore.

Barefoot and unadorned by jewellery, Irene looked like she’d just risen from bed. Her fingers had undone the braid and her tresses hung about her shoulders in a curtain of ashen brown. Her sleeves were damp at the wrist, but she hadn’t taken a bath, only washed her face to dispel the last remnants of sleep.

Irene planted herself on the chair opposite of Matthias, pulled up a knee to her chest, and gathered her hair over one shoulder. It fell past the armrest in loose waves, the ends of which were brittle and coarse, uncared for. It would’ve seemed that Irene had little thought to give about her hair, considering its weather-beaten condition, if it wasn’t for how she sometimes reached for it absently, brushing her fingertips down its length as if to find comfort in its presence.

A headache still obviously plagued her. There was a tiny crease between her brows and when she reached to brush the stray droplets off her face, her hands lingered over her eyes for a moment before she dragged her fingers through her hair.

“I will never drink again,” Irene breathed the vow in a sigh and reached for a piece of bread. She started to pull it apart above her plate, seemingly uninterested in eating it at all. An attendant poured Matthias and Irene a cup of cool tea and Irene abandoned her assault on the bread to pick up the cup and brought it to her lips. When she took a sip, she looked up at Matthias over the rim and asked, “Have you decided on a wedding date?”

Matthias put down his own drink, pausing to stare at her, considering her question. “There are still things to settle,” he started, “but you can expect it to be in the month after next.” Two months might seem like a long time for them to wait but there was a lot of planning that needed to be done, including the details of their actual ceremony. Thoughts of a celebration reminded him as to why he was here in the first place.
He slipped out the invitation letter from his coat, handing it to Irene to read. (Irene’s reaction)

“This was supposed to be a small affair. A private agreement. What you did instead puts both of us at risk of assassination. The entire Vaelan Court is free to try to stop our union. Izmar will not sit idly, either. Moreover, my location is no longer secret. It is no longer safe. Give me back my spear, as you’ve promised. It does not belong to you nor will it serve you in any way in its current state,” she continued, saying it matter-of-factly, determined and convinced of the correctness of her stand.

Matthias’s eyes narrowed slightly at her words but he did not reply for a few moments, choosing to take a few bites of the prepared breakfast first. The first topic was a conversation he’d gone over with her before. He strongly disliked having to repeat things more than once. If she had been anyone else, his response to this would have been a smile and a few placating words before he left her to her own devices. A small inhale was the only thing that indicated to his discontent.

“I told you before I did it, that you were going to be introduced to the Court. I also told you, or at least I implied it assuming you would understand, that I cannot marry you in private, that I cannot keep you a secret. Neither you nor I are needles in a haystack, Irene, we are swords. I need you to understand this,” he explained patiently, the exasperation in his words not found in his tone. He had the nagging feeling that even this much might not be enough to get the whole meaning through to Irene, that he needed to be even more plain with his words, but his logic argued with instinct that anyone could follow through with the line of thought what he said should inspire. If she bothers to think on it at all, at least.

“I also have told you before that I will return you your spear. Patience is a virtue, Princess,” Matthias stopped there, not wanting to say more.

“Patience is a luxury I cannot afford,” Irene said, her eyes flickering up to glance at Matthias, and then she fell silent for a long breath before continuing. “I am restless. A month here and all I’ve done is wait. Banquets and silly events–” she nodded at the letter— “are a waste of our time.” Irene raised a hand to silence any protest that Matthias might have wanted to voice. “I know why this must be done, but…” she let the thought trail off and set the cup down on the table. “There are much more important matters to divert time to than garden picnics.”

“Patience is a virtue,” Matthias repeated. Of course, there were many important things to tend to. However, there was no reason they couldn’t carry those out while attending these, as she called them, silly events. He had to wait before he brought up sending an army to Izmar. Proposing this idea immediately after announcing their marriage was not a good idea. After that proposal, the time he needed to organize said army would also not be short. Restless as she may be, Irene was going have to do a lot of waiting in the foreseeable future. She had best get used to it. “Trust me, Princess, I am not one to waste time,” he assured.


Irene hummed in response. “Let us hope the throne remains vacant while we attend garden picnics, then.” It was meant as a jest, but Irene’s voice was hoarse, and the crease remained between her brows, an indicator of a headache that had no desire to subside. She tried to chuckle to lighten the atmosphere; the sound was nothing more than a faint cough. “Call me by my name. We are not at Court. And I am hardly a Princess.”

Matthias smiled faintly at her last sentence, his tone dry as he replied, “Well, at least we agree on something.” With that, the rest of their breakfast, along with the next few days, passed uneventfully.
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#64
Breakfast left a foul taste in Irene’s mouth and it was not the result of her hangover. The food was plain and tasteless so she managed to swallow down several pieces of bread before deciding that she was full. Through some miracle the Prince did not mention what she’d done under the influence of alcohol and Irene was grateful. The conversation took a rather unpleasant turn, the atmosphere growing tense, which Irene expected but did not know how to avoid. Instead, she softened it with humour she did not feel.

It was an act. A mask, if you will, though a harmless one. Irene found herself acting impatient, restless, given too much time alone with her thoughts when the time was most inopportune. Leaving for the guard barracks was a good distraction from the clear realization that days were fleeing by and nothing had been done that brought her any closer to Izmar. Never before had Irene felt this restless. She was always as straight as an arrow, quiet and calm, as level headed as they come. Even when cornered by the thieves in the market Irene did not falter, afraid, or displayed any signs of unease.

This time was different.

It was Irene’s role to remain silent and uninvolved. Surely Matthias expected that of her, for he reminded her twice the value of patience. He thought that assuring her of his intentions, which remained a mystery to her, was enough to silence her worries. It was not.

Whatever happened the other night may as well have been an illusion, its only proof the pounding headache that had no intentions to recede. The two of them had been allowed to forget their social status for a night and now that they were back at the palace, Irene found herself empty once more.

Pleased to see the meal end, she retreated to her bedroom. After the doors were closed behind her on silent hinges, Irene halted and looked about the room. Open and airy, clean and bright, sparsely furnished – it was a colourless chamber that retained an elegance of a mausoleum. It often felt like one, too, when the doors were closed, torches put out, and the only light was what filtered through the latticework screens and featherlight curtains. Irene hadn’t noticed how empty the room was – bare of life, not decoration – until that morning. Compared to the market of Thean Gerith, even an alleyway was more comfortable than this sterile, empty elegance; her bedroom was melancholic.

No wonder she felt so hollow.

Irene went to pick up a pair of shoes and a leather strip to tie her hair and went outside. After having dismissed the contingent of guards and attendants that followed everywhere she went, Irene had left the main building to walk the grounds. The day suddenly seemed so…empty. Free. Tutor sessions often stretched from morning to evening and Irene spent any remaining free moment in the guard barracks but now she started to realize that all of that was merely a way to occupy her days with something worthwhile. Before, she’d work to make a living. Now, living in luxury where her every need was tended to, Irene felt herself wanting to fill the hours before sunset, to have something, anything to do that did not seem pointless.

Patience is virtue

That phrase kept repeating in her mind over and over again like a mantra, as if the more she thought on it the faster she was going to come to terms with it. But Irene was never lacking in that regard, her trade often requiring her to deal with unpleasant individuals who shared more similarities with children than grown men. Patience was truly a virtue then, but not now. Not when an entire kingdom’s future was uncertain. It was selfish to attend soirees and banquets when women with the same face as hers were hunted down and killed to send a message, just in case one of them was her, just to be safe. It was selfish to sit still on your hands when power to stop the madness happening in Izmar was there, ripe for the taking, but barred behind a wall of rules.

No, Irene decided as she strolled the gardens of Matthias’s residence, patience is no virtue when you are told to live in ignorance while others fight your battles.

But for all Irene’s naivety with the intricacies of Court intrigues, she realized one thing for certain – she had no power here. Skill with a blade would not get her armies and weapons. Stories of past adventures weren’t going to appease the aristocracy and have them devote their coin and men to her cause. A Princess, yes, but a prisoner, too. Even the servants in Matthias’s residence listened to her commands with hesitation and guards continued to trail her steps, though she ordered them not to. She had no coin to bribe nobility nor powerful connections to build alliances with. Matthias did, and Irene let him play the power game, but it was taking too much time.

Patience is virtue

Indeed. All a prisoner had was time and patience to see it expire.

Precipice of change – that is how Irene envisioned her life to be in its current state. It was as though she’d refused to take another step forward with her life and remained stubbornly on the border between Irene Dalaklis and Princess Irene of Izmar. She could not be both. It was time to accept that and, reluctantly, she had, though the transition was hardly seamless.

Irene’s mood gradually soured after her return from the City of Nobles. While she explored the grounds often, spending most of her time outside, there was nothing much left to be done other than walking and sewing and, occasionally, sparring. By the time the summons to the Imperial gardens came, Irene was restless enough in the confines of her luxurious prison that she was almost looking forward to seeing something other than the too familiar walls of her room or the gardens outside.

Old habits started to resurface after months of laying dormant. Eyes of a dutiful bodyguard scanned the grounds for guards, though they did not wish her ill, and noted down their patrol routines and how often they changed shifts. Their attention was a constant pull against her senses, though it was not as bad as the half a dozen of attendants that followed Irene’s footsteps like a monstrous shadow. She tried to speak to them on more than one occasion, encouraged by her earlier revelation that she knew none of their names, but they responded curtly, and the conversation seemed one sided at best.

It still felt odd to wear red instead of purple. Twenty-eight years of donning that colour had wired her mind to accept that it, and only it, looked appropriate on her. Any other colour was strange, as if she were an imposter, so she held onto the firm belief that red did not suit her. Neither did the loose hair.

The day after their return from Thean Gerith, Irene chose to wear her hair loose as an experiment. It fell about her shoulders in delicate and coarse waves, having had regained some shine and life since she started using the soaps from the bathing chamber. Irene chose the vials on scent alone – something faint but fresh, to remind her of… Home was not a correct term, for she had none to speak of, but no other word could do justice to the little hut hidden in the hill surrounded by evergreens where most of her happy childhood memories lay. The first soap that had a scent of pine was chosen and Irene, when quickly washing herself in fear that the Prince was going to decide to bathe at the same time as her, could detect a note of camomile in it. It must have had some sort of healing properties for skin and hair, but Irene could only guess and watch her hands and hair start to lose their roughness. She only knew herbs that numbed pain and healed wounds. Skincare, on the other hand? Matthias was more likely to be the expert in such matters.

Shameful memories of the night in the inn were summoned instantly at the thought of Matthias. The tunic, which Irene had thrown on the bed in her hurry to change into something fresh, was enveloped in that floral scent of his. She remembered it with quite a bit of embarrassment. When Mikas woke Irene from her short nap that morning, for an instant, Irene thought Matthias was in bed with her. But it was only his scent that she detected and once left alone, with no servants to bear witness to her nudity, she shrugged off the tunic to rid herself of any reminders of the previous night. The servants took it away to wash and a part of Irene wished they hadn’t. For all the embarrassing memories it summoned, those clothes were a reminder that the night spent in the market of Thean Gerith wasn’t a dream.

Well, that and the ring.

It remained on her index finger and Irene found herself playing with it often, twirling it around when doing just about anything. Whether Matthias wore his, she did not know, but she found it sadly amusing to wear freedom on her hand. That white gold band with a sapphire in the middle was possibly the only accessory that did not adhere to the strict rules of her dress-code. Hence, it always caught the attention of others and Irene curiously noted how eyes of many strayed to her hand.

Irene considered leaving it behind while preparing to go to the Imperial gardens. She stared at it for a long breath, watching the sunlight ripple over the sapphire, and slid it on her finger. Let it be a reminder of freedom, she thought, as I change one cage for another.

