Negotiations and Love Songs
"Negotiations and love songs
Are often mistaken for one and the same."
- Paul Simon, "Train in the Distance"
Chapter One: Arrival of the Delegation
"The Tortallans will arrive today," Lady Eiralys informed the five children of Drell Valley. "They are to spend most of their day with your father and his guests in the great room and the dining hall, as well as the western gardens. I would like you to steer clear of those areas."
Vivenne nodded; she had little interest in peace treaties or foreigners wandering over their estate. However, she was wise for her sixteen years. She knew that ending the war soon – and with something more permanent than King Ain's cease fire – was more important than the relative comfort of her daily life. The castle would be full of knights and diplomats – the delegation was rumored to have as many as twenty men. She would make a point to be out riding most days, if she could get away with it.
"You older girls will of course need to be present for some activities," her mother continued. "Dinners will be formal, and I expect your best behavior and attire. Evenings are expected to be relatively free from politics – I'm arranging entertainment for most of the nights. I would love to have you three perform music tonight. "
Vivenne bit back a scowl. She wasn't fond of performing in front of people. She was the least musically accomplished of all of her siblings. Solanne and Margarethe were nearly masters of their instruments, while Vivenne still struggled. Even her younger siblings were better, though they had been studying for fewer years.
"Do you really think Vivi's playing will impress the Tortallans?" her only brother, Elin, asked with a mockingly pained expression. "I could play instead."
Vivenne smiled at him gratefully. Elin was three years younger than her, but he was protective of his shyest sister. "Yes, he could take my place," she agreed. "He's much better on the harpsichord than I would ever be in accompanying anyone."
"Nonsense," Lady Eiralys answered. "You insisted on an appearance at court last summer – that means you must be willing to perform the duties that come with being a grown woman." She turned to her youngest daughter and son. "And you two will remain seen but not heard. Elin, your father wants you to attend the various peace negotiations, but you are will be there to observe. But both of you will be attending the formal dinners, and perhaps even some of the after-dinner entertainment. I expect you to behave yourselves, and stay out of the way of our guests."
Elin and Idranna nodded solemnly. Idranna was only eleven years old, and a very dutiful girl. They all knew that the instructions were aimed at their brother.
Lady Eiralys swept out of the room, along with their father's other wives. She was the head of the family, although only Solanne and Vivenne were actually hers; the two were full sisters, sharing the dark hair and deep blue eyes of their mother. Elin was the son of Lady Colinne, and Margarethe and Idranna were the daughters of Lady Fanette, easily distinguished as such by their platinum blonde hair. The Tortallans would never understand such a system, Vivenne knew. They were monogamous, as were most of the northern nations in the Eastern Lands. However, Tusaine had kept the honored traditions of the old empire, and were proud of their ways.
The love between the siblings had never been questioned by the loyalties of full-blood or half-blood relationships. Solanne and Margarethe were inseparable at nineteen and eighteen years of age, respectively, though they were an odd couple, since Solanne tended to be quite serious while Margarethe loved frivolity. Vivenne was closest to Elin, of all her relatives. Idranna was everyone's pet.
"We have to host men who butchered our friends' families and ruined our nation's pride." Solanne scowled, picking up her romance novel and settling in one of the over-stuffed chairs. "This should be fun."
"That's not fair," Vivenne insisted. "Everyone knows Uncle Hilam started the war, and Tortall cannot be blamed for defending itself."
"You, darling sister, could be considered a traitor to the crown." Margarethe's voice was playful, but they all knew it wasn't an exaggeration.
"I don't like Tortall," Vivenne answered. "I just think it was a mistake to go looking for war when Tortall has been nibbling at the edges of every other country next to it. They weren't looking at us until we poked at them a bit."
Idranna shrugged. "I think it will be fun to have so many visitors. I don't care where they're from or even if they're eating Tusaine babies. This summer has been boring, and I'd like something exciting."
Elin, who had been leaning against one of the casement windows, snorted. "Here's your excitement. I see fifteen men on horses in the courtyard right now."
All the girls, save Solanne, ran to the windows.
"That one is absolutely dashing," Margarethe said, pointing to a young man with dark hair.
"I'm guessing that's the prince of Tortall – or someone high ranking," Vivenne said. He had a kingly quality about him, and her father's gestures indicated exaggerated politeness. His horse was decorated in the Conté colors, no less.
"He's still dashing," her sister insisted.
