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Ephraim de Montefort

"I do not desire the crown, but if that makes me most suited for it, then I have no choice."

0 · 482 views · located in The Kingdom of Mederva

a character in “Within the Castle”, originally authored by Pyroteknik, as played by Selene Durlan

Description

Ephraim de Montefort

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Name: Ephraim Virgil de Montefort
Nicknames: His brother and a few of his closest friends refer to him as “Eph” (pronounced ‘Ayf’).
Role: Prince 1
Age: 28

Likes:
Solitude and quiet
Martial pursuits (swordsmanship, archery, riding, etc)
Books
His brother

Dislikes:
His current predicament
Talking for the sake of talking
Injustice or prejudice

Appearance Details: Eph was born with his mother’s eye coloring—a rare deep violet hue that can seem almost ordinary black in dim light but shows as a vivid amethyst in sunlight or when struck the right way with indoor illumination. His hair is a deep brown with occasional reddish hues. He stands at a very tall six and a half feet, enough to dwarf most of the men of the court, and he’s also broad enough to be imposing, and quite muscular from the rigors of constant training. Despite this, he does not at all seem haggard or ungraceful—in fact, quite the opposite. He may be taciturn, but he has a patient face with aristocratic features and kind eyes. There’s a rumor that they can turn hard in some situations, and that his fury is a terrible thing to behold, but nobody seems to have seen it, so it’s hard to say for sure. His clothing favors dark colors, and relatively plain garments, usually more suited for outdoor activity than sitting about on his laurels atop a throne. He’s often seen to be wearing a greatsword at his back, though he generally eschews the silver circlet of his station.




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Bio: Ephraim de Montefort is not a trueborn son of the king. Rather, he was the son of the king’s younger brother, who died on a field of battle at a relatively young age. When the king’s first wife died, he married Catherine de Montefort, his brother’s widow. Truly, the two had always loved one another, but as politics go, such things are scarcely ever considered. Catherine’s family was not nearly so important as the family of the king’s first wife, and so she was married to the younger brother instead. In fact, Ephraim’s paternal grandfather was a peasant who ascended to lordship through service in the knightly order of the realm, and Eph followed his grandfather in this, attaining his full knighthood at the unheard-of age of fifteen, largely due to his skill with a sword and nearly-religious adherence to the code of chivalry.

Though the king was his stepfather, Ephraim never believed that he would rule anything. It was true that he was third in line for the throne, behind his younger stepbrother, but it always seemed obvious that the other youth would be the heir. Eph rather likes his brother, and though not really of a disposition to approve of his more… rakish pursuits, the older prince generally looks after the younger’s wellbeing as much as he possibly can, and rather assumed that he would one day lead his brother’s army in case of conflict or chaos.

He certainly never expected to be competing with him for a throne, and indeed, he does not desire it. But he was treated as a prince anyway, engaged to wed the ward of the king, Giselle. He never expressed an opinion one way or another about this, except to say that he didn’t wish the lady to be forced to anything against her own will. As her protests subsided, however, his did as well, though it’s unclear why. He still does not want the throne, and would gladly let his brother have it, save for one thing.

Ephraim de Montefort is, always and forever, a man of duty. The king’s old advisors and the courts of the king’s justice both want him to ascend to the throne over his brother, as they believe his levelheadedness, experience as a commander in the army, and diligent scholarly pursuits will serve much better than the younger’s wild ways and philandering. Though he is loath to admit it, Ephraim sees the sense in this. His brother isn’t really ready to rule: he lacks the skills and the seriousness required. There is no third choice, and so it is with utmost reluctance that Eph allows the courts and advisers to submit his bid for kingship. Ideally, he’d only have to be king until his brother could handle it. But that is not how these things work, no matter how much he desires otherwise.

Honor. Duty. Devotion. This is his code, instilled in him from the cradle, and he will not stray from it. Whatever that means for his future.



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So begins...

Ephraim de Montefort's Story

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Lyanna whirled, hair fanning out behind her, and struck hard with the blade, aiming squarely for Ephraim’s center mass, but as usual, he was there to meet the strike almost effortlessly, and the clang of steel-on-steel rang once more into the chill air of the morning. The practice field was in full view of the corridor that led from the royal chambers to the breakfast hall, and she knew that every once in a while, she and her sparring partner would gain an audience, usually a servant slacking a bit on duty, but that was fine. Self-conscious as she was in social situations, Lyanna was confident as a cat on the battlefield, and just as quick. She had to be, to stand up to Ephraim, widely regarded as the best sword in the realm, if not beyond.

She was still on the offensive, pressing him with quick, flashing strikes—there to the shoulder, there to his left leg, and a stab, which he sidestepped with the accustomed grace. If she was water, smooth and flowing and quick, the he was fire—languid and easy until the moment came to act, then brutal and impossible to grab on to. His blocks were flawless, even with the heavier two-handed blade he held, but then, so were hers. She’d learned first from her father and then from him, so it could hardly be otherwise.

Ephraim darted in for a broad horizontal slice, but she surprised him by bending over backwards, the blade just whistling over her nose. Flexibility was underrated, but she’d never forgotten its importance. Lyanna grinned, snapping back up to drive her pommel up and under his chin, but he turned the hit aside with a gauntlet, opening up her guard by flinging her arm out to the side, and went in for a low sweep, one which she barely jumped in time to avoid. Her feet hit the ground again with fluid lightness, and she shifted her weight, ducking forward and under his guard with a shoulder, which given the difference in height, contacted his abdomen with a resounding thwack. They were only in leathers today, and sparring with dull swords, so the blow doubled him over a bit, more than it would have were they both in chain or plate.

Ephraim chuckled under his breath, and her answering smile was positively radiant, eyes sparkling with amusement. This was a language they both spoke very well, and it had always served them far better than words. She allowed her frustration, her anxiety, to echo in the sound of metal striking metal, to resonate in the lines of her posture or her choice of strikes, and he let the tide of her silent admonishments to wash over him like the ocean over the sand, and replied in kind. Assurance in the blocks, a certain amount of hesitancy in his hits, indecision spiking the end of a particularly strong jab.

But in the end, when it was just them out on the field like this, it was impossible to remain morose for long. They had both lived for these moments almost from birth, and both were trained as knights in the strongest, most impeccable military in the world. The training ground and battlefield alike had forged the bond between them into something as certain and unyielding as steel, and though they had not been born of the same blood, she knew that she was his sister, and he her brother. It would be hard to find two closer friends than the pair of them, and in the end, the sparks they drew from each others’ blades couldn’t express enough the strange, visceral, singing joy of adrenaline in the blood, a friend by their sides, and the simple appreciation that this was what they both did best. It was a dance, a work of art, poetry so fluid in motion that it could have been choreographed ahead of time.

Even the way she eventually ended up planted on her arse in the dirt, the point of Ephraim’s blade inches from her forehead, was rather graceful in its way. Lyanna was still smiling, craning her head to look up at her best friend, who wore as close to a matching expression as he ever did. Neither of them smiled easily, or laughed at nothing, because on their shoulders were weights greater than they cared to think about. But here, this, was different. They could let it out, release it, and forget, just for a little while each morning.

The half-smile dropped from his face, and the prince withdrew his sword, offering a hand to help her stand, which she gratefully took. The few outdoor servants that had stopped to watch shook their heads and went back to their days, and she could only assume it was the same for those that lingered at the windows inside. It was good for morale to see the prince practicing with the Lady Knight, and so Ephraim tended to insist that their matches be here—not public, exactly, but not impossible to see, either.

Lyanna sighed and rolled her shoulders, her own happy expression vanishing with his. The best part of the day was over, and it was only breakfast. Stripping off their practice leathers, both hung those up on the appropriate racks and left their blunt swords, taking their real weapons back with them. They split upon entering the castle—Lyanna’s rooms were not in the royal wing, though they were close enough, as befitted a noblewoman of her station. She honestly probably would have preferred to sleep near the servants. After bathing herself and donning a fresh tunic, trousers, and ringmail shirt, she hooked her gauntlets to her belt for the moment and strapped her hand-and-a-half sword to her back.

The breakfast hall didn’t have many people in it yet, but that was fine by her. It meant she didn’t have to talk as much. Like most of the important people, Lyanna was allowed a place at the main table, and took one. Unlike the more formal meals, breakfast was served for a few hours, and people allowed to come, eat, and leave as they pleased. She filled a plate and settled down to eat, reminding herself that she had to go by the stables later today and check on her horses—one of them wasn’t too far from giving birth. Ephraim would probably want her help in the afternoon, and tonight, there was supposed to be some kind of formal party of some kind, and she was doubtless expected to attend.

Truly, she hated such events with a vehemence usually reserved for murderers and betrayers, but she couldn’t help that she was entirely hopeless with them. She was lucky nobody really ever showed an interest in her at such events after she’d (accidentally!) punched the Marquis de Roche at one of them. She had the most embarrassing stutter with people she didn’t know well, and sometimes, her mind-to-mouth filter failed and she said what she really thought. There was no faster way to make yourself unpopular than that.




