Birds of a Feather [Closed]

Where nations come together and discuss matters of varying degrees of importance. [In character]
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Founded: Sep 25, 2011

Birds of a Feather [Closed]

Postby Alemarr » Thu Oct 12, 2017 9:26 am

Moved here with the permission of the Empire of Shalum. Contains Mature Content

The Imperatorial Palace
The Duchy of Haford
The Empire of Shalum

The seat of House Holland’s power was centuries old, nestled atop some of the towering hills that overlooked the capital of Aragon below. It had started as a small fort in a very defensible location, but had expanded into the massive complex that it was today. With over twenty interconnected structures stretched across twenty acres, and some fifteen-hundred rooms, it wasn’t hard for one to simply get lost on the palace grounds. If one cared enough to pay attention to the architecture, they would have noticed that the buildings around the perimeter were much newer, ranging anywhere from the late 1800s to the early fifties and sixties. The heart of it all, where the royal family lived and worked, however, had been constructed back in the sixteenth century. It was not the original structure, however, considering that the Ossorians had razed the previous one.

“Boys, please go ahead and take their bags to their rooms. They may not be staying there long, but at least put them somewhere proper until our lovely guests decide whether or not they approve of their lodgings.” The Imperatrix commanded what felt like a small company of household staff the moment that she disembarked from the SUV that their group had been brought to the palace in. Though employees and visitors kept their vehicles up top, the royal family had their own underground parking structure for the sake of security; it was where they found themselves now.

After a chorus of affirmatives from her employees, Allison smiled and adjusted her top while Anna yawned and hopped out from the vehicle, rubbing her eyes as she lingered near Tarja and Lydia. “Well girls, we’re finally home.” The blonde chuckled as she rolled her shoulders. It may have been afternoon, but the flight still left her tired and her muscles tense. “My husband was adamant that we throw you a dinner to celebrate your arrival, but I figured that you’d like to meet your husband to be after so much waiting, Tarja.” Allison continued with a twinkle in her eyes. “Would you like to move onto that now, or make him wait for a bit while you get settled in?”

“William is nothing short of patient,” Princess Anna chuckled as she fished her own backpack from the trunk of the SUV before slamming it shut.

Tarja almost sighed, but stopped herself. Here it was, her impending marriage, impossible to avoid. It wasn’t that she hated William. After all, she didn’t even know the man. Still, it wasn’t precisely the scenario that she’d dreamed of...not that she ever gave altogether too much thought to her future. What she had decided was that she would face it, like everything else, with that unsinkable sort of determination that she’d inherited from her father. It was a situation that she would make the best of, and the last person she meant to be angry with or resentful of was William. Aapeli, though, would probably be best far away from her and firearms. “I hardly wish to be rude,” she said pleasantly, pulling off her gloves. “Besides, he should probably be acquainted with what he’s been roped into before dinner. Lydia, will you be a dove and see to the unpacking?”

The corner of Lydia’s mouth quirked slightly into a frown as she met her mistress’s stormy eyes. She wasn’t eager to leave Tarja alone, and not just because she didn’t want the Alemarran noble to talk herself into trouble. Lydia knew better than most how hard the news of an arranged marriage had hit Tarja. There was no guarantee that things would go gracefully or leave her unscorched. She stepped over once they were inside and took Tarja’s coat, hat, and gloves.

“I am quite capable of being on my best behavior, thank you,” Tarja said with a despairing sigh, though she smiled at the end of it. It was good to have someone worrying after her. “I shall take your fretting under advisement, I assure you. Now off with you. I’ll not have my things scattered about the guest bedroom willy-nilly, and we all know that’s what happens when I unpack.”

“Yes, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said with a quick curtsey. She didn’t like it, but she didn’t have to. Tarja was a grown woman, after all. It was silly to worry overmuch, or that was at least what the maid told herself. She had some confidence that it would be alright. After all, the adventure had taken some of the bite out of Tarja’s frustration. Lydia knew she could probably do more good making sure that Tarja’s room felt as much like home as it could, all things considered, than staying and trying to chaperone. The maid headed off after the men with the bags with a quick step, catching up to them.

“Worries more than a terrier, that one,” Tarja said, a fond and half-hearted rebuke. She looked back at the Imperatrix and Anna. “Shall we? I will follow you.”

The Imperatrix's expression was mixed; part of her was warmed by what she witnessed between Tarja and her maid on a regular basis, and other part of her disheartened by the position that the Alemarran woman found herself in. There was no way around the fact that Allison was directly responsible, if only in part, for arranging this whole marriage in the first place; her husband would have been happy to let William live out the rest of his days as the male equivalent of a spinster. "That may be, but she seems to be a good friend that cares about you deeply." The blonde said softly as she watched the retreating form of Lydia being guided deeper into the palace grounds. Allison could only imagine what it would be like to have friends like that; she'd lost touch of so many of her old cohorts over the years as the common woman she had been faded away and was replaced by a prim and proper royal surrounded by purebred ladies-in-waiting. Taking a deep breath, she nodded languidly. "Come, dear, I'll show you the way. I arranged the meeting in his favorite sitting room."

As they began their walk through the parking structure and into the bowels of the palace, Anna couldn't help but keep pace with Tarja. Over the years, she had grown sick of most of the countesses and foreign noblewoman that her family had surrounded her with. The future wife of her brother, however, was different though. The hunting trip and their time together had proved that much. "Hey now," she smiled softly as she nudged the raven haired beauty on the hip. "Don't get too down yet, you never know, maybe you'll like my brother. He's always been the quiet one when compared to...the rest of them, especially Matthew." She paused and chewed her lip. "Well, you could do worse at least, is what I'm trying to say..."

Tarja couldn’t help being a bit amused by Anna’s effort to cheer her up. “It’s not me I’m worried about, darling,” she said with her usual, flippant air. An Alemarran woman could pull herself together with aplomb on the worst of days, generally speaking, and this was far from that. “Quiet is not the first adjective that springs to mind when my name comes up.” The poor man was about to be handed a tempest in a teacup, as far as Tarja could tell. She knew she wasn’t the easiest person in the world to live with, though she wasn’t certain if she was worse or better when sober. Most of the difference just seemed to be in degree. She made a mental note to ask Lydia, if only to see the amused look on her maid’s face.

Anna snorted in agreement. “Well, you’ve got it right there, at least. If anything, loud would be more fitting for you. Partier is the second attribute that comes to mind.” The princess replied jokingly as she looked her sister-law-to-be in the eyes; they stood about the same height without heels. “Come to think of it, you’re pretty much his polar opposite as far as personalities go…” She mused aloud as they navigated the hallways of the palace. They had taken a back entrance, one that ultimately took them through several sections of the building dedicated to servants and their various duties. It wasn’t uncommon for the royals and nobles to take these paths in order to save time, especially when there were intense matters of state to handle.

“Opposites attract as they saying goes, I believe. Maybe you’ll fall head over heels for the prince filled with interesting, if not useless information, my dear.” Allison smirked as she looked back at the Alemarran noblewoman. She loved her son with all her heart, of course, but that did not mean that even he was safe from her humor. Another couple of minutes passed before they arrived, the Imperatrix not even seeming to be phased by the long walk; the palace was a great place to get one’s exercise quotient in. “Alright, we’re here, girls. Let’s go say hello.”

The sitting room that they found themselves in a few moments later was certainly comfortable, though more informal than some of the others found throughout the palace grounds. Couches and chairs were set out in a way that one would have expected the living room of a family. Along the wall to their left was a gas fireplace that burned steadily despite the fact that winter was starting to lighten up. The far was was made entirely of a thick looking glass, as were several sections of the ceiling, all of which allowed in a good deal of natural light. There was a small table and a couple shelves off in another corner, all of which were stocked with expensive looking liquors. Though not a proper bar with tender and all, it would have certainly gotten the job done.

The centerpiece of it all, however, was Prince William himself. Dressed in his military uniform, apparently fresh from his job at a local base, he certainly cut an impressive figure if nothing else. He was taller than his fiance by a head at least, though their features were similar. The officer had inherited his father’s hair and eye color but the demeanor of his mother. Taking one last, started drink from a small glass, he quickly set it aside and wiped at his lips with the back of his hand. “Ah, hello everyone.” He greeted with a small, awkward kind of wave. Immediately, his eyes darted to the one person that he had only heard of until now - Tarja.

Introductions were always a tricky business in Alemarr. They were affairs governed by countless rules and customs, particularly between a woman and a man. Generally back home, someone who knew both parties made the introduction. However, they were not in Alemarr and Tarja knew that some concessions would have to be made on her part for the informality of Shalum. She approached carefully, though she did smile. There was something almost adorable about that awkwardness. Things would probably be strained at first, but hopefully that wouldn’t last forever. Her stormy grey eyes studied him for a long moment, but not with any hostility. “Charmed to make your acquaintance, Prince William,” she said. It was almost painful not to say Your Highness, but she managed to curb the Alemarran demand for formality that was embedded into her genetic code. “As I’ve no doubt you’re aware, I am Tarja Cederström, formerly the Countess of Naantali.” If this was going to happen, and there was no escaping it now, she would do her best...though perhaps not without a touch of alcohol to loosen up. “Would you mind terribly if I fixed myself a drink?”

“It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Countess Cederström.” The prince replied with an anxious kind of smile, his chocolate orbs drinking in the depths of her stormy eyes. Aside from what his mother had told him about his future wife, and what he had learned through the globe-spanning grapevine that was the Shalumite noble court and their many connections, he really didn’t know anything about who Tarja was or how she was going to conduct herself. The least he could try and do was present himself as relatively put together, rather than whatever she had probably learned of him through off-hand comments. “Please, go ahead, fix yourself a drink or two if you’d like. This is as much your home as it is mine, there is no need to even ask.” He replied with a small chuckle as he shifted on his heels. William tried not to let the gravity of the statement hit him too hard. In a few short days, or perhaps weeks, that statement would be truer than ever; Tarja was about to be a princess, after all.

Anna had already meandered her way over to the bar in the few moments that the two had shared. She gave Tarja an guilty kind of smile and picked up an imported lager from Schottia. Taking a bit sip, she quickly set it aside before holding up a bottle of Ossorian whiskey invitingly. From her place by the door, Allison just rolled her eyes. “If you feel comfortable, countess, I would be happy to leave you in the care of my daughter and son. No need for me to play mother hen for adults such as yourselves if you don’t think it necessary,” she offered with a small smile. The least she could do was offer them the chance to get to know each other without her constant oversight.

It felt strange to have Anna there as chaperone, but Tarja decided she would roll with it where she could. “I am as comfortable as humanly possible, Your Majesty. No need to remain on my account,” Tarja said as she poured herself a glass of whiskey. It was a fair bit more than a shot, but she wasn’t going to feel it much. After all, she’d flown into Shalum almost stone cold sober, so she had some catching up to do before even a buzz hit. She smiled at William. “Thank you for the welcome. It is very much appreciated. And please, just Tarja. I’m no longer Countess of Naantali—my sister has that honor.” She left unspoken the thought, We’ll be married soon anyway and that much formality would just be strained.

She took a seat on one of the couches. “I’m afraid you have me at a bit of a disadvantage, Prince William. I have always been somewhat of a public nuisance, so I have no doubt you know more of me than I do of you. Alemarr is also a bit...egocentric. We get international news, but domestic politics always move to the forefront. Nobles are terrible that way. Have you been with the military long?” He did cut a good figure, something that Tarja had an eye for. She also approved of military men in general, as it was something of a family tradition for the Cederströms. Wild and dangerous blood, people said. She decided she would at least make an effort to break the ice, even if it made her seem chattier than her norm.

Tarja was a bit more proper now than she had been on the trip previously. The rigidity of Alemarran posture had returned once she was again exposed to the public eye, or at least strangers. A few drinks and she’d probably relax again. It just felt awkward to her not to be alone with William. She was sanitizing her speech in Anna’s presence as much as she had in Allison’s. Alemarrans had different levels of honesty regarding their opinions depending on intimacy and roles, like the layers of an onion or a nesting doll. There were things she would say to her future husband that she wouldn’t to her future sister-in-law, even as free-spirited as she was. Hopefully William wouldn’t mind waiting until later and more privacy to discuss the whole marriage affair. Tarja had no illusions that he would be perfectly chipper about it either.

“Today might be your lucky day then.” William chuckled as his eyes followed her across the room. Moving over to one of the expensive leather recliners, he carefully dropped down into the seat. He wanted, oh so dearly, to sink deep down into the sinfully comfortable furniture, and for a brief moment he did just that before correcting his posture. His habit of slouching, particularly in private, was a terrible one that he wasn’t inclined to break, no matter how much it made his back hurt as he grew older. “I’ve never been one for gossip, and well, let’s just say that if the nobles of our court are whispering, it’s probably going to be about me rather than you.” He said in an attempt to reassure her. Gone were the days when he had friends and allies in his own familial court; the scandal of his divorce had practically wiped away every bit of credibility and standing that he had among his peers.

Not that he really cared, there were more sharks among the Shalumite nobles than there were well-intentioned souls.

Glancing down at himself for a moment, William looked up at nodded slowly. Perhaps forgetting to change out of his uniform hadn’t been such a bad idea after all; he was at least aware of her family’s military history, as well as the exploits of her father. “I have ma—” He stopped himself quickly and flashed her a sheepish smile. “I have, Tarja.” The prince corrected himself. “Every Shalumite has to serve from eighteen to twenty-two. I started at that age, of course, and worked my way through officer’s school before being posted here in Aragon. I’ve been in for...eight years and a couple months.” He replied, only pausing momentarily as he did the mental math. “I’m a major with the 11th Internal Security Group.”

“Told you, Tarja, he’s real boring. One of them soft-skin infantry types.” Anna teased before taking another sip of beer. “Y’all ain’t got nothin on us tankers.” She added with a cheeky smile. Though one might not have assumed it out of a princess that loved to party almost as much as Tarja did, the young blonde had served with the 5th Armored Reserve Group for the duration of her four year service.

“At least when my men clear a building, sis, it's still bloody standing.” William retorted sharply, his lips curling with amusement as he looked over at Anna. Glancing back at his fiance, he was thoughtful for a moment. “Aren’t you tired from the flight?”

“Is that your best attempt at trying to kick me out?” The blonde replied, cocking one eyebrow as she leaned against the bar, backpack still slung lazily over one shoulder.

“Something like that. I’m sure Tarja and I will be just fine on our own.” Though William loved his sister dearly, he was no more keen on having her around at the moment than his betrothed was—though he didn’t actually know this. It was bad enough that everything had happened so quickly, and without approval from either of them; the least they deserved was privacy.

“If you want, I’ll be happy to go.” Anna chuckled as she pushed off from the bar, seeming unfazed. Bottle in hand, she padded towards the door that Allison had just exited through moments earlier. “You kids have fun. Please try and not do anything too crazy before y’all shack up, at least, ‘kay?” She smirked before pushing the door open and seeing herself out.

“I, ah, apologize. I hope that didn’t come off as coarse...I just figured that this would be something better done without an observer.” William admitted as he rubbed the back of his neck, his eyes now lingering on the Alemarran noblewoman. “If you don’t already, I’m sure you’ll come to love my sister. She really is the life of the party a lot of times,” he added with an endearing smile. “Now, uh, back on topic—are you interested in the affairs of the military, Tarja? I understand that your father was a rather important figure back home.” William continued, hoping that he wasn’t rushing things along too quickly; he was nervous to say the least. Lord only knew how much time they would have to get to know each other before his parents move the wedding proceedings along, after all.

“Not coarse at all. Anna is a darling, but I had hoped to talk to you without an audience as well,” Tarja said with a smile. “I have some interest in the military. Obviously not particularly ladylike, but my father did always want a boy. Though Shalumites are a good deal more egalitarian than Alemarrans, despite our illustrious monarch. Not that I particularly aspired to positions of great power when I was back at Court. Which, of course, makes all of this rather...unexpected.”

The Alemarran noblewoman sipped at her whiskey, collecting her thoughts for a moment. There was being overly bold and being forthright, and Tarja had never really mastered the fine art of walking the fine line that separated the two. Her mother had told her to keep everything in and her father to shout and slam things. It left her conflicted at times like this. “We should probably do a bit of air-clearing, if I can be impossibly rude,” Tarja said with a small smile. “I know this likely isn’t what you had in mind—that I’m not exactly what you might have had in mind. I know enough to know that things haven’t gone swimmingly in the past, not to put too fine a point on it.” She wasn’t entirely certain what to say beyond that, so she took another drink before speaking again. “I say what I mean, generally speaking. It’s a little quirk that has gotten me into far more trouble than it’s gotten me out of. So, I can’t promise you that things will necessarily be better—fortune-teller I am not—but they will be different.”

Tarja took a breath, studying William intently for a moment before looking down at the amber liquid she was swirling in her glass. “I do beg your pardon if any of that is out of line. Things do not always translate well, but I like to think at least my grasp of the nuts and bolts of English is passable.”

Her father had taken her fishing on many occasions. It had taught an impetuous girl how to be patient. While she was still very much learning that particular lesson, she understood the value in times like these. She’d said her piece, or at least a fraction of it. Now it was his turn.

“There is no need, your English is perfect, Tarja. Feel free to take a breath or two though.” William smiled softly, his lips curling in amusement as they rested against the edge of his glass for a moment before he finally took another sip of his mixed drink. Just listening to her made his own nerves about this whole thing fade; it was nice to see that she at least cared about making this work; his only thought was that it wouldn’t have hurt for her to slow down for a moment or two. So much of what she said, which he had greatly appreciated hearing, sounded as if it had come spilling out like some kind of high-pressure oil spill. “I will admit...I wasn’t expecting someone so upfront; it’s not something that anyone told me about you. Most people around the court are skilled at the art of subterfuge. Needless to say, face value is mighty rare ‘round these parts,” he shrugged. “If there’s one thing I can promise you, it's that I won’t keep anything from you, Tarja. I can’t say I have much experience...but I can only assume that secrets are relatively equivalent to poison.”

Taking another sip of his drink, William set it aside and gave her a more serious look. “I just want to say that I’m sure I’m not who you had in mind for a spouse.” The prince almost paused at that. Never in his life had he really been the first choice when it came to anything; as the second son in a prominent line, people would only look to him if and when it became necessary, which grew more unlikely every day. “But I want this to be a good marriage if at all possible, regardless; I’d like it to work. Neither of us should be unhappy just because of the decisions that our families made.” He paused and then took a deep breath of his own. “If we’re going to clear the air before we move on, I suppose I should address my own elephant in the room: the fact that I’ve been married and divorced once already. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I do hope to avoid a repeat, if at all possible.” William said with a wry kind of smile before he finished off to the rest of his vodka highball.

Setting the empty glass aside, the prince returned his attention to Tarja. It was hard not to let his eyes linger on anything in particular. Though he had heard much of the woman, and seen her image before, nothing really could compare to how beautiful she was in real life. She was the kind of woman he would have desperately wanted to approach if he saw her at a party, only to chicken out or for someone else to swoop in and steal the show. If not for the intervention of his family, the chances were good that he would have never even been in the same room as Tarja. The prince knew he would lucky to have a princess like her at his side, especially if she was as candid then as she was now.

Tarja dipped her head in a bit of a nod. “I value honesty. As you say, it’s a rare commodity in our part of the world. So...thank you. As for your past marriage: these things happen.” It wasn't common in Alemarr, as no-fault divorce didn’t exist, but in cases of adultery by the wife, it happened. There was certainly something of a double standard. It had to be particularly egregious for a wife to be able to file.

“Indeed they do. My grandmother always said that we should just do what we can and then can the rest; life happens whether we like it or not.” He chuckled in wry agreement. “Still though, it’s almost sad in a way that we’re thanking each other for being honest, don’t you think?” He mused for a moment before going silent. Of course, William had grown up in the courts; he understood the reasons that people kept secrets and met in private corners, or even bedchambers that they had no business being in. Secrets were just as powerful as favors were. As it was, he knew enough to sink the careers of more than a few noblemen and women in his own realm - not that he had any inclination to do so.

She finished her drink. It had been good enough that she would have poured herself another glass...but Anna had absconded with the bottle. So far, she barely felt it. Even a solid drink or two didn’t do her any good these days, a sign that she probably ought to slow down—not that Tarja really knew the meaning of the words. She rose to her feet and went over to the bar, setting the glass down on top of it and collecting her thoughts. It wasn’t a bad deal, if William was who he seemed to be. He was honest, good-looking, and reasonable. Hopefully he could survive the wild that she brought with her. She made herself a martini in the proper glass. Generating a few dishes was a small side effect of using proper manners.

“You should give yourself more credit, Prince William,” she said while her back was to him .She wasn’t going to use just his name without invitation. It was something she was sensitive to, as an Alemarran. “You cut a rather dashing figure in that uniform. And for your information, I really had no idea what I might want in a spouse. Planning has never been my forte. So please, don’t consider yourself a troll.” She turned around once she had her drink, studying William for a moment. “Do you ever dance, or are Alemarrans the only ones who still do that at parties?”

“If I’m not going to call you countess than you don’t have to call me prince, you know. My name will work just fine.” The prince teased as he languidly rose from his seat. Though he didn’t want to impede on her personal space, he figured that he might as well fetch a refill as well. “I can’t have all the glory, though; I barely hold a candle compared to you, Tarja.” He added with a warm smile as he reached the bar. Putting long arms to use, he easily snatched an expensive bottle of vodka and lemon lime soda. “I guess I could say the same thing, in a way. I knew that my marriage would always be arranged so...I never really thought about what I wanted in a person. I wanted love at one time, it looks so great in the movies, but it's a bit harder to come by when you’re put in the situation that we are.”

Taking a sip of his freshly minted drink, the prince hummed thoughtfully for a moment before giving Tarja a small smirk. “My people may be barbarians compared to yours, but we can at least keep up on our dancing skills. If you’re inviting me to the floor though, just let me warn you that I was born with two left feet.”

“I am a thoroughly impractical creature, and so I’ve chased love a time or two. I think we all do in our own ways, seldom aware of what may come of it. But that’s altogether too philosophical a train of thought for me. Vapid though it may be, I try not to dwell. There are too many delightful future mistakes to enjoy to focus overmuch on the past ones.” Tarja took a deep sip from her martini and then smiled. There was a bit of an impish good humor in it as she buried her worries with an expert’s flair. “They say you can tell a great deal about someone by how they dance, Herra of the Left Feet. Shall we waltz?”

Tarja had always enjoyed dancing, though it had been a while since she had the opportunity at a formal function. After her father died, she tended to steer clear of the dance floor on most nights. She had other priorities at most noble events, at least since she’d stepped up into a titled role. It was unfortunate to have gossip and backbiting suddenly become one of the more important parts of her life, but unavoidable if she was going to serve as head of her family. She wished that it hadn’t fallen on her sister now. Still, nothing could be done. Her most recent dance partner had actually been Seija, who had needed to learn a rather more complicated waltz and her father hadn’t been around to teach her. It was easy enough to take the leader’s part and coach, though it had become considerably more difficult after the better part of two fifths. A night of being a pair of giggling girls who’d had rather a lot of vermouth had been a nice way to escape her unofficial exile to Shalum. The hard drinking hadn’t hit until the night before her flight to Silua. Poor Seija was probably still recovering from the hangover.

“The Rajakreivi is the one who taught me to dance,” Tarja said to make conversation as she held out a hand to him. “I used to stand on his feet and he would waltz me around the dining room to the tune of one of his old record players. Terribly old-fashioned man. It drove my rather more modern mother up the wall, but then again, he was quite a bit older than her. One of those charming May-December affairs. It’s a wonder it didn’t end in a murder, in all honesty, but I think he made her laugh more than he made her want to strangle him.”

“Well I can only hope that you’ll feel the same way about me, Tarja. You’re going to know where I sleep, after all, and it would be terribly tragic for someone as young as me to go so soon.” He teased her softly in reply as he took her hand. Without thinking, he gently interlaced his fingers with her’s, an old habit after dancing with his wife so many years ago. “It’s been a long time since I took the floor, I must admit. I’ve buried myself in work for so long that I don’t make much time for home or parties, something I will have to correct in the near future.” He admitted with a soft smile, rolling his shoulders. “My mother taught me when I was young too, though I was a bit too old to stand on her feet - ten or eleven, I think. At the time, I was being a bit too much like any other boy; I didn’t want to spend all day dancing around the room one with my mother to old music I didn’t really like. Looking back on it though, it was a pretty good day, not to mention the fact that it leads to moments like this.” He smiled and gently nudged Tarja with his bony hip.

"Before we begin..." William said, pausing for a moment to fetch his phone from his pocket. Flicking through the apps, he was quiet for a few moments before the soft sounds of ballroom music began to waft through the room. "Much of the palace is hooked up to programs that you can control. Sometimes when I do online courses, I like to come in here and put on music while I work." He explained with a smile. Outstretching his hand to Tarja, the prince smiled warmly. "Now, shall we get to it, my dear?" He asked, putting on his most rakish, charming tone for comedic effect.

“Fascinating,” Tarja said of the apps. She’d absolutely expected not to have music, but this added to the atmosphere of...something. “I do love parties, but I don’t know if I will feel quite as enchanted by them without the little cadre of wild things I grew up with. Though I imagine it’s likely for the best, considering the kind of trouble we got up to.” If William hadn’t heard the story of how she and a few friends had begun a night at a soirée with rather a lot of liquor and ended up in possession of a constable’s helmet, a borrowed-without-permission sportscar, and a rather stern talking to from the chief of police, she wasn’t going to enlighten him. Tarja had good friends—the ones who had bailed her out of trouble before her parents found out—and best friends, who had been right there with her.

When the Shalumite prince used his most rakish tone, the impish smile widened slightly. “It would be my pleasure, William. Lead on.” Tarja never minded taking the follower’s role, though she generally made it a point to know both halves of every dance. A simple waltz would keep her busy enough that she didn’t start to ruminate too much and kept things light. She had always been a good enough dancer that she offered confidence and ease to her partners. She was confident in her movements, or at least self-assured. It also gave her the opportunity to study William. If one could tell a great deal about someone by how they danced, she looked forward to learning a little bit about him.

Despite his nerves of earlier, there was nothing tense about William’s body as he gently led his fiancee back and forth through the room. It felt strange at first, admittedly, but like riding a bicycle, he slowly fell back into old moves and habits. There was nothing demanding about him or his ways, aside from the fact that he kept her closer against him than was probably acceptable for a first meeting. They did not touch, but one wouldn’t have been able to slip more than a few sheets of paper between them. He wasn’t trying to be overly aggressive, but some part of the prince wanted to show Tarja that he could lead when he needed to. “You move well, Tarja.” He murmured as his chocolate eyes flicked over her figure, lingering on the curves hidden beneath the layers of her dress for a moment before he mentally reprimanded himself. “Perhaps we’ll have to invite these wild things of yours to the palace sometime. We have more rooms in the palace than anyone would ever need, making a little space for them would be no issue,” he added with a wink.

Just because they would be married did not mean that he would limit who she could or could not see.

“Why thank you. I do try,” Tarja said with a smile. She had no objection to the closeness even though they weren’t well acquainted. They were going to be married, after all, and William wasn’t someone she would take offense or objection to anyway. If anything, it spoke volumes to her as far as what his opinion of her was. He wasn’t being stiff or standoffish, which was better than she’d hoped. She followed his lead without issue, not feeling the need to be bullish. “As for the wild bunch...well, they are still Alemarran snobs, so they might not fully appreciate Shalum. Not that I’m any sort of expert on your country...or my own, for that matter. Besides, I can’t imagine your family would appreciate the bar bill or news reports, nor would Lydia appreciate having to wrangle more than just me. I am aware that I can be rather…trying at times.”

