A golden yellow rose slips into spring green hair where half of it is pulled up. The hands that place it there rest soft on the crown princess’s shoulders. The Lady in Waiting leans sideways to meet her eyes in the mirror. “Are you ready to turn seventeen, Princess Cloud Spark?” She inquires with a playful lilt to her voice. A smile tugs at Cloud’s lips as she pushes air from her nose in a small, curt laugh. “Oh, c’mon. It’s a big day. You’re an adult now.” She leans her cheek against Cloud’s head, careful not to mess up her freshly finished hair.
“If you think I’ll be treated as such,” Cloud replies, turning her gaze away from the mirror, “you’re fooling yourself, Tulip.”
“I mean, hey,” Tulip shrugs, “the queen allowed you the makeup you wanted! That’s more than usual.”
“Gods forbid I show hints of my second, oh-so primitive and foreign culture,” Cloud recites, her small grin gaining a bitter edge. Her eyes flit back to the mirror. “Don’t get me wrong, I like the dress. I love the dress, actually, but… I agree with my father. It would have been nice to wear the furisode since coming of age is a bigger deal where he comes from.” Cloud’s gloved fingers trace the dress's embroidery, golden roses to match the ornamentation in her hair. Roses for the “Rose of Frith.” She pouts, “Not to mention I feel naked without the armor accents.” Tulip laughs, lifting her head from Cloud’s shoulder and adjusts her crown for her one last time.
Tulip raises an eyebrow down at her. “Don’t tell me I labored over hiding all of your weapons under those endless layers of skirts just for you to still feel defenseless.”
Without a reply, Cloud takes Tulip’s hand when offered. She lifts Cloud to her feet, to Tulip’s eye level.
“And you still have your magic with you, no matter what you lack,” Tulip reminds her, thumb tracing over Cloud’s knuckles.
“Unless I panic,” Cloud replies, fingers twitching in Tulip's hand, "which is a given, at this point, since I'll be in a room with my mother. Surrounded by people. Expected to be kind, but cold, and meek, but strong, and polite, but distant. It's sure to be quite a relaxing experience, certainly."
"Well, it's always like that," Tulip attempts. It’s not comforting, but it’s something. Cloud's eyes soften, pulling her hand from Tulip's. The ever-present exhaustion behind her eyes is masked in an instant, as per usual, but that Cloud displays it to Tulip at all is telling. Tulip holds her hands together behind her back. "Try to have some fun tonight," she says. "Say hi to Prince Martin for me."
"Are you ready to go?"
After a pause, Cloud repeats, "Sure.” She passes by Tulip to reach the door. She stalls before leaving, hand lingering on the doorknob. She looks back. "See you around tonight?"
"I'd be rude not to introduce my plus-one to you," Tulip agrees. Cloud’s smile regains some of its sincerity, and she exits to make her way to the ballroom.
The halls are oddly empty, the castle staff completely occupied by the demands of hosting the party. Still, guards line the halls, as they always do. At this point, Cloud swears they're a part of the decor. Silent and still as they are, most people don't realize just how much they see and hear. Because of what they know, none of these soldiers are surprised to see the crown princess wringing her hands as she speedwalks.
It's just a party, like every other. She's had birthday parties before, one each year in fact. Nothing's different. Maybe that's why she's on edge.
Nothing is different. Nothing will change. Nothing ever changes, ever gets better.
She comes to a stop before the double doors, intricately carved details of roses and snakes painted gold to contrast the rich brown of the wood. They loom before her, massive against her palms. Cloud takes a deep breath, air grinding against her throat, and adjusts her smile to be polite, but not too warm. The doors shove open and the familiar and overwhelming sounds of voices chatting, glasses clinking, and steps echoing assault her ears. The room is bright, too bright. Torches and lanterns are lit white, glowing with the steady energy of magic. She fights the ill-mannered urge to squint.
"Esteemed ladies and gentlemen," a man announces, "The woman of the evening, Her Royal Highness, Princess Cloud Tamiko Spark of Frith!" The room turns to her like flowers to the sun. Drinks are raised by the hands of Frith’s aristocracy, the regulars of royal events, as well as some representatives of other countries. Cloud pulls her shoulders back farther and continues deeper into the room, down the stairs, and closer to the true sun of the castle.
