“You’ll look beautiful in anything you wear,” Ardashir said with a smile, leaning against the normally unused vanity in Holland’s room. Their little group had convened there while the others prepared in their various rooms. The knight was already dressed even though they had an hour before the celebration started, the grey tabard of his order over a clean white doublet and well-fitted pants tucked into the least scuffed boots he owned. They’d taken a good shine. He had also shaved, trimming the beard he’d grown on the road into neatness. Now he looked every bit the handsome, dashing knight that he was.
Khagra fidgeted despite the reassurance. There was a dress that had been fitted to her, but she’d never worn one before and it seemed to be making her nervous. “I just…if Holland can do it…” she started to say.
“Holland spent half the day grumbling about it,” Vladan said with a grin that showed many, many sharp white teeth. “And that’s excluding the other half of the day when she bitched about not being able to carry her sword.” The big anthroparion had been stuffed into nice trousers and an indigo shirt—the color of his magus—that covered his dark brown fur and the occasional patch of dull scales that might have made people uncomfortable. Boots were out of the question with his taloned, hawk-like feet, however. Holland almost wasn’t certain why his magus had even insisted on him looking vaguely proper. Even if there wasn’t a fight, it would probably somehow end up torn and dirty by the end of the night.
“You make me sound so mature,” Holland mumbled. She knew it was necessary, but it wasn’t what she might have preferred. She smoothed her hands over the emerald green fabric of her dress where it rested over her thighs. It didn’t restrict movement like some clothing that she’d seen eastern women wear—Yssa was kinder that way than Genev and Talin—but she would still have to think more about the way she moved. She felt naked without a sword, however. The lack of the comforting weight was a reminder that if something happened, it would involve getting a lot closer than she wanted to be. “Unlike Vladan, I can’t just pick someone up to use as a weapon, for two reasons: one, I’m not big enough, and two, I’m certain that’s a significant breach of etiquette.”
Vladan wrinkled his nose, blunt muzzle conveying a certain level of distaste. “Noble etiquette is just a fancy way of saying boring.”
“Politeness is the only thing that stops them from killing each other,” Ardashir pointed out. “Let’s not take that away from them.”
Holland smiled a little bit at that comment. It was certainly true. “Ardashir, Vladan, why don’t you go confer with Magus Cipris? I’m certain he’ll have an idea of where to place you. I’m more than capable of helping Khagra with clothing.”
The knight and the anthroparion both nodded before exiting. Khagra relaxed slightly, if only because there were two fewer people here to see her agonizing. “I just…” she started again. Her mouth was doing an admirable impression of a desert.
“Khagra, you’re a foreigner. I’m certain you can get away with your usual dress, provided everything is clean. The queen is not going to require that you to conform to the Yssan standard of dress.” The penitent sat down on the bed next to her orcish friend. They had traveled together for long enough that she knew what Khagra’s nerves looked like. The dragon-rider hadn’t really calmed down completely even though it had been more than a month since they arrived in Tamaris, and whatever was bothering her, the ball had stirred it up again.
Khagra pulled in a deep breath and looked over at her. “But I want to do this,” she said quietly.
“For Ardashir.” Holland couldn’t quite turn it into a question. She knew that particular expression too well to mistake it for anything else. “Khagra, he loves who you are. You don’t have to turn yourself into a court lady for him. If you want to do this, do it. But trust me when I say that nothing is going to make him think any less of you. You could shroud yourself in rags and moss like Orobas, and he would still have eyes only for you.”
“Genovefa will be there. She’s married to Lord Gray now,” the orc said. “He loved her.”
The sudden bout of insecurity made more sense to Holland with that little revelation. She put a hand on Khagra’s arm. “Loved. The past tense,” the penitent said gently. Ardashir had not concealed the fact that he’d been married once from Khagra, nor the ugliness that had been it falling apart on him. It had not endeared his former wife to the orc, but by the same token, it had never bothered her before like this. Then again, out in the wilderness, Genovefa was an abstract concept. Here in Tamaris, encountering her in the flesh, was an entirely different matter. “Trust me. Trust him. Nothing is going to change the way he feels. This is Ardashir we’re talking about. They don’t come more loyal.”
“I do trust you both,” Khagra said. She started to frown deeply. “It’s her I don’t trust.”
