A circling darkness enshrouded the castle, clouds laying heavy laden with a coming snow. The feathery grey clouds just barely brushed against the tip of the black castle, brandished of dark stone that jutted from the lonely mountain. The air was thin and crisp, the tender winter’s night reaching down and caressing those that walked, yet as it held out its fingers and felt barred against the hardened stone that held true and pushed against those who came to bring harm. But the gates had been open, and the breasts bared to allow enter the guests of the crown who had so come.
They said it had rung when it was carved. Spilling out hollow filled with gold and jewels simply waiting to be mined by the men of old that struck the Kingdom of Solvet with their hardened hands and heavy hearts. And as the castle was carved and built the floors were lined with gold and the ceiling with silver, rubies, amethyst, and sapphires, wrought from the heart of the mountain and secured in the walls until they glittered and shined with the immensity of the sun and moon.
Every movement was slow. Lumbering. Yet always sturdy.
The castle had been swept up in a storm within, the warmth made unbearable as bodies bumped one against the other. Servants hurriedly affixed tapestries that told of the histories of times long past and ensured the candles were lit on the chandeliers. Musicians practiced, each a different tune and a different song as their minds fell to their pieces and the troubadours strummed their stories of forbidden love that had woven itself into the palaces.
Andre leaned against the balcony, eyes half-lidded as he watched with haphazard regard the decorations strewn and plotted. He had little time, yet he still wasted it. A practiced grace kept him erect, his back arced upward as he stretched like a cat and then sprung so he balanced upon the precipice, the servants casting him a worried eye - though mostly distressed for if he fell on their watch it would be them receiving punishment. But he was not so small-souled to bring such negativity unto them, instead, he held true and watched as the masquerade began to slowly come to life.
A tender hand touched his shoulder. He looked up and caught the golden glint of hair and the pale oval face of his mother. She stood before him with her chin erect, cheeks softened by age, and a golden glint that seemed to forever remain just beneath her skin. The braids coiled around her head, leaving only a few strands of hair to glint in the firelight - a crown unto itself only emboldened by the jewels strewn throughout. Her auburn lashes fluttered across her cheek, white lace of her dress emphasizing the gold. His mother had always been beautiful, a face that was the talk of the nation and welcomed throughout the lands. She looked up at him, the pink of her lips canting into a smile. It wrinkled just beneath her eyes and deepened where the crows had landed in the corner of her vision.
“If you fall, I shall ensure you are remembered as the Jester Prince of Nothing who broke his crown to foolishness,” she said, bringing a thumb up to stroke a piece of his hair back.
“Then you are a mother of a fool and blame shall fall on you for raising him that way,” Andre said. Despite such, he pulled back from the balcony to land square before her. The white of his clothing unruffled and the golden embroidery glinting in the firelight, spun delicately to seem as fine as the fibers of his hair that fell in coils around his shoulders and neck. His face was alight - the beautiful prince of Solvet with his wide dark eyes and sweeping hair of spun gold.
“Leave that wit for the Arav’nes when they arrive.” she clucked, her neck straightening and eyes narrowed. The light blue of them encircled by the delicate auburn lashes. She smiled wanly and raised her hand with his mask. It would fit him perfectly, resting at the bridge of his nose with the canary beak descending down towards the tip of his nose. He took in a breath and let it out.
“Hm. Shall they enjoy it as much as you?”
“You should hope your betrothed enjoys it more, or you may be faced with an unpleasant life. Now chin up, the guests are arriving and it would be horribly disastrous if they had to run back to their homes with tales of the evil Queen of Solvent pushing her own son to his death.”
Andre grinned, broad and bold, to think her so strong. But he slid his mask over his face with little disregard for her desires. None ever defied the Queen of Solvent. It was not within their best interest when the small waif could bring forth an unending storm.
“What of my brother?”
“He’ll entertain them too, but I have my eye on another for him.” she hummed, gripping Andre’s shoulder and shoving him towards the stairs. “Go! You are to be the partner of the honored guests, and how shall they feel if they never see you? Get out, go! I must prepare myself further.”
As always, there was no combat from Andre as he walked down into the thickening crowd of men and women, dressed in silks and satin that danced in the dimly lit hall, the gates being opened and the music falling to a dull strum barely heard over the voices that spoke in hushed whispers, one to the other as they silently wondered who hid behind the masks.
