Sloane-Amalia is not afraid of the highborns in Lord Solomon's ballroom because she is better than a great many of them.
Their poorly hidden disgust had been evident the moment of her arrival at Hallow Hall. They knew not to approach her. It wasn’t just bladed words that kept them away. No, it was the complete and utter loyalty the common people of the Paele Isles showed her. They loved her because they knew that Sloane-Amalia did what they wanted first, and what the nobles wanted last.
Now they gather in their groups and dare not cross where the ballroom’s brown marble flooring becomes the pristine white carpet of the lounge area. Most of them. There was one man— one absolutely infuriating man— who couldn’t seem to get a hint.
Arving Haigh sits on the couch across from her, slumped back and with his legs spread as if he were at home. He watches her as she does him. His velvet overcoat is crimson, silver octagonal patterns embroidered artfully on its collar lapels. A sweating short glass rests on his muscled black clad thigh, a gloved finger tapping rhythmically against the edge, golden brown liquid within it trembling. He fiddles with his black tassel earring, his smile is white and verging dangerously on the edge of lecherous. That sick son-of-a-bitch was attractive and he knew it.
“Am I aggravating you, Sloane?” he asks, head tilting inquiringly.
“You are,” she responds in a light tone, “and I honestly don’t know if I can forgive you for it.”
Arving Haigh, Lord Paramount of the Cerise Valley and her fellow High Justice candidate, pouts and bats his long eyelashes. “What did I do this time? Whatever it is, I'm fully prepared to grovel at your door if it means you’ll let me back in your home. It pains me to have been away from you for so long.”
Sloane-Amalia barely stops herself from groaning. Ignoring almost all his words, she says, “Well let's start with that informal speech, shall we? I haven’t given you permission to discard my title. Want to correct that for me?”
Behind him, the murmuring from the nobles grows louder. She rolls her eyes, not needing to look over Arving Haigh’s shoulder to see clenching fists and offended huffs barely muffled behind vibrant feather fans.
“I was rude to address you that way. Justice Sloane-Amalia S, will you please accept this foolish Lord’s most sincere apologies." Arving Haigh says, his handsome face alight with mischief. “See, I can learn.”
Sloane-Amalia gives him a world-weary sigh and she picks up a small pitcher of blue wine from the table. "You say that every time we talk, Lord Haigh. I'm beginning to think you don’t actually mean it."
He sets his glass down and leans forward. The sparkle in his dark eyes brightens. " Spare me another chance. I can be good."
It takes everything in her to stop the shiver that wants to race up her spine. She was disgusted, that was definitely the problem.
"By the gods, don't you ever get tired?"
Arving Haigh takes the pitcher from her and pours wine into her empty glass with a flourish, elegant hands moving as if he’d done it a thousand times. After he fills it to the brim, his smile is one of indulgent fondness. "I don't, but your concern warms my heart. You don't happen to be falling for me, do you?" he asks in a simpering giggle.
Sloane-Amalia frowns, lips pressing together. Not this again, not here of all places. She watches his face, then meets his gaze as she says, “Your jokes are funny, Lord Paramount Arving Haigh, but I’d be careful not to take it too far. I’m not the sort to break an engagement and I have reason to believe that neither are you.”
Haigh holds up his hands in surrender, sitting up straight for the first time tonight. “My apologies again. You know how I get, I need someone to rain me in sometimes, is all.” His full lips form a pout again, eyes widening in faux-innocence. Sloane-Amalia frowns deeper. He never listens.
Before she can respond, Lord Solomon appears and claps a hand on Arving Haigh’s shoulder. Behind him, his daughter follows silently. Smiling broadly, the barrel-chested man reaches them and booms out, “Arving, my good man, I didn’t expect you to come today. How the hell are ya?”
Arving Haigh stands and hugs Lord Solomon, abruptly going from a suave flirt to an overgrown puppy who’s just met another dog for the first time. Sloane-Amalia clenches her jaw and draws in a slow breath through her nose. The men continue to greet each other, growing louder by the second with wildly gesturing hands.
Neither of them addresses her and she debates on whether she should try to walk away now. If she stood, they might take it as her trying to join the conversation.
“I’m pleased you could come, big sister.” Emmaline Solomon’s voice is soft, her greeting perfectly appropriate as she curtsies. Sloane-Amalia almost groans. The Island’s Darling is put together as always; her light blue dress fits her tall figure perfectly, flowing around her legs like water. A string of pearls rests on her thin neck and she wears pearl earrings to match. Her hair tumbles down her back in loose spiral curls, inherited from her mother's mixed heritage. Sloane-Amalia had once heard some idle employees describing Emmaline Solomon as having ‘the ideal looks for a woman’. She had fired them immediately
“Young Lady Solomon,” Sloane-Amalia greets with a nod. There are two doors in the ballroom but only one of them is near enough to her. To get to it, she would have to walk past Solomon and Haigh, which would inevitably cause them to stop and attempt to drag her into their conversation. She didn’t want to talk to Solomon or Haigh, much less the both of them at the same time. She didn’t want that.
“And how have you been these past years?” Emmaline Solomon asks, moving closer as if to sit on the couch. She stops when Sloane-Amalia gives her a narrow-eyed look.
“I have been well enough.” There's another door to her left, near the glass patio doors that lead to the snow-covered gardens. She’d have to cross the whole of the ballroom to get to it, making her way through the crowd of hostile lords and ladies. All of whom would no doubt also stop her to talk, or rather to fish for secrets and pontificate and look for cracks in her armor. She didn’t want to deal with that.
Emmaline Solomon sits, blocking Sloane-Amalia's view of the door. A single cushion separates them. Sloane-Amalia twitches, eyebrows raising. She inhales sharply, irritation near bubbling over.
“Oh, glad tidings. And your betrotheds, are they well?” Emmaline Solomon folds her hands in her lap, legs crossed at the ankle as she watches her with focused hazel eyes.
Sloane-Amalia frowns. “They are fine.” she says. There was no inflection in her voice, thank the gods. If her childhood in the Solomon household had taught her one thing, it was that to show true emotion to a highborn was to show weakness.
Emmaline Solomon nods at her answer, a satisfied smile on her glossy pink lips. How pleased she looked with herself, acting as if she cared a wit about her father’s bastard daughter who she'd previously avoided.
'My daughter will not be mixing with filth,' Lady Solomon had once hissed to her husband' especially not in my own home.' And Emmaline had followed her mother’s orders as if they were law. But now that Sloane-Amalia had risen in society, she was of use to the Solomon household. Which meant she was pelted with a plethora of letters and received unannounced visits to her manor.
Sloane-Amalia drinks her wine.
“Speaking of your betrotheds, where are they?” Finished with his raucous conversation, Lord Solomon sits on the couch opposite from her. She gives him a blank look at his question. “I assumed you would bring them to meet us since they’re to join the family soon.”
She considers lying but decides against it in the next second. “I didn’t tell them I was coming here,” she said simply after taking another long sip of wine.
He raised an eyebrow, looking wholly unsurprised. “That's disappointing. I’m eager to meet my daughter-in-law and two sons-in-law. We’ll have to schedule a more private meeting then.”
Sloane-Amalia gave a noncommittal hum, staring down at her cup in vague surprise. Where’d all the wine go?
Arving Haigh plops himself down between her and Emmaline Solomon. “I agree,” he says, putting an arm around his betrothed. They smile shyly at each other. Sloane-Amalia turns away and leans against the armrest.
“Why don’t we all meet up in two days. Saturdays are when the Plaza is most populous so it’ll be good publicity,” Arving Haigh says. “Sound good?”
Emmaline Solomon squeals