When Syldor announced that Vex was to be wed, it was hardly a surprise. He had declared it over breakfast one morning in nearly the same breath he had told them he would be meeting the Air Ashari representative and would be late to tea.
It was a surprise that Vex was to be allowed some measure of choice. There would be a ball - a decidedly and unexpectedly human tradition of announcing a daughter was open to being wed - and Vex would have her choice among the prospects.
“All such suitors have their advantages,” Syldor said, his gaze both calm and calculating. “All worthy of being attached the House of Vessar.”
Sometimes Vex thought her father loved her, at least a little.
Sometimes it made the casual cruelty harder to bear.
“It’s a rather long list,” Vex told Vax later that morning. “Devana let me see the invitations.”
Their father’s new wife was a kind woman. She was beautiful, and lovely, and they could have perhaps enjoyed a relationship with her more readily if she were not there to replace their mother, and if everyone had not so clearly viewed her as the superior of the two.
“You are a diplomat’s daughter,” Vax reminded her, with only a touch of sarcasm. “And beautiful, even if you are a half-breed.” It was one of the nicer whispers that followed them, and they were whispers only because of Syldor’s station.
“We knew this was coming,” Vex sighed. “I knew this was coming. I've made my peace with it.” Peace was, perhaps, a strong word - Vex felt calm. Vex had accepted the inevitability of it all.
“You shouldn’t have to.” Vax’s eyebrows drew down, stubborn and angry. He grabbed for her hand and clasped it in his. “We could leave, you know.”
He meant it sincerely, Vex knew, but most days her brother had greater impulses than he had sense.
She rested her head on his shoulder instead. “We wouldn’t get far.” Even if they managed to find their way past the City Guard, their father's men would find them. Vax was Syldor’s heir, until or unless Devana could produce a full elven-blooded one. Vax wouldn’t be allowed his freedom in the meantime, if ever. Vax existed in careful social limbo - the heir? the spare? - and as of yet Syldor had not gambled with him .
Vex was a woman, and an afterthought, but one belonging to the House of Vessar, so an expensive afterthought indeed.
“And at least one of them must be somewhat agreeable,” Vex said, swiftly returning to the subject at hand. The list of suitors had contained humans, elves, and even a half-elf or two, spread out across the whole of Tal Dorei. Vex could admit that leaving Syngorn itself did not trouble her overmuch. “You'll just have to help me decide! Everyone from Syngorn is an arsehole, of course, but at least I would be close to you.”
“Complete arseholes,” Vax muttered. “Or Emon isn’t so far, I suppose. Now scoot up a bit, Stubs, and let me fix your hair.”
They sat in silence for a moment while Vax pulled the ties from Vex’s hair and brushed it out, slowly.
“I’d be stuck with an elf for a long time,” she said after a moment, Vax’s fingers curling gently through her hair and around the tips of her ears. “If I married a human, I’d most certainly outlive him. Become a rich widow, with any luck.”
“There would be children,” Vax added quietly.
“There will be children either way, most likely.” Gods. Children. There were ways to keep from having children, of course, but Vex knew what part she was to uphold in this sort of bargain. Would she hate them? Would she resent them for what they stood for? Would she at long last understand how her father felt?
“But that would suit father, I suppose,” she continued. “He’s already gaining an alliance and losing a daughter in one fell swoop. Who wouldn’t want grandchildren in other noble houses?”
“Don't put the cart before the horse,” Vax interrupted suddenly, still twisting locks of Vex's hair this way and that. “There might be a few prospects. Outside all the arseholes.”
“Your mouth to the Seldarine’s pointy fucking ears, darling.”
The night of the ball arrived in what seemed a blink of an eye. The house had gone from its normal spotless state to a gleaming perfection; the ballroom had been aired out and repainted; flowers lined or twined around what seemed to be every surface. Everywhere Vex looked a different servant was whirling, back and forth, to and fro, and she fled to her room to dress far earlier than was needed.
Devana’s maid, Saida, helped Vex into her gown and deftly did up the long line of tiny buttons along the spine. She pulled Vex’s hair up and back into tight knots, holding each braid in place with what felt like dozens of gold pins and combs. There were champagne diamonds earrings, and a matching gold necklace that felt as if it weighed twenty pounds alone.
“You look lovely, Mistress Vex’ahlia,” Saida said, quiet and sincere.
There was a lump in Vex’s throat and she could only nod her thanks as Saida swept out of the room.
The dress was lovely, of course - new and quite expensive. It wouldn’t do to look like the poor relation, even if everyone knew she was second-rate. But she was certain the dark brown silk brocade, with its red and gold thread, did not sit well upon her. The jewelry sat so heavily on her head and upon her throat she felt scarcely able to breathe.
