Part 12: "Wedding"
Story Rating: Hard R/NC-17
Story Warnings explicit heterosexual and homosexual sex, slavery, violence, torture and drug use.
Story Summary Since the death of their brother the Emperor Dolmus brought the royal brothers Valentin and Cassius back to Monsilys, capital of the great Jovani Empire, Valentin has cured the boredom of court life with poppy-sap and women, while for Cassius the remedy has been ale and the result much the same. Then an ill-fated duel causes their niece the Empress to send them to Gallica to deal with a problem there, and they find themselves drawn ever more back into the world of Jovani politics: a world their brother banished them from seventeen years earlier. As Valentin veers from disaster to disaster, always running from his past and a life he would prefer to forget, Cassius is fascinated by a damaged boy he rescues from a slave brothel. Valentin's weapon is sly diplomacy, while Cassius prefers the honesty of the sword, but will either be enough to protect Jovan, and themselves?
Notes: Volumes I and II are already written; you can check them out at my website (along with Vol III as it's written), as free eBooks (Volume I and Volume II) or I will be posting them here at a rate of one chapter a week, which means Livejournal will catch up to the website in around July/August 2013. I sincerely hope you enjoy the story. :)
Valentin slithered in and out of the press of sweating, perfumed humanity, being buffeted this way and that by arms raised to wave and elbows wielded as weapons. Knowing what the streets of Monsilys were going to be like, he had nonetheless chosen to walk rather than take the carriage through the town to the little house in the Dusk that had become his refuge. There the sweet Elodia awaited him, with hot food and good wine, and afterwards the pleasure of her company.
They would toast the Empress’ health and happiness of course; it was the day before her wedding. Valentin intended to arrive to the ceremony still drunk if he could possibly manage it.
There had been days of celebrations already. Adelais had hosted a ball and Cassius a tournament. Valentin’s own humble contribution had been a feast. Princess Beryl of Toqueia had presented her brother and his bride with two blood mares from the Hierarch’s stable, and in the ensuing day of races both had matched up well against the Jovani horses, which were generally not bred for racing. Cassius and Caspar had sat with their heads together for hours, no doubt discussing the potential for breeding the mares’ bloodlines into the Empress’ stable.
Caspar had spent a night shut up with the Toqueian priests, and the next day, looking solemn, had foresworn his southern gods and pledged himself to the faith of his new country. Adrienne, Adelais, Beryl and half the young ladies of the court had gone to Falona for some occult feminine purpose, and returned early that afternoon, whence Adrienne had gone straight to the temple to commune with the priestesses.
Left to find their own entertainment for the first time in over a week, the common folk of Monsilys had risen to the challenge, and Valentin thought the celebration that now spilled out onto the streets, from Summerbank to the Docks, and the Dusk to the Palace might even be the rowdiest yet.
He reached the little house and was ushered inside, where the shouting of the crowd was reduced to a murmur and competed with the burbling of the atrium fountain. Elodia met him and leaned up to press her lips to his. “Good evening, my lord,” she said.
“Good evening. Is dinner laid out?”
“It is.” She gestured towards the dining room. “Lord Bracchus was here earlier. He left you a note.” She pointed towards a little end-table.
Valentin made an annoyed noise and reached out to take the slip of paper, tucking it into his sleeve. He had given Bracchus a blistering scold over the Aldis affair, and hadn’t seen him since. That had been a month and more ago, but as he sat down at the table, Valentin still simmered with irritation.
“How has your day been?” said Elodia as she picked up her spoon.
“Tiring.” Valentin rolled his shoulders. “Caspar distributed gifts to the poor, very touching, and then we all went down to the harbour to watch a boat race.”
“Sounds exciting. Who won?”
“Oh, some bumpkin argentum from Gerhin. More money than sense, but lucky in his choice of captains, I suspect. He took home a fresh-killed hind and a gold cup from the Empress’ table.”
“What is it, my sweet saviour?”
She propped her head on her hand. “Nothing, my lord. I wish I could go with you to all these spectacles.”
Valentin blinked. “Unfortunately, they are for aura only.” He paused. “Have you a place at the wedding?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, you shall.” Valentin popped a morsel of meat into his mouth. “Not with me, of course; I will be on the dais. But I’ll make sure you have a good view.”
