Etienne's mind was anywhere, but his betrothed. It should be a night for celebration, a night for feasting as his betrothal to the crown princess was confirmed. Grandmother had spared no expense and Ilvaine's bounty was served at the feast. The best of their catch, drink, and entertainment was present and he knew that outside of the castle walls, the townsfolk would receive their share of the bounty as well. The celebrations might even last until the wedding in just two weeks. Giselle at least seemed happy, eating and drinking wine, dancing with the other ladies of the court. Grandmother toasted to their health and happiness from her seat at the head of the dais. He felt shame creeping in as he sulked in a corner with his knight.
"Lusine would never accept her," he sighed. "I should never have-"
"It's too late for regrets, my lord." said Aine bluntly. She shifted, looking around the room with unease. Her hand at her hip where her sword usually hung. Of course, she didn't have a sword with her tonight. It was a night of celebration. Grandmother wouldn't have allowed weapons inside the banquet hall. One hand tugged at the end of her ponytail, a tick she picked up when they were children. For tonight, she wore the sea blue armor of Ilvaine's knights, not the red and white of Lusine.
"I know, but she isn't just going to be their empress one day. She will be my duchess, how do I explain that? And the wedding?" Seven weeks. It seemed so short a time when their betrothal has just been confirmed. How was he to plan a wedding in seven weeks? He had never even been to one
"Your grandmother will be happy enough to plan the wedding, even if it is to take place in Lusine, not Ilvaine."
"Father would be so disappointed if he could see me now."
"And yet, he is dead so he cannot. It is too late for regrets."
"I am entrusting the goddess' bloodline to the enemy, what would the people think?"
"They think you already have, given the rumors." She eyed him warily. "I would say you should practice more discretion, but it is too late for such warnings now."
"It was my fault. I couldn't help it."
"It would be difficult to blame you if they saw the princess."
His eyes sought Giselle. She looked so beautiful, so happy now that he had signed those papers, but there was a sadness in her eyes. He should be dancing with her, paying her attention throughout the night, and yet, he finds himself unable to do so. On any other night, he could have and would have danced with her as night turned into morning but not tonight. Etienne wished he had some wine with him. His chest tightened as he looked at her. Giselle was his enemy, how many times had he been told of what her family did to his mother's? Lusine would still be a strong kingdom, protected by its mother goddess if it wasn't for them. He found resenting Giselle to be an exercise in futility a long time ago.
"What would the High Priestess think?" He wondered aloud. "Mother failed to awaken our goddess and now I'm to wed the daughter of the man who caused mother's death."
"The High Priestess has been informed," the knight said tersely. "Our plans have been adjusted to account for the wedding and you shouldn't speak of such things in public. It would be construed as treason."
He nodded, remembering himself. "Of course, Aine. You should go to Isla, I have no doubt she's been looking for you all night."
"What about you?"
"Don't mind me," said he. "I'll be in my chambers, I've no doubt there's a lot of letters I must write." With one last look at the dancing princess, he turned and left the hall, aware of his grandmother's eyes on him. Her disapproval gnawed on him yet he continued on.
Inside his chambers, he locked the doors and opened a stack of letters he'd kept hidden inside the false bottom of a drawer. These letters and documents had been, for years, his only link to the kingdom- duchy his mother left him. How long had it been since he was last there? Not since his formal investiture as duke at eight, more than twelve years ago. He'd no doubt his isolation was deliberate, to make him seem like an outsider, a foreigner to his own people.
In many ways, Etienne envied Giselle. She could go anywhere as he wished, whereas he was limited to Ilvaine and the capital. On the rare occasion that he was lucky, Giselle would take him somewhere and he'd be able to see more of the empire. It felt strange at times that Etienne would be the future emperor consort and yet, he had such limited freedom. A consequence, he supposed, of his mother's rebellion. His people would want him to say he'd give her up if he could live to see a free Lusine. He wouldn't have.
Aine knocked and entered. She gnawed on her lip, a hand on her sword. Etienne looked up from the letters he'd been writing.
"The princess has been drinking in her rooms," she said without preamble. "The maids informed me as you requested."
"I see," he said, standing and putting the letters away. "Thank you for informing me."
The hiccuping earlier in the night should have clued him in. The princess had been deep in her cups as the night grew deeper and it would only result in another headache for him. He could, of course, choose to ignore her, but Her Highness is not a woman so easily ignored. Ignoring her now would only present another problem later, and well, she was his problem now. She had been his problem the moment he signed those papers confirming their betrothal, no, the moment he'd taken her maidenhead and it was either wed her or face death. Etienne rubbed his temples, wondering how he'd convince the erstwhile Kingdom of Lusine to accept this crown princess of the empire that devoured them. Yet another problem the empire had dumped on his lap.
"My lord," said Aine, "are you going to the princess' chambers tonight?"
"I have to, it isn't good for her to drink so much." Her lips pursed at his reply, no doubt thinking such a thing would lead to no good. After all, going to Giselle's chambers while either of them was inebriated led to his current predicament- their bethrothal.
"Are you certain that's wise, my lord?"
"She would be even more unbearable in the morning if I don't." He sighed and locked his drawers, deeming the conversation to be over. It wasn't like he could focus on his paperwork on this night of all nights, in any case. Aine nodded and followed him out of his chambers.
The walk to the princess' quarters was short, his grandmother having given her the grandest chambers nearest to him saying that they "ought to get to know each other better before the wedding". He thought Grandmother simply wanted the princess out of her hair, not that he could blame her. His betrothed could be imperious on the best of days, he didn't like thinking of the worst. He told Aine to keep watch with Liliana's guards outside and went in.
