9/19/21

...The Family


"These Ursas are different," Aquiel mumbled as she helped lace Gisela into a velvet gown of the palest blue. It seemed to shimmer in the candlelight. It was identical to her own, with slim bell sleeves and an scooped neckline embroidered in white thread.

They were the plainest dresses available and immediately what Gisela went for.

"Different?" Gisela clutched her stomach, her long black hair still damp from her bath. "That's an understatement."

"You have to admit, though...their way of life is enchanting."

Gisela turned to face her. "This is what I was talking about."

Aquiel raised her hands. "I'm not succumbing to temptation; I'm merely a visitor paying my hosts a compliment, Gisela."

"Their way of live is a perversion," Gisela rasped. "They have completely given themselves over to pleasure. Did you hear that pathetic excuse for a schedule? No dedicated classes, no spellcraft, they don't cook their own meals or clean their own rooms, and what Ursa do you know can't read Elvish???"

She turned away from Aquiel to inspect her reflection in a full length mirror. "It's appalling."

"It's only until the next equinox."

"I don't need to spend seven months in this place to know this life is not for me," Gisela grumbled.

"Maybe that's the point," Aquiel cocked her head to the side. In the candlelight, her dark skin was dewy and luminous from the bath. "You feel like this now, today. But what about tomorrow? Or the day after? What happens with the right and upstanding Gisela starts to get use to pretty clothes and no chores? Maybe she'll even take a liking to that handsome prince she pretended not to notice in the garden."

Gisela whirled to face her. "It will never happen."

Aquiel flashed a wry smirk. "Maybe not today."

Laria returned. She walked into the room and eyed them both from head to toe. "You both look good. Some jewels might be nice though. And a little perfume in your hair wouldn't hurt."

"We're fine, thank you," Gisela curtly replied.

"Before I take to the throne room--where Savia will present you--I need to make sure you know how to curtsy and how to address the royal family."

Gisela curtsied. It was prim, her back was straight, and her nimble knees bent gracefully.

"The princess is referred to as 'Highness', while the queen is referred to as 'Majesty' or 'Your Grace,'" she recited flatly. "We only speak when spoken to, we complain about absolutely nothing, and we don't volunteer any personal information."

Aquiel was both surprised and amused. "You mean don't babble on mindlessly about ourselves."

"Precisely," Laria nodded. She beamed. "It seems you're ready to meet the royal family."

***

Grand Kremlin Palace

Whenever King Everard was absent, Gregoria would sit on her father's throne, while her scowling stepmother would sit to her right. And the throne to her left, where she would usually sit, was left vacant.

But there was a new face at court this morning, which drew gasps from the courtiers and visitors, and even raised eyebrows from the guards.

"I see Florian has finally decided to learn something of kingcraft," Lavinia mumbled under her breath. "This will be good for him."

"I see you're still pretending to care about what's good for him," Gregoria snorted back.

"And I see you're still surrounding yourselves with maids who look older than you," her stepmother fired without missing a beat.

Before Gregoria could send one back at her, Florian approached the dais and bowed. "Your Majesty, Your Highness," he greeted courteously, before rising to take his sister's seat.

"Who's next, Lord Benedict?" Gregoria bluntly demanded, working hard to keep her irritation in check.

The queen's cousin glanced down at his royal scroll. "The Duchess of Easterland, Your Highland."

Lavinia visibly tensed. She sank ever so slightly into her throne and couldn't stop herself from biting her nails.

"Duchess of Easterland?" Florian murmured, confused. "Isn't that...?"

"Honora fucking Alban," Lavinia rasped.

Normally, that would annoy Gregoria. Lavinia was clearly never raised to be a queen after decades of being one, still had a lot to learn about the queenly arts.

But today, however, the princess, was deeply amused. "Oh, wait...it's Honora Castellan now," she grinned, delighting in reminding her stepmother.

Florian was still confused. "I thought she was Honora Neville, the Countess Neville." His head swiveled between his family and the noblewoman entering the throne room. His mind raced with faces and named, suddenly alarmed by his own ignorance. "She's supposed to be married to the Count of Neville."

Lavinia's forehead was literally showing veins. "She was married to the Count of Neville. He died of summer sickness in July. Body wasn't even cold before she threw herself at Ivar Castellan."

Gregoria was beaming. "Clearly, swapping out the old husband for a new one has done wonders for her."

Constance Wu as Honora Castellan, Duchess of Easterland

Honora Castellan was a new woman, sashaying down the red carpet towards the dais in her stunning velvet gown of burgundy. Her neck was draped in pearls, while gold flashed upon her fingers, neck, and in her braided hair. She left gasps and whispers in her wake, and when she reached the dais, she greeted the royal family in dramatic, sweeping courtesy.

"Your Grace," Lavinina greeted her stiffly. "I thought you'd be on your honeymoon right now."

"Your Majesty," Honora greeted coolly, "in light of our recent marriage, my husband has decided to return to court. I've come ahead to make the arrangements."

Gregoria's grin was nothing short of blinding. "You are most welcome, Your Grace," she smiled broadly. "Lord Godric," she continued with zero hesitation, "please ensure the Duke's old suite is vacant, and help the Duchess get settled in as quickly as possible."

"Yes, Your Highness," Godric bowed, before gesturing for Honora to follow him.

"Who's next, Benedict?"

"The Ursas, Your Highness."

***

After living at the island temple, Aquiel was no stranger to big rooms with high ceilings, but this was on an entire different level.

These humans loved gold, they loved velvet, and they showed no restrained in using them. They didn't just use them to adorn themselves; the very walls and candelabras glittered with gold. The giant windows were draped in velvet. It was baffling.

She resisted the urge to cover her nose as Savia led her and Gisela into the throne room. Some of the humans had bathed, but most hadn't, and everyone's perfume was now competing with everyone else's.

No wonder mermaids rarely stay with mortals, she realized. The smell alone is enough to deter temptation.

"Your Majesty, Your Highnesses," Savia called, "may I introduce Miss Gisela and Miss Aquiel, from the island temple of Ursula."

To Gisela's surprise, they didn't get a bunch of looks or whispers from the court. But then she remembered that from equinox to equinox, two new Ursas were always sent to "tend" their shrine. Their arrival wasn't news to the court; they were likely far more interested in their fellow nobles. This was just a formality.

Aquiel and Gisela curtsied, rose, and said nothing.

"Aquiel," Gregoria murmured. "That's a...mermaid name, is it not?"

"Yes, Your Highness," Aquiel replied politely. Now came the whispers and exchanging of looks.

"I can't recall the last time we had a mermaid at court," the princess mused.

"Long before you were born, Highness," Savia smiled fondly.

"You must dine with me tonight, Miss Aquiel," the princess invited. "I'm quite curious to hear your thoughts about humans."

"Thank you, Your Highness," Aquiel blinked nervously, eyes darting to Savia and then Gisela. She hadn't expected this.

"And you, Miss Gisela?" Lavinia piped up, suddenly feeling competitive. "What's it like being a human on the island temple of the sea goddess?"

"There are many humans there, Your Majesty," Gisela replied calmly. "As junior acolytes, Aquiel and I spend most of our time at study."

That caught Florian's attention. "What do you study, Miss Gisela?"

"Languages, history...spirituality," she nodded. "We have a very large library."

"Then you must dine with me and my son tonight," Lavinia quickly invited. "Florian is quite an avid reader."

Gisela's jaw tensed, but she remained calm. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

The Ursa maidens were thereafter dismissed from court. Once outside the grand double doors leading into the throne room, a bewilder Gisela turned to Aquiel.

"This is a disaster!"

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