Tarja couldn’t help a little grin at the thought, though. “In Alemarr, there’s a certain...understanding between the nobility and the press. The culture vultures get thrown a bone now and then in some scandal or other, but the normal press doesn’t much cover the dirty laundry of the upper echelons of society. You see all that laid bare in the society pages, which tend to be read mostly by the upper middle and noble classes. There are different sort of...gossip spheres.” She left it unsaid that she had actually had the great fortune and misfortune to be in multiple at once. There was honestly so much betrayal and scandal in Alemarran politics that it had only been a blip on the radar for a month or two—a long time for them, certainly, but easily missed by outsiders. “This may come as a surprise to you, but I look at the Shalumite court and see something almost anarchic in its liberation. My mother would have had a heart-attack, if she knew what was happening outside her room these days.”

Ansa Cederström, Rajakreivitär of Naantali, was no longer the woman she had been, between illness and the grief that came from losing her husband. She was still technically the ranking member of the family, but the Dowager was in no condition to socialize or run the household and so it had fallen on Tarja for quite some time. The countess sincerely doubted that her mother would even be alive for her wedding, the woman’s condition was so delicate. In some ways, that made it very difficult to be gone, and in other ways, it made it a relief. She’d never been close to her mother, but there was still pain in not being recognized by a face that was so familiar. Jenna would do her best, and she was far more responsible and capable than Tarja had ever been.

The reminder of things at home made her wistful for the good old days more than it stung. She kept those thoughts locked very deep, however. Any time she let them out, it always made her want a drink...not that wanting a drink was anything unusual for her. She studied William’s expression for a moment with eyes that were faintly grateful. “I appreciate you being understanding, William. It is hard to be in a new country, yes, but your willingness to tolerate some of my idiosyncrasies and possibly my feral friends makes it somewhat easier. I hope that I can extend you similar courtesies as time goes by.”

Looking down at the woman in his arms, the prince couldn’t help but smile warmly as his chocolate eyes drank in her in. For a short moment, his arms pulled her a bit tighter as he deftly guided them away from a coffee table and back towards an empty part of the sunroom. “As a prince, it is a duty for me to serve - whether it be the people of my realm or guests of my household. As a person, however, it is a pleasure for me to accommodate my wife, even if we aren’t technically married yet.” He replied with a chuckle. “If and when you ever decide to invite your friends, don’t fret over the details, not if you really care about them. No matter how much hell they raise, or alcohol they drink, I’ll be happy to cover for you. This palace could use some life at night, for the day is filled with stifling noble affairs.” He added with a chuckle.

As they danced, William was tempted to give her a little twirl, one of the few moves that he was actually capable of conducting. Yet, as he peered down at her, he felt far too comfortable keeping her close as she was. For years he had been all but starved of close human contact, and despite the fact that this all had been arranged, it was nice to relish in it, if only for a few moments. It didn’t escape him that it wouldn’t last forever; though Tarja was tolerating him in the here and now, he didn’t imagine that she would be eager to make this anything akin to a regular occurrence. Even a kind soul had limits, and he could only assume that she’d rather spend her time elsewhere—they all did sooner or later, he had learned over the years.

“I wouldn’t worry about accommodating my needs too much though, truly. I’m...easy to maintain, I imagine. I’ve always been one to keep to myself, and I’ve always managed to keep myself busy at work. Until now, coming home every night hasn’t even been a concern, not when I can just set up a cot in my office.” He admitted with a shrug. Truthfully, his fall in the noble courts’ eyes hadn’t exactly helped him. Though he was a prince, he was still the second son. So long as Matthew was around, nobles didn’t exactly have to waste time courting him, not that William was inclined to parlay with them in the first place. “I appreciate it, though. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to adapt to one another.”

“Speaking of that,” he added after a moment of thoughtful silence. “I don’t want to bring up something that would be seen as work, so feel free to stop me. But...any thoughts for our wedding itself? I’ve always preferred the idea of slipping away to the nearest courthouse and getting it done quickly and quietly, without all the pomp and ceremony that comes with most ceremonies. No doubt my relatives would have heart attacks at such impropriety,” he mused softly. “Regardless, I was just curious about how you feel or if there’s anything I can do to make things better somehow,” he explained with a warm smile.

“Thoughtful and charming,” Tarja said with a teasing tone. She was pleasantly surprised at how considerate William was being—not that she’d necessarily expected him to be boorish. Granted, people often had many layers and they could seem quite friendly or dependable while being anything but. That said, she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. “I think I’m marrying up in the world. As for the wedding...I’m sure I could be persuaded to aim for something small and private. I doubt I could escape with no ceremony, particularly without a church, whether I liked it or not. Appearances and all that. It would absolutely murder Lydia if we eloped or something like that. She was very adamant that I let her handle whatever wedding planning there was and she can be so terribly proper about things.”

She took a breath and let it out in a sigh. “Regretfully and thankfully, my family won’t be in attendance whatever we do. My erstwhile cousin is quite certain—correctly, might I add—that I aim to shoot him if he shows his face around me and Jenna is busy dealing with the hot mess I dumped into her lap when I left. I did try to put a bow on it, but she wasn’t particularly thrilled all the same. And of course there are the thousand other family ties, but they’re busy ripping each other’s throats out while Her Imperial Majesty tries to do something productive over the top of them. The inner workings of Alemarr are enough to choke a jackal sometimes.”

Tarja gave the hand that was holding hers as they waltzed a small squeeze. “You are making it better, my dear man. Asking me what I want is more than anyone else involved in all this business has done, at least from my point of view.”

The prince nodded in understanding, a little thrill shooting through him as she tightened her grip for a moment. Her responses, ever so positive, were certainly reassuring signs that she was receptive to him—not that she hadn’t been already. “Unfortunately, I have to admit that it doesn’t really surprise me. I’ve always steered clear of the negotiations that come with marriage contracts, but I can only assume that you...didn’t get much say in the matter.” He surmised with a small, sigh-like breath. “I plan to do a lot more of that in the future, you know? Asking questions and your opinion on things,” he explained with a teasing smile. “It takes two to tango—or waltz—after all.”

“As far as the wedding goes, I know my mother wanted to be involved in the planning; as long as it's done in a Catholic church though, she’ll be pretty flexible. It would be scandalous for a Shalumite royal, especially a prince like myself, not to be married in the eyes of God.” He explained with a small shrug. “I’d prefer something smaller, a bit more personal. My brother Matthew is going to have hundreds of guests, mostly people he barely knows or hasn’t even met before; I don’t really want that, is all. I want the people at my wedding to be people that I, well, can at least say I’ve spoken to for more than five minutes.” He added as they danced. “I’m sorry that your family won’t be able to attend...but I understand all the same. Are there any friends, at least, who you would like to invite?” He asked hopefully. William wanted her to have someone there who cared about her, more than just her maid-friend if at all possible.

Tarja contemplated that for a moment. She had plenty of friends, but few that occupied such an intimate position in her life. It was self-defense among Alemarran nobility to carefully select and censor what people saw of her. Lydia, Jenna, and Seija were her exceptions. If she asked, she knew that her sister would drop everything to be there. However, that was strain on their mother that didn’t need to be there, and so she would refrain. It would pass as long as she sent pictures and promised to introduce William to her sister at some point. “I really wouldn’t trust most of the lot of them not to raise a ruckus of some kind, but Seija Målagård said she would come before I even asked her. She’s the daughter of the Kreivi of Salo. We’ve been the best of friends for more than ten years now and she knows me better than anyone, yet still manages to somehow put up with me. It will be good to see her again.” She nodded a little bit, mentally picking through the guest list. There were a few others, but she’d already asked Seija to be her maid of honor and it would have been unthinkable to not have her there. “I can think of a few others as well. I’d definitely prefer something small. If there’s no fanfare, there’s no excuse for the relatives I don’t like to show up.”

She gave him a little smile. “If you ask me anything, I will do my best to answer honestly. It’s what I do, frequently whether people like it or not. In vino veritas and all that charming rubbish. I don’t plan on being unhappy, not that anyone ever does, but when I can make things better, I try to. So while there are going to be bumps in the road and maybe the occasional washout, I’m willing to see where it takes us.”

The prince nodded and smiled as he slowly turned them in a circle. It was afternoon by now and light eagerly streamed through the room, only to catch is fiancee’s voluminous hair in a wonderful way that brought out the sheer beauty of her face. “If she is that important then I truly look forward to meeting her, I imagine it takes someone of great resolve to stick by your side after everything,” he teased. “Whoever you want to invite, don’t hesitate, really; my family has more money than anyone will ever need, they won’t even think twice to kick in extra if it is an issue for some reason,” he assured her. William wouldn’t even mind if any expenses came from his own pocket; they would be her accounts as well soon enough. “On my side, expect my parents and all of my siblings to show up. John is probably the only one who won’t make it; his wife is very pregnant right about now, and I don’t imagine her being all that keen on traveling up from Azura. The only wildcard may be my father and who he invites. There is no doubt in my mind that he’ll want at least a few of his core supporters and advisers there. Even so, we should be able to keep things pretty small,” he assured her with a smile.

The prince’s expression mirrored her own. “I’ll admit that I was quite nervous about meeting you. After everything that I’ve been through in the past, I hope you don’t blame for being a bit wary of the second time around.” He paused as his smile grew a bit. “I’m...I’m not as nervous now. We’ll see where everything goes, for better or worse, I’m sure that we’ll find a way to make the most of it.” William chuckled, teeth gleaming happily as they danced to the soft sounds of a violin and its accompanying pieces. “I’m afraid I’m mostly out of serious questions. Unless you have any to speak of...any hobbies? Surely you can’t stay drunk all of the time,” he smirked.

“You would be surprised,” Tarja murmured, only half joking. Most of the time she could keep an even keel of at least relative sobriety, albeit with the nights generally ending in a less-than-sober fashion, but whenever she hit a bump or a snag, there was invariably a bender that could last up to days at a time. “But yes, I do have a few hobbies. Nobility certainly breeds leisure time if nothing else. I used to ride rather a lot, and of course there was the hiking, skiing, and all those lovely outdoor hobbies. A bit of dancing too, though more for practical purposes than a real fascination. Still, I think of myself as having naturally athletic inclinations generally crushed into submission by my voluminous list of less...admirable characteristics. I also read, as it does rain sometimes and a noble is expected to be educated. I enjoyed most of the classics, though there are certain authors I could do without.”

She sighed slightly, relaxing just a touch more as they moved. They were well towards the end of a waltz. Tarja was just enjoying it, though if it ended, she could have her martini. That didn’t sound like such a terrible thought. “And what about you, William?” She wasn’t certain what his answer would be, given his comments about work. Would she see him much, if at all, if they were married? Would that be a bad thing or a good thing? Tarja couldn’t say that she liked the sound of a bed that would be empty for the rest of her life. Then again, if they ended up fighting something fierce…

Tarja hoped it wouldn’t come to that. For all her flaws, she did want things to work as well as they could. If they were going to be together until death—and Tarja did take vows seriously—then it would be best if it was going to be amicable. She knew not to expect romance, but as Seija pointed out, perhaps she could create some of her own. If nothing else, it would be sugar to help the medicine go down. The Alemarran noble liked to think that she had at least a passingly accurate sense for people, and William seemed like a good man.

The prince nodded as he listened, jotting down mental notes about his wife-to-be as they danced. He knew that their dance was coming to an end between the denouement of the musical piece in the background and the dwindling list of moves that he had at his disposal. When the tables were turned, he couldn’t help but chuckle quietly. “I’m afraid I’m always been a bit boring compared to someone like my father or older brother, but some of our interests seem to intersect. The outdoors have always been a wonderful place, though my time in the service has taught me to appreciate the finer aspects of climate controlled environments. In my offtime, I do read a good bit - whether it be current events or great literary works. Though they’re enjoyable, I’ve began to move away from historical books to more modern, fictitious ones. Things that are both entertaining, and a bit easier to identify with - not that I can’t see the value in older works,” he explained with a slight shrug.

Glancing down at his uniform for a moment, William then continued as he glanced back up to meet her eyes. “I will admit that work has cut down on my free time - a wound that is purely self-inflicted.” After his divorce years prior, throwing himself into work had been his way of trying to forget everything that had transpired; there was nothing stopping him from cutting his schedule down in a more conventional nine-to-five or perhaps even something less. “I was planning on correcting that, however. There are quite a few people at work whom I could delegate more of my duties to, if you wouldn’t mind your husband being around more often, that is.” He smiled slightly at the implication. “In fact...I was wondering if you’d be interested in going out in the near future, after you’re settled in? Though I’m sure you and I have different definitions of such—I’ve never enjoyed clubs much—it would be my honor to show you around the city.” He drawled with an easy smile as the last notes of the song came through the speakers softly.

Tarja stepped away from him with almost a hint of reluctance, returning to her martini for a moment. A deep sip brought her thoughts back to center. “I’d be delighted to see the city. I can always designate the unpacking to Lydia—I already have, come to think of it—so my schedule is quite free. If the people of Shalum are going to be my people, I’d be best served learning about them, and an afternoon or evening spent with my fiancé sounds enjoyable.”

Slowly taking a place by her side at the bar, William plucked his highball from the wooden countertop and took a slow sip. The apple vodka mixed so well with the lemon lime soda, and he couldn’t help but silently relish in it for a moment before he smiled down at his Alemarran cohort. “Indeed it does. I can think of a good few places we could visit—restaurants, shops, parks, and the like. Aragon is such a big city that we can slip away into it without much of a fuss; I’m not sure how Alemarr is, but I doubt the average person on the street will even recognize us,” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes; over the years, he and his siblings had become quite adept at slipping into the capital without so little as a hint of detection. “I’m sure Anna will take it upon herself to show you the best of the city’s nightlife, just give her some time to sleep for.” He added with a chuckle.

Already, William was running through all the things they could do in his head. He’d only gone on a handful of dates in his life, but he liked to think that he at least understood how they worked. There was no shortage of five star restaurants and world class fashion houses based out of the city, but he wasn’t sure if she would want to visit those or not. “Since spring is finally rolling around, maybe we should slip off to the beach sometime as well, if you’re interested? I don’t suppose that Alemarr has much beachfront property,” he joked, “and I’m starting to grow tired of the indoor palace pool already.” William explained with a smile. He’d always enjoyed the water...and would have been lying if he said that he didn’t want to see Tarja in a swimsuit at some point. “Just another idea, anyways.” He shrugged, trying to play off some of the less proper ideas that flickered through his mind.

“The beach would be lovely. Unfortunately, Alemarr doesn’t have much of a beachfront. It’s all rocky shores, cold water, and frequent storms. Pretty when it snows, of course, but not the sort of place where you want to walk in the surf and collect sea shells—though you can find amber in it sometimes,” Tarja said with a small smile. She was grateful that Aragon would be another place she could disappear into if she needed to, though she would have to learn how to blend all over again. She had passed herself off as a member of the middle class in Alemarr, but she had a cultural frame of reference there. “Perhaps dinner tonight and a bit of exploration? As delightful as the beach sounds, we’ll likely want to wait for a nice warm day....not that I know what the weather is like here in Shalum.”

“The northern coast of Shalum is like that. Needless to say, I’ve never been brave enough to actually swim in it.” He said with an amused inflection. “Dinner tonight sounds good. That’ll give me some time to change into something a bit more comfortable, and will give that Lydia of yours a chance to unpack. The beach can wait for another day.” He affirmed with a smile, before taking a long sip of his highball. “The running joke we have here, especially in spring, is that if you don’t like the weather in the Empire - just wait fifteen minutes and it’ll change. We had a warm, wet winter; I don’t think it got below four celsius this year. Give it another week and it’ll be beach weather for sure,” he chuckled. “Until then, you’ll just have to tolerate me in long sleeves,” William teased.

“Such a shame,” Tarja said with a wink. She finished her martini, collecting her thoughts as she did so. She had spent most of her life around charming, attractive people. Alemarr didn’t have crass, unpleasant nobles, at least in the public eye. William was...different. Not in the sense that he wasn’t charming—he very much was, in that shy sort of way—but it felt oddly...sincere. Her father told her a thousand times to listen to her gut, to the visceral feelings that people gave her.

William was a good one. Maybe she was wrong, but Tarja trusted her instincts after a lifetime of navigating Jyväskylä. “Dinner, then,” she said, giving William a bright smile. “I will leave it to you to make the plans and submit to the incessant fretting of my overwrought handmaiden. Thank you for listening, William. There aren’t many people in the world like you. I look forward to getting to know you better. For now, though, I’d best go and unpack.” She had a great deal to think about, even from so little time.
Last edited by Alemarr on Thu Oct 12, 2017 9:27 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Founded: Sep 25, 2011

Postby Alemarr » Thu Oct 12, 2017 9:29 am

Aragon, Shalum

It was inevitable, really. Tarja had been well behaved for far too long. She’d gone out to dinner with William twice, but otherwise had stayed in the palace and tried to keep herself from getting a serious case of cabin fever. Lydia had been almost worried by how quiet she’d been, but Tarja was trying to make a go of being a good girl. As usual, it hadn’t worked. Now she was on nightclub three of her latest escapade with only the barest realization in her head that she would have to go home and explain herself to Lydia, even if the maid would at least be a little relieved that aliens hadn’t mind controlled her mistress into sobriety.

Tarja watched the bartender pour her another manhattan. She always kept an eye on her drinks when she was out on the town. It kept her out of unpleasant situations. She did so love clubs, despite the occasional danger—or perhaps because of it. The pounding of bass was a bit deafening, but it was the song of a world so different than her own: anonymous, primal, devoid of the propriety and courtesies that dominated the lives of Alemarran nobles. The music and lights and freedom were electrifying. “I never touch the stuff, darling,” she said, waving away a man who had been offering to sell her ecstasy. “Only what God intended, not chemists.” When the bartender, a young man with a nice smile, handed her the drink, Tarja beamed at him. “Why thank you, o most benevolent of angels.”

The delightful Anna Holland, her future sister-in-law, had agreed to accompany her for the evening. Tarja was keeping an eye on the young woman in question, though that was difficult amongst the press of people. She sipped from her glass, contemplating returning to the dance floor. She had a good amount of alcohol in her system, though by her standards it was only getting started, and she felt loose enough for it. The important thing was to stay together. That also kept unpleasant things from happening. Plus, Tarja had an unfortunate habit of losing shoes while drunk—an expensive habit—which meant enlisting someone else to sprint across gravel when required.

Despite its somewhat odd name, club Platinum Chateau was one of the best places to be on an Aragon night, especially in the middle of summer when there was nothing holding back the veritable deluge of college students. Writhing bodies of the country’s youth clogged the dancefloor, moving in rhythm to the blaring EDM music. Drinks could be located at any number of bar areas around the club while proper tables were found on the upper floors where the rich (particularly of the noble variety) had better access to food and table service.

There was a flash of blonde by Tarja’s side as the princess of Shalum seemingly materialized out of thin air. She was flushed, but looked rather pleased with herself as some barely legal guy with far too much charm and good looks for his age brushed passed her to get to the bar proper. Reaching up, Anna adjusted the spagetti straps of her party dress. The little black number covered all that was legally required, making them look like a pair of angels in the heady, flashing lights. “Hey!” She grinned, holding onto her friend for a moment as she tried to keep a sense of balance. The young woman had a few shots, plus a dose or two of MDMA, flowing through her system at the moment. “It took me forever to find you,” she giggled. “Everything to your liking?”

“It’s lovely, darling,” Tarja said with a grin, catching Anna. It almost made her spill her drink, but she was fond enough of the Shalumite royal that she didn’t mind. “First day with the new legs?” This was so much better than being under a microscope in Jyväskylä. Here, she could drink and be wild in peace. It was delightful. It called for another drink. She finished her manhattan quickly and ordered another.

The blonde smirked back, even as she blinked once and then twice. She would have sworn Tarja was just ordering when she had finally spotted her from the crowd; already, she was moving onto the next drink. Following her to the bar, the princess put in her order for a Long Island Ice tea. When it came to drinking, Anna normally opted for something sweet. “I made the mistake of trying out a new pair of shoes tonight...and a few more shots than usual.” She admitted with a laugh. “How’s it feeling be able to do this without prying eyes?” Aside from their security, not a single soul had picked them out from the average denizen.

“Wonderful,” Tarja said. She could think of some friends she might have enjoyed having with her too, granted. More than a few would have enjoyed the time free of scrutiny, particularly Seija. It was a strange sensation to just have her future sister-in-law instead of the pack, but Anna was a dear and a fun one at that. “You know, darling, the only way to get over a sensitivity to shots is to have many. They call it exposure therapy. Well, Lydia calls it alcoholism, but what does she know?”

There were a lot of things in her life Tarja would never admit: her friends’ secrets, actually being homesick for her old gilded cage, and certainly not that she had a problem with drinking. It was a solution, and even when it made life complicated, she stood by it. Lydia meant well, but Tarja needed something in her life that could regulate her moods and while she was drinking—almost always—she was happy. Cold, hard sobriety was more disorienting and frightening than any bender she’d ever been on, and that was saying something. Altered consciousness through alcohol was the Cederström way. It made life so much more pleasant, if sometimes harder.

Tarja felt alive in the moment here. It was a thrill that was hard to come by. William was a good man, but he needed to learn to feel as much as think. Granted, taking him here wouldn’t fix that, but maybe she could help someday. It was an entertaining proposition.

“How to not have a good time, apparently!” Anna replied cheerily, having to raise her voice just to get it over all of the noise that the club generated. A moment later, there was a quiet clang as both of their drinks were deposited on the wooden counter of the bar. Lifting up the glass, she flashed her companion a little grin before taking a generous swallow of the stuff. It was sweet and went down without so much of a pause. Wiping her chin of a little excess that had flowed over, she laughed at herself. “You planning to hit the floor again or are we holding down the fort here?”

“Let me finish this drink and then I will gladly hit the floor again. I might even dance,” Tarja said before taking a sip. She had always enjoyed the taste of alcohol, even more...challenging drinks, which she knew made her a bit strange to some people. Maybe it had so many happy memories associated with it that it was some kind of Pavlovian conditioning. She was no expert. Besides, as Lydia had pointed out on numerous occasions, Tarja was willing to try almost anything that had enough proof to be considered a hazard near open flame.

Tarja had always loved to dance. That first day she had learned to waltz, standing on her father’s shoes, had sparked a passion in her that she had yet to equal elsewhere. Dancing was one of the few things in her life that was utterly free of problems, something that she could do and do well to just be herself. It was the moment she’d enjoyed most with William since she arrived in Shalum: a quiet dance, on their own. It was an oddly serene moment for Tarja to be fond of, but even storms had their lulls. She finished her drink, one of many that she might even feel in the morning, and moved back out into the press of the crowd, letting her body match the rhythm of the music. It was something to get lost in. She was happy, her body was loose, and consequences were a problem for the morning.

Lydia would probably be displeased by the time they arrived home, but it would be a fretting displeased rather than an angry displeased. William’s reaction would be telling, but if he could stand her reeling home drunk and delighted once, hopefully he could do it again. Their whole marriage was hinging on the idea of him being a good sport about it, because Tarja doubted she could stop even if she wanted to. The sudden onset of years’ worth of hangovers all at once would probably kill her. Better to stay as close to perpetually inebriated as possible, just to be safe.

Tarja relaxed as she moved to the beat, losing the last bit of tension that had been lingering in her jaw and shoulders. She could forget about all those worries, those insecurities, those little nagging doubts about her future. For a little while, it was almost like she was in another world. It was a damn fine feeling.

The princess of Shalum was hot on her heels, drink finished off with a few quick gulps. Gold hair seemed to fly everywhere as she all but ran to catch up with her future sister-in-law, giggling as she caught the the noblewoman by the elbow as her pace slowed. “Sorry, sorry, I’m just trying to keep track of where you are. Come on, let’s go!” She keened before heading deeper into the crowd, dancing and pushing past.

The dance floor was the kind of chaos that one could only find in a club of this nature. Bodies gyrating to the music, every sort of debauchery, and anything else one could imagine for that matter. There wasn’t much related to partying that was illegal in Shalum, and even if there was, it would have undoubtedly got past the security team. Drinks flowed and handsome men crowded close, wanting the simple chance to be close to Anna and Tarja without even knowing their standing in the country’s geopolitical sphere.

“Someone’s popular,” the blonde laughed as she turned to her friend, hands swaying above her head to invite anyone daring enough closer.

“Always,” Tarja said with a grin. She’d been a flirt for a long time, though that was the extent of her romancing for the most part. She had a few old flames, but nothing particularly special. A dance or two was well worth it.

They hit two more nightclubs on the way back to the palace. It was about three in the morning when they made it back, if Tarja was reading her watch correctly—which wasn’t a certain thing with how much alcohol she’d consumed—but she wasn’t quite to the point where she’d fall off the pavement or black out. She even had her shoes still. Granted, she was holding them in one hand rather than wearing them as they spilled into the palace giggling, but it was an admirable show of...a word Tarja couldn’t think of.

“We should be quiet, darling. Don’t want to wake anyone,” Tarja said, though it was more of a stage whisper than an actual whisper. She was leaning on Anna as much as Anna was leaning on her. An unlit cigarette was dangling from the corner of Tarja’s mouth, but lighting it was proving...challenging. She’d stopped because she was dimly aware that it probably wouldn’t be appreciated in the palace proper.

The princess snorted, her breath laden with the smell of alcohol and the smell of sweat sticking to her skin. She was in about as poor a shape as her cohort, shoes in hand for fear of tripping (or losing them) along the way back to her quarters. “Relax! Relax!” She whispered in sharp reply. It may have actually been a peal of laughter, but in her addled state, she really couldn’t care less. The only ones they had seen so far were a pair of surprised servants who had been stuck on the nightshift. “Everyone’s asleep, counting my brother.” Anna pointed out with a lazy smile. “What...want to come back to my room? It's close...and I’ve got an extra bed.”

Tarja laughed. “A delightful offer, but then Lydia might send out a search party or come after me like a bloodhound. She has a nose for this kind of thing.” Besides, it would be a challenge and she never turned down one of those. Well, mostly. “I must locate my faithful worrywart.”

Tarja waved over one of the staff. She relied heavily on their help back in Naantali when she was like this, and she wasn’t about to stop now. She beamed at the man. “Would you be a dear and help me back to my room? I fear I might strand myself in this desolate wasteland if left to my own devices.”

The Alemarran noblewoman was well aware that she was a bit of a mess. She smelled like alcohol and cigarette smoke, though her makeup was largely still intact, courtesy of Lydia’s careful selection. She’d lost lipstick to a number of glasses, but that was a standard casualty of her war against her liver. She only smelled slightly of sweat, as she had prepared for clubbing. Such things were important. She was ready for collapsing into bed, however. Her muscles burned with exertion and she was beginning to feel a tad ill. Certainly dizzy. That meant it was time to drink more water. Tarja was always careful to and it had helped her dodge the terrible hangovers that she richly deserved.

The princess laughed as the passing servant, who looked half-asleep himself, blinked in surprise at his sudden summoning. “It’s my pleasure to render aid to a virtuous woman in distress.” He replied after a moment, offering an arm to her. Using the other, he deftly slipped her shoes out of her hand so that she would have less to worry about. “Lady Lydia was raising all sorts of hell about you several hours ago, but I think the prince coaxed her into bed—her bed. Come on, let’s get you home.”

“Have a good night, sis!” Anna slurred as she turned, heading down another hallway towards her own room. “Don’t let my brother give you too hard of a time,” she chuckled.

The space that Tarja and William shared qualified more as an apartment in terms of size and function. The hallway directly left of the door led to the bedroom that William had set up; it was originally meant for guests, but he imagined that Lydia would feel more comfortable closer to her ward. Dead ahead led was a living spacious living room that branched off into several more bedrooms, including the master that the prince had lived in since the day he turned twelve. Theoretically, they had access to every service they would need (a laundry room, kitchen, pantry, and so forth) but everything was practically brand new, seldom used. Given the hours that the prince worked, it was easier to use the options that the base or palace staff provided.