Giselle had transformed the chambers to be more opulent than usual. Golds and deep purples replaced the sea blue color of the sheets and curtains, turning it into a room more fitting for the Royal Palace in Karom than a coastal duchy like Ilvaine. He winced inwardly at the thought of what she'd do to the castle in Lusine, a place more fort and cathedral than a proper castle. Inside, he found her drinking and gossiping with her maidservants.
"Princess", he bowed, eyeing the carafes of wine. "I believe you've had two much wine for the evening."
She frowned, taking another sip of wine. "You speak nonsense Etienne, there is no such thing."
"Why do you drink so heavily?" She looks lovely even now, and he swallowed. Her red hair was unbound, like a river of blood down her back, the flush on her cheeks only accentuating her hair. Even drunk and upset, this princess was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
Giselle pouted. It's never a good thing when she does. He braced himself. "You ignored me earlier, at the feast. It should have been a night for celebration, but you ignored me."
Oh, that. He had been conversing with Aine at the feast. Color drained from his face and he struggled to compose himself. "My apologies, Your Highness. I did not mean to neglect you." Hopefully, that would be enough and Aine would be spared from her jealousy for now. She didn't even like men!
Her fingers dug into his arms, sharp fingertips piercing into his skin, as sharp as the words coming out of her mouth. "Aine, Aine, Aine. It's always her!" He kept silent, knowing by now where this is going. "You know Etienne, I'm starting to doubt what you've told me about her and your sister. Tell me, why does she keep me from my betrothed?"
She was his closest friend. The only one of his guards from Lusine, that war-torn duchy- kingdom he was to rule. The one link to his mother and her people, their goddess and the ways of Lusine. Aine smuggled to him papers from Lusine, so that he may learn to rule it properly when the time came. Still, he kept silent for this was not a battle worth fighting. Not now, not on the night they were supposed to be celebrating their engagement. Not now, when he and his family had just ceased to be seen as traitors in the eyes of the court. Would-be god-awakeners. He can ill-afford a fight with her. So he kept his mouth shut and brought his lips to Giselle's hand.
Etienne took Giselle in his arms and motioned for her maidservants to get out. He sat on her bed and placed her on his lap, caressing her cheeks. "It is the honor of my life that one day, I would call you my life," he lied. "I could scarcely believe myself worthy of such an honor."
"You have an odd way of showing it." Giselle turned her face away from him. "I simply wanted to celebrate
"And how may I make it up to you, my princess?" He deflected smoothly.
A frown flashed on Giselle's face, but disappeared quickly as she giggled and pushed him down the bed. Had he been a better man, Etienne would have been able to resist her. Giselle was drunk and obviously still upset. Alas, a better man he was not and he had never been able to resist her. She knew it too, occasionally picking fights that only ended with him in her bed. If she could see him, he had no doubt his mother would be disappointed. Consorting with the daughter of the man who led to her death, the future empress. He wondered if the people of Lusine would accept him after the things he had been doing with Giselle, willingly. He didn't love her, at least he didn't believe he did but she was an obsession. A desire above all else, even the kingdom. For Giselle, that was enough so long as he didn't love anyone else. And again, like the night that led to their betrothal, he kissed her and let her do as she wished.
The morning only brought regrets as it did clarity. He had no doubt the emperor knew of their activities. Giselle told him as much, one night when she was too deep in her cups for them to do anything but talk. She told him of what her father had told her to do to him, the things he wished he had done to Etienne's mother so that she wouldn't have been able to escape, much less foment rebellion. The difference between he and his mother was his weakness, his willingness to go along with whatever Giselle had wished. His desire for her had been his ruin, could be his kingdom's ruin. Giselle had whispered in his ear, so sweetly and so poisonous, 'You wouldn't rebel against me would you? You'd be as good for me as you've always been, wouldn't you?'
Beside him, the princess stirred awake, a soft smile on her lips. He could love her like this, so sweet and unguarded in his arms as she could only be in the morning. He shifted beside her and kissed her eyelids. "Good morning, my lady."
She propped herself up on the bed and kissed him gently. "I couldn't wait until our wedding, then every morning could be like this."
He nearly said that nearly every morning was like it, before he caught himself. It was too beautiful a morning to ruin by opening his mouth. At this point, he had no doubt that the bigger surprise to the court was if Giselle wasn't pregnant on their wedding day. He wouldn't be surprised if she was himself. There were moments where he had wondered if that was her plan, further ensuring he wouldn't rebel against her. What sort of man rebels against his wife, the mother of his children? May his mother forgive him, but he hoped he wasn't that sort of man.
"I love you," she said, catching him a little off guard. She'd become fond of saying those words of late and he'd no doubt she believed it. Whether he believed it was another matter- although there was no question of her obsession with him. The same devouring obsession her father had for his mother, he'd heard once, whispered in his ear away from her. In the end, what does it matter? He desired her all the same, willingly participated in what she'd wanted him to do. It may be difficult for some to comprehend, but he had been complicit in it. His one regret was the guilt, the guilt that he was betraying his mother's memory. Father might have thought so, had he been alive still.
He ran his hands through her hair, combing the soft strands with his fingers, wondering if this was a sort of love. But then, since when did love play any role in dynastic pursuits and godly bloodlines? Later, he would have to pray to his ancestress, the goddess of Lusine in secret and ask for guidance. So far, his prayers have gone unanswered, a sign he'd taken to meant she was displeased with his actions with the princess. Maybe in a different world, one without gods or dynastic feuds to worry about, they'd be happier.
"Only two more weeks, my princess." He said, his mind wandering even as he continued to stroke her hair. Seven weeks until the wedding, seven weeks until they wed at the castle in Lusine, where his mother had died, where they failed to awaken their goddess. Had he been more dramatic, he'd say he only had seven weeks of freedom left, but he was never under any illusions of being free in the first place.