Servants had long ago stopped presenting Irene with fashion of the Vaelan Court. Noblewomen preferred lighter shades of blue and green and ivory, complimenting their fair complexion that Irene suspected they kept light with cosmetics and, even, magic. Flowing gossamer and linen dresses suited them so well, accented with jewels and bands of gold and silver, which would never look as striking on Irene who was not only taller but also much darker and heavily built. Curves that Vaelan women displayed with pride did not exist on Irene’s athletic body, her physique more willowy than hour-glass.

Though summer has just begun, the sun was scorching hot the day of the Garden event. The air was heavy and humid but the sea breeze cooled down Irene’s room comfortably. The Imperial palace, however, was too far from the sea and by the time Irene stepped off the sedan chair and was escorted to the Gardens, she wanted nothing more but to strip the outer robe of her dress. Thankfully, her attire was not as warm and stiff as the previous one, though just as luxurious. She wore a thin robe of golden brocade over a mahogany dress of flowing, light fabric. Long sleeves ended just past the wrist, the fabric there glimmering with a simple ring of pearls. Droplets of garnet hung at Irene’s ears and pearls the size of a child’s fingernail were woven through her hair, which was bound in a loose braid. It was Irene’s compromise – she could not deal with her hair, as long as it was, if it was not bound behind her back.

A guard escort brought Irene to the palace Garden, where aristocracy had already started to gather. Most were fashionably late, of course, but those that were present were lucky witnesses to the Third Prince’s bride’s arrival. Irene steeled herself for empty conversation and was prepared to speak to the nobility out of necessity. Matthias was not at her side, for he’d left much earlier for the Palace, but Irene did not expect him to converse with others on her behalf all the time.

By the time she was shown a seat in a constructed for the occasion pavilion, Irene felt drained. She spoke to the nobles the same way she spoke to her tutors – silent except for when asked a question. And they asked many questions. With faint amusement, Irene noted the similarities between these curious men and women in finery and her charges, old clients who came from all sorts of backgrounds. They asked almost identical questions and Irene fell into the old habit of answering in short, curt sentences that she knew was not enough to satisfy their curiosity. Perhaps, if luck was on her side, they were going to see her lack of enthusiasm at being at Court as cold regality. But, as Irene went to her seat, she knew it was not so.

The Vaelan Court found her an oddity. A strange creature of little words and probably meager intellect. Dark and tall, she was a complete opposite of their beauty standards and seemed not to notice that her fashion, that gold and red ensemble of robes that she still wore, was out of place in Vaelan high society. She wore no make-up and no gloves covered her hands to hide the rough callouses, and though she moved with confidence, her straight-back posture was not befitting that of a princess. She lacked grace but made up for it in smoothness of movement, which made her charismatic in her own, exotic way.

Irene disregarded their opinion of her, unable to change who she was with a snap of her fingers, and no amount of pretending was going to elevate her behavior to that of a member of high society. A princess in name only, with heart and mind of a seasoned warrior who’d rather be fighting instead of sitting in a domed pavilion, waiting for the events to start.

The pavilion was set on an elevated stand, where the Imperial family sat in the middle before tables laden heavy with food. Servants came to fill Irene’s goblet with wine but she refused. She was watching the arriving nobility seat themselves on benches to the sides of the stand, facing the jousting grounds. The knights were preparing on the opposite ends of the grounds, either finishing putting on their armor or being helped onto their horses. Once on, each was given a blunted lance and then, after an announcement was made and the crowd quieted, the tournament began.

Irene watched it with carefully hidden disapproval. There was a crease between her brows and she flinched once when a man was nearly thrown off his horse. The crowd cheered and servants rushed to the grounds to help each knight dismount. If this had been several years ago, Irene supposed she’d be as eager to see the tourney as the others, but it brought no pleasure to her. Indeed, her leg, as if remembering being crushed by a horse’s body, ached.

By the time the crowd quieted, the next set of riders came onto the grounds. One of them wore a mail and plate surcoat, with a crest of sea waves and a sun shining brightly in its splendid seafoam green. Ammon had just mounted his horse when Irene brought her eyes to him and he smiled, at her and the crowd, and directed his horse towards the benches. A boy came rushing to him to hand him a lance and Ammon took it with practiced ease, tucking his thumb into the belt to hold the heavy weapon steadily as he lowered it onto the barrier between the benches and the tourney grounds, and asked one of the young women there for her favors. As she wrapped a yellow ribbon around the tip of his lance, Ammon looked up at Irene and his eyes shifted to the vacant seat at her side, his eyes glinting with a silent question.

Matthias had not come. She did not know where he was and Irene lifted a shoulder in response to Ammon. He turned his horse around and picked up his helmet. Shortly after, he rode at his opponent, their paths separated by a fence, and his lance struck the other man in the shoulder. He fell back against his horse, probably unconscious, and had nearly fallen off if the servants haven’t come rushing in to help. The crowd cheered, the noble lady who’d bestowed Ammon with her favours the most. Irene remained quiet, telling herself to breathe, and loosened the grip on her chair’s armrests.
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#65
Matthias twisted the band on his left ring finger as he stared blankly out the half-open window of his old room. The moonstone seemed to glint under the sunlight, turned a cool shade of lime through the colored glass pane. The usual jewelry which decorated that particular finger was the ruby ring that carried the Vaether insignia, but it had been relocated in favor of the one he had bought with Irene at the Thean Gerith market. The monetary value of the latter was at best a hundredth of his signet ring, it meant more to him, currently. Not for any sort of romantic inclinations he had toward Irene, but it was a symbol of their relationship, something that would make anyone with ill intention think twice about approaching her. The Court was a place with a thousand eyes. Even a change in the parting of his hair would have been noticed. There was no doubt that the matching rings he and his Princess wore would be noted by many by the end of today.

People had already begun to stream into the Gardens, gathering in sheltered pavilions. Normally, Matthias would be one of those early arrivers, sitting down there and conversing with the Lords and Ladies instead of waiting around all the way up here in the residential wing. However, the Emperor himself had requested his elder sons participate in this tournament. They would not really be part of the competition, that was left for the knights. Their only opponents were each other, a fact that rung true for most of their lives. Unlike most other aspects, however, when it came to jousting, it was not in Andrew but Marc that he met his match. Lacking as the eldest prince may be in the finer art of swordplay, jousting was a territory where his brute strength gave him an edge over his brothers.

Matthias was distracted from his thoughts by the entrance of his beloved Princess, who was, he could tell even from this distance, practically drowning in grandeur and luxury as she was escorted into the Gardens. From here, at least, she looked like royalty. Unfortunately, he doubted he could say the same up close. He recalled the words she said during their shared breakfast a few days ago. I am hardly a Princess. He released a soft sigh. For as long as she still held that thought, no amount of royal blood or etiquette lessons would make her what she needed to be.

As most of the invited audience made their appearance and the seats filled up, the tournament started. After watching a few unremarkable rounds, he finally made his way down to the competition grounds.

The blue-tinted steel armor he was currently wearing was not as good as the one he wore in real battles but it was still sturdy and would not allow him to get injured further than a scratch even if he tried. Yet, Matthias let his servants fuss over it as they headed to the Gardens, not stopping them even when they checked his breastplate for dents for the fifth time. They were worried about him and, as overly nitpicking they were being in displaying it, he appreciated that. His thoughts returned to his fiancee and he wondered if she would be worried about him, as well. He couldn’t imagine it.

Matthias strolled leisurely to the jousting pitch, accepting the lance that a boy handed him on the way. Instead of going over to Irene to ask for her favors, he only turned to where she sat in the crowd and raised his hand where one half of their matching rings rested before bringing it to his lips in a soft kiss. The low buzz of the audience rose, just slightly, in volume at sight of his action.

Without further ceremony, he jumped onto his horse and led it to one side of the fence. Opposite him, down the stretch of empty land, Andrew sat on his own mount. Their eyes met and Matthias smirked, nodding slightly in a mocking version of a bow. He slipped his helmet on, indifferent to what his brother’s reaction to that would have been. Rolling his shoulders, he leaned forward, his grip on the reins tightening. His lanced was raised, his body was in harmony with his steed’s, both tensed and still, ready to charge. He inhaled deeply, forcing all unrelated thoughts out of his mind as his gaze zeroed in on his target.

The flags fell. In a split-second, he was tearing forward, cutting through wind. The distance between him and his opponent narrowed to a few meters in the blink of an eye. He lunged forward slightly, his lance aimed at the target’s shoulder. It hit but was too light. He felt his body jerk backward, shoved by a blurred force and as the horses passed each other, an aching pain spread in his shoulder. If it weren’t for the armor, it would have been dislocated. There had been magic behind that strike. Matthias grinded his teeth.

An obstacle, not a human being.

Both riders turned and charged again at nearly the same time. He aimed his lance as they neared each other. Andrew reared back in shock. He tried to dodge, a beat too late, to no avail. The weapon had found its mark. His opponent flew off his horse and landed on his back on the ground. Cheers rose from the audience. Matthias had won.

To those watching, it was a normal attack. Only the two involved parties knew what he had done. He had aimed at his brother’s chest, a move that could have been fatal to a lesser enemy. Matthias pulled off his helmet, running a hand through his sweat soaked hair. He walked to the sidelines with a slight limp, having hurt his hip when he had been hit, and pulled off his shoulder pad. The pain was increasing by the second. It couldn’t compared to a stab wound, of course, but it hurt like hell all the same. Neither he nor Andrew would be able to last a match against Marc. It seemed the healers realized this as well and they reported it as such. The next round would be the finals against the last two knights instead.

He took the drink of water offered to him as he watched Andrew being helped to his feet, still wheezing. Too bad, he wasn’t badly injured, Matthias mused. He barely managed to keep a worried expression on as his dark sense of humor clawed its way to the forefront of his mind. The first time he had won a fight against Andrew, he had left the scene with a broken leg. It was a shame that it was not his brother with a broken limb this time.

He left to a nearby tent to change out of his armor and clean up while people were occupied with the next round of jousting. After making sure that his injury wasn’t serious, he quickly put on a simple set of robes and returned to the pavillion where Irene sat. He was all smiles and cheerful greetings as he passed through the audience to where his Princess was. Andrew was the same, albeit a little pale, as he came back out just a few moments later. He settled into his seat beside Irene, not paying further attention to the older man.

“How are you enjoying this picnic, Princess?” He asked the woman beside him, taking her hand like it had become natural for him to do in public. “Thank you for your blessing, by the way,” he continued with a short laugh, intertwining their fingers such that the moonstone and sapphire lay beside each other, sparkling under the glaring sun.

The rings really did look good together. And, in a purely aesthetic sense, so did their owners. Again, he wondered if Irene had worried at all, if she had felt her heart stutter when he had been hit or if she had hoped he would win. Somewhere in him, pushed aside like the indescribable feelings he had when she had caressed his face in her drunkenness, he almost wished she had.
 
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Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#66
Irene hoped Matthias chose to ignore the summons to this event or was simply too preoccupied with matters of state to attend. It was better than the alternative. It was better than seeing him enter the jousting grounds, clad from head to toe in armour, a lance in hand, ready to participate in the tourney. Irene inhaled deeply, fighting the desire to get up and leave, suddenly finding herself struggling for air.

A broken limb was norm in jousting tournaments. But many died. It was a brutal sport, one she might have enjoyed when younger and far more naïve, when she had nothing to lose but her own life that was not connected to anyone else’s.

The way Matthias pressed his lips against the matching ring evoked no emotion from Irene, though any other would have felt a flutter in their chest at seeing that romantic, dreamy gesture. Irene was not fooled by it, refusing to believe that Matthias held any warm feelings for her. It was all an elaborate act that she supposed she should play along with, so she offered a tight-lipped smile and ran a thumb over the sapphire’s smooth surface, twisting it around her finger to face downward. It gave her no comfort to wear the ring, not when it became cause for more unnecessary gossip.

Irene’s heart did stutter, though not for Matthias.