Though the prince often beat her to bed, there were a couple lights on in the living room. There, the prince was leaned over the coffee table with numerous pieces of a diecast model spread out over the glass. Among his hobbies, making and painting such things were high on his list, though he rarely had time to finish them. As the servant opened the door for her, wishing her a good night as he did so, William glanced up, Not even caring to look at the clock, he drew in a deep breath and reached over to pick up his glass. He had fixed himself a mixed drink of lemon lime soda and vodka; he rarely went for anything crazy. In the background, a radio hooked up to his smartphone played a podcast that he had missed earlier, but he didn’t care to get up and turn it off just yet. For all he knew, Tarja wouldn’t even notice him.

Tarja was not a quiet animal when she was drunk, despite her best efforts. She was still giggling a little bit about being called virtuous. It would have made her sister roll her eyes. She kept her balance with a hand on the wall and tried to pad quietly towards her bedroom. Hopefully, there was nothing for her to knock over. Lydia was likely either waiting in her room or responsible for the lights in the living room.

The prince’s lips pursed as he pressed against the model, trying to find just the right point in which the wheel of the tank he was working on would snap into place. It took a few seconds or twisting and turning before it slid into place. Smiling softly, he had just a moment to celebrate his success before a loud bang of some sort caused him to jump in his seat. Looking up, one of his eyebrows rose slightly. “Good...morning, Tarja. You’re up early,” He said softly as he let his model grow forgotten for a moment before he leaned back, drink now in hand as his chocolate eyes drank in the sight of her.

She had certainly looked more put together, not that she was anything short of stunning at the moment.

Tarja covered her mouth to stop herself from laughing any more. She mostly didn’t want to wake anyone else. Lydia could probably use the sleep. “William, I didn’t wake you, did I?” She had the good grace to look somewhat embarrassed, though her accent had become significantly thicker. She had a bit of a sway as well, though she was still supporting herself with the wall.

Taking a languid sip of his drink, William reached over with his free hand to palm the radio’s remote. He shut it off quickly, figuring that she wouldn’t care for video game talk and conversation of movies between four amusing potheads out of one of Shalum’s more liberal cities. “Nah, you didn’t.” He assured her softly. “It's just...Lydia was in a tizzy earlier. I saw her to bed with the promise I’d wait up and make sure you made it home at some point. This here has been lying on a shelf for a few moments so I thought I would use it to pass the time.” He explained as he motioned to the half-assembled model.

“I’d be more concerned if she wasn’t in one,” Tarja said with a grin. She swayed over to sit on the couch near William. She knew she smelled like alcohol, but there was no escaping that. If he hadn’t already guessed where she’d been, he obviously didn’t know her. Then again, she was a new addition to his life. “I see you’ve found a delightful way to pass an evening. I will nobly refrain from coming near it, lest I suddenly lose use of my fingers.”

The prince smiled slightly, if only for a moment, as he took a sip of his drink. Assuming she came too close, it was likely that she’d smell the strong smell of alcohol coming off of him. William didn’t care about being caught, he just didn’t want to give up his portion of the country’s liquor supply. “Feel free to touch it if you want, I’m not going to be like Lydia.” He chuckled softly as he picked up another piece. “Even if you break something, well, it's just plastic at the end of the day. I can always get another.” He shrugged as he snapped another wheel into place; there were several more to go. “Have a good night out with Anna?”

“Delightful. Your sister has excellent taste in clubs,” Tarja said. She studied the model, but refrained from touching it. She had some sense left, even if he had said it was alright. She set her shoes down and stretched. She was disheveled, dizzy, and feeling remarkably well for the first time in a while. Part of her was quite content. The rest was focused on not falling over. She studied her fiancé, grey eyes mostly focused. “You’re a wonderful man, William. Kind enough to put Lydia at ease, patient enough to wait, charitable enough to offer your model for my mangling…”

William didn’t have to look in a mirror to know that he was worse for wear. His expression was weary and dark circles were present under his kind eyes. Thankfully, he had the next day off, given that he intended to fulfill his offer of taking Tarja to the beach; it was a plan that wouldn't survive contact with the wildcat, he mused as he looked up at her. “You can have a seat if you’d like. Just watch your step, I’d hate for this to be broken before it goes up on the shelf that will inevitably be knocked down.” He teased, offering a hand to her in order to prove a point. “And, for the record, you’re giving me far too much credit. I’m just a man, after all.”

“And modest too,” Tarja said with a smile. She had always been a happy, cuddly drunk. She took William’s hand, moving to sit by him. “I used to have wonderful talks with my friends at…” She glanced at her watch. “Well, about this time. For all their wild, wily ways, gentle as lambs. I can’t imagine how they ever put up with me. The fun we’ve had…” She sighed a little, but it was more content than despondent. “Shalum will be an adventure. I think I enjoy it here.”

It was...odd having company. For as long as he could remember, the prince had always been left to his own devices, aside from a few months when he had been married earlier in life. Aside from the fact that Tarja was probably too wasted to even remember their time here come morning, he didn’t mind it at all. “I hope you will, truly. I would hate for your quality of life to decrease because of little old me,” he smiled wryly. “Perhaps you will be able to see them again in Alemarr sometime in the near future, or during the wedding? Lord knows I don’t draw much from the royal travel budget.” He mused as he leaned back against the couch, stretching out one arm behind her back.

“Little old you has been one of the most charming parts of this country. Feel no need to supplant your company with my old cadre,” Tarja said airily. “Few people would be so accommodating in circumstances like ours. You even humored my request for a waltz. In Alemarr, we say that you can learn almost everything about someone from how they move, how they dance. Lips lie, eyes hide secrets, faces smile with knives behind them. I have always loved to dance. It makes me feel alive. And when I dance with someone, for a few moments we are in another world. It isn’t always a joy—God knows I do have to put up with rather a lot of stiffness any time it’s my cousin—but it is forever an education on human nature.”

The prince’s eyebrows actually crept up slightly at her words, the expression he wore betraying the surprise he felt for several moments. “Are you always this philosophical when you’ve had something to drink, Miss Cederström?” He asked, lightly teasing as he looked over at her. Finishing off what little remained of his drink, he set it down and looked at her intently, providing undivided attention as he did so. “I’ve always enjoyed dancing, even if I was born with two left feet. My mother was busy when I was young, raising a crown prince is apparently time consuming in itself, but she always made time for me. It was a way we used to bond.” It was also the method that had been used to introduce him to his first wife. “You’re a good partner, Tarja.” He smiled softly, knowing he damn well that he meant more than just in regards to dancing.

“Terribly philosophical. Seija and I used to stay up hours talking when we were finished breaking the school’s curfew,” Tarja said lightly. “In vino veritas and all that rubbish. We should dance more often, William. I imagine the wedding reception will have to be a proper waltz, but I do so love a tango.” She smiled faintly. “I miss dancing with the Rajakreivi. For a cantankerous old devil, he could move. My mother said that’s where the love of the thing and the knack came from.” It was a powerful ache in his absence, but it was slowly dulling. Most of the time, it was a fond memory rather than loss. He had always insisted that she not be too sentimental about things. “I’ll have to send back to Alemarr for his records and the player. Jenna’s kept them for me. She’s good about that sort of thing. Terribly sensible for a Cederström, though. She takes after the Dowager.”

“Just name the time and place, Tarja, and I'm there. You may have to give me a refresher or two, though. I can’t remember the last time that I tangoed.” He mused as he settled against the leather, willing himself to not grow drowsy. He was going on a good twenty hours without sleep at this point; he’d gone far longer in boot camp, but that didn’t mean that he enjoyed it necessarily. For Tarja, though, he liked to think it was worth it. “I would love to hear what music he collected over the years. I’m sure that a great man like him kept some beautiful pieces on hand.” William smiled softly. “From everything you’ve told me about her, Jenna sounds like a great woman. I’d love to meet her someday, if you’d tolerate her and I in the same room,” he teased.

“She’s better than I am at heart. Martyr’s patience for my escapades, anyway,” Tarja said. Thoughts of her family were making her terribly wistful. “Perhaps we’ll find time to tango at the beach, darling. Now, to bed with the both of us. You look tired and I fear that if I don’t get to bed, it might spin off without me.” Tarja got up, though significantly less gracefully than usual. She had a good sway going. “I’m certain Lydia has left the obligatory ibuprofen and water, as she is blessedly wont to do.” She flashed William a bright, genuine smile. “Good night, William. I look forward to seeing you in the morning.”

With that, Tarja made her way into her bedroom. There was a bump and then a giggle as she fell into bed, still dressed. She could change in the morning.

The prince was up with a grumble the next morning, feeling more tired than he had when he first laid down the night before. He would have loved to sleep in, but he knew that his body wouldn’t allow it; once he was awake, there was no going back down, at least in moderation. If he closed his eyes, it’d be evening before he woke up again.

Padding into the living room of their apartment, he was dressed in little more than a pair of athletic shorts and a camouflage dry-fit shirt that clung comfortably to the planes of his chest. His eyes were glazed over and his dark hair messy as he looked around for a moment, covering a yawn with a balled fist. “Good morning, Lydia.” He greeted the servant with a little wave. “Sleep well?” He asked, perhaps a bit blindly, as he made his way to the coffee machine automatically.

“Quite well, Your Highness,” Lydia assured him as she went to investigate the state of her mistress, Tarja’s phone in one hand and a glass of seltzer water in the other. She rapped on the bedroom door with her knuckles before opening it and slipping in. “Well, I’m afraid you’re a rather sorry sight, Your Ladyship.”

Tarja was out of bed, but only by a technicality and only because her body had decided to wake her early with a murderous headache. She was currently laying on the floor. “Don’t rub it in, Lydia,” she mumbled. She was mussed and still obviously half asleep. Mornings were always Tarja’s least favorite part of the day. Normally she slept until after ten, but since coming to Shalum, her confused body clock had insisted on an early rising. She checked her watch out of habit, bleary eyed. “Really? Seven thirty? Humans aren’t meant to survive being awake at this hour.”

“Your sister called, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said. “I told her you were busy sleeping off an abominable amount of alcohol.”

“And what did she say?” Tarja asked, accepting the glass of seltzer water. It had a little lemon in it, but the main goal was to ease her stomach until she could get food into it. She was familiar enough with mornings like these to know how to handle them.

“That she was looking forward to hearing what your future husband thought of sunglasses indoors, Your Ladyship. Also, that she mentioned that she’d call again in an hour, in the hopes that you would no longer be drooling on yourself,” Lydia said, handing over the phone as well. “Her words, Your Ladyship, not mine.”

Tarja laughed, though she did wince slightly. “That sounds like Jenna,” she said, finding what had prompted her fall out of bed: her hairbrush. The thing was damn elusive. “Lydia, would you kindly find me something other than what I’m wearing? I fully intend to walk out looking rumpled, but—”

“Your Ladyship!” Lydia said, scandalized. “Like this?”

Tarja sighed, but it was an amused sigh. “He’s my future husband, not my mother. I’ll clean up a bit first. See? I even have a hairbrush.”

Lydia muttered something inaudible as she scurried into Tarja’s closet, watched by amused grey eyes. It was a morning off to a rather more adventurous start than usual, but she knew that Lydia appreciated the challenge—though she wouldn’t admit it even under threat of torture.

Out in the common area of the apartment, William smiled to himself. The pair of them were adorable, regardless of rank disparity. He couldn’t imagine many nobles in his own court being so friendly with their household staff. “You two aren’t as quiet as you think you are, you know!” He called out teasingly as he sipped on his coffee, feeling more awake by the moment. “There’s no need for sunglasses, Tarja, I know just how hammered you were last night. As long as you have some concealer for when we go out,” if was what he really meant, “I think you’ll be just fine.” There was a pause as he looked around the room. “Do y’all want me to call room service, or should we try our hand at cooking? Assuming y’all are hungry at all?”

Lydia squeaked, mortified, from her position in the closet. She knew it was rather improper, the tone she took with Tarja sometimes, but it was a reflex. They’d known each other since they were both girls, when Lydia was assistant to the seamstress employed by Tarja’s mother. It was a strange relationship for a noble and a servant, but it worked. She was blushing furiously in embarrassment and Tarja knew it from the quiet.

Tarja laughed as she brushed out her dark hair, both at Lydia and at her fiance’s word choice. Only in Shalum could a noble be so informal. Her hair wasn’t too bad, a few tangles here and there, but those were easy enough to fix. She got up as she heard frantic sorting coming from her closet. Instead of disturbing Lydia, she crept out into the common room, looking rumpled but surprisingly together given how she’d been the night before. There were barely even shadows around her eyes, though they were a bit red. She blinked owlishly in the relatively bright light before shading her eyes. “The sunglasses were for my benefit, darling, regrettably not yours,” Tarja said as she took a seat on the couch.

Her cigarette case was nowhere to be found, her usual waking ritual, which was unfortunate. It would turn up, of course. It always did. Even drunk, Tarja treasured it more than her own life. It had been her father’s, and his father’s before that. Granted, she doubted William would appreciate it if she lit up inside. She was trying to cut back anyway, on the off chance that William ever decided to get closer. She didn’t want him to feel like he was kissing an ashtray. “I’m afraid you’ve given Lydia a terrible case of mortification. It’s a wonder the poor dear didn’t expire of embarrassment. Also, I should only assist in cooking if you are quite prepared to test the integrity of the fire suppression systems in the building.” Tarja’s good humor was in full force, even sleepy and slightly hungover as she was.

Tarja had never been the domestic type, but then again, she’d never been given the opportunity. As the eldest, she’d suffered through years of etiquette, endless tutoring to ensure a vast breadth of conversation topics, and the excruciating pain that was her mother’s lecturing on what was and was not ladylike. Tarja tended to fall into the latter category most days. You’re just like your father, and that is not meant as a compliment, Tarja Angéle Cederström! It went without saying that she and Jenna had middle names for the sole purpose of gauging her mother’s fury, or at least, that was what Tarja had believed for as long as she could remember.

Tarja drank her seltzer water quickly, using it to wash down the ibuprofen that Lydia had left for her the night before. Aside from the headache and an uneasy stomach, she was feeling just fine. Nothing that a healthy breakfast couldn’t cure, so long as healthy involved bacon, eggs, and toast. Tarja had learned from her father long ago that a bit of grease helped. “Lydia, would you like some breakfast?” She knew Lydia had probably been awake for at least an hour. The woman, embarrassment aside, was already perfectly put together, as per usual. Lydia did pride herself on her professionalism.

“I already ate, Your Ladyship, but I’m certain I could arrange—”

“Nonsense,” Tarja called back. “William and I have it under control. Carry on with your thankless task, my Sisyphean dove. I shall make it up to you, as ever I strive to.” For all her flaws, Tarja did take good care of the people beneath her. She couldn’t remember what day of the week it was, but she had every birthday memorized and accounted for. She knew the names of children and spouses, favorite colors and preferred flowers. Tarja was well aware that her life would be in utter disarray without staff and sundry, and did her best to thank them. Often it was in indirect ways, as she was an Alemarran noble, but she always tried to make an effort—particularly for poor, overworked Lydia. Granted, forcing her maid to take a break was like pulling teeth from a mule, but Tarja invariably got her way in the end.

The prince emerged from the kitchen with a small smile, amusement twinkling in his eyes as he sipped on his coffee quietly. “For once, I have to agree, my dear. Everything is very much under control, not to mention the fact that it would be an honor for me to serve breakfast to two seraphs such as yourselves.” He teased as he stepped into the room. Setting his drink down next on the coffee table next to his unfinished model, William paused to rummage around in his pocket for a moment. “You left this on the couch last night before you went to bed. I took it with me in case you went rogue again.” He chuckled, tossing the infamous cigarette case onto the cushion next to her. Though he didn’t approving of smoking in the least, he at least tried to acknowledge that it was part of her repertoire.

William disappeared for a few moments, only to return with a tablet in hand. Messing around with it, he dropped down onto the couch next to his betrothed with a soft huff. “Alright, on the days I do cook, this is where I get most of my recipes.” He began as he scrolled through the app. Selecting the breakfast menu, he offered it to Tarja. “Want to decide what we’ll be having?”

“I insist on bacon,” Tarja said lightly, picking up the cigarette case. She set it on the table, but didn’t pull out a cigarette despite the impulse. “Beyond that, I defer to your judgment.”

“Who do you take me for, Miss Cederström? It's not a meal if there isn’t bacon.” He replied with a soft chuckle, taking the tablet back. Flicking through it for a few moments, he paused and looked up. “How does a smoked bacon and cheddar panini sound? With a side of just bacon and eggs, of course.”

“Sounds delightful.” Tarja could almost feel her headache easing slowly. It would be there a while longer, but the more awake she felt, the better it seemed. The noblewoman got up and poured herself a cup of coffee. She didn’t bother with milk or sugar, but then again, her sense of taste wasn’t the best after a night out on the town. She could still taste alcohol. “I think I would benefit greatly from a shower. Lydia should have pulled something out of the closet for me by now, unless she’s feeling indecisive. Shall we reconvene when breakfast is ready, at a point where I am hopefully human again?”

The prince joined her in the kitchen, pouring himself another cup of coffee as he went. Though he may have been an army man by trade, drinking it straight and dark was the last thing he wanted to do if other options were on the table. It didn’t take him but a few moments to add a bit of sugar and cream into the mix. “That sounds perfect to me, Tarja. Go shower and tell Lydia to lighten up, I’ll be here when you’re ready.” He teased before moving onto the fridge to gather the various ingredients that they would need for an optimal breakfast.

There were few simple pleasures in life better than a hot shower after a night out. Tarja was glad to slip away in favor of almost scalding water and good soap. She felt much, much better by the time she stepped out and wrapped a towel around herself before brushing her teeth. Lydia was already hovering by the time she’d finished, looking somewhat recovered from earlier. “Jenna should be calling back soon, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said.

“I know, darling. Please, go have a seat or get a cup of coffee. Watching you fret is making me anxious.” Her phone started to ring as if on cue. Jenna always did have impeccable timing. Tarja accepted the call with a tap. “How are you this morning, sunbeam?”

“A damn sight better than you, to hear Lydia tell it.”

Tarja grinned. “Such language. I take it you’re not enjoying Jyväskylä’s sunny climes and charming people?”

“I can’t say I am. Everything’s a mess over here and I feel like a bug under a magnifying glass. All that’s missing is a pin to tack my wings to some display board. Oh, and Aapeli’s being...himself.”

Tarja set the phone on speaker and set it down, brushing out her hair. She didn’t particularly care if anyone overheard, nor would Jenna. Their sisterly talks were seldom cloak-and-dagger material. “Ah. I don’t suppose I could charm you into carrying out some vengeful scheme on my behalf?”

“I love you, but I’m not shooting him in the foot for you.” There was a brief pause before Jenna continued, “Or anywhere else. I can hear you smirking.”

Tarja wasn’t surprised that her sister could read her expression without needing to look. They were only two years apart and had always been thick as thieves, despite Jenna’s unfortunate inclination towards responsibility. “Me? Never. I bridle at the merest suggestion of such villainy.”

“Cute,” Jenna said. Tarja knew that comment came with an eyeroll. “I just wanted to see how you were settling in. You haven’t made the papers and you’ve been there more than forty-eight hours. I was worried.”

“Shalum doesn’t have society pages the way we do, else I promise I would have made a splash by now. I was even out last night. I woke up this morning quite positive that my head was exploding slowly and something with fur had died in my mouth.” Tarja stepped back into her room and turned the phone off speaker, holding it back up to her ear. “How is the old homestead?”

“Well, I’ve set your portrait on a black cloth draped over your favorite chair and we’re all getting together to say nice things about you now that you’ve crossed over to the great beyond. There’s even a faint whiff of brimstone from your passing,” Tarja’s sister said. There was a sigh. “It’s not the same. Either I’m in Jyväskylä surrounded by machinations that would nauseate Lady Macbeth or I’m in a big empty house in Naantali. This...isn’t what I’d imagined. I never thought I’d be the heir, you know?”

“You’ll do swimmingly, Jenna. You always do. Mind, I do dearly miss our verbal sparring sessions,” Tarja said gently. They were fast approaching a delicate subject. “How fares the Dowager?”

She heard her sister sigh again, this time even heavier. “Worse. I hate leaving her with nurses, but I can’t take care of her and the estate at the same time. I’d say damn it all and just take care of her, but there’s so many people relying on me now. She has moments where she’s clear as a bell, but…”

“I know,” Tarja said softly. The ache was back in the center of her chest for a moment. “I’m proud of you, Jenna. I know you’re doing your best. Better than I ever could.”

“That’s a low bar,” her sister said, but there was a hint of a faint smile of relief audible in those words. “With everything as it is, I think I can make it to your wedding, provided your fiance hasn’t run off into the wilds in desperate escape by then. I won’t be able to stay more than a day, but she always has someone there now, and they’re better trained than I am. Is William everything you’d hoped?”

“You say the sweetest things,” Tarja said, relaxing a little as the subject changed. “He hasn’t run away screaming yet, but I’m certain that will come in time. He’s...thoughtful. Patient. Surprisingly understanding, but I think I can fix that. Overall, I don’t deserve nearly the luck I’ve had.”

“Agree to disagree,[i]” Jenna said. “[i]I have to go, but promise me we’ll talk again soon. I expect a full briefing before I meet the condemned at your wedding.”

“You’ll approve,” Tarja said with full confidence. “I love you, Jenna, and I’ll talk to you again soon. Murder Aapeli for me.”

Her answer was laughter before a brief farewell. Tarja looked at her phone for a moment after the call ended, the wave of homesickness almost overwhelming for a moment. Leaving Alemarr was harder than she’d ever thought it would be, but then again, she’d never pictured this when she thought of her future...when she even bothered to do that. She sighed and set the phone down, catching Lydia’s worried look. “I’m fine, Lydia, I promise,” she said softly. “It’s just...a process.”

Lydia nodded, though the concern remained even if she wasn’t going to voice it. “I thought something green, Your Ladyship. You have that rather lovely amber necklace and the tortoise-shell comb from your grandmother,” she said instead.

Tarja smiled slightly, feeling the ache ease at the constancy of her maid. No matter where she was in the world, she wasn’t alone. “You’re a national treasure, Lydia.”

There was something about cooking that William had always considered therapeutic, despite the fact that he didn’t do it often. He had no real excuse besides laziness, really; his job was about as nine-to-five as they came in the army. Gathering fresh ciabatta bread, eggs, a generous amount of bacon, and a slab of cheddar cheese from the fridge, the prince went to work. The recipe didn’t take long, and before he knew it, he was already setting out a couple of plates for himself and his betrothed. There was even enough for Lydia if she didn’t mind accepting a meal from someone other than the palace’s staff.

Tarja emerged looking significantly better than earlier, in an emerald green day dress, her dark hair up and held in place by a tortoise shell comb. She was also wearing a teardrop shaped pendant of polished amber. She hadn’t put on shoes, but otherwise she looked like herself again. “That smells lovely, William,” Tarja said lightly as she took a seat. “Certainly something new. I didn’t realize you were a dab hand at cooking.”

Lydia joined them in the kitchenette area just long enough to retrieve the cigarette case, looking embarrassed, before vanishing back into Tarja’s room. No doubt she was off to reconstruct the closet she’d left in mild disarray when she was flustered. It was her way of staving off excessive worry.

William actually paused for a moment, his chocolate eyes growing a bit wider at the sight of his fiancee. She had been a beautiful woman as long as he’d known her, graceful as the wildcat that she had been known as, but cleaned up...he couldn’t remember if he had even seen a more stunning sight. Whether she knew it or not, green was his favorite color.

Stepping up to her at the small kitchen table, William put one hand on her shoulder for a moment, while he used the other to sit the plate out before her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so chic, Tarja.” He said with a soft smile as he looked down for a moment, lingering longer than Lydia would have probably liked. “There’s, ah, more bacon and eggs if you’d like. I may have gone all out,” he chuckled as he glanced over at the kitchen proper. “Anything you’d like to drink?” He had all the ingredients for a mimosa, but he didn’t want to enable her anymore than he already did on a given day.

“I have my moments, though the credit goes entirely to Lydia’s excellent taste,” Tarja said with a smile. “I do believe I should probably just enjoy my coffee, or I expect I will never hear the end of it.” She wanted a drink, but she also knew that it probably wouldn’t be appreciated, at least by Lydia. If her maid had been on a day off, she would have gladly made herself something. “Thank you for breakfast, William.”

It tasted as good as it looked, not that Tarja had expected anything else. William was the kind of man to put patience and effort into the things he tried his hand at, at least from her estimation, and that was a necessary part of cooking. She found herself looking forward to the beach as well. She’d never been much of a swimmer, which was probably due to Alemarr’s cold and tempestuous sea. She had liked walking the beach, though, and picking up bits of amber or shells that washed ashore sometimes. The sound of surf was always strangely calming. Shalum’s water would be warmer, perhaps enough to walk with her feet in the waves. She had no intention of going deeper than that, though.

“Anytime, Tarja.” The prince replied with a small smile as he went back to the stove area for a moment to fetch his own plate. “And here I was going to offer vodka with breakfast. I’m sure Lydia would perish at the notion, though.” He couldn’t help but tease as he sat down across from her. Picking up a strip of bacon, he broke it into two before taking a generous bite of the crispy, greasy meat. “So, my dear, are you ready to see what this side of the continent is like ocean-wise?” He asked after swallowing.

“She certainly wouldn’t be amused,” Tarja said, doing her best not to laugh so that she could continue to eat. Lydia was just trying to do what was best, and Tarja appreciated the thought while firmly disagreeing with the idea. “I am very much looking forward to it. I hear the waters are even warm. The coast around Nivala and Salo that I’ve been to is very different. Ice cold along rocky shores. Beautiful, but not the kind of thing you want to jump into. The currents come straight from the ice caps, I think.”

The bacon did wonders for her stomach. She wasn’t sure what it was about that kind of food, but it worked small miracles in her body. Granted, she didn’t make too much of a habit of eating it, at least not without exercise. Tarja tried to stay as in shape as possible, to counteract the drinking a bit. “Is it a private beach or a public one? I’ve heard that there are countries where they’re not all part of private land.” It was an idle question, but she doubted breakfast was a good place for any serious conversation.

“Given how far north y’all are in comparison to our dear ole Empire, that doesn’t surprise me at all.” William replied with a small nod, leaning back in his seat as he munched on a piece of toast. “’ll have to see it for yourself, but I don’t think our beaches could be any more dissimilar. The water is warm here, and the sand is soft aside from seashells. There is a reason the local area is popular with tourists from around Eracura.” He added in explanation as he met her eyes from across the table. “It’s pleasant most of the year, until the cold sets in, really. You could probably go swimming just about anytime here, since our definition of winter is just ‘early spring’ to your people, no?” He added teasingly.

The prince was quiet for a few moments, munching on his breakfast and drinking his tea. It was good to sit down and eat a meal, one that he had made, with such pleasant company as herself. Oftentimes, he either shared breakfast with his troops, or ate in solitude in the palace meal hall. “Well, I was thinking of a private beach that was set aside for the city’s nobility. It's usually a lot less crowded than the city beaches are. Would you prefer one over the other?”

“Alemarr does have a proper spring. It lasts seven days, just like autumn. Our summer is rather cool compared to Shalum’s, I’m told,” Tarja said with a smile, pausing so that she wasn’t talking with her mouth full. She didn’t want to kill her mother, who would probably sense a disturbance in the universe if one of her daughters lost table manners. “I think a private beach will suit me just fine. I’m afraid I’ve never been much of a swimmer, that said. I used to be terrified of the water, and the Rajakreivi’s solution was to just pitch me into it. He was very much of the school that whatever didn’t kill us would make us stronger. It’s a wonder Jenna and I made it to adulthood, really. Still, it did teach me to swim, though not well. I will admit to being a touch cautious around it to this day, however, particularly the sea.”