"And what would Gavrel think of you saying such?" Solanne demanded. Gavrel of Delman's Mount was Margarethe's intended – they had announced their betrothal the Midwinter prior to the war.
"He would not mind – I'm permitted to notice how attractive another man is. He knows my love is unwavering." Margarethe stuck her tongue out at Solanne.
The girls continued to banter, but Vivenne's mind – and eyes – were focused elsewhere. A tall, lithe knight had dismounted from the most beautiful stallion she had ever seen. He was chestnut bay with a white star between his eyes. The knight removed his helm and tucked it under one arm while feeding the stallion an apple with his free hand. He was handsome, too, she thought. And even from one story above, she could see that he loved his mount. That made him even more appealing to her.
Since her mother had insisted on giving the men their space, Vivenne took the back stairs down to the kitchens and then skipped out to the stables later that afternoon. If the peace negations went on in the salon or even the library, she would be unnoticed.
The stables weren't empty. A young man – the handsome knight she had noticed earlier – was there with another knight. The second man was older, and carried himself with marked dignity, even with his slight limp. They were looking at all of the horses in the stables, admiring them.
"Father has the best stables in all of Tusaine," she stated in Common as she approached. She immediately chastised herself. The last thing she should do is brag about the wonders of Tusaine. Humility was always best when dealing with foreigners.
The men turned to her, clearly caught by surprise. She curtseyed and met the older one's eyes. "I am Vivenne of Drell Valley, daughter of Count Leandre. Welcome to our home – and please let me know if there is anything I can do for you or your mounts."
The older gentleman chuckled as he bowed. "I'm Duke Gareth of Naxen, and I am pleased to meet you, Lady Vivenne. It's astonishing to see so few stable hands to care for this many horses."
She curtseyed again – deeper, this time, allowing for his rank – and smiled up at him. "My father tends to his animals personally, when he can, and is usually assisted by the Lady Colinne. Or me," she added, blushing.
"And does he breed these beasts?" the younger knight asked. He had chiseled features that made his face seem stern, but his lazy smile relaxed it all into an expression of kindness. His light brown hair was trimmed short, unlike most of the Tortallan knights she had seen before, and was thinning on top. "Sir Wyldon," he said, remembering his manners, and he bowed. "Of Cavall."
She curtseyed again. "Father does tend to the breeding. It's been a family interest for centuries, and my brother and I hope to carry on the tradition."
"I must say that these are among the finest horses I've ever seen," Duke Gareth replied. "After seeing your father's mount, Wyldon insisted on coming to the stable to look at any others you housed."
"We do love our animals here at Drell Valley," she answered, beaming proudly. "We also have kennels and aviaries. I was led to believe that many Tortallan knights practice falconry, and we have some nests you might be interested in."
Sir Wyldon's eyes had brightened at the motion of kennels. "Dogs?" he asked. "I would love to see them at some point during our stay."
"Perhaps you will be able to slip away some morning," Duke Gareth suggested to him, his voice low, "depending on how the negotiations move forward."
"I would be honored to show you, if you do end up with free time," Vivenne offered. She found herself rather irrationally wanting to spend more time with this knight from Cavall.
"Thank you, kind lady," said Duke Gareth. "If you'll excuse us, though, I'm afraid we're needed in the gardens. We are to take our midday meal there."
"Certainly, your Grace. If you follow the stone path that winds back toward the keep and then turn right at the sundial, you will shortly find yourself in the western garden. I hope you enjoy your stay." She curtseyed low again, and peeked from under her eyelashes to see them both bowing respectfully.
Sir Wyldon did not turn back to look at her when he left, but he did look at one of the mares.
She had only an hour to prepare for supper, and she smelled of horse dung.
"Your father will murder you if you're late," Lady Colinne growled, pushing Vivenne toward the bath. "I know you love the horses, but you really need to be more responsible and learn to keep track of the time when you're out there."
"I'm sorry. " Vivenne stepped into the warm water. "I was lost in thought, and the next thing I heard the bells were chiming that it was seven o'clock."
"I'm glad something brought you to your senses," Lady Colinne said with a sigh. "I'll be in my rooms, if you need me. Don't dawdle."
She washed as quickly as she could while the maids bustled about, preparing her clothing. She and her elder sisters were to dine wearing the Drell Valley colors – crimson and white. Vivenne was glad; she knew her hair – so dark it was almost black – would be striking against her dress.
When she finished her swift bath she began to put on her clothes; Margarethe entered the changing and bathing room, already dressed. "Would you like help with your coif?" she asked, "or are you going to be willful like Solanne and look as plain as possible?"