The audience gasped in unison as their prince was dismounted and Irene’s shock matched their own. They cheered, and several rose from their seats, clapping, and Irene rose from her chair as well, a subconscious response to help urging her to circle the fence separating the audience from the jousting pitch to aid. The Court’s eyes were upon her with all their scrutinizing intensity. All those eyes felt like spiders crawling up and down her spine, a cold chill against her senses of a seasoned warrior. But Irene couldn’t care less what they thought of her obvious worry for a prince that was not her fiancé.

Irene watched the servants rush over to the fallen prince and her gaze flickered to Matthias. She noted the limp and remembered the sick clank of metal as his brother’s lance hit him in the shoulder. She couldn’t care less that he won – though a part of her, buried beneath trepidation, was proud he had – only grateful that he was uninjured.

Slowly, Irene sat down and exhaled a long breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Matthias and his brother had been escorted off the tourney grounds but the crowd was still abuzz with excitement and gossip. Many eyes were drawn to the ring on Irene’s finger and its owner looked at it as well, thoughts swirling in her mind with all the comfort of a pebble in a boot. Matthias may have declared his feelings for his fiancée through the ring, but Irene started to wonder if he truly harboured something for her. Their night in Thean Gerith market was pleasant, despite the way it ended, and they have grown close since she dropped her act of a sulking child.

It was…problematic.

She hadn’t been paying attention to the next round of knights. A memory fought its way to the front of her mind, a flashback of a rainy night in the swamp where a rider fell off her horse and nearly became a cripple. Irene stomped it down, swallowed down the anxiety threatening to become a panic attack, and wondered if refusing the wine was a bad idea.

Matthias returned shortly and when he took her hand, Irene squeezed it, wishing to convey the discomfort she felt. She was about to speak to him when his brother, the one who fell off the horse, climbed the short stair onto the podium. He offered Irene a brief greeting but before he could pass her, she reached out to place a hand onto his wrist to stop him.

“Are you alright?” She asked, a question that should’ve been addressed to the man at her side, the man she was to marry, not his brother that lost the jousting challenge.

“Of course, it’s just a spar between brothers,” he replied and clapped Matthias on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I have to get to my seat, but I hope to talk more to you some other time.”

The answer was hardly satisfactory, but at least the man could walk and speak. He’d been hit square in the chest, so it was a miracle he was at all alive, and none of his bones broke from the impact or the fall. Irene pulled back her hand and watched the man continue to his seat.

Then, she turned to Matthias, her eyes traveling to his injured shoulder. “This picnic could’ve cost you a broken bone.” Irene’s grip on his hand tightened and she sighed softly, leaning against the backrest of her chair. Her gaze was trained on the servants that were picking up fragments of a broken lance off the ground. “Never scare me like that again.” Though her words were condescending, her concern was palpable. Matthias’s eyes showed a hint of surprise but he accepted her reprimand easily with a soft smile.

For a fleeting moment, Irene wondered if her fear was for Matthias or his brother.

The last pair of knights faced off in the final round, a broad-shouldered man with a curly mop of hair stained dark with sweat coming victorious. One of the attendants brought him his prize – a golden cornucopia filled with an exquisite array of polished jewels glittering in the sun with all colours of the rainbow. He raised it to the skies, let the scorching sun shine on the prize, and the crowd cheered and applauded. After he left the grounds, beaming despite the bloody scratch on his forehead from a hit he’d suffered from his opponent, an attendant announced an invitation that everyone is to proceed to the Labyrinth for a celebratory banquet.

Irene rose from her seat, grateful to leave the tourney grounds. The Lords and Ladies waited for the Imperial family to descent first, offering greetings and curtsies as they passed the crowd. Ammon was among them. He chose not to participate in the jousting tourney after one round, although he’d won, and after changing out of his armour into something less stifling, came to join the woman who’d given him her favours. When Irene passed by him, their eyes met for a fleeting moment, and Ammon lowered his head and sunk into an elegant bow.

The crowd started to disperse, chatter beginning anew, and none were in a hurry to go to the Labyrinth. They mingled and laughed, walking the paths leading deeper into the Garden. Servants holding trays with refreshments dutifully offered drinks to passing Lords and Ladies. The heat was unrelenting and sweat already started to glisten on skin of many nobles and servants alike. Irene, who’d been sitting in the cool shadow of the pavilion, was yet unbothered by the scorching sun. What she lacked was fresh air, which one’d assume would be in abundance outdoors, but it was not. The air was thick with perfume and sweat and sweet scent of flowers and fruit trees.

“Your Highness does not like the Garden?” A voice came from Irene’s left and she looked up to meet turquoise eyes.

“Am I that obvious?” Irene asked as Ammon gave her a silver goblet with water. Their fingers brushed when she took the drink.

“Quite,” Ammon smiled and turned to Matthias, tilting his head in a small bow. “Marvellous victory, my Prince. That ring shattered many hearts today. Many yet wish for your favour, so sudden was your engagement.” The curve of his lips emphasized the fine lines at the corners of his eyes. His gaze travelled down Irene’s arm until it settled on the ring. “May I?”

The man’s touch was gentle as he took Irene’s hand and lifted it, so the sunlight touched the sapphire just so. For a moment he looked at the stone, his eyes smiling even when he himself no longer was, and then turned Irene’s hand palm up. His thumbs ran over the skin there, over the discoloured callouses that began to fade. His touch travelled down her open fingers and then up to her wrist. Irene raised a brow, lost as to why he was so fascinated with her hand.

“Something wrong?” She inquired hesitantly.

Ammon chuckled, his shoulders rising in a dismissive shrug. “No,” he drawled. “Your skin got softer since I last saw you. This life suits you, it seems.”

At Ammon’s brazen actions, Matthias’s expression hardened by a fraction. If it weren’t for the fact that there were few people watching, no doubt this scene would have already sparked a topic for gossip. “It seems you are closer friends than I thought,” he remarked dryly, brow raised in a silent question as he glanced at Irene.

Their meeting was scarcely a secret. Matthias already knew of Irene’s former trade, but he hadn’t asked for specifics nor of how she and Ammon met. It was inevitable that the topic was going resurface at some point in the future. But it was not a conversation to be had when surrounded by too curious for their own good nobles.

Irene pulled her hand back and waved it dismissively. “Hardly,” she told Matthias. “We met once. It was…” she paused, searching her memory.

“Six years ago,” Ammon offered. “A brief meeting, true. Irina caught the attention of just about everyone in the crowd. I was not immune to her charms, either. The time we spent together, albeit hurried, was quite memorable. I am pleased her Highness still remembers me.”

“Six years? You must have left quite the impression on her then,” Matthias replied, his gaze travelling from Irene to Ammon as his lips quirked up in a half-smile.

“And she on me,” Ammon smiled back at Matthias, though it did not reach his eyes. “Ah, but it is your meeting that intrigues me. The Court is as curious as I do know the details. Would you indulge me, my Prince?”

“I’d be more comfortable indulging you when we’re in private, Lord Darnell,” Matthias’s tone was low and, with enough imagination, almost like a purr. Ammon’s brows shot upward just a fraction and his smile faltered. “About the details, of course,” Matthias added as an afterthought, a beat too late and a touch too wry to seem sincere.

Irene shifted uncomfortably at her fiancé’s side. She remembered the male courtesan, Rafael, and what Matthias promised him. But this time she did not lose herself in laughter. What once she found amusing now made her feel awkward and tense. Had she cared for the Prince’s loyalty, she would have hissed his name in warning as any other jealous and possessive wife, but as they were, Irene felt like a third wheel, standing there like piece of forgotten furniture.

It took a moment for Ammon to gather himself. He cleared his throat and stuttered, “I, ah, I am not worthy of your…attention. There will yet be time for conversation, though perhaps on less private topics.” He gestured with a hand towards the path leading to the Labyrinth and added, “Let us join the others for lunch, yes?”
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#67
His days in the Court had taught Matthias many things, including various methods to shut people up without actually telling them to. He fought down a smug smile as the Lord brought their conversation to a stuttering end and let the older man lead the way to the banquet. It actually surprised him that just a vaguely suggestive comment was all he had needed. Ammon Darnell had proven himself to be a very brazen personality, after all.

He would have been much more amused by the situation if he wasn’t dreading the impending lunch, stationed right at the entrance of the Labyrinth. He would bet his treasury that it was the Empress who had arranged for the banquet to be held where it was. She loved to make him uncomfortable, even in the smallest of ways, at every available opportunity.The bad premonition he was having did not stem only from his hatred of that place, however. If there was anything positive he had to say about that woman, it was that she never did things in halves. Instinct told him that her plan did not simply end at forcing him to be around that place.

They arrived where most of the others had already gathered. Three tables were connected to house the guests, the shortest at the head, reserved for the Imperial Family, with two longer ones flanking it, leaving an open space in the middle. The furniture was as blindingly white as the rest of the Palace and stood in contrast against the crisp green of the Gardens. Servants flitted back and forth, carrying trays of food and jugs of wine, somehow balancing those without faltering in their hurried steps with practiced ease.

The Emperor sat in the middle of the row of seats in the front table, silent and brooding as always. The only open space at their table was beside Marc’s wife, Lady Hale and her young son, Theus. Matthias was not keen on children, especially not his nephew who was, in his experience, one of the most excitable kids around. The child seemed restless in his seat, tugging on his mother’s robes every so often and bouncing in his chair when he wasn’t. Matthias let Irene take the seat nearest to the six year old, himself taking the seat the edge of the table.

“Careful, Princess, the Lady Hale is a right bitch,” he whispered to Irene as they settled, using a word that he normally reserved for when he was with his soldiers to emphasize on the extent of the First Princess’...attitude issues.

Irene’s brows rose in shock and she stared at Matthias, as if thinking her ears have deceived her. Then, a corner of her lips curled up in a half-smile and she leaned against the armrest towards him, whispering, “What has she done to earn your ire?”

He glanced at the topic of their hushed conversation before turning his gaze back to Irene as he replied in a conspiratory tone, as if revealing a great secret, with a hint of mischief in his tone, “She made Jaime almost cry once when we were children.” He paused to control his growing grin before finishing with an ominous, “I warned you.”

“Charming woman.” Unlike Matthias, Irene couldn’t control her smile. She hadn’t turned to look at Lady Hale and that was, perhaps, for the best. While Matthias could get away with gossiping in hushed tones, Irene would give away the subject of their gossip with one look alone. “Want me to spill a drink on her? On accident.”

“Jaime will appreciate your vengeance in his honor, I’m sure,” Matthias responded with a soft chuckle, “even if it was by accident.” He straightened up, having leaned closer to Irene in the midst of their whispers.

He was about to remind his Princess not to eat seafood when the call of his title from a group of Lords sitting at the table adjacent to his stole his attention. They roped him into a discussion about the recent booming trade with Riverside, a conversation that was clearly, unfortunately, going to last a long while. Hopefully, Irene has good enough of a memory to remember she’s supposed to be allergic to that particular dish.

“Matthias.” A familiar voice cut through his conversation with the Lords, a disturbance which he would have been thankful for if the owner of that voice wasn’t someone he wanted to avoid even more than the men he was talking to. The Empress stood just behind him, her hand coming to rest on the back of his chair. He was unable to stop himself from tensing, though after all this time he had stopped even bothering to try.

Mother,” he responded, imitating her tone, putting on a saccharine smile. The other parties of his previous conversation dispersed as if on command, perhaps warded away by the poison that bloomed in the air whenever the two of them collided.

“Could you go fetch Faean for me? Your brother, really that child, went off into the Labyrinth without even properly having his meal,” she told him, a perfect mixture of worry and exasperation in her tone. Matthias held no doubt that the one to send the boy in there in the first place. A flash of concern wormed its way into his heart against his best efforts to keep them out. The last time she had sent a boy into the Labyrinth- No, Faean was her own son, she wouldn’t, not just for the sake of getting at him. Then, what was her intention? What was she trying to do? The Empress was a fan of power plays, someone who enjoyed showing power just for the sake of it. Did she want to forced him into the Labyrinth for no other reason then to watch him squirm? It was not impossible.