It was surprisingly nice to have breakfast with William, or perhaps not so surprising. He had his charm and he could carry on a conversation better than some other nobles she’d met. Tarja was more and more certain with each passing day that she was growing fond of the man. The notion of marrying him didn’t bother her anymore, not that she’d held a grudge against him. She hoped he could say the same of her, but she doubted the chances of that in the back of her mind. She was used to being the difficult one. If Lydia hadn’t possessed the patience of a saint, she was certain that she’d have gone through a dozen maids by now.

“The sea is nothing to be afraid of, my dear. Sure, it may be deep and full of things that would make a meal of us, but those are a lot further out than we’ll be going.” The prince teased as he picked up another piece of bacon, making quick work of it. “I’m no squid, but I like to think I can handle swimming well enough. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it. I think you just need a bit less...intensive form of practice.” He smiled softly as he studied her. “Whatever happens, I’ll be right there with you. No sea monsters or rip tides will carry you away on my watch.” The prince promised with a light smile.. “Do you, uh, have a swimsuit already? And will Lydia be joining us today?” He asked as he glanced over her shoulder to door that lead to her room.

“Talk of sea monsters is hardly the most reassuring thing I’ve heard. I might have to faint from fright on the sand, hopefully out of reach of everything save the fabled land-shark,” Tarja said, teasing right back. “I did bring a bathing suit. And sunscreen, lest I burn to a crisp. Alemarrans do poorly on bright, sunny days that don’t demand warm clothing.” She turned in her seat. “Lydia, darling, would you like to go to the beach?” The door was open, so she was sure it was audible.

“If it’s all the same to you, Your Ladyship, I’d rather not,” Lydia said, appearing in the doorway. “There’s rather a lot to do here. I expect your sister will have sent more clothing and sentimental things that will need to be put away.”

“If you have no intention of accompanying us, I must insist that you take some time to relax,” Tarja said lightly. “And that is an absolute order. I have no doubt I can ascertain whether or not you caught your breath for a while or if you slaved through the whole afternoon.”

Lydia looked supremely put upon at that, but also ever so slightly grateful. “As you say, Your Ladyship. I’ll see about getting you both a packed lunch and perhaps tea.”

Tarja shook her head slightly, but Lydia was off before she could get a word in. “Delightful woman, but she has such trouble letting go of business,” the Alemarran noble said with a touch of exasperation. “We should make a stop coming back from the beach. I think she could use some lilies, if they’re in season here. If nothing else, she can fuss over them.”

“I’m no florist, unfortunately, but I think that we could probably procure something along those lines. It shouldn’t be an issue.” He assured her as he finished off the remnants of his breakfast. “Especially for a faithful servant of state like herself,” the prince chuckled softly. “Perhaps I can have one of the stable boys deliver them, if you’re feeling evil. From what Anna has told me, there are one or two of them in our employment who she would deem ‘cute.’” He explained with a mischievous sort of expression.

Rolling his shoulders, William was content to sit back and relax while she finished up her breakfast. He would have been lying if he didn’t study her in these moments, admiring the way her lips curled and her eyes danced. When he had first been told that he was to marry someone from the distant lands of Alemarr, he hadn’t known what to expect; he had been damn near terrified. Now that he knew his future wife, however, he liked to think that things would go well enough. If anything, his only hope was that he could get her to curtail her drinking a bit...or at least her smoking. Admittedly, he didn’t mind a cigarette or two, but tobacco was not his substance of choice.

“I always forget how pale Alemarrans are.” He couldn’t help but tease as he ran a hand through his dark hair. “Give me a few hours and I’ll be as tan as a Nalayan. Blame that on my mother,” he chuckled softly. “If you’d like, I can go get everything ready while you finish up here? The only thing I didn’t pack last night were towels.”

“I feel evil rather a lot, much to Lydia’s chagrin. I do believe some young man delivering her flowers would be good for her,” Tarja said lightly, taking a shine to the idea. It was a fond wickedness, rather than a malicious one. “Take all the time you need to pack, William. My coffee and I will wait here, unless you require my assistance. If I know Lydia, she’ll have already set things aside for me. She should be back presently with lunch and then we may be on our merry way.”

After William left, Lydia eventually returned with a carefully packed picnic basket. “I think I have everything, Your Ladyship,” the maid said. “Bread, cheese, fruit, assorted salami and prosciutto de parma, some cucumber sandwiches to go with the thermos of tea, and a bottle of wine.”

Tarja smiled. She wasn’t usually much of a wine drinker—she preferred hard liquor—but she would take it. No doubt Lydia was trying to make sure she made a better impression on William. Domestic tranquility would ease the maid’s nerves, the noblewoman knew. “I suppose there’s no hope of a three martini lunch?”

“There wasn’t space, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said, lips pressing together to demonstrate her disapproval with the idea.

“Later, then,” Tarja said. She had no intention of maintaining a stone-cold sobriety for longer than she had to, though she also had no intention of getting smashed. “Though I do admire your dedication to transforming me into a teetotaler. I have no doubt that William approves of your efforts. Do try to have a lovely day while we’re gone, Lydia. I hear reading a book and putting your feet up is all the rage.”

“I shall do my best, Your Ladyship,” Lydia promised, her shoulders relaxing slightly. It wasn’t often that she capitulated quickly to Tarja’s insistence that she relax, but she was feeling as homesick as Tarja and needed some time to collect herself. Staying busy helped, but she knew she would feel better with a good cup of tea and perhaps some knitting.

Several minutes later, the prince returned dressed as casual as ever. His sleepwear had been replaced by a faded Shalumite national team t-shirt and a pair of black swim trunks. The backpack slung over his left shoulders had everything that they’d need for a day out on the beach, plus extra things like a change of clothes. Though he was easy going, the prince was a stickler when it came to keeping his vehicles clean; the last thing he wanted to do was track sand or seawater into his cars, despite the fact that they all had leather interiors.

Spying the picnic basket as he stepped in, William couldn’t help but grin slightly as he peeked in. “Lydia, you shouldn’t have.” He said warmly, knowing damn well that Tarja couldn’t have packed such an assortment in such little time, sober or not. Leaning over, he gave her a quick peck on the cheek in appreciation before moving past her to fetch a couple bottles of water for the road. “Well, wildcat, I guess we’re going to have to take an SUV. I don’t think the basket will fit in the cubbies that Ethereal calls trunks.”

Not that he was complaining in the least. As much as he didn’t mind his fiancee using his vehicles (she owned whatever he did), it had only taken a couple stories for him to deduce that she was best kept away from motor vehicles, particularly of the kind with powerful engines and sleek, sport builds. “I think that is everything…” His voice dropped as he leaned in beside Tarja’s ear for a moment, breath warm on her skin. “Unless I need to pack a travel sized whiskey bottle?” He asked teasingly.

Tarja hid her smile at Lydia’s red face behind her hand. She figured her maid was as flustered as she could be without her having a heart attack, and Tarja didn’t want to be what pushed her over the edge. Alemarrans weren’t touchy people as a rule, so she certainly hadn’t been expecting the kiss on her cheek. Tarja had no doubt that Lydia would be apologizing profusely when they were alone again. As a flirt herself, Tarja approved of good work.

It was pleasant, to have William in her space. She’d assumed on some level that an arranged marriage would mean she’d be trapped with someone terrible—particularly with Aapeli managing things—but William was far and above anyone she could have pictured herself with. He meant thing when he said them. It was rather dangerous, for a variety of reasons. Tarja’s smile widened a little. She always had loved dangerous things. “You say such sweet things, William,” Tarja murmured lightly. “But I think you broke poor Lydia. As much as I adore whiskey, the better half of me thinks we should leave before she spontaneously combusts.” If it would make Lydia happy for her to behave a little for one afternoon, she would make something of an effort, at least for an hour or two.

She slipped her arm through William’s, still smiling. “Shall we go, darling? I think it will be a lovely adventure.”

“To be fair, it's hard not to when I have company as saccharine as you are, my dear.” The prince replied with a pleased smile. Chocolate eyes flickering over to the poor maid, he resisted the urge to snicker. She was a wonderful girl; Tarja couldn’t have asked for anyone better as an attendant. Turning up the charm on her every now and then was more fun than it probably should have been, but even he knew when it was time to back off and leave the girl be for a while. His fiancee only reaffirmed that.

William had to admit that the feeling of her arm looped through his own was pleasant. Though he’d grown used to their company by now, actually touchy-feely actions were something that he apparently needed a refresher in. Pressing a quick kiss to her cheek, he resisted the urge to give Lydia a teasing look as he led the noblewoman along. “As do I, dear. Let’s get out of here,” he paused to let his voice drop again, “before we find out just how tolerant she is.”
Real nobility is based on scorn, courage, and profound indifference.
- Albert Camus

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Founded: Sep 25, 2011

Postby Alemarr » Thu Oct 12, 2017 9:31 am

The Beach
Near Aragon, Shalum

Tarja had always loved the smell of the sea and the sound of surf. The waves here in Shalum were much calmer, of course. She was used to an iron sea whipped into froth by raging winds and hurling itself at the rocky shoreline. Sometimes it was a more placid ocean, washing shells and amber up onto the beach, but that was rare near Salo and Nivala. It was unquestionably a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the breeze soft, and the temperature just warm enough to be comfortable without becoming blisteringly hot. Shalum was far enough north to be temperate but not so far as to be icy. It was pleasant, though Tarja imagined she would miss the bitter winters with feet of snow.

She changed into her bathing suit in one of the stalls, carefully tucking her dress into the bag she’d brought with her. Her earrings, necklace, and the comb went into the jewelry box in the bag. She added the dozen or so pins that had held her hair in place as well. Now her dark hair was down, a small wave in it from being up. She could put sunscreen on most of her body with assistance, but her back was going to require William’s help. Tarja was fair-skinned enough to the point that she could burn almost to a crisp with ease. In Alemarr, nobles tended to be fairer because they didn’t have to spend time outside. It was more common for the working classes to have something of a tan, though few people were terribly brown other than fishermen and hard laborers. Jenna had packed her the swimsuit with a tease about turning into a very attractive lobster in front of her future husband. It was a dark blue, triangle-top bikini, so Tarja was well aware of the risks. Hence the liberal application of strong sunscreen.

Her love affair with dancing had given her a deceptively strong, athletic body. The muscles were firm and defined, but not necessarily obvious. She did do her best to keep in shape despite her questionable life choices. An unintended side effect was that it made her very difficult to catch when she decided to try and slip Lydia or various minders that her mother had always sent in a vain effort to recover her before a journalist saw. Granted, she was also elusive for the journalists. Tarja grabbed her bag and the tube of sunscreen before heading back to where she’d agreed to meet William. She felt altogether too sober, but a few glasses of wine would fix that.

There were downsides to having her alcohol tolerance, and that was that even just pleasantly buzzed required a bit of work. It was much easier with hard liquor than with wine. Still, she was looking forward to the day. A lovely beach, good food and wine—Lydia wouldn’t tolerate anything less than excellent—and a charming, handsome man. What more could she ask for?

Slaturst, the beach that William had drug his fiancee twenty miles from the palace to visit, was the definition of pristine. White sand stretched out in all directions, only to be interrupted by the occasional (imported) palm trees that were brought out of green houses every year. There were a dozen stalls for guests to change or use the bathroom in and there was even an air conditioned stand that was operated during the summer months to sell various amenities that visitors may have forgotten. If one thing was for certain, it was that the nobility of Shalum would not be in want during their visit.

Leaning quietly against his sports utility vehicle that, the prince drew in a deep breath, letting the calming scents of the ocean breeze wash over him. Unlike his companion, changing into beachwear had taken less than sixty seconds for him. All he had to do was slip off his shirt and replace his khaki shorts with a pair of black, sleek swimming trunks. Being young and tough, he didn’t really feel much of a need for sunscreen, but that didn’t mean that he neglected to use the stuff either. Though he became gold rather than red, it was better to err on the side of caution.

As he tore his gaze away from the group of barons and baroness that milled around close to the water’s edge, William felt his breath catch as his chocolate eyes swiveled around to suddenly land on the sight of an approaching figure - his fiancee. Though he had been in her company countless times over the last few weeks, seeing her in any number of different outfits, he had never seen Tarja like this. With raven hair flowing over pale shoulders, all he could really do was stare, slack-jawed and transfixed and riveted to the spot.

Somehow, the future princess was even more excruciatingly beautiful without day clothes on.

Tarja smiled as she approached William. She could feel a little flutter of butterflies in her stomach, though she wasn’t entirely certain if it was how he looked or the way he was looking at her. Probably some combination of the two. But, as per usual, her mouth was probably going to add words to the situation without the input of her brain. She generally needed alcohol to slow it down before it got her into trouble, and she was fresh out of that at the moment. “Someone looks better out of his clothing than in it,” Tarja said teasingly. “See something you like?” About a half second later, it occurred to her that maybe that should have gone through some kind of filter, but that would have taken time and effort.

It was a crippling problem, really. She was certain that someday it was going to get her into trouble that she couldn’t get out of. She would have said a marriage, but that was a guarantee anyway. And, if this was any indication, she might need to thank Aapeli for that particular fact. It was a galling thought, but she couldn’t find it in herself to be upset at the moment. Not when her nerves had suddenly made themselves known for the first time in six years, doubly concerning without anything to calm them down. Granted, they didn’t show. At least her life in Alemarr had been good for something. Training for this very day, probably.

William’s fiancee didn’t do anything to alleviate the state in which he found himself. The tall man sputtered for a moment, a shade of saffron coming to his cheeks that had nothing to do with the temperature or the sun overhead. The muscles of his broad chest twitched as he drew in a deep, sharp breath. “I could say the same thing about you, Tarja.” He replied, figuring that she would appreciate the truth. Taking a tentative step forward, he just barely cleared the various items that rested around his feet. “Because...hell yes I do.” The prince chuckled hoarsely as he let his eyes daringly drop a bit further down than her face for a moment. “Am I allowed to ask you the same question?”

Tarja could feel the smile grow a little more. “You can ask,” she said. She could still make words work for her, which was a good start. Then again, very few things could rein in those when she was involved. She knew she was about to probably make it harder on him, but she also was pretty sure that he wouldn’t complain. The poor man probably wasn’t prepared for her particular variety of wit. Still, it was only fair that she allow him a chance to tease back first.

William couldn’t help but grin back at her, resisting the urge to snort at the inflection that laced her words. It told him everything that he needed to know, as if the way she smiled at him didn’t, but hearing it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth never hurt either. “Well then,” he drawled as he took another step towards her. Though they’d practically slept next to one another on the couch before, the charge in the air had never felt this intimate. It only seemed to draw him in deeper as he rested his hands on his hips. “Do you, uh, like what you see, Miss Cederstrom?”

“It’s a marvelous view,” Tarja said lightly, still very much smiling. Jenna would have probably called it a smirk, but it wasn’t malicious. “I’m rather enjoying it.” She could feel the charge in the air just as well as he could. It was...genuine. That was damn rare in Tarja’s book. It felt good. “I do need your help with something, William.”

“I’d be disappointed if you weren’t.” The prince replied with a little chuckle, reaching up to run a hand through his dark hair. Though he wasn’t the skilled flirt that she was, he did have a few of his own plays - this was very much one of them. The stance that he lingered in for a moment emphasized his strong arms and the toned, muscular planes of his chest and abdomen. Despite dutifully tying off the strings of his trunks, they still rode a bit low on his hips when he shifted. “O-oh?” He asked, gulping slightly as his head tilted to the side. “What do you need, Tarja?”

Tarja stepped in closer than she needed to, enjoying the feeling of being in his space. They weren’t touching, but it was within proper waltz distance, the last time they’d been particularly close. It was an entirely different feeling this time. “So…” she said, drawing the word out for a moment. She felt a little bit evil for what she was about to do, but it was a necessary evil, really. She held up the bottle of sunscreen. “Would you help a defenseless young lady out and put sunscreen on my back?”

William swallowed thickly, his adam’s apple bobbing visibly as the first droplets of sweat began to dribble down his forehead. It wasn’t all that warm out, not by the standards the military had tempered him to over the course of his career, but keeping himself in check was quickly become a challenge in itself. “Lydia didn’t warn me that I was betrothed to a temptress,” he replied with a teasing smile. “But even so, I would be all too happy to render aid, m’lady.” Reaching up, his hand lingered on her’s, not quite willing to pull away just yet even as his thumb and forefinger wrapped around the cap of the bottle. “You do realize that something like this belongs in half the romance movies that we’ve watched, right?”

“Really? I was certain she’d printed out some kind of warning leaflet,” Tarja said as innocently as she could manage while still smiling. She knew exactly what she was doing, but she was enjoying it. Flirting had always been one of her favorite pastimes, but it was always doubly a pleasure to use her honed abilities on someone she genuinely liked. She was also enjoying the touch of his hand. William had an enviable warmth to him. She thought about offering to lean over and check the basket for the warning label, but she managed to control her tongue for a moment. And to think, Lydia said she was incorrigible. “You’re such a gentleman, William. And I have no idea about the tropes of romance movies. I’m afraid I never touch the stuff.”

“Only when I want to be, Tarja. Only when I want to be.” He murmured in reply, looking deep into her eyes as his hand rested atop her own. “Your ways seem to be rubbing off on me. Control is something you make difficult.” He admitted with a chuckle as he shuffled a bit closer. Even her attendant would have had a difficult time slipping a bible between them now. Slipping the bottle from her hands, his lips curled into a small smirk. “So, my dear, are we going to do this here, or do you want to get comfy on a towel first?” Reaching up with his free hand, he rested his palm against her hip where little kept them separated aside from a thin layer of fabric and string. The prince at least had the sense to look away innocently, as if he was scouting out a place to set up.

It was so hard to not say some of the things that immediately popped into her head. “And what happens when you’re not a gentleman, I wonder?” Tarja said. She rather liked the idea of seeing how far she could push her luck. Or his control. Or both. So far, she was enjoying it probably more than she should. It was probably a good thing that Lydia had opted to stay home. She leaned in slightly, brushing her lips lightly against his cheek when he turned his head. She continued close to his ear, “Towel, I think. You’re the best.”

Though he couldn’t real her mind anymore than she could his, the pair of them were more or less on the same wave length in that regard. “Something very, very bad. Lydia would be disappointed in us both.” He admitted with a chuckle, managing to barely filter himself at the last moment. Not that I’d be opposed to a shotgun wedding at this point, he couldn’t stop himself from musing as he returned his gaze to her angelic features. “You’re not so bad yourself, Tarja.” He murmured back as his grip on her hip tightened ever so slightly. “I’ll grab the towel and umbrella if you’ll get the picnic basket, my dear.” He offered, though he would have loved nothing more than to stay exactly where he was.

Tarja rather liked the sound of something bad, as she imagined she’d enjoy misbehaving if it was with William. “Of course,” she said lightly. She knew the closeness wasn’t going to end even if she moved away. She’d have his hands on her again in a few moments, after all. She lingered for a split second before stepping away to grab the picnic basket. It meant a bit of a bend down, but she imagined William wouldn’t mind. She picked it up and turned around, adjusting her top minutely. She would have to thank Jenna for her wardrobe selection. Lydia had excellent taste, but she could be terribly proper. “Would you rather I lead or do you have a spot in mind?”

“Oh dear God.” William couldn’t stop himself from muttering as his eyes, somehow, managed to grow a bit wider as she leaned down to pick up the basket. It gave him a wonderful view as the fabric of her outfit strained at the sudden shift. If Lydia was the one who had chosen her lady’s beachwear, she deserved a lot more than a few flowers. Tearing his eyes away from the scene, he quickly leaned over to pick up the umbrella (which he’d packed for her rather than himself) and a bag that was loaded with a tightly rolled beach towel and extra supplies. While the former was thrown over his shoulder, the latter was carefully held in front of his hips to avoid any raised eyebrows; better safe than sorry. “I, uh, just go ahead and pick a spot. Where you go, I will follow,” he assured her as he flushed deeper.

If Tarja had been less practiced in her composure, she probably would have laughed in delight at his expression. A blushing William was both endearing and satisfying. “Right this way,” she said with a smile that indicated clearly she knew where his eyes had been. She lead the way with the basket in hand. Tarja found them a spot that was slightly out of the way, though it was still in view of others. However, it was out of the immediate traffic pattern. It was the old instincts, but she wanted to be in a spot where they could talk without being eavesdropped on. “Does this pass the William Holland seal of approval?”

The white sand crunched softly with each step, the warm little granules splashing over the sides of the navy blue flip-flops that he had pulled on. Despite the fact that their surroundings were what many would have considered heaven, perfect in just about every way, the prince found that he couldn’t focus on anything but the sway of his fiancee’s hips and the way that her swimwear clung to her backside. Whoever had designed her bikini definitely deserved a raise. When they finally came to a stop, he was slow on the draw. Had she looked back, there would have been no questioning as to where his gaze had been fixated.

Head snapping up, William licked his lips and looked around for a moment before nodding quickly. “Oh, yeah, uh, this looks just fine to me.” He assured her as he ignored the way his nose itched. Springing into action, he quickly spread the large beach towel out, creating a solid barrier between her and the warm sand underfoot. A moment later, he planted the umbrella deep in the ground, only letting go once he was certain it wouldn’t topple over. “So, ahm, should we get to that sunscreen?” He asked, trying to not sound too eager as he pulled the tube from his pocket.

“Sounds perfect,” Tarja said, amused and pleased at the same time. William was being a terribly good sport about the teasing. She made a mental note to make it up to him at some point—hopefully soon—in the future. It was a bit cruel on her part, but he seemed to be enjoying it. She had to admit that she was enjoying it quite a bit too. The way he looked at her made her pulse pick up. This was fun, and not just because she was flighty. He made it a delight.

She was definitely glad for the towel. One thing she had been warned about regarding southern beaches was that the sand could get scorching hot. Right now it was pleasantly warm, but later in the day it would be a good deal hotter than an Alemarran would probably appreciate. Tarja had grown up in the southern reaches of Alemarr, but that wasn’t south enough to prepare her. In the tropics and deserts of Siduri, she could only assume that she would burn to a cinder if she made contact with the summer air.

Tarja flashed him a smile before laying down. “Thank you for this, darling. I’ll remember it later,” she said. There was definitely a hint of promise to the words, though she didn’t say anything more on the least, not without prompting. After all, her home country was the empire of insinuations and intimation. It was a little harder to relax than she thought it’d be, mostly because she had a flutter of expectation in her own stomach, probably little better than William. She was just very good at controlling it.

Tarja had been on the receiving end of many admiring looks and compliments in her home country, in spite of—and because of—her wild reputation. Seldom did she attach much meaning or sincerity to any of it. But she had a sense for William, even if it had only been a little while. He seemed far too genuine to be manufacturing those reactions. It made all thoughts of anything else go out the window. He was more than a handsome man: he was one with a heart, and that was making hers do things it hadn’t done in a long time.

William swallowed thickly as she laid out in front of him, his adam’s apple bobbing once more as momentarily lost the battle of self-control. Chocolate eyes couldn't determine where exactly they should focus, however, as they darted between the angelic features of her face, to the uncovered expanses of pale skin. Leaning down, he brushed a bit of her hair away from one ear before he murmured a response. “I expect nothing in response, but if you’re feeling generous, I surely won’t complain.” His voice was soft and teasing, but very much laced with something as he uncapped the bottle. While his right hand hovered close to her face, his left ghosted her backside before, perhaps a bit reluctantly, coming up to the areas of her back where she needed sunscreen.

Tarja had control of her tongue for the moment, but sometimes her body didn’t get the memo—probably because it had been quite some time since she was last in a similar position and she hadn’t quite prepared for it. She shivered slightly at the ghost-like touch. She’d never had William’s hands on her like this before, but it was an enjoyable experience.

There it was. A tremble. It was hard to spot, but William liked to think he saw how each and every little action was affecting her. It had been a long time since he had tried this with anyone, especially someone he liked as much as Tarja; it was heartening to see that at least some of what he was trying to do still worked. Lips hovering mere centimeters from her ear, William couldn’t help but smirk as cool sunscreen dribbled out of the tube and onto her back. He couldn’t quite help himself, not when she was like this. “You’re in luck, Tarja, I’m rather good with my hands…”

“I look forward to the demonstration,” Tarja said with a smile, tone still teasing just a bit. She managed to control her response to the sunscreen, but she almost gasped a little bit at the cold. It didn’t help that those were admittedly words she hadn’t quite expected from the quiet, mild-mannered William, but she was happy to be wrong. Discovering new sides of him was a pleasure.

“It will be my pleasure.” William drawled in reply, not bothering to hide the inflection in his voice. It took several moments, but he eventually—with some reluctance—had to pulled away from her side so that he could get a better view of what he was working with. This left him kneeling against the towel while strong, nimble hands began to dance across her skin. Even in a state such as this, he was a meticulous man, not seeming to miss even the smallest patch of skin. Spreading more of the liquid, he gently massaged her back, putting old, rarely used skills to work. Though he started up high, he was slowly working his way down her back.

Tarja relaxed even though the flutter of anticipation was still in her stomach. The butterflies were getting stronger rather than departing. If this kept up, the damn things would be the size of condors. It felt wonderful. William seemed to know exactly what he was doing, and that by itself was a bit of a thrill. She was certain that if she’d had the ability, she might have purred like a proper wildcat. She was also curious about what he was going to do now that she was at his mercy after the teasing. Tarja knew she’d had an effect on him, but the depth of it was somewhat difficult to gauge.

The prince’s breath was hoarse and shaky, his fingers all but trembling against her skin as he continued to work away at her. Deep in the pit of his chest, his heart was hammering a mile a minute, blood rushing through his veins as he tried to keep himself in control. The urge to kiss her properly was overwhelming, as was the desire to make her feel good. She deserved it, and so much more, in his eyes; he couldn’t have asked for a better betrothed, for all her faults.

“You’re so beautiful, Tarja…” He finally murmured as he worked on the small of her back. Eyes snapping to where his hands were, he worried on his bottom lip for a moment. Fortune favors the brave, flashed through his mind, fueling the desire to do more for her. Slowly, almost painfully slow, the fabric of her bikini bottom was peeled away as his fingers dipped a bit lower. The prince wasn’t worried about being seen, there weren’t many people on the beach.

Tarja had to admit that she was surprised. Apparently William was a great deal bolder than she’d given him credit for. It was a good surprise. Her heart started to beat faster without any input from her thoughts. She rolled over, so her back was against the towel. Her grey eyes were hooded, darker than they had been before. “William,” she said, voice lower in pitch than it had been before. There was a faint sort of breathiness to it that she couldn’t really help. “I think you should kiss me.” It wasn’t exactly a request, but it was fully of smoky promise.

The prince swallowed, his eyes wide and more akin to ebony than hazelnut as he let out a shaky breath. Now that she had rolled over, his left hand no longer rested on the curves of her backside. Instead, his palm was now splayed out across her toned stomach; the urge to go lower more prominent than ever. “Tarja,” he drawled in response as he leaned down. Hovering over her now, he worried on his bottom lip for a moment as he stared at her mouth. “I thought you would never ask.” Even if she hadn’t, at least not properly, that was all that he needed to hear. Dipping down further, his eyes fluttered closed as his mouth found hers. The kiss was hungry, full of a desire for her, and very much unlike the gentle kiss that he had been planning to open up with. Without really thinking about it, his hand moved further down her stomach, brushing against the hem of her bikini bottom.

