Today marked Olivia Rowan Martel’s 16th birthday. This day, unassuming to any outside the spectacle of the aristocracy, held such great bearing on the young noblewoman’s future that her entire family had gathered to pray for her success. Today was her first appearance at the Court of Arcadia. It was a lot like presenting a prized show-horse to bidders. They would want a test of endurance, a show of dignity, a display of noble grace. A good show-horse, like a good wife, would be yielding but strong-willed. Obedient but intelligent. Beautiful but modest.
House Martel was open-minded by noble standards, but open-mindedness would only get you so far. Inquisitiveness was a positive trait to have, but taken too far, it became very unbecoming for a young noblewoman; and like every noble family, the Martel’s hoped to extend their reach by marrying their last-born to a Ducal prince. Sylvana, the oldest daughter, was already betrothed to the Heir-Apparent of House LaVaille. To have Olivia wed to another Duke would give them subtle influence over three Ducal families. It was uncharacteristically ambitious for House Martel, though not altogether surprising considering the rumors. House Martel was often outwardly rebellious, disregarding King Gabranth’s orders. For 3,000 years, they had escaped his wrath relatively unscathed. Now, rumors stirred of a plot against the ancient noble family. The more powerful allies the Martel’s could collect, the harder it would be for such dark plots to come to fruition.
Olivia was far away as her mother, Lady Celandine, brushed her long blonde hair and spoke of the many rules and customs of the Arcadian High Court. Her half-sister, Sylvana, lounged in a chaise not far from where Olivia sat. Her blonde hair was impeccably curled with part of it pulled into a beautiful flower-like bun. She was beautiful beyond comparison. Unlike Olivia, Sylvana was a full-blooded Elf, a pure-blood. This had netted her an advantage in finding a worthy suitor. No noble worth their salt wants a muddled bloodline. Or so Olivia had been told.
“Olivia are you listening at all?” Lady Celandine asked, gently tugging on her daughter’s hair. She was human, and nearing her fifth decade. She was older than Sylvana by only two years, though her age showed on her hands and on her face in a way it never would on the Elven princess.
“Yes, Mother.” Olivia responded. She glanced into the mirror, taking in her every feature. Her ears were smaller than Sylvana’s, yet still more pointed than her mother’s. Her eyes were large and doll-like, colored deeply purple with golden flakes catching the light at just the right angle. As a child, Olivia had been frail and bony; her face was no longer gaunt and her body no longer sharp and angular. Although she was only 13, she was proud of her progression. Maybe, even with muddled blood, she could find a good suitor…
“Have you thought about any potential suitors?” Her mother’s voice cut through her reverie, the question demanding an answer. Celandine began braiding her hair, pulling tightly to ensure every strand was neatly in place.
“Not in particular,” Olivia responded with a sigh. “I try not to dwell on such troubling things.” She heard Sylvana giggle from the chaise-lounge.
“Don’t be so overdramatic,” her mother chided. Immediately she launched into her next point, revealing her true reason for asking such a useless question. “Have you thought about the young von Mohrentz boy? What was his name? Valen? Vorrick?”
“Viktor,” Olivia corrected with a small yelp as her mother pulled the braid tight.
“Yes, Viktor. That was it.” Her deft hands quickly laced the long locks of hair together. “You two have always been close. And he is the Heir-Apparent to the Duchy of Rozenheim. Wouldn’t that make you happy, dear?” she spoke of his title as if Olivia wasn’t already aware of his status.
“Viktor is a wild horse, Mother.” Olivia began, remembering her dark-haired friendly fondly. “He is too spirited to tie himself down to one woman.”
“He’s only 18, Olivia,” Celandine reminded, “all boys are like that at his age. He will mature as he ages. Remember, men age like wine—“
“Women like milk. Yes, I remember mother.” Olivia crossed her arms over her chest. “Viktor is…well, he’s different. He has this…ambition the other noblemen don’t have. Not for power but for something else entirely. Besides, he’s off adventuring.”
“It’s wanderlust, my child. He will be back,” Celandine finished the braid and secured it in place with a vivid purple ribbon.
“That’s not the only kind of lust he has,” Sylvana added in a sing-song voice.
“Sylvana Astera Martel. That is most unladylike of you to say.” Celandine chided.
“It’s true. Lady Andrea told me about all his exploits. He’s quite well-known among the noble ladies—and among most of the common ones, too.” She held her hand in front of her mouth as she laughed. Celandine scowled and gave her step-daughter a disapproving look.
Laughing, Olivia placed a gentle hand over her mothers. “It’s ok, Mother. I know how Viktor is. As you said, we spent a lot of time together, the two of us.” She smiled at the memory. Viktor was five years older than her, but he had never made her feel like a child. He was always supportive, kind, good-natured.