“Do I look alright?” she asked Vax. He had been pressed into escorting her downstairs, where Syldor and Devana were greeting the guests, and she could admit she already felt steadier with his arm in hers. “I look presentable?”
“You look gorgeous,” Vax said firmly. “You’re wonderful, remember that. Anyone who makes you think otherwise, I’ll boot out the door.”
Then – “Stop fishing for compliments already, aren’t you going to get enough of those tonight?”
She deliberately stomped on his foot at the bottom of the stairs, smiling prettily all the while.
Two hours later, Vex felt very close to screaming. The man she had been dancing with - Trispandornon? Trispandoren? - had offered to bring her a glass of punch, which Vex had graciously accepted, and then she had fled swiftly the moment his back had turned.
It wasn’t even poor Trispandernin’s fault. Vex had already slotted him into the “perfectly serviceable” category: an elf from Emon, from a family that had pulled themselves up out of the merchant class by tenacity and sheer wealth. Certainly he would know what it felt like to be judged by everyone in the room. Though that was a hell of thing to base a marriage on.
It was all just a little much, right this moment. That was all.
Vex wove deftly through the dance floor towards the outer fringes of the room, telling people how lovely it was to see them; that she must sit this dance out, she was afraid; it was a beautiful night, was it not?; and other meaningless fripperies.
Away from the crush, she noticed the man tucked away in the east corner. It was not a hiding spot, precisely – there were most unfortunately no hiding spots in ballrooms, Vex was sad to say – but it was removed enough. He stared out the window instead of out over the party, looking somewhere between bored and uncomfortable.
Vex could relate.
“The west staircase has a better view,” she declared as she swept over to him, and he startled only a little. “It looks out towards the seedier part of town, and the fire lamps are enchanted to stay on all night.”
“I didn’t know Syngorn had a seedy part of town,” the man said, and turned to look at Vex more fully.
He was perhaps a half foot taller than she was in her silly little slippers. Quite human. Dark-haired, in a dark blue coat, with little spectacles on the bridge of his nose like an old man. Perhaps he was the bookish sort – the kind who wanted a life lived quietly in a library.
“Oh, don’t all cities?” she said airily. “Granted, it's merely the merchant district, but I hear the Saturday morning bazaar can be quite raucous.”
He looked down at his shoes as he smiled – bashful, perhaps? – before stepping in front of her and bowing.
“Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo the Third,” he said. “Lord of Whitestone. A pleasure to properly meet your acquaintance.”
Vex could only stare for a moment. “Oh dear. And I thought Vex'ahlia Vessar was a mistake.”
The corner of de Rolo’s mouth quirked in another small smile. “Just Percival is fine, I assure you.”
“And just Vex, for me.” There had been no Percival on the list of suitors, she was certain, but there had definitely been a de Rolo. Perhaps Percival was acting as a chaperone, though he looked scarcely older than she did. It was so difficult to tell sometimes, among other races. “I suppose it should be Lord de Rolo, and Lady Vex’ahlia, but I don’t think anyone is paying much attention.”
“On the contrary,” Percival said, dipping his head back toward the main part of the ballroom, ever so slightly. “You’re rather the center of attention, I believe.”
It was true, of course - Syldor had been watching Vex from the corner of his eye all night, Devana had quietly introduced guests here and there, and at least a dozen other people were watching her every move, whether they were potential suitors or not.
It could make a person feel rather hunted.
“Ah yes,” Vex said, with a forced cheerfulness that sounded tired even to her ears. “Ever so many people have come ever so far.”
“Whitestone isn’t so far,” Percival said after a moment. “Not by airship, at any rate.”
“Oh! An airship? Did you truly take one?” Though there was a small port in Syngorn for visitors, so few elves left the area surrounding Syngorn there was little need of one. “Was it amazing? Or terrifying?”
“It is rather alarming at first,” Percival said. “Quite noisy and dirty, as the engines come to life. There’s a moment where it doesn’t seem quite possible that such a large object should be able to move at all, much less fly. But it does. And the view is spectacular.”
“I can only imagine,” Vex sighed. The roof of the house was one of her favorite hiding spots. She and Vax had long ago discovered they could easily climb out their respective bedroom windows and onto the pitched roof if they were quiet and careful enough. “Flying must be wonderful.”
For a moment neither of them said anything, but looked out the window, over the dim light of evening Syngorn. It was a beautiful city - Vex could give it that - but even now, even still, even as she plotted how to best break free from it, she felt keenly the truth that it had never been her home.
