Before The Summit
He put down the quill with a sigh and stretched. It had been a long night. But he was used to those. Zarad, Third Prince of Corval, for what that was worth, rarely got a full night’s sleep. Which is why he was now eyeing his untouched bed longingly. It was tempting, so tempting, to considering sleeping for the few hours before he had to go and get on a ship. The summit…now that should be an interesting experience. So few things were novel these days; he was almost looking forward to it.
“Big brother Zarad!”
Sina, all three feet of her, had shoved open his heavy door and danced inside his room, giggling at the disapproving looks her handlers were sending her. And there went sleep as an option.
“Hello, my pretty Sina. Not that I’m not delighted to see you, but aren’t you supposed to be at your lessons?”
She waved her hand with all the dismissive authority of the Emperor. “You are not at my lessons. You are here.”
“Yes, in my room. That is a shocking development.”
She leaned forward and whispered so loudly that only those in the rooms nearest them could hear clearly, “My ladies tell me I shouldn’t visit you here. They won’t tell me why but they said something about loose women. How can women be loose? Does it mean their clothes don’t fit? And why would they come to you for that? Are you a secret tailor?” Then she giggled in delight as her ladies blushed crimson and stuttered in response.
“You, my dear, are an absolute little demon. I have no idea who you could have gotten it from.”
“Papa says I’m just like you when you were my age, brother Zarad!”
“What a ridiculous thing to say. You are much prettier than I was.”
Her face lit up with calculation. “Does that mean that when I am your age, I will be able to make everyone’s brains turn to mush just by smiling at them? Because that seems like a very useful talent.”
“If you ask me, give you any more useful talents and the world is doomed.”
“Mama says you are leaving today. You are going on a big ship and going to a little island and you will be gone for many, many sleeps.”
“Your mother is right. I am. I hope you won’t cry at night for missing me.”
She scoffed loudly, her little mouth puffing out adorably. “It’s much more likely you will cry missing me, brother Zarad.”
“True enough, little demon. So if you aren’t here to cry and beg me to stay, did you come to wish me luck?”
She shook her head no, sending her pretty little curls bouncing all around. He had to stifle a laugh, for she hated it when people treated her like she was ridiculous. Even though she very clearly was. “I came to ask you questions.”
“Well, in that case, go ahead then.”
“Oldest brother Aamir went to the summit, before I was born.”
“That doesn’t sound very much like a question.”
“He came back with big sister Constance.”
“That is also not a question.”
“Are you going to bring me back a sister?”
“Would you like me to?”
“Yes! But only if she’s a nice sister like Constance.”
“But what if she is a naughty sister?”
She squished her lips together and looked thoughtfully for a minute. “That could be fun, too. It would be nice if I wasn’t the only one getting into trouble.”
There was a soft knock on his door that only one person in the entire palace used. Like he expected, Princess Constance, formerly of Arland, timidly opened the door once he gave her permission to enter. “I’m so sorry, your highness, but I was told Princess Sina went missing-“
“And your first thought of when there’s trouble is to come find me? The oasis of all evil?”
Her pretty features flushed bright red and she stammered “Of course not.”
Sina happily marched up to Constance and pronounced, “Brother Zarad has promised to bring me back another sister, like you, Constance. We can leave now. Even if maths is so boring I am tempted to cut off Lady Reina’s hair. I think she would look much better with short hair, don’t you?”
His brother’s wife sent him one quick, worried look. “…Good luck at the summit, Prince Zarad.”
Sina scowled. “My brother doesn’t need luck. He has skill.”
Zarad had to bite down the bubbling laughter that threatened to rise with all this ridiculousness. “Ah, but I will happily take any luck I can get, especially when it comes from such a pretty package.”
Constance couldn’t have bobbed a curtsy and dragged Sina out of the room any faster if she had run. All the while Sina was yelling loudly for him not to forget that he had promised. Only his sister would demand he bring back a wife like some sort of souvenir to present as tribute.
Well, his list of things to accomplish at the Summit was already long enough, might as well add a wife to the list, if only to please his sister. Free from her easily offended eyes, Zarad gave in and laughed until his stomach hurt.
The Welcome Feast
Sometimes the mask was so heavy and so familiar, he wondered if it wasn't a mask anymore. If he really was nothing more than he pretended to be: a charming flirt with no substance or value. It was tiring sometimes, that people so readily saw nothing more than they were shown. So easily believed that there was so little to him. But it wasn't like him to let himself get so melancholy. Not when there was work to be done. And there was much work to be done tonight.
It was almost boring how easily most people were charmed. Oh, they pretended to be demure, to not believe your compliments. But nine out of ten people allowed themselves to be bought so cheaply. It was rare person who danced against his song, instead of leaning into it. He was beginning to think there were very few to be found, even among the Summit, supposedly the gathering of the elites, who surely had more reasons than most to be cynical.
And then he met her. She refused to be charmed. Instead she challenged him. Zarad felt a spark of something he hadn't felt in a very long time, if ever. For once, the game was fun again. And the more he tried, the more she rebelled against him.
It was strange, he never would have thought he would like that so much. But in her, he did. The rebellious glint in her sparkling eyes. The teasing lift of her eyebrow. The way she utterly refused to be charmed by him. The way her mouth was as fast as her wit.
If they were playing a game in truth, for the first time in a long time, he began to fear he might lose.
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