Princess Silverbell stood closer to her brother, her face a mask of absolute seriousness. It was a somewhat unusual look for a young woman known for her levity during parties. At the moment she was standing next to her brother Dormal, the pair of them striking a diplomatic pose. They were the picture of young royalty, primped and preened and well trained for gatherings just like this one, where they usually ended up at the center of everyone’s attention.
Silverbell lightly laid a hand on Dormal’s arm so she could lean in and whisper in his ear. She was careful to make sure no one else could overhear and several golden curls that danced along her neck and cheek blocked her lips enough that no one would be able to read them. It was, no doubt, some nugget of great importance she felt needed sharing with the heir apparent
“Count Greenbriar wears yellow polka-dotted underwear.”
She waited patiently in the wake of her whisper. Her jade eyes moved over her brother’s face, seeking a smile or a grin. Being this close she’d be able to catch even the barest hint of a chuckle, or any suggestion of a crack in Dormal’s serious expression.
But he was too good. He’d grown in the game over the years and she couldn’t make him laugh as easily as she had in their youth. She couldn’t count how many times she’d whispered some joke or silly gossip into one of her brother’s ears during an official function and dearly cherished each and every time she’d broken their masks. Once, in their younger days, she’d even managed to reduce Valerian to a fit of giggles.
“I’ve heard it’s purple. With hearts on it, dear sister.”
She turned quickly enough to catch the flash of a familiar smile on Dormal’s lips, and a fond look in his dark blue eyes, before his carefully schooled demeanor returned. It was only a moment, but she knew he wasn’t cross with her for trying. They were together in this, after all.
“Would you like to join me in the courtyard, princess? Some air would do me well,” Dormal said drawing back enough that others nearby wouldn’t have too much trouble overhearing his intentions. They’d been at this party long enough they could get away with stepping outside for a few minutes.
He offered out his arm and she took it without hesitation, allowing him to lead her. They moved gracefully, like a proper lady and gentleman, though in private they would probably both have laughed at the notion.
“You know, I was expecting the purple-hearted line to work on you,” he said, keeping his voice low, meant only for her.
“Oh Dormal, you may not know it but I’ve seen my fair share of silly underwear in my time. Purple hearts don’t phase me. Even the nobility like to get a little wild, so long as no one else can see.” She resisted the urge to waggle her eyebrows at him, and took some pleasure in catching him just managing to smother a chuckle.
“Don’t let any of the advisors hear you talking like that. They’ll lose their minds. Can’t have the princess being improper.” There was almost a sigh in his voice when he said it.
“As if that’s ever stopped me from ruffling their feathers,” she returned with a light laugh. “I think they thought I’d seen the light when I stared making dresses like a good little lady. They weren’t so happy when Domerin and I took our most recent climbing trip. They’d be rid of me in a moment if they thought they could replace me with someone ‘proper’.”
“I’ve gotten that feeling about all of us at one point or another over the years,” Dormal said, though he didn’t sound bitter. There were still people displeased at how the queen had brought about her heirs, not that she cared, but even Silverbell could see there was little people could actually quibble about when it came to Dormal. She and her twin were happy enough to take the heat.
They moved through the large arched doors of the busy ballroom into the mild evening air. It was far less stuffy out here and the stars were already overhead, though somewhat muted by the carefully placed lights illuminating the courtyard. A light breeze blew, a fountain bubbled away nearby and lovely, fragrant foliage filled the space, giving the other attendees that moved among it the illusion of privacy. Silverbell rather hoped they paid their gardeners well. She had to admit it was a beautiful space.
But her attention was more on her brother than the plants. He’d gone quiet, and she knew him well enough to know something was troubling him. She kept them walking for the moment, subtly guiding him, as if she were seeking a tour of the gardens, knowing people would be less likely to try and approach them until they stopped.
“As if ruffling their feathers ever stopped you either, brother. I seem to remember you weren’t always opposed to a prank or two.” She spoke, giving his arm a light squeeze.
He sighed, though he mustered a weary smile.
“You know I don’t have the same freedom as you do. Not anymore at least. It’s one thing for the royal twins to pull the heir into their pranks when they’re cute kids, but now… The nobles are far less forgiving and as time goes on the walls get closer. This whole thing,” he said, nodding and indicating their surroundings, “is just the first in a long line of these. We have to put our best faces forward to assure our allies we’re dependable.”
