Descending the polished marble steps of the castle ballroom, Lady Cynthia Zahava could feel the eyes of the aristocracy dig into her. Beloved by all she encountered, Lady Cynthia’s charm was renowned, and if she had been born into any other life, she could have conquered kingdoms, but it was her unfortunate fate to be highborn; her hand in marriage promised before she could even walk. Brushing a stray lock of her pale blonde hair, she smiled bashfully at her shoes. Cynthia knew she shouldn’t have worn the backless emerald grown in a room of famished saints, but she couldn’t resist, she felt inexplicably daring tonight, but then again, it was her engagement party. Joining the fray on the dancefloor, she ignored the weight of their stares, and instead brandished a smile as she made polite conversation with the guests, looking for the other guest of honour. The thought of him made Cynthia want to rip off her skin and run.
Keeping her footsteps silent, she slowly approached a pair of paramours, a grin plastered over her face. “Your Royal Highness,” she mused, trying not to laugh outright at their stunned expressions, “I must say that you are looking quite well this evening." Only a few feet away, she could see their flushed faces more clearly, their clothes ruffled and wrinkled in places, but still on, nonetheless. “That suit fits you quite nicely, much better than―”
Releasing the woman from his arms, the prince’s sharp eyes flashed to her's then back to the young woman before him. Floundering for a moment, he began to right himself. "Your Grace,” he coughed, “I― I didn’t see you there.”
Clasping her hands together, she made a show of looking around the golden and ivory room, its bright chandeliers casting rainbows across the room, she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "I don’t blame you, the lighting is quite dim tonight.”
The prince hastily straightened his jacket, and Cynthia didn’t miss the red smudge that marred his cheek, was he this stupid or was he looking to get caught? Scrambling a quick, “Good Evening,” before dipping into a well-rehearsed bow, “Your Grace, you must forgive my manner’s this is my friend Lady―”
“Lady Lyn, yes, it’s a pleasure to see you again,” she smirked, taking the young woman’s hand she forced her tone to be light. After a moment of silence, the girl shifted to leave, but before she could make her escape, Cynthia reached over and straightened the neckline of the girl’s dress and her necklace.
“Was that really necessary, she's a Lady of the court.” The prince scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest.
Sighing to herself she closed the distance between them reaching for his collar, “You must be careful your highness,” she said, straightening his shirt collar and then the lapels of his jacket, “ladies like that only want one thing.”
“A ring?” He scoffed, a smirk gracing his lips.
“Power.” She corrected, “A flash of notoriety or control in their life, you mustn’t give it to them." Stepping back, she examined him again, well-muscled, all hard lines and corded muscle he looked the part at least. Except for that stain of red she thought, reaching up a thumb she wiped away the stain, the gesture earned her a wide-eyed look from the prince.
“Thank you.” He pulled away to shove his hands into his pockets, spinning to lean against the wall. Still grinning like a fool he turned to face her, a muscle feathered in his jaw. “And might I say that you look absolutely bewitching in that gown.”
Forcing a smile over her lips, she looked up at him through her lashes. “Oh, you are too kind, your highness.”
Pushing himself off the wall, he walked towards her. "I am simply paying tribute,” he mused taking her hand in his he pressed his lips to her skin, “you must save me a dance this evening, I haven’t seen you in quite some time, and I would most certainly like―”
“Why yes, of course, your highness. I wouldn't dream of dancing with anyone else but my betrothed.” She put extra emphasis on the last word, betrothed. Oh how she hated the word, almost as much as she hated him, but what was done was done, she was to marry the Crowned Prince whether she liked it or not.
His eyes flashed wide as he dropped his hands to his side. “Nor would I, but duties are duties, and it’s a prince’s job to be diplomatic.”
“Ah yes, how could I forget.” She jested, turning on her heels to stand beside him, taking in the view of the brightly lit dancefloor. Gesturing to a bevy of blush girls she continued, "I am sure that dozens of ladies this evening would attest to your devotion to the crown.”
“You flatter me, your grace,” he laughed, stepping in front of her again, his towering height did little to improve her mood, “this is a tiresome affair, your presence is but a rescue to me.”
“Well, I am always happy to be of service your highness.” She bowed her head, trying her hardest to keep the sarcasm out of her tone.
Gently taking her chin, the prince tilted her head up, forcing her downcast eyes to meet his sharp gaze. “Your grace,” he whispered, low enough just so that only she could hear him, “may I suggest that you call me Theo from now on, and I call you Cynthia?” With his breath hot against her skin, Cynthia’s fingers dug into her dress as she resisted the urge to shove him away. “We will be married in a matter of months, it's about time we become more familiar with one another.”
Pulling away, she saw the hint of something wicked in his eye. “But what would the people say, there’d surely be gossip?”