Her smile crinkled the corners of her eyes. “Thank you. It is terribly dull being cooped up here knowing everyone else is out having fun.”
“My apologies. I would take you out tonight, but I am exhausted.” He infused his tone with plaintiveness.
“No, it’s all right,” she said, tilting her head and looking down at her plate.
Later, Valentin went into his study and read the note from Bracchus. He said they had waited long enough, and it was time for another gathering. If Valentin wasn’t willing to host it, then Bracchus would do it himself. Valentin hissed. His cousin was trying to slip his leash. Well, Valentin would hold it more tightly. He wrote a reply and left it out on the table for the servants to collect.
“What did Lord Bracchus say?” said Elodia when Valentin entered. She was sitting at her dressing table letting down her hair.
“Nothing of consequence,” said Valentin. “I think he will come and visit next week, possibly with some of the others. I will let you know how many.”
“Thank you.” Elodia put down her comb and came over, wrapping her arms around Valentin’s chest and resting her cheek between his shoulder blades. “I don’t like him,” she said.
“I know, my dear,” said Valentin, grimacing. “Neither do I, but he is family.”
“And so is the Empress. Do you think that makes you safe?”
Valentin turned in her arms and put his hand on her chin. “My wits make me safe, child, and you too. If anything happens, you know this house is yours. Don’t let anyone—including me—take it from you.”
She nodded, eyelids lowering over bright eyes. He slid the thin nightgown off her shoulders and took her to the bed. She sat on the edge and pulled his boots off while he balanced with one hand on the bedstead. As he shrugged out of tunic and shirt, she unlaced his breeches.
Naked, Valentin threw his head back and sighed, then unclasped the gold clip from his hair and climbed into bed. Spring had started to make its mark; the lavish furs he had given Elodia several months ago had been replaced with quilted blankets.
Elodia rolled over and crawled after him to the centre of the bed while he watched the curves of her breasts, belly and hips and held the quilt back for her to climb in. She lay down beside him and slid her hand down to his cock while he turned his head and kissed her hair. She had become quite adept at the art of love under his tutelage, and he was quickly at the point where her hand was not enough, so he pulled her on top of him and with his hands on her hips, guided himself inside her.
Putting her elbows on his chest, she tilted her hips in time with each thrust, and when it was done she slid off him and tucked herself against his side.
She said against his shoulder, “Valentin, I’m worried about you.”
He patted her hip. “You’re kind to say it.”
The next morning, Valentin rose early. He had to present himself just after midday to be decked out and coiffed as befitted his status as imperial uncle, so he could have stayed abed for several more hours, but instead he roused Elodia and stood by impatiently while she bathed and dressed.
He took her to the palace, and put her in Cesare’s care to find her a place for the ceremony. Cesare gave him a speaking look and handed her over to a lackey while he hurried away. No doubt the next time Cesare saw him, Valentin would get a very respectful lecture about the propriety of bringing mistresses—common mistresses—to royal occasions.
He went looking for Cassius, but found Llewellyn instead, halfway across the courtyard, looking rumpled. “Sneaking back to the Wanderer’s Rest?” Valentin said, jogging to catch up with him.
Llewellyn stopped and turned. “Not sneaking,” he said. “I am in full view.”
“Yes, you are. How goes my brother?”
Llewellyn turned and kept walking. “You should ask him that.”
“I’m asking you.”
“Because you hope to read something about our relationship from my answer.”
Valentin matched his pace as they crossed through the gate onto the road. “I have read everything I need to know form the fact that you were here last night, but are leaving this morning.”
“All right,” said Llewellyn, slanting him a complicated look.
“Perhaps I just want to hear what love sounds like when it speaks of its object.” Valentin sighed. “You know I have always been your ally.”
“A remarkable exception to your usual stance on slaves.”
Pressing his lips together, Valentin said, “I had nothing to do with the slave ring in Aldis.”
“That is beside the point.” Llewellyn stopped again and fixed him with a glare.
Valentin tilted his head and waited until Llewellyn’s gaze slipped away.
Making an annoyed noise, Llewellyn said, “Lord Cassius is fine. He got up early to bout with Tamlin. He dreads the visit from the dresser, who, he says, is going to do him up like a prize turkey. Have I told you anything you don’t already know?”
