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The Language of Fruit

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Idle breezes spun blossoms down from the garden pergola onto the silk where they lay. Melissande captured a flower to lightly brush the delightful curve of Lady Yolande's hip. That lady stretched to allow for greater explorations. Idles that pleasantly filled the hours.

But all idles must end.

"I never asked," Lady Yolande watched as a servant reassembled Melissande into her dress, "what brought on this sudden visit?"

"A whim," said Melissande. Another dreadful lecture from her mother on the responsibility that Melissande owed her position and nation, the necessity that she should curb her flighty nature, and, of course, why couldn't she be more like her elder brother and sister. Any of which admonitions never failed to result in Melissande cantering as far as possible from the path that her mother laid out.

"And here I was hoping it was my natural charms." Lady Yolande pressed a kiss to Melissande's cheek. "Do you know if the Queen, your mother, has had time to consider my husband's appointment to Master of the Privy Chamber?"

Since Melissande did not care how Mother handed out titles to the several hundred petty positions at court, Melissande returned the kiss with a kiss. "You know Mother. She is the state. She'll do as she decides to do." Made her escape before the conversation went further.

When Melissande arrived back at the palace, it was to find that Mother had arranged for a basket of Ormond fruit to greet her from her bed. Almost flavorless things. Very nutritious. They were symbolic of a journey. There was also a summons for her presence in the Hall of Mirrors where Mother would have an answer for the Empress Malinqua's little proposal. "This is not good," said Melissande to no one in particular. To the watching servants. To her ladies of the Private Chamber.

She would need to change.

Melissande held out her arms as her ladies constructed her dress by wrapping a butter soft skein of azure linen around her body. The color declared the wealth of Coziquela, given the simply horrendous labor required to make it. They folded each of the ninety-nine pleats that symbolized contrition with a warm iron and held each in place with a separate gold pin. Melissande did not flinch. Such was the price of her position. Her situation.

Her lips curved up. Oh, but the afternoon had been a supremely bad idea. Delightful. Warm. Soft. Delicious.

A hot press of the iron to her shoulder had her standing up straighter. Her ladies, Mother's ladies really, folded the end of the cloth over her right shoulder. It was embroidered in gold thread depicting the glorious reign of Queen Melissande, the Sea Wolf, and Melissande's namesake. The waves glittered with tiny gems. Perhaps if Mother hadn't want Melissande to behave as she did, she should have picked a different name.

It might make Father laugh. The situation might be saved if Father laughed. Her left shoulder was bare and open to possible negotiation.

She lifted her right and then left foot so that linen slippers, dyed to match the dress, could be placed on her feet.

She timed her arrival perfectly on the sudden silence in the music.

Her heart sank when she saw Mother, attired in cloth of gold that reflected in the mirrors on both sides of the hall. Father, ever the moon to Mother's sun, was dressed cloth of silver. Melissande was not going to regret not dressing like the night sky. She sailed into the hall and allowed the mirrors to reflect her.

Empress Filomara was seated in drab display in a seat of honor.

This was very not good.

When any number of dull things had happened, and Melissande was handed up to her own seat of honor and infinite reflection, Mother said, "Upon consideration of the Malinquese request for improved relations with our great nation, we have decided to send back with her our most charming ambassador, our daughter Melissande, to see if a marriage of alliance might suit our nations."

"An honor," Melissande tapped her fan against her wrist above the vein. "I can only hope I don't fail you in this endeavor."

She did not ignore the fluttered gesture of Lord Igval's fan that she'd shame them all. She winked at him. She smiled at Empress Filomara. "With the Empress having such a wealth of nephews, I'm sure certain that we can find some way to bind our nations together."

Mother looked alarmed for a moment and waved her fan in the clear signal that Melissande was under no circumstances to do something silly in the direction of the Empress, which was quite frankly insulting. The woman had no dress sense. Melissande could abide by many qualities in a lover, but rigidity in style was not one of them.

Still, she took the opportunity to put her hand on Empress Filomara's arm. She did not ignore the sound of her father's sigh.