It was an electrifying kiss, at least to Tarja. Her offhand thought the night before, that she wanted to see William feel instead of think, had apparently been granted in spades. She smiled into the kiss for a moment, her response just as desiring as his. One hand ran down his back, the other settling on his shoulder as she arched a little bit to be closer. She wasn’t thinking at all, lost in the moment. The charge to the air was overwhelming and her heart was going a mile a minute. She was aware of where his hand was and couldn’t find it in herself to think of propriety at the moment.

William wasn’t running hot anymore, rather, his blood was practically boiling in his veins as a little growl escaped his lips when they pulled away for air. It only lasted a half second before he went back in for more, aching for more of her as his lips sought hers out. Given the fact that he was above her, the prince couldn’t quite rest against her like he would have liked. Instead, he settled for resting on his right elbow, cupping her cheek as he continued to give into his urges. Control was slipping away by the moment, as if he had any left to speak of. They seemed to meet somewhere in the middle, his own heart pounding against her much smaller frame as his left hand moved of its own accord, slipping beneath what little fabric there was between them. Though out of practice, he was no less nimble.

If this was the result of flirting with William, she knew she would have to do it far more often. Tarja gasped a little against his lips when she felt his hand move. Dimly, she remembered that they were still on a beach, with other people around. Unfortunately—or fortunately, to her mind—she had lost the ability to care. They were in a fairly secluded spot and William’s body was blocking the view. She kissed him as deeply as she could, not even remotely worried about consequences. It felt far, far too good.

For once, it seemed that Tarja was more aware of their surroundings than he was, not that it mattered much in this moment. The prince was too far gone, his lips too eager and his tongue too adventurous. The careful thought processes that normally controlled him were all but forgotten, thrown out the nearest window as he pressed close against her, a little thrill going down his spine as her soft body seemed to mold so perfectly with his own. It was almost as if they had been made for each other, some romantic part of his mind managed to muse. “This is what I meant earlier,” he explained with a husky chuckle when he pulled away. His hand was working ever harder now that she hadn’t rejected his advances, all too eager to make her feel good. The prince wanted more, much more, but everything came in due time. “Tell me to stop and I will,” there was a little pause, “but if you don’t…”

“Don’t stop,” Tarja said almost desperately, without thinking about it in the slightest and trying to remember to breathe. When they made it to somewhere more private, she had every intention of ruining whatever composure he had left. William being bad was now her favorite thing in the world, particularly since he’d been more truthful than he probably knew when he said he was good with his hands. She pulled him into another searing kiss.

That was all William needed to hear, another growl escaping the back of his throat moments before she pulled him back in. Words couldn’t describe how much he loved this, the sounds that she made when he touched her, the way her lips moved against his own. When he had first learned of the arrangement their families had made, he had worried that he’d never really be intimate with anyone again, not like he had been in the past; there were more than a few horror stories out there. Tarja was proving him wrong, and he couldn’t have been happier if he tried. The prince was all too content to hover above her, his lips moving in sync with her own as his hand worked to bring her over the edge. He could have happily spent an eternity here on the beach if it meant that this would never have to stop.

Tarja couldn’t last long, not with how badly she wanted him. She came undone with a soft sound, a tremor running through her whole body. It took her a moment to reorient, breath almost panting. God, but that had felt good. She pressed against him more, the kiss a touch more languid. She didn’t want to stop, but they were going to have to for a little while. The Alemarran noble was already thinking of ways to make him feel just as good as he’d made her feel. If she had her way, there would be no complaints. The ocean could wait for some other day. “We should find somewhere private,” Tarja murmured, voice full of promises. She didn’t move away from him even though she knew she was going to have to. She didn’t particularly care where they went, but she wasn’t certain how long she could wait. She smiled at him, still breathless. “The things I’m going to do to you…”

The twenty-six year old prince looked rather pleased with himself, gently running his hands along her body as their lips met a trifle more gently. Though he’d traveled the world more times than he could count, watching Tarja had undoubtedly been the most beautiful thing he had ever witnessed. Looking around for a moment, he couldn’t help but chuckle, cheeks flushed with exertion and a sudden sheepishness.

“Oh my God...I can’t believe we” His shoulders shook with reined-in laughter; this wasn’t what he had expected to happen, though he wasn’t going to complain at all. “I’m afraid we’re low on places to sneak away to, my dear.” The beach was wide stretches of openness with a handful of rocks here and there, nothing that was really proper for what he wanted to do to her. “The only thing I can really see are the stalls or my car. I’d love to take you back to the palace, but I don’t think I can wait that long,” he all but purred. “If I get you into a bed, we’re not going to leave it for a long time,” William added teasingly.

“Promises, promises,” Tarja said with a grin, levering herself up. She didn’t want to move, but she wanted other things a lot more than staying at the beach. Not leaving a bed for a long time sounded just about perfect. “Let’s go.” She caught his hand to help him to his feet once she was on hers. She was a little bit unsteady, but highly motivated. The Alemarran noble wasn’t certain how long her patience was going to last either, but she was relatively certain she could wait until they made it back to the palace. It just wouldn’t be easy. Hopefully, Lydia had found somewhere other than their shared rooms to have her relaxing afternoon.

Tarja had no interest in stopping long enough to really pack up. The palace would have another towel and she far more amorous things in mind. This was her in her element, what Jenna charitably referred to as spontaneous and Lydia grumbling termed impulsive at best. Poor William was just going to be swept along in the whirlwind, but she would make certain he enjoyed the ride. She headed for the car, fingers meshed with his as she moved quickly. It was tempting to run, but she knew William might not appreciate it. Tarja was also well aware that this would mean careening into their small section of the palace in bathing suits in the middle of the day, but what were people going to do? Talk? That had never stopped her from being wild before.

“You should know a chivalrous man such as myself always keeps them, Tarja.” The prince drawled in reply, shooting her a grin from where he was splayed out across the beach towel. Between the fact that she was so close already, and what they had done just a few moments earlier, he really wasn’t inclined to move, much less make the trip back to the palace. It was only ten miles or so, but that could have very well been an eternity to his all-too eager mind. The moment she pulled him to his feet, William’s strong arms wrapped around her. Keeping her steady as he pulled her in for a deep kiss. “You’ve unleashed something, my dear, I don’t know if there’s going back from it…” He teased as their fingers found one another, interlacing as they began their quick trek back to the car.

The trip back to their section of the palace could have very well been a blur as far as William was concerned. At this hour of the day, traffic was less, but Aragon was the kind of place that was always busy. Keeping eyes on the road became a herculean task in itself for the prince, considering who was perched in the passenger seat. By the time they finally pulled into their designated parking area, he was practically twitching. He was vaguely aware of the fact that they all but ran through the palace halls, feet sandy and still in their swimsuits, but he couldn’t have cared less about the dazed looks that several servants shot him as he paused to push her up against the door to their room with a bang, his lips finding hers at about the same time his patience ran out.

Tarja was making breathy sounds of approval, the fingers of one hand trailing down his chest as she fumbled with the latch to the door she was pressed against. When she opened the door, she almost fell back, but managed to keep her balance as they stopped against the next wall. “Couch, floor, wall, or bed?” she asked, desire entirely taking over her senses. She didn’t want to wait, but she was willing to let him choose.

Lydia heard the bang of the door and immediately started to worry. When Tarja started slamming doors, it meant her temper had gotten the better of her. The maid put her bookmark in and went over to the door to her room, opening it. She gaped, then blushed from her ears to her chin. Alemarran skin showed it altogether too well. What she had not expected was to see Tarja and William lost in passion, already mostly undressed and it looked like they were going to be completely undressed in just a moment.

The maid backpedaled with a quiet squeak and shut the door, still very much shocked by seeing her mistress in flagrante delicto.

The sound of the door opening, squeaking, and slamming again in quick succession had caused William to practically jump out of his skin as he was brought out of the passionate haze for a few moments. “Oh my god...poor Lydia.” He couldn’t help but chuckle, shoulders shaking as he realized Tarja’s bikini bottoms had hit the floor about the same moment she had apparently stepped out to check on them. Looking back at his fiancee, William’s dark eyes simmered as he all but hoisted her up against the table where he normally left his keys in a little bowl. “We should, ah, probably go to the bedroom, no?” He panted out despite how happy he would have been to stay right where they were.

Tarja managed to not laugh. She knew she would have some explaining to do with Lydia later, but that was a problem for the future. Now was much more enjoyable. “Bedroom sounds perfect,” she purred. She was moving backwards towards his, smiling. His room was closer and that was what mattered. A bit of fumbling got them to through the door and to the bed. She pulled him down onto the bed with her. She hadn’t managed to shut the door behind them, but Lydia would be hiding in her room for at least an hour.

She had some making up to do, and planned on making sure William enjoyed every minute of it. When she had come to Shalum, it was with the expectation of a passionless life. Never had she been happier to be wrong.

The Palace

At some point, afternoon turned to evening. The sun, far on the horizon, began to slowly set, shifting the hue of the sky from a pleasant blue to a much warmer, comforting mix of magenta and orange. The temperature had slowly dropped, but William couldn’t have cared less, considering that his company was a space heater in human form. Reaching over, the prince picked up one of the wine glasses that he had managed to steal away from the kitchen, his eyes dancing as they met those of his companion. “I’m not sure that I’d ever leave this spot again if we didn’t have to.” He teased softly, hand resting on her knee, as they reclined on one of the couches out on his apartment’s balcony.

Tarja felt better than she had in a long time. She settled against his side and picked up her own glass, sipping her wine. She was still a little disheveled and flushed from earlier, but she’d cleaned up a bit after they were finally tired enough to stop and rest. Granted, she was only sort of dressed. She’d grabbed a light blue chemise out of her closet and pulled it on quickly before returning to William’s company. The passion earlier was more intoxicating than she’d thought possible. It was probably William’s doing. Thoughts of his hands running over her body prompted a pleasant shiver. “It is a lovely view,” she said with a sigh of contentment. It was a strange feeling, to be so happy for a moment.

She heard a door open and close. Probably Lydia arranging dinner, if Tarja knew anything about her maid. The noble wasn’t certain what Lydia would say about earlier, if she could even get words out without stuttering or stumbling over them. The poor woman was easily embarrassed, though Tarja had done her best to cure that ailment. Regrettably, Alemarran delicate sensibilities were difficult to uproot. At least Tarja was happy; usually that was enough for Lydia.

Languidly lifting up his right arm, William wrapped it around his fiancee’s shoulder, inviting her to snuggle closer against his chest. After the years of loneliness that had followed his divorce, and the brief love affair that he’d shared with Elena, words couldn’t describe how much he enjoyed Tarja’s company. To not only have someone to take to bed, but to simply sit there and talk with, not to mention cuddle with as the sun sunk even deeper beyond the hills in the horizon. “It really is,” he murmured, eyes fixated solely on the her angelic features as his lips curled into a warm smile. He hadn’t managed to pull on more than a pair of athletic shorts in his haste to get in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible.

Glancing back towards the door that would lead them back into the apartment, he couldn’t help but let his smile grow a bit wider. “You know, Tarja.” He began softly, chocolate eyes seeking her own. “I, ahm, wouldn’t be mad if you wanted to start staying in my room at night. I mean, there’s a lot more space there than I really need, and really, how could I ever want to be away from your company again?” He asked with a soft chuckle.

Tarja smiled. She’d never really invited anyone to stay or been invited herself. Her prior affairs were all secret, fleeting things. It was a nice feeling, to have William want her in that way too. She knew she wanted the company. “Careful,” she said lightly. “I might like that idea, and then you’ll be trapped with me.” Lydia would of course fret about it, but that was not a surprising possibility.

She knew she had jumped in with both feet, and it was a little frightening, but that was her general modus operandi. There was little room for caution in a life well lived, in her experience. “I imagine there will be talk,” she said finally, more quietly, as she studied William’s expression. “Not everyone is as…respectful of privacy as Lydia and we did probably make a bit of a scene. I hope you don’t mind.”

“There was going to be talk, regardless.” William pointed out softly as he leaned against the cushion of the couch. The haze of passion had long since cleared his head, but that didn’t mean he was any less touchy-feely, even as the more logical parts of his mind came back online. “I, ah, may have dropped the ball a bit in that regards. I don’t really mind, though. You are going to be my wife pretty soon anyways.” He tried to reason, knowing that there were probably a few servants that had been shell-shocked by their display earlier. Poor Lydia had seen the ‘worst’ out of all of them, though. There was a moment of silence before his expression became a bit pensive. “If I’m moving too fast here, feel free to let me know, Tarja.” After all, he wasn’t the only one that was apparently prone to jumping in feet first.

“I’m happy,” Tarja said. She kissed him. It was lighter than before, but just as heartfelt. “We can work the knots out as we go. Unless you think we should slow down, of course. I…” She smiled. “I didn’t expect this, but...thank you. I needed this. I don't demand anything from you after this. We can go as fast or as slow as we need to.”

A warm, affectionate smile creased William’s lips as he dipped down, pressing a kiss to her jawline. Nuzzling closer against her, the prince could only assume that she didn’t mind the proximity between them. “You’re not the only one who needed it, you know.” He reminded her teasingly as his left hand slid up from her knee, moving gently along her thigh. “It’s been so long for me, really, and you’re such an amazing person, Tarja. It was...nice to do that, to just be with you.” He explained, adding in another little kiss for emphasis. “I’d much rather keep doing this, honestly. I just bring up how fast we’re moving because I don’t want to go faster than you’re ready for.” William added softly. Though it felt like longer, they had only been engaged a few weeks, after all.

“I don’t know about being amazing. I have a good number of faults,” Tarja said with a smile, relaxed against his side. The kisses were comforting. Some part of her had been afraid that the moment they were done, he might close off. He had been burned before, after all, and she couldn’t fault him for that. This, though, was far and away better than she’d even hoped. “But you’re a wonderful man, William. I’ve known that since we met and waltzed. As for how fast we go...I’ve always been one for a whirlwind. Though I may have to tease you more often. I rather fancied the results.”

She stretched slightly, almost lazily. “I’ll talk to Lydia about sleeping arrangements. Whatever you and I decide to do, I’ll probably leave most of my things in there, so I’m not cluttering up the place. Too many clothes and similar nonsense.” She was glad her bag for the day had made it into William’s car. She didn’t mind losing a dress, but she would have missed the comb dearly.

“We all have our faults, my dear, even I am not immune to them.” He reminded her with a gentle smile in return, rubbing small circles of reassurance into her skin. She was so warm, and he would have been lying if he that he didn’t want to keep his hands on her. A whole new field of play had opened up to him, and he wanted to enjoy every moment that he could of it.

“I meant what I said, you really are an amazing woman. Graceful as a wildcat on the dancefloor, stunning in both appearance and personality, and fiery in your heart; I couldn’t ask for a better woman to be my wife.” He assured her with a tone that was very much genuine, not that he had ever really lied to her. Admittedly, he tried to leave out any mentioning of Elena, but that was another matter. Smirking slightly, his hand creeped up a bit further as if in response. “Feel free to tease as much as you’d like. I honestly hadn’t been planning to end up like this until our wedding night, or even longer if you thought you weren’t ready. I’m not complaining at all...just be warned that for every action, there is a consequence,” he winked.

Glancing over his shoulder at the glass, sliding door, he nodded slightly. “I’ve got all the time in the world; waiting a little while isn’t a problem if it is necessary, I’d just rather be able to have you by my side each night.” He explained with a soft smile. “I’d say my closet is big enough for the both of us, but Lord knows how many dresses a noblewoman needs.” He added teasingly before taking another sip of wine.

“Too many,” Tarja said. “Something for every occasion.” She was grateful that William saw her in rose. It would probably subside as the infatuation did, but she was beginning to find a little room in her heart for the idea of at least fondness and attraction. Love was something that happened to other people, in Tarja’s experience, but maybe someday her mind would change. She smiled, trying to commit this feeling—William’s body against hers, the comfort he was offering, the sound of his voice—to memory. It was so pleasant that she wanted to hold onto it. “I think I’ll gladly take the consequences.”

There was a soft rap on the glass door before it opened. Lydia was at the door, still blushing almost furiously. She couldn’t quite make eye contact. “Your Ladyship, Your Highness, my apologies, but dinner is here. I took the liberty of contacting the palace kitchens and having something made up since you...em…” She coughed discreetly. “...skipped lunch.”

“I couldn’t ask for a better wife.” William reminded her teasingly. He had the feeling that he wouldn’t love every time that she pushed his buttons, but events like today played out in his mind, the prince liked to think that it would be worth it in the long run. The sound of the door opening up caused him to startle slightly, his arm tightening around Tarja’s shoulder as he looked over at the emerging figure. “Ahm, thank you for that, Lydia.” He managed to reply first, trying to keep a straight face. The pair of them may have been better dressed than earlier, but the whole ‘couple fresh from lovemaking’ was still very much apparent. “Your assistance is invaluable. I did, up an appetite, after all.” He admitted as he glanced over at Tarja, trying not to smirk.

Lydia seemed to go somehow redder and Tarja laughed despite herself. She knew Lydia would understand that it wasn’t malicious. “Thank you, Lydia. We will head in shortly. I’d like a few more minutes.”

“Of course, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said. “I’ll just see to unpacking and tidying up, shall I?” She didn’t touch William’s room on principle, but Tarja’s was still in a bit of disarray from the morning.

“That would be lovely, darling,” Tarja said with a smile. “Thank you.”

Lydia bobbed her head in a nod before vanishing back inside to take care of things.

“She’s a sweet thing, but terribly easily embarrassed,” Tarja murmured to William. She found his hand with her own, giving it a soft squeeze. “And...I couldn’t ask for a better husband. Whatever happens, I hope we can always have this.” Tarja knew she was difficult to handle sometimes and she was certain she would put serious stress on William’s patience now and again.

William squeezed her hand back, affection in his eyes as he leaned forward to give her a slow, deep kiss. Love wasn’t what was on his mind, not exactly, but he wasn’t going to act as if it was impossible with Tarja either. She was a mess at times, but still a good woman at times; when it came to arranged marriages, the prince knew that they both could have done much worse. “So do I, my dear. Just because things won’t always be smooth between us,” he wasn’t going to lie, “doesn’t mean that things won’t be worth it, either. I’m looking forward to seeing how life pans out for us.”

Glancing over his shoulder again, he was still smiling. “She may be skittish, but I don’t think you could ask for a better friend. Lydia really is an angel in human form,” he mused. “Should we, uh, get dressed before dinner, or should we see how much more she can take?” William added, only half-joking. Though he loved how much bare skin the chemise was baring, how easy access was, he was uncertain of how Lydia would feel about their states of dress.

Tarja smiled. She was looking forward to seeing where life took them too. “I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of getting dressed. I might want clothes off again after dinner,” she said lightly. Then she sighed a little, but it wasn’t a displeased one. “Then again, we have done quite a lot of improper things today, pleasurable as they were.” She wouldn’t have traded them for the world. “I suppose everyone might benefit from a touch of return to normal, as much as I hate to say it. Your thoughts?”

The prince was quiet for a moment, his expression one of pondering as he scratched his chin. “Unfortunately, I feel like I should agree with you. It probably wouldn’t hurt for us to be a trifle more proper, at least for the rest of the night. There is always tomorrow though, no?” He replied, smiling softly. Truth be told, he wasn’t quite sure how long he could keep up with Tarja. Between the beach, and their time earlier, she had done a mighty fine job of draining his energy. “Regardless, I don’t plan on getting too fancy for dinner. A shirt would probably be a good first step though…”

“I shall miss the view terribly,” Tarja said, kissing his bare shoulder and then flashing him a smile. “I think tomorrow will be a lovely day. Since we’re respecting propriety for the rest of the evening, I should go get dressed and meet you at the table for dinner. Besides, I should have a word with Lydia.” She couldn’t undo whatever trauma Lydia had suffered, but her maid would have something to say about it.

Tarja reluctantly moved out of the circle of his arm and stood up, heading inside. She could hear Lydia moving around in her room, so she stepped into it and closed the door. The closet was a bit out of earshot, just in case Lydia said something that William didn’t appreciate. The clothes did a good job of damping sound. Tarja’s maid was hanging up a dress. No doubt it was either laundered or it had been sent over from Alemarr and Lydia had already disposed of the box. “Is all well, darling? You’ve been doing an admirable impression of a tomato, but I expect that’s not the whole of the story.”

Lydia glanced away from her work, studying Tarja for a moment. Her lips were pressed into a line that the noble knew meant she was worried. “Your Ladyship, may I be impossibly impertinent?”

“By all means,” Tarja said as she stepped in and closed the door to the closet. “I appreciate your honesty, Lydia. It’s one of your finest qualities.”

The maid worried at her lower lip for a moment, carefully hanging up the next dress. “I’m rather concerned that this...tryst...may have been a bit premature. Or unwise.” Lydia hesitated before saying, “Excessively so, Your Ladyship.”

“William is a good man,” Tarja said softly.

“But is His Highness good for you, Your Ladyship?” Lydia said, turning to face her mistress. “I’ve seen rather a lot of terrible heartbreaks since I entered your service, Your Ladyship. I shouldn’t like to see another. I know that the marriage is set in stone, but...I just wish you had been more cautious.”

Tarja smiled, fondness lingering in the expression. She was grateful for Lydia’s protectiveness. “Risk of heartbreak is a price of living, darling.”

“Rather,” Lydia said, reluctantly agreeing. “But I wish you wouldn’t chase it, Your Ladyship.”

“I will be more careful in the future,” Tarja promised.

Lydia sighed, still frowning. “Respectfully, Your Ladyship, I doubt that with my entire being,” she said. “I heard you talking out on the balcony. I don’t much fancy the idea of the two of you sharing a bed. I know it’s silly, given....” The blush was back, and Lydia had to clear her throat. “...earlier,’s terribly fast, Your Ladyship. You can be so impulsive sometimes, and seldom does that end well.”

“I know, o most beloved of doomsayers.” Tarja picked out a dress, a slightly darker blue than the chemise she was wearing now. She started to get dressed properly, though she wasn’t really eager to. It had been nice, comfortable even, to be out on that balcony with rather less clothing than was probably appropriate. She would have taken a shower, but she knew dinner would get cold. There was time enough after that. “But I want this. I want things to work and be close. The idea of an empty marriage is not terribly appealing.”

Lydia made a grudging sound of understanding. After a moment of hanging clothes, she sighed. “I don’t believe His Highness deserves you, Your Ladyship.”

Tarja laughed. “That’s probably true, darling. A plague was unkind of the Heavenly Father to send him. Or perhaps it’s Aapeli who should be apportioned blame.”

The maid turned to face her again, expression soft. “That is precisely the opposite of what I meant, Your Ladyship,” she said gently. “And if His Highness is a good man, and if he knew who you really are, I expect he might feel the same.”

“You are terribly sentimental, darling,” Tarja said, brushing the comment off. “I do believe you spent altogether too much time around Seija. I am rather open about who I am. He’s been forewarned by the stories, and no doubt his sister and mother as well. I suspect he knows exactly what miscreant he’s marrying.”

Lydia sighed and pressed her lips into a firm line of disagreement, but she didn’t say anything more on the matter. After a few moments, she changed the subject. “I will need to arrange an ironing board, Your Ladyship. I’m not certain if the Shalumites believe in them, given their inclination towards barbarism, but I have no doubt that I can locate one out in the city.”

“And you will have my pecuniary assistance if you should need to go buy one,” Tarja promised. She opened the door behind her before continuing softly, “I’m happy, Lydia.”

The maid nodded a bit, trying to content herself with that. It had been much easier to control her concern when Tarja wasn’t crashing into bed with her fiance. She wanted to see her mistress happy, but she’d learned from difficult experience that Tarja wasn’t particularly good at finding her own happiness the way she could find it for other people. She seemed more inclined to locate trouble of one variety or another. “That’s what matters, Your Ladyship. Within reason, of course.”

“I take your words under advisement, my favorite worrywart. And thank you very much for dinner.” She did feel guilty for being so much of Lydia’s worry. The maid always protested that she would be constantly worried about everything else if she weren’t worried about Tarja, as she had a rather nervous temperament, but Tarja doubted that was actually the case. “I will make it up to you.”

“No need, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said, adjusting the arrangement of clothes. She had a definite system to how she meticulously organized things. She knew that Tarja taking something under advisement usually meant that she’d try to think it over carefully, before just doing whatever it was anyway after thirty seconds of contemplation. Tarja meant it sincerely, but somehow it never seemed to work out that way. “Now you’d best get out there before the food gets cold and your fiance gathers a search party.”

“Thank you, Lydia,” Tarja said. She stepped out of the closet and stopped just long enough to brush her hair before rejoining William to sit at the table.

Though he would have loved to take a shower, William knew that if he did so than both Tarja and Lydia would be waiting on him by the time he emerged, the food lukewarm at best. Though a military man, he had never been keen on letting sweat or sand linger longer than it had to; working in an office for the last few years had almost certainly spoiled him. “Hey you,” the prince smiled at his fiancee as he glanced over his shoulder, withdrawing a bottle of wine from the cooler. He had cleaned up just as she had, pulling on khaki colored golf pants and a polo shirt, not to mention a healthy spray of cologne to cover up the sweat that stuck to his skin.

Tarja was thoughtful now, but the sight of William still brought a smile to her face. She did try to think things over when Lydia said something, unless it was something to the effect of Do you really need one more drink? After the dinner, she was definitely going to need to have something stronger than just wine. She felt altogether too serious and collected. Temperance was not a virtue that Tarja particularly enjoyed, though she’d given it her best effort today. “Lydia has been mollified, at least a tad,” Tarja reported as she took a seat at the table. “And she has done angelic work with dinner, it seems.”

She had done as marvelously as always, in Tarja’s estimation. There was roast pork with garlic mashed potatoes, fresh dinner rolls with creamy butter, sweet corn, green beans with bits of bacon mixed in for more flavor, and Tarja knew for certain that there was going to be some kind of cake tucked away elsewhere for later, to be complemented with good coffee. Alemarran nobles tended to have a lot of courses to their meals and they were leisurely affairs. As far as Lydia had been able to tell, with Shalumites it was more of an all-at-once sort of thing. The maid had done her best to compromise between the two notions.

Tarja made a note to definitely find her lilies and preferably that nice perfume that Lydia was so attached to. The tradition of the bottle of aerin evening rose originally began as a birthday present for Lydia. The maid had treasured the perfume as though it was diamond and so Tarja made certain to ensure that any time it ran empty, it was replaced. She knew for a fact that Lydia was running quite low. If the noblewoman couldn’t find anyone selling it in Shalum—sometimes it was difficult to find Alemarran goods beyond the Holy Empire, particularly specialty items like that—then she would have to send word to Jenna, who would undoubtedly be more than happy to oblige.

“My mother would probably kill for a lady-in-waiting that was half as good in spirit and duty as Lydia is.” William mused softly, deftly pouring glasses of red sweet wine for the both of them. As he walked by to deliver Tarja’s, he dipped down to press a kiss to the back of her head. “The roast is the second best thing at the table,” he whispered teasingly.

Stand straight, he walked around to the opposite side of the table. Plopping down not-so-gracefully, he waited for her to take her share of the meal first. “So she's not angry?” The prince asked softly, brows furrowed. “That's, ah, good to hear.” It truly was; he knew how close the two of them were. “I probably owe her an apology for earlier…” He added, perhaps a bit meekly.

“There aren’t a great many people like Lydia in the world. The Dowager referred to her as a diamond in the rough. I agree,” Tarja said as she helped herself to food. “And she’s quite alright, though rather flustered.” Eating in Shalum was going to be a very different experience. Not bad, just different. “Let’s just say she wasn’t expecting that.” Granted, Tarja supposed she hadn’t exactly planned that on her way out the door in the morning either, but she at least had more warning than her maid.

The conversation about William could stay between her and Lydia, at least for the moment. Tarja had no intention of divulging Lydia’s concerns or opinion unless the maid specifically requested it. The converse was true as well. Tarja was quite certain that there were many things she had told Lydia that would accompany the maid to her grave and possibly beyond.