Unlike most times, there was no announcement of families. It would be counterintuitive after all, they simply arrived and spoke, unhindered by rank and name to find arm within one another.
It was difficult to parse through the crowd and yet, he still stood out no matter how enshrouded in mystery he was, parting through the guests to fall into mingling conversations, one with the other in search of his ending goal, as his mother so wished. The unification of the Arav’ne and Beaumonts. It was on the edge of creation and yet still felt so far away.
It mattered not.
The Ball had just begun, and he was sure he could find his fun before meeting the dear Levina that he was destined to call wife. The hall was rife with life, after all. And he only needed find it.
Wren had raised an eyebrow when her father announced she would be accompanying them to Solvet. Perhaps she was more naïve than she believed. Why wouldn't she attend? Her sister was to be married. Raised eyebrows and hushed whispers were already enough at this coming union; they did not need to be questioned on why Sverre Arav'ne's youngest daughter hid in the high walls of her home rather than support the coming union of Solvet and Rondetia. Levina would have kicked up a storm as great as Rondetia's coastal winds if Wren didn’t attend anyway.
And as much as Wren enjoyed felling Queens and watching the Knights squirm as if they had shirked their duty, to travel beyond her borders was a dream. She could not press herself any further into the shadows of the holy halls of her home, and neither did she wish to. She was grateful for her sister’s insistence, even if she had not appreciated it when it was done to her in the past.
The shadow on that lonely mountain top grew larger and darker as they approached in one of several carriages that ascended to it. The hairs rose at the back of her neck, not of the coming winter’s chill, but of awe. Others would marvel at the dark hand that Solvet put forward to display its incredible might. Wren saw a thick entanglement of shadows, desperate to stretch out from the snow that threatened to engulf it and snuff it out. There was a strange beauty in that struggle.
Wren stepped out with the aid of the coachman’s hand after her father and sister, the evening air gnawing at her bare shoulders. The cold and bitter wind here was nothing like home’s, though the change was not unwelcome, even if she was dressed so appropriately for it. She could have done with pulling up the large, billowing sleeves over her shoulders, though, the make of it would unfortunately not allow it. At least the dress was comfortable and pleasing to the eye - a deep coastal blue, embroidered with silver that glittered across her waist and around her bodice, coming together with the silver jewels at her neck that held it together.
A warmth cupped her shoulder and she glanced at the owner of the hand; her father. Unnaturally tall and stout, a beacon of tanned skin and faded dark hair, the sleeves of his shirt climbed up his arms as he stooped down towards her. “On your best behaviour, Little Wren,” he warned.
Her nose wrinkled. Little Wren. Even at her age, she still had not outgrown the moniker. She flashed a wide grin from under the feline mask that matched her dress, trimmed with silver and dangling a tassel that followed every slight inclination of her head. “Always, Father. I hope you have instructed my sister the same. I would loathe to do it myself.”
Her father exhaled something between a scoff and a laugh. “Levina does not need the instruction. But you, delving into your thoughts is as difficult as sailing through a heavy mist. I cannot know what you intend to do or say.” He brought his hand away from her shoulder, letting it retreat behind his back. He glanced to the shadow of the castle ahead and back to his daughters. “I would have you both enter without me. I fear I will give away the game much too quickly.” He forced a smile, though, it was clear he found the charade too trivial for his tastes.
Wren continued grinning, hooking an arm through Levina’s. “Come, dear sister. Let us search for your betrothed!” She spoke in a rush of hushed excitement, swooping her further into the jewelled halls with little regard for whatever answer she may have made.
As they entered the hall unannounced and cast their sights above, the high ceiling of the hall might as well have reflected that of the heavens and their constellations. Wren wasn’t sure if she believed the stories of how even the jewels climbed to the ceiling, but oh, was she glad to admit she was wrong this time. Musicians plucked at strings and a flurry of colour swept through the dark hall as guests of the masquerade mingled and danced.
It was almost as if war was a far-off nightmare. For some it was as they turned their cheeks and closed their ears to the sound of destruction. Not so much for Rondetia, whose navies were a constant reminder with their coming and going. She could understand why the Beaumonts found her sister - or rather, their home - so desirable.