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Ephraim skipped breakfast, as he usually did. Honestly, by this point it was such a common practice that he doubted anyone remembered to miss him anymore. After practice with Lyanna, he descended back into the real world, bathing and changing into a fresh shirt in dark red and trousers in dark grey—plain, serviceable garments doubtless intended for someone of much lower station than he. Sometimes, he was quite sure that the servants less often exposed to the nobility didn’t recognize him, and he liked it better this way. One could grow tired of so many ‘milords’ and ‘your highnesses.’

Truthfully, he wanted none of it. He did not want to be king, and he did not want to take the right to rule from his brother. He would have been most happy being the general of the army, as he was now, for the rest of his life, without ever having to worry about sitting on a throne and holding court. He could command a room, certainly, and he’d gained some amount of wisdom from his studies and his nature, but it was not what he wanted.

As he’d expressed to Lyanna, though, duty seldom had anything to do with one’s own wishes. She’d understood. He’d known she would.

The stack of papers on his desk only seemed to grow larger by the day, no matter how many hours he spent going through them all. He wondered if Elijah was experiencing something similar, or if he preferred to leave such matters to his advisers. Another position Ephraim would rather have than king. There were matters to be finalized for tonight’s ball in honor of their royal guests (and there were many, these days), matters of state to be handled, the ever-present controversy about the succession to deal with, and of course, the wedding.

Ephraim frowned deeply, picking up one piece of parchment in particular, reading it carefully as though he had not read it a hundred times, had not dictated these words himself. It had to be done—things just weren’t right as they were. And it needed to be done today.

Summoning a messenger, Ephraim told the man to seek his affianced, Giselle, and to ask her into his study when her breakfast was concluded and she had a moment. He wanted to only minimally impact her daily routine, but this needed to be done. It was unfair to her otherwise. Setting aside the paper for now, he went back to his other work, quill scratching away on a trade agreement. This one, he knew, would enrich a large number of the poorest people in his kingdom, at a negligible cost to royal profit, so it made complete sense to Ephraim.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Giselle Angelou Character Portrait: Lyanna du Lac Character Portrait: Elijah de Montefort Character Portrait: Bliss Barnard Character Portrait: Ephraim de Montefort Character Portrait:
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Lyanna focused on her breakfast with an attention usually reserved for drills. She found that, generally, if she looked occupied, people didn’t speak to her, which meant she didn’t have to speak to them, which meant that she didn’t accidentally socially humiliate herself. Things were probably better that way, really—as a knight, she had a certain reputation to uphold, for honor and chivalry, yes, but also for grace and dignity, and those were two things she didn’t always do as well. She was just too much… herself. Her father had never cared how she spoke, and Ephraim had always encouraged her honesty, and given that, it was probably to be expected that she couldn’t tell sweet lies or come up with the right meaningless phrase or latch onto gossip like other people could.

She also wasn’t much concerned, or aware, really, of the social implications of different kinds of food, and tended to enjoy mostly vegetables at breakfast, cooked alongside eggs and with some oatmeal. She’d found that this, with maybe a slice of some kind of meat, was adequate to sustain her for much of the day, and if today went like she thought it would, she was going to need every last scrap of energy she could muster.

Then, it happened.

For most people, especially most highborn people, a simple comment at the breakfast table would have been welcomed. It would have been recognized as a joke, and perhaps returned with a demure smile and a mild agreement, or, if the recipient were truly adept, a show of wit to match. Some might have even seen flirting in it, though never Lyanna. The likelihood of anyone flirting with her was absurdly close to zero, bar when a lot of alcohol was involved. Men with too much ale in their systems tended to forget everything but her not-so-subtle bust and hips, and apparently, this was appealing to some, enough that they’d make their intentions so obvious even she could properly interpret.

Perhaps even she would have been more appropriate in her response, if she’d thought about it long enough to brush off with a smile and a faint stutter. But she was deep in her thoughts about the upcoming day, and as such, her brain-to-mouth filter rendered entirely inoperative. Without looking up from her plate, she responded, a fair hint of snark creeping into the tone. “Wasn’t aware assassins were the kind to let you finish breakfast first and properly arm yourself later, milord. I’ll keep that in mind.” Then again, most lords probably didn’t have to think too much about assassination. The princes on the other hand... well, there was always a risk.

Lyanna at this point froze in place, and took a couple of seconds to process the voice that had been speaking to her, and then what she’d actually said in reply, and slowly, her sea-colored eyes rose, to observe that, yes, she was speaking not to some minor marquis or whatnot as she’d assumed, but the prince of Merderva, and not the one that would appreciate her saying something like that. Her eyes widened almost comically, and her cheekbones and nose tinged pink. Ohnoohnoohno, what did I just DO? She’d been sarcastic to someone who might be king one day.

Perhaps understandably, her effort to recover lacked any redeeming features whatsoever. “I, um… ah—I am s-so sorry, Your Highness, I-I didn’t realize…” Oh gods be good, her entire face was burning now, but she couldn’t leave. He was of socially superior standing, enough so that he could rebuke her if he wished. Ordinarily, he’d have to accept the insult and just act against the noble’s interests in the future, but she was a knight, not just a noble, and she could be reprimanded more directly. She hadn’t meant to be insulting, but sarcasm? Oh, she knew there was a reason she didn’t talk to people.

At that moment, Giselle the king’s ward entered, smiling politely at the entire table. Lyanna tried to return it, but was entirely uncertain if she managed to succeed. Bliss was a bit easier to respond to—Lyanna had given the young woman a bow and some archery lessons a while back, to supplement what she had already learned, and knew her maybe a little better than most of the people at this table. Oh, why did it have to be him? If anything, her mortification was only worse because she thought so highly of Prince Elijah. Not that she ever made show or mention of it, of course. He was a refined, socially-apt, gracious, interesting prince, and while her blood may have been good enough for someone like him, that was where her good qualities stopped. She had no effortless charm like he did, no ability to speak to absolutely anybody with charisma and poise. She was indelicate, unrefined (she knew what most people thought about the fact that she always wore trousers), and apparently also uncouth, and presently wished she could sink into the ground and disappear for a while.

Swallowing thickly, she returned her eyes to her food, but her appetite had suddenly vanished, and she wasn’t going to go looking for it.




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A knock at his door broke Ephraim from the haze of unpleasant paperwork, and he set aside some inane note on the floral arrangements for this evening and took a deep breath. She would be happy about this, obviously, but it was still going to be a big change, and he wasn’t sure her immediate reaction would be as favorable. He was about to cause a large upheaval in her life, after all, and friends or not, that might be a bit difficult to deal with, at first. He wondered for an errant moment if she would be angry with him, then shook his head at himself. It was obviously what she wanted, and he was going to use his newfound power to give it to her. She deserved this much.

“Come in,” he called, rising from his desk to pull up a chair in front of it. Turning back to the door, he gave a small half-smile and gestured to the plus seat. “Gigi. Have a seat, please.” It wasn’t as formal as he could have been, but there was hardly a point being formal with people who had known you since you were a troublesome brat with father issues and a bit too much cleverness for your own good. He retreated behind his desk, sorting papers absently while she made herself comfortable, neatening everything without really thinking about it.

“It’s a nice color on you,” he said offhandedly. Purples of all kinds suited her coloration, actually. Ephraim may generally be romantically challenged and mostly uninterested, but he wasn’t blind. He knew she was lovely, and was certainly polite enough to pay a compliment. At last settling back in his chair, he leaned forward slightly, propping his elbows on the desk and pressing his hands together. The dark violet of his eyes was vaguely troubled, and almost black in the indoor lighting.

“Giselle,” he started, then shook his head. “Gigi.” It was the name he and his brother had called her by since they were children, after all, even if he’d always found it a tad odd as far as nicknames went. It wasn’t like he could talk—his name was notoriously difficult to shorten. “My uncle was always adamant that we should marry, and the deadline for that is fast approaching. Though I don’t have the same talent for politics that Elijah does, I know what it would mean for my chances—frankly put, a married king is preferable to a bachelor one. It is politically advantageous and smart to marry you, and I don’t doubt that it would solve this succession crisis quite quickly.”

He paused, and one of his hands came up to pinch the bridge of his nose. Here, in this moment, he was allowing her to see a flash of his well-disguised vulnerability, and the worry that weighed him down. Worry for the kingdom, worry for Elijah, and worry for his friends as well. Whatever came of all this, he was under no illusions that it would be easy for anyone. “It’s also unfair to you. I recall when the king first suggested it that you protested rather vehemently, and regardless of what my uncle argued, you were right. It isn’t fair to ask you to marry me, and he was using his position as your warden to an unfair advantage.”

His hand dropped, and his lips quirked halfheartedly. “It’s why I’m fixing it. I can’t give those years of your life back, when you should have been free to talk to young men like any other lady of the court, to think not of the forced ties you bore me but only the will of your own mind and heart. But I can give you the rest of your future, and the freedom to decide what you want to do. For as long as I have the power to protect you from it, your marriage will not be used as a tool of politics in Merderva, that I promise you.” He’d always felt horribly about the fact that she was essentially forced to be his fiancée. Though he’d never had much time or patience for flirting and the games played between men and women, he suspected very strongly that she had a romantic heart, and that being chained to him as she was must be something akin to a cage for a woman like that.

