Queen Lavinia was in a better mood than her cousin had seen in a long time. She came to breakfast with a skip in her step, and for once, didn't begin her morning with wine.
The sun was already out and quite bright for so early, like an omen of good things to come. The queen's balcony flooded with golden, if not warm, autumn light. The air smelled crisp and fresh with the deepening of fall. Gleefully, the queen buttered her bread, her eyes twinkling.
"Everard has requested Florian and I join him at Castle Frost," she beamed, while Lord Benedict watched in amusement. "My son is to be married and I'm to get a daughter-in-law. I wonder what she's like."
Benedict's amusement dimmed, but only slightly. "She's a warrior, my queen, and quite a famous one in the North." She could tear that little boy of yours in half, he didn't add.
"There will be no need for all that down here," Lavinia stated resolutely. "She's about to become a Southerner. When we return, I will educate her in our ways and lavish her with finery. We will need to organize a proper ball to celebrate an end to war and the Treaty of Idalia." She paused. "What do we know of Queen Idalia, by the way?"
"She likes diamonds," Benedict shrugged. "The Borderlands has a few mines, as I recall."
"But what else?" Lavinia pressed. "That woman may have just saved us all, and I want to make a good impression."
"She enjoys velvet too, Your Majesty," Benedict shrugged. He paused. "She's also unmarried."
Lavinia grinned. "As are you, cousin."
Benedict shook his head. "I don't want to live in the Borderlands."
It was Lavinia's turn to be less amused. "This isn't about what you want, cousin. I didn't want to marry Everard. I didn't want to sit by, idle and irrelevant for years, while his daughter ruled in his stead--no more. It's Gregoria's turn to be irrelevant. Idalia is the most famous woman in all of Misthaven right now. People will be flocking to her court to curry favor, and we will be no different."
Benedict sighed wearily. He didn't need an oracle to tell him he had no chance in hell; he was a middling lord with few lands and wholly unworthy of a queen. But he didn't expect Lavinia to understand that.
"Send word to all the silk and velvet merchants who supply the palace," she ordered. "And my favorite tailor as well; he'll be accompanying us to Castle Frost. I need him to take Celestina's measurements and commission an entirely new wardrobe for her. I've heard of Northern fashions and I will not suffer them here."
Northern fashions weren't vastly different from Southern fashions, but Benedict didn't feel like arguing that just now.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"I was wondering when we'd get a chance to speak, Your Highness," Honora Castellan mused. She raised a steaming cup of herbal tea to her lips. "I've been at court for days."
Princess Gregoria had invited the dark-haired Duchess of Easterland to breakfast in the formal dining room. The long drapes were parted to light the bright morning light in, and there was more food than either of them could reasonably eat in one setting. A servant offered her a platter of quail eggs and she waved him away. She wasn't particularly fond of quail eggs and they knew that.
Gregoria often wondered if the kitchens did this on purpose, so that the servants could enjoy the abundant uneaten leftovers.
"Apologies for my negligence, Your Grace," Gregoria replied patiently.
"Not at all," Honora smiled, tilting her head in amusement. "I too would favor the company of a young, comely mermaid over a plain old Duchess."
"Honora, you're not old," Gregoria blinked, eager to get down to business, "Now...I need you to go to the Borderlands for my brother's wedding. I can't attend because I have to run the kingdom in my father's absence...one last time."
"And since you can't be there to meet your new sister-in-law, you need a proxy to counter whatever the queen whispers about you in her ear," Honora chuckled, nodding.
"If Celestina is who I think she is, she'll see right through Lavinia immediately," Gregoria grumbled. Her eyes narrowed. "But I can't take the chance."
"I'm happy to go, Princess," the Duchess assured her. "It will be great honor to attend such a momentous occasion at such an historic location. Have you ever met this Queen Idalia of House Frost?"
"No," Gregoria admitted. "But I've met a cousin of hers in passing. She has a few left, I think, scattered across Misthaven."
"Not for long," Honora smirked, her lips as red as her gown. "They're about to be the most famous family in the kingdoms." She tilted her head again. "If the daughter of Everard were to wed a Frost, such a match just might be enough to retain the line of succession."
Gregoria's eyes darkened. "There will be no talk of that," she rasped. "My father did what he had to do to keep Damiana in the North where she belongs, instead of gutting our people and burning our towns here in the South. Disagreeing with his decision is treason."
The Duchess casually shrugged, relenting. "It was just a thought."
"Are you going to miss him?" Aquiel asked Gisela, as the two acolytes walked the palace halls in boredom.
"Hardly," Gisela snorted. "Florian is a very studious, single-minded fellow. He reads to avoid his reality."
"That his life is not his own," Gisela shrugged. "A palace can be a prison sometimes. Just look at Lavinia. While her son reads, she drinks."
"You know," Aquiel raised a dark eyebrow, her lips teasing a smile, "you talk about royals like you know them. And not in a way that comes from reading about their history. I have spent hours listening to the princess recite tales of her ancestors--all the way back to Meliora Augusta herself--and I still don't feel like I know these people. What moves them? What makes them tick?"
"The throne," Gisela shrugged again. "The ones who want it the most can't have it, and the ones who do have it don't want it. They spend their lives trying to find a balance, often lying, stealing, and murdering in the process."
"And now the balance has shifted. Florian will be king. Lavinia will finally have the attention she's always wanted. And Gregoria...." The mermaid trailed off, unsure what would happen to the princess.
"Gregoria will whisper one thing her brother's ear while his mother whispers another, his new wife whispers yet another, and Savia whispers something else." Gisela scowled. She stopped walking to admire the palace gardens, where the chrysanthemums were in bloom, and the tall trees were shedding their leaves onto the stony paths. "They will all drive him to madness."
"Who were you, Gisela?" Aquiel asked suddenly. "Before you joined the Ursas, who were you?"
"I wasn't a royal, if that's what you're wondering," Gisela bit out, refusing to look at her.
The mermaid's eyebrow went back up. "A noble, perhaps? Lost a title, maybe? Or your lands? Agreed to a doomed betrothal?"
"I was no one," Gisela insisted, still glaring out at the beauty that lay before them.
"You weren't a servant," Aquiel shook her head. "You don't move or talk like a servant, and you understand these highborn types far too intimately."
"Whoever I was before I took my vows is irrelevant," Gisela snapped, finally turning towards her fellow acolyte. "My family is gone and those days are over. I am Gisela now--that's all I care to be." She looked about the castle halls and pillars and gardens with contempt. "You actually think the treaty means an end to death and despair? That poor Queen of the Borderlands was minding her own business behind her castle walls, and now her kingdom is about to be overrun by every manner of viper and leech, each with their own agenda. Meanwhile, down here, Florian the spineless scholar is about to be torn apart by all the women in his life.
"Humans never really learn, Aquiel. Where one war ends, another simply begins."