Wren shook her head. This was supposed to be a celebration! She wouldn’t let such things sour the mood, for her sister’s sake. She had turned to suggest their plan of action, to see if they could be the ones to find the Crown Prince first, only to have lost sight of her. She had taken the same approach as her father by taking this game seriously - perhaps she believed she would give more away with her sister by her side.
Or she was caught up in the buzzing tides of the guests, much like Wren was. She already found herself brushing past well-to-do lords and ladies, and flitted from one group conversation to another. She exchanged petty gossip and a hearty, tuneful laugh as she went, slotting into the immaculate puzzle formed by aristocrats.
All the while, her eyes fleeted from behind the feline facadé, searching for a peacocking prince in among the flock of colourful, extravagant masks. Surely the Crown Prince would stand out among the lesser of them. Part of her wanted the bragging rights - to be the one to lock eyes first with Levina’s beloved fiancé just to say, aha, I have found you! It would make for quite the story to tell her nieces and nephews.
Levina stood as a paragon of royalty. The erect stature of her elegant neck that glowed pale beneath the crimson of her dress, the silk folding against the curves of her body and falling in waves, moving red water that flowed around and behind her. The dark shadow of her eyes was hidden beneath the fox mask that did all it could to obscure her identity, behind it her dark hair was plaited and framed her masked face in dark curls. A smile had come across her painted lips as she watched with a knowing understanding of the passing between her father and sister. She came to walk alongside Wren with long graceful steps, eyes flitting across her younger sister for only a moment before she glanced back inside.
"I would prefer him to come to me," Levina said tilting her head back as her pale pointed chin lifted, neck fully exposed to the cool air as they walked into the richly decorated castle. The sweeping colors instantly bombarded their eyes - the smell of the feast wafting from the kitchens of thick slabs of meats and sweet cakes danced with the spiced wine that was carried on trays by servants from one side to the other, hurriedly offering the beverages and taking empty glasses.
There was little to search, Levina knocking her shoulder against Wren's with a wry smile and a delicate crinkle of her eyes beneath her mask, she tossed her head back in a practiced way as she was taught, pleasing and sweet to look at for others that watched with long glances. She had been trained for this day, after all, to please and charm with wit beneath one arm and her own desires for familial glory 'neath the other. She dipped her head forward, a certain excitement growing in her heart with the anxiety knocking on the other side. She was glad she had brought her sister along, as the twist within her stomach came, yet duty forced it down.
Her future husband awaited. And she took away from her sister to find him. It wouldn't do to be with another when it happened, after all, lest he gets suspicious. She preferred to appear as mysterious as the night and as dark as the back half of the moon, waiting to be explored and discovered.
She walked through, pushing past the golden-clad Lords and Ladies.
And as the night took a turn the canary flew down. His eyes moved across and shifted over the movement of the night. His clothing was rich and his golden hair spun around his shoulders and cheeks as he walked through the crowd, pushing against them as they shifted and grinned. Some peered at him with narrowed eyes as they tried to figure who was beneath the mask and how kind they must be to ensure their own continued pleasures. It was like a burden was pushed away, falling back as he was given a berth to fall from being a crown prince and into this new role where he walked with them.
He was aware of his duties and he walked towards them rather than away. Songs of lost love and their plucked lute counterparts filled the air as he took a bit of wine and walked through the party for a moment, eyes watching and mouth pulled into a slight frown as his brow creased beneath his mask. As he walked, however, he stumbled. His body tensed as his eyes snapped under him. Andre pulled back for a moment, eyes flickering down to the waif that stood just beneath him and the feline mask that covered her.
"Oh... you must be louder, I did not notice you." He said as he brought his wine back to his chest as he peered down at the feline with interest.
Ives took no joy in the masquerade. Hideous shrieks of laughter made him squirm and his ribbon tie and his shirt chafed against his neck with every turn of his head. He preferred conversing with the training dummies of the combat yard or the solace that a book offered him. While his family were well versed in the arts of peacocking, Ives often felt more like an ostrich lumbering around and stretching his long neck to peer at others. His discomfort was more than recognisable in his attempt to hug the walls of the hall they were gathered in. It was a miracle his mother had not caught him and sought to involve him in some of her well-crafted plans.