He picked up the piece of paper he’d been examining earlier and held it out for her. “This is your freedom. It’s just a copy, of course—the official one has been filed with the courts of office already. As of this moment, we are no longer engaged to be married, and you are free to choose any husband you want, of nothing but the desire of your heart. I’m sorry I couldn’t do this sooner—there were a lot of legalities to be sorted through.” His smile widened into something genuine, and it was clear that he truly believed he was doing something worthwhile for her, with no ulterior motives at all. In fact, it was patently disadvantageous to him, but he was doing it anyway, because it was the right thing, and his duty to her as his friend.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Giselle Angelou Character Portrait: Lyanna du Lac Character Portrait: Elijah de Montefort Character Portrait: Ephraim de Montefort Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Giselle Arbella Angelou
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Without saying much more, Giselle ate her oatmeal and left Elijah and Lyanna. Though she took notice to their playful tones she was so involved in wondering about Ephraim’s request that she did not hear their words. Giselle poked at her food for a moment as the urge to go to make her leave was building. She was suddenly restless, unable to decipher her own thoughts, and certainly unable to have even an inkling of what Ephraim’s might be.

Her spoon looped through the oatmeal once more, and before she had time to even excuse herself she found herself in the hallway. Her unceremonious manner was slightly suspicious, but then again no one would question a woman who was supposed to be married in one week’s time.

The clicking sound of her expensive shoes sent warning to all around. A servant on the other side of the kingdom could identify Giselle just by the sound of her shoes, and she always wore the best. Giselle found herself at the door of the study and with a nervous hand she swept the dust from her gown and straightened her hair. Truly, she was a woman of many colors. Independent and somewhat resistant on her own, squeamish and childlike in the presence of Ephraim.

Giselle knocked on the door lightly, and then entered the room once prompted. Catching a glance of a smile had Giselle returning hers. She nodded her head in response to being seated. Graceful was one of the many words that could have been used to describe Giselle; in one fluid motion she adjusted her gown, took a seat, and sat forward in attention, like all good princesses should do. Her hands were folded gently in her lap, her head was bowed down just slightly, and subtle smile was upon her lips as Ephraim presumed his position behind the desk.

“It’s a nice color on you,” Giselle brought her head up in confusion, and then blushing realized he had meant the dress. With a sparkle in her eye and a genuine smile she said, “Thank you.” She was simple in that way, taking compliments as they were and demanding nothing more. That was a rare quality in Giselle, unlike many noble women; she could honestly thank someone for a compliment.

Then Ephraim began. He started with the obvious; the engagement that she had dreaded for so much of her life and how it was an unfair. At first, Giselle was confused, why would he be bringing this up when the wedding was so close? It was so close that flowers were being imported from Shahari, invitations were being written, and her wedding dress was being embroidered at that very moment. Or so she thought.

All the progress on the wedding was at a standstill and Giselle didn’t even know it. Giselle’s light eyes searched for his as he tried to find the right words. A moment of genuine concern and vulnerability flooded over him and Giselle sat dumbfounded. Before he continued she figured it out, there would be no wedding. She knew that he did not want to be king, not right now anyway, but she didn’t know that he would call off the engagement.

Slowly Giselle shook her head, first in a subtle way that could have been mistaken for disbelief in his words, then more fervently. Ephraim handed her a piece of parchment paper, a complete and legal separation of an arranged engagement without her consent. Then again, she didn’t really have the power or the choice. Looking into his eyes, which hinted colors of violet, she saw his pure honesty and good heart. He truly believed that she was doing the right thing. Her hand absently took the piece of paper and she stared at it during the remainder of his speech. A dull buzzing started in her ears as a swamp of nervous silence filled the air between them.

She didn’t know whether to fake her happiness or to tell him the truth. Quickly, and without much reason, she decided she would do neither. “I- I don’t want this.” She said quietly, stumbling over herself. Her fingers shook as she set the paper down on the desk in front of her and then returned to his gaze.

“Ephraim, you cannot continue to compete with your brother for the throne. Nor should he succeed you.” Giselle did not wish to quarrel, but because her strong hidden emotions she was much more bold than she intended. “You must become king!” The composed little princess that she was born and raised to be was leaving her. Giselle’s voice raised as a flash of panic came over her, “And- And I know that you do not wish to deal with love, but it has dealt a great deal with you!” Now she was talking in riddles, blabbing on about something that could not be reversed. It was done, there was nothing she could do now, and confessing herself to him would only make things worse.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Giselle Angelou Character Portrait: Lyanna du Lac Character Portrait: Elijah de Montefort Character Portrait: Bliss Barnard Character Portrait: Ephraim de Montefort Character Portrait:
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Well, it seemed he wasn’t interested in taking up her offer of recompense, which she took to be a good sign. For the most part, though, the words flying between himself and Bliss were just confusing to Lyanna. The metaphors, she understood—she was highly educated and the furthest thing from stupid, but… there was something about situations like this that sent her better sense flying behind a corner to press itself up against a wall and hide for as long as possible. Maybe she couldn’t read what people thought of her, what their true intentions were, because she didn’t want to know.

It was a disquieting thought, but not a new one. Lyanna was one of those rare folk in the world who could truly call herself an idealist: she believed, in her secret heart, that everyone was a good person until they proved otherwise, and sometimes even then. She also liked to think that she wasn’t completely ridiculous to most of them. It was a defense mechanism really. From a very young age, she’d been a curiosity, a woman who caused scandal simply by existing and being who she really was. She walked around in trousers and chainmail, a man’s weapon strapped to her back and a man’s steely confidence on the battlefield. She spoke baldly when she forgot to hide her thoughts, and she took duty and honor very seriously—much more seriously than the cultivation of her (nonexistent) charms or the task of finding a husband. She was a Lady Knight, and who had ever heard of such a thing?

So, sometimes, she managed to convince herself that everyone wasn’t really laughing at her when she couldn’t see. She had to believe that.

Perhaps for this reason, something Bliss said struck Lyanna particularly hard. He is jesting with you. She blinked, glancing back and forth between the two of them. Why would he do that? She had been nothing but serious. Granted, her initial remark had definitely been snarky, but it was still true. Lyanna only ever lied to herself, not anybody else. Hurt flashed just briefly across her face as she misinterpreted the situation. “No, Bliss,” she said quietly, looking back down at her food, and pushing her half-full plate away from her. “I do believe his highness is laughing at me.” Jesting with implied that there was some chance she knew what was going on, or was herself joking. But she had been nothing save earnest and serious, and she wasn’t being taken seriously. It reminded her too much of the way she’d been perceived upon first setting foot in this place, when all those knights had looked upon her and smiled condescendingly. Silly girl, playing at swords.

It wasn’t that Lyanna lacked a sense of humor—not at all. With her friends, she could be funny, or at least they seemed to think so. But this… it just made her uncomfortable. She was no good at it, and she was making a fool of herself in front of a prince as well as a friend. It was like they both spoke a language that was nothing but gibberish to her. Well, perhaps it was best to get out of their hair and let them speak it. Standing, the knight dropped into a bow, then rose. “My apologies, Sire, Bliss, but my duties require me elsewhere. Please excuse me.” Technically, she was supposed to wait for some confirmation from any authority higher than her own, but she leaned on the informality of breakfast and left anyway.

She wasn’t angry; that was an emotion that Lyanna did not often deal with. She was, however, frustrated—at herself as usual. It was better to walk away from a situation like that and get on with her day. And it wasn’t as though she had a shortage of things to do. Unbeknownst to most of the residents, they would be receiving yet another guest today, and though they were technically friends, his arrival was more of a strain to Ephraim at this point than anything else. Shahari was too important an alliance to jeopardize, but its prince was clever, and he would know the succession crisis for the weakness it was. They could only hope that he would not do anything in particular with the information. But what was the likelihood, really, of someone called the ‘Prince of Thieves’ adhering to honor?

She wanted to believe the best, but that had never stopped her from preparing for (and expecting) the worst. She needed to stop at the stables first…

Lyanna realized she’d been standing just outside the dining room for a couple of minutes, and shook her head at herself. It wasn’t the first time she’d been utterly humiliated by a clever tongue, and it would not be the last. Taking a deep breath to fortify herself, she let it go as best she could and smoothed her face out into the iron impassivity that most were more used to seeing from her. She had to try and forgive herself—nobody had really done anything wrong. She just wasn’t suited for some things, and needed to do better at remembering them.




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Ephraim was confused for all of about two seconds when Giselle handed back the paper. Did that mean she wanted to… surely not. The notion that anybody would want to marry a stick in the mud like him was absurd, especially when the someone in question was a free spirit like Giselle. Of course, then she explained herself, and it all made perfect sense. She wanted him to be king, and, like him, knew that his marriage would likely make that possibility a reality. Her loyalty warmed him and troubled him at the same time. What had he ever done to deserve it, really? He wasn’t even a trueborn son of the king, a fact that nobles loyal to his brother took every opportunity to remind him of. He had no real claim besides the strength of his conviction and the suitability of his demeanor. He was a nephew, not a son.