“And that’s perfectly reasonable.” Holland picked up the red dress from the bed and held it out to Khagra. “Don’t let her intimidate you. Remember, you ride a dragon and fight demons. You’ve gone toe to toe with angry elves. You’re sister to the first Goth to ever unite the orcish tribes in the north and I know for a fact you’ve put your brother in a headlock at least once. You’re preparing to take on the Princes of Iron. One petulant little girl in a nice dress isn’t worth your time and certainly isn’t anything to be concerned about. You’re braver than she could ever dream of being, and I know that courage is what Ardashir loves about you most.”
The orc smiled faintly and nodded as she took the fabric, her confidence returning. She would still be nervous, but she could handle that. It was just a different kind of battle. “Thank you, Holland. Murdak was right. You’re a good warleader.”
Holland smiled wryly. “I’m alright. Now get dressed. Your job is to stay with Ardashir. If something happens, I need you both to be ready to watch the doors. If we have a problem, I don’t want it to be able to summon reinforcements. Alright?”
“You sound certain something is going to happen,” Khagra said with concern. She had already taken off her armor, so it was a simple task to finish undressing and slip on the white cambric kirtle that went under her dress.
“A lot of very important people will all be in one room for the first time in quite a while. That’s always an inviting target for people who want to cause mayhem,” Holland said. “Laenus and Naris won’t do anything themselves, but that only means that they have to work through agents. If they want a war and they’re having Lieren’s spies killed, they’ll certainly be willing to risk it. Cadeyrn and Lord Botha of Ethilir will be with Seva, so I consider her protected. Vladan will be with his magus, Daag, and Lord Azenari of Genev. Lieren has Vaeroth and Lord Durant of Talin.”
“And you’ll be circulating,” Khagra said as she finished dressing. It didn’t take long. The ruby colored cotehardie suited her. It matched the red paint on her face. Khagra had washed off the usual whorls and dots, but replaced them with a thin line across her cheekbones and small dots beneath it in a row. It was more than an aesthetic choice. Her usual pattern was warpaint and these were more peaceful markings.
Holland nodded. “While everyone else is watching for the ring, I’ll be looking for threats to intercept,” she confirmed. “A sword would have made my life much easier.”
“I seem to recall you once saying that there are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous people.” Khagra smiled. “I think you fit easily into that category.”
“I should be able to inflict some pain, yes.”
“If things do go badly and I see a sword, I’ll toss it your way.” Khagra smoothed out the dress. With her dark hair framing her face and the different paint, she looked much softer. Still a little wild, certainly, but less war-like. Her yellow, animal-like eyes studied Holland intently for a moment. “We’ll be there if you need us.”
“You always are,” Holland said, gratitude clear in her tone. “But try to enjoy yourself a little bit. Another opportunity like this may not come around again for a long time.”
Holland smiled faintly. “These things are as foreign to me as they are to you. I’m just good at faking it.”
Khagra raised an eyebrow. The penitent seemed so at ease with it that she’d just assumed that Holland was as comfortable with it as Ardashir was. “What, the Princes of Iron never celebrate?”
“I know that their soldiers do, but I assure you that it is never this well-mannered. I never attended one of their parties, however. Immortals are kept apart from the rank and file for the majority of their lives. They know only duty, only blood. They have manners enough to pass unnoticed and they adapt quickly, so things like this are not insurmountable challenges, but it is not their natural habitat. Laenus is a slippery one, though, so he’s probably taken to it like a bird to air.” Holland stood up. “Shall we go?”
Khagra took a deep breath and then nodded. “Before I change my mind.”
“Relax and enjoy the fact that corsets have yet to catch on in Yssa,” Holland said.
“What are corsets?”
The penitent grimaced. “A particularly vile instrument of fashion that’s popular in Talin. They’re the enemy of deep breaths, though the whalebone ones do turn a knife nicely. You would not enjoy them.”
Ardashir and Vladan were waiting not far away, deep in conversation with Daag. The magus was lingering nearby, twisting one of his many rings thoughtfully as he waited for Lord Azenari to join them. The perpetually serious ambassador from Genev was probably taking his time getting dressed. He was a fashionable man, after all. The knight must have caught a glance of Khagra and Holland out of the corner of his eye, because he turned when they neared.
His eyes lit up when he saw Khagra. They never failed to. “I told you that you would look beautiful in whatever you chose,” he said with a smile as he approached the orc.