He squeezed Irene’s hand to alert her that he was leaving and left toward the maze-like structure without further hesitation. A decade already. Grow up. It’s nothing. It’s fine. He was lying to himself. He didn’t know if it was fortunate or not that he had a talent for deception. At least, his lack of resistance would have taken away some part of the Empress’s enjoyment in whatever she was trying to pull. He comforted himself with that thought as he stepped into the place he frequented most in his nightmares.

*****

“Enough, Theus, stop fidgeting,” she scolded under her breath, removing her son’s hands from her dress for the upteenth time. Theus pouted and turned toward the other woman flanking him, deciding to play with her rather eye-catching dress instead. Rian’s eyes scanned the so-called Princess sitting a seat away from her, debating on whether to pull her child away or not.

The pompous woman, Irene or so she was introduced, seemed removed from the scene around her, bored even. A shameless one, she had to be, acting so high and mighty when she was really just a savage whore that Prince Matthias had taken pity on. What a shame. Her sister had been fighting for that man’s favor since their childhood yet it was this dark-skinned hussy that snatched him away. Princess of Izmar. The ends of her lips curled into a sneer as she studied the woman’s stiff, graceless posture. What a joke.

“Your ring is pretty,” she heard her son say. Frowning, Rian tugged Theus’s hands away from the woman. She waved her hand and a servant came over with a basin of water. “Wash your hands carefully, Theus, and stop playing with dirty things while you’re having a meal,” she reproached, not even sparing the woman she just insulted a glance.

From the corner of her vision, she saw the “Princess” level a blank, unimpressed stare at her. She raised her chin, shooting the other woman a condescending sidelong glance. It was at this moment when a flowing blue dress swept by, heading toward the couple beside her. Her eyes flickered up and widened. The Empress did not look in her direction and begun speaking to Matthias. Just a few words exchanged after, the Prince stood and left toward the Labyrinth behind them, not even saying a thing to his to-be bride. An odd sense of victory filled her. A lowly woman, indeed. Why would a Prince care about her?

“How have you been, Irene?” The Empress asked, surprising both her and the other Princess. In her distraction, she had not noticed that Theus’s boredom had overtaken him again. The boy started trying to undo the braid that held back the Princess’s long mane of hair.

“Theus!” She exclaimed, once again pulling him back properly in his seat. A frown crossed her pretty features and the boy stilled, shrinking back in fear of his mother’s wrath. Rian made an apologetic expression, not to the woman whose hair had nearly been ruined but to the Empress who laughed good-naturedly as she patted the child softly on the head.

Just then, servant girl came over to relay a message to the Empress. The older woman’s smile seemed to sharpen and she turned to Irene, eyes of a predator hidden with a sweet tone of voice as she said, “Matthias is calling for you in the Labyrinth, dear.”

Rian’s gaze hardened on Irene at that news too. She thought she understood why the Empress seemed suddenly so sinister. This woman, whose race was the only thing attractive about her, being lavished with attention that even so many real Ladies couldn’t draw from the Third Prince. A commoner, a mere peasant trying to climb up to the ranks of the Imperial Family. How dare she? She couldn’t wait for the day that this woman would fall from grace, when the Prince would have had enough of his “Princess”.

A false smile plastered on her face, Rian greeted the woman with a too sugary tone, “I hope you don’t get lost, Princess.”
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#68
The banquet was just as the last, just as grand, the setting less stifling than before but there was still too little air to breathe. Scent of pungent flowers mixed with the rich spices of food lingering in the air. Each table was laden heavily with large silver plates and bowls and goblets. Dishes of roasted meat cooled in creamy and buttery sauces. Seafood arrangements, raw and cooked, sat amidst a field of lemon and lime slices, tiny bowls of fatty sauces beside each plate to enhance the already flavourful taste with a mere spoonful. Gilded white bowls of ripe fruit and vegetables mingled among all the mouth-watering dishes. Servants hurried back and forth, refilling drinks and removing empty plates to replace them with something new and fresh from the palace kitchens.

Blocks of cut ice melted in bejewelled basins put about the area at even intervals. Several had been moved closer to the head table for the Imperial family’s pleasure, but Irene couldn’t feel the difference even as attendants slowly fanned the royalty with cut palm branches. She could feel sweat starting to soak her back where it rested against the chair and it beaded on her forehead and neck. The food and the guests and the scorching sun, it all combined to make the air heavy with heat and Irene started to understand why so many Ladies of Vaelan Court preferred to wear such low cut, flowing dresses. Several had sent Irene looks of pity, their gazes sliding up and down her body, hiding their judgemental smiles behind a hand. Irene was equally determined to ignore them.

The robes she wore were not uncomfortable nor as tight as the last ensemble the attendants at Matthias’s residence had chosen for her. The skirts were cool against her legs and Irene had no choice but to wear clothing with high collars and long sleeves, anyway. The scars adorning her skin, while of no importance to her, could scare the Court half to death as much as the Mark would.

An attendant refilled Irene’s goblet with more water, this time with fragments of mint and lemon to add some taste. She did not mind; she welcomed it, even. The goblet was cool against her skin and she brought it up to rest against the side of her neck but had to return it back on the table when a young boy beside her started to fumble with the skirts of her robes.

The child was a welcome distraction from the banquet and the woman who came to speak to Matthias. Irene listened to them talk out of caution, remembering from last time Matthias’s dislike for the Empress. Whatever happened between the two of them was not her business, so she never inquired, but the way he pronounced mother made her stifle a flinch each time it left his lips. So poisonous it was, he may as well have said it each time with a sneer curling his lips. Perhaps, he was sneering. Irene was too preoccupied with ignoring the Court and reminding herself to breathe each time Matthias and the Empress had a conversation to notice.

Irene smiled at the child, pushing aside her concern for her fiancé, and let the boy fidget with the skirts, folding the fabric to have the sun shine over the brocade. She raised a hand to place it over his small ones when he lifted the fabric higher to see more of it in the sun’s rays but stopped and instead played with the ring on her finger. She did not know what the etiquette was regarding touching the children of the imperial family but Irene didn’t care. He was but a boy, no more than six summers past his brow, and possibly the only one in this entire area who was pure and innocent, untainted by the workings of the Court.

Matthias had left moments ago. Without him, Irene felt as if her back was exposed. She didn’t know from what moment she started to think of him as a partner, someone to have her back and cover for her in matters that she was too ignorant to handle herself. It was both a pleasant and an uncomfortable revelation. She didn’t want to rely on him. He was one of them, the Court and royalty and as much a member of the power plays as anyone, so trusting him was dangerous. But she did. He hadn’t given her reason not to.

Except for the ritual. And the Throne room.

But he explained his actions, did he not? Irene couldn’t expect him to believe her claims on word and a letter alone. And he was the Third Prince, Saint Matthias; his wedding couldn’t be kept secret no matter how dangerous it was to announce it to the world.

Irene wanted to hate him. Desired it even. It was much easier than the alternative. It excused the lie she still carried with her on her chest, safely hidden beneath ornate robes.

The Empress’s words pulled Irene away from her thoughts and she straightened and shifted in her seat to look up at the woman. “Well, thank you. Your Imperial Majesties are gracious hosts,” Irene replied but could not force herself to smile. She started to miss Matthias’s presence at her side but for a wholly different reason – being in easy reach of his sword was comforting when cornered into her seat.

Something tugged at Irene’s hair and her heart skipped a beat, her lips parting in a shock as she visually paled and looked over her shoulder. The boy had grasped her braid and pulled on the pearl beads woven into her hair.

“It is alright,” Irene assured his mother, glancing up at the woman. The Lady Hale’s earlier comment did not sting her but left a sour impression in its wake. Such beauty wasted on such an idiot. Irene could practically feel the Lady Hale’s displeasure. “Here,” Irene reached for her braid and removed a string of pearls. The attendants insisted she do something to decorate her hair and Irene, who was starting to accept that the life of spears and armour was behind her, let them choose something light enough so she wouldn’t notice its presence.

The braid had come undone at the end and Irene bound it. Not for the first time she looked at it with consideration. After the wedding, she was to cut it and gift it to Matthias – such was the rule. But Irene did not grow her hair out for her would-be husband, whoever that may have been, but as a sign of strength. Leon caught onto her intention quickly and cut her hair each time she lost a duel with him during training. He’d stopped only when she learned how to disarm him.

Now, her hair reached her just past the hip. If Matthias was to receive it, Irene doubted he’d understand its importance. Vaela did not practice what Izmar did. And a gift of a long braid was a sign that their marriage is to be strong and happy, their lives long and filled with laughter of many children born to them. Irene wasn’t sure she could give any of these things to Matthias.

She handed the boy the pearls, closing her hand over his to curl his fingers closed around the gift. Perhaps it could keep him entertained when his own mother couldn’t. The pearls handed over, Irene was about to rise from the chair when one of the Lords in the table to their right proclaimed a toast. Everyone raised their goblets, Irene included, and drank for the Imperial family’s health and for the upcoming marriage of Prince Matthias and Princess Irene. Irene was pleased her eyes were downcast as she emptied her goblet, otherwise she would’ve given away her discomfort with the pretentiousness of his speech.

Irene rose from the chair as she set down the goblet, too close to the one the Lady Hale just drank from. The goblet tipped, spilling the wine across the table and onto the skirts of the Lady Hale’s dress.

“Ah,” Irene gasped, bringing a hand to her lips in mock shock. She felt she’d overdone it. “How clumsy of me. Please forgive me.” Then, she turned to the Empress and offered her a quick curtsy, “Thank you, your Majesty,” she said and left for the labyrinth. Once the tables were behind her, Irene let the smile that had been fighting its way onto her face through. She wasn’t one for petty bullying, but Matthias would appreciate what she’d done. Let the Court think what they like. Let them speak what they want. Irene was unbothered with their comments and refused to partake in the duel of words.

Maybe the wine will cool her Grace’s temper.

A right bitch. Matthias’s description of the Lady Hale wasn’t far off the mark.

It occurred to Irene when she stepped into the cool shadows of the Labyrinth that she had no idea where Matthias could be waiting for her. No matter. She could track rabbits through a forest, so how hard was a prince to find? It was good to be free from the stifling, hot banquet, so Irene thought that perhaps she could take her time in looking for Matthias.

Until, at least, she felt the ground move from under her feet.

Irene staggered and shot out a hand to grip the hedge before she could fall. Her heart beat frantically in her chest, sent into panic like a caged bird, and Irene brought a hand to wipe at the beads of sweat forming on her brow. She was fine moments ago. Now, her vision swam, blurring the shapes of the turns and winding paths of the Labyrinth and she started down the path she thought she came from. Perhaps it was the summer heat that caused this, coupled with the constant anxiety of being at Court where so many wore weapons when she did not, was not permitted one. It could be a combination of factors – the hot air, the pungent smells, the too thick for the weather robes. But Irene did not believe herself to be this weak that she fell unconscious because of the weather. She spent most of her life traveling, Mountain bury her, and experienced far harsher environments.

It was impossible to tell where she was going. Each path was identical to the last, every turn dark and leading into the unknown. Irene could barely keep herself walking, her vision blinking in and out of darkness.

“Who’s that?” A voice came from behind her and she immediately thought of Matthias. And immediately reprimanded herself for thinking of him when she was at her weakest. Perhaps the palace was truly turning her into a princess, one who swooned at the sight of her husband.

But it was not Matthias. That voice was slurred with alcohol, or at least Irene thought it was slurred. She couldn’t trust her senses in this condition.

“Is that not the princess?” Another voice chimed in, as unintelligible as the last.

“It is.” A barking laugh bounced against the Labyrinth’s walls. “Come here, princess. You look lost.”