“Giselle,” he said calmly, but all the same, there was a kind of authority in it, one that naturally compelled attention. He was unaware of this trait of his, and invoking of it was therefore unintentional at best. He offered a soft smile in an attempt to soothe her protests. “I am humbled that you think so, and moreso by what you are willing to sacrifice to ensure that I do, but…” He paused. The last part of her exclamation didn’t really make much sense to him, and so he couldn’t really argue the point, so he bypassed it and focused on what he did know.

He sighed through his nose, perfect posture slumping slightly. “I don’t want you to have to make that sacrifice, for either Merderva or me.” He shook his head slowly. “I know what it must seem like now, that Elijah is too young and too reckless and too unconcerned with duty to make a good king. But I truly think that, if given the chance, he would rise to the occasion and do very well at it.” His brother could be quite stubborn once his mind was set on something, really, especially if he saw a challenge. Granted, right now that tendency was most often turned on recalcitrant females or people intent on denying him what he thought was his by right, but that didn’t mean it could never have other applications.

“And it’s not as if I would have no hand in what happens here—I am still the Lord General of the army, unless he sees fit to depose me, and I do not think he would.” Leading an army would be far too boring for Elijah’s tastes, and Ephraim would be content to do that duty for the rest of his life without complaint. “If this country is forced to make a choice, I want that choice to be only about which of us would make the better king—not which one better matches a checklist of arbitrary criteria.” Being married might make him a better candidate, but it wouldn’t make him a better king, and he didn’t want to receive the throne because of that.

His eyes softened, the hue shifting subtly to something more obviously purple. “I am truly sorry if I upset you. I don’t want you to think that the enormity of what you just offered goes unappreciated—it doesn’t. But you are a person, not a bargaining chip, and I won’t let you be treated like one.” His tone was unwavering—on this, he would not budge.

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Giselle’s mind spun in circles and she thought her chest might burst from how quickly her heart was pumping. She felt like a little animal, her heart going so quickly that it was impossible to determine her pulse. She should have been happy; any woman like herself would have been waiting for this moment. When she was first given to Ephraim she had nothing but harsh words for the king, she wanted to marry for love, not for political gain.

Times had changed though, and so had she. Ephraim now had the power to stop their wedding, thinking that he was doing the right thing. All the while Giselle had grown to admire this man whom she was supposed to marry. The word love she did not want to admit to, but she would have married him. It was strange, how this free-spirited young woman who once despised the thought of marriage was now urging Ephraim to take her.

“Giselle,”

And suddenly the Warden behaved herself, correcting her posture. His voice was gentle yet authoritative, the perfect combination of a king and a friend. Giselle’s eyes focused on his as her heartbeat settled into its normal speed. Her hands went back to their proper place and she tried so very hard to keep her facial expressions neutral. She lowered her head as she listened to his wise words. As much as she disagreed with him, she didn’t have the right to stand up to him once again.

“I am truly sorry if I upset you. I don’t want you to think that the enormity of what you just offered goes unappreciated—it doesn’t. But you are a person, not a bargaining chip, and I won’t let you be treated like one.”

You are a person. Not a bargaining chip. I won’t let you be treated like one. Giselle finally looked back at him again, her eyes filed with wonder. He had this remarkable ability of transforming anyone’s thoughts to conform to his own. His honest way had Giselle perplexed, no one had ever told her that she had the right to do what she wanted.

For a moment there was silence between the two of them. Giselle was thinking.
Then suddenly her gaze that was locked with his fell to the ground and she stood up. Giselle gritted her teeth in frustration before speaking in a soft voice. Truly, she was lost for words in coming to accept the reality in front of her. She would not be getting married in a week; she was free to see the men of her choosing.

Her eyes searched for some words as she stood there, brining her arms in front of her. “Thank you…” Her words were directed toward the floor, and then more confidently she looked up. “Thank you.” Her voice was so confident now that she almost believed herself. A genuine smile burst on her face with a small gust of laughter. The adrenaline of freedom that she felt down in the village ran through her.

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Lyanna had shrugged off the lingering burn of shame by the time she set her feet back to the stones and out towards the stables, but she was interrupted in her progress by Bliss, who called after her. Slowing to a stop, Lyanna about-faced, perhaps a bit too crisply for a conversation with a friendly acquaintance, but then she wouldn’t really know that. The knighthood was just in everything that she did, plain and simple. She managed an expression of pleasant interest, which was honestly about as close as she ever got to smiling. Even Ephraim was less serious than she was, and that was really saying something. Those close enough to her understood that there was no offense to be taken in this, and Bliss was probably one of those people.

“Bliss?” she questioned lightly, examining the other woman’s face for any sign of distress. She wasn’t really sure if something had happened after she left, but Bliss wasn’t one to become overly flustered and needlessly frustrated in social situations like she was, so she doubted that. Perhaps the Lady Giselle needed something? No, she had left a while ago and was probably still with Ephraim.

She was aware, however, that her schedule was pressing, and she couldn’t afford to be late. “Can we walk and talk? The Shahari Prince likely just disembarked from his boat and is riding to the palace as we speak. I need to be there to receive him.” Actually, it might be a good idea to have a member of the castle staff there as well, and though Bliss was far from typical ‘staff,’ Lyanna didn’t think her presence would hurt anything. She was, in many ways, what the lady knight sometimes wished she was: gracious, graceful, kind to everybody, and clever. Not to mention sociable. If they wanted to make a good impression, Bliss wouldn’t hurt at all.

Tilting her head in the appropriate direction, Lyanna started walking at a moderate pace. “Is something the matter?” Her floundering tended to abate either in the line of her job or in conversations with those she knew well, and since both were true here, there was nary a stutter to be heard, only a subtle, surprisingly gentle confidence over a layer of duty-bound steel. It was really a shame it abandoned her at crucial moments.



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At first, he was almost certain that he’d mortally offended her, and was thinking to apologize again, when she thanked him. At first, it was a bit tremulous and uncertain and not at all like spirited Gigi, but then she repeated it with a smile and a gale of laughs and her usual fire back in her tone, and for once in his life, Ephraim grinned, broad and unabashed and lively. He’d never say it out loud, because it sounded trite and cliché, but nothing in the world made him quite as happy as the happiness of others, especially his friends. If he happened to have some hand in it, well… that was all the better.

He stood with her, escorting her to the door. “I’m glad my earnestness is amusing,” he said with the arch of a brow. But he knew it wasn’t that she laughed for, and that was just fine by him. If only securing the happiness of the rest of the people in his life, in this kingdom was the matter of a gesture so simple and obvious to grant—kingship would be a much easier burden to contemplate.

They reached the door, and he glanced back at the stacks of paperwork on his desk. Most of his work was done, at least everything that he could do for the day, but he still had a few last-minute matters to set up regarding the ball. “Just so you know,” he informed Giselle, opening the door for her, “Prince Malik is arriving from Shahari today. I don’t think the two of you have met—I only met him on a state visit a few years ago, but he’s a very… interesting fellow.” He shrugged; it seemed prudent to inform her so she knew the stranger staying in their hallway was supposed to be there.

“Alas, I have to go see the chef and a few other people about arrangements for tonight. Also…” he hesitated for a moment, unsure for once if the offer would be poor form or not. It wasn’t, after all, every day one broke off an engagement of nearly seven years, “If milady doesn’t find an appropriate escort to this evening’s festivities, she would be welcome to rescue me from the boredom of it all.” He wouldn’t want her to be uncomfortable because he’d chosen today to drop this on her, after all. “Of course, I highly doubt finding an escort of more suitable sort will be a challenge for you.” His tone was light, even jocular, and it was clearly one of those rare moments where it wasn’t so impossible to believe that he and Elijah were related after all.



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Malik threw on the shirt Su’da handed him with an air of faint disappointment. Sailors rarely bothered adorning their upper bodies, and the prince of Shahari was definitely not new to sailing, or heated weather. But Merderva was a temperate clime, and frightfully stuffy about certain points of etiquette that simply didn’t exist in his country. So a shirt it would be, and boots as well, for that matter. It was probably for the best; the place was honestly a little too cold for Malik, even now, in the height of summer. Ridiculous.

He tied the dark blue sash over the black-and-silver shirt, pulling his boots on as Lorri gave him the traditional welcome speech, variants of which he’d heard in every country from here to the ends of the earth. Still, it wasn’t bad—he could tell this particular Merdervan had a real fondness for his home, even with so formal a recitation. “Well, she does come highly recommended,” Malik conceded with a crooked smile that lit his sky-blue eyes as though from within. “My father was Merdervan, Lorri, and he never did quite get over how much he missed it.”