Vivenne grinned at her older sister. "Help, please. I was thinking a braided crown with white camellias pinned on."
"That sounds lovely," Margarethe answered, placing a stool in front of her and finding a comb.
As soon as she was in her chemise, corset and farthingale, she sat down and let her sister begin working on her hair. There were maids who could help, she knew, but their time was better spent assisting her mother and the other wives. While her father would look grand having beautiful daughters, three beautiful wives would make a stronger impression. And Margarethe was wonderful with hair. "Promise me you won't marry Gavrel, my darling Margarry, and will follow me to my husband's home to play maid to me," she said in a sing-song voice.
Margarethe laughed. "What? Me give up on marriage prospects with the man I love in order to play spinster-aunt to your children while I play with your hair? You must be confusing me with Solanne!"
They giggled, adding the finishing touches (face paint for Margarethe's pale skin, camellias pinned to Vivenne's gown) to their toilettes.
By the time they reached the top of the staircase, the contingent of knights were milling about below.
"Your mother will be furious," Lady Fanette hissed into Vivenne's ear. "You were supposed to be playing while the men came to dinner."
She turned to her own daughter and berated her accordingly, but Vivenne couldn't stand to listen. Lady Fanette was fussy and always had been. Besides – the men had gathered below, discussing aspects of the day's conference, and they were a sight to feast her eyes upon, with their colorful tunics. Prince Jonathan, she noted, was always within an arm's length of her father. He was a striking young man, and she was close enough to see how dazzlingly blue and lively his eyes were.
He glanced up and smiled at her, his teeth straight and perfect. "Will you join us, my lady?" he asked, his voice commanding even as he made the request.
She blushed and walked down as gracefully as she could manage in her shoes – she wore heels that were over an inch high – and felt the eyes of all the men on her. One man, she noted, had been kneeling on the floor – scratching the ear of her favorite greyhound – but stood at the sight of her. Wyldon of Cavall.
She reached the bottom step and Prince Jonathan took her hand in his, kissing it. "I'm so pleased that you're joining us tonight. I'm Jonathan of Conté."
"And I am Vivenne," she said, her voice so low that she was almost sure he would ask her to repeat it. She curtseyed deeply.
"May I escort you to dinner?" Prince Jonathan asked.
"O-of course," she said, letting him lead her into the dining hall. She glanced over her shoulder to see Margarethe smiling encouragingly, and – behind her – Sir Wyldon watching, his mouth twisted into a sardonic grin.
Dinner was excruciatingly long. She was seated between Prince Jonathan and a surly dark man with curly hair and black eyes – So-and-So from Goldenlake. (The man mumbled, Vivenne told herself. I can hardly be blamed for not remembering his name.) Her mother had monopolized the prince, and the Goldenlake knight would barely speak to the people he knew, let alone the people he didn't know, so she spent most of the meal in silence, listening to other conversations.
After dinner she was whisked into the salon with her elder sisters, where they were to play music for the men. Solanne was kind enough to pick pieces with easy harp parts.
Luckily for Vivenne, most of the men spent their time talking – over-politely, she noticed – and paid little attention to the music. Duke Gareth seemed to listen, as he smiled and even applauded one particularly lovely song.
Wyldon of Cavall listened, too. Or at least he watched. Several times during their hour of music, she had glanced up to find his eyes on her, his expression completely unreadable. She flushed and tried to find her place in the music each time, hoping her mother would not notice such mistakes.
"You play quite well," the prince said, coming to her side when she finally was permitted to put the blasted instrument aside.
"Thank you, your highness," she replied politely. She didn't understand what she had done to deserve his interest; she wasn't completely sure she wanted it.
"I've always loved the harp," he continued, handing her a glass of wine. "My aunt – Duke Gareth's wife – plays, though she usually performs only the solo works."
"She must be a much better musician," Vivenne said. "If you'll excuse me, I really must get fresh air. Performing in a crowded room is never easy on me." She gave the wine glass back to him and left as quickly as she could, heading through the dining hall and out onto the terrace.
She didn't mind the attention of the men of the delegation – she had been to parties and balls in the past, and knew what it was to be flirted with. But the prince's intense gaze and habit of leaning in too close was overwhelming. She needed time to herself – time to remove her Goddess-cursed slippers.
She sat on the stone steps and pulled off the offending shoes, sighing with relief at the feel of her feet flat against the cold stairs.