+++

The sea journey was simply exhausting with Empress Filomara trying to impress on Melissande that it would be up to Melissande to win over her future husband and even then she might not end up married to the true heir. Really, it was all very ridiculous. Either the woman wanted the next emperor's children to have a blood alliance with the most powerful nation in the Southern Seas or she did not. That certainly wasn't up to Melissande, but she would drone on.

Palminera was quaint. The streets lined up to see their Empress, but really it was little more than a large town, but Melissande told herself firmly that it had a delightful charm.

Still when she arrived at the palace, she had to put her foot down. She told Lorian, the stone faced palace steward, "Oh, no, this won't do." Melissande waved at the small closet set aside for her maid. "I'll need this entire space to hold my clothing. As it is, they may not fit." She'd brought a dozen trunks it was true. It was also true that she had no intention of sharing a room with one of Mother's spies to ensure her good behavior. "You can put my maid next door."

The woman stolidly said, "I'll listen for any requests for assistance."

Melissande waved everyone. That accomplished, she napped her way through the afternoon. Refreshed, dressed and coiffed by Mother's spy, she set off on her adventure.

She became lost while trying to find her way through the palace. No one had been assigned to see to her navigation. Not by the Empress. Not by Lorian. It was an interesting sort of care for visiting royalty with whom Empress Filomara hoped to make an alliance. Almost careless, she might have thought.

When she finally made her way, it was to find that Empress Filomara was preparing to depart in search of another princess to vie for her nephews the next day. It was to find that there was already a Princess from Dhonsho ensconced in the palace as a possible alliance for a nephew. Princess Alette sat silent and gorgeous at one end of the table. The woman had clearly foresworn smiles and joy.

The youngest of the nephews, Greggorio, a simply lovely slab of young manhood sat next to Princess Alette. He was sighing over some lost love. As Melissande had good reason to know, there was a seductive quality to sorrow and sighs.

Melissande sat near the eldest of Empresses' nephews, Garameno, the one bound to a wheelchair. It was appalling. No particular care had been taken to curate their meeting. Honestly, it was as if Empress Filomara expected marriages to be formed in sort of haphazard manner based on who liked whom.

It suddenly occurred to Melissande that she might actually have a choice in her husband. She honestly had expected the Empress, for all her protestations, to have already decided on which of her nephews might be most advantageously married to Melissande.

Mother would have.

As it was, Melissande was seated next to the Mayor of this quaint town. He stabbed a piece of meat and chewed it. "There's really only one option isn't there," said the Mayor, whose name had already drifted from her mind like so much pompous smoke. He sniffed at the middle nephew, Jiramondi, a handsome enough fellow, and related a story about Jiramondi being discovered by Lorian in a certain state of passionate undress with another man, which he clearly expected to evoke some response.

She looked down the long table to where that very well groomed gentleman was sitting. "Surely you have more details than that. He's very handsome." She rested her hand on her chin. "I want to know every detail. How undressed were they?"

The Mayor gulped. But he'd clearly decided that she needed to be warned about something. He jerked his head in Garameno's direction. "Two of the Empresses' nephews will never be of any use to a woman."

Melissande said, "However not." She lounged back in her seat. "Garameno has hands and lips doesn't he? And I'm still waiting on further details on Jiramondi's shocking encounter." A delivery somewhat ruined by eating a piece of meat spiced with the fire that burned in her mouth.

As she gulped water in an inelegant way, Liramelli, the prefect's daughter, said without a bit of irony, "Someone should have warned you about the meat spiced with zeezin." She pointed at a bowl of strained fruit. "This cools the taste."

Melissande ate the stuff, which worked as described. She decided to send both a jar of zeezin spice and strained fruit as a gift to Mother and Father. "Here, after saving me, you simply must sit next to me." Melissande looked at the Mayor. "Be a dear and trade seats." Soon Liramelli was seated next to her. Liramelli had the sort of looks that had Melissande itching to dress her something fashionable. There was nothing more pleasurable than dressing someone.

She told Liramelli, "Because it reminds me of the corollary."

Liramelli laughed. "I'm not sure I understand."