Irene did no such thing. She continued to stumble her way down the winding path, away from the voices that promised nothing pleasant even as they cooed at her. She took a turn down another dark, narrow path, and stopped. It was a dead end, one into which she’d nearly walked into had she not been feeling her way through the Labyrinth. Her sight was fooling her. There were shapes all around, pale and ominous, frozen in twisted poses. Irene turned when she ran into another one of such shapes but this one moved. Immediately she panicked and stumbled back until the hedgerow dug into her back through her clothes.

“Hush, princess.” The shape spoke in a purr and laughed. “We won’t harm you.”

Some primal part of Irene urged her to flee but she could barely stand, let alone walk, and her hesitation cost her. Two other shapes appeared, flanking her, trapping her against the hedgerow. She couldn’t see their faces through the shadow, only bits and pieces of their clothing – green and gold vest, a bejewelled sword glimmering under a stray ray of sunlight passing through the dense bush, the many rings on a hand. That hand reached for her face and Irene pushed it away, stepping from the hedge, refusing to be cornered like a rabbit by barking dogs.

The owner of the hand laughed and reached again, too fast for Irene to even see the movement, and grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her close. Propelled by the movement, Irene’s body reacted on its own, muscles and limbs remembering what to do even as her mind struggled to keep up with the situation. She drew back her arm to punch him and her fist met its mark, striking him in the nose. The man staggered back, let go of her elbow, and hissed, “Bitch.”

Irene was too slow to take advantage of their shock and his arm shot up. He backhanded her, one of the bejewelled rings cutting her lip where he struck her, and Irene fell back against the hedge. The world went dark. By the time she came to, he was on her, his hand around her neck. He tore at the pearl buttons of her outer robe. Irene tried to jerk her knee to kick him into his groin, but he blocked and pressed her further against the ground. It occurred to her, through the haze that was her mind, that she had fallen and one of the other two men held her wrists pinned on either side of her head. Unable to move, Irene swallowed down the fear.

The man loomed on top of her, broader and taller and much heavier, and far less inebriated than her. The alcohol odour rolled off of him and assaulted her nose as he leaned in and slid a hand under the open outer robe, mashing her breast. Her gaze fell to the sword on his hip, they all wore a weapon, but Irene had to free her arm to even attempt to reach for it.

She shifted in their hold and freed a leg from under him and hit him square against his chest. He fell back, wheezing and Irene hooked her foot between the legs of the third man, who was simply standing and watching, leering down at her. Surprised by her sudden action, he stumbled and fell on a knee, but before Irene could so much as think about freeing her wrist to reach for his sword that was in easy reach, the first man was atop her in seconds.

His hand wrapped around her throat like a vise, his fingers denying her air. He closed the distance between them and pressed his lips against hers, hard, their teeth clashing painfully. Irene bit his lip and tasted blood in her mouth, her own or from his nose or now, bitten lip. He pulled back and the man who stood up once more laughed.

“Feisty one,” he said when his laughter seized and, still smiling, pressed the heel of his foot against Irene’s wrist until she gasped in pain. “Don’t break her too much, would you?” He sneered and watched the one on top try to wretch her knees apart.

“We’ll be good to you, princess,” the one holding Irene’s wrists spoke. She looked at him, his face swimming in her vision against the backdrop of the clear blue sky. His features were shadowed but his eyes gleamed. “The less you resist, the better.”

The man standing let out another bark of laughter. “Let her resist. More fun that way.”

Irene’s legs were finally pushed apart, and she felt the skirts shift, dragged up towards her thighs. Her heart continued its frantic dance and a cold wave of fear washed over her. She couldn’t escape. Whatever happened to her made her slow, her limbs leaden, and she knew that even if she somehow freed from these despicable men now, they’d find her in seconds again.

“Let me go,” Irene demanded, refusing to plead even as the man on top of her started fumbling with his belt. Her demand was near unintelligible, each word slow and with long pauses in between.

The one standing crouched down and reached for her, brushing a thumb over her bloodied lip. “Why?” He asked in a mocking voice as if he was speaking to a child and cocked his head to the side. “You are but a whore. This is what you deserve. This is all your people are good for.”
 
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GetThree

Junior Member
#69
The Labyrinth had a dizzying sort of beauty, long, twisting path framed by hedges dotted with white lillies, decorated by the occasional stone statues of lions and angels. Under the heat of the blazing afternoon sun, the lines of the maze seemed to blur. Everywhere he looked appeared to be an endless stretch of green, he was on a road to nowhere laid out in marble.

Matthias navigated the Labyrinth, expression and gait full of calm that he did not feel. The deeper he went into the Labyrinth, the narrower the pathways felt. He found himself constantly looking back over his shoulder, searching for an enemy that didn’t exist. Every small sound made him tense. A little voice in his mind nagged at him, it kept telling him that he was walking into a trap, that, anytime now, walls would rise from the ground behind him and imprison him, again, in this viridescent hell.

It was so ridiculous, he knew, how easily he was letting such a distant past affect him. The unwanted memories clawed their way out of the depths of his mind, forcing themselves into the frontlines of his thoughts. The ache in his shoulder intensified. A bead of sweat rolled down his face. His heart was beating fast, desperately. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe, it hurts, stop-

Faean’s aura flickered, he had used magic, pulling Matthias out of his thoughts. He was close to the boy now, just a turn of a corner away. He collected himself and quickened his steps. It was better to get out quickly rather than panicking about being in. He cursed Faean’s curiosity for leading the child so far into the enigmatic Labyrinth. He had been walking for at least ten minutes in search of his wayward brother.

Finally, he reached the inconspicuous dead end where the youngest Prince had hid himself. The boy was nestled in a corner of the path, surrounded by greenery, a book lying face down on his lap. Waves of blonde hair framed his face, a single lock falling into his eyes as he toyed with the petals of a fallen flower. With his pretty face and slight figure, he rather resembled his namesake; a fairy, innocent, curious, beautiful. Any one who knew Matthias from a young age would say that the two brothers were alike. They would be right. Matthias knew, in his head at least, that he was once just like that. It had been a long time since then.

“Faean,” he called, disturbing the silent tranquility. The boy flinched, letting go of the flower immediately and eyes jerking toward the source of the intrusion, alert and cautious. Innocent, he may be, but not reckless. A small part of Matthias felt for, no, with the child. Barely even a teen, yet he was already showing the effects of the hereditary disease called paranoia. He wondered when the next stage would kick in and the boy would start to tense rather than break into a smile every time he saw his brother. He almost wished it would be soon. The trust and warmth in Faean’s gaze toward him felt like fire on his skin.

“Matthias! How did you, I mean, did you need something?” The little Prince asked, stumbling over his words as he picked himself off the ground. Matthias merely waved the boy over to his side in reply, already pivoting on his heels to head back toward the exit. It reminded him of a puppy, the way Faean rushed over when he was beckoned, steps filled with badly concealed enthusiasm.

“Your mother is looking for you,” he finally answered as they begun to walk, Faean’s short legs struggling to keep up with his own long strides. He slowed down his pace, pushing aside his urgency to be away from this place. At least, with someone by his side, being here did not feel so intimidating.

“What? But she told me I could come here to study instead of being out there with...uh, with them.” A scowl formed on the child’s lips and the start of a smile formed on his. He understood his youngest brother’s sentiments well. He, too, did not want to be near “them”. But he would much prefer it to being near the scene of one of his worst traumas.

“Studying, were you?” His teasing question made Faean pause, a faint blush blooming on his cheeks. “I was,” he insisted, almost whining, holding up his book as if that proved his point. Matthias hummed in reply, clearly not believing. The younger pouted, his expression a mixture of embarrassment and indignance, looking the most childish Matthias had seen him years.

They continued to stroll together, rarely in silence for Faean had a habit of chatting about random matters around him. Distracted by the conversation, his earlier discomfort dissipated- Princess - then came back full force. His steps came to a screeching halt. Bitch. His breath hitched. His ears rang with sounds of a distant fight.

He turned toward the source of the racket, only to come face to face with a wall of leaves. Feisty one. A croaking voice cut through the mess of men’s hisses and grunts. His muscles tensed so suddenly and strongly that it hurt. His hand went to his sword, gripping the handle. The only thing that stopped him from unsheathing it and charging toward the sound was the younger boy staring at him with wide eyes and bated breath.

“Go back to the banquet,” he bit out, voice sounding raspy, unnatural. Angry. He knew what was happening. He knew who made it happen. Faean left as instructed, sensing the danger. He did not dare even spare that child a glance. Seeing her face in his might drive him to do things he would regret.

He turned down to the left path, heading to Irene and her attackers. His breathing was uneven, his eyes were sharp. A terrible expression marred his features, the face of a beast crossed, a monster awoken. He did not try to erase it. It was all he could do to stop himself from tearing down the hedges to get to her.

The nearer he got, the clearer the voices of the men became, taunting, cruel, disgusting.

The nearer he got, the angrier he became.

Irene lay on the floor, pinned down by her hands and legs. She was struggling but her vigor was fading. There was not a silver of hope left on her face.

He lay on the floor, pinning down by his hands and legs. He was struggling but his vigor was fading. He had no hope left in salvation.

There were three attackers. They were all drunk, Matthias realized. He did not care. One had his hand up her thigh and on her breasts. The other two surrounded her, watching with amusement. He wanted to shred their faces that dared to show mirth. They found this fun? They thought this entertaining?

There were five attackers. They were all masked. They must’ve been paid to do this, Matthias realized. He did not care. It sickened him, the feeling of hands on his thighs, on his neck. There was laughter from the men watching. Why were they laughing? Was this so fun? He could not muster up the energy to feel anger. He just wanted it to stop.

Hands forced her knees apart. The drunkards whispered filthy things to her but she refused to beg. She sounded impossibly calm as she told them to stop. They didn’t, they continued, telling her she deserved this.

As hands forced his knees apart, tears sprung to his eyes. He couldn’t even beg, there was a hand over his mouth. He tried so hard to be calm, to find some way out. He couldn’t. He was terrified. He could take hits. He could take cuts. He could take broken bones and broad bruises. But not this. Please not this. He prayed to every god he knew of to make these men stop. They didn’t, they continued, telling him he deserved this.

All Matthias could see was red. There was no words to describe his fury, the boiling rage that overtook him. Yet as he stepped forward into view, his face, his gaze, his stance, were all as impassive as the statues that surrounded them.

“What do you think you’re doing?” His voice was colder than the coldest ice and sharper than the sharpest blade. It sliced through the hazy fun the men were having, straight through to their revolting souls. A light of sobriety returned to them as all turned to him. The man who had been on top of Irene threw himself to the side, staring up with terror in his eyes. He did not get a chance to stare too long. Matthias yanked the man up by his throat, his nails piercing soft skin.

“I asked you,” he hissed, showing a fraction, a tiny fraction, have mercy on these fools if they thought that was the end of it, of his emotion in the form of a snarl that curled his lips, “what the fuck you think you’re doing.” A trail of blood ran down the man’s neck and his arm. A whimper left his lips, only spurring Matthias to squeeze harder. The woman he had tried to rape had not so much as let out a cry but here he was, the attacker, whining because of one injury. Where was his mocking, his laughter now? Gone, replaced by tears now that he was the victim. What a joke, a weakling, a damned coward.

“My Prince, please.” A hand grabbed onto his forearm, trying to pull him away from the slowly dying man. No sooner had those words left the fool’s lips was he thrown to the ground and faced with the tip of a glinting sword at his neck. Matthias had discarded the friend he tried to save somewhere behind him. The grip on his sword was tight, shaking. He wanted so badly to rip this man apart, to cut him up and hang him up where everyone can see how brutally he died. He wanted to pierce that aimed blade into its target and let this man’s blood paint the white tiled floor.

“Guards!” The yell brought marching steps to his location in a matter of minutes. He wanted to hurt them too, for failing so spectacularly in their duty. His eyes flickered to the dazed woman, his Princess, still on the floor, and controlled himself. “Take these thugs away,” he spat, returning his sword to its scabbard.