"It's entirely too warm in there," said a low voice from out of nowhere. "You look flushed."
"Oh, Merciful Mother!" she yelped, jumping to her feet. She spun around toward the voice, clutching her slippers to her chest.
Sir Wyldon stepped from the shadows, laughing quietly.
"I-I'm sorry, sir," she said, feeling her cheeks burn for the hundredth time that evening. "I shouldn't be alone with you – and certainly not…" she trailed off, waving her shoes helplessly.
"No one will worry if you're out here with me," he said, leaning against the ornate stone wall. "I'm infamous for not taking advantage of ladies at parties."
She laughed at his frankness. "And I'm infamous for always doing the last thing that should make any man interested in making advances."
He studied her momentarily, his brown eyes suddenly solemn. "I don't know – the prince seemed rather interested in you."
"No, I think he's just the type who likes to win people over," she replied. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him attach himself to my sister Margarethe tomorrow evening."
"Which is she?" Wyldon asked.
"The beautiful blonde one – tall and regal. She was playing the cello," Vivenne added, though she wasn't sure why. It's not like people wouldn't remember her. She and Solanne were usually ignored as soon as Margarethe walked into the room.
"Ah yes," he said with a nod. "Very elegant."
"And flirtatious. I think your prince will like to have someone who flatters him, rather than someone who could barely speak to him at all."
Wyldon smiled wryly. "How is it that you can speak to me, but not him?"
She wasn't quite sure how to answer him. "Perhaps because you give me space to breathe, and do not try to charm me." And you don't assume that I will fall in love with you, she added to herself.
He chuckled again, and she rather liked the sound of it. "No, I don't try to charm anyone. That's certainly left to more capable men, like Prince Jonathan."
"Sir Wyldon, I'm sorry, but I really must be going inside. My mother will be sending servants to fetch me soon, I'm sure, and while I trust you, my father and mother might not."
"Lady Vivenne," he said suddenly, taking her arm before she could head inside. "Would you be willing to consider riding with me at some point while I'm here? Your mother or sisters are welcome to join, of course."
She felt numb where his hand held onto her forearm, though his fingers barely gripped. "I-I would love to."
"Thank you," he said softly, releasing her and turning away, walking into the gardens.
"Sir Wyldon!" she called out, curiosity getting the better of her.
He pivoted gracefully. "Yes?"
"May I ask why you grinned when the prince escorted me into the dining hall?"
The corners of his mouth turned upward into that same wry smirk. "Because my prince is someone who always has the best things that can be offered."
She stared at him, bewildered. Was he flirting?
"And you're mistaken," he added, before turning on his heel. "Your sister isn't the beautiful one."
"I think you're insane," Margarethe said that night, curled up at the foot of Vivenne's bed. "He's not nearly as striking as the prince."
"Prince Jonathan is conceited," Vivenne replied flatly. "I think he's a man who likes to collect pretty things. If he ever falls in love, you can rest assured it will be the most beautiful woman in the world and not some pretty enough girl from the Drell Valley."
"I think Vivi has the right of it," Solanne said, kissing her sisters goodnight. "And the sooner these men are gone, the happier we'll be."
"Did you not hear the part where Vivenne agreed to go riding with one of them?" Margarethe called out to her older sister's receding shadow. She turned back to Vivenne and shrugged. "I'll join you; you'll need a chaperone."
Vivenne rolled her eyes. "Yes, my unmarried, un-spinstered sister would be an appropriate chaperone."
Her sister sighed. "Fine then. Take Lady Colinne and let me go along for the amusement."
Lady Colinne was a perfect choice, Vivenne realized. She was horse-minded, and would appreciate Sir Wyldon's love of animals. And she would not frown too much if Vivenne broached topics that young well-bred ladies should avoid.
"Not a bad thought, really," Vivenne acknowledged. "But you'll have to promise not to humiliate me."
"And how would I do that?" Margarethe stood, stretching. "I think you're underestimating yourself by going after such an older, sober man. I think you could have any number of Tusaine men."
"Be gone!" Vivenne cried playfully, pushing her sister out of her bedroom door. "I'm hardly 'going after' anyone."
Closing the door, she leaned against it, recalling the feel of Sir Wyldon's hand on her forearm. He had quite nice hands, she realized. He was serious, as her sister had pointed out, but Margarethe hadn't heard his chuckle. She hadn't seen his wry grin.
And she certainly hadn't seen him petting the hounds.