Melissande decided that she'd simply have to try harder. She flirted outrageously for the entire dinner, and had the sinking realization that the idea of sublime delights between two women hadn't even occurred to Liramelli.

While it was true that Melissande loved a strong virile man, she also loved the curve of a soft cheek.

It was incredibly dreary, but still the prize might be a husband and a kingdom, which had nothing to do with her mother. She might be being expected to live half a life, but still royalty could not expect anything greatly different.

After dinner, Garameno rolled off to conference with his aunt on her princess mission. Jiramondi and Greggorio were not asked to join in. It took but one minute of conversation with Greggorio to find out why. The boy was several wits shy of a full cargo. While Jiramondi was full of wit. It was instructive to think upon what the Mayor had said and consider with two clever nephews, Empress Filomara was still undecided as to her heir.

Naturally, Melissande went shopping the next day.

She wrote her father that she hoped he enjoyed the zeezin and fruit. She asked him if he thought Mother might relent on certain items were she unable to decide on a nephew. She sealed the letter with a few sprinkles of zeezin and a drop of honey.

+++

After a nine-day or so rattling around the palace, the Welcian princess, Corene, was simply a delight. She had red hair. Melissande had never met someone with red hair that did not throw everything into delightful chaos. She'd runaway to try for the crown. She'd brought some new possible heir into the mix. She was simply delicious.

She was also somewhat ignorant as to her own charms, as she failed to notice every flirt and ploy Melissande extended. Not when Melissande adjusted a fold of Princess Corene's dress. Not when Melissande held reached out to comment on Princess Corene's necklace. She didn't even notice when Melissande asked for help pinning up her hair, as if her own maid couldn't have managed.

She reminded herself that Mother had not sent her to Malinqua to wed a Welcian princess.

Since Princess Corene had been so kind as to bring a new heir into the mix, Melissande went to see what advantages or disadvantages this Steffanolo might have.

"It's all so amazing. A half quintile ago, I was still on my father's farm."

"Ah, farming." Melissande understood that farms existed. She'd ridden through them. Her nation had a wealth of them. But the better part of her nation's wealth came from their ships.

This faint statement earned her a discussion on all the things about farming that Steffanolo hadn't enjoyed. A great many details.

Melissande went to excuse herself out of sheer weariness, which was true. She knocked on Princess Corene's door for another attempt at sublime delights, but there was no answer. Further, there was muted conversation in Welcian behind the door of Princess Corene's guard. Urgent and full of sudden whispers.

A delightful turn of event. Melissande had always heard Welce spoken of as some sort of lumpen backwater, but she might have to visit when this was all over.

There was a sudden draft in the hall. A nine-day and some change in Malinqua, and Melissande had yet to capture the interest of a nephew. Even now, Mother was surely selecting someone dreary for Melissande to marry. She made her way to rooms and gave her maid something to report to Mother about by examining something outrageous to wear the next day.

+++

Outside it was raining. Inside, Liramelli played yet another sad melody about a brave hero, who after exhibiting every fine masculine trait that a man could possibly have to a toxic degree, having once denied his lady love, died falling to his death to save her. It was terribly dramatic.

Melissande turned to Jiramondi. "You simply have to save me. One more song and I might do something dreadful."

"Alas, I cannot save myself from this fate." He put his hand over his heart, which did at least lead to a several minutes of conversation about the fabric of his tunic while they played yet another round of Penta.

Liramelli began a third song.

Fortunately, salvation came in the form of correspondence. Her father had written her back. Not her mother, but she hadn't expected that.

She read the letter three times.

Not a single reference to the zeezin or the fruit. She could have expected a witty and detailed response to what she thought had been a fairly clever metaphor. There were three boxes of dried lassenberries fruit, which symbolized regrets for the passing of a season and pleasures that would not last, but no answer. Further, Father always wrote his own correspondence. He was ridiculously proud of his handwriting, which was admittedly lovely, but this letter was in an unfamiliar hand had no reference to her gifts or what metaphor such spice and fruit should be assigned. There was no answer to her question.