The diplomatic marriage between his parents had been basically the opposite of a love match, which was probably why there was only ever one son. Add to that the fact that his father was dead, probably at his mother’s hand, and it was perhaps understandable that Malik himself didn’t much believe in things like romance. Sensuality, sure, and sexuality was great, but love was… well, it was something for stodgy, stiff people like the ones who generally tended to occupy such traditional countries as this one. Malik didn’t really do traditional, but for his mother’s sake, he curtailed the worst of his habits on his diplomatic missions, and only ever complained to Su’da.

Then again, he shared almost all of his thoughts with Su’da, so that was hardly surprising. The man was an astute listener, and much smarter than most people would assume. That he’d done a lot of the father’s or older brother’s work in raising Malik tended to help. Glancing over his shoulder at said manservant, Malik flashed a grin, one that clearly read ‘let’s see what trouble we can stir up,’ and descended the gangplank on feet as quiet as cat’s paws. That was something he’d learned from the man behind him, as well, and now it was as natural as breathing.

There were several horses awaiting their party, and though Malik preferred boats to beasts, he’d learned how to ride over the years, perhaps somewhere back in a visit to Effemagne, where it was like the men were born riding. If you were going to pick up a skill, learn from the best. Swinging astride the beast, he surveyed the port, finding it not half as lively as the one back home but almost as busy, and then they were off. The palace itself was about an hour’s ride from the docks, part of that through town and the other part through a bit of farmland. He was looking forward to seeing it. Travel was rarely boring, after all.

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The bright and rare grin that flashed across Ephraim made Giselle smile even more, and even though she was now burying her real feelings, it was nice to see him smile. It was such a brilliant sight that few people had the opportunity to witness it. Ephraim was always so strictly proper and business like that when a grin such as this one was a treat, especially for Giselle. It was glimpse of what he was like when he was a child, and all Giselle wanted to do was take that grin, put it in a bottle and save it.

His genuine happiness was so hard to find these days, and Giselle decided that it was probably best that she had thanked him. Truly, she was happy for this separation, but there was still a twitching in the back of her mind. Most everyone in the castle had known that she wanted to marry him; it wasn’t like she was hiding it. In fact, most people thought Ephraim was a bit dense in not taking notice to her.

Walking with him she lowered her head at his comment, another small chuckle coming from her. Once they were at the door she looked back up at him and nodded. Giselle had heard that the Crowned Prince of Shahari was coming, but nothing was confirmed until that moment. Shahari was a beautiful land, she had heard, but she had never visited the place. She only knew it for its exquisite flowers and divine silk dresses. As far as its reputation went, Giselle also knew that they were very different people. The Ward, like most of the women in the kingdom of Mederva had not traveled the world and experienced the rest of the world.

The traditions and behaviors of the Prince Malik would surely be a surprise to her. Giselle was used to this very proper environment of the castle of Mederva, and although she longed for a bit of adventure and freedom, she did not know of the carefree spirit of the people of Shahari. “Thank you for the warning.” She said in a light voice, a little bit of humor in her undertones. She wasn’t sure how “interesting” this Prince would be, but he probably wasn’t someone she couldn’t handle.

Giselle followed Ephraim’s gaze toward the pile of paperwork. A short-lived frown was on her face as she realized he was still trapped with his royal duties and didn’t have time to do what he liked. “Alas, I have to go see the chef and a few other people about arrangements for tonight. Also…” Giselle interrupted the prince before he could continue speaking. “Perhaps you should forget these papers until tomorrow. After all, another guest is coming to stay in our castle. You can only stay cooped up in this study for so long.” She was concerned for him; Ephraim was constantly hunched over this never-ending pile of paperwork. He needed to relax a little, and act more like his brother once in a while.

Ephraim spoke of the ball again, but this time spoke of the two of them. This thought hadn’t even crossed her mind. After being engaged to Ephraim for nearly seven years she only assumed that she would accompany him to the festivities tonight. She had been his left arm for every ball and public event since she was eighteen. And despite his breaking off the engagement, she knew that she would rather go with Ephraim than a suitable bachelor.

“You need not to be so formal, Ephraim.” She started simply, “I would gladly save you from your boredom, tonight.” Her bright blue eyes looked into his as a brilliant idea popped into her mind. With grace Giselle grabbed him arm and gestured him away from the study and into the hallway. “But first, I must save you from this boredom.”

Turning so that she was still facing him whilst leading him, she walked backward as she spoke, “I will have my lady-in-waiting finish your business with the ball. We, my dear, will avoid all work until tonight and go for a ride.”

Giselle was not entirely confident in her plan, but she felt like it was a necessary attempt. Riding horses was always a popular pass time with the nobles, and Giselle even found it exciting. She often times didn't get to ride without an escort of guards, but having Ephraim would surely substitute for that. If Ephraim were to protest, she would find some way, any way, to get him out of the castle and enjoying the day. After all, there was no better way to prepare for a ball than to have a relaxing morning beforehand.

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Lyanna tried to think of a way to answer the question that would make sense without making her seem like an idiot. Deciding that there were none, she sighed, glancing askance at Bliss. “I did need to go meet him,” she answered truthfully, “but…” she trailed off, struggling to find the right words for the idea she wanted to express. The flagstones moved by underfoot, and a pair of servants opened the doors for them, letting them out into the eastern courtyard, which led out into the stables eventually.

The morning sun was warm on her face, and suddenly, nothing seemed so bad as it usually did, not even her ridiculous behavior. She preferred rainy days, but cool mornings like this were wonderful also. She tried to find pleasure in the simpler things since the complicated ones often eluded her like the trout in the streams back home had evaded her childish efforts to catch them with her hands. Oh, how her brothers had laughed at her then. Sometimes, she still missed living with her family, but… she was doing something honorable, and around people she genuinely liked. She had no room to complain, and so she didn’t.

“I can’t talk to people, Bliss. Well, not people I don’t know, anyway. I just… the secret things that people slip in between their words, the hidden jests and the implications… I don’t always see them. I just assume that everyone’s being serious unless the joke is in their tone, too. I can’t read people worth a… a fig.” She’d been about to say ‘damn,’ which would have been find around the men she commanded, but she wasn’t sure how Bliss would feel about it. Yet another way in which she failed to be delicate and subtle enough.

“I grew up a soldier, not a lady, and I spent all the time everyone else uses for etiquette and comportment lessons on the field, practicing harder. So… I can’t do the dancing with words.” She spun a wrist in a vague gesture for ‘dancing.’ It wasn’t an excuse, really: plenty of people managed to be good at both things. Just look at Ephraim, or the king of Effemagne. They were warriors and nobility, and excellent at both. Maybe a little too informal sometimes (King James particularly), but good all the same. “I’m not mad at anyone, just… frustrated. At myself, for always ending up in these situations where I don’t know what to say or how to be.” She always said too much or not enough, or was too sarcastic, the kind of rough humor the knights employed fully present, but she was unsubtle, direct, and that could be a problem.

“But I probably shouldn’t have said that. You’ve got enough to deal with on your own, right? Nobody here has it easy, I know that much.” It was true that she didn’t know what it was like to be a servant, though she did know how to serve, in her particular way.

They reached the stables then, though, and there wasn’t a whole lot more time before a small party of riders became visible on the horizon. At the head of the column came Laurent, Ephraim’s personal steward, and he was escorting a smaller group than shed expected: apparently just the Prince Malik and one other, a man of ebon skin and what seemed to be a shaven head. Lyanna had never been to Shahari, but she’d met a few people from there, so it wasn’t exactly unexpected. The fact that he seemed to be the only servant attending the prince was more unusual, but perhaps Malik preferred to travel with a minimum of fanfare.

Lyanna assumed a posture of parade rest, feet apart and hands clasped together behind her back, and waited until the party was fully arrived before addressing them. Sweeping into an elegant bow rather than a curtsy, she spoke. “Their Royal Highnesses Princes Ephraim and Elijah de Montefort of Merderva welcome you to their home.” Straightening, she assumed a pleasant expression, if not one that was a smile. “My name is Sir Lyanna du Lac, and this is Miss Bliss Barnard.” She indicated the young woman at her side. “Our stablehands will take care of your horses for you. If you would prefer to be taken to your rooms first, I can show you there directly. Otherwise, breakfast is currently ongoing in the Main Hall, and you are welcome to join.” This was definitely her business mode, and that much was evident from the efficient nature of her tones.



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“So formal!” Malik observed with humor, cocking his head to the side and grinning. “And ah, yes, I have heard of you. Not many lady knights in Merderva, no? So strange.” He shook his head good-naturedly. In Shahari, if you could and wanted to fight, you fought, regardless of whether you were male or female. But, alas, tradition. Mischief firmly intact in his eyes and tongue planted solidly in-cheek, he swept a bow over Lyanna’s hand and pressed a light kiss to the backs of her fingers.

Calluses, interesting. The title was not just for show. He flashed a wider grin when she turned scarlet, and repeated the gesture with Bliss. “And Miss Barnard. Enchanted, I assure you.” Despite his joviality, there was something genuine and facile in his demeanor, and he turned his attention to the two men with him.

“Well, we didn’t get a chance to eat aboard the ship this morning, so breakfast seems like a splendid idea. Lorri and Su’da here are of course free to do as they please.” He knew Su’da would follow him—he took his duties as manservant very seriously, sometimes too seriously. Malik found he couldn't hold it against him, though.