He went to Irene, putting his coat over her disarranged robes and pulling her into his embrace, hiding her from the curious glances of the guards as they worked. He watched them leave and consoled himself with thoughts of later. He will deal with them later, in the privacy of his residence, where no one can hear them scream. For now, he needed to bottle up his anger. Irene was still here. She did not look like she was in good health, she was pale, sweating and had glazed eyes that seemed to see nothing. Drugs? It seemed like it. She was his responsibility, someone he needed to protect. He had failed in that today. He shook that thought off. That didn’t matter now. She needed him.

He let her out of his hold but kept a cautionary arm around her waist to help her walk. She mumbled something, too drawn out and separated for him to understand. Perhaps, she wanted him to let go. That wasn’t happening. He only restrained from carrying her out because he knew she would be highly against that. They walked slowly, quietly, back outside the Labyrinth. The banquet had been silenced and all eyes were on them as they stepped out. He shielded Irene from their view and ignored the question in the stares, especially that of the woman who caused all this.

He stayed beside Irene, seated far from the crowd, as the guards informed the Emperor of the happenings. His own men came over, informed by a servant he sent and allowed to enter using the seal he had given Jaime just in case. As he allowed his Princess to be taken away, to be escorted out of the Palace and back to his residence, there were words of apology on his tongue that never left it.

*****

When the men dressed as soldiers come to take them out of their cells, they had assumed it was their families coming to their rescue. As they were dragged into the cold room of an unknown house, they had realized what a wishful thought that had been. They regretted it, drinking, being in the Labyrinth, attacking the Princess, everything. One of them suggested their drinks were spiked. They had definitely not drunk so much as to be blind enough to attack Prince Matthias’s bride. Whether this was true or not, he could tell, no longer mattered. His companions, however, still held hope that they would be saved.

They were nobles after all, they came from prominent Houses, their family would not let them die. He wanted to believe that. But the man they had angered was not one they should have tested. What were sons of mere noblemen to the favorite one of the Emperor? They had been brought here to die, to face the wrath that the Prince had withheld back then in the Garden. He was sure of it. He was the only one not to have been a victim of the Third Prince’s violence then. If only he could have such luck now.

“Untie me, you brute! Do you know who I am?” A shrill voice, trying to sound strong but coming off desperate.

“So what if I touched that whore? She’s just a playthi-” a deeper voice, whose words could not be finished when the closest guard struck him across the face with a force that send him reeling backward.

He shut his eyes tightly, wondering why he had chosen these men as friends. Still, he too had not expected such harsh retribution for laying a hand on that dark woman called Princess Irene. He had believed, like many in Court, that the Prince held no love for her. Today’s events, the rings, the whispered conversations, that glaring wound on his friend’s neck that still bled, had proven all of them wrong. Why else would the Prince protect a woman, never mind that she was being raped, because women who were not his mother or sisters did not register in his mind as people to be respected, so fiercely if he did not love her?

The door creaked open, dragging him out of his head back to his freezing, dire reality. Two figured entered, one tall and broad, a man he recognized as Jaime Aerie. The other, was shorter, slighter, and yet seemed to cast the biggest, most frightening shadow in the dark room. The Prince Matthias.

Even his two dunderhead companions stopped their complaints. The Prince sat down in the only chair in the room, wordlessly scanning the three kneeling men. He did not look angry. He did not even look upset. Where this gave his friends hope, it cemented his guess that they were doomed. That was the same expression he had in the Labyrinth, after all. What do you think you’re doing? Simple words that sent shivers down his spine every time his mind repeated them.

The stillness of the room stretched for a long time. The longer it went on, the more fear seized him. His heart was in his throat. He had the sudden urge to vomit. He didn’t want to die.

“Jaime,” the Prince called, softly. The named man stepped forward, sword in hand. Oh no. No. I don’t want to die. Please. Please. “Untie them.”

As the ropes binding his arms were released, a surge of hope rose in him. Saint, indeed. He was a Saint. He would let them free. They would live.

People often praised that the Third Prince had the face of an angel.

“The one on the right, cut his arms off.” Crying. Begging. Screaming. Not a thing made the Prince flinch.

They were right. He was beautiful.

“Don’t let him die just yet.” Oh God. Saints. Someone. Anyone. Please have mercy. It hurts.

He had eyes the glowed in the dark. They were the seas, the skies, whatever you wanted them to be.

He lay there, bleeding on the floor. His friends were silent. Dead, probably. Lucky them. He wanted to die.

He had a voice like honey and a smile like heaven.

The clank of metal sounded in front of him. “You do not deserve to be killed by me.” No. No. Please kill me. Please. I want to die. But he was already walking away. There was humor in his voice as he left his final words behind, along with agonizing despair. “So, you can kill yourself instead.”

They were right. He looked like an angel.

But even Lucifer had wings.
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#70
Warren was the first to see Irene. When the sedan chair arrived, the guards whose shift it was to guard her for the second half of the day fanned the perimeter. Warren was among them, his shift having had started an hour ago, and went to the chair to help the princess out.

The curtain remained closed though the chair had been placed on the ground. The servants carrying it were all silent and hesitant, looking at the flowing canopy as if they expected a corpse to walk out of there at any second. None moved, and Warren wasn’t sure if he was allowed to peek inside. After an agonizing minute of stillness, he gingerly moved the curtain aside and blanched at the sight.

His first thought was that she was dead. Irene’s hair had come undone and fell over her shoulders and face, hiding it completely as her chin was tilted down to her chest. Her body was slack against the chair, the delicate layered robes dishevelled and torn open, pooling around her in waves of silk and brocade. Then, the silks moved, and Irene stirred, still alive and breathing, and Warren allowed himself to suck in a breath as his shock dissipated and let panic set in.

“Princess?!” The guard pushed aside the flap so hard the canopy shook. With trembling hands Warren reached for Irene and pulled her towards him as delicately as he could. She was limp, could barely stand, and seemed to be lapsing in and out of consciousness.

The remaining contingent of guards was instantly on alert. Several rose their weapons, others rushed to help Warren help Irene. They called for a physician immediately and soon the princess was handed over to the group of servants that came rushing out of the house with the healer. Warren remained behind, watching with wide eyes as Irene was taken into the house. When her frail frame disappeared in the shadowed entrance, he dared look around and noticed that everyone had gone pale.

This was not the Irene they knew. This was but a lifeless husk of the strong woman they sparred with. The sight was shocking, impossible, and Warren’s mind couldn’t understand why. Just earlier that day she left for the Palace, uncomfortable in her dress and resigned to spending the day with those whose company she did not enjoy. What happened that she came back in this state? Robe open, hair out of the braid, and her face bloodied.

Slowly, Warren swallowed and turned to one of the guards who had carried the sedan chair. “What happened?”

The guard was taken aback by the question and fumbled for words. “She was attacked in the Gardens. Someone tried to rape her.”

Warren felt all blood drain from his face.

Rumours spread with the speed of wildfire. Every servant knew what had transpired in the Garden and every guard was on alert, shocked by the news the same way Warren was. To imagine such a thing happening was impossible. It simply did not make sense. Irene, who defeated the Captain of the Guard, had been attacked by three noblemen and molested, almost raped, saved only by the Prince’s timely arrival. The physician spoke of a drug that someone must’ve had her drink. It explained her weak condition but not the attempt on her honour.

Warren didn’t know what to feel. He always though the imperial family to be untouchable. Their status deserved respect even if their actions were loathsome; even the nobility was a people worthy of admiration. Not anymore. This was not worthy of anything but hatred and revulsion. Warren wished he’d been there, wished he could’ve protected Irene when the imperial palace guard failed in their duties. Despicable men, all of them. Guilt ridden, Warren hated himself for not being there to save her.

Everyone pieced together their information to form a story, filling in the blanks from memory, speculation and rumours. The entire residence buzzed as the rumour mill turned and turned, everyone both fascinated and appalled by the crime upon her Highness. Warren, who normally detested partaking in the gossip, was curious too and listened to the servants going in and out of Irene’s rooms.

The doors to the princess’s chambers were wide open. Warren stepped inside, his duty forgotten, and headed towards Irene who was seated on a chair by the opened window. The physician was before her, a small ball of some sort of green paste in hand and ordered her to eat it. Irene’s hand shook as she brought the paste to her mouth and swallowed it, her expression souring almost instantly. Warren noticed that she’d been changed out of her ornate robes. The servants must’ve replaced them with the silken ivory robe over her undergarments. He’d seen them carry out basins of water, so they must’ve washed her, too.

Irene looked sick, her skill sallow and pale, beads of sweat glimmering on her brow like tiny diamonds in the sunlight streaming into her room. Her hair was bound behind her back once more and with it gone from her face, Warren could see the blooming in red and purple bruises on her neck. Blood had been washed off from her skin and the physician was applying a healing ointment over her cut lip as Irene looked at him with hooded eyes, blinking slowly, perhaps struggling to stay awake.

“She needs rest,” the physician breathed in exasperation and shot a warning look at Warren.

The guard raised his hands in supplication. “I only wish to speak with her.”

Irene remained still as Warren knelt before her slowly, carefully, as if afraid to startle her further and took her hands in his. With a pang of pity, he noticed that her wrists were bruised too.

“Why haven’t you cried for help?” Warren almost pleaded, his heart aching for Irene.

She only looked at him with tired eyes and said, “Men wash off.”

Warren looked at her and wondered in horror what sort of life she must have led before if she so calmly excused rape.



***


Shapes. Sounds. Fragments of speech. Smells.

A faint flower scent. So familiar. So comforting.

Someone’s arms were around her. Strong and reassuring. It was warm and soft. Safe.

She tried to pull her clothes into a semblance of order, but her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. The buttons of the robe thwarted her.

The scent remained even as the arms retreated. There was movement and somehow, she could walk. Too stubborn to be held, too foolish to assume she was in the condition to demand to walk herself, she leaned against the sole pillar of comfort that she could trust with clear certainty.

Whispers and sounds. They, too, retreated, and she couldn’t see nor feel anything as suddenly she was afloat in darkness.

Irene did not know what was happening. All her strength had left her as the surge of adrenaline passed. The rapists, those three horrible men, stopped by some miracle. Only when she was far from the palace and its wretched Garden was she told that Prince Matthias was her rescuer. The servants who helped her undress spoke to her in reassuring tones, showering blessings on all the Saints that ever existed for sending Matthias before the situation took a much worse turn, before the men could finish what they’d started. Irene couldn’t bring herself to feel grateful. She was ashamed for requiring help in the first place. Embarrassed that for all her bravado, she couldn’t stop the attack from happening in the first place. And, most of all, Irene was terrified of what might have transpired had those men had other, more lethal, intentions.

The physician had told her she’d been drugged. He gave her some sort of medicine that sent her retching every other hour to clear her body of toxins. In the periods between each time her body spazzed and shook, emptying its stomach though there was nothing left in it, Irene slept. She trembled each time she fell back against the pillows, shuddering and covered in a layer of gleaming sweat until finally sinking into the comforting embrace of unconsciousness. The servants tended to her, wiped away the sweat from her arms, and did not dare remove her clothes since the first time she ordered them not to. That was the only time when her mind was clear enough to understand the situation. Now, she was too tired to do anything but lean over the bed and cradle the basin as the cursed medicine did its work.

Sunlight was gone by the time Irene awoke and remained still, weary of another round of vomiting. But she no longer felt sick, only tired, and stared at the thin white cotton canopy above the bed. The sheets were soaked with her sweat and her hair clung to her face in wet strands. Irene brushed them away and held out her arm before her. A bruise in the shape of someone’s fingers marred her wrist in shades of purple and yellow. When she moved her head to look to the side, glancing around to check if she was alone, her neck protested in such a sharp sting of pain that a moan escaped her lips. It hurt to speak, to breathe, the bruises in their full, painful bloom. Ointment had been applied to her skin and her lip, which started to heal and no longer swelled, and the air smelled of medicinal herbs and honey. Surprisingly, it did not stink of vomit. Servants must have aired out the room regularly during the day.

