Author: Witch Fu
For this night, nothing but silk would please the Madame. And then, only just. Tara's preparations were tedious and debated. There may have been little question as to who the future bride would be, as was the case in most circles, but no chances were taken in her appearance. This was the night. All had not been arranged or decided, and there was every chance that the king could abort at any moment, that his well-trained son would see something disagreeable in the young princess.
Her chest, for the most obvious example, was a never-ending topic of abuse. Tara's Madame would not allow such an important event to pass without a comment to those unfashionable growths. Oddly enough, the style stood at this: Breast measured in petite, and held firmly high. Meaning that you had to have small breasts, and wear clothes that would seem to say, "I am in need of a larger bosom." While completely dismissing those with a larger endowment, distaste evident.
Tara disliked the adjustments to hers or anyone else's bodies for the sake of fashion. Though she would likely never voice her thoughts. There was very little that Tara admired about her "class and station". That was a fact that there was no ear to hear, nor would there ever likely be.
The silk that Tara had been layered in was only the finest. Of course, this was flawed in the eyes of her agitated perfectionist Madame. With corsets and stockings, bindings, lacing, bustier, and enough ambiguous materials to clothe a household of hard-working people, the humble Tara disappeared beneath. Her weight may have been a petite 130 pounds in a night-shift, but in her formal ware, she made an even 200lb.
Awoken at dawn, through a hurried first-food and taken to be gowned, Tara's day had been consumed in the event. She had not owned a moment of solitude, no rest or composition. Only the preparations made their way into the workings of this day, and yet, she still found time to be thoughtful. While rehearsing possible answers to posed questions, she had pondered the future of this kingdom. While gowning the kirtles and stockings, her mind had wondered to how soon the marriage would be. As she was looked over for any abnormalities in costume, she had thought, briefly, of the young prince.
The prince had managed to stay from her mind quite completely. When she thought of the marriage, he entered not into it. She simply lived here, spoke to different servants and had slightly altered duties.
Fortunately, until this moment, the unsavory idea of post-wedding rituals had stayed from her mind as well. She knew very little about that practice, only being told that her king would lead the actions. Nothing was required but her ability to receive his part of consummation and conceiving, after which they would not contact each other for anything other than formal affairs. It was strange really, to think that she would be heading into something she had no possible conclusion about. From eavesdropping on the scullery maids, a wide-eyed Tara of eight knew at least that one had to be naked and rub their lips together to make it official. The kissing was optional, unless she had heard wrong. So this was what made women swell with child? Nakedness with a man? She supposed that it thus made sense as to why a woman of society covered herself so. It would be dangerous to touch too much, and impregnate oneself quite on accident.
With a renewed tolerance for her yards of clothing, Tara took in a long and satisfying breath. "At least," she thought to herself, "I'll only have to endure it once."
The sound of myriads of voices, male and female, fell on Willow's ears. It was a new sensation to the prince, as of yet, having only experienced it's like just in the recent days past. Scuttled behind a drape to conceal her from view, Willow crouched like a curious feline. Taking a peak, she saw many lords and ladies, all dressed impeccably, no doubt to best all others. The sexes seemed to group together, which comforted Willow slightly. She, at least, could feel less obliged to be a lady's gentleman while in the presence of "other" men.
At this moment, 18 and strong, the Prince of Surrounding Northern England wanted nothing more than to run frantically away from the elaborately decorated hall with its mocking women and boasting men. The music was wonderful and she managed to recognize several pieces. The upbeat waltzes seemed to remind her of her impending danger, however, while the sonatas reminded of a destined loveless life.
Jumping with a quiet exclamation of, "Ack!" Willow turned to face the beast who had tried to attack her. She found Peter there instead, not certain whether or not to be relieved. He was the picture her had always been: quiet, eyes obverted, and patiently waiting on Willow. With an inclination of his head, Peter announced,
"It is time, Sir William, to introduce you formally to your future kingdom. They are all waiting anxiously."
Willow slithered deeper into her respite, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder?"
Peter glanced upward to her eyes with his ever dead expression, and down once more.
Willow stole a deep breath, and gave a quick nod. Assuming her well practiced pose, she walked through the curtain and into the great ballroom. A man Willow did not recognize stood at her side. When Willow was fully inside the room the mysterious man produced a horn from his jacket and proceeded to give it a sound blow. Willow started, bewildered for a moment before regaining control. Everyone around her seemed nonplused at the outburst, so she too thought nothing more of it. Composed, Willow gulped as every face in the room turned to look at her.
The horn man lowered his weapon, and Willow felt herself sigh with unexpected relief. She did not expect him to let out a great roaring sentence next. "Sir William, Prince and future King of Surrounding Northern England and following states!"
