The Princess Vanessa of House Seamont walked briskly to her fathers throne room, through the vast hallway of the Great Balcony. Bordered on her left by arched marble doorways, and on her right by the seething Summersea, the young beauty strode with purpose, sultry ice-blue eyes taking in the secretive whispering of the palace servants. Abruptly she stopped, letting her elegant features show apprehension in the absence of her fathers court. It is fine now, but I must not let the other nobles see my worry. A Princess of the Summersea Isles must be as graceful as she is cunning, widow or not.
Her lord father had called her, but she had need to take a moment, to steel herself for the words she must give the court. Vanessa did not think he would begrudge her.
Delicate hands leaned on the balustrade as she gazed out on the ocean, feeling how it had warmed in the southern sun. Only servants dressed in the crimson and cream livery of her house were there to see her distress. Servants were known to be terrible gossips; however it might do her reputation some good if they whispered how concerned and pensive she had been, after learning of the death of her lord husband. It would be seen as unseemly and weak to do so in court, but in relative privacy, it might be taken for a touch of endearing humanity. I wish I did not have to think with such deception in mind, Harkin. You deserve honest grief. But you would have understood, wouldn’t you?
The mountainous islands of her country dotted the view from the Great Balcony. Countless trading galleys clustered amid the sprawling docks, and more moved lazily across her vision, sails unfurled and glorious, the burgundy sun banner of her house snapping in the wind atop nigh every mast. It was said that saltwater flowed through Seamont veins. It was no different for the Princess, so used to the smell of the ocean was she that she no longer noticed it, as stiff sea winds stirred her voluminous chocolate tresses, the lazy curls flowing unbound to the small of her back.
Dark times would be visited upon the realm as a result of his death. Though she did not love Harkin Devorak, he was a good man, and a dutiful husband. The princess regretted her failure to give him a son, though their marriage had been too young to produce a quickening in her womb. Harkin was to be the high king of the coastal kingdoms upon his fathers’ death. As the only true heir, his death would throw that corner of the world into blood-soaked chaos. King Davos’s many bastard-born sons would stake their claims, and the small kings among the principalities would quarrel for the Sandstone Chair as well. Only the Goddess knew who would remain when the warring had ceased.
With the Winterlands maintaining stubborn neutrality while the new warrior king solidified his claim, and the Riverlands of Karsh on the verge of open war with the Summer Isles, the Seamonts would have no army to protect them on land, though at sea they remained untouchable. If they could not secure an alliance with the northmen, they would go to Karsh, and the Summer Isle’s considerable holdings on the mainland would burn. Had Vanessa wept, it would be for the realm, not her newlywed husband. There was no escaping war now.
She wore black, to honor her fallen husband. The gown was airy and revealing in the southern style, tailored from the finest of silk and lace imported from far eastern lands. Her skirts fell over her long, shapely legs, the liquid fabric idly providing a tantalizing outlines of lean, tanned thighs. Slits cut nearly the full length of her legs, richly embroidered in a golden floral pattern. A tangle of delicate black leather straps, buckled with the glint of gold, clung to the feminine arch of her feet. Her sandals’ high stiletto heel emphasized the firm curve of her backside against the thin ebony silk, and set her hips a sway as she walked. The wind whipped at the light fabric, baring her legs to the sea. A crisscrossed satin ribbon held the open-back closed. A deep square neckline concealed little of her high, generous bosom.
Thankfully, the setting sun warmed the sun kissed flesh the daring gown did not cover. A belt of gold medallions studded with glimmering rubies was fastened about her trim waist, and matching finery adorned her ears and neck. Absently her hand went to the ruby pendant set in the center of the black ribbon tied snugly around her slender neck. It had been a gift from her late husband.
Vanessa could delay no longer. Skirts swirling, she turned from the breathtaking evening seascape, heels tapping against the marble as she strode gracefully to the throne room. When she entered, her head held high and proud, befitting her station; all the eyes of the court moved to her. Most looked away, as if to give her some token privacy for her grief. For some, the token was genuine. Others only wished to gain her favor, as the island king’s eldest daughters hand would be a boon to any houses power. In the back of their minds however, they had to know that a marriage to one such as her was far above them. Such is the game of houses.
It did not sicken her, for this was what she knew. The women whose youth and beauty would permit it were dressed as provocatively as the princess herself. Those who were not paid for their modesty by sweating in the tropical island heat, cooling themselves with decorated feathered fans. The men dressed in elaborate imitations of sailor’s attire, as was the tradition in the Summersea Isles.
His Grace, King Berrian Seamont, sat upon the Driftwood Throne beneath a huge banner bearing his sigil. Her brother Prince Damon stood to his left, as handsome as Miranda was beautiful. To his left stood the High Priestess of the Goddess, serene and pious as ever. Immediately before the dais stood Lord Farren Stonemason of the western island chain, High Admiral of the royal navy, and the most powerful of her fathers bannermen. Beside the Lord Farren stood the coastlander Tandra von Freedmen, the Mistress of Commerce. With them was a foreign messenger, who looked thoroughly terrified. As he should be. He stands before the most powerful man in all the land, holding proof of treasonous acts against his house.
Vanessa curtsied deeply as the silence fell like a blanket about the court. “Your Grace,” She spoke in greeting.
“Daughter. Vanessa.” A flicker of deep sympathy crossed his aging face, and left just as quickly as it had arrived. He could not show such true affection here amongst the other players of the game. He was a firm but just king. It did not behoove him to let himself be seen as softhearted.