“We could use a lot more people like her.” William replied with a soft smile, before reaching up to collect his own portion of the meal. Manners had dictated that she, a lady, go first. After a day without much to eat, coupled with strenuous activity, caused him to dig into the various dishes all too eagerly. “As they say out in the country, she’s good people.”
Real nobility is based on scorn, courage, and profound indifference.
- Albert Camus

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Founded: Sep 25, 2011

Postby Alemarr » Thu Oct 12, 2017 9:33 am

The Palace

Lydia sighed contently as she stepped into the area of the palace that Tarja and William shared, ready to head to bed after her afternoon and evening off. It had been a week since the beach and, despite her misgivings, everything seemed to be going well. Tarja had sent her forth at midday with some money and promises that she would be perfectly well-behaved while she unpacked the boxes from Alemarr herself. It had been nice to get a breather. She had no idea when William would be back from work, but he didn’t seem to be yet.

The living room was empty and dark and the door to Tarja’s room was shut, though light was visible at the crack beneath the door. Lydia felt a little kernel of worry forming in the pit of her stomach. It was odd that Tarja wouldn’t leave the lights on, unless she left them off during the day when the sun came brightly through the windows and hadn’t come out of her room for dinner. Odd enough that Lydia felt a red flag rise in her mind. The cabinet where she had tucked bottles of different alcohols away for Tarja was slightly ajar, another sign that was definitely not good. Lydia would have made an excellent detective, as she was attentive to many little details.

Lydia turned on the lights and then advanced to Tarja’s bedroom door. There were the faint strains of classical music coming through the door, but Lydia felt like someone had stabbed her in the chest when she realized what was playing: Shostakovich.

Tarja adored his work, but above all she’d loved Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2. It was her father’s favorite song, the first one she’d learned to dance to and the last waltz she had shared with the Rajakreivi, the night he died.

Lydia ripped the door open. The Rajakreivi’s Victrola record player was sitting on the floor by the window, the record still spinning. No doubt it had been reset numerous times, playing the same few songs over and over. The smell of cigarettes and alcohol told Lydia everything she needed to know.

Tarja was next to the Victrola, laying on the floor on her side with several empty bottles around and a glass tumbler broken from impact with the wall. There were a handful of cigarette butts in the ashtray on the floor beside her. The sheetrock was dented slightly in one spot where it had connected, no doubt flung in that combination of anger and pain that was a Cederström’s grief.

The room was absolutely still as the masterpiece waltz began to play again, heart-wrenching and beautiful. Terrified, Lydia rushed over to check on her mistress, dropping onto her knees at Tarja’s side. She touched her mistress’s neck with two fingers, feeling for a pulse. It was there, if slow. “Tarja!” she hissed, shaking her mistress. When life was on the line, propriety flew out the window. With the number of bottles, if Tarja didn’t respond, Lydia would call for an ambulance.

Glazed eyes, red from crying, opened and Tarja made a sound that came out in a sob rather than anything intelligible. Her cheeks were still wet, which meant this hadn’t burned itself out too long ago. Lydia had no doubt that Tarja had blacked out. She was just grateful that her mistress was alive and here. Frequently the noble would disappear when she couldn’t stand the pain—it came and went in tides—and show up a few days later with a horrific hangover and no memory of what she’d done, but alone in a foreign country, Lydia had far less confidence in Tarja’s ability to stay safe while consuming inordinate amounts of alcohol. Not that she was particularly okay at the moment, but Lydia would take survivable. In the morning, the noble was going to be violently ill. Her current blood alcohol content would probably have killed lesser drinkers.

Lydia smoothed out her mistress’s hair, trying to soothe Tarja for her brief moment of consciousness. “I know,” she murmured quietly. She spotted a crumpled piece of paper in Tarja’s hand and removed it from a weak grip. It turned out to be several pages, all written in the same sloping, tidy hand. The dark blue ink was damaged in some places from tears splashing onto the paper. It was still very much legible, though it took Lydia a moment to place it. The instant she actually read the first words in their native language, however, she knew immediately what it was. My darling kitten…

It was the Rajakreivi’s favorite term of endearment for his eldest daughter, a play on the nickname she’d earned.

Lydia knew that the combination of the song and the letter had no doubt kicked off this particular explosion of poor impulse control. She carefully folded up the letter and hid it under her coat. Tarja would want it again, but it wasn’t a good idea for her to have it until she’d properly braced herself. The maid wasn’t certain whether or not it was a good idea, but she left the record playing. While she knew she would have Tarja’s permission to touch it, right now it felt a bit like treading on sacred ground. Maybe after it finished the waltz.

If Lydia had learned one thing, it was that she couldn’t move Tarja’s dead weight on her own. However, she didn’t know that she trusted any of the other servants to help her without saying something to someone. On the other hand, she didn’t want to leave Tarja on the floor all night. Not when she was going to be vomiting and miserable come dawn.

Her first order of business would be to clear up the bottles and the ashtray. A drunk Tarja wasn’t terribly suspicious, though this drunk was admittedly unusual. She hadn’t been this bad since she arrived in Shalum. Normally she stopped while she was still articulate and could get herself into bed, though a few times it had been more of a fall than a crawl into it. With the bottles scattered about, particularly accompanied by broken glass, it looked like what it was: the wreckage of a broken heart. Lydia shepherded the bottles into the closet, where she could take care of them later, and then carefully picked up the pieces of shattered glass and cold cigarette butts, depositing them in the wastepaper bin. Her mistress didn’t appear to be cut, at least.

As long as Tarja was on her side, she would survive, and Lydia was quite confident that she didn’t have the motor capacity to really roll. The mess cleaned up, she returned to Tarja’s side with a damp, warm washcloth from the bathroom, wiping away tears and makeup that had smudged or run. She would have to enlist William’s help to get her mistress into bed, but Tarja would probably prefer he not know quite how distraught she was. Lydia never wanted to put the noblewoman in a position where she felt betrayed.

That had happened enough in her life already.

“I wish you wouldn’t do this, Your Ladyship,” Lydia murmured softly, face lined with concern as she folded up the washcloth once Tarja’s face was clean and the evidence of her meltdown had been removed. Tarja was drunk and disheveled now, but she didn’t look quite as much like a wreck. Lydia had no idea how she was going to explain this to William. She couldn’t imagine that he would be pleased with Tarja drinking herself into a stupor.

She’d meant to have a serious talk with him at some point before the wedding. Apparently she was going to have it sooner rather than later. Lydia sighed. Odds were, Jenna hadn’t even realized the letter was with the record player. The woman knew better than most about her sister’s moods and the particular variety of coping that Tarja relied on. The maid picked up the now-empty cigarette case, the inscription and coat of arms flashing in the light. Aquila non capit muscas.

“You are an eagle, but this pain is not a fly,” Lydia murmured softly to Tarja, in answer to the silent motto.

The heavy wooden door that separated William’s apartment from the rest of the palace opened up with a groan, once again reminding the young prince that he needed to oil the hinges when he had the chance. As he stepped past the frame, he flexed his knee a few times, trying to get that tinge of protest his shin made with each movement. Clad in fatigues rather than his normal dress uniform, it was clear that he had survived his first day of combatives week; the scratches across his chin, however, implied that he hadn’t done it unscathed.

Glancing around the apartment, William hummed to himself as he reached down, sliding his fingers between the strings of his boots. Popping them off, kicked each of them off as quietly as he could figuring that his two roommates: turned in for the night, were out and about elsewhere, or some mixture of the two. If it was the former of the list, the last thing he wanted to do was wake them. Shrugging to himself, he padded into the kitchen to check and see if someone had ordered food of if it would be a leftover night.

Lydia heard the door and rose from Tarja’s side. She stepped out of her mistress’s room, smoothing out her skirt. “Good evening, Your Highness,” she said a bit softly. She tried to look less worried, but it was her natural state. “Could I perhaps put upon you for assistance putting Her Ladyship to bed?”

“Evening, Lyd.” The prince replied, far less formally as he flashed her a small smile. Stepping over to the sink, he let the water run for a moment before he dipped his hand under the water. Letting it pool in his palm, he scrubbed away for a moment until the dried blood from earlier gave away. “Sorry, I’m a bit of a mess.” He apologized as he used a paper towel to dry his face up. “Of course, of course. Did she get too hammered to make it to bed again?” He asked, remembering all too well when she had passed out on the couch.

“A bit, yes,” Lydia said with a smile that was more polite than deeply felt. When she registered the fact that he had blood on his face, she made a worried sound and frowned slightly. “After she’s abed, please allow me to take a look at those. They must be terribly painful. Please, follow me.” She led the way into the bedroom, which was now clean and tidy except for a few empty boxes. Soft classical music was playing from the Victrola still. Tarja hadn’t moved a muscle, laying on her side.

The prince shook his head and held up a hand, ignoring the sting that blossomed along his chin. “Don’t worry about it, really, I’ve had much worse. My sparring partner just forgot to trim her nails...again. If you want a real horror show, I’ll show you my shins.” He flashed her a teasing grin, knowing the limb was probably the color purple by now. “Working in administration is starting to make me lazy. Either that, or I’m just getting old.” He said jokingly as he followed her to Tarja’s bedroom. Stepping in behind the maid, he rose an eyebrow slightly. “Fell asleep listening to music, huh? That’s a new one for me.” He commented as he shuffled towards his fiancee, gently rolling her onto her back so that he could more easily lift her up onto the bed.

Lydia sighed slightly, eyes fixed on Tarja. “It came in today,” she said, gesturing at the Victrola. “Her Ladyship’s sister was keeping it for her.” She waited until her mistress was in bed and laying on her side to ask, quietly, “Would you like a cup of tea, Your Highness? I was going to make one for myself. And...perhaps we should talk, if you aren’t otherwise occupied.”

Reaching over, William slipped off the errant heel that lingered on his fiancee’s foot before he picked up the covers, tugging them until they rested loosely over her tummy. No part of him expected her to actually be cold, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Looking back at the attendant, he nodded slightly and smiled. “I would love one, if you don’t mind, Lydia. I’ve got nothing but time; training doesn’t start till later in the day tomorrow, and no one is going to ask why the Holland of the bunch is late.” He replied softly, closing the door behind them so that they wouldn’t disturb Tarja while she slept.

Lydia nodded, lost in thought for a moment as she went and put the kettle on. It was an old one, worn and pitted in some places, and a treasured heirloom from her own family. It didn’t take a single thought for her to locate the teacups, it was such second nature. “How was work, Your Highness?” she asked, buying herself time to think.

Ever since the pair of Alemarrans had moved into his apartment, the place had truly began to feel like home to him. His kitchen table, once only used as an extra storage spot, now hosted at least a couple people every day. Plopping down in one of the wooden chairs, he leaned back lazily as he watched Lydia flit around the tile floor. “Oh, as fun as managing twenty-thousand kids with guns can be; it's like herding cats.” He joked lightly. “It's combatives week - that’s just another way of saying that they’re testing to see if I can still shoot a gun and hang in there with hand-to-hand. Nothing too exciting, though I did get sloppy and earn this.” He explained as he tapped his chin. “How was yours, Lydia?”

“Well, the afternoon was lovely. Her Ladyship gave me the day off at noon. I didn’t get back until just a little bit ago.” Lydia said, taking a seat as the kettle heated. “And Her Ladyship was indisposed when I returned.” She took a deep breath. “I...I wanted to talk to you, about Her Ladyship. She...there are some things that I thought you should understand. Before the wedding.”

The prince had been halfway to the box of donuts at the center of the kitchen table, which he could tell still had a few chocolate glazed remaining beneath the clear plastic. It wasn’t the healthiest of meals, nor the most filling, but he was hungry nonetheless. Looking over at Lydia, that was suddenly forgotten. “This sounds serious, ma’am.” He noted softly, leaning back so that his back could straighten. “You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention; I’m all ears.”

“It is,” Lydia said quietly. She sighed. “I know you think of Her Ladyship probably as a flighty, happy thing. Charming, lovely, carefree. She rather likes to be that. But there are other sides to Her Ladyship, ones that I don’t believe she’s even really aware of. I’ve been with Her Ladyship since she was ten. I was fifteen when I entered the Cederström’s service. I know her better than anyone.”

She took a deep breath. “Her Ladyship is very fragile, behind all the smoke and mirrors, the laughter and carrying on. She...takes thing very hard. A lot of things. The pressure on her is enough to make diamonds. And I think you might best be served by understanding that, which might entail a story or two.” She pursed her lips, but not because she impatient for the kettle’s whistle. “Her Ladyship is a good woman, Your Highness. She’s had more than her fair share of heartaches. I...would rather that this not be another, with all due respect, Your Highness.” It was a dangerous and unforgivably rude thing to say, but Lydia was protective and Tarja was not in a state where she could hear or prevent such liberties with her presence.

“I would never want to hurt her, Lydia.” The prince replied almost instantly, his voice firm but by no means harsh. It was a statement of fact, the genuine inflection of his tone clear as day as he regarded the Alemarran woman from across the kitchenette. “She and I may not get along all the time, but she is a good woman. I truly do like her for who she is, various faults aside.” It was bad enough that he had hurt Elena as badly as he had, though the blame wasn’t wholly in his hands. While he had been trying to survive to the next day, she had apparently been planning their futures out. Even so, to do such harm to Tarja was...unthinkable, to put it in the lightest of terms.

Glancing over his shoulder, William’s lips pursed as he spied the doorway that led to her room. His mind, rather suddenly, was running in high gear. Had something happened to his fiancee? She had been asleep on the floor, after all, something that he’d never witnessed before. Even in inebriated states, he had never known her to lose that much control. His concerned expression was clear as day as he looked back to Lydia, fidgeting slightly. “Tarja has always struck me as a strong, proud woman who couldn’t be torn down,” he admitted after a moment. “What...what happened to her?” He asked, knowing that there was rarely a good answer for these things.

Lydia worried at her lower lip for a moment, a nervous habit that she had the luxury of because she was a commoner. “One snowflake does not move a mountain. It was...many things,” she said finally. “Rajakreivi Jaaku Cederström was a wild man, a firebrand, volatile and passionate. Part of it is no doubt his blood in Her Ladyship’s veins. He wanted a son more than anything. When Tarja was born, he decided she would be the next best thing. Her mother disagreed vehemently. She has always been pulled between worlds, trying to live up always to two different, impossible standards. It is strange, speaking to someone who does not know. Perhaps it is better. You have not been given the opportunity to form false impressions about the sordid past.”

Lydia sighed. “And then there was the young man. The first, that is. Hannes Estlander, the new Herttua of Kevara, may the Devil have him before he’s dead.” Lydia was a tender soul, but there was venom in those words. “You would call him a duke, I think. It is one thing to break a heart. Children are thoughtless, seventeen-year-old boys particularly so. But Estlander was a particularly vile variety, cruel and calculating. I have never seen a heart so absolutely crushed. He learned to play the Game earlier than most, certainly earlier than Her Ladyship did. They were too young for it to make the society pages, but I think he ruined her trust. Her father told her that she couldn’t let him win and so she kept a happy, untroubled face and made him look a fool. But that didn’t help the pieces broken inside. After that, it was never the same. She still flirted and batted her eyelashes, but she was ever so wary. These days, it is more scar than wound.”

The tea kettle started to whistle, so she got up and poured hot water into two cups, over the tea bags that were already waiting. She added sugar and then milk to her own cup before looking over at William. “Sugar?” she asked almost absently, clearly almost lost in thought.

The shrieking kettle startled the young prince, causing him to jump slightly in his seat. He had become so intent on listening to the servant that he had completely forgotten about the drinks she had been fixing. Rubbing anxiously at his chin, William’s gaze followed her across the kitchenette. Nodding sharply, his voice was low and discomfited as he continued to twiddle his thumbs. “And a bit of milk too, if you wouldn’t mind, Lydia,” he added softly.

It wasn’t until she delivered his drink that the Hollandic prince sighed softly, accepting the warm cup with a quiet ‘thank you.’ He took one sip, and then another, clearly mulling over the enlightenment that he had just received. “I’ve been around a few nobles from the Holy Empire by now, I like to think I kind of know how they carry themselves; as a military man myself, I know the kind of people that most armed forces put out. I don’t think the two of them could be any more dissimilar...she must have felt that pull every day.” He noted with a grimace. “And this Herttua...he hurt her badly. Does she not...does she not trust people, not truly, because of him?”

“Trust is a rare commodity in the Court, particularly with the constant infighting that is holding title,” Lydia said as she stirred both of their cups, first his, then her own. “She learned quickly not trust and never to love, from them as well as him. Well, perhaps not never. She loves her family and her very closest of friends. Her Ladyship only really lets the three of us in: myself, her sister, and Seija Målagård. She does not put her faith in many, not after a dozen or so cuts from those she trusted most. Jyväskylä is a wicked place. And even with us, she censors herself. She tries to hide, to be forever alright, because she believes that is what we need from her, however much we say otherwise.”

Lydia handed over his cup and then sat back down. “The Rajakreivi was her bulwark, her confidant, her protector. She was unquestionably his favorite. Her sister never took as much to the things he loved. The pair of them were as thick as thieves. He about shot Hannes on the front lawn of the Summer Palace, though reason unfortunately won that day.” She paused slightly. “I think that is the cut that runs the deepest. Her father died three years ago, as sudden and unexpected as such things can come. Aortic aneurysm after he’d returned to his room, just after a delightful waltz. Her Ladyship found him. From there, she tried to protect her sister, her mother, but some things are not possible. The Dowager broke, shattered like glass. And now? Her daughters are those nice, strange young ladies who visit so often with her favorite roses. Her Ladyship said it be unfamiliar to familiar eyes.”

“I always forget the struggles that come with being a noble in Alemarr.” Though rivalries were, by no means, unheard of in his own Empire, it sounded as if their neighbors were far more cutthroat. Dukes and barons in his own court battled to one-up each other, to establish themselves among their peers; as a prince, he just had to keep on the lookout for lower ranking nobles who were trying to curry his favor for their own advantage.There may have been some people out there who made his skin crawl on occasion, the Manswell family were among the first who came to mind, but it sounded as if Tarja had woken up to a minefield every day.

Taking another sip of his tea, William’s brows furrowed as a small frown creased his lips. “She’s had a bad life, all in all, hasn’t she?” It was a rhetorical question, really. His own life, relatively free of struggle or heartbreak (until recently) had been a dream by comparison. “It sounded as if she had a good family, or...did until her father’s passing. I’m sure he was a good man, I would have loved to meet him.” The prince’s smile was a bit mournful, though hidden behind his cup. “Is there anything I can do for her, Lydia? There isn’t a battle anyone should fight alone, and I am to be her husband, after all.” He pointed out a bit helplessly. William wanted to help his fiancee more than anything, but he didn’t know how. More harm was the last thing he wanted to cause.

“I don’t have an answer, I’m afraid,” Lydia said. “But I didn’t tell you all this so that you’d pity her. I wanted you to understand that she is the way she is for a reason. That she’s not as shallow as she pretends to be. That she’s fragile, but loyal even when it would be better, wiser, not to be. I only wanted you to remember that if ever the impulse to set her aside came to you. If there is one thing she is afraid of, it is being shut out. She’s so often lonely and afraid behind the mask, and she’s hurting. I think some day she might trust you, if she is allowed to. I don’t expect you to ever love her, that is not what I dare to hope—I only hope that you are not a Hannes Estlander.”

Lydia sighed. “Her heart is a beautiful thing, better than it should be. I beg you, do not cast it away or crush it.”

William’s shoulders were slumped, and his eyes downcast as he gazed down at the cup of tea in his hands. The muscles of his jaw were tense, setting the bones in a hard line while he mulled over everything. “I’ll admit, there are times when I thought she truly was that shallow. It seemed as if, whenever I met her, she was too busy planning the next outing, shopping trip, or whatever. I wasn’t a big fan of her drinking, but I’ve come to accept it.” He admitted softly, knowing all too well that there were people out there with far worse issues.

As he looked back over at the servant, there was a certain firmness in his eyes. “I won’t say that I’m a perfect, infallible man, because I’m not. The last thing I want to do is ever hurt her though, she deserves the chance to be happy, to have a good life. I try to work with her whenever possible, but sometimes it's easier said than done. I don’t know what Duke Estlander did exactly, but the last thing I’d want to do is repeat his own actions. I won’t cast her heart away, or crush it for that matter. I want to cherish her as much as I can.” He let out a soft sigh. “She deserves that much.”

“That’s all I can ask,” Lydia said before sipping at her tea. She was just about finished, which meant she could retire soon. Granted, she was going to Tarja’s room instead of her own. “I know the drinking is hard to take.” God knew she had been trying to wean Tarja off it for long enough. “But sometimes it is the only medicine she has. It makes her feel better, and so I am always loathe to ask her to quit entirely.” Lydia sighed a little bit before fixing William with a worried look. “I would be indebted to you if this conversation remained between the two of us, Your Highness. Most of what I said is well known in certain spheres in Alemarr, but I’d rather not upset her. She feels too much like she’s always got to be well to accept it gracefully.”

The prince nodded in understanding. “It is, certainly, but again I’ve come to accept it. There are people out there with far worse issues than having too much to drink every evening,” he pointed out with a small shrug. “I’m just glad that she hasn’t smoked as much lately, I’m not all that keen on kissing cigarettes.” He tried to muse wryly, as if it would lighten the mood. A moment later, William nodded in confirmation. “Of course, my dear. You didn’t even have to ask, I was going to assume that this sort of thing was better left unsaid beyond tonight. I would never betray your confidence or spread anything about our favorite wildcat. She’s...drawn enough attention from the members of our court,” he noted softly.

Lydia nodded, a flash of gratitude in her eyes. “Thank you very much, Your Highness,” she said. “And I do appreciate your tolerance for my…impertinence.” Lydia finished her tea and went over to the sink, rinsing out the cup. She would clean it properly in the morning. “I ought to see how Her Ladyship is faring. As benders go, it was rather tame, but that doesn't mean she won’t resume in the morning. I shall do my very best to persuade her out of it if that is the case, Your Highness.” She knew that was easier than done. Tarja could be terribly stubborn when at the mercy of her flaws. All the same, Lydia gave William a smile. “Thank you, Your Highness. I do hope you have a restful night.”

The prince finished off his drink a moment later, following her to the sink to do the same. Looking at the small collection of cups, he had the sudden notion to handle it all for her; Lydia had enough on her plate already. Patting her shoulder, he gave her a small, appreciative smile. “Quit apologizing, it doesn’t suit you. As far as I’m concerned, you’re as much family to me as Tarja will be. I’d be more concerned if you weren’t telling me what I needed to hear. From what I understand, us males have thick heads. You told me what I needed to hear, no one said you had to be kind about it.” He chuckled, flipping on the sink again. William may have been a prince, but he understood how to clean up a few dishes, his mother hadn’t completely spoiled him.

“You’re a good woman, Lydia, an angel in human form really. Tarja is lucky to have a woman like you in her life. Go and take care of your Lady, I’ll be done here in just a minute.” Then he could retire to bed. William already felt that natural urge to return to bed, but he could ignore it for a little while longer. “Have a good night, Lady Lydia.”

“Never a lady, Your Highness,” Lydia said with a smile at the compliments. She did try to take care of Tarja. Someone had to, she supposed, and it was more worthwhile than it was aggravating. “Birth spared me that bullet.” She slipped into Tarja’s room and located a trash can more substantial than the wastepaper bin. It was half full of packing materials, but there was plenty of room for Tarja to vomit. She placed it at the bedside, near Tarja’s head. The record had finished playing and her mistress was still alive and unconscious, breathing ever so slightly visible. Lydia picked up the knitting she’d left on the chair earlier and started to work away until she was ready to sleep. She was something of a master at sleeping in a sitting position. It didn’t bother her even slightly. The click of the needles and the repetitive nature of knitting was very soothing. It kept her from worrying too much about the morning, how Tarja would feel and how William would act. If something was off, she would figure it out eventually, but Lydia wasn’t certain she would get out of bed unless she was intent upon making her condition worse—something entirely possible.

The prince stood at the kitchen sink well after he had finished washing up the pair of tea cups. Every now and then, he would swipe a microfiber towel along the handle of the one Lydia had used while his mind worked. He had always known that Tarja wasn’t quite like the average person one met on the street; she drank heavily and was prone to various acts that he would have considered childish at times, or at the very least immature. Perhaps he was just a fuddy duddy, but some of the stories he had heard about his future wife didn’t quite set well with him. Apparently, she had justification for her ways though, unlike the likes of Nichole Blackburn or Nathan Graham.

Even so...he couldn’t help but wonder if he was doing her any good, or if he was actually feeding her problem. William had always been one to practice restraint, unlike his brothers who had preferred to ‘live in the moment’ regardless of how it affected themselves or those around them. While that worked for him, he could see how someone more of Matthew’s speed could stay with her and keep her afloat - not that it was an option at this point. The last thing he wanted to do, though, was drag her down further than she already was. Tossing the towel into the dish rack, he sighed, knowing that the answer wouldn’t come that night, maybe never; there was no sense losing sleep over it, at least until he knew more.

Morning hit like a sledgehammer, at least in Tarja’s case. She came back to consciousness in a swirl of pain and nausea. She rolled until she slid out of bed and retched, emptying her stomach contents—mostly liquid, and all foul tasting—into the trash bin that was right there waiting. Eventually the vomiting turned into horrible dry heaving, her least favorite part of being ill. Eventually that subsided too, but she didn’t really feel better. Her head felt like had spent the night in a cement mixer with a couple of steel bowling balls. Every breath made it throb. Someone kind had pulled the curtains closed, at least, but even dim light was agonizing. She didn’t know where she was or what had happened, vision bleary still. Memories of last night were fuzzy where they existed. There was a good chunk of just no memory at all.

“I’m right here, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said softly, keeping her voice low to minimize the headache. Tarja was usually very sensitive to light and noise when she was hit by something like this.

Tarja felt her stomach churn threateningly again. She held onto the trash can as if for dear life. “Lydia?” she groaned softly, wincing at the sound of her own voice. Her mouth was dry as cotton, tasting of regret—stomach acid, cigarettes, and alcohol.

Her answer was a cool washcloth wiping her face off carefully and another hand holding her hair out of the way. Lydia was making that soft humming sound that meant worry, but she was trying not to show it despite her mistress’s state.

The Alemarran looked like death warmed over, ghost white with dark shadows under her eyes. She was trembling and sweating. Her head was pounding, her muscles aching, and she could feel the room spinning around her. The dry heaves came back with a vengeance, leaving her weak and trembling.

“Your Ladyship, you need to drink water. It will make you feel better.”

Tarja nodded once she finally stopped retching, slumping back away from the trash a little bit. Lydia had a glass of something for her, seltzer water that was probably mixed with a solution to help restore electrolytes. Tarja drank slowly. Every so often, it all came back up again, but she knew she had to stick it out. Lydia had brought plenty. There was a gallon pitcher with her as well as salted crackers and she could distantly smell soup. Once her stomach was a little more stable, they would try food and some painkillers—the maid knew not to give her charge acetaminophen, of course. “What happened?” Tarja rasped as she took her first bite of a cracker. It was bland, but she knew it would help.

“You had a rather miserable evening in,” Lydia said softly, rubbing circles on Tarja’s back as she leaned over the trashcan. “I don’t think you left, because I found you here. Gave me the fright of my life. His Highess and I put you to bed.”

Tarja grimaced, but took another drink of water and ate a second cracker. “He knows?”

“I couldn’t very well lift you myself,” the maid pointed out. “I imagine he’s still abed. It’s five o’clock in the morning.”

Tarja nodded again, still dizzy. “I want to die,” she admitted.