He was considered plain standing next to his brother. His blond strands were dirtier, kept in a tight, short ponytail at his neck, and his eyes that may have been a bright blue faded to the murky waters crashing in a storm. Though he tried to maintain some poise in his stature, his steps were heavy and he often had to focus on how to ‘walk appropriately’. Ives’s hard work had more than paid off - his shirts often strained against his torso and large arms, though, still retained the shaping of a noble, rather than a common labourer. Despite being the spare, he somehow looked older than his brother, more solemn in his ways. He did not think the golden deer mask helped and desperately wished the horns did not extend so high.
Ives weaved in and out of passing Lords and Ladies. The more he paced through this hall, the inclined he felt to slip away. Though, that would prove difficult with his mother ever watchful, and a duty he had to fulfil. He sighed. Even as a spare, he wasn’t excluded from royal duties and etiquette he had to learn, should his brother not take the throne. He would have to settle with a group and entertain them. His fingers extended into his pocket, waiting to feel the smooth, uneven stone to turn over in his palm.
He could not feel it. Despite the hand frantically searching - in both pockets - it did not reach him. A fist formed in his pocket as Ives cursed under his breath. He moved his gaze to the floor, believing he had dropped it at his feet, but he saw only the boots and heels and the swirling garments. Ives inhaled, steadying himself. It couldn’t have gone far, surely? It would turn up. It had to turn up.
Off Ives went, combing through the crowd, only realising the momentous scale of such a search. He could not cover this whole floor, not without anyone assuming he had gone quite mad. He considered asking someone, though he imagined he’d be met with confusion and an apologetic look. Ives had no choice. He was desperate, and he would have to choose someone to ask.
Ives targeted someone on their own, so that he would not have to break into any groups asking after a prized possession many would turn their nose up at. He picked the first woman he saw - a woman wearing rivers of red. “My Lady, apologies,” Ives had already started, giving a curt bow as he almost forgot his courtesy in his desperation to find what was lost. “I have lost something of mine - a small stone that is valuable to me. You would not have spotted it perchance?” He doubted it, highly, but if he at least appeared to be speaking with someone - and someone who had not found company - while looking for the stone, Ives would at least be killing two birds.
Wren had detected the usual pattern among noble conversations. Nothing about their lives was ever made bare for others to throw their opinions upon, but the lives of others. A snide comment on the dressage of another Lord or Lady, a ‘chance’ visit upon a particular noble’s house or worse on the streets. As much as the young woman burned to challenge such poison that came out of noble mouths, she could only smile, laugh at the appropriate moments, and only hope this was not her sister’s future husband. Her father requested personally that she not cause trouble. That extended to debates and challenges.
It was not befitting of maidens after all.
Wren licked her lips. A drink, yes, that would calm her. She hadn’t yet acquired one, even upon noticing all the servants who weaved in and out of those who kept demanding another, another. She slipped away from the group, blending back into the sea of gold, about to seek out one of the servants for a glass.
Wren, however, gave a small squeak as she almost collided with a taller man with golden locks spilling over his shoulders, and a bird-like mask she hadn’t the time at first to comprehend. He seemed perturbed to have almost trampled over a small thing as her. She waited for an apology…though, the only thing he provided her was that she be louder.
“Louder?” Wren brought her fingers to her mouth, almost scoffing. Though, she found the concept quite amusing.. “Well, that defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Being loud draws attention, and too much attention is no good for the mystery of this masquerade.” She was dressed in a feline mask, a sleuthing species. She wondered if others would see her as taking this game and a little too seriously. But why wouldn’t she allow herself pleasure before the business of her sister’s betrothal?
She cocked her head to the side, eyes climbing the lithe figure. He was handsome, to be sure. The men of her kingdom were dark and rough, and even their more well-to-do counterparts had an element of sea-battered sailors. “Though, I suppose I can forgive you, my lord…if that is your real title.” Wren teased, pawing and toying with the canary above her. She had not felt her shoulders tense nor had she looked downwards. She kept her neck extended with that same poise that she had watched her sister do with ease, and yet, she felt at ease. This was not trouble, just harmless jesting, socialising.