Willow fought the urge to cover her ears fitfully as the man bellowed her title. The crowd then preformed bows and curtsies in unison. Willow inclined her head, remembering her training. Thinking joyfully, "This is simpler than I had anticipated. Why worry how I will act if those acts have been designated and molded into my very instincts?" Lifting her chin in a rush of confidence, Willow made her way into the main dancing floor.
The people were free to go about their business after the initial introduction, but many women were avidly trying to catch her eye. They made attempts at bowing very low; low enough to show things that Willow recognized all too well. They would coo their names and titles into her ear, dare to glance a touch on her shoulders, arms and hands. "Such liberties there women take! As though we were already on singularly close terms..." Willow was astonished, and feared her cheeks were scandalously burning. She could see that the gentleman were, for the most part, standing aside while she received more flirtatious actions in these moments than they had in their entire lives. It was unwanted, no less! Willow realized that befriending a man well enough to have easy conversation was going to prove much more difficult than she had estimated. "They're all jealous! They despise me, and I've yet to say a single word!"
She knew that the next step was, of course, to do just that: befriend and charm a host of gentlemen. It would not do for her to shamelessly dwell amongst the doting females. Making her way to a group of young men, Willow heard the comments of the ladies that she had left in her wake. At first she didn't know who they were referring to, but when she looked towards them; their eyes were all on her. She heard such things as, "So handsome!...Charming!...Do I but dream?" These women were in varying ages, some as much as twenty years her senior to just old enough to hold a tea cup. "He has just touched my glove! Shall I never wash it!" She had to find a more reasonable environment. To Willow, it was as though she were being revealed a god in their presence. The feeling was undoubtedly novel, but unwanted all the same.
As she approached the men, she felt safer; she knew that for a woman to announce herself into the presence of several gentlemen with no gentleman escort would be disgraceful. And the accompanied gentleman would be shamed if the woman made any advance toward any other male.
Straightening her doublet, she cleared her throat for its deepening properties and joined the circle. A comment with some humor had just been made and the lot of the circle began to laugh gently, careful not to disturb the precarious hair styles. Willow chuckle in suit, not hearing what was said, but certain that it would include her in the group. Unfortunately, she was right. All men turned toward her. The man who seemed to have control of this gathering laughed quietly to himself while looking her up and down with a sniff of distaste. He posed of the prince, "Besides the obvious, 'my lord', why is it that they did not see fit to produce you until this time?"
Several men in the group laughed, keeping their faces away from the prince. So that's his game, Willow thought lightly. Smiling secretly, Willow looked up calmly. "They say that one learns from one's own environment, taking each individual attribute to be its own. They simply did not want to expose me to the less..." it was her turn to look the man over, "savory aspects of society until absolutely necessary." Looking confused for a moment, she continued before leaving, "Well, gentlemen, do excuse me, it seems I was mistaken. I was under the impression that this ball was not to be host to cull-children. Please, continue as you were, and I'll be on my way. See that you're home by a reasonable hour?" Turning on her heal, smile in place, she headed toward a table with various eatery.
Muttering to herself, Willow reprimanded her irresponsible display of vengeance. A slight touch to her shoulder brought her to the present. Surely it was Peter, telling her what nonsense that was. As she turned, however, she saw instead a tall, smiling gentleman of no more than twenty. He seemed very amused with sandy brown hair and almost dog-like sincerity in his eyes. Bowing slightly, he introduced himself, "Sir William, may I distinguish myself in your company. I am Lord Riley of Stockton. I was very eager to meet you, and after that display," he inclined his head towards the fuming gathering of men over his shoulder, "I know why." His eyes were alive, he truly found it amusing.
Instantly warming, Willow laughed and encouraged his to do the same. Taking a breath, she said, "Well. You know me it seems, but I am William none the less."
"I should say not. I never would have thought any one capable of humor in this kingdom of rigidity. If you will excuse me, your lordship, all here seem so staunch." He looked uncertain at first, not sure what the royal’s answer would be.
"Lord Riley, I am greatly indebted to you!" Willow said as she clasped a flute with champagne bubbling inside.
"My Lord?" Riley asked, brow furrowed in confusion.
"I assumed that no one shared my views here, and was fully expecting the treatment that you witnessed, all of this night." Handing him a glass, which he took distractedly, she continued, "and please, do call me William."
They had begun to walk. The center of the room served as dancing space, but a good portion of the guests were to the side chatting and drinking merrily. Willow was draining her first flute and reaching for a second when she noticed Riley's own glass remained untouched.
"Do you not drink, Lord Riley?" Willow asked slightly embarrassed at her own alcohol consumption.
"Oh, yes, if I am to call you William, you must refer to me as Finn. All of my companions do. And while I do enjoy a good brandy, even a wine now and then, champagne is rather horrid in my opinion." He made a face and lengthened the distance from the glass to himself by placing the offending article onto a passing waiter's tray.
Curious, Willow probed, "Why do your companions call you 'Fin', If I may ask?"