“That’s a bit down the road, I hope,” Lydia said. “It will pass. You’ve survived worse before. I’m sorry, Your Ladyship. I wanted to call you a physician, but I don’t know any on the palace staff. An IV drip might have helped. If you are safe to stay here, I will go see if I can make you some bouillon soup. You’ll need the salt. Keep drinking water, keep eating.”

Tarja smiled faintly. “Thank you, dove,” she said. Her stomach was settling enough that aspirin would probably be safe, though more food in her stomach would help. After Lydia left, she finished the package of crackers and then took the two aspirin that were sitting on the nightstand. She kept drinking more and more of the carbonated water. It helped ease her stomach. The headache was starting to ease as she rehydrated. She probably should have seen a doctor, but she was used to dealing hangovers with just her friends’ help. Whatever she’d had to drink, she’d had a lot of it.

Out in the main room, Lydia did her best to be very quiet as she made the soup. She was an expert at walking softly and cooking carefully, so she doubted she would wake William up. It was possible, admittedly, but she was doing her best not to.

It was about an hour later that the prince roused from his own slumber, eyebrows furrowing in dismay as he reached up to rub his eyes. Though he might have lived on a military schedule for the last decade, that didn’t mean that he had ever liked it, especially the part where he was required to get up at the crack of dawn. Rolling over onto his side, he turned off his alarm (which he had beaten to the punch this particular morning) and forced himself out of bed. Any moment now, the automatic coffee pot would kick on.

It was all the more reason for him to stumble into the kitchen next morning, glassy eyed and sore from the day before. Admittedly, staying up late hadn’t done him much good either, but at least it was finally Friday. He made a point of not working on the weekends, as did many of those who worked on base with him.

The vegetable bouillon soup had been easy enough to make for Lydia even though she wasn’t usually a cook. She’d made enough for herself and William as well. Now that Tarja was looking better and had eaten soup, the maid helped her back into bed. Then she reappeared in the kitchen. “Good morning, Your Highness,” Lydia said as she went over to the sink and washed up. “Coffee is ready, and I have a pot of lemon ginger tea here too. Her Ladyship was in dire need of a good cup. I hope you slept well.”

The prince jumped slightly, caught off guard as Lydia seemingly materialized out of thin air. Glancing over at the woman, he blinked languidly. “You’re up early this morning, Lyd.” He commented softly, voice scratchy as he padded over to the fridge to first fetch a cup of water. One of his worse habits, though not really something he could control, was that he was a mouth breather. It always left a bitter taste in his mouth come morning. “I, ah, slept well enough. Never enough time to be fully rested though, I’m afraid.” He lamented quietly, his lips curled into a wry smile. “I hope you did as well. How is she doing?” William asked as he glanced over his shoulder a bit anxiously.

Lydia sighed slightly. “About how I’d expected,” she said honestly. “Sick and miserable. The worst has run its course, I would say. I hope she’ll sleep off the rest.” She paused for a moment. “I hope that it wasn’t our chat that kept you up. There’s some soup in that pot. Rather unusual given the time of day, but it helps. It’s vegetable bouillon.”

“No, no, it wasn’t. I will admit to staying up for far too long though while everything we talked about ran through my head more than a few times.” He admitted softly as he poured himself a cup of coffee. Though he normally took it mixed with sugar and milk, impatience won the struggle for once. His adam’s apple bobbed as he took several generous gulps of the caffeinated drink before he looked over at Lydia, chocolate eyes a bit more clear.

“Here’s hoping. She could use the rest now more than ever. I’d offer to stay and help watch her, but I’m afraid duty calls.” He admitted with a grimace as he set his drink down. “Could you fetch me a bowl from the counter, soup does sound good right now.” The prince would have done it himself, but she was closer...and he was still half-asleep, if not moreso.

Lydia bustled over, ladling some into a bowl and locating a clean spoon for him. She returned to the table, setting the bowl in front of him. It was warm, but not scalding hot. “Well, don't worry about Her Ladyship too much, Your Highness. She’ll be right as rain by tonight, I’d wager. Always does bounce back quickly. I’ll keep her out of the deeps of the bottle.”

“Danke schön, Lydia.” The prince said softly, flashing her a weary smile as he rubbed his eyes. Leaning back in his seat for a moment, his muscles refused to cooperate much beyond that. Though weighing no more than a few ounces, the spoon felt like a heavy weight in his fingers. Slowly but surely, he began to dig into the meal, doing his best not to slurp hungirly. It had been easy to forget dinner last night, but hunger was catching up with him very quickly. “She is a tough girl, it doesn’t surprise. All the same, I wish it didn’t have to happen in the first place.” He explained after several spoonfuls. “Do you need anything, Lydia? I’ll be more than happy to help any way that I can.”

“I should be quite prepared, Your Highness,” Lydia assured him. She paused for a moment. “It would be good to know if your family keeps a discreet physician on staff, however. Last night, I should have probably called one. In any eventuality, it would be nice to have that option.” She wasn’t going to say that she knew it would invariably happen again. Better to just say she was covering her bases.

The prince nodded thoughtfully as he lowered the spoon back to the bowl. “It could be considered more of a private hospital. In the event of emergency, in-palace-births, or anything else, we have a small team of private doctors that we can call in from the city proper. Check page three of the book over there.” He explained as he motioned to the closed-circuit phone that allowed them to quickly contact anyone else in the palace. “Doctor Nathaniel Shaw is the man you’ll want to talk to, unless you’d rather I call him for you? He does do housecalls.”

“Dr. Shaw,” Lydia said, cementing the name in her own mind. “I shall remember that for the next time Her Ladyship is indisposed.” She smiled at William. “Thank you, Your Highness. I will admit that I thought my tone last night might have colored your opinion of me. I hope it stays as it is.” She cleared her throat. “I should have some tea and then clean up. And then back to my knitting. I think I’ll have this sweater done soon. Something warm for Aatto.”

Before he knew it, the prince had gone through most of his bowl. It went down far too well, but he knew he would need something more if he wanted to get through the rest of the morning. Pushing out from under the table, he paused to shake his head. “Far from it, really, Lydia. I’ve always thought highly of you. Last night was necessary, if not a bit unpleasant.. I needed to hear it.” He paused to glance over at the door to Tarja’s room. “Should I say goodbye before I go to work, or is she still a bit too far gone that for?” William asked softly. He had made a habit of it over the last couple of weeks; since the beach, each morning had been punctuated with kisses goodbye even. The last thing he wanted to do was upset his fiancee, though.

Lydia considered it for a moment. “If you’d like to, I doubt she would object. I’d advise talking softly and not slamming the door or opening the curtains. She gets terribly sensitive to light and sound.” She smiled ruefully. “I doubt she’d want to inflict her kiss on you, though. Being sick makes for a terrible one.”

She still wasn’t certain how she felt about William. He was good to her mistress and he was quite charming, but something in her wished that it had been a choice, that it had been love as a foundation for their relationship rather than duty. Perhaps someday it would be that—Tarja fell in love terribly easily sometimes—but she wasn’t sure William would ever feel that way. It was all a complicated tangle of emotions in Lydia’s heart.

If he was good to Tarja, she decided, that would be enough for her.

The prince nodded slightly as he stood up. “I think I can handle that. I’m afraid that grunts like me aren’t the softest steppers, not like the spooks are, but I’ll do my best.” He promised with a soft smile, smoothing out the wrinkles from his shirt as he did so. “I’ll be easy with her, I promise; she needs to take it easy.” Before he had even thought twice about it, William had padded over to the young woman, pulling her into a quick hug. “Thanks for everything you do for her, Lyd. I’ll save the kisses until she’s washed out,” he softly.

Stepping away, he walked as softly as he could to Tarja’s door. He rapped his knuckles against the wood as lightly as he could, trying to announce himself without actually disturbing her. A moment later, he eased himself in, ready for whatever sight may have welcomed him; he’d seen her in far less, and far more vulnerable. “Hey babe,” he said softly as he peered in. “You still up?”

Tarja was in bed, only half covered by the sheets. She’d kicked everything else off she was still half dressed. She’d unbuttoned her shirt after the vomiting. She looked ghost white with dark circles around her eyes and was still trembling. A faint sheen of sweat was visible on her face. “Yes,” Tarja rasped. “Been better.” She eased herself into a sitting position. The room spun, but she was less dizzy than she had been. Her eyes were less red, at least, the evidence of her tears gone. The taste in her mouth was terrible, though better after the water and soup, but she hadn’t made it to the bathroom while she still had the bed-spins. Lydia wouldn’t appreciate her falling and cracking her head open. She brushed dark hair back out of her face. “I am sorry about last night.”

You’ve looked it too. Some dry, humorless voice in the back of his mind added as he quietly stepped in. The door closed behind him, clicking every so gently as he eased it back into the frame. “It’s...okay, don’t worry about it, really. There’s nothing to apologize for.” He assured her as he moved further, slowly lowering himself down on the edge of the bed. The springs squeaked in protest, causing him to grimace slightly as he reached over, resting his hand on her knee; of course, there were still covers separating them. “Is there, umm, anything I can do to help you feel better?” He asked as he met her eyes, his own brown ones full of of concern. The prince felt a bit helpless in the moment, there wasn’t much he could really do for her, as much as he wanted to.

“I’ll get better. It just takes some time,” Tarja said. There was a little hitch in her breathing when she saw the record sleeve leaning against the player, announcing to the world that it was Shostakovich. She remembered some of that part of the evening. “It’s mostly just being tired and achy now.” She rubbed at her eyes. “I’m glad I didn’t say anything too stupid.” She was certain she’d probably lashed out at some point, but without an audience, she felt better. Lydia wouldn’t take anything personally, but William didn’t really know that side of her.

“Take all the time you need, Tarja. We’re here for you.” By that, the prince meant himself as well as her servant. The noblewoman didn’t have many friends in the local court, at least to his knowledge. “If you need company, I’m sure my sister wouldn’t mind coming by to spend a bit of time with you.” He added softly, though he highly doubted she’d want actually want the bubbly blonde’s company at the moment. If he didn’t understand her right now, Anna surely wouldn’t. “I need to go to work in about a half hour, unless you want me to stay here with you?” He offered gently, rubbing her leg through the sheets. No one would really miss him at work, and he had subordinates who could handle his affairs for a day.

“I should be just fine,” Tarja promised. She looked down at herself. “I doubt I’m in a state to entertain guests, if I’m being honest.” She massaged her temples, though her headache was slightly better than earlier. The recovery from dehydration had improved her condition quite a bit. She flashed him a faint smile. “No need to worry about me, darling. I don’t want you to miss work for little old me.”

“I really wouldn’t mind, really, my dear.” The prince assured her with a gentle smile, leaning forward to press a kiss to her forehead. Tarja’s skin tasted like pure sweat, he realized as he pulled away, but he wasn’t about to say anything. She looked like hell as it was, she didn’t need to feel like it too. “I’d much rather spend the day with my future wife, caring for her while we watched a movie or something, instead of pushing papers and waiting to get beaten up by my sparring partners.” He teased, trying to make her feel better. “But if you insist, I’ll get out of your hair.”

Tarja sighed. Her natural inclination was just to wave him off and insist that she would be fine, but she was too out of it to articulate a good excuse. “It’s up to you, darling,” she said as she moved to get up. “I’d best get a shower whatever the case.” She winced as she got up, muscles aching fiercely. She was a little unsteady, but much better than she had been.

The prince was on his feet in an instant, one hand coming to rest on the small of her back in an attempt to steady her. The other hand hovered, ready to to go into action as well if the need arose; the last thing he’d allow her to do on his watch was fall. “I didn’t mean to bug you about it, I was just saying that I’m here for you. If you need me, anyways.” He explained softly, chocolate eyes soft. He hadn’t missed the inflection of her tone, but he couldn’t tell if it was one or irritation or exhaustion. “Take it slow, darling. You sure you’re up to do this on your own right now?”

“I’m not quite an invalid,” Tarja said. She was far more tired than irritated. She studied him for a moment. “I think I can manage a shower. As for after…I don’t want to be a bother. I can survive with Lydia’s assistance should you wish to work. If you need an excuse to avoid being bludgeoned, a movie will work just fine provided you don’t expect me to be awake for the whole of it.” The more she moved, the steadier she seemed to become, as if she was finding her feet. “Feel free to think it over. I, however, am going to clean up.”

She’d been like this before many times and she hadn’t died yet. She wasn’t about to. Tarja stepped into the bathroom, undressing even though she’d thought about going into the shower clothed. She let the shower run for a minute before stepping into the warmth, washing away the sweat and feeling of sickness. The hot water was working marvels on her aching muscles. A shower always made it better.

The prince was still at the apartment by the time Tarja had finally emerged from the shower. He had dressed casually, given he didn’t plan on going anywhere important for the foreseeable future. Khaki shorts rode a bit low on his hips, covered up by a dark green polo shirt that he had an affinity for. Though he hadn’t snuck a shower in, he had washed up a bit, and was working on cooking up a few pieces of bacon to supplement his soup breakfast. There were a few more pieces than he needed in case she felt hungry as well.

The prince was reclined on one of the couches, tapping away on a tablet while the television hummed in the background. William had been quick to explain to Lydia why he was staying, and his subordinates on base had taken him at his word. Apparently, no one was going to argue with him for taking the day off because his fiancee wasn’t feeling well.

Tarja emerged after a while, looking much better. She had color in her face again and the dark circles weren’t quite as bold. She was damp and the scent of lemon verbana clung to her when she took a seat at William’s side. She’d brushed her teeth and washed out her mouth a few times. Her throat was still raw, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. She was still achy and tired, but otherwise was feeling better. Her stomach had eased.

Lydia smiled slightly when she saw her mistress doing better. “Do you need anything, Your Ladyship?” she asked.

“I think I’ll be quite alright, Lydia. You are free to do as you wish for the next few hours, at the very least. I shall do my utmost to feel better swiftly,” Tarja said lightly. “You are a blessing of nature, but I release you from my clutches.”

“As you say, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said with a nod. “I have a few errands to run out in the city.”

“Excellent,” Tarja said with a little wave. “Have some fun while you’re out, darling.”

The maid bustled out, clearly moving with something in mind. Tarja wasn’t certain what she was up to, but she rather liked the idea of Lydia getting an enjoyable morning out and about. “Thank you for this, William,” the Alemarran noble said quietly. “I don’t expect it, but at least Lydia has some time to herself. Apparently she took a bit of a fright.”

“Every moment I get to spend with you is a blessing, my dear.” The prince said softly as he reached over, wrapping his arm around the back of the couch for a moment. It tightened in a half hug for a moment, allowing his tablet to fall wayside. He had been browsing an online bookstore, the sci-fi section in particular. “I’d much rather spend my time with you, it's a lot more fun than getting my bell rung by kids a decade younger than me.” He chuckled softly as Lydia shuffled behind them. “Should we have some flowers waiting in her room for when she returns?” He asked with a soft, conspiratorial smile.

“Flattery. And flowers would be well-earned,” Tarja said. She leaned into his side a little bit, shifting to make herself comfortable without putting much weight on him. “I’m certainly glad I rank above deliberately inflicted head trauma.” She sighed. “Don’t do anything on my account, darling. Feel free to read.” She closed her eyes. It was brighter here, to the point where the light made her head pound. She wasn’t certain how long she’d be able to stand it, but she intended on being a good sport about for as long as possible. She did miss the cave-like darkness of her room.

The prince hugged her a bit tighter, all too content with her company as he kicked his feet up, allowing them to rest on the edge of the coffee table. “You’re more of a pleasant concussion, my dear.” He chuckled softly, pressing a light kiss to her forehead as he shifted to accommodate her a bit easier. Flicking through various books that he was interested in reading, he paused for a moment. “Would you like me to put on some music or a movie?” He asked, using his bicep to cover her eyes from the overhead light. It wasn’t as thorough as her room’s blinds, but it was better than nothing.

“Honestly, darling, I have no opinion,” Tarja said. “I probably won’t even be awake long, I’m afraid. Well, if I can escape this horrific pounding in my skull. It’s rather like what I imagine a jackhammer might do.” She had sunglasses somewhere. It had been idiocy to not locate them, but that was done now. “Whatever we do, my only preference is that it not be loud.”

“Music it is then, at least for now.” He murmured as he closed the reader app and pulled up his audio files. “I hope you don’t mind some smooth jazz,” the prince added with a soft smile. As the light sounds of a piano began to hum through the room, signaling the start of the piece, William reclined against the cushions contently. “Feel free to sleep, I’ll be right here when you wake up. I promise.”

Tarja moved so she was hiding her face against his shoulder, trying to block out the light. “Sounds lovely,” she murmured. Tarja was asleep in a minute, exhausted. Her breathing was soft and even, gradually growing deeper.
Real nobility is based on scorn, courage, and profound indifference.
- Albert Camus

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Founded: Sep 25, 2011

Postby Alemarr » Thu Oct 12, 2017 9:43 am

The Imperatorial Palace
The Duchy of Haford
Aragon, The Empire of Shalum

“So, have you warned him adequately about the dangers of the group bearing down upon Shalum like a plague of alcoholic locusts?” Jenna asked lightly. The younger Cederström had managed to resolve her entanglements in Jyväskylä enough that she could actually make the trip. Whether or not she could stay for the wedding itself wasn’t certain, as it hinged on their mother’s well-being. If the Dowager took a turn for the worse, Tarja knew they would both want to return. She just wasn’t certain she would be able to run back the way Jenna could.

“He can survive,” Tarja said airily, as she handed Jenna her cup of coffee. Lydia was folding laundry, though she’d brought it into the living room so that she could be part of the conversation. “He’s put up with me marvelously and I’m the worst of the bunch.”

“It boggles the mind,” Jenna said by way of agreement, grey eyes alight with good humor. The resemblance between her and Tarja was unmistakable, though Jenna’s face always seemed both softer and more serious. Her beauty was gentle rather than striking.“So when do I meet the condemned? I’d like to give him my condolences.”

“He’s still getting dressed, I think. You are here early.” Tarja sipped her coffee for a moment.

“Says the woman who runs on midnight oil,” Jenna said. “Speaking of, why on earth are you awake at eight o’clock? I thought this is the Devil’s hour.”

Tarja rolled her eyes. “Satan’s imp had to call me at an even more unspeakable hour of the morning to tell me she was boarding her plane.”

“So did you tell William I was coming? I know it was a last-minute thing.”

The elder Cederström had enough good grace to look slightly embarrassed. “It might have slipped my mind.”

Being a man-at-arms, the good prince had long since grown accustomed to waking in the early hours, as the sun just began to crest the hills that laid just beyond the capital. It was an unpleasant, but necessary part of his job; there was always too much to do, yet never enough time in a day to handle it all, despite the fact that he was at one of the least dangerous postings in all of the country. This was all lessened by the fact that at the end of the day, he got to go home to a beautiful home and one of the loveliest (if not frustrating on occasion) women that he ever had the pleasure of meeting - it was still hard to believe that he would be marrying a woman like her, at times.

Pulling on the last bits of his uniform, William smiled slightly as he looked himself over in the mirror. It was hard not to be happy any more. His job may have been trying at times, but Tarja likely didn’t realize how much easier she made everything for him; everything about it was so unlike his first marriage. Waking up next to her every morning was a treat in itself, though today was one of the few occasions where she had apparently risen before he had.

Humming the national anthem to himself, a tune that could be played with a guitar rather than an orchestra, the prince grabbed his belt but didn’t quite don it just yet. He knew Tarja hadn’t left the apartment yet—he could still hear her talking, to Lydia most likely. Padding to the door, he let himself out of the room that they shared on occasion, and into the main section of their little suite.

Almost immediately, William spied his fiancee, smiling to himself as he gripped his belt a little tighter. Approaching her from behind, his expression was all too innocent as he focused in on his target, snapping his wrist for a moment. In a movement that was all too practiced, the stiff leather cracked along her backside.

It was only then, as he looked up and beyond his fiancee, that he realized that they weren’t alone.

Even worse, it wasn’t Lydia.

Any effects of sleep that may have lingered in William’s consciousness evaporated in an instant as his eyes widen, and he hid the belt behind his back like a child that had just been caught in a cookie jar. He might not have ever met the woman in front of him before, but the resemblance was so uncanny that he didn’t have to. Several times, his head swiveled back and forth from Tarja to the unknown woman, his cheeks flushing deeper and deeper with each passing moment. If he didn’t know any better, this was her sister of all people.

“Ah…” He finally stammered out. “Sorry, that is just a habit of mine.” His jaw snapped shut as he realized what he said, looking at Jenna sheepishly. “Apologies, it is a pleasure to meet you, Miss…” He trailed off, just in case he was wrong as to her identity.

Tarja had let out an undignified squeak at the belt, but it turned into laughter when she saw Jenna arch an eyebrow with a smile that seemed more like a smirk. “So that’s where your inclinations lie, Your Highness? Good for you, expanding Tarja’s horizons.”

“Be nice, Jenna. Also, how on earth has the Dowager not tried to bleach your brain?” Tarja said even though her grin was not at all apologetic. “William, this is my younger sister, Jenna. The current Countess of Naantali, if we’re being excessively proper, which we’re clearly not.”

Somehow, the prince had managed to turn an even deeper shade of red, even as he gently set his belt aside and placed a hand on Tarja’s hip while standing next to her. “I wouldn’t go that far…” He tried to get out, but the countess was hitting a bit too close to the money for him to actually deny. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Jenna. I’ve heard a lot about you from your sister—most of it good.” He flashed her the best grin that he could muster, though he wasn’t brave enough to actually go up and offer her a hand or a hug after what he’d just done.

“Likewise,” Jenna said. He seemed to be taking the teasing in stride well, which gave her hope. Then again, this was Shalum. If they’d met in Alemarr, she would have been far more reserved. “It’s not often Tarja’s so complimentary in a way beyond politeness.” She was speaking more of what Tarja had told her than what she’d told him. “As I was telling the wildcat, I wanted to at least meet you properly. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stay for the wedding, but I’ll at least be here to see the catastrophe of a hen party.”

“Have a little faith in me,” Tarja protested.

Jenna grinned. “The last time you said that to me, the police were called.”

Glancing back and forth between them, William chuckled softly as his fingers dug into Tarja’s hip for a moment. He was going to like her sister, that much he could tell already. “You know, Jenna, I’m not sure how well she’d manage without me. I’m pretty sure there is a police hat, which was unlawfully acquired I can only presume, lying around here somewhere.” He smirked as he glanced down at the dark haired noblewoman at his side. “I’ve heard plenty about these hens that we’re to be hosting, but I can only assume that there’s no way I can really prepare for them, hmm?” At this point, he was halfway tempted to put out a citywide alert for them—jokingly, of course.

“I suggest keeping a bottle of whiskey and a couple Valium on hand, for personal fortification,” Jenna said. From what her sister had told her, William was mild-mannered. Hopefully, he would be able to survive the approaching pandemonium. “And thank your lucky stars that the wedding isn’t the day after. I’m certain Tarja will have the king of hangovers, whether she drinks water or not. The bar bill will be awe-inspiring.”

“I’m pretty sure I spend more on keeping her inebriated each month than I do on keeping her fed.” The prince replied with a coy little smile. “It’s a necessary evil I’ve come to accept, though; it’s not like I have much else use for the money.” He mused as he released his fiancee from his grasp, padding over to the kitchen to fetch a bottle of water. “The wedding could be the night of the hen party, after everyone has had a few drinks. All we technically need is a priest, or ordained official, and five minutes,” he joked.

“Yes, but she’d have to be able to stand. And speak. And have shoes on,” Jenna said with a grin.

“I’ll have you know that I am perfectly capable of not falling off the pavement,” Tarja interjected, smiling. “But you’re probably right about the talking. The shoes have always been a lost cause.”

“And yet, even barefoot and blurting out everything that comes to your mind, you’re particularly wily,” Jenna said. She looked to William. “I’d not recommend a foot chase. I’ve seen her sprint barefoot across gravel when she’s two sheets to the wind, and she excelled at track in school.”

“I should probably give up running as a hobby, for Lydia’s sake,” Tarja conceded. “Still, William hasn’t had to chase me yet.”

“My legs are long enough that I can just fast walk after you, dear.” The prince reminded his fiancee as he returned to the living room, soft brown eyes twinkling with amusement. “I might be inviting trouble here, but I’d honestly love to see her try and get away from me—inebriated or not. I’m sure it would be fun.” Though not one to brag, the Imperial Army had at least some standards of fitness; William liked to think of himself as being above average in that regard. Chasing down a small drunken woman couldn’t have been that difficult. “Maybe I can Lydia on a few runs around the palace grounds, and train her for the inevitable.”

“Lydia just heads me off at the pass. Well, when we were in Alemarr,” Tarja said. Lydia wasn’t quite familiar enough with Aragon to know where Tarja would end up. She looked over at her maid. “You have excellent telepathy, o most faithful of bloodhounds.”

“Practice, Your Ladyship,” Lydia said as she folded one of Tarja’s blouses. “Nothing supernatural, I assure you.”

“Well, I shall be certain to enlist your help if she goes feral, Your Highness,” Jenna said, studying William for a moment. She had a feeling that by the end of the trip, she was going to wholeheartedly approve of him. It was hard to miss the way Tarja smiled at him. It was an expression Jenna hadn’t seen in a long time. It made the younger Cederström far more kindly disposed to Aapeli.

“I think you mean when she goes feral, Jenna.” The prince replied with a wink before taking another sip of water and setting it aside. “It’s nothing I’ve never dealt with before. She knows I still have my belt,” he grinned. “So, how long do I have before the first of her terrible terrors arrive?” There was no doubt that the staff was preparing for their arrival—little did they know what danger truly lingered on the horizon.

Tarja laughed. “Belts are for fun, William.”

Jenna supposed it was probably time to go easier on the Shalumite royal. “Well, we flew over together,” she said with a smile. “Lia and Seija are probably crashed in their rooms. I know for a fact that Naemi is asleep. I told them that I’d rouse them at a reasonable hour.”

“For reference, William, I’ll give you full names and titles,” Tarja said with amusement. “Lia Daehn is Viscountess of Joensuu, Seija Målagård is Viscountess of Salo, and Naemi Gyllenhök is Countess of Sastamala. All of them are delightful. Lia is our adventuress, Seija is our sensitive and artistic type, and Naemi is our most cheerful accomplice. Jenna, of course, is the sensible one.”

“That last one was the easiest guess.” The prince replied with a soft chuckle as he shifted his weight from one hip to the other. “And you’ve told me plenty about Seija. I look forward to meeting them.” His fiancee had been taken far away from home, and any semblance of normalcy that came with it; she deserved to see her old friends as often as she could. Even if they were far more wild in their ways, William wanted to give all the hens a chance. “Do you and my dear Tarja here have any plans for the day?” He asked Jenna with a quick smile.

“Oh, exploring Aragon,” Jenna said lightly. “Even Lia hasn’t been to Shalum, so we thought we’d enjoy the cultural elements of the city. Perhaps have a few drinks along the way, knowing everyone involved. Tarja says the city is rather impressive.” She smiled a little. “I hear the beaches are lovely, though Tarja was guiltily nonspecific on the subject.” She left off the fact that Lydia’s blush had been more than enough insinuation.

Tarja had the good grace to shrug as if apologetic. To cover, she said, “Well, maybe we can get everyone together for lunch and do some planning.”

“Planning? You?” Jenna raised an eyebrow.

“I’d rather not waste my time on bars or nightclubs that aren’t enjoyable. My future sister-in-law probably has some ideas,” Tarja reasoned. She looked to William. “You’re more than welcome to join us for lunch.”