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Ephraim wasn’t sure it was entirely wise for him to skip out on work and go riding, but he’d been breaking his back over arrangements for Malik’s visit, tensions between Merderva and Brunswick-Lüneburg, and various other diplomatic matters. It seemed that his beloved kingdom was slowly headed for a perfect storm of trials, between the succession crisis, an almost-inevitable war, and all the visitors. One misstep on his part or Elijah’s could bring the entire realm crashing down around their ears.

It was easy to ignore the fact that he was a human being with a need for food and rest like all of them when such ponderous thoughts occupied him and he was still forced to deal with the mundanity of social events like the one tonight. But then… he was indeed just a man like the rest, and he’d be lying if he said he’d had any time to himself at all recently. Perhaps one day wouldn’t really hurt. It wasn’t like any of the problems that hovered over his head could be solved with the application of a few hours’ reading and trying not to tear his hair out.

Ephraim sighed through his nose. “All right, I’ll go riding. But not all day.” He gave her an apologetic look. “I really do have to see to some of these arrangements myself, I’m afraid.” He hoped it would be enough—he didn’t want to ruin her jovial mood, or his own relief, but there were simply too many things to be done. He should probably pay another visit to the barracks this afternoon, see how the latest round of recruits was coming along in training. If he was unlucky, he would need each and every one of them soon.

Shaking himself out of it, he managed to keep his thoughts mostly in the present as he was dragged along, more or less, by his childhood friend. “Forgive me for saying so, Giselle, but you’re ah… hardly dressed for riding. Perhaps a detour is on order?” He didn’t mind standing outside her door for a few minutes while she arranged something a little less… delicate for an outing, after all.

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“Oh, tut tut.” Giselle said as she turned to lead the way face forward. She knew that he liked to be in control and that he did have a lot to take care of, but the difference of a couple of hours would make no difference in the scheme of life. But at least he was willing to step away from his stresses for one ride. Giselle could only do so much before Ephraim was worrying about yet another task.

She had not expected him to agree to spend the remainder of the day in play; his willingness to go out for just a ride was enough to satisfy the Ward. When Giselle turned around with a bit more excitement in her walk she let go of Ephraim. The expression on her face would never have led suspicion toward their separation. Giselle had the type of grin on her face that was rarely seen in the castle; this sort of smile was reserved for her secret outings. The smile was full of adventure, a touch of mischief, and composed of sheer bliss.

“I am willing to help you.” She said simply as they continued to walk. She knew that she was not of great political power, but she was more than capable of getting things ready for tonight’s ball. Honestly, she just wanted to help Ephraim in any way that she could. She could see the weight of the world in his eyes, and she sensed his once fun-loving personality turning bitter. She supposed that’s what happens to most every man of power. The world got the best of them, and before they knew it they were dying of a premature death.

“Forgive me for saying so, Giselle, but you’re ah… hardly dressed for riding. Perhaps a detour is in order?” Moving a strand of forgotten hair, Giselle nodded her head in agreement. “You’re right, sire.” Giselle then took a sharp turn toward her chambers. Only a few moments later they were at her bedroom door, “Forgive me, I will be only a moment.” She then gave Ephraim a crooked smile before opening her door and hastily preparing herself.

Undressing was a difficult task when Giselle was without a handmaiden. For a moment, as her hands were eagerly untying her laced back, she thought to ask for Ephraim’s help. But the levelheaded Ward stopped herself before doing so. It would be entirely inappropriate, especially now. Without thinking much more about it Giselle changed into an outfit that was better suited for riding.

Most women did not dare to wear pants, but Giselle had found them to be quite the convenience, especially when she was in town without the permission of the castle guard. Unsure if Ephraim had ever seen her in such clothing, Giselle entered the hallway with ease and confidence.

On top she wore a silvered toned shirt that was brought in by a small leather corset, a silver necklace with a pair of matching wristbands, and a draping green cloak. Her bottoms were simple, yet full of new world flare; she had on a pair of black pants and a pair of matching boots. Truly her outfit was one that a noble women, let alone a royal ward, would never been seen wearing. The only time when women were allowed to wear pants is when they were training in sword fighting.

“Are you ready?” She cooed while pulling her hair into a loose ponytail behind her.

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Lyanna fought down her embarrassment. She was a knight of the realm, and a Captain at that, and this was what had been asked of her by her sworn liege. She could not and would not let Ephraim down, not when she knew just how hard he was working himself every day in an attempt to deal with the plenitude of issues facing the kingdom. The least she could do was man up (or, unfortunately in this case, woman up), and get these people to where they needed to go.

“I apologize for the lack of a welcoming party,” she said, sticking to her formal script so as not to find herself as thrown out as she had been that morning. “But their Highnesses both have pressing matters to attend to, and will gladly pay more formal and decorous welcome to you at tonight’s festivities.” The primary reason for this party was the Crown Prince’s arrival: Merderva would need the favor of Shahari if they hoped to hold out against Brunswick-Lunberg. Ephraim’s uncle, the previous king, had not been a warlike man by any means, and the army he’d left his sons was basically a shambles. The training regimens for foot soldiers had been a joke, and funding for armament was running dry faster than Ephraim, Elijah, or any of their stewards could find money to replace it.

Merderva’s sole military advantages lay in two things: the small, but elite corps of knights that it had long trained and maintained as a sterling tradition even the previous king could not lead to ruin, and Ephraim himself. He, as she, was a lifelong soldier, but he was also an excellent tactician, and there were those that speculated that the only reason Brunswick-Lunberg hadn’t overridden Merderva entirely was his ability to do a lot with a little. She’d seen the situation firsthand, and couldn’t help but agree. Two thousand of the world’s finest knights did not an army make, and their slipshod foot-soldiers were only just now beginning to receive training up to her liege’s standards.

It was, in other words, a complete disaster. But they couldn’t afford to let this show to potential allies, hence the frivolity of this evening’s festivities. They had to impress and court (figuratively speaking) Prince Malik, and they needed to do so as quickly as possible. Only then would an alliance with Shahari give them serious leverage at the bargaining table with Brunswick-Lunberg, who relied just as heavily on that country’s shipping and the graces of the Sea-Queen as anyone else. It was enough to give Lyanna a headache.

Fortunately, they reached the dining room thereafter, and Lyanna bowed the Prince’s entourage inside, gesturing to the central table, at which nobody currently set head. Elijah had left, then. Probably for the best—it would be awfully awkward for the succession crisis to look so obvious. At formal dinners, that chair was thus far left unoccupied.



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Malik, a man much sharper than he seemed, was aware of a great deal of Merderva’s current woes, and could easily forgive the absence of a member of the royal family from his welcome. He was interested to see if these princes could pull off this little balancing act of theirs. From what he understood, the older one, Ephraim, had the might of the military behind him, but that was a rapidly-dwindling comfort. The younger, Elijah, had the favor of more of Merderva’s powerful noble houses.

As if to make it all that much more complicated, it seemed like one representative from every royal family under the Goddess’s bright sun was here, and none of them could be refused if they wanted to come. Merderva couldn’t stand to lose an alliance with offense, not now. And those alliances needed to get stronger, more official, if they had any hope of taking back their western provinces.

Finding his way easily to a seat at the right of the head of the table, Malik piled his plate with food, apparently entirely unaware of the tenseness of the situation around him. But it was everywhere—even the servants had a certain stiff set to their shoulders, as though of a mind to tough through it and endure, come what may. It was actually a little impressive for a place in such dire straights, and perhaps the spirit of this nation would not break as easily as its arms. Cold comfort, but interesting. The lovely Lady du Lac took up a standing post behind him, and he inferred that she was to be his guide for as long as he wanted one, which would suit him just fine.

The dining room was mostly empty at this point, but Malik was entirely unconcerned by this. He considered using his wit to interrogate Lyanna for a while, but decided against it, instead gesturing for Su’da to take whatever refreshment he wanted. Malik wasn’t one for much formality, and was perfectly fine with his manservant eating at the same table as himself. It was kind of pointless for him to occupy a spot so far away they couldn’t converse, anyway.



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“And you said I was too formal,” Ephraim chided, shaking his head at her use of the word ‘Sire.’ He put up with it when necessity demanded, but it wasn’t his preference. He’d always preferred to exhibit the common touch when possible, perhaps because the first portion of his life he’d spent in much less high a station. He waited politely outside her room, arms crossed over the broad expanse of his chest, back pressed against the stone wall, and closed his eyes for a moment.

His worries threatened, as they always did, but he could hold them off just a little longer. She reappeared a few minutes later, hardly recognizable as someone of her status, but then he looked more like an ordinary soldier than a prince every day, so it was certainly not his prerogative to judge. He nodded once, rolling his eyes a little. “Not really, but it seems I have little choice. My friend is quite insistent, and she tends to get her way. I can hardly object.”