“He didn’t deflower you, did he?” Celandine blurted out, flustered. All the color drained from her face.
“Oh by the Gods, no!” Olivia replied, eyes widening. Sylvana couldn’t contain her laughter. “Viktor and I are friends, Mother! Friends and nothing more! What Sylvana says is true, though. His reputation precedes him.”
Celandine breathed a sigh of relief and turned her attention back to Olivia’s hair. She twisted the braid up into a tight updo, the picture of elegance and grace. She took a moment to soak in her work. She saw Olivia sitting with clenched fists; in the mirror, her eyes held uncertainty, and her face was tense and anxious.
“You will find someone, dear. You are very beautiful.” She turned her daughter’s face towards her own. “But you are far too spirited. You are too old to be running around, learning to fight with iron. That is not a noblewoman’s place.”
Olivia twisted her head away and stared into the mirror. Her makeup was artfully applied, accentuating her large eyes and pouty lips. She was beautiful. “I don’t think being spirited is a bad thing…” she mumbled, more to herself than to her mother. Celandine ignored the comment.
“I think she’s ready, Sylvana. What do you think?”
Sylvana looked up from her spot on the chaise-lounge and gave her younger sister a once-over. “Stand up, Olivia.” She commanded. The half-elf stood and adjusted her under-clothes. She tugged at the tightly laced corset and fidgeted at the lightly decorated petticoat covering the vastly uncomfortably crinoline underneath. Sylvana stood and approached Olivia, circling her with the eyes of a hawk. “The corset it too loose mother.”
Celandine nodded in agreeance. “Stand up straight, dear.”
Olivia grimaced as her mother pulled the laces of her corset tighter around her waist, though it was over quickly and she found the snugness of the corset a small comfort.
Several more layers of dress came on with the dutiful help of mother and sister. The final layer, a silken gown of deep violet and gold, fit perfectly. It had been made especially for this occasion. The dress sat partially off the shoulders and dipped into a dramatic ‘v’ shape, exposing her slender neck and defined collar bones. Her mother slipped on an elegant necklace of pearls while her sister presented her with her gloves. White silk. She stepped into her shoes. They were black and featured a small heel. It did little to make the diminutive teenager seem taller, but she couldn’t deny the surge of confidence she felt from being fully done-up. Even among the nobles of the High Court, this level of dress was a rarity. It was exhilarating.
“Are you ready?” Celandine asked, checking once more to ensue not a hair was out of place.
“Yes, Mother.” Olivia responded. She was bursting with nervous energy. Would she meet her prince charming on this evening? Would she meet a prince to sweep her off her feet? She hoped, in the back of her mind, that she would see her friends here tonight.
Sylvana took her spot next to Olivia, lacing arms with her. Sylvana was tall and thin, and the slim silhouette of her green and silver dress did everything to accentuate her natural Elven frame. “Remember, sister,” Sylvana whispered as they walked towards their grand entrance. “There are a thousand beautiful noble girls out there. It will take more than a pretty face to win over a powerful man.”
Olivia swallowed hard, recognizing her sisters’ words as true. The marriage between Sylvana Martel and Lysander LaVaille would be perhaps the most important political alliance their House had ever secured. Olivia could only hope her mixed-blood wouldn’t scare many potential suitors away.
As they approached the doors of the grand ballroom, Olivia’s chest tightened in anticipation and fear.
“Are you ready, sister?” Sylvana asked with a smile.
For the first time, Olivia let her anxiety rule her. “No.” she said, but the door was already open and they were already walking inside.
Olivia soon found her fears over suitors were unfounded. She was drowning in men, coming up to idly chat and test her temperament. Some reached for her in a way that made her want to recoil in disgust; but she couldn’t. She giggled politely and quietly and politely excused herself. After those encounters, she always searched the crowded ballroom for a familiar face. Finding none, she resigned herself to fidgeting with the purple and gold folding fan she held in her delicately gloved hand.
Other men were gentlemen. They bowed and kissed her hand, smiled and made polite conversation. Some of them were even handsome. One of these men, a tan-skinned wood elf, introduced himself as the Prince of Kar-Branth, Kaladin Stormshield, from the far-away continent of Dalmasca. He was stunning, with green eyes that sparkled with a youthful intensity. He was far more charming than the Barons and lesser nobles come to talk about themselves or of nothing of true importance.
The several minutes they spent talking felt like much longer; the world around them seemed to grind to a halt as they spoke. He cut a royal figure, tall and leanly muscled, with the kind of stature and sway only someone of great importance dared display. Yet he didn’t seem cocky or arrogant in the slightly. When he spoke, his voice deep and clear as a Soldan bell, his words held sincerity.