Outshining her husband is the queen. Dawned in warm colors with eyes searing like sun rays and hair like fire not only in color, but temperament, anyone would draw the comparison. The king stands in her shadow, much colder. His eyes are glacial, and his hair flows in a much smoother motion, more akin to the night's calm seas. Though less intimidating than the queen, he still overshadows Summer, Cloud's adoptive little sister—not that they've ever truly blended her into the family, a difficult task for a group that acts more like housemates than kin. As much of a magical powerhouse Summer is, her hair rests ordinarily on her shoulders, as does Cloud’s. Neither of them have diadems, after all. Cloud reaches her small family, briefly seeks approval through the eyes of her mother, and turns around to face the crowd. The queen's voice, commanding and confident, begins addressing the guests with a speech Cloud could probably quote without a thought.
She can feel Summer's side-eye poking at her temples. Cloud's green eyes slide over to meet her gaze, unimpressed. While Cloud has taken great pains to establish a proper public image, she can’t say the same for Summer. In a voice as quiet as physically possible, Summer whispers, "Bold choice, a Judgement Rose in your hair." Cloud, in place of a verbal response, raises her clasped hands to her waist and taps the embroidery as an explanation. Casual suspicion lingers in Summer's gaze, but it's not like she can make further remarks at the moment without being noticed. The two return their focus back to their surroundings until the queen wraps up her presentation. Upon completion, glasses rise above the crowd once more, and a heavy hand falls on Cloud's shoulder. She has to wrangle back a vehement flinch. A singeing, anxious heat spreads out from her chest to the very tips of her fingers. No words are exchanged, but Cloud knows the message. "Go mingle. Don't embarrass me." The queen and king step away to greet guests, leaving their children behind. Cloud takes a deep, unstable breath in an attempt to recover from her minor heart attack.
"So," Summer prompts, either indifferent or ignorant to Cloud’s brief panic. She gestures at her own hair to indicate Cloud's.
"It's the country flower, and it matches my dress," Cloud defends. "Why? Does it look strange?"
"Woah, calm down," Summer eases, sliding her hands down in an intentionally exaggerated fashion. "I was just wondering. Also, aren't you sword-fighting Prince Leo later? Isn't it a bad idea to have that thing on you?"
"I'm not actually going to hurt him," Cloud answers, slightly less ruffled. Slightly. "The rose won't prick me without purpose."
"Yeah, alright, then," Summer shrugs. "They prick me when we fight."
"That's because you're always out for blood, no matter who’s it is," Cloud laments, gracing a hand against her heart. Keeping her face neutral, she continues, "Oh, how I suffer, knowing you wish me harm."
"Only minimally," Summer smirks.
"Comforting, thank you," Comes Cloud’s flat reply. "Speaking of wishing harm, though, are the Pacians still here? After that negotiation, I feel like I should do some damage control. Y'know, make sure we aren't mailed a declaration of war any time soon."
"I saw one of them earlier," Summer confirms. They aren’t exactly easy to miss. "The youngest one. I wouldn't be surprised if the rest of them booked it back home, though. Left her here for tonight to be polite." Cloud perks up.
"Reale?" She wonders. Then, cringes, realizing the implications of the rest returning home. "Was it that bad? I mean, it was tense, but…"
"Cloud," Summer raises a brow, "Mother practically called them degenerates we only deal with for monetary gain from trade." And while Summer agrees with the notion, she also agrees with Cloud that it is not something one should outright insinuate. Rather tactless, isn’t it?
"She did not," Cloud retorts half-heartedly. Though after the automatic reply, she pauses to truly think. Upon recollection... "Alright, so it was pretty bad. I'll go find her."
"Have fun," Summer bids goodbye, lazily waving as she walks off to who knows where—probably to swindle some extra sweets out of the servants or something. Cloud sighs, turning to scan the crowd. Amongst the lighter-skinned guests of Frith’s population, it's quite easy to spot the Pacian Princess. Cloud puts on her royal smile and makes her way across the room.
"Good evening, Princess Ré," she chimes quietly. Reale, looking out one of the massive windows, turns to meet Cloud's eyes. "I wanted to thank you for coming tonight. I understand the situation is tense right now, so I appreciate your attendance."