As depressing and logical and Domal’s words were, Silverbell had to admit they were true. This wasn’t home, and forgiveness would be harder earned. They were making a diplomatic visit to one of the neighboring kingdoms, so this party was actually somewhat important. Valerian was halfway across the world but she‘d been unwilling to leave Dormal to suffer this visit on his own.
She was good at drawing attention from him and had made a veritable show of it tonight. She’d worn one of the dresses she’d mostly recently designed. It was gold and yellow primarily, and matched her hair. The theme was nature, the dress meant to be the sun and flowed off her in waves. It was decorated with intricate hand sewn flowers and leaves, enhanced with jewel-toned accents that looked like dew drops and sparkling insects. Green brocade ran like ivy across the fabric, forming a flowing pattern up the length of the dress. Her curly blonde hair was haloed around her head, pinned here and there with jade accents, giving her the look of a sprite stepped fresh out of summer. Her mother had given it the stamp of approval, much to her delight.
Her brother was a stark contrast to her, though no less attractive or formal, his clothing rich and well tailored. He wore far more muted tones, blues and near blacks, with intricate silver embroidery dancing along the fabric. It was far less showy but she still thought he looked handsome nevertheless.
But it wasn’t just distracting onlookers with her fashion that was her aim. She took great pleasure in getting in the way of particularly entitled nobles who wanted her brother’s time, drawing them into idle conversations or expertly foisting them off on other people. It was all part of the game and she was getting very good at it under her father’s tutelage.
Truthfully, though, she was glad to be here with Dormal. Though she enjoyed the game, more than she thought her brother’s ever would, it was always better when she could use her skills to help Dormal. She liked to think the two of them worked well together, a united front as siblings. It helped that they could share whispers whenever they pleased, confiding thoughts they didn’t dare share with anyone else.
But she knew her brother carried the burden of expectation far more than she did, and that it grew heavier with each passing day. She reached over and gave his arm a little pat.
“Yes, I know you’re right. As much as I’d like to pull a big old prank with you right now even I know better. You’re right, we can’t go wild like we used to. But, while we might have to put up with all this, that doesn’t mean we still can’t entertain ourselves. We’ll just have to be quiet about it.”
“Oh?” Dormal arched an eyebrow, intrigued.
“Indeed. There’s nothing stopping us from having a whispers game, or trying to make each other laugh. In fact, I challenge you, brother. I’ll bet you won’t be able to make me crack tonight.”
Dormal chuckled. “Let’s just see about that. You might have seen lots of underwear but I know what gets you laughing.”
They finally came to a stop near a bank of riotous rosebushes, blooms of pink and white showing gaudily against the darker greenery. Nearby the fountain burbled happily, multicolored flowers forming a border around it. It didn’t take long for the other party goers to notice they’d finished their wanderings, which basically advertised them as open for business. There were already glances in their direction, as people tried to come up with excuses to leave their current conversations and approach, without looking like they were rushing. She imagined it must look like a chess game from above, with each piece trying to outplay the others.
But an unattached pair managed to reach them first, a man wearing a well tailored suit and a woman on his arm in a modern-cut blue dress. They bowed as they approached, and Silverbell nodded her head in return, as did Dormal. They couldn’t exactly ignore company any longer and she put on her best polite face as they introduced themselves and made all the usual pleasantries.
The pair were hardly engaging, and Silverbell thought they smiled a little too much. She was just about ready to shift into polite but uninterested mode, able to make small talk about anything, but a sense of wrongness flooded her mind. The man had his arm around his companion but was drawing it back forward in a way that hit all her alarm bells, and almost before she knew what she was doing instinct took over.
Silverbell shoved her brother hard in the shoulder, pushing him out of the way as a knife sliced the air where he’d been not moments before. To his credit Dormal rallied quickly, catching himself before he could fall to the ground. He rounded even as the woman’s face broke into a mask of fury and she drew a slender but wicked looking knife out of the handle of her fan.
“You little bastards. Like hell we’ll have you ruling the country. Down with the monarchy!”
The two of them lunged forward to attack, blades flashing forward to cut the queen’s line short. But they might not have known just how well trained in combat the royal children were, even while dressed in formal wear. As one the two of them jumped backward, staying close to present a unified front, completely focused on the threat in front of them.