Tucking a stray lock behind her ear, he cleared his throat. "You are to be my wife, are you not?” She nodded her head, unsure of her voice. “You will always be the sole object of my affections, and unfortunately, that means you will always be subject to the gossip rags. So will you do me the honour of dancing with me?”
Cynthia nearly burst out into laughter; she had always heard rumours that the princes were lovesick boys, but she never thought it was true. They there born royals, the world was at their feet, and as far as she was concerned that was a recipe for sadists, masochists, and narcissists; and to them love would always be a game. Returning his wicked smile, she took his arm, “Well, in that case, yes Theo, I will dance with you.”
Cynthia didn’t know what to expect when she agreed to dance with the crowned prince, but this was certainly not it. They had been dancing for at least ten minutes, without any indication of stopping, and what made the whole ordeal worse was the prince’s stifling silence. Perhaps she had been too charming.
Twirling amongst other couples, Cynthia gracefully maneuvered her way through the never-ending waltz, and to her surprise, the prince was also light on his feet. “Are you going to talk, or do you make it a rule not to talk while dancing?” she probed.
He had been staring at her for a while, but it wasn’t until now that she saw the flecks of gold in his otherwise hazel eyes; at least he was interesting to look at. “Umm, no. What about you?”
“Why yes, I prefer to be unsociable and taciturn,” Cynthia quipped, giggling as she gave him her toothiest grin.
With a fragment of a smile etched onto his face, he pulled her closer to him, his thumb skimming over her exposed back, the contact sent a shiver through her.
Clearing his voice, she could see that the smirk on his face did little to conceal his discomfort. “Lovely weather that we’ve been having lately.”
Adding poor conversationalist to her list she replied, “Yes, quite lovely indeed. Not a drop of rain, or whisper of a storm, but not half as good as it is in the south.”
“In the Riverlands?”
“Yes, have you been?”
“Shame,” she sighed, frowning slightly, “I heard that the weather is rather excellent this time of year. Quite breezy and warm, nothing like this permafrost.”
“Yes, but you never know with winds, they can turn on a dime. It's best not to chance such things. Weather can be such a volatile thing. You never know what could set a hurricane into motion.” Theo seemed to grip her tighter then, dipping her gently as the notes crescendo and ebbed, their feet moving impossibly faster.
“A storm is but a storm, it will pass. Nothing stays the same forever.”
His brows rose slightly. “Are you so reckless as to throw caution to the wind and risk your own safety?”
She kept her voice light. “Reckless no. Persistent yes. I visited the Riverlands just last year, and I can say with full confidence that there is nothing like the quiet after the storm. Nothing like standing in the aftermath of the rain." She held his gaze for long heartbeats, her ribs ached when he smiled back at her, “You really must go. Perhaps we could go together, after―”
“After the wedding?” He twilled her again, but this time closer.
Returning to his full embrace, she leaned into him, whispering into his ear. “No. After the holidays of course, before the armistice expires and the factions of the Riverlands turn on each other again. Did you know that some of the factions have been funded by foreign sovereigns?”
“I hadn’t the slightest―”
“They say that the factions don’t even hate each other―”
Breaking their perfectly timed steps, Theo held her in place while all the other couples twirled around them, “Then why? I don’t understand.”
Staring into his muddied eyes, she felt her breath catch in her throat, as they simply swayed in the middle of the floor, the corners of her mouth falling as his gaze turned to steel. “It’s not complicated Theo, I think we both know what I am asking.”
“No, Cynthia, I don’t think so.”
Still pressed against him she cupped his face. “I guess the rumours must be wrong, then,” she whispered. Cynthia could practically hear the women behind her swooning, but she didn't come to the ball to dance with the prince― no, she came to stoke a fire.
“Wrong about what? Cynthia please whatever it is, please tell me.”
Faking a sign, she played along. “The Riverlands has the richest supply of gold and oil on this coast, meaning that they are the most sought-after country in the region. Every sovereign and foreign government has been funding different political campaigns in the hopes that their faction will win the war.”
“Surely having their country’s interest at heart can’t be such a traitorous thing. It’s admirable―”
“It’s deceitful,” she remarked, fighting the urge to rip her skin off. “Those were not the terms of the Riverland wars.”
“There are no rules in war, it is what each party makes of it.” Cynthia could see his eyes shift to the crowd and then her.
“But there are certain courtesies that are given, after all isn't that what separates man from beasts? Humanity. Kindness.”
“My dear, man is but a beast on two legs, as cunning as the devil.”
“Are you saying that there are no honest men?”
“That is precisely what I am saying, and I should hope as future Queen, you know the difference between the two.”
“Between man and the devil, or man and the beasts?”
“I’ll let you decide.”
“Theo make no mistake, the wicked of this world will have its time to suffer, whether it be now or later.”
“I believe they will.”