She'd expected her correspondence to be read. It would be ridiculous if it weren't, but to have her letters altered was another matter entirely.

This only increased her feeling of being trapped. She declared her desire to go out even if it soaked her. When they finally were free to go to the Great Market, Melissande paid particular attention to the number of guards that followed her about. She was sure to lead them up and down and around the stalls.

For whatever reason, the Empress was making very certain that her royal visitors would not be able to leave, which was interesting.

If anything happened to Melissande, her mother would burn the city to the ground, which did leave the question of what game was Empress Filomara playing.

Melissande could have written a letter via her maid. Instead she slept in until noon so her laziness could be well reported.

+++

Steff had been tested to see if he truly was Empress Filomara's grandson and the results were due to be revealed over dinner. Therefore all day, the only thing anyone could talk about was Malinquese science, Steff and those tests.

Greggorio was quite certain that Steff would be executed if he'd tried to impersonate royalty. "That's the punishment for treason!" He said very earnestly.

Melissande leaned forward. Her dress was doing a lovely job clinging to her bosom this evening, and Greggorio gave her a passing interested look. She said, "But Greggorio, if he's shamming at being royalty, then he's entirely Welcian and killing him would be an act of war. Unless, of course, you want to consider the Welcians falsifying royalty as an act of war and attack Princess Corene as well."

Greggorio's brow furrowed as he attempted to slice the logic of that. Sadly, his knife was dull. Handsome. Fit. Dull. She'd never taken a dull lover, but then again she was considering marriage not delight.

"Don't worry about it." She patted his hand. "One of your cousins has probably already paid to have the results return a negative."

This only led to further furrowing.

"Because he'd be another rival." Really it felt like Melissande had to explain everything. She decided to throw the boy something softer to chew upon. "Do you like the color of my dress?"

"Yes," he sighed. "That was Sarona's favorite color. I gave her a ribbon that color and she told me so."

Melissande laughed. "Then she had good taste." That rival for the boy's affections had fled the scene some three days before she'd arrived, or more likely been escorted from the field by Empress Filomara. Although, something about that didn't fit, given the lack of care the Empress was taking about this entire matter and Liramelli's continued presence.

From across the room, Melissande saw Liramelli mooning over Greggorio. Gossip had it that before he'd developed a passion for Sarona, he'd had a passion for every lady other than the young lady Empress Filomara had selected for him.

Melissande had to admire someone who'd seen their life laid out for him and done everything he could to avoid it.

Greggorio launched into an explanation something to do with local sport.

Her admiration only went so far.

From down the table, Jiramondi winked at her. She wrinkled her nose at him. If she were at home, she'd have held her fan in the position of exhaustion. Clever man that he was, he might have replied. If he knew the language. The sublime generally did.

Alas, she turned back to Greggorio and pushed the stone of their conversation.

+++

When Princess Corene mentioned going out to the Red Tower, Melissande could have exploded with boredom, but stirred herself when Steff espoused a desire to go. Now that he'd been declared another possible heir, Melissande supposed she had some sort of obligation to make more of an effort with him.

Also, he was quite pleasing on the eyes.

He and Liramelli spent the entire ride out speaking about detaselling corn, which was apparently some sort of agrarian rite of passage across national boundaries involving desexing certain unsuspecting maize and sexing other corn stalks with the results.

Melissande smiled widely. "So how do you rub the corn tassels?" She made a gesture. "Like this?"

Both of them blushed. "No, it's not like that," protested Steff.

"No, it's more like this," Liramelli made a deliciously salacious gesture, more's the pity, as she clearly had no idea what the gesture meant.

Sadly, they arrived at the Red Tower before she could explain it.

Melissande was not about to labor up the thing all for the pleasure of walking back down again. This left her in Garameno's company, as the kingdom had yet to arrange for anything like elevators to pull the weary or the physically constrained to the tops of towers. Really, this wasn't the last century, but what could she expect from such a quaint town.

Since asking him why his kingdom was so backward seemed a bit much, she asked him, "Would you like to learn about the sexual habits of corn?"