Valentin shook his head.
“If you wish to hear love talk of its object, perhaps you should go and find Prince Caspar. I have a meeting with my grandfather’s banker in an hour.”
Valentin let Llewellyn go and went back to the palace, where he found Cassius just finishing his bout.
“What are you doing up so early?” said Cassius as he wiped down his head and neck with a towel.
“I saw Llewellyn on his way out.” Valentin leaned against the practice ring fence.
“Yes, he has to meet with the banker this morning.”
“He doesn’t really like me.”
“Can you blame him?” said Cassius. “And since when do you care what others think of you?”
They walked back along the cloister towards the family wing. “He thinks me a worse ogre than I am. Do you believe me about Aldis?”
“I have decided to,” said Cassius. “If only because I can’t fathom what sort of fool you’d be to offer me a house in a town where you’re mixed up in an illegal slave ring.”
Valentin grimaced. “Good of you, brother.”
Valentin was waiting dutifully in his room when the dressers arrived bearing his robes of state before them.
He allowed himself to be done up like a prize turkey, with black velvet breeches, white satin stockings held up by bejewelled garters, satin slippers, a black brocade tunic over an embroidered shirt. The dressers laid his chain of office and medallion on his breast, weighed down his hands with rings, and draped the heavy sable-trimmed blue cloak over his shoulders. His hair was brushed out and loose on his shoulders.
He proceeded, since nobody so dressed up could walk anywhere, to the throne room, where he found Cassius similarly turned out and Adelais in a white dress and blue cloak with a coronet in her hair. Other favoured aura stood around in their robes, talking. At one point, Cesare stuck his head into the room, looked around, and vanished again.
Valentin found a chair and was about to lounge into it when a woman he had never seen before said, “Lord Valentin, please, you’ll ruin your clothes.”
She was gone before he could ask who in the world she was. Probably one of Cesare’s folk.
“I feel like an idiot,” said Cassius.
“You look very regal,” retorted Valentin.
“Ugh.” Cassius turned away and went to lean against the wall. When their minder did not re-materialise to scold him, Valentin followed suit and closed his eyes.
“How much longer?” said Cassius.
“I have no idea. I suppose the onlookers are being loaded into the courtyard and the reverence room. I wonder if Adrienne is ready? Where’s Caspar?”
“With the Toqueians next door. Look at Adelais.”
Valentin cracked open one eye and watched Adelais pace across the floor, swishing her long robes behind her as she turned. She was muttering something; most likely rehearsing her lines for the ceremony. “That looks exhausting,” he said and closed his eyes again.
Another hour at least passed, and Valentin’s shoulders were beginning to ache from the heavy garments, when Cesare flung open the door and said with great ceremony, “Princess, my lords and ladies, please follow me.”
Tilting his neck to one side then the other to stretch out the cramped muscles, Valentin followed Adelais to the door. Cassius fell in behind him, and then came the heads of the other nine great families, then the other aura in order of rank. They left the hall in what Valentin could only describe as a procession, and went through the palace to the balcony which ran along one side of the courtyard: the same balcony which was used for family breakfasts.
The doors were thrown open, and Adelais took a deep breath and stepped through them, measuring each stride. Valentin heard the crowd begin to roar and cheer, then he stepped out behind her. The courtyard was full of people waving pennants and banners, which he could see flickering in and out of the corner of his eye. He looked straight ahead at the braids woven around Adelais’ coronet, and her sleek black hair tumbling down her back.
It seemed to take an age to cross the balcony, but then they were back in the palace and making their way to the reverence room. They were, of course, merely the jesters put on stage to warm the crowd up; after the aura would come the Toqueians, and then finally the Empress.
The reverence room was round, with a canopied dais in the centre. Rising from the floor in one quarter of the circle were tiered seats, while benches were placed around the rest of the walls, with an aisle up the centre. The benches were already full of those privileged Jovanis who had been chosen to witness the wedding. There were perhaps five hundred of them, and the domed ceiling collected their whispers and reflected them back toward earth.
Valentin sighed with relief as he made his way to one of the chairs at the edge of the tiered section, where he thought he might get a good view. He pulled his cloak forward out of the way and sat down.