“Cynthia, thank you for this dance. It was quite invigorating. May I suggest we catch our breath in a more private space? Away from all of this?”
“Please, lead the way.”
Sequestered in his private study, in the opposite wing of the castle, Cynthia and Theo stood at opposite ends of a table, a half-finished glass of whiskey in hand. Four games of billiards later, and still the prince's lips remained sealed—no talk of foreign diplomacy or future pursuits of the crown, only the wedding. Or as Cynthia called it, her impending lifetime sentence.
On his third glass of whiskey, Theo twirled the cue around his fingers impatiently, he hadn’t won any games so far. “I thought you said you didn’t know how to play.”
From her position across from him, she could see the slight sheen of sweat across his brow, he had undone a few buttons of his shirt, and in the dim light, she could see a drop of it slide down his neck. Flicking her eyes up to him, she didn't bother to hide her impish smile. "I only meant that I hadn’t been playing for long. I only recently learned; I catch on fast Ascelin.”
“I should hope so." Setting his cup down, he walked to pour himself another glass, eyeing her backless dress, he didn’t miss the shiver that shuttered through her. “Are you warm enough?"
With the large doors of the study thrown open, the chilly night air cut through the room, kicking up the heavy velvet curtain in their wake. If it were just the temperature, she would have been fine, but the breeze made her shudder anyway. “I am fine Theo, it’s just the whiskey that’s all.”
Shrugging off his suit jacket, she paused as he handed it to her, draping it over her shoulders, “I like it when you say my name."
Poised to play her final move, she looked up at him. “Theo or Ascelin?”
In the moonlight, his smile felt softer, earnest and raw. “You intrigue me.”
Setting the cue down she leaned against the table, the slit of her emerald dress falling open. “I’m not that interesting Theo."
Leaning forward, he reached for her cue, but she pushed him back lightly, sticking out her tongue. The gesture earned her a laugh. "You’re funny. Uninteresting people generally don’t have to say that." His hands were now on either side of her, braced on the table, and without looking down, she knew where they would fit best. "Are you really keen about this marriage?” Theo breathed against her.
She pursed her lips, leaning forward. “Yes, it is what the people―”
“I didn't ask about the people or our kingdoms, I asked about you, do you want this?” Theo moved his hands from the table to cup her face, drawing her closer so that he was mere inches away from her mouth.
Cynthia pulled back, twisting her face away from him, “You forget yourself, prince," jumping off the table. She picked the cue back up, “marriage is but another contract.” Taking her final shot. Throwing her hair over her shoulder, she glanced back at Theo; she’d won.
“Thank you, your highness,” she beamed, handing him the cue to sit on the leather couch in the corner, whiskey in hand.
“For your prize, I will tell you any secret you wish to know.”
Running her tongue across her teeth, she savored her deliberation, she toyed with her engagement ring. “Do you think the Riverlands will ever find peace?”
Theo leaned against the billiards table with folded arms, his empty glass beside him. “No. It’s not their nature.”
She leaned forward, the neck of her dress billowing open slightly. “And what is their nature?”
“Greed.” The smile didn’t reach his eyes as he held her gaze.
“Greed?” She lifted a brow in question, crossing her legs.
“Yes, they worship it. Crave it, will do anything it takes to survive.” Crossing the small space, he sat next to her.
“But does man yield to greed or does greed yield to man?”
“There are no bargains between men and beasts. They will either kill you and eat you raw, or deny your existence, there is no in-between.
“Besides, man is no honourable creature, one day, the tables will turn, and the bridges will burn when greed is god.” Cynthia frowned slightly, maybe it had been the whiskey, or just the fact that the evening had gone on too long, but the night began to taste sour on her tongue; visceral against her heart. She still hated the prince, but in this study― he didn’t seem so bad. Oh, gods! She could feel her chest flutter when he touched her. Setting her whiskey down, she cleared her throat, straightening her spine. “It’s getting late, I should―”
Cynthia didn’t see his hand but felt warm fingers wrap around hers. “But it’s past midnight,” Theo spluttered, “only heathens walk the streets at this hour.”
Standing up, she slipped on her heels and started for the door. “I really can’t stay.”
“Cynthia, please.” Turning back, she risked a glance at Theo, biting tongue. How was she going to get rid of this… this feeling? “One more drink?” Theo implored, rising to stand he held out a hand.
Taking it she let him drag her back to the game.
In the mall hours of the morning, cloaked in shadow and mist, she pinned him to the door, a goddess no more, and kissed him godless. Irreverence never tasted so good, but she looked like his undoing, sin in high heels to him. Bathed in moonlight, nothing but their hushed whispers and the rustle of silk could be heard, for they were no longer in the opulent ballroom full of masqueraders, but bare and alone. Raw and unhinged they were no more than beats. Perhaps they always were, perhaps this was how it was always meant to be; two serpents in the dark, grappling for power.