Lord Farren spoke softly for a military man. “My Lady, these dark things are not for a woman’s eyes. And with mourning so fresh, surely it would be better…”
Vanessa projected her voice, for all to hear. “Man or woman, a Seamonts’ heart is bold and unwavering when faced with truth.” She could sense her fathers pride at her words, though his expression remained stoic and grim. “Show me his head, so that it can never be said that Vanessa Seamont could not bear to look upon the treachery of her country’s foes.”
“Vanessa, are you certain?”
She inclined her head primly. “Yes, Your grace. Father.”
The king nodded dourly to the quaking messenger, and he hopped to obey. The wicker basket at the foot of the dais was opened, and his common hands pulled forth the head. The scent of death and decay wafted about the vaulted ceilings of the throne room. The graying head of her former husband, a man easily thirty years her senior, hung pitted and black with tar. Miranda felt her soft, unscarred hands tighten into fists amidst her silken skirts, as if by the will of some other mind. She did not cry, though. Nor did she call out in despair. It was known amongst the court that the princess was a young woman of no small fortitude.
“May the Goddess lend wind to his sails,” The droll old priestess intoned.
The foreigner stuttered out a few words. “T-twas brigands, lords and ladies… like it says in the letter-”
Her father’s voice boomed in the quiet, setting the ragged traveler quaking anew. “You will be silent in my
court, messenger. I have no doubt that is what your masters told you.” His eyes scanned the spectators coolly. “I must convene my small council immediately. All of you may go. Vanessa, I would like you to attend as well. There are matters we have need to discuss.”
* ~ * ~ *
“Surely I can go to the Winterlands. Maggie is not ready for such things, a sweet sister though she is.” A little scowl of disappointment fell upon her features as she said the words.
The King replied like a man who had given the matter great consideration. “You know why I made this decision. You can be of much greater use to the throne in the Republic. You may be able to sway the young emperor to come to our aide.” On the mainland, offering a foreign king a wife who lacked her maidenhead could be seen as an insult, nevermind the fact that she had not given the Devoraks’ an heir; a fact that had dire consequences for everyone, except perhaps the Ceresian Republic. They had no such qualms about her virginity. Supposedly the Emperor had much bigger eyes for a pair of breasts and a chest of political favor.
For centuries, House Seamont and the Republic had enjoyed peace. The Summer Isles had withheld their considerable commercial support in fear that they would grow bold and wish to claim their lands for themselves. Not a day passed when the Imperial ambassador beseeched her father for trade agreements. The Republic had been expanding westward for decades. It was conceivable that their vast wealth and power would motivate them to look to the east for lands to conquer. And yet, now they had a token to offer; in exchange for an army.
Bitterly, Vanessa muttered. “The richest house in the land, and now we go begging for soldiers…” She sighed. “What do we know of their senate, father?”
“Schemers and plotters, like any politicians. They cry for the wellbeing of the common folk, and the Emperor had best listen, else wise a mob will oust him from his seat. However they lack real power. It is the Emperor you must entreat with.” She nodded as he continued. “You have a long journey ahead of you. You will take our swiftest ship across the Boundless Sea in one week. Hopefully you will arrive long before old King Davos decides to die. If the northmen go to the River Kingdom, our situation is precarious indeed.”
The Mistress of Coin’s expression clearly reflected what she thought of that statement. She was a Devorak woman, given her position to further solidify the alliance between Seamont and the Coastal Kingdoms. Even she had to admit the truth of it, regardless of her loyalties. “The Sandstone Chair can be filled with whomever we so choose. Benson Devorak…”
“…Will receive our support.” Her father said. “That gives him as good of a chance as the bastard Jerrod.”
Vanessa felt her mind wander as the small council dragged on. It will be winter in the Republic… I shall need new clothes.
Thankfully, the Ceresians still spoke High Imperial. A dead language in her lands, only the educated knew of it. Vanessa thanked the Goddess her father had insisted on her being taught by the Magisters. There would be strange new words they had added to the language. Communication would be awkward at first; but they would be much less than incomprehensible to one another.
The rumors spoke of a brash, handsome emperor, a womanizer and a warrior. As always, the rumors were perhaps a departure from the truth, but Vanessa wondered how far…
* ~ * ~ *THREE MONTHS LATER
Shivering, Vanessa looked over the railing at the Ceresian capital. Her breath misted as it left her sensuous lips. At her side was Ser Erick Jormont, sent on the voyage to protect her when they arrived in the strange lands and customs of the Republic. The high walls of the Imperial palace and its towers loomed over the city. Traders crowded the docks, armored Ceresian soldiers guarding the integrity of their commerce. Inns and whorehouses and fish stalls lined the docks district. The entire city was thickly frosted in heavy drifts of white snow. Couldn’t father have sent me somewhere warmer?
She pouted silently to herself as she looked on.
Before she had left, she had begged her closest friend and seamstress Fiona Darkwater to make her new wardrobe. She had come along as Vanessa’s maidservant. I shouldn’t have trusted her completely. Damnable woman.
Vanessa loved her like a sister, but the woman just couldn’t resist making everything she wore dreadfully inconvenient. It was not as if courtly fashion was terribly comfortable anyway, she supposed. And true to her word, everything was designed to be warm enough for these winter months. Perched upon the daring height of her high-heeled boots, she clung to the railing in her matching full-length fur-lined gloves. The burgundy dress she wore covered her from neck to mid-calf, the finely cut wool overlaid with lace of a similar shade. A deep oval neckline revealed the sumptuous inner slopes of her breasts. Whatever skin the garment covered, it revealed by clinging desperately to her buxom curves. Her corset was laced tightly over her dress, the fur-lined satin adorned with fasteners of precious silver.
She hoped that she received a welcome warmer than this ghastly chill…