“I should --” Vex gestured uselessly back towards the dancefloor. “Remove myself from the corner. As I am the center of attention.” She smiled politely at Percival. She thought she liked him, a little - and that was rather the point of this entire relentless escapade, wasn’t it? - but he was uninterested, or unsuitable, or disinclined --
“Could I trouble you for the next dance?” Percival said, abruptly, after Vex had already begun to turn away. Her surprise perhaps made her pause a second too long, for Percival quickly added, “or another dance, later, if this one is spoken for?”
Vex smiled. “The next dance would be lovely.”
Vex was only a passable dancer; the tutors Father had arranged were quite unequipped to deal with the twins on the best of days, never mind the worst, but she was nimble enough on her feet, and had already found that have a decent dance partner was integral to the entire process.
Percival was a wonderful partner.
“I believe tradition dictates we converse about the weather,” Percival said dryly, after a few moments of near silence: only music and the hushed conversations of other dancers around them. His hands were rough in hers - callused in odd places. What did a Lord of Whitestone do, to have such hands?
Vex pretended to think for a moment. “It’s the middle of the rainy season. Quite unfortunate, really. But isn’t the ballroom well decorated? My stepmother did a wonderful job.”
“Though she has my compliments, I’m terribly allergic to lilies, I’m afraid. Have you read the latest novel?”
“I’ve been assured it was dreck unsuitable for a young lady of my standing.” Percival’s laugh, Vex was delighted to discover, was a rather undignified snort, and she could feel herself grinning far too broadly.
“I’m believe there’s a man staring daggers at us from the corner,” Percival said. “Who is he?”
Vex craned her neck, but between keeping step and the crush of people dancing, she couldn’t see anyone being particularly odd.
“Was he wearing black? And does he look like….?” she asked, rolling her a neck a little, as if to say ‘like this.”
“Oh. Oh, yes, I suppose he does.”
“My brother Vax’ildan. Vax.” As though Syldor Vessar’s half-human twin children were not public knowledge. “He can be overprotective at times. I suppose it comes from being the older brother - an entire three minutes older, as he never lets me forget.”
“They have a tendency to do that, don’t they?” Percival murmured, and then raised an eyebrow. “Vex and Vax.”
“We adopted a rather mangy cat named Vix when we were younger,” Vex said, and Percival snorted again. “I don’t think Father directly addressed any of us for months.” It was certainly not the worst thing to have ever happened.
“We never really had pets,” Percival said. “Or-- well, there were the hunting dogs, and the horses and ponies, and the stable cats --”
“Seems as though you had a menagerie, darling.” The endearment seemed to just slip out! “The Whitestone Zoo.”
“Oliver is rather too fond of rats by half,” Percival mused. “And Cassandra once tried to sneak a lamb into her room, though how she thought she was going to feed it, I have no idea.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Vex sighed, before she could entirely think of it. “Having a family.”
Another miniscule pause. It was hardly noticeable, barely there, but -- something was brewing behind those spectacles and cool blue eyes. Perhaps Vex had said something silly again, or rude, as she so often did.
“A large family, that is. How many siblings do you have?” Vex asked, and smiled. She could charm her way out of most awkwardness, she had found. “At least three or four, it would seem.”
“Six in all,” Percival said, after a moment. “Three brothers and three sisters. My older brother, Julius – he was the one invited tonight - but it seems rather likely he will be married to someone else quite soon, so I was sent in his stead. I hardly think anyone noticed the difference.”
Vex hummed softly. ”It's true. You humans do look all alike.”
“The de Rolos certainly do,” Percival admitted, with another one of those delightful laugh-snorts. “Dark hair, blue eyes, fair skin.”
“Oh, very. Our father is a rather large man and we have all inherited his height.” Percival seemed to hesitate for a moment. “Your mother - I imagine you must resemble her as well as your father.”
Generally, references to Vex’s mother were made to be insulting - humans by their own were all well and good, but half-elves were neither human nor elf, and no one would ever let her forget it - but she was certain Percival, in all their talk of families, meant nothing insulting by it.
“We have our father’s coloring but not nearly his level of sternness,” Vex said lightly. “I detest frown lines.”
“He doesn’t seem the sort to laugh much,” Percival agreed. “And I think you should.”
The music ended -- rather suddenly, Vex could not help but feel - and there was a small clatter as one of the violinists dropped his bow. Another dance would soon begin, and Vex could not be expected to sit out again so early in the night.
“Are you staying in the city long?” she asked abruptly. “Seeing the sights? Or only here for the ball?”
“We were set to fly back tomorrow,” Percival said, and shrugged. “But I suppose we might leave whenever I say we leave.”