A little while later, Prince Caspar led the Toqueians in. He mounted the dais and met Valentin’s eyes briefly. He looked solemn and nervous.
Princess Beryl sat beside Princess Adelais a row in front of Valentin.
The room hushed. From the distance they could hear a trumpet fanfare growing closer. Then the doors opened and in stepped Cesare. “Her blessed majesty, Adrienne, Empress of Jovan,” he said. The trumpets blared again and were silent. With a rustling of brocade and a clink of gold chain, all in the room stood.
Adrienne was dressed simply, in a white brocade dress and a long black cloak with a sable hood and blue trim. She held a sword in one hand and a sceptre in the other, and her hair was a gleaming black mantle over her shoulders.
She looked across the chairs and nodded in acknowledgement of the people gathered in the room, then her eyes found Caspar’s.
That, thought Valentin with a pang, is probably what love looks like.
Caspar held out his hand, a gesture which Valentin was certain wasn’t choreographed. Adrienne turned to lay her sword and sceptre on cushions held by pages, then she ascended the dais and took it.
Valentin saw Adelais’ shoulders rise and fall on a deep breath, then the Princess stood up, and the ceremony began.
Valentin stood as the Empress and the new consort, Lord Caspar Sylvanus ne Toqueius, left the reverence room. Beside him, Cassius murmured, “It’ll be a job getting used to calling him Lord Caspar.”
“We got used to it,” said Valentin, with a one-shouldered shrug, “and we had much less to compensate us for the loss of our princely coronets than he does.”
He looked out over the crowd and found Elodia sitting tucked next to a pillar in the back row. She raised her hand, and Valentin tilted his head to acknowledge he’d seen her. “Excuse me,” he said to Cassius, who rolled his eyes and turned to Princess Adelais.
Valentin held his cloak up in one hand to avoid it getting trodden on and crossed the room to where Elodia stood near the door.
“You look so grand,” she said.
“Are you awestruck?” said Valentin, offering her his arm.
She wrapped herself around his elbow and said, “A little.”
“Well, don’t be. The whole kit is damned uncomfortable.”
They moved from the public part of the palace to the family wing, and the crowd of aura gave way to silence and the occasional soft-footed servant. Elodia reached up to stroke the sable trim. “But it’s so soft.”
“I’ll let you try it on if you like,” said Valentin, “but we have to be quick; the dressers will be here at any moment to whisk the lot back to storage.”
Elodia looked up at him, eyes glittering. “Oh, can I?”
Valentin laughed. “Yes, my sweet saviour, come on.”
They ran together through the halls, forcing startled servants to dive out of the way, and when they finally reached Valentin’s room, they were both out of breath.
Elodia leaned against the door and looked around. “I haven’t been in your room since your captain fetched me, had me cleaned and powdered, and delivered me here for your ravishment.”
“Damn, I suppose you haven’t,” said Valentin. “What a beast that Captain Ennius is.”
Elodia came to his side. “You’re the beast, Lord Valentin. Now give me that cloak.”
“First, give me your dress,” Valentin retorted.
Laughing, eyes alight with challenge, Elodia complied.
Later, dressed in respectable outfits that seemed workmanlike after the sartorial splendour of the afternoon, Valentin and Cassius met at the door of the family wing and made their way to the hall for the inevitable feast.
The mosaic floor had been polished until it gleamed in the candlelight, and all the frescos had been retouched. The gallery concealed musicians, and there were two long tables down either side of the room, with the high table at the far end. Down the middle of the room were braziers. As he walked past, Valentin flexed his fingers, enjoying the warmth.
“Cousin.” Valentin turned at the voice. Cassius, out of Bracchus’ eye-line, curled his lip and kept walking. “Lord Bracchus,” said Valentin.
Bracchus, hands clasped in front of him, inclined his head. “I had your message.”
“Let’s not discuss this here.”
Looking around, Bracchus said, “Two cousins talking; what could be more innocuous than that?”
Lady Fortuna Platinus was standing nearby; Valentin beckoned her over. Bracchus’ lips compressed into a thin line, then the expression wiped away as he took his wife’s arm. “Lord Valentin, how are you?” said Lady Fortuna.
“Very well, thank you.”
“What a lovely ceremony.”