It must’ve been late evening, Irene suspected. The sky wasn’t quite dark yet – a deeper shade of azure, sunset colouring the clouds in hues of peach and amber. The stars were visible already, hundreds of white dots across the darkening sky. Irene watched it and then looked at the opened windows and the empty expanse of the balcony beyond the pushed aside latticework screens. For the first time, she wished there was a guard in the room with her.

Powerless to even lift an arm for longer than a minute, there was nothing stopping an assassin from slitting her throat there and then. Without a weapon at her side or strength to fuel her limbs, Irene felt panic setting in where bravery should be. She foolishly assumed none would be bold enough to attempt on her life at Court. The Garden was so crowded and so many eyes were upon her, and yet a drug somehow made its way into her food. Had it been poison, she would’ve been dead by the time Matthias came for her.

Who could’ve been behind it? The servant with lemon and mint water? The Lord announcing a toast? The Lady Hale? The Empress? So many possibilities and no evidence to connect any of these individuals to the crime committed.

Careless. Foolish. Naïve.

And a part of her, some strange dark sense of humour she did not know she harboured, was grateful that those men only wanted to rape her. It could’ve been worse.

Unable to keep herself awake any longer, Irene let the soft rustle of waves lull her back to sleep. Her dreams were pleasantly empty, dark and welcoming in the embrace of exhaustion. It has been well into the night when she awoke with a start, eyes snapping open as another feeling twisted her stomach – the sort of caution only a warrior understood, the unexplainable sensation in the gut that was impossible to ignore for it ignited one’s entire body on fire.

Irene couldn’t see. Bright moonlight chased away the night’s darkness and yet, everything was blurry, as if a film was put in front of her eyes. Irene shot up, ignoring the queasiness and nausea, and looked around with wide eyes. She thought the drug was truly poison then and she was losing her eyesight when she noticed the prickling sensation on her skin. The film was a mist, evaporated water that had turned her room into a sauna. It smelled faintly of fragrant soaps and salts the servants added to the baths.

Irene climbed out of the bed and rushed to the door connecting her room to the Prince’s. She had to steady herself on the doorframe, her head spinning for a moment because of the hot air and no energy left in her body. But she did not call the guards nor the servants. Matthias was her first priority, the only person who popped up at the front of her mind as it jumped to a conclusion that the mist was malevolent in nature.

The door was unlocked, and Irene pushed it aside and stepped into the room. The mist was much thicker here, though the windows were all open, but through it she could discern the light wide shape that was the bed. Irene headed towards it, eyes straining to see the shape that could’ve been a pillow had it not suddenly moved. Bracing herself on the bed’s edge, Irene climbed onto the mattress with one knee to place a hand onto Matthias’s shoulder, shaking him awake. His skin was damp beneath her palm, his entire chest shimmering with beads of sweat.

“Wake up,” Irene urged him, her voice hoarse and raspy, the hand-shaped bruises on her throat still present and still painful.
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#71
Hands on his back, his legs, his face. Arms around his waist, his shoulders, his neck. Lips on his eyes, ears, mouth. Whispers, smooth, soft, sweet. Sickening. Fingers in his hair, twisting, playing, tugging. Fingers running up his thighs and down his torso, featherlight touches, purple bruises blooming in its trail. From his knees, up higher, higher, higher. From his neck, lower, lower, lower.

He used to hate it. He still did, in a way. All those people looking to take advantage of him who was barely more than a child. All those disgusting adults, both men and women, who called him beautiful while they sought to destroy everything that made him so. He hated that he was helpless to stop them. He hated how scared he was to even glare, fearing that it would result in another “lesson”. Better one, who treated him like a sweet forbidden fruit, than many, who would devour him like wolves.

He endured it. He acted like he was not aware of her intention when she told him to take care of the new foreign something-or-other, or theirs as they got closer and closer to him as the day passed. The more it happened, the less he fought it. The less he fought, the better they treated him, the more attached they got to him. The more enchanted they were with him, the more power he had over them.

He was nothing if not a fast learner. If he pretended to like it, they finished much quicker. If he smiled up at them, if he acted shy, flustered, they would become soft, gentle, putty in his hands. If he touched back, whispered back, played back, if he did it well and subtly, he could mold himself in their eyes, from a helpless
doll to something to be loved, worshipped even. He first learned to ignore the panic that rose in him from being pinned down, then learned how to make it so he was on top. He first learned how to forced down bile when he was touched, then learned how to make it enjoyable. Somewhere in him, he would always find it disgusting. But if it gave him power, it did not matter. After all-

“Men wash off.”

Matthias stared from a distance at the woman who spoke his thoughts aloud. Exhaustion poured from her in waves but her voice as she said that cut through like a blade to him. They were thinking the same words, yet he knew that what she was thinking of was not the same as him.

His first military campaigns had been a series of grand victories, not because his luck was so miraculous but because he had many old lovers practically tripping over themselves to cater to his needs. He used them thoroughly to get what he wanted, then discarded them, destroyed their careers and reputations with all the secrets they had confided to him as pillowtalk.

Men wash off, indeed. The best way to get rid of their stains, in his experience, was to clean them away with their own blood.

He left her room before Warren did, without offering any words of concern or consolation. That, along with his apology, would be carried out more physically. If he had it his way, she would never know how or even that he had slaughtered her attackers. He doubted that Irene would be too grateful if she were to find out what he had planned, anyway.

Jaime joined him on the walk to the isolated building on the far right corner of his residence, frowning and brooding, even more so than usual. At another time, he would have teased the man on that. Right now, however, his mind was too filled with bloodthirsty thoughts to make space for anything lighthearted. They walked in silent understanding of each other’s mood until they arrived at the room where the criminals were being held.

When he entered the gloomy, musty room, the majority of his personal guards were already there, surrounding the three prisoners with glares sharper than knives. His own gaze was icy as it roamed over them. Though it was the other two that had done the most damage earlier in the day, his eyes kept going to the man in the middle. The others were members of neutral families but this rat was someone who had, along with the rest of the Herren House, sworn loyalty to him. Some loyal servant he turned out to be, Matthias thought, the fury he had forced back building up in him once again. He let it fester. If his entire vision was red, the crimson of these men’s blood that would soon cover these walls could not soil his sight.

Every word he spoke seemed to shake his captives. His order to untie them made them straighten, eyes lit with hope. Fools. His lips curled in some terrifying hybrid of a snarl and a grin. If his previous words had seemed like a saving grace, his following ones were their ultimate doom. As they were cut open, castrated, ripped apart piece by piece, he watched with morbid satisfaction.

Matthias did not particular take joy in their pain, did not gain any pleasure from their ear-splitting screams. But he forced it upon them, anyway, if for nothing but on principle. This was retribution. Their Saints could have mercy on them. He would make sure that mercy was deserved. If all their prayers would buy these appalling men an easy afterlife, it was only just to make sure that they paid in full for it.

By the time the two men flanking Herring were dead, the pest himself was breathing his last, his skin looking like white canvas splashed with thick scarlet paint. His dislocated jaw twitched, giving him the unattractive look of a fish stranded on land. Matthias watched him trembling on the ground for seconds that seemed to stretch, then he stood up, drawing a dagger from his coat. He twirled the blade in his fingers, staring down at the man with eyes that screamed murder. But he did not kill the man.

Instead, he threw the knife in front of Herring’s barely recognizable face. “You do not deserve to be killed by me.” A traitorous rat like you would only dirty my hands. “So, you can kill yourself instead.”

Matthias left the man to bleed out, knowing that there was no way he would be able to grab that dagger, much less stab himself with it, that he was doomed to suffer excruciating pain for minutes that would feel like hours until his miserable life finally faded away. It would be a tragic, awful death. When his family, who would no doubt search for him, found what was left of his body rotting away at the side of a road, they would know that. They would know it had been the consequence of betraying him. Even the Saints could not help them if they tried to take any steps against him after this.

“Matt?” Jaime’s voice jerked him out of his thoughts. He turned to the older man, knowing what he meant to ask without needing to hear it. He did not reply, a few beats passed in silence. Jaime’s frown deepened at his lack of response.

“I’ll be fine,” he finally said, sounding more tired than he had intended, “like always.” His friend seemed to trust his words as much as he himself did. Not at all. He looked out at the moonless night and, for the first time in a long time, felt dread rather than relief that the day had ended.

He was right to have feared the night. Night brought sleep. His sleep that night was a fearful one.

He dreamt of gardens and scared boys, of being dragged into pitch black by slimy, clawed creatures. He dreamt of running, of hiding, of praying, praying and praying, so much, so hard that he would not be found by those monsters. Prayers never did work for him.

He dreamt of chilly darkness, in the form of hands that covered his eyes and fingers that entered his mouth, his throat, stealing the air from his lungs. His magic flared in a desperate bid to protect him. It was not working. He was being swallowed up and taken over. Shadows flooded his senses, overwhelming him. He couldn’t breathe. The hands wrapped him in their glacial embrace. It was so cold. Too cold. He was being turned into a statue of black ice. He hated it. Warmth. He wanted warmth, craved it, needed it.

He found it.

He grabbed onto the source of heat, eyes shooting open as the touch of skin dragged him back to reality. His chest heaved as he drew in gulps of air, trying to revive his dying lungs. Silver eyes were all he could see of his saviour amidst the mist that filled his room. Irene? He frowned, looking around the room in a daze. It was boiling hot in the room. What was with all this steam? Had he done this?

Matthias glanced out the open window, where the fog was thinnest. The water vapour seemed to be streaming in from outside. It had to be from the bath, then. With a wave of his hand, he gathered the mist into one area of the room, condensing it into liquid form. He sent the floating sphere of water back to its origin with another slight gesture.

He ran a hand through his hair, leaning back against his headboard as he collected himself. He could feel his lips quivering and bit down on it to hide that fact. He did not dare to look at Irene. He was sweating buckets and traces of terror that the nightmare had left on him could surely still be found. He looked vulnerable. He felt like a child crying about monsters that didn’t exist. Irene was the one that was attacked today. It made little sense that it was him being saved from bad dreams by her, rather than vice versa.

He wanted Mikas. Mikas was comfort and warmth. He was someone who had seen the worst of him. He did not need to put up a strong front for that boy. More practically, Mikas was also the only one who knew where he kept his medicine, which he needed if he wished to get another blink of sleep after this. But he supposed it was not a good idea to ask for another to his bedroom when his bride was right there, especially since it was her that had woken him up from that horrible dream.

He turned to Irene, looking worn out, bare, real. Their gazes met and he opened his mouth, trying to say something but not knowing what. Finally he croaked out a soft “Thank you”.
 

Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#72
A warning died on Irene’s lips as she watched the mist shift, coil and change form, and a look of pure shock twisted her features. The moment Matthias let go of Irene’s hand, she moved to the edge of the bed, as tense as her muscles permitted her to be in her condition. Matthias was awfully calm at her side at the sight of the mist and she could see the subtle wave of his hand that sent the sphere of water out of the room.

Chill started to settle in the steam’s absence. Their skin was damp, Irene’s from the steam, Matthias’s with sweat, and so was his bed. A shiver ran down her skin but not from the cold. She turned to look at Matthias, grateful that the shadows hid the look of absolute trepidation with which she regarded him. No one told her Matthias could use magic. It was a well-known fact that Vaela practiced magic, accepting it as simply an energy, a lifeforce that was apart of everyone. It was a prevalent notion among Izmarian nobility and royalty, too, but Irene met none of them and though now she was one, she had no desire to look deep into herself to find that thread of magic.

In many parts of the world sorcerers were subjects of myths and fairy tales and stories that often were just ravings of madmen. To see one before her seemed impossible. But she watched the mist be commanded by a mere wave of a hand. A hand that she never imagined could do such things.