Holland mentally patted him on the back when she saw Khagra’s smile return in full force. The orc was in good hands with him. “We have a little bit of time, it would appear,” the penitent said.
Ardashir offered his arm to Khagra. “They’ve been decorating the garden with lights, if you’d care to see it,” he said with a smile that brightened when she accepted the gesture. There was a bit of hesitation, like she wasn’t certain if she was doing it right, but she relaxed once they were close.
“I’ll fetch you two when things start,” Holland promised.
A deep chuckle rumbled out of Vladan’s chest once the two were out of earshot. “Never seen Khagra look like a frightened deer before, but they do make a fine pair.”
The penitent glanced up at her big companion. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy the sight of the heart attacks some nobles will have even more.”
“Weeds out the weak ones,” the anthroparion said with a broad grin.
Dušan approached them, clearly having caught the tail end of their conversation. He was clearly refraining from comment on the sight of an orc with a Yssan knight. “Could we perhaps not delight in scandal?” he said dryly.
Vladan attempted to look appropriately chastised, but couldn’t quite erase the smug smile of approval at the coming chaos. “Of course, Magus.”
The Leyan magus muttered something under his breath that sounded like, “Incorrigible.”
Holland hid her grin behind one hand. She knew that if things went wrong, she would have Vladan at her back in a heartbeat too. Getting to brawl with something would probably be the highlight of his night. Honestly, she was fairly certain it would be the most enjoyable thing about this entire endeavor for her as well. Even without a sword, there was something satisfying about combat. Perhaps it was the darkness Saraqael had left inside her speaking. It was also a damn sight simpler than remembering every single mode of address needed and which house wore which emblem. She’d spent the past week reading through books of heraldry and being tutored by Cadeyrn. A necessary evil, considering how little she could afford to offend anyone.
“I’m going to wander,” Holland said.
“Enjoy,” Vladan said. “And if you find trouble, save some for me. Maybe scream, so I know where to find you?”
Holland just smiled and shook her head a little bit at that before heading down the hall. She didn’t know exactly where she was going, so she let her feet take her wherever they pleased. The halls of the palace were familiar, even if they weren’t quite completely safe, and so she felt reasonably confident. All the same, she paid attention to her surroundings. Orobas’s warning hadn’t faded in her mind. She’d honed her instincts for many, many years. Ignoring them would only do her damage. She was no longer in the main corridors, so there were fewer servants streaming back and forth. For the most part, everything was already ready in the main hall, but there was always double and triple checking to be done. The minutes slipping by gave her a chance to collect her thoughts.
“Holland,” a familiar voice said softly.
She turned to see Seva slipping out of the library and felt her heart catch in her throat for a split second. The queen was always beautiful, but she was looking particularly lovely at the moment. Maybe it was the fleeting happiness in her eyes, a good indication that she hadn’t seen Fionn yet. This kind of joy had become a rare sight, even to Holland. It was hard to tell whether it was the king or the weight of all the planning, but Seva spent most of her time behind the mask. Most likely, it was both. The deep blue of the queen’s dress followed her curves perfectly and Holland had to force herself not to stare. “My lady,” she greeted.
“I had not expected thee to dress so for the occasion,” Seva said with pleasant surprise. Her hair was up at the moment, held in place by a tortoise-shell comb and the circlet she wore. “It suits thee well.”
“Not half as well as armor does,” Holland said with a wry smile. The expression became more genuine, though. “You look beautiful.”
The queen blushed slightly and lowered her gaze to avoid Holland’s. “I had forgotten that thy words are honey.”
“Only the truth,” the penitent promised.
“When it comes from thy lips, ’tis almost believable,” Seva murmured.
Holland felt her heart twist at that comment. She stepped in without really thinking, catching Seva’s hand. It might have been a passing, off-the-cuff remark to the queen, but it legitimately bothered the penitent. “Trust me,” she said gently, brushing her thumb across Seva’s knuckles. “I would never, ever lie to you about that.”
Seva’s blue eyes flickered up, studying Holland intently. “I trust thee,” she said softly, a small and regretful smile forming on her lips. “Thy absence has not changed thee a whit, and here I am, half unrecognizable.”
“Hidden, not changed, my lady,” Holland said with confidence. Whatever armor Seva had constructed around her heart, it didn’t change the core of who she was. She’d seen glimpse enough of the Baroness of Essen on her first night back to know the woman was still alive behind the mask…though certainly wounded. “I would know you anywhere.”