The journey to the stables passed in comfortable silence, and he thought to seek out Celeste, the stablehand usually on duty at this time, but she didn’t seem to be around. A boy, no more than twelve or so, hurried to prepare their horses instead. Ephraim’s personal mount was a sturdy warhorse, a beast fire-tempered and strong enough to carry him in full plate and then some. She was black from head to toe, with the kind of intelligent glimmer in her eyes that indicated to the knowledgeable that she’d originally been bred in Effemagne. His last name-day present from King James, as it happened. Perhaps appropriately, she’d been named Sable, and he hadn’t seen fit to change it.

Swinging astride, he cast a glance at Giselle, just then mounting her own horse. “What say you? The forest, perhaps?”

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Character Portrait: Giselle Angelou Character Portrait: Ephraim de Montefort Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Giselle Arbella Angelou
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Laughter came from Giselle as Ephraim commented. Yes, she was a very insistent woman but what would the world do without women like her. Through persuasion and constant nagging women were able to change their husbands and leaders minds. Being so involved was not lady-like, but Giselle was incapable of being submissive. She would seek advise in times of trouble but she would never give up her ability to act. As one might be able to tell, Giselle did not like being bossed around. Inside of her was a independent spirit; a woman free of social expectations.

“I would have it no other way.” She said coolly, referring to her getting her way. Another smile played on her lips as she obediently walked beside Ephraim. Their footsteps echoed in the hallways of the castle as they made their way toward the stables. Giselle saw few servants as they walked in silence; the emptiness of the hallways was both worrying and relaxing. It made the walk more personal but had the Ward wondering. Perhaps they were all preparing for the ball, or serving their guests.

Before Giselle had time to come to a conclusion they were in the stables. As Ephraim was mounting his horse the young servant boy was working on her horse. She thanked the before whipping her hair to one side and mounting her own horse. Giselle’s horse, Wen, was quite similar to Ephraim’s, dark in color and daringly quick. Unlike most of the noble women of Mederva, Giselle rode her horse often and had a true bond with Wen. They had been on several outings, including a couple of evening escapes.

Nodding her head in agreement Giselle responded, “If only you take me to the waterfall.” Her tone was playful with a wisp of sentiment. Ephraim would know of which waterfall she spoke. Not the grand waterfall near the Eastern Provinces but a simple waterfall close to the Western Provinces. This particular waterfall was nothing impressive but it was spot that the two would often ride to when they were children. The king had a set border within his land where the children were allowed to ride together, but this waterfall was outside of it. It was their dirty little secret as children. Even till this day the king never knew of their riding outside of his allotted territory.

Without another word Giselle clicked her tongue at her horse and began riding toward the forest. At first she was a decent speed, nothing that the Prince couldn't handle. His eyes flicked with mischief as she pushed her speed, seeing if Ephraim would race.

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Character Portrait: Giselle Angelou Character Portrait: Isabelle Marcot Character Portrait: Lyanna du Lac Character Portrait: Elijah de Montefort Character Portrait: Ephraim de Montefort Character Portrait: Malik Falmari
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He noted the lady knight take a few respectful steps backwards when Su’da took up a defensive position behind him, though honestly, Malik could have sighed. It would be the height of folly for these people to attempt to assassinate him, and he knew the knightly sorts weren’t the kind to bother with something like that. If this Lyanna had any intention of slaying him, she would have challenged him to open-field combat in that quaint little way Merdervans had. As if honor had a place in matters of life and death. Malik had his own code, but it was strange and obscure to most, and it did not treat in too many of the chivalric principles as such.

Honestly, he rather wished his manservant would just eat, but he wasn’t going to demand that—he’d have food sent up later, perhaps, when he settled into his chambers. Until then, he supposed it would be like this. The absence of company was honestly a bit dreary, at least until two new people entered the room.

He recognized both on sight, though he’d only ever met one of them. He’d heard a little rumor that King James of Effemagne was present, but he hadn’t expected to run into him so soon. “Ah, James! It looks like being king agrees with you!” Malik grinned and reached up to slap the man across the back in a friendly gesture. James was a fellow who knew how to have a little fun now and then, something that was doubtless sorely needed in such a chill place as this.

The lady with him was also recognizable. Princess Isabelle Marcot, preceded by her reputation for manipulation and wiles. He glanced back and forth between the two and raised an eyebrow, his smile growing fractionally larger across his face as his eyes glittered with mirth. “And her Highness Isabelle. My, my, it seems that Merderva really is playing host to half the world’s royalty. I do wonder what has possessed you all to come to this little mixer of the high-and-mighty, but of course, I shall not pry.” His tone remained light, jocular, but there was a keen edge to it, as though he didn’t really need to ask to understand. And who did? A castle this big—the number of spies was simply outrageous. It always would be; there was simply no avoiding it. He would never deny having a few well-placed ones of his own, for why should he need to deny that? It was a practice that everyone knew about, and almost everyone used. He revealed some things so that what was kept hidden remained so.

Better to tell a small secret, so that people never went looking for the big one.

“Please, both of you, do join me. I simply must share a meal with such illustrious company.” Malik gestured widely, as if to encompass the otherwise empty table and all the freshened food that sat upon it. If none of the Merdervan royals was interested in holding court over breakfast, he certainly wouldn’t balk at the chance. Not when it was bound to be so much fun.



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Ephraim debated the merits of this for a moment, but the waterfall was far enough away from the border of the Western Provinces that it would not be an issue. Not with the armies still caped where they were. So it was with a subtle nod that he agreed, picking up the pace until Sable matched Wen in stride, a stride which increased until both were galloping rather rapidly over the terrain. He didn’t travel too far ahead, of course—the simple fact of the matter was that a horse bred for war could last longer than one for leisure, but he chose to remain at his friend’s side, his own inborn sense of caution demanding it.

They had not quite yet reached the waterfall when Ephraim spotted something curious in the distance. A rider, from the look of it, pushing his horse far beyond the bounds of safe pace. The animal, as it drew closer, was obviously in a lather, a dangerous state if they had much further to go. The workmanlike quality of the armor and it plainness indicated a sword rider of some kind, and not a member of the nobility, but that did not invalidate the importance of what the person was doing.

“Hold here,” he told Giselle, his station settling over him like a shroud. That was the voice of Ephraim the General, not Ephraim the childhood friend, and he spurred Sable to intercept the rider, holding up a hand to call a halt to the man’s forward progress. “Hold, in the name of Merderva,” he said formally, drawing up when the other did.

“Gods save Merderva,” the man replied, his voice leaden with weight of weariness. “I bring a message for their Highnesses. Please, it is most urgent.” As if for proof, the man fished a folded parchment out of his cloak somewhere.

Ephraim blinked. “That is a title that I hold,” he said mildly, and the messenger did a double-take, scrutinizing him for a moment before he dipped his head in embarrassment. It was the color of his eyes that made him recognizable, he knew, for he did not wear the more ostentatious regalia he was allowed.

“B-begging your pardon, Highness,” the man stammered, reminding him faintly of Lyanna, who was like as not having a rough time of it trying to keep up with the boundless energy and verve of the Shahari prince. Replacing the parchment, he pulled out another, and a light of amusement crept into Ephraim’s eyes. It was good to know he wouldn’t actually brandish a missive for Royal eyes only to just anyone.

The second paper, he took, reading over the words and resisting the urge to curse under his breath. “All right,” he said calmly, handing the paper back. “Carry this same message to my brother Elijah, and let no one else see it, do you understand?” The man nodded, tucking the message away again, and Ephraim dismissed him. Lashing his horse with his reins, the messenger took up a full-tilt gallop again, making a beeline for the palace. Ephraim returned to Giselle, shaking his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and the guilt was obviously genuine, “but I must return. I have to make arrangements to house the Iron Duke and his party. It seems my request to treat for peace is to be answered in person, long before I had anticipated.” Perhaps the worthiest of all the things he could be doing with his time, but one he dreaded. The lord he was to treat with was not known for his mercy, and it would take more than a few parties and a pleasant stay in Merderva to forge a treaty between these two nations. Ephraim was going into this at a steep disadvantage, and just for one small moment, he cursed the legacy of his uncle for that. But it was no good berating a dead man for his lack of foresight, and he had too much to do to waste any time in so unworthy a fashion.

“We must head back. I’ll have to host him at one of the manses—we’re running out of room in the royal wing.” He would inform the stablemistress to send whomever she trusted the most to supervise that part of it, and the same for the kitchenmaster, the head maid, and several other people. They were going to have to split castle staff to augment the capabilities of the manse. Perhaps he would have to send Laurent as well, to manage everything else. It was going to be a delicate balancing act, but by the time Duke Hastenback arrived, they would be ready.

They would have to be.

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Character Portrait: Giselle Angelou Character Portrait: Ephraim de Montefort Character Portrait: Sophia Van Alstine Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Giselle Arbella Angelou
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The ride that Giselle had hoped would calm Ephraim’s worries was intercepted with the most bothersome annoyance. A rider was seen in the distance with the most urgency in his speed. Though his speed would have done well in a race, his expression was far from a winners face.