Silverbell shifted forward slightly, trying to put herself between the threat and Dormal. Her brother might know how to protect himself but his safety was of the utmost importance. But Dormal seemed determined not to let her act as a human shield for him, even if it potentially left him more vulnerable. On the edges of her vision she could see movement approaching them, but for the moment they were on their own.
Unluckily for their attackers, though, she’d come prepared. She reached behind her and through the mass of curls to the gauzy frill of flowers that circled her upper body. It took a few moments for her fingers to brush the metal that waited there. Tucked into a carefully crafted leather sheath, sewn deftly into the lining of her dress, and obscured by ornamental flowers and her hair, was a sword.
She gripped the handle and drew it free with a whisper of sound. The blade was thin and completely unadorned, too long to be a knife but too short to be a proper sword. She’d had to work with what would fit against her back without calling attention to itself, but it would do in a pinch.
Silverbell passed the blade to her brother. He looked momentarily shocked at where it had come from but took it surprisingly in stride, his own combat training kicking as he lifted the weapon to block an incoming attack. Giving the sword up meant she had no weapon, but she’d rather Dormal be able to directly protect himself. It seemed a good choice, as the pair seemed more focused on him. Thankfully their weapons were hardly larger, no doubt having had to be clever to sneak them in here.
In the background she heard other guests panicking and crying for the guard, the attack impossible to ignore now. Some of them scurried away in fear, while others retreated more slowly. She was sure many were intrigued but didn’t want to be anywhere near the scene, lest they be thought sympathetic to the attackers. The guards hardly needed the call, already converging on their location, swords drawn. They were always nearby, of course, but Silverbell never ceased to be impressed with how they almost managed to melt out of the shadows.
The guards moved in, seeking to pin down the attackers, but they’d chosen a good spot for their attack, as the amount of foliage made it difficult to properly circle them. The pair seemed aware of this extra presence. They’d clearly planned on making a quick kill and escape, not having expected the prince to be able to defend himself so well, or to be armed. They continued pressing forward toward Dormal, eager to be done with him, making it difficult for the guards to easily separate them and the prince in the crowded space.
Dormal was holding his own but Silverbell didn’t think he could manage for long with two people going for him and only a small sword and limited space to work with. Her natural instinct was to shift forms but it would make her dress too big and she’d be at a distinct disadvantage against an armed opponent. The last thing she wanted was to present herself as an easy target and she didn’t think the people here would appreciate her ripping her dress off to fight in nothing but her underthings, as game as she was to do it.
But, she had a solution for this as well. She just hoped it worked.
Silverbell growled, but instead of pouncing with teeth and claws she reached up to her shoulder and took hold of a blue flower she’d handsewn. It was large, forming a sort of focal point on her outfit, and several of the brocaded vines ran down from it. She twisted her hand and the adornment came away easily, but she didn’t stop there. As she pulled it loosened one of the attached vines, the material not so much ripping as easily popping away from the sunny yellow fabric it had been pinned to. She’d practiced this in her room, and in moments she’d wrapped the now loose end of the rope around one hand, the blue flower acting as a weight at the other. She’d sewn an ironstar into it, a stone that was surprisingly heavy for its size.
The pair were still pressing her brother, Dormal dodging and blocking as best he could, and when there was enough of an opening she went for it. She had plenty of experience handling grappling hooks from climbing with Domerin, and she swung the weighted flower at the man who was darting in at her brother. It struck him hard in the shoulder and he gave a yelp as his sword arm dropped, momentarily stunned.
Dormal used the opportunity to dart in and strike the man with the butt of his sword, sending him tumbling to the ground into a flowerbush where he landed in a heap, his sword thumping to the dirt next to him.
The attacking woman was stunned for a moment by the sudden change in the wind, her eyes darting back and forth. Seeing the two armed royal children standing side by side, her partner down, and the encroaching guards, she must have realized she’d lost. Instead of standing her ground she snarled and dove past the two of them, not too proud to run. She aimed for a nearby hedge, one with loose enough branches she could probably get through if she really tried.
But like hell Silverbell was going to let her get away like that after she’d attacked her brother. She whipped her weighted rope after the woman, the ironstar striking her hard enough in the back that she stumbled into the hedge face first, robbing her of the finesse she would have needed to slip through.