"You're welcome," the young woman replies with a smile that’s soft like the sky's colors at dusk. "Things are strained between our parents, not us. At least, I like to think so." Cloud's polite smile takes on a dash of genuine contrition. Though their relationship isn’t borderline hostile, like their parents’ is, Cloud would actually say “strained” is unfortunately quite fitting. Just another one of Cloud’s many regrets.
"Did they go home, your family?"
"Oh, no, they're in their guest rooms with 'stomach aches,'" she insists. "It's of no correlation to yesterday afternoon, rest easy. And tell your mother that for me." Cloud chuckles, picking up on the sarcasm.
"They must have caught it from the water. It's processed differently here than in Pace," Cloud responds, playing into it. "You're lucky to escape it." Reale's smile is oddly comforting, especially since it seems genuine. Maybe it is. Nowadays, they're more like close acquaintances than the friends they once were, so it’s difficult for Cloud to read her. It's sort of like when people went to school together as kids and meet up again as adults: different than they were, echoes of who they used to be. Maybe they could be close again someday.
"Yes, I suppose so," Reale agrees. She turns back to the window, gazing at the moonless sky lit only by the stars. Something nostalgic passes over her face as she looks upon the north star. "I'm not the heir to my country's throne; I can't change how things are between Pace and Frith, but I trust Rome. I think the two of you can change things someday. For now, I can only pray that things are better in the future." There's no way Blaze would pass on the throne as long as she's alive, and as a diadem holder, she’s more or less immortal. Even in Cloud's position as first in line to the crown, she can only wait and see if there will be a country left to rule by the time she inherits it—if she does at all. Still, it’s a nice thought, even if it’s nothing more than wishful thinking. "We should write each other sometime," Reale interrupts the start of Cloud's pessimistic spiral. "It's been too long since we've candidly spoken, and it's not like we can actually talk here." Cloud says nothing. To agree would imply she's putting up a facade—which she is—and to deny would be an obvious lie.
"I'd like that, but I don't trust the post to keep to themselves," she says instead. Reale nods, considering that. It’s not too surprising that Frith’s postal system is nosy.
"Do you still have the same bedroom from when we were kids?" Reale asks innocently. Cloud clenches her hands, held together behind her back. The thought of that room and how it smelled and how terrified she was—she can barely stand to think of it, let alone sleep in there.
She swallows, fighting nausea. "No."
"Oh," Reale mutters, side-eyeing Cloud’s neutral expression before returning her gaze to the sky. Shit, did she notice Cloud's hesitation? Did she take too long to respond? Damn it, why is she so awkward? "Well, if you know how to teleport objects, I still have the same room. I could just return my letter to your sending point as long as I put it in the envelope you provide for yours. Do you remember where my room is?"
"I do, yes," Cloud replies a bit too quickly this time. Fuck, man. Socializing is hard. "I can teleport, that's no problem."
"Sounds like a plan," Reale beams, kind and welcoming with no signs of thinking Cloud is behaving strangely. "I'll keep an eye out on my desk. Now, go talk to someone else before your mother thinks you like me." Cloud laughs politely, though they both know it’s not really a joke.
"Thank you again for attending.”
"Of course, Your Highness," Reale nods. Cloud takes Reale's advice and moves on to someone she's socially obligated to speak with. One after another, she recites what she's been rehearsing all her life. Hello! Thank you for coming! It's great to see you again! How’s your family? How’s your business? That's kind of you! Well, I should be on my way, so many people I must see! Hello! Thank you for coming! On and on and on: It's a blur, really, a fuzzy mess of what feels more like a performance than actual conversations. The aristocracy is shallow, and so is she. That’s just how it is.
That is until Cloud runs into Prince Leo Martin. "Cloud!" He beams upon spotting her. "Still alive in there, or are you bored to death?"
"It's more tiring than boring," Cloud replies. That's putting it lightly. She wants to go curl up in her bed and sleep for the next fourteen hours. Try to have some fun tonight. “Oh, and Miss Tulip Garden sends her regards.”
Leo’s smile brightens, sunny and sincere. “She must be the nicest servant in your castle. Tell her I wish her well. But, anyway," Leo props a hand on his sword's handle, the weapon decorates his hip. "I do believe we promised to do something to liven this up, wake you up some." It's nice to see that he's truly doing this for fun. For Cloud, it's something she was ordered to do in a not-so-subtle way to bare her teeth at those below her.
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