After a few minutes of safe banalities, Valentin excused himself and escaped to his place at the high table. The place to his left was empty; the place to his right was occupied by Lord Maximilian Solus, who nodded in acknowledgement as Valentin sat down.
Adrienne and Caspar arrived, arm in arm, a short while later. They stopped several times as they made their way up the room to greet people. When they reached the high table and sat down, Caspar beside Valentin and Adrienne in the throne on Caspar’s other side, the musicians silenced their instruments for a moment.
Adrienne stood and welcomed the guests, then Caspar raised his glass and led a toast for the Empress of Jovan. Her eyes shone as she smiled down at him. When she sat, Valentin saw that Caspar pulled Adrienne’s hand into his lap and wrapped it in his own.
The musicians struck up a lilting, dreamlike song, and ten pairs of male and female dancers draped in cloth-of-gold and organza ran in and took up their places around the braziers in the centre of the hall. As servers brought out the first course, the performance began. The floating movements of the organza and the flicker of the cloth-of-gold catching the firelight combined to make Valentin feel almost hypnotised. Distractedly sipping his wine, he watched the duo nearest to him and imagined what it would be like to tumble a woman so lithe and flexible.
“And how is Prince Felix?” said Caspar.
Valentin blinked and turned his head to meet Caspar’s amused gaze. “Hm?”
“I became quite fond of the little chap when Lady Luvina brought him to Monsilys.”
“Oh yes, apparently my wife has engaged a fencing master for him,” said Valentin, “and he has begun to learn to ride. We may make a man of him yet.”
“I’m sure we would love to welcome him to the capital again,” said Caspar.
Valentin looked down at Caspar’s hand, still clasping the Empress’. Looking back at his plate he said, “Yes, unfortunately, Lady Luvina does like to travel with the boy, and I can think of nothing I would like less than having her underfoot.”
“Are you two very unhappy?” said Caspar, the corners of his lips turning down.
“When two people who have nothing in common decide to bind themselves together until death, I believe the result is often unhappy.” Then, since it was Caspar’s wedding, Valentin added, “Ours was never a great love, unlike you and the Empress.”
The first course was replaced by the second, and the hypnotic dancers replaced by a series of increasingly dull speeches and tributes from guests. Although Valentin tried to ignore it, he hadn’t missed the fact that Adrienne’s and Caspar’s clasped hands had disappeared under the table-cloth, and that Caspar was looking more febrile and wide-eyed than perhaps Lord Halermo Astrus’ measured periods merited.
The covers were replaced again, and then the tables were taken away and the musicians struck up a dance. Adrienne led Caspar onto the floor and they held up their hands, palms touching. Valentin discovered Adelais standing beside him, sighing.
“Don’t envy them too much, princess,” he said.
“You’re a humbug, Uncle Valentin,” said Adelais.
Shrugging at this fair assessment, Valentin watched Adrienne and Caspar pace through the figures of the dance. When etiquette dictated he might, he offered Adelais his hand, and they took up their place alongside the other couples joining the dance.
Some hours later, after the ladies had hurried Adrienne away and the lords had given Caspar a fair deal of bawdy advice, and the newlyweds had been left to their own devices, Valentin found Cassius gathering up his cloak and preparing to leave.
“You have Llewellyn and I have Elodia, and yet, here we are, going back alone to our cold beds.”
Cassius gave him an odd look. “If it bothers you so much, take your carriage to the Dusk. You can’t tell me you’ve never poured yourself into Elodia’s bed in the small hours of the morning before.”
Valentin nodded several times. “I have,” he said. “Perhaps I should summon her to the palace.”
Cassius threw his cloak across his shoulders. “Perhaps you should,” he said neutrally. “Good night, Valentin.”
Blinking, Valentin watched as Cassius went into the atrium and then across to the family wing. Leaning back against the wall, he sighed, watching a knot of intoxicated aura making a hash of a court dance while the musicians played valiantly on, hidden in their gallery. The dancers from earlier in the night had reappeared, and were making sport of the drunk aura, teasing with their scarves and allowing themselves to be caught.
“Perhaps I should,” he murmured to himself. He blinked away the image of Elodia’s sweet figure, pushed away from the wall and allowed himself to be drawn back into the dancing.