She struggled and tried to right herself, but the foliage seemed determined now to cling to her and keep her from going anywhere fast. She cried out in anger and frustration, cursing their names and positions as she shot glares back at them through the green as she continued trying to free herself to the last.
Dormal laid a hand on Silvebell’s shoulder. She started slightly, the fight still in her, but he guided her a few steps away, giving the guards room to move in. It didn’t take them long to secure both the unconscious man and the cursing woman, making short work of disappearing them from the courtyard.
Silverbell could feel the eyes of the nobility upon them, already whispers filling the air, reminding her somewhat of the buzzing of bees about to strike. But the guards wouldn’t let anyone else get close, forming a tight circle around them and escorting them away from the gathered crowd and away from prying eyes. Their host was quick to find them as they moved through the hallways, bounding along beside, burbling apologies and promising swift and harsh justice against their attackers. He’d already called for his personal doctor, though Dormal assured the man they were unharmed.
Silverbell hardly heard any of it, her pulse still rushing in her ears. She kept close to Dormal, arm in his, wanting to reassure him that he wasn’t alone though she also took comfort from his proximity. He continued to clutch the sword and she held her rope, though the danger was well past now. The guard took them back to Dormal’s guestroom, and insisted on doing a sweep to be sure it was completely safe. The two of them stood near the door until they finished and they were finally left alone for a few moments to breathe.
“You all right?” Silverbell asked, plopping down beside Dormal on a small, plush couch. Only now that they were alone did her adrenaline start to bleed out of her. She’d wrapped the vine rope into a bundle, the ironstar sitting like a stone in her lap. She leaned a bit against Dormal and rested her cheek against his shoulder, the way she might have when they’d been children.
“A little shaken up,” Dormal admitted, letting out a little breath, shoulders slumping slightly. He’d laid the sword in his lap but wasn’t gripping it like he had been. “But I’ll be okay. Father taught me well. What about you?”
“Honestly, I was way more worried about you in the moment. When they went after you I saw red. I just knew I couldn’t let them hurt you. It’s only now the gravity of it’s hitting me.” She gave a little shiver at the thought of it.
“I guess it’s lucky you came prepared then. What is all this? Surely you don’t have a pocket dimension down your skirt.” He indicated the weaponry, a hint of his familiar humor returning, though he clearly wasn’t trying to mock. He even lifted the plain blade, turning it over in his hand to examine it now that he had a moment to do so, though he seemed more mystified by the fancy rope in her lap.
His comments drew a chuckle from her. “Well, I figured we’re going to be in lots of different situations. I can’t exactly carry a gun on my hip when I’m wearing something like this. If I’m going to design my own clothing, why not make it functional as well as fancy?”
“A practical way of looking at it. Though now I’m imagining you scaling the side of a cliff in that dress.”
“And ruin all my work!? This dress took me more than a month to put together.” She shot him a look but laughter was quick to follow. In a way it felt absurd to find anything humorous after something so dangerous had just happened. “I’m just glad it came in handy. I know I joke a lot and try to make these gatherings a bit less of a slog for you, but I haven’t forgotten the serious side of things.”
She was pretty much the opposite of serious most of the time, but she was honest, at least with her family. Dormal was silent a moment before shifting and putting his arm around her shoulders. She didn’t resist, just taking comfort from knowing her brother was well and truly safe.
“I know,” he said, after a short silence. “I appreciate that you do both. Things wouldn’t be as easy for me if you weren’t here. I know mother, father, and Crescent won’t always be able to accompany me, but it’s good knowing I’ve got family at my back.”
A comfortable silence settled between them for a time, it quiet here despite all the hubbub going on outside. Eventually they’d have to deal with the rest of the mess, but not just yet.
“I’m hoping we can still make underwear jokes, by the way,” Dormal said, a little grin touching his face. “And don’t be surprised if I ask you to sew some hidden weapons into my clothes too.”
“Like hell itself could stop me,” Silverbell laughed, her voice ringing out sweetly like their mother’s. “Just be careful what you ask for, or I might just make you some polka-dotted underwear.”
Dormal’s laugh echoed her own, and at least for this time she counted them as even on the laugh front.