William flushed, rather visibly, at the mention of the beach. Despite the fact that it’d happened weeks ago, he remembered the last visit with far too perfect clarity. It would be a nice place to visit again, assuming he and Tarja could keep their hands to themselves—at least while her friends were around. “Anna has a nose for clubs. It’s amazing that the girl has such perfect grades…” He trailed off with amusement. Now that she had a good deal of time to herself, his young sister had taken to studying at the University of Aragon, as well as online. “I’d love to join you for lunch, assuming I’m not imposing, of course. I know it’s been awhile since you two have seen each other in person.”

“Tarja and I have always been able to pick up as if no time has passed. It comes with having a sibling always running back and forth from Naantali to Jyväskylä,” Jenna said. “Besides, we talk on the phone. You are not intruding. We can also visit more after the hen party. Preferably when she has a hangover, so I can gloat.”

“Sometimes, you are insufferable,” Tarja said as she imagined the hangover conversation. Jenna seldom had one, not that it was too common for Tarja to, between drinking water and pacing.

“I am the youngest. It’s my calling in life,” Jenna said cheerfully. “Anyway, William, you should have a chance to meet everyone while we’re sober. I assume we’re much more tolerable that way. Not that I expect you’ll see us much when we’re drunk. Usually the future groom is off at his stag party while the girls have their night out.”

William actually groaned a little at the notion. “I will admit, I totally forgot all about the stag party.” He replied, flashing them a sheepish smile as he rubbed the back of his neck for a moment. Their wedding was going to be a small one, and it hadn’t struck him as important. There weren’t many that he planned to celebrate with anyways, just his brothers and a few close friends from the court and work. “I’ll have to get that together, won’t I…” He said aloud, more to himself than anyone else, before he refocused. “Sober is probably best. Then again, I’ve never fretted over first impressions all that much. If Tarja approves of them, then it's good enough for me,” he assured them as he looked over at his fiancee.

Pausing for a moment, the prince was thoughtful. He wasn’t a club-rat like his sister, but Aragon was his home—at least, the well-to-do parts of it that a royal like himself was supposed to be familiar with. “I can think of a few places you may enjoy visiting. I’m not sure what the hens will enjoy, but I can think of plenty of shops and restaurants if you have any preferences,” he smiled at Jenna.

“We’re not hard to keep happy, particularly when we can amuse ourselves. Which I suppose is partially our problem,” Tarja said.

“Given the amount of egging on that typically occurs, I would say it’s a significant part of the problem,” Jenna said with amusement. “Lia and Naemi have been tamer without your influence. Not by much, I suppose, but enough to remark upon. I assume Seija is just enjoying the vacation.”

Tarja grinned. “Easily remedied.”

“We’ll make a day of it, then,” Jenna said with amusement. She knew Tarja was absolutely telling the truth. She finished her coffee and stood. “I’ll go wake them up so they can prepare accordingly.”

Rustling up the other Alemarran nobles was surprisingly easy given the hour of the day and the long flight. It was immensely comfortable to be around them again, as far as Tarja was concerned. The chatter came back easily, as if they’d only been parted for a day rather than more than a month. Part of it was just Jyväskylä gossip that Tarja had missed out on, but most of it was new stories or adventures.

Lia Daehn was a slightly built, blonde woman who had enough Nord in her blood to almost qualify for dual citizenship. Her eyes were dark blue and almost piercing, but softened considerably by an ever-ready smile. She had traveled the most out of all of them and came equipped with significant sang froid, considering where she’d been. Even places as perilous as Nalaya were not necessarily out of bounds. Adventure to the point of risk had become something of a habit of hers, which Tarja was sure would make her an interesting countess.

Seija Målagård shared that fair-skinned, fair-haired look that was so common in Alemarr. Her eyes were light grey, almost silvery. Nothing about her was quite as brash or bold as Tarja or Lia and she seemed content to listen for the most part. She even spoke softly and pleasantly. It was temperament as much as the rigid expectations that came with being the heir.

Naemi Gyllenhök, for her part, filled up the room with energy. She was happy to converse, though her grasp of English was nowhere near as fluent as her grasp on other languages. She was less reserved than even Tarja, to the point of being bubbly. She was a bit unusual looking for an Alemarran noble, with dark eyes and a bit of a tan. Her father’s marriage had been rather scandalous back in the day, considering he’d married down. Eventually the shock wore off and her mother had adapted marvelously. Good manners could make up for a bit of a flaw in the pedigree.

It was certainly an adventure to explore Aragon with the group, given that they had their own language to converse in and an unquenchable urge to find new things. It took a while before they agreed on a place for lunch, mostly because their attention had been captivated by a city as—to them—unconventional and diverse as the Shalumite capital. Doubly so as they were without strict supervision. Their families had no way to keep tabs on them in a country so foreign, after all.

“ are they like cows? I’ve only seen pictures of baby ones,” Seija asked curiously as they looked over menus at a quieter restaurant.

Jenna looked over the menu. She was rather intrigued by the idea of bison. It wasn’t available in Alemarr, so she had no idea what to expect. “I was always under the impression that bison were wild animals, but I suppose if Tarja can be corralled, giant beasts are no problem.”

“I wonder how much alcohol they have to use as bait,” Naemi said with a smile.

“For the bison?” Seija asked curiously.

“Something like that,” Jenna said with a grin. She looked up when she heard Tarja and Lia talking. “I think a three martini lunch is probably not a Shalumite tradition. Nor the copious amounts of spirits that you two subsist on.”

“Really?” Lia said, looking genuinely surprised. “How on earth do they stand it?”

“It’s somewhat dreadful,” Tarja admitted. Even for people less accustomed to hard drinking than their little group, alcohol was an integral part of life in Alemarr. Tarja had joked once that it was where the name came from. The only meal it wasn’t a part of was breakfast, and even then plenty of people drank their coffee with an added kick. They viewed it as a sort of lubricant for society, though people didn’t drink to the point of drunkenness in the same way. That had too many perils and really wasn’t the point. “Lydia’s trying to gradually turn me into a teetotaler, I’m afraid.”

“And the collective hangover from all those nights with us hasn’t killed you yet?” Lia asked with amusement.

Tarja smiled slightly. “I didn’t say she was terribly successful.”

“It’s not for a lack of trying.” William added with an expression of amusement as he glanced up from his menu, a glass of ice water in his hands. This restaurant was a favorite of his, though his workplace was too far away to justify making it a normal part of his weekly meal routine. Their barbecued bison was great, as was the beef and chicken; while the former was loved with a passion by his people, the latter were cheaper and far easier to raise on an industrial scale. “It’s a wonder that the country doesn’t run out of whiskey on nights like those,” he chuckled. While the prince wished that she’d moderate herself sooner or later, he didn’t put too much faith in it. Until they got around to having children, if that was something she wanted to do, it wasn’t much of an issue anyways.

Glancing over at Seija, the prince’s smile was more innocent as he nodded. From all that he had gathered, the Viscountess of Salo had a gentle soul—the kind he wouldn’t have expected among his fiancee’s flock. “They’re like cows, yes; they share the same subfamily. They can’t be domesticated, though, not like the bos taurus or bos indicus that you’re used to. The meat is a lot healthier for you, though it can be a bit...tough. It’s a lot leaner than cow meat.”

“So game meat, then,” Seija said with a small nod. “My father hunts quite a bit. He used to go out with Tarja’s father.”

“Blasting the local wildlife into submission,” Tarja elaborated. “It’s tradition. They even went and hunted polar bear once, which almost ended quite well for the bear.”

“We should try it sometime, Tarja. You shoot,” Lia said with amusement. “Naemi could even try it.”

Naemi shook her head. “All that fresh air getting into my lungs? It’d probably kill me.”

“Just stand downwind of Tarja,” Jenna advised. “She can fix that with one of her cancer sticks.” Smoking was one of the few regular points of contention between them. Tarja had learned it from her father, but Jenna insisted that she should quit. It was, as Tarja had conceded, a dangerous habit.

Tarja sighed. “I’m working on that.” It was incredibly addictive and while she had cut way back, it felt impossible to stop.

“You’ll get there, love.” The prince assured her with a soft smile as he reached over, giving his fiancee a gentle pack on the back. If there was one thing about her that he detested, even more than alcohol at that, it was her addiction to tobacco; the stuff had no redeeming value whatsoever. To condemn it was to make him a hypocrite, though, considering that he had a small stash of herbs in the back of their pantry for when he was feeling frisky. “It’ll just take a little time.” If it was still a problem by the time children became a possibility, he’d have to put his foot down, for better or worse.

Looking around at the girls for a moment, he smiled. “I’m not sure how you feel about it, in all honesty, but hunting bison is something that could be arranged.” It was a business in itself, after all, albeit the kind of service that didn’t come cheap. “Take a few hours flight down south, get you a few rifles…” Bison were surprisingly easy to hunt. It was keeping them corralled that was the challenge. “And a breathalyser to make sure you’re all up to snuff first,” he finished teasingly.

“I think Lia meant polar bears, but maybe someday we could go after bison. The Rajakreivi and Seija’s father honestly believed that a hunt was only worth talking about if it could hunt them back,” Tarja explained. “Hence the biggest apex predator in the north. On land, anyway.”

“It’s a little more fair. And challenging,” Lia added. “Though I think the Rajakreivi mostly did it because they wouldn’t let him fight on the front lines after he married. He had a habit of threatening young men around Tarja by saying, You wouldn’t be the most dangerous animal I’ve hunted. Not at all.

Tarja laughed. “He meant it, too.”

William chuckled with them, before pausing to take a sip of his water. It was a shame that he’d never gotten to meet the good general, even if the man would have undoubtedly given him hell every step of the way. The adoration was clear in his bride-to-be’s eyes and voice every time the subject of her father arose. He could only hope to be half the man that Rajakreivi Cederström had been. Under the table, his hand found Tarja’s for a moment as he gave it a gentle squeeze. “I guess I’m safe for now then, love. If I’m to carry on the torch that he lit...I feel sorry for the poor lads or lassies that want to date our children,” he chuckled softly.

“The thought of Tarja with children is…” Jenna paused, searching for the word in a language William would understand.

“Deeply concerning?” Tarja said with a grin.

“I was going to say dangerously negligent, but also yes,” her sister said, though her tone wasn’t too serious.

“She does just fine with Lydia’s nephews,” Lia said, waving a hand. “She might not be as qualified as you are, Jenna, but she’s not a hand grenade.”

Jenna laughed. “I wonder about that sometimes. Besides, she let Matti try her bourbon.”

“I knew he wouldn’t like it and it was the only thing I could think of to do. He fusses worse than Lydia does when he gets moody,” Tarja said, though her tone was only mildly apologetic. “He’s usually a little cherub for me.”

“True,” Naemi said with amusement. “Probably because you let him raise hell. I distinctly remember a bathtub full of frogs.”

“A little hell is healthy. I mean, that's the Cederström modus operandi and look at how responsible Jenna turned out,” William’s fiancée said.

Any hunger William may have felt had beat a hasty retreat at some point during the course of the conversation. His fingers interlaced with Tarja’s, the prince could only listen to their byplay with wide, brown eyes. By this point in their arrangement, nothing about his countess should have been able to faze him, yet here he was—caught off guard once more.

“Should, I ah…” The prince actually paused, taking a quick sip of water as he looked at Jenna. “Be worried?” He asked, flashing her a nervous smile. “While I’ve been one who looked forward to children, I’m uncertain if I want to share my nightly showers with frogs. Tarja is bad enough,” he chuckled.

Tarja put a hand over her heart. “Oww. I wish I’d known sharing a shower with me was so onerous. If I had, I’d have never offered.”

Jenna raised an eyebrow. “And to think you told me to be nice after the belt thing.”

“Belt thing?” Seija asked. As per her usual, she spent most of the conversation listening. She preferred not to talk.

“We’ll tell you when you’re older, Seija,” Jenna promised with a laugh.

“She made friends with a Cacertian sailor. I think her days of sheltering are over,” Tarja commented. “And we should probably order before the waiter heading our way gives us the evil eye.”

“A Cacertian sailor, hmm?” William asked with a soft smile as he glanced down at his menu one last time, despite knowing exactly what he wanted. While what he did with Tarja behind closed doors was positively scandalous, that was not what he’d been expecting to hear of their soft spoken compatriot. “Quite the world traveler you are, Seija.”

After he had put in his order, William worried on his bottom lip for a moment as he glanced at Tarja. He leaned in, keeping his voice soft. “You know I was just kidding about the shower thing, right?”

Seija shook her head slightly. “I’d never left Alemarr before this. But it was fun to practice my Italian.” She seemed perfectly innocent, even if most of what she’d done with that friend had been anything but.

Tarja smiled at William when he leaned in and she’d given her order. “I don’t know,” she said teasingly. “But I suppose it would be unkind to leave you lonely, even if I am a troll.”

Lia smiled, but didn’t comment on the look Tarja was giving William. It had been a long, long time since she’d seen Tarja smile this way. William seemed a good sort, a far cry from Estlander. It gave her hope. She glanced over and saw a similar approval on everyone else's mind, at least if their eyes were any judge. Alemarrans were hard to gauge to outsiders, doubly so nobles, but Lia had spent a lifetime at court.

Perhaps, if he’d been more daring in this instant, William would have let his hand wander rather than let it simply stay interconnected with her own. It wouldn’t have been the first time, albeit their company had been his own family last time. Not wanting to ruffle anymore feathers than he already had, regardless of what her hens may have privately thought, the prince just flashed her a little grin and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “If you are a troll, my dear, than what does that make poor ole me?” He chuckled softly as he pulled away to eye his stunning fiancee.

“My unwitting victim,” Tarja said lightly. “You’d best escape while you can. The consequences are quite dire, I’m afraid.”

“She says that, but the Wildcat of Naantali seems terribly tame at the moment. We’d best fix that this evening, Tarja,” Naemi said. “It’s the official end of your dating life, after all. Now you’ll have to at least pretend to settle down.” She paused for a moment to add, “No offense intended, Your Highness.”

“I am doing anything but settling, I assure you.” Tarja ran her fingers through her dark hair a moment, though she didn’t let go of William’s hand under the table with her other hand. Truth be told, she was still very much adjusting to having the Shalumite prince in her life. He was certainly a steadying influence and she wasn’t going to miss dating, but it was still almost strange to think of herself as about to be married. It was as if she’d borrowed someone else’s life. “Still, I couldn’t possibly give up the opportunity to have a night out on the town with you wonderful creatures. It’ll be once in a blue moon.”

Lia sighed slightly. “Much to our misfortunes. The urge to pass the title and all its problems off onto my brother is insanely tempting, but it would be terribly improper. Primogenitor...what a wretched system.”

“You’ll be fine, darling,” Tarja said. That much she had confidence in. Deep down, Lia was as reasonable and rational as Jenna, though she did have an impulsive streak. Granted, it was hard to imagine her settling down either, particularly staying in one place. Her wanderlust was particularly strong. Lia was also a bit too tenderhearted to do well, at least at first, in the Great Game, but Tarja knew that the machinations that ruled Alemarr were very good at hardening people.

“It will keep things interesting,” Jenna said by way of agreement. While alliances in the Imperial Court were perpetually fluid, the Daehns and Cederströms tended to be in alignment more often than not. They would still be rivals when they assumed the titles, but it would be as friendly as such things could be.

“Still. I know that I did dodge a bullet. Unfortunately for William, it struck him,” Tarja acknowledged.

“It is merely a flesh wound, my dear wildcat, I assure you that I shall survive.” William replied with a gentle smile, pausing only for a moment as a waiter with a pitcher bustled by to refill their drinks. “Even if there was an avenue of escape, I believe I’ve developed quite the case of Stockholm syndrome - I rather enjoy the clutches of my captor.” He added, brown eyes warm as he looked over at his fiancee for a long moment.

Considering that his nation was no better in terms of succession, William simply left the issue be. Though he was the second son, there was no doubt in his mind that he’d so much as see the chance to rise any higher than he already was - not that he any desire too. In fact, once Matthew started having children, he would only fall down in the ranks. “Even though we are marrying, do know that I would never try and interfere in Tarja’s life in such a manner. It takes two to tango, as they say. You’re all welcome to visit anytime. The palace has far more rooms than it does guests on any given week, and I’m sure Tarja would enjoy the company.” He said as he looked around the table, nodding to the hens.

“You two are almost nauseatingly adorable,” Jenna said with a smile and a small shake of her head. She said it mostly because she knew it might earn a blush from her sister. Adorable wasn’t an adjective typically applied to Tarja, but it seemed appropriate.

Tarja considered kicking her sister under the table in protest, but it would likely only prompt retaliation by commentary. Instead, she just narrowed her eyes slightly, which she knew was disapproving while maintaining some dignity.

“The malfunction is more on our end, Your Highness,” Seija explained, smiling at her friend’s subtle expression of hostility towards her sibling. It was good-natured ribbing, as they didn’t usually devolve into a real fight. “Lia and I are both heirs like Jenna, so we’re expected at least near Court, and Naemi has to see to the estate while her brother’s in the capital.”

“Of course, I understand.” The prince replied as he glanced over at Seija, nodding slightly. There had been a time or two when he’d been left in charge of the household while his older brother and father were away, but those instances were few and far between. “Such is the duties of our station. I suppose that I am lucky enough to be second son, in that regard. Still, the offer remains.” Absently, he mused about the fact that they would all be well loved by the bachelors of Aragon; that being said, there weren’t many men within the city that he would have felt marrying any of them off to. Not that arrangement contracts were that kind, alas.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Jenna said, sincere in her gratitude. “It is appreciated.”

“Perhaps if Alemarr becomes too cold,” Tarja said with a smile.

“That’s like saying the ocean might become too wet,” Naemi said lightly. “Don’t worry, we’ll visit whatever season we can. I don’t know how much of a microscope you’re under here, Tarja, but we can always be relied upon to be an attractive nuisance. Might give the society rags around here something to chew on.”

The others nodded agreement and Tarja was almost struck by her own immense gratitude for the people around the table,though with William it was a different relationship. Still. Only a lifetime of conditioning kept her from tearing up. “What would I do without you monsters?” she said fondly.

“Enjoy knitting? Learn to play chess? Become a serious, sober, mature member of society?” Lia said with a smile.

“Can’t have that,” Tarja said with amusement. “The liver is evil and must be punished.”

“Don’t think I won’t put that on your tombstone,” Jenna threatened.

William grinned at them, gently nudging Tarja with his shoulder. “If you gals plan to make it into the paper, at least give me a little warning first. My homeland is populated by barbarians with poor table manners; we don’t have an actual paper dedicated to the misdeeds of the noble houses.” He replied, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Really, the concept of having resources dedicated to such a thing was a prime example of the divide in cultures between them.

This whole conversation was a telling one, really, of just how close Tarja was to her hens; it was a wonderful sight. At least one of them had friends. Though he wasn’t avoided like the plague in the courts, the prince had never been the most popular fellow, like his older brother or younger sister were. After his messy divorce, the face he’d lost hadn’t helped either.

“If Alemarr does happen to freeze over, just remember that we’re supposed to have one of the worst winters in recent memory here in Aragon. It may get down to the dreaded zero degrees.” He added with a smirk.

“What a strange world,” Naemi said, surprised despite herself at the lack of both society pages and freezing winters. “I suppose it explains a good deal about Shalum, that said.” She didn’t feel the need to elaborate on that. It was a thought similar to the one Tarja had on her first introduction to the culture.

The food was excellent, a welcome relief to the Alemarran nobles. If there was one thing they’d been accustomed to over their life, it was fine dining. Most of the cuisine they enjoyed was introduced from further south, but they’d done their best to elevate it into an artform. It was new to navigate a system with different serving patterns and sometimes silverware, but they managed to keep as much of their manners as possible. They did order what could be considered a copious amount of wine, even without mixed drinks at the table—much to Tarja’s disappointment.

Afterwards, there was only a little more drifting through Aragon. Naemi raised the point that it would be wiser for them to go and rest if they intended upon being up all night partying, which was met with a general agreement. Even Tarja nodded. She’d been up since before eight, so she knew she would not enjoy continuing to be awake until four or five in the morning without some kind of rest. “We should head back, then,” Jenna said. “We can reassemble the coven when everyone’s had some sleep.”

“You’re going to need the rest if you’re going to unleash hell on the town later.” William added with a chuckle as he fished his keys from his pocket, leading them back to the valet area where he’d left his SUV. While they could have just as easily charted one of the palace’s drivers, he’d always enjoyed the freedom that came with seeing the city in his own vehicles. Considering that his happened to be the largest vehicle that Thoroughbred Automotive’s luxury line produced, there was more than enough room for all the girls and anything they may have bought along the way.

As they pulled into the section of the palace garage, William glanced over at Tarja and flashed her a little smile. “Are you planning to take one of our cars tonight, or a driver?” He asked softly, amused as he killed the engine. Though he didn’t drive them very often, the prince did have a small collection of vehicles, ranging from an expensive all terrain truck to a sports car that cost more than most houses and would go zero to sixty before one could so much as blink.

“Driver,” Jenna said almost automatically. She smiled a little. “I doubt any of us will be sober enough to safely operate a motor vehicle. I’d rather not have an idiotic wreck. Besides, it’s one less thing to keep track of. Even with Seija acting as a designated driver, it’s too hard to catch the full group and manage a vehicle. We get terribly distracted.”

“One more thing, as housekeeping for tonight,” Tarja said. “When we go out tonight, we stay together.” They didn’t have minders arranged by their families to keep them safe from some of the world’s dangers, but sticking together generally lowered the risk of anything. Besides, she doubted their grasp on any language, including possibly their native tongue, would be excellent by the time they hit their third nightclub. Presuming they made it that far and didn’t find one in particular they liked to spend the rest of their night at. Usually on occasions like this, they ended up with a bottle and some more private place—frequently a park—to drunkenly reminisce.

There was a chorus of assent from her friends. They knew why she’d made a point of it. It was the rule they always followed, but it would be even more important in a foreign country. They were each other’s best defense, if only by noticing trouble and calling a bouncer or possibly the police. So far, though, none of them had run into a situation they couldn’t handle. There had been one or two close calls, but they had been broken up.

As they began to pile out of the car, William nodded, silently approving of their plan. While he was a military man, local security was his bigger concern; his unit often worked aside law enforcement, particularly during big events and the like. “If you girls would like, I could ask for a commissar to go along. Tarja, you haven’t met her yet, but there is a woman who is going to be assigned to you once we marry. She’s half-bodyguard, half-political adviser to you. I’m sure she’d be happy to come along, if you wanted someone to watch over you, just in case.”

Tarja hesitated for a moment, mostly because it was a little strange to hear she was going to have a political advisor. At home, she’d been so immersed in it from a young age that she understood the Court on an implicit level. However, she was in an entirely new country, so it made sense. “That would probably be a good idea,” she said. “Provided she can stand the lot of us.” One commissar wasn’t going to be able to track all five of them, but it did make Tarja feel a bit more secure. She’d learned something of their reputation in her time in Shalum.

“Still, plan stands,” Jenna said. Alemarrans weren’t very touchy as a rule, but she still gave her older sister a hug. “See you in a few hours, wildcat.” With that said, she headed off towards her room, Naemi and Seija in tow. Lia had hesitated a short distance away.

Tarja smiled a bit, her thoughts so busy that she hadn’t noticed. She was excited to have some time with her friends, particularly with all of them free from the straight-jacket that was Alemarr. “I’ll see you later, William. Hopefully before we go. If not, I will do my utmost to be quiet when I stagger in.” She kissed him lightly before heading off towards her room. There was no guarantee that she would be able to stagger with that much coordination, but Jenna and Seija would probably be sober enough to arrange something. They tended not to drink to the same level of excess.

Lia cleared her throat slightly and approached her friend’s fiance. “Your Highness, may I have a word?” she asked, offering him a small smile.

The prince just smiled at Lia, nodding down at her. “Uh, yeah, sure. One second, though.” He said before hurriedly jumping back into the SUV. A few moments of fumbling later, he emerged again, wallet in hand. “Sorry, forgot that…” He said by way of explanation, holding it up for a moment before he slipped it back into his pocket. “What did you want to talk about, Lia... I mean Miss Daehn?”

“Tarja,” Lia said by way of explanation. Her next words were careful, but honest. “She’s my oldest friend. We’ve known each other since we were learning to talk. Alemarr is very different from Shalum, from what I understand. But to have a close friend, someone you can actually talk’s rarer than gold for us. And...I haven’t seen her like this since—” She didn’t think Tarja would appreciate mentioning Hannes Estlander, so she settled for something less loaded. “—we were much younger, before the weight of the world dropped onto her shoulders. It is strange to see her around someone other than us without her armor.”

She took a breath, carefully measuring what she was going to say next. Commenting on Tarja’s feelings probably wouldn’t be appropriate, but she could share her own. “When I heard about the arrangement, I was livid. We all were. Marriages of political expediency are common in Alemarr, but to be sent halfway around the world, away from everything one has ever known...that is a different matter entirely. I would be terrified. But here she is, smiling and laughing without pretense. Tarja is brave, but it is more than that. You make her feel safe enough to be who she actually is. She is freer in Shalum than she ever would have been in Alemarr. I wanted to tell you that you have our gratitude. My gratitude. Sincerity is not something any of us just give anyone, but rest assured that you have it from us now.” She smiled at him. “Thank you.”

Despite the time they’d shared together so far, the last thing that the prince had been expecting was approval from her friends and family. They’d only known each other for a few hours, which was far less time than it usually took to earn one’s trust, especially for an Alemarran. While his own nation’s noble court wasn’t the most pleasant around, he had learned over time that what his fiancee and her friends were used to was far worse than what he could truly wrap his head around.

Looking down at the smaller blonde woman, a grin slowly etched itself across the prince’s features. “Thank you, Viscountess.” He replied as he wrapped his arms around her without thinking. “Tarja is such an amazing woman, really. Hard to deal with at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he admitted. “I was so worried that she’d hate me, or that her friends would, or something. I’m so glad that I was wrong. Thank you, Lia…” He said as he pulled away. “You’re a good friend; Tarja is lucky to have you, and all the other hens, in her life.”

Lia was not used to being hugged, particularly not by men she didn’t know well. Alemarr was not a touchy society as a general rule. She almost squeaked in surprise. “…” She cleared her throat slightly, marshalling her words before she embarrassed herself more. “Thank you, Your Highness.” She knew it wasn’t a lot of time, but for an Alemarran noble, being a good judge of character in a moment was something of a survival trait. William wasn’t a deceptive creature, and Tarja barely was. “From what I’ve seen, you have very little to worry about from us. It’s impossible to protect her—one could bubble-wrap the globe and she’d still find a sharp corner—but I hope you’ll be there to help her recover. If you do, she’ll move the earth and stars for you. Loyalty to the bone; that’s just how she is.”

The prince had always been a touchy-feely sort of person, something that Tarja was probably more used to than any of her friends, he realized belatedly as he gazed down at the woman wrapped up in his arms. His expression turned sheepish as he pulled away, releasing her; he would have made a poor courtier. “I, uh, sorry about that.” He said as he rubbed the back of his neck, cheeks flush. “I figured as much. Tarja is a good woman at her, beneath that tough exterior of her’s. Maybe she just needed someone to...ground her a little?” He hedged with a chuckle. “Whatever the case may be, I plan to be there for her as much as I can be. Same for you girls. If you ever need anything, Lia, just tell me,” William offered with a smile.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Lia said. She rubbed at her eyes a little bit. They’d left Alemarr at an unreasonable hour and that wasn’t even counting the time they’d spent waiting. The idea of a nap was more than reasonable. “I’d best be to bed, if I’m going to keep up later. If you ever need a word of advice or a friend, I expect I’ll be just a call or a text away. We try to keep in touch, whatever happens.” The siren call of bed was almost overpowering. She flashed him a smile. “Have a good day, Your Highness.”

With her piece said, she was ready to go sleep. Hopefully she’d be fully rested by the time evening rolled around.
Real nobility is based on scorn, courage, and profound indifference.
- Albert Camus

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