He arched an eyebrow at her, which reminded her nothing so much as Mother, which was a withering thought. "I'd be shocked to learn that you know anything about corn." He glanced up at the tower from which the whooping sounds of running boys was emitting, "Ah, you shared the carriage with young Steff and Liramelli."

"So, I did. While you shared a ride with Princess Corene." Melissande leaned closer. "She has red-hair."

"I have noticed."

Since there was little that man didn't notice, Melissande turned the conversation to one they might both enjoy, a discussion of the Great Market and all that went on there.

She was just thinking that she might perhaps, possibly, endure marriage to Garameno, when their party emerged with Princess Alette in Greggorio's arms.

"Did she faint?" Melissande rushed over. The poor girl was crying as if she wanted to push her heart straight out of her chest.

What emerged was a garbled account of an attempted suicide. Clearly someone had to take charge.

Melissande hustled Princess Alette into her carriage. Held her, whispering a litany of soothing words in Dhonsho. Shocking that none of the Malinquans spoke it given Dhonso was their nearest neighbor. Comfort should come in the form of Princess Alette's native language.

Melissande didn't ask what was wrong. It wasn't the moment for that. She sang her a lullaby, which she'd always thought was particularly lovely. Somehow, this had the girl crying harder. A poem then. Really what mattered was a flow of words. What mattered were comforting arms.

When they arrived back at the palace and Alette's maids carried her off, Melissande felt something unfamiliar blossom in her chest. An ache in her arms that had little to do with delicious delights and everything to do with helping Alette with whatever was wrong with her.

+++

Melissande had a brilliant notion. A little private soiree in Alette's rooms to share items from their respective countries. She arranged for a few cakes that might remind Alette of home. In fact, she made most of the arrangements. She drove the servants out of the room for a demi-private chat between the friends.

Odd, but after such a short acquaintance, she did consider them friends. They should be rivals, but as Alette shared the story of her Mother and sister's executions at her father's order, and  her own fate if she went back to her kingdom unwed, Melissande could only wonder how a country that produced such beautiful fabric could be so horrible.

Then again, that same kingdom had produced Alette.

Melissande parted with a box of lassenberries. She didn't explain the meaning of the fruit. She gave herself over to Corene's ceremony with the elemental blessings. The idea of strangers and friends pulling blessings for each other.

She had to admit, she was charmed by the idea of charm being her blessing. Like some sort of power in a tale.

Melissande looked out the window of her room with its view of the red and white towers in all their duality. She had to wonder how her tower would fit here or if it even could, and what form charm would take were it to be a tower.

She fell asleep dreaming of something open and breezy with a steam powered elevator so everyone could enjoy the view.

+++

Melissande was also thinking of elevators the entire walk up out of that dank pit beneath the palace. Melissande hadn't known this Sarona woman, so finding her body wasn't a shock. Finding any body was a shock.

Liramelli was shaking. Her teeth were chattering. For the second time in so many nine days, Melissande held a woman in her arms not for delights, but to comfort her against the blows life gives.

She kept up a steady stream of observations. She distracted. She held her friend until they could get to her family. She stayed well past when Liramelli's mother had wrapped her daughter up in a colorful blanket. She offered her blessing of charm, a distraction against the darkness below.

+++

Melissande went to her room. Turned on the light. Sat for long moments looking at a blank page. She composed a letter to her mother. She laid out the situation. Her suspicions. She wrote it in code. A cypher based on one of Father's better compositions.

She summoned her maid, because to knock on her door would be out of character. She handed her the letter and said, "You know what to do with this."

"Yes, Your Highness."

"Fine," Melissande looked at the woman. Pulled on a quirked smile. "What's your name again, I deliberately forgot it."

"Nepthe, and everyone forgets it." The woman was stolid and dull looking, until she smiled. It was a wicked smile.

Melissande laughed. "You're named after the river of forgetfulness in that dreadful opera?"

"My mother clearly forgot that when she picked the name," smiled Nepthe, which since she had a mission, Melissande did not stop her from leaving. She did have to wonder what other possibilities she'd forgotten in trying to forget.