The fluttering in her ribcage was quite disconcerting. “Oh?”
“I assume someone would come looking for me eventually , but I think there’s a few days grace period.” He smiled at her - a sharp smile, she thought, but somehow not at all cruel. “How could I miss the Saturday morning bazaar?”
Other couples were taking their places upon the dance floor. Several of the other eligible young men floated around the periphery, and Vex was quite certain she could feel her father and Devana’s eyes drilling into her back.
“I must--” Vex said, rather helplessly. Go talk to these idiots , was what she wanted to say, but she finally settled on: “---Go. I’ll see you later?”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Percival said, and bowed, and disappeared into the crowd.
“Excuse me for interrupting,” Devana said. She touched Vex lightly on the elbow, and smiled at the elvish couple who had been boring Vex to a rather stupefying degree with talk of their two eligible grandsons. “Vex’ahlia, my dear, your father would like to see you. He’s in his study.”
“Of course,” Vex said. “Right away!” She tried not to sound relieved, but the way she picked up her skirts and nearly ran for the study probably conveyed her feelings well enough. It was late, and thankfully most of the guests had left; the few remaining were milling about aimlessly, waiting for carriages or saying goodbyes.
Vex could handle a talk with her father if it meant taking off her slippers and going to sleep afterwards.
“It’s Vex’ahlia,” she called out, knocking on the study door and waiting for Syldor’s answer. His study was sacrosanct, and even in Vex and Vax’s childhood they had never entered without express permission.
The “come in” was quiet and muffled, but cue enough to enter.
“Don’t bother shutting the door,” he said. He was sitting at his desk with his back towards her, scribbling something. “What did you think?”
Well. That was broad enough that she could be vague in turn.
“Some contenders. Some were rude, frankly, or disrespectful --” Father could be… odd, about such things. Vex and Vax were never allowed to forget their inferiority, but to be blatant about it, or perhaps to insult Father with it, was unacceptable. “But there are perhaps a few worth pursuing.”
“Hmm. Let Devana know, in the morning.” The scratching of his quill continued. “I’m sure we’ll have much to talk about.”
“Of course.” Vex nodded her head, though he couldn’t see it, and turned to leave.
“The young human you were dancing with,” Syldor said, suddenly. He had stopped writing, and Vex felt, suddenly, as if she had stepped into a trap. “De Rolo?”
Vax had frozen halfway through the door, with handfuls of her heavy dress crushed between her fingers. “Yes? I - it was Lord de Rolo, yes.”
“From Whitestone,” Syldor continued after a moment, and began once more to write. “Not the largest of cities. Rather cold for much of the year, from what I understand. But the noble family there does possess the mines for a rather rare and expensive magical stone.”
“How very interesting,” Vex said, as evenly as she was able. She found she was only mildly annoyed to be theoretically bargained off for magic stone. “He was the second son, not the first, but I believe the first son is already spoken for.”
“I will take that under advisement,” Syldor said, dismissal heavy in his tone, and Vex fled upstairs as far as her silken slippers would carry her.
Vex rushed into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
“Well?” a voice from one of the darker corners demanded, and Vex shrieked as her brother stepped into view.
“Seldarine forbid anyone in this house were ever actually burgled,” she snapped, and reached for one of the many ridiculous pillows that sat on her bed to throw at him. “Everyone would assume you were just being as creepy as usual!”
“Your squawking would frighten any burglar off !” Vax hissed, and there was a brief tussle that ended rather rapidly when Vex’s dress caught on the poster of her bed.
“Oh, for -! Help me out of this blasted dress!” Vex had no use for a maid most of the time - Saida was surely attending to Devana, if the last of the guests had finally been ushered home - but even she couldn’t undo the line of tiny buttons up the back by herself.
Vax made quick work of the top set of buttons and dutifully turned around while Vex undid the bottom set herself. The silk rustled to the ground, and Vex carefully laid the dress over the back of her vanity chair; it was very pretty, after all.
She changed out of the underlayers and into a nightgown, and leapt onto the bed, which Vex took as his cue to turn around. He was still in his ball clothes, though it seemed he had at least ditched the terribly uncomfortable looking shoes.
“Well?” Vax demanded again. He looked half-frightened, half-anticipatory. Was he afraid that she hadn’t found someone, or that she had? “The one in the blue overcoat, the one you danced with while you - the one you kept smiling at - who was he?”
“Hm. His name is Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo the Third,” Vex said, letting it roll off her tongue in crisp, deliberate syllables, far slower than it had been running through her head all night. Vax blinked at her slowly. “I think I’d like to call him Percy.”