“Thou art too good to me.” Seva’s smile had widened slightly and was beginning to look more genuine.
Not for the first time, Holland felt that almost irresistible impulse to kiss her friend. Looking into those blue eyes was suddenly very difficult to do, at least if she wanted to maintain control. She found herself looking down at the hand she was holding. Seva’s fingers were delicate, soft, and ink-stained. The blue marks were endearing. “Writing?” She couldn’t help her smile and the little detail distracted her from Seva’s lips.
Seva looked faintly embarrassed. “Reading. I tried to wipe it away. ‘Tis from the pages.”
“A studious queen. Perhaps you could make it fashionable,” Holland said. She gave Seva’s hand a soft squeeze before letting go of it reluctantly.
“Oh, ’tis fashionable enough to own books. Lord Astor has half a shelf full. Mind, he can barely sign his own name,” Seva said. She seemed better, the spark in her eyes just a touch brighter. “Yssa is ruled by the sword, not the pen.”
“Last I checked, you were Queen of Yssa,” the penitent said with a smile. “Led by a sword, perhaps, but certainly ruled by a pen.”
“Cadeyrn overestimates my power.”
“And you underestimate it, so between the two of you, I can take the average,” Holland said. She was already missing the feeling of Seva’s hand in her own. “We should probably join the others. The music will be starting soon.”
“I am obliged to enter with Fionn,” Seva said regretfully. “‘Tis an affair of state. Were it anything else, I would gladly join you.”
Holland nodded. She understood perfectly, just as she knew that the queen would have nobles surrounding her all evening. This was likely the only private time she would have with Seva for the night. Now if only she could somehow stop it from running out. “Be safe,” the penitent murmured. “Promise me you’ll smile?”
“Thou hast my word,” Seva said. She seemed warmed by the request. “Take care, Holland.”
The warmth that Seva brought with her evaporated altogether too quickly in the penitent’s chest. She watched her friend go for a long moment before taking a deep breath to settle her own heart, which had decided to flutter and dance the moment she’d touched Seva’s hand. You should talk to her, Ardashir’s voice murmured in her mind. Orobas had said much the same thing. She didn’t exactly have problems talking around Seva. Words came out. Maybe not the right words, but certainly words.
Could she actually say anything without making things worse? The last thing Seva needed was more pressure and…. Holland sighed a little bit and took another deep breath to center herself. The last thing anyone needed was the penitent getting bogged down inside her own head. She took a different route than Seva had, heading for the gardens instead of the main hall. She’d promised to fetch Khagra and Ardashir, even if she didn’t want to interrupt whatever private moment they were having. It always made her feel a little bit better to see the pair of them together. It was a reminder that even if the gods didn’t particularly care for her heart, things could still go well for someone she cared about. She felt slightly less like a bad luck charm.
Holland found them sitting on one of the benches under the trees, their foreheads touching and their hands linked as they talked in muted voices. Khagra caught sight of her on the approach, a faint flicker of nerves taking over her content expression. “That time already?” the orc asked.
“Unfortunately so,” Holland said. She could hear strains of music drifting down the short corridor that lead to the main hall.
“We’ll survive,” Ardashir said. He gave Khagra’s hand a squeeze as they both rose to their feet. “Will you be alright on your own, Holland?”
“Three of us all together would draw too much attention. I’ll be fine. It’s not like you’ll be too far away if there’s blood,” Holland said.
“I almost hope there is blood,” Khagra admitted.
Holland smiled. “It does tend to put an end to small talk.”
“It will be fine, I promise,” Ardashir said soothingly. “We might even make it through the night without someone dying.”
“Watch who you say that around,” Holland warned, trying to suppress her grin. “You might crush Vladan’s hopes and dreams.”
The knight chuckled and shook his head slightly. “He will survive.”
“Boredom is Vladan’s most lethal foe,” Khagra said as she started to move out of the gardens and towards the main hall. “We’ll have your back, Holland.”
Holland nodded as they passed her by. She gave it a minute or two of delay before following so that it would look like they weren’t attached to her. She’d been away for quite a while. It was entirely possible the nobles would have forgotten what she looked like. She would be slipping in through a side door, avoiding announcement and attention. Let it be boring, Holland prayed silently. Boring is safe.
Like many of her prayers, she assumed that this one would go unanswered. As with so many nights, the gods would see her plans and laugh.