+++

Melissande looked good on horseback. She always looked good, but a horse was a delightful accessory. She and Nepthe conspired to dress her in a simply splendid outfit for the ride out to the White Tower. Although, after the last disaster, she had to wonder they were making the attempt.

When they others went to make the laborious climb, she even had two of the nephews to herself.  Garamond could not climb the tower, although he looked splendid on horseback. While Jiramondi was disinclined to climb it with others.

She and Jiramondi discussed their plans for the masqued fete that Empress Filomara was throwing in Steff's honor.

"Perhaps a full mask. I want something where I'll be unknown and unknowable," said Jiramondi.

"For the delight of assignations with strangers," said Melissande, who watched carefully as Jiramondi flinched.

Jiramondi smiled with lips. "No, just to walk through my home without certain reactions." Melissande had heard tales from the various tedious city officials of attacks on men suspected of sublime delights. Really this was a horribly backwards place. Jiramondi should be dressing in gorgeous colors and letting a silver fan flutter. Not pretending that he was anything other than who he was.

Garamond said with an odd sort of smile, "Hiding my identity is not an option for me."

"Then why did you suggest the masqued celebration in the first place," said Jiramondi.

Melissande concealed her surprise. She'd thought that the event had been suggested by that dour steward, Lorian. While Garamond was certainly close enough in his aunt's counsel to suggest any matter of things, he was right, no mask could hide his wheelchair.

The cousins pulled their horses away from her to engage in the sort of fervent family discussion that no one outside the family, or in it, would want to hear.

It was dull. Boring. She longed for something exciting to occur.

When Dhonsho soldiers tried to kidnap Alette, it was the wrong sort of exciting.

+++

Alette said, "Thank you again for letting me stay in your rooms."

"Technically, I'm letting you stay in my closet." Melissande wasn't sure she was comfortable with gratitude. Delicate kisses. Attempted manipulation. Outright commands. These things were all familiar to her. But gratitude for the simple courtesy of letting another woman share her rooms, she did not know how to handle that.

They turned out the lights. Of course, the night lights of this quaint city gave the bedroom a faint glow. Melissande could have drawn the curtains, but she rather liked it. The lights made her think of home.

She said, "Tell me about this lover of yours."

"He's not my lover," came the closeted reply.

"He'd like to be."

"He'd like to be my husband."

"Then tell me about Cheelin. Who is he? What is he like?"

It was a drowsy sort of delight to listen to someone open her heart in the darkness. Hear a woman talk about love and all that her Cheelin must have given up to come to Malinqua. He wasn't nobility, but he wasn't a poor man. A proud man. A loving man.

"He adores you." Melissande wondered what it must be like to be adored. She'd experienced any number of delights, but adoration had yet to come her way.

"I adore him," was the reply. Plainer than Alette might have spoken normally, but for the darkness. After a long silence, Alette said, "I miss my sister. My mother."

Melissande had a sister and a brother, a mother, a father, and found suddenly that she did miss them as well. But what they were spinning here in the dark wasn't about her. She said, "What was their favorite color."

That answer led to others far into the night. Until they finally came to the end of the conversation, when Alette said, "I'm going to die here."

"No," said Melissande equally certain, "because your fellow princesses are going to rescue you. Now take that thought and place it under your pillow." From there they drifted into sleep.

In the morning, Alette was apologetic. Melissande stretched in her bed. "Why? I never rise before noon anyway. Come," She patted a place beside her, "Nepthe will bring us pastry and that less dire form of keerza and we'll share the confidences of the morning, which is to say, we'll decide what to wear and then on," she smiled, "to other plans."

+++

Melissande reflected on the nature of clothing. It's ability to conceal. To reveal what was expected.

Sitting beside her was a woman, Teyta, wearing Alette's clothes. Everyone took her for Alette.

In this moment, Alette, dressed in this woman's clothing was meeting her Cheelin and spiriting away from this dreary country. Running away from courts and intrigue. Melissande allowed herself to wonder for a brief moment if clothing made the princess. If she could ever be free for her own path. There was not enough clothing to do the trick. There was no market in all the southern seas that sold it.

