Rivian lifted the gleaming new sigil-piece from its pale velvet cushion and settled it in the curve between his left ear and his skull. He ran a hand over his face. The weight of curved gold and gemstones tore at his ear. This wire work woven with icy blue light sat heavier than the old, plain silver one he’d left at home. No matter. Without it to proclaim his rank and inheritance status in society, he may as well walk into the Zuldæn’s gala naked. He collected the invitation, and headed downstairs to meet the limousine ready to take him to to the Palace of Light.
Locking his townhouse door, Rivian moved down the path to the curb at a fast walk, straightening the cuffs of his silk tunic. The limousine, a hideous black monstrosity, pulled up. Curse it, he’d forgotten to specify white. The driver came out, opened the door for him and he sat down. The tinted windows closed in on him as the door shut. He pressed his face into his hands and took several deep breaths as the limo pulled away from the curve and drove the few kilometers to the Palace.
His father would kill him for the faux pas. If one of the lords didn’t point it out first.
Once his head stopped spinning, he looked up. The townhouses nearer the palace grew in scale and expense. Their marble columns and granite walls blazed in the lowering sun, archways shadowed just enough to provide some relief from the desert heat. So this was where the lords and ladies played at foreign dignitary.
“Sir, we’ve arrived.”
The gates of the palace stood open before them, wrought iron enameled white and coated in crafted light. As the driver maneuvered the limo into the line, the view of the ocean took Rivian’s breath. Framed in statuary trees, the ocean glimmered in late afternoon’s light. He tore his gaze away as the driver let him out.
“Shall I wait for you?”
“Not necessary, thank you.” The sooner that eyesore limo left, the better.
He passed the man a tip, then brushed the wrinkles from his outer tunic. An impressive light statue of the Great-Grandfather stood to greet visitors. He bowed, and offered a quick prayer. With a little help, perhaps he’d pull this off. He squared his shoulders and headed for the arched entry. A butler took his invitation.
“Welcome, Esquire Zhiirelendar.” The man motioned to the end of the reception line.
“My thanks.” Rivian nodded and took his place. The line of men and women dressed in gauze and gemmed finery snaked through the hall to the ballroom. He did his best to count with their sigil-piece on the left. None. Worse, the elaborate workmanship of many right side pieces set his teeth on edge. Lords and ladies. He swallowed thickly, and reminded himself once more to breathe. Perhaps he’d count wall tiles while the line moved.
Two hundred ten glass tiles later, Rivian found himself face to face with his host, Zuldæn Væzhyun Saltaviir. His royal blood announced itself in ivory skin, petal-shaped ears and pale lavender. Over his right ear the most elaborate ear-piece yet swept back over his coiled red braid in interwoven wires white and pink gold and pure light. A single diamond where the top of the ear met the head marking him as the head of his House. Rivian, he told himself, breathe.
“Esquire Zhiirelendar, thank you for coming.”
“Your Eminence, the invitation surprised me. I am grateful.”
The Zuldæn smiled. “We are few enough here in Nievah. It is best we know who our friends are. Please, enjoy the refreshments.”
“Thank you.” Rivian bowed low, and stepped through the double doors. From the stepped balcony across the room, a choir sang in harmony with the notes of two splendid harps. Under that balcony sat a refreshment table, half-concealed behind a filmy drape. Yes, a drink might calm his nerves. He made his way to the table, and picked up a crystal flute. He found an empty table back near the door, behind the curtains, and sat sipping his drink. As soon as the drink hit his tongue, he made a face. Alcohol. Even mulled wine couldn’t hide that taste.
At least the drink excused him from mingling for now. He ran his gaze over the crowd again, and counted three men with a sigil-piece on the left. One near the refreshments, another at a nearby table, and the third up on the balcony, as close to the harpist as possible. Best to memorize those names for later.
He scanned the room over the rim of his wine glass. How in Vædroz did his father expect him to build any valuable connections here?