”Hold here,” Were the first words out of Ephraim’s mouth. Giselle knew that tone; he quickly turned from a friendly prince to the army general. Her light colored eyes watched him carefully as he lifted his hand to halt the rider. Nervous thoughts boiled in her stomach as she kept her focus on the two. There were a number of dangerous people in the woods. There were bandits, terrorists and a collection of other angry people who would be willing to kill Ephraim. Given the chance, many of the nobles would even dabble in the business of assignation to take Ephraim out.

Knowing these threats Giselle was always cautious. Of course there was nothing that Ephraim couldn’t handle, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t in danger. Her engagement to him put her in some kinds of danger as well. After all if the prince couldn’t marry a woman who was dead. Not that it mattered much now, but she was sure that most of the kingdom did not know of the engagements cancelation.

Giselle was a bit far off from the two of them. She heard bits and pieces of their conversation. She hadn’t gotten a clear message of what was happening, but she could tell by Ephraim’s body language that it was something that needed to be addressed immediately.

The young man rode off at the same speed he arrived at the command of the prince. Ephraim explained to her the simple issues that they were now facing. Giselle nodded her head courtly, “I understand.” She said officially. Of course she would understand. There always came a time where the kingdom was more important than others, and even more important than himself. Giselle honestly believed that Ephraim would die in the name of Mederva. As for herself, she wasn’t quite sure yet.

“Let’s be off then.” Giselle said. And with that, Giselle started toward the kingdom at a steady speed. Just as Wen was getting into a comfortable pace the horse was startled. A figure, although petite, came from out of the bushes in a desperate attempt to stop the two. Wen stood on her two back legs in fear as Giselle struggled to stay on. The Ward almost fell from her saddle as the horse settled back onto all fours.

A little a fright herself Giselle did not yell at the stranger nor seek to confront them. A little perplexed she just listened to them.








Sophia Ermount Van Alstine
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Sophia Van Alstine did not look like the woman that she was raised to become. A noble woman would never have been seen sleeping on the streets, hiding her fine clothes by a drab cloak. The jewelry that she was usually adored with was sold to a mad man in the last town over in order to buy a couple of bags and some food. She was making her way to the castle of Mederva, both for shelter, knowing that the Princes had known her husband, and to inform them of the chaos that was being wrought upon the Western Provinces.

The pale woman had spent the past week in a small pig-farming town. Her feet were sore with blisters and her heart was burdened with grief. She had no way of knowing if her husband was dead or alive, and at this rate without any word, she assumed him dead. Sophia had made this town a temporary stop; it was hidden away and was of little to no value to a higher man. She knew that the Iron Duke would not seek out this land, nor would he suspect that she was being harbored her.

A gentle old man took her in for a couple nights, feeding her for nothing in exchange. Many times Sophia offered to pay in with what little jewelry she had left, but he refused. Out of the goodness of his heart he sheltered her, and quite honestly it was the first time that anyone had ever done that for her. Before leaving to seek out of the Princes of Mederva she swore to herself that once she was back on her feet she would send the man a pocket of gold. Surely he deserved at least that.

Without much word or warning two days ago Sophia set out toward the castle. She left early in the morning, pack a fair amount of food and his whatever valuable belongings she still had. Her goal was to go unnoticed, to blend in and look as if she were not unlike the rest of the poor commoners of this area. Her dirty appearance was already working its part and she exchanged her fine fabric for a more modest outfit. Over these clothes she wore a dark cloak that was tied securely around her shoulders. The hood would remain up throughout most of the forest, for no one would be able to tell who or what she was until approached.

This morning had been particularly difficult. Sophia had fallen asleep in the crook of a large tree. Though she had done fairly well thus far, the Countess Van Alstine was definitely not cut out for the bandits of the forest. Thankfully she was not captured nor harmed, the only inconvenience was that her satchel was gone. Whatever food she had left was gone along with a collect of other valuable things. Frustrated with herself for not keeping her bag securely around her through the night she wallowed in self-loathing for a moment. Even though she had never been stayed the night in the forest alone she thought herself extremely foolish.

Her inexperience had shown through, yes, but at least no one had recognized her. If someone had known her to be the Count Van Alstine’s wife she would have either been put up for ransom or murdered.

With a heavy sigh Sophia lifted herself from her ransacked camp. Gritting her teeth in utter annoyance she set out for the last bit of her journey. If she did not delay she would be able to reach the castle by the evening. She was hungry but if she told herself that she would soon be there it was enough motivation to distract her noisy stomach.

After a journey of about three or four hours Sophia’s feet weakened and her steps grew slower. It was mid morning now, with the sun fully risen and growing warmer. The Countess smoothed back stray hairs that teased at her dirty face as she heard the galloping of horses. One man riding at a dangerous speed had already gone past her; Sophia hadn’t even had the time to even try to stop him. But the sound of steady riders drew close.

Her mind raced with ideas as she spotted the two. One woman and one man, they looked nothing like bandits, she assumed it safe. Sophia had not intended to frighten the woman’s horse but her desperate attempt to get their attention was more than enough.

She bolted out in front of her them her hands raised in surrender and she shouted, “Please, you must help me!” She slowly looked up at the two as she continued, “I am in great need! I must get to the castle, I have urgent -“ Sophia was shocked by the sight in front of her. How foolish of her. Not only was the Ward Giselle in front of her but also the Prince Ephraim.

“Oh… Please, please forgive me your highness.” Sophia bowed down in a courtesy and she lowered her hands to rest properly as she did so. “I did not recognize you.” Sophia raised herself from her bow as she continued. “I’m afraid you would not recognize me as well… I am the Countess Sophia Ermount Van Alstine.” Her voice was subtle; whatever pride she used to have in saying that name was gone. She was stripped of her right to be a Countess and her land was taken over by the Iron Duke.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Giselle Angelou Character Portrait: Isabelle Marcot Character Portrait: Ephraim de Montefort Character Portrait: Malik Falmari Character Portrait: Sophia Van Alstine Character Portrait: James Bandeaux
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Malik Falmari




The smile left Malik’s mouth, but never his eyes, as Isabelle spoke, and he found himself quite pleasantly amused indeed but the cut of this one’s jib, to use a sailing idiom he was rather fond of. She was smarter than she let on, what with the observational silence and the gumption to introduce herself rather than wait on someone else to do it. Boldness was a trait that Shahari men tended to favor in women, and in this, Malik did not consider himself an exception. His mother was, after all, the boldest of them all, and look at all she had done for the country.

“I assure you,” he said in response to her introduction, “the delight is just as much mine.” He’d never say it was all his, of course, because he was indeed a rather pleasant person to speak with, and that was no accident.

Less reserved than his counterpart was the Effemagne King, which of course Malik had rather expected. There was something very forthright about James, a quality he shared with Ephraim. He knew them both about equally as well, and Elijah in similar measure, though forthright would not be the correct term there, exactly. In all the wheeling and dealing countries did with one another, the royal children always became involved at some point, and it was better to know than to guess.

He was unsurprised that James was here to take the edge off, so to speak. Being a king was not an easy thing, and frankly, Malik was glad that responsibility was not yet his, may his mother live another fifty years. Always the attentive listener, he chewed over his repast thoughtfully and nodded. “And frightful demons there seem to be everywhere, these days. Lurking about in shadows and looming above our heads. The specter of war, of course, but there are more subtle pressures as well, and they no less ponderous, no?”

His eyes slid to Isabelle, though he directed the question at both. There were a few possible reasons for her own presence, but the most obvious was the one he hinted at—the pressure to wed. It was one that his court now and then tried to foist off on him, but he had ever been an independent spirit, and not inclined to do things just because the court thought it wise or best or what-have-you.



Ephraim de Montefort




Were Ephraim a lesser man, he would perhaps have refused to even consider this new complication. The palace was already almost full to bursting with foreign guests, refugee noblemen and women from the Western Provinces, some of them cowards who’d refused to do their duty to their (presently nonexistent) king and defend their lands before fleeing. That was not necessarily a crime to lay at the Countess’s feet—she looked less a warrior than he did a prince at the moment, and that was saying something. But it was frustrating all the same, that just when his troubles seemed to be multiplying too fast to keep up with, another should blossom in his path.

But he was no lesser man than himself, and so he did the only thing his honor would allow him to do: he offered the poor woman asylum. “You say you have great need to get to the castle, milady. Then to the castle you will go, and if you have need to speak with me specifically, you may air your worries on the way.” He glanced momentarily between himself and Giselle, then decided that his horse was probably the stronger, and so offered her a hand up to ride behind him.

“Forgive, if you would be so kind, the lack of decorum, Countess, but I’m afraid time is short and matters are urgent.” Hopefully she wouldn’t fly into a fuss—he’d known more than a few noblewomen who adhered to the letter of etiquette so tightly they managed to forget the intent. If she was insistent, she could ride with Giselle, but they needed to get back to the castle, and soon. He had a feeling, somewhere in his gut, that whatever tidings she brought were related to the war—it was evident in the defeat she wore like so many others of her peers wore pride. It cloaked her, weighing down her words and her shoulders in the way only the darkest of tidings could, and he did not envy her that.