“I’m not so much of fan of these kind of…traditions…from this land,” he admitted, his perfect smile fading into a bit of a scowl. He gestured to the Court. “In Kar-Branth, extravagant displays of wealth such as these are viewed as distasteful.
Olivia suddenly felt very self-conscious in her expensive silk gown. He seemed to have realized his mistake almost instantly.
“I am sorry, Milady. I did not mean to speak so bluntly on the subject. Different cultures is all.” He smiled down at her, though it was weaker than before. “Perhaps we can spend some more time together. I would love to learn more about this kingdom. Clearly, I need the education.”
Olivia felt her anxiety melt away at his joke. “Yes, of course. I would like that. And I, myself, would love to learn more about Kar-Branth.” His smile swelled and he grasped both her hands in his, firmly but gently.
“Fantastic. Lady Olivia, I will be in the city for a few more weeks and I will be sure to call on you before I leave.” Prince Kaladin bowed deep and low. “For now, I must take my leave. But be assured, I will be thinking of your beauty until our next meeting.” He dipped into the crowd, granting one last thoughtful smile over his shoulder.
Olivia swooned and pulled her hands close to her chest.
“I will be thinking of your beauty until our next meeting.” A sing-song voice mocked from behind her. She turned around quickly, her face flushed with red. Who had been listening? Olivia’s embarrassment quickly turned to excitement.
“Viktor!” she exclaimed, must louder than was proper for a lady. It took every ounce of effort not to throw her arms around his neck and embrace him. He took notice.
“Your grace, Olivia Rowan of House Martel, Princess of Rivara, Baroness of Elysium, ordained to rule by the grace of his most holy Baldir. You are looking ravishing this evening.” He took a step closer. “How long has it been since you’ve graced me with your smile?”
“Two years, seven months, and three span. Approximately.” Olivia said casually. She tried to hide her grin but failed miserably. “But who is counting?”
Viktor laughed a deep, hearty laugh. His fine silks strained against his lean, muscular chest. It wasn’t until Olivia took a moment to take in her best friend’s appearance that she noticed how much older he was. Three years of adventuring had made him strong and dexterous and it had aged him. He was still young for an elf—a child by most counts—yet he seemed much more mature than many men twice his age. His eyes had seen death. His sword had known blood. Physically, he was still as radiant and youthful as the next 22-year-old boy; mentally, his adventures had taken their toll.
“I apologize for my state, Lady Olivia, the only formal clothes I have were from before…” He tugged at the too-short sleeve. “As you can see, I’ve done a significant amount of growing since then.”
She placed a hand on his arm in a show of comfort. “You look like the dashing rogue everyone always says you are. You have grown, though I wouldn’t say that was a bad thing. You have a rugged handsomeness about you. The ladies of the Court are going to love it.”
“You have grown, too.” He said, stepping backwards to fully take her in. “You are a noblewoman of House Martel now and you look the part phenomenally. You are most assuredly the most beautiful woman here.”
Olivia blushed a deep shade of crimson. “There is no need to tease me, Viktor.” She said, catching a glimpse of a mischievous sparkle in his bright, golden eyes.
“Milady,” he put a hand to his chest and acted offended, “I would not dare to tease you. I am simply in awe your beauty. If I were struck down now, by the will of the Gods, I would die happy, knowing I had the chance to gaze into your lovely amethyst eyes.”
“Viktor,” Olivia warned, her face hot with embarrassment.
“Is this what Sylphademus meant when he wrote of a maiden fairer and more lovely than even the angels of Heaven? Or when he compared his lover’s radiance to the first light of morning?” he made a grand gesture with his hands. “All this, and yet, your charm and allure put to shame even the brightest of evening stars.”
Olivia covered her face with her hands. Viktor always had a flair for the dramatic. Always. Being on the road had made his theatrics more flamboyant than ever.
Viktor motioned to the instrument case strapped on his back. “Shall I get my lute?” he asked with a childish grin. Olivia playfully slapped his arm and laughed, her face still flushed deep red.
“Now, now you two.” A male voice, deep and clear, cut through their laughter. Both nobles instantly froze, all the color draining from their faces. “Viktor von Mohrentz. Playwright. Musician. Adventurer.” Before them stood Lysander Lavellan. His neat blonde hair was kept relatively short and tidy. He towered over most of the other men in the room at 6’2” tall; adding to his imposing nature was his physique—sturdier and more muscular than was normal for a pureblood. He was in ceremonial plate armor, colored silver and adorned with intricately carved fleur-de-lis. He wore a cloak of deep, luscious green, attached at the throat with a pin of silver signifying his status. Sylvana clung to his arm looking nervous in her matching gown.