A pair of dancers spun past him. The lady’s sigil with classic feminine scrolling in turquoise light and silver stood out. Lady Thuriis Aldezharun, his fiancée. Well, betrothed. No formal engagement had yet been announced. Spring green silk hugged her slight curves, leaving her shoulders and arms bare, and enveloping her neck with just enough sheer to remind a man to keep his thoughts in check. She wore that dress to entice more than just his imagination, he was sure.
He left his empty glass on the table and wove his way between the others mingling on the pink and ivory marble floor. Her partner wore a lord’s sigil-piece spelling out the surname Alzavæn in odd red light, like fresh blood. As they turned on the dance floor she smiled at the lord and licked her lips with just the tip of her tongue.
Blood rushed to Rivian’s ears, and one hand balled into a fist, hidden in the flowing blue fabric of his over-robe. Could the women meant for him truly be such a brazen-? A voice broke into his thoughts before he could speak the word.
“Her betrothed has been here for five and a half minutes,” said the voice, which belonged to a lord of much higher rank. The Lord Kalazhren swept past all three of them with an air of feigned indifference. A son of the Mad Lord’s House? And the gems—topaz set under white opal—meaning heir of the heir who was not the heir. Was this the Mad Lord’s grandson? Why did he involve himself?
Rivian gritted his teeth, and buried his anger and confusion both. A small, fragile hand wrapped around his bicep. “Master Rivian?”
“What?” he snapped, looking up to find Lady Thuriis on his arm.
“I do apologize for my indiscretion, my betrothed. I was unaware of your attendance.” She cast her eyes to the ground in an appropriate show of shame and humility. “You know we women can be foolish, easily led astray.”
“Yes, yes of course.” Gods, that gown did take his breath away. “My father has kept us apart for some time. Perhaps now we might grow in our affections, and such silly whims won’t tempt you again.”
“No, future lord of my heart.” She smiled. “For given time, that is how I might see you, merchant though you are now.”
“Merchant though I am now. I see.” His eyes narrowed as the choir sang out the first notes of another dancing tune, and Rivian bowed to her. “Would you care to dance, then, my lady?”
She smiled, and let him lead her through the steps of the dance. When she claimed sore feet, he led her to a seat. No sooner were they seated then Lady Thuriis’s former dance partner approached. Rivian kept his expression carefully blank. The lord nodded to him, ignoring her.
“Might I introduce myself? I am Lord Metiirian Alzavæn, Shadærin of Indrilii. You are Master Rivian Zhiirelendar?”
“I am, Lord Alzavæn. My thanks for the introduction.”
“You are most welcome. Naturally, I do not make a habit of introducing myself to merchants.”
“I imagine not,” Rivian said, sarcasm dripping from his words.
“I thought an apology in order for my conduct. Had I known the Lady Aldæzharun was betrothed, her advances would never have been welcome.”
“It is not customary, Shadærin, for a lady to make advances. If indeed she did, I would assume a gentleman lord would not indulge such girlish fancies.” Rivian held Lord Alzavæn’s stare with his own cold, level gaze—perfected in law school—until the noble broke eye contact.
“You are right of course. Again, my apologies for any offense I have caused you. If it is not acceptable for me to claim the next dance I offered her-” Lord Alzavæn let his words trail into silence.
Lady Thuriis cleared her throat lightly. When Rivian and the lord turned their attention to her, she spoke. “It is quite alright, Lord Alzavæn. Master Zhiirelendar will not begrudge us the dance.” She locked that smug turquoise stare on Rivian. “Will you, my betrothed?”
“Fortune smiles on you both.” Rivian forced his jaw to relax. He knew a dismissal when he heard it. “It seems I no longer have an appetite for dancing. I bid you good night, my lady, my lord, as I am certain, Lady Thuriis, you already have an escort home.” He rose and made his way to the refreshment table one last time, taking a small sweet on his way out. Propriety may require he leave, but he would do so on his terms.