Irene watched Matthias, straining her eyes peering into the gloom surrounding him. Against the headboard, he was a pale shape shaken by nightmare. Her shock dissipated, and an understanding settled in, followed by pity that she knew he did not desire. With the steam gone and Matthias shaken awake, the atmosphere no longer felt threatening. It was intimate, Matthias caught at his most vulnerable, and Irene wondered if this is how she looked when a nightmare plagued her through the night. The dream must’ve been excruciatingly terrifying to shake him so.

It was best to leave him alone, let the Prince return to sleep, but Irene was familiar with the terror of waking up middle of the night, shaken awake by a memory twisted evil by one’s own mind. She rarely dreamed but when it happened, it was unpleasant, and when she woke it was impossible to go back to bed. The dreams could return with their full intensity. Instead, she often lay in bed and stared at the shadows in the room, expecting them to move or reveal something hiding in the darkness.

In those moments, she did not want to be left alone. She needed warmth, to be held and assured that all was well, but the life she used to lead did allow for such a luxury.

Until Fess.

Irene put a careful hand over his. “It was only a dream.” Then, she rose from the bed, adding, “I’ll be back,” and retreated to her bedroom. When Irene returned, she held a small washbasin she used to wash her face in the mornings, with a towel draped over its edge. Irene sat down on the bed beside Matthias, set the basin on the floor at her feet, and adjusted her position so she had a leg folded under her. The water was pleasantly warm and cool against her heated skin as she submerged the towel in and wrung out the excess water. A moment of hesitation passed during which Irene looked at Matthias with a silent question in her gaze and reached out to press the cool cloth against his neck and shoulder.

Her touch was gentle, mostly due to lack of any energy to do more than just slow, tentative movements. No pity lingered in her gaze, only the desire to comfort Matthias, the same way Fess often helped her. The first night he was shaken awake by Irene’s restless sleep, he did not look scared or shocked. He simply stood and went to fill a bucket with water and sat beside her, silent, brushing the sweat from her brow and neck as she struggled for breath, trembling from reliving a memory she wished to forget. Fess never inquired what she dreamt about but spoke to her nonetheless, about anything and everything, softly, with the intention to turn her mind from the terror.

Irene was not so skilful at comforting others as Fess was, which she thought was illogical as she was raised among crowds of many people and the half-human boy lived in segregation until falling into her care. But he somehow always knew what to say and do, wise beyond his age.

She wished she knew what to say to Matthias.

“There are…nightmares that follow me. Visions. Memories,” Irene finally said. It was the first thing that came to mind. She wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to say or if she should have spoken at all. “Reminders of what I have been, what I lost, what I have…experienced. Sometimes, they visit me in a form of a noose that tightens around my neck until I am no longer able to breathe. Other times, they are memories of old wounds, injuries that have long ago healed.” Irene set her jaw, pausing for a moment, and then continued. “One haunts me the most. You’ve seen the scar on my leg, yes? I fell off a horse, and it on me. The bone was so shattered they thought it would never heal. I am still unable to walk without pain. It is why I refused to ride to Thean Gerith. And why I worried for you during the tourney.”

Once started, the words were impossible to stop. Irene was sure it was the wrong thing to share, but she did not know what else to tell him to chase off the dreams he must have seen. To divert his attention on herself seemed to be the best idea. Have him forget the nightmare terrors and focus on something else, even if it meant sacrificing something private, was the only solution she could think of. If he wished to hear none of this, she would not blame him. Adding more nightmare material to already existing fears was hardly the right way to go about the situation, so Irene continued, leading to what she thought was a better way to distract both of them from what plagued their minds.

“Before, I used to distract myself from nightmares by doing something I loved.” She pulled the now warm towel away from the man and dipped it into the basin once more. A faint sigh escaped her lips when she straightened. “It used to be horseback riding.” Silence stretched for a breath as Irene sat still, pondering the irony of being unable to unwind the only way she knew how. When she turned towards him, the towel was brought up to brush against the man’s brow and temples. “Do you have such a distraction? Something that calms you?”
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#73
Matthias let Irene wipe his sweat off with the cool, wet cloth, too paralyzed by shock to stop her. He would not ask even his servants to do this for him, he was perfectly capable of cleaning himself, even with the disorientated state he was currently in. He had not thought Irene inclined toward such tender forms of care, especially not for him, of all people.

It did not surprise him that she had night terrors as he did, considering the life she led before she came to him. Having been a mercenary for so many years, she had no doubt been through her fair share of horrors. As she spoke, he recovered himself, tense muscles relaxing and clouded headed clearing. He had not had a dream that affected him so badly in years. Accidentally boiling his bath in his sleep was also a new one, something that, in hindsight, rather amused him.

Her question on what calmed him brought his thoughts to a screeching halt. What calmed him? Mikas, medicine and...well, there was nothing much else. He supposed he enjoyed reading, but it had been a long time since he’s read anything fictional and everything else in his library was related to politics or something equally stale. Something that he enjoyed and that calmed him.

Oh. Right.

The sea, whether it was strolling along its shores or sailing in it. That worked wonders to heal his mind whenever he was having a hard time. It was too late at night, his head was still muddled, otherwise he would have thought of that sooner. He had designed his entire residence such that he could be as close to the sea as possible, after all.

“Walking along the beach calms me,” he begun then paused, realizing how...ladylike that sounded, “I suppose.” His head really was not working right. That was such a weird thing for him to say. He hated being so pale, sometimes. He hoped he wasn’t blushing. He probably was. Oh Saints, he was honestly being such a child tonight.

“It’s not...it’s not the beach, I mean, that’s not what,” Matthias stopped again, taking a deep breath and averting his gaze. His embarrassment would not be so obvious if Irene was not so close to him right now. This was such a ridiculous situation. He was being wiped down by his bride, who was trying to calm him from a damned nightmare, struggling to explain why he liked walks on the beach. Thinking about it only made the reddening of his skin intensify. Hopefully, Irene’s apparent lack of understanding in the nuances of human emotion extended far enough for her to mistake his mortification for heat.

“The sea calms me, the breeze, the smell, the sound of waves,” he finally spoke again. He had not told many people this. Things that he loved, no matter how trivial, were weaknesses that could be used against him any time. He didn’t trust a lot of people with his weaknesses. But, he supposed, not a lot of people would have taken care of him like this even through their own injury either. Revealing this small part of himself, probably, could not bring about any harm.

“Just being around water calms me, usually,” he reached for Irene’s hand, which was dabbing at his face using a drenched cloth, to stop her. Sitting up straight, he grabbed a spare piece of cloth that lay beside the woman, using it to dry himself. He already cooled down for the most part.

He looked back up, finally meeting Irene’s gaze again. Even though he had been caught up in breathing, he was aware that she had not had a very pleasant reaction to his magic. While in other magics, he could be considered strong, perhaps an expert at best, when it came to water magics, he had no doubt that he was the best, at least in this country. If there was water around, even without using it was a weapon, he could draw some abstract form of energy or strength from it. Water, to him, meant safety. Not invincibility, because there were limits to every magic, but at least security.

“It makes me feel safe.”
 
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Lenaara

Coffee and cheesecake addict
#74
Irene was watching Matthias with curiosity, brows twitching up ever so slightly at his suddenly stuttering answer. Was her question truly so odd? She didn’t think it was. The answer he’d given her was neither embarrassing nor strange; indeed, it explained why the Third Prince chose a residence so far from Thean Gerith and why his rooms and the lush bath looked out to the sea.

A soft smile curved her lips a fraction, glad the Prince had shaken off the last tendrils of the nightmare. The shadows started to lift from the room as the sky outside turned a lighter shade of blue. It was nearing dawn. Matthias was no longer a mere pale outline against the headboard and Irene could see him more clearly now. His skin was flushed, probably from the heat, but he was no longer sweating.

Irene’s hands were on her lap, the damp cloth forgotten after Matthias no longer needed her help. When he sat up straight, inches separated them. Their eyes were locked and for a long breath, everything was still. A realization slammed into Irene with the intensity of a sledgehammer. She was in his bedroom, on his bed, where she never expected herself to be prior to their wedding. She dreaded being in this situation, afraid of what could happen, but it was not caution or fear that rippled through her. This was a different, unexplainable feeling that fluttered deep inside her chest where her heart suddenly started a frantic beat.

She looked into his eyes, paralyzed by the sudden change in the air. It felt like electricity. It felt like a pull. Irene looked into his eyes that were a startling blue even in the lifting darkness and understood what could and would happen if it wasn’t stopped.

Why not?

Because if it did, it would ruin everything.

Matthias’s words sounded like an oath. An honest, genuine answer that Irene appreciated hearing. She stirred first, putting the cloth into the washbasin, and stood up. A need to leave his bedroom urged her to come up with an excuse that was believable, that did not sound like she was suddenly a startled bird ready to take flight. She glanced at the window, through which she could see the calm sea, and offered Matthias a hand.

“Do you want to go there?” She asked, looking down at him and then shifted her gaze to the door leading out to, she assumed was his lounge. They’d have to circle the entire residence to reach the sea. “The sea is right there.”
 

GetThree

Junior Member
#75
They were alone in a dark room, close enough for him to hear her breathing. It was an intimate setting, one which they hadn’t been in since she had been drunk and sitting on his lap. She was not drunk now. There was nothing stopping them from doing anything and, well, everything. Irene seemed to notice this, too, and a loaded look passed between them.

Matthias watched as a flurry of emotions passed over Irene’s face, from the sudden spark of realization to curiosity to what seemed like trepidation. She was an open book even with her mostly blank expression. It was almost impressive.

She stood up, distancing herself away from him in a rush. She seemed more against the idea of them being amorous than what could be considered simple shyness. He did not doubt his own attractiveness. All those people quite literally fighting their way into his embrace did not give him much room to do so, even if he wanted to. With the appearance of Ammon, it was pretty clear she was no virgin maiden either. Much less that random old man, he was already engaged to her, there was no reason why she should find a need to avoid her own desires. Unless, it was because he was her fiancee? Was there ever such a custom that woman mustn’t touch a man who would be her husband? In Vaela, sex was an open secret. While no one announced their private relations, as long as you were of age, there was also no one who would criticize or be criticized for having such. Perhaps, Izmar, or whatever culture she had been raised under, was different.

Matthias studied her outstretched hand, hesitating only for a second before taking it. Whatever the reason was, if she was against it, so be it. Her excuse was one that appealed to him, anyway. He had not been out to the shore in a long time. He missed it.

They passed through his lounge and he tugged at Irene’s hand when she headed toward the entrance of his chambers where two servants sat, fast asleep. Although their rooms were a mirror image of each other, his lounge had an extra door that Irene’s didn’t. That door led to a side exit, from where down a flight of stairs was the only remaining journey to the beach.

As soon as they stepped out the door, the chilly sea breeze descended on them, raising goosebumps along his skin. The gales were cold and raw, carrying such a heavy smell of salt in the air that he could taste it. His hair, already messy as a result of his tumultuous sleep, was blown into something resembling a bird’s nest. The waves in early morning were so strong that the ends of their pants were soaked the moment they walked onto the sands. The water was even more glacial than the winds. Less than ideal conditions, yet it all brought a smile to his face.

Amidst the low temperatures of their surroundings, the contrasting warmth of Irene’s hand in his drew his attention. In the dream, too, she was the only heat that saved him from freezing. It carried a romantic connotation that he wasn’t entirely sure he was comfortable with. He could admit his physical attraction to her easily. An emotional attachment was something else completely.

They strolled along the shoreline in silence, the pleasant sort, the kind that told of a conversation without words. As he got used to the sting of the ice cold water, the temptation to enter it grew. He was shirtless, anyway. Why not? He turned to Irene, recalling a tale she told once about her fear of the unknown depths of the sea, and wondered how likely she was to indulge him.

“Let’s go into the water,” he said, not asked, pulling her along with something like determination. The isolated sea in the morning was the most peaceful place to be. Being in the water itself was much more relaxing than merely looking at it. He entered first, a carefree grin on his face. His grip was tight on Irene as he looked up at her with what could only be properly described as puppy dog eyes.
 

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