She kept up those reflections all the way to the Red Tower, where the plan was to sit for as long as possible out of sight with Alette's decoy, while Alette escaped. So, at last, she had to climb up one of the towers. She prepared a separate complaint for each step, and was surprised when she arrived at the top, before she'd completed her set.

She looked at the view over the quaint little city that she'd once considered a prize for her taking. It hadn't worked out that way. Would not work out that way. It was fairly clear that she'd soon be returning to her mother's court. She shivered even in the warmth of the tower, and then threw such contemplations off the tower. She was splendid and her friends were splendid and they'd just accomplished something utterly splendid.

Teyta was excited by her adventure and charming with that excitement. Melissande teased her and was pleased to finally see someone flick their eyes away and back in the familiar way.

Melissande had several pastries from their picnic. Although, she avoided the meat pie with its zeezin spices. She wasn't ready for that metaphor. Teyta avoided it as well given her own associations for the spice. Death wasn't something meant to be eaten.

They had reason to be glad when she and Teyta were not vomiting out their lunch in the bushes by the palace. Unless that was more of Corene's sense of drama, but no, Liramelli was also ill. Corene might pull off such a thing, but never Liramemlli.

She and Teyta went to Melissande's rooms. It was odd after the confessions of the previous nights to have a stranger in her closet. A charming, delightful, excited stranger on a grand adventure.

Melissade patted a place beside her on the bed. "Come tell me about yourself?"

After so many oblivious princesses, it was pleasant to find that her skills were not rusty, that her charms were not without an audience, and to finally share a sweet kiss or twenty with a softly curved stranger. It went no further than a sweet cuddle broken far too early by Nepthe, who rolled her eyes at Melissande.

They walked down to the kitchen where they were passed by several hundred strangers. Everyone of whom could give them away. Finally, Teyta pointed out her mother and sister.

Melissande winked at her. "If you're ever in Coziquela, let the palace guards know that you're looking for the Sea Wolf, and they'll let you in to see me."

She went into the kitchen and smiled at a woman ordering everyone around. "Oh, hello. Pardon me, I know I shouldn't be here, but I'm simply famished. Liramelli, you know Liramelli, the prefect's daughter. Well, we were going to go up the Red Tower, simply enormous let me tell you, I thought I was going to expire climbing it. In any case, she took us to this rather dire alley yesterday to purchase food for a sort of picnic at the top of the tower, and we ate something that didn't agree with us, at all." She wrinkled her nose. "I think Corene, you know, princess from Welce, and Liramelli were actually indisposed by the gate. Alette and I were likewise," she fluttered a hand, "under the weather. I had to send her, Alette, you know the princess from Dhonsho, back to her rooms, it was simply too dreadful to have us both in the same room… indisposed." She fluttered about the room throughout this performance.

"Why do people go there for food when we've got much better here?" asked a young man who had but moments before been engaged in chopping up a chicken. "My brother took me there once, and I wished I was dead after."

"I'm afraid I'm not the one to ask." Melissande didn't turn to look at Teyta. She moved about being an out of place and brilliant foreign thing in this most mundane of locations until she'd been given a crust of bread. She stood outside, as if to get some air. She watched the flow of people go out the gate. She watched as Teyta, her mother and sister walked past the guards without being stopped.

So much for a romance.

She almost went back to her rooms for a nap, but it seemed to her that if Alette had gone back to her rooms that there should be some sign of it. She spent some moments artistically disarraying Alette's belongings when she found them. Three squares of silk. Each embroidered in different colors. Surely a sign from Alette. She took them with her as she locked the door behind her and buried the key in the garden for good measure.

+++

Melissande traced the embroidered glyph for charm on her square of silk. She owned many items that had taken someone many hours to make. To sew precious pearls of gems onto the fabric and embroider. Expensive things. She thought of the hours that Alette had spent embroidering the glyph for charm onto a square of fabric in Coziquese blue.

She'd never owned anything to so precious.

This was why she had Nepthe pin it in a fold of her dress for the evening. Empress Filomara had let them know in no uncertain terms that they were to attend, if only to eat soup.