"Ah, that. It is a rather long and painful story of my part. Pertaining much to my distaste for champagne. I shall save it for a time when we have both become too intoxicated to care about pride of propriety." Riley sighed, smiling almost regretful, but in all good humor.
Willow was intrigued, and realized that he could very well become a wonderful friend. Maybe he would even understand her friendship with Xander? No. Undoubtedly, he had been trained from birth to refrain from the befriending of hired help. The thought of Xander reminded her that he was at this very gathering. "I should at least try to find him..." she mused to herself while glancing around. Riley, noticing the search, piped up.
"Do you know anyone in attendance this evening, Lord William?"
Willow, realizing that she had been caught, faltered, "Y-yes. I do."
Surprised, Riley raised his brows, the same suggestion of a smile on his face. He seemed to wear the expression endlessly. "I was of the impression that you were a fresh face in society. Tell me, who is it that you are acquainted with?"
Willow was about to opt for claiming that she truly knew no one, when she caught sight of, "Giles!" she exclaimed, her gaze directed towards a group of distinguished tutors. Her outburst grabbed the attention of a few nearby guests who looked on with dissatisfaction.
"Giles?" Riley repeated.
Willow explained, "Giles is my best tutor. He really is wonderful. Of course, you are right. I'm very new and I'm afraid I know not a soul outside of the components of my residence." Still looking in the direction where Giles stood, she failed to notice the frown that creased her company's brow.
Then, as Willow's gaze returned, Riley replaced his expression to that of a nervous smile. "You know me." His smile faltered, but remained genuine.
"Oh blast!" Turning, Willow saw a group of older gentlemen advancing towards her line of sight. Looking to Riley, she explained herself, "I do apologize. How terribly rude of me. You see, I have noted more than a few fellows whom I have no wish to make contact with. They seem to be heading this way."
His query met, Riley's smile returned. Before Willow could react, he scooped up her arm, a "not a problem," uttered with excitedly hushed tones. They walked through the crowd purposefully, surprisingly drawing few stares.
Once they had successfully evaded, Riley circled to face Willow. "And now, Your Highness, you are once again safe." He bowed for the dramatic effect ending his daring show of character.
Willow caught her breath from the excitement. She wondered what it meant for Riley to have taken her arm as he did. True, for men of society to brace each other was not uncommon. But surely, a man below the station of the other would not dare to do such a thing. It was the man with higher station who commanded the discussions, who directed the proceedings. It did not offend her in the least, merely surprised her that he thought nothing of it. Perhaps, she thought, he assumed himself the commandant considering his stature, experience and it was, after all, his plan of evasion. Riley was looking to her again. He periodically glanced around, now having recognition of those Willow wished to avoid. He seemed so eager to please. Willow decided that she was comfortable with him, and felt that she knew him well enough to judge on certain ideals. She would tell him of Xander, but only if he provided himself seen. She would not look for him, and therefore, run a chance at avoiding a scene if Riley did not approve. Yes, that would be her pla-
Willow would have finished, rather happily, with her plan, but Xander seemed to know just how to complicate things. He had just stepping into her view. Sighing, she looked to Riley and smiled, "I have someone that I'd like you to meet."
Leading the way, Willow stepped up to the table that Xander had been setting, and cleared her throat. Xander looked up with some surprise, and smiled broadly, "Why hel-" He turned to mortification. Silent, he turned back to his work with a diligence he certainly didn't possess before.
Trying to hide a smile, Willow glanced about her to ensure no one thought oddly of the incident. She then led Riley to a corner of the room, not heavily occupied, and rather dimly lit. They waited, and there Xander appeared.
"I'm very sorry, Will. I thought for sure someone was going to start yellin' and screaming. Blue in the face, is what I thought. Lucky I caught myself." His smile was becoming more confident, and Willow thought it best to introduce the two men before Xander realized his presence and made a fool of himself.
"Xander, this is my newly acquainted friend, Lord Riley. And Lord Riley, I do wish for you to meet a very dear friend of mine whom I have known for a great length of time, Xander."
Xander's fear managed to only last a second before his mouth turned to a loping and untamed grin. Certainly he was trying for charming, but all that was produced was a miserable short-coming that would never fail to endear. He bowed respectfully as he uttered, "My Lord."
Riley was more stiff than what Willow had become accustomed to, as he lightly bowed back with an equally hardened, "Friend Xander."
This was what Willow had feared. She had hoped against all that he would look past station to the undeniable good that lay in Xander. Evidentially, she had looked for something that was not there. She was about to excuse them to the party, and appologize to both men involved, when she noticed something rather unusual. Riley did not seemed displeased in the least. In fact, his face had taken on something of a lax grin as well. Looking between the two, Willow found herself between what she could only describe as an immediate attraction.
"It seems Xander is not as alone in his tastes as I had imagined."