Viktor quickly bowed, lower than was probably necessary. “Your grace,” he said, not daring to look up. “Lady Sylvana. I apologize for our outburst, we were simply—“
“Stand up straight, von Mohrentz.” Lysander commanded. Viktor cleared his throat and dutifully followed his orders. “I am not here to police your etiquette, as lacking as it may be. I have a message for Lady Olivia, from my impudent little brother. Normally I wouldn’t care, but he made me promise.”
Olivia felt her blood run cold as he turned his gaze on her.
“Of course, your grace.” She curtseyed, trying not to make direct eye contact.
“He asked me to give you his most sincere apologies for leaving without first saying goodbye. He was called away on business.” The coldness in his voice made Olivia shiver. “He wishes you the best of luck in your pursuit of a worthy suitor.”
“Thank you, your grace.” Olivia bowed her head. “I greatly appreciate the effort, all the same.”
He gave her a disdainful look. “Come Sylvana.” He began to walk away. Sylvana gave her sister a single sorrowful look and quickly hurried alongside her betrothed.
Viktor waited until the two were well out of earshot before he began speaking, his bard tongue spitting out his true feelings as soon as he was sure it was safe. “He gives me the creeps,” he said, crossing his arms. Olivia nodded in agreeance.
The two found a sitting room where they could converse away from the crowded ballroom. They dared not speak of Lysander, keeping the conversation as light as possible. Viktor regaled his friend with stories of his adventure. He told her the bawdy tale of being trapped in the Fae with the Elurian, a beast of legendary seductive powers known for kidnapping men lost in the Faerie Realm.
“How did you escape?” Olivia asked, eyes wide at the story.
“I tricked her,” he replied, pride evident in his voice. “She had gifted me with—with power, of sorts. And under the full moon, I performed a song which entranced her long enough for me to escape. I spent five years in the Fae, trying to find a way out. When I returned to this realm, I found only three days had passed.”
“No way!” Olivia covered her mouth. “That can’t be true. You didn’t get kidnapped by the Elurian. That couldn’t have happened!”
“But it did!” Viktor laughed. “Every word—completely true. Now, I can use music to make magic, a gift from the most seductive goddess in all the Fae. One day, I might even show you.”
There was an awkward silence between the two of them. Viktor looked deep into Olivia’s eyes, knowing the question she wanted to ask. And in his eyes, Olivia already knew the answer.
“You are leaving again, aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question. Olivia clenched her jaw and looked down. She felt her eyes stinging as tears began to form.
“Unfortunately yes. I have…things to attend to. Important things.” He grimaced. “Olivia, I am going to tell you a secret. It is very important that you keep this between us.”
She met his gaze. It was an intense stare. His eyes weren’t the gentle eyes of a noble who had never known hardship. They were the hard eyes of an adventurer.
“I am renouncing my title.” He said in a firm, serious tone.
Olivia gasped. “What? You can’t!” she hissed through clenched teeth. “You are the heir and—“
“I know what I am Olivia, and I can assure you, in my heart of hearts, I am an adventurer, not a Duke.” He gave a heavy sigh. “I have found a reason for my existence, far beyond the gilded cage we call the High Court. People respect me and not for my name or my title or my wealth, but because I have proven myself worthy of respect with my actions.”
He continued, “People see me as Viktor, Giant-Slayer. Viktor, Dragon’s Bane. Viktor, Conqueror of the Fae. I would rather die than see myself become a stuffy old man, locked in his castle, oblivious to the needs of the common people.” He huffed, crossing his arms over his chest in a display of childlike indignance. “For the first time in a long time…I’m happy.”
Olivia thought for a moment, organizing her thoughts and thinking hard about what she wanted to say next. “If you are happy, I am happy.” She said, putting her hand gently overtop of his. “But you know…so far you are the only man in this room I’d actually want to marry.”
Viktor’s cheeks flushed dark red. “Oh—I, well…Lady Olivia, are you sure, I mean—“ she laughed as he stumbled over his words. “What about Prince Charming?”
“The devil you know…”
The rest of the evening was spent dancing, talking, and meeting with suitors and old friends. She felt like a piece of meat hung before rabid dogs and by the end of the night, she was tired of the idle chatter. The training room was a much less treacherous battlefield and she found herself aching for more lessons. She still nursed the deep wounds her teacher had given her not two days before. Knowing he had been called away unexpectantly did little to resolve the disappoint Olivia felt in her chest.
Viktor was not the only noble son she was willing to wed.