Even knowing that Corene was planning on acting like a child running through the pigeons, Melissande couldn't help but put down her fork and look on in awe as Corene let go. No, not a child. A woman, who was tired of being controlled. She was magnificent. Cold and calm as she flung hard truth after truth at Empress Filomara like so many splinters of ice. She laid bare the Empresses' plot to embroil Welce and Cozique in her country's little dispute with Berringey.

Melissande looked at Garameno as Corene said it. He twitched, a small tell as to where that plan originated. Really, it was unfortunate, because she could have stood him as a husband, if he didn't so remind her of her mother. As it was, Melissande almost applauded as Corene laid out the list of rather suspicious deaths so far, and swept out of the room.

Instead, she had a sip of rather nice wine. She said, "At last, some real entertainment." She ate a piece of fruit. It was sour, which was really perfect for the occasion.

+++

She simply had to visit Welce, if their Sweela Prime was any indication. She had never felt so seen or understood, or accepted. The man was in his seventies, but his attention was potent. She took note of it for future endeavors.

+++

Every item that Melissande wore to Empress Filomara's celebration had a meaning. By her half mask, little more than a wisp of lace, she signified that she would not fade away and be hidden. Her dress was an elaboration construction. Really Nepthe had an amazing way with fabric. The careful drapery in blue was meant to evoke the sea and Cozique's power upon it. Her lace gloves symbolized the sea foam from which the first citizens of Cozique were said to have arisen. Her hair was bound up with three gold hair pins topped with grinning sea wolves symbolizing the Coziquela navy.

Nelson Ardley, the Sweela Prime, laughed when he saw her. Whispered in her ear, "Rule Cozique, long may she rule the waves is an interesting fashion choice."

She threaded her arm through his. "I think I will abandon Malinqua and marry Welcian Primes. I hear there are five of them, which seems a good number."

"That would be an interesting trick, but one I'm sure that you are up to." They wandered through the various splendors that Empress Filomara, or more accurately, Lorian, had arranged. She lost Nelson somewhere near a display of jugglers throwing flames. She turned to ask him if he could do as well, and he was gone. By then, she'd lost the rest of her party. Each of them absorbed by the crowd.

She was alone in a sea of people, which seemed apt. She took it upon herself to bedazzle her way from display to display. It felt somewhat empty, but it was something to do.

It was almost a relief when her mother invaded the party.

Almost.

One moment, a flirtation with some mysterious man with lovely calves, the next Coziquela troops were securing the city, palace, and her person.

Admiral Jhonku said, "Your Mother has given orders to transfer you to her ship."

"And abandon my things, I think not." She put her hand on his arm. "Now Admiral, as long as you control the palace, then I'm perfectly safe here and can pack at my leisure. In any case, I do have farewells to make."

He wilted in the face of her smile.

While inside, she wildly calculated which of her available choices would see her married to someone who would let her live her own life and make her own way.

+++

Beneath them, the Royal ship ploughed through the waves. Melissande hardly felt the motion. Certainly the appointments in Mother's cabin were more than pleasant a location to host visitors.

Jirimondi still looked somewhat dazed at this turn of events. A marriage proposal, really she did wish she'd thought of the idea nine-days ago, and a new country. Cozique, Melissande was inclined to think, would deal with Jirimondi somewhat more kindly than his native land.

Melissande rolled her wrist, opening the first two spines of her fan. "This means, I want to meet in private."

"But if everyone knows that," said Jiramondi, "Then how is it a secret?"

"It's not," said Melissande. "Secrecy isn't the point. The art of it is."

"Ah." A smile lit his face.

Somewhere on the ship, Corene and her bodyguard were being none too secret about their new relationship. Melissande rather thought they'd be a delightful scandal. Especially if Mother could be convinced of Melissande's new steady matronly state.

She waved her fan at the plate of small stone fruits from Coziqela's orchards in the coastal mountains. She prompted, "Do you remember what these symbolize?"

Jiramondi opened his mouth, but then stopped. He gestured with the silver fan that she'd loaned him. The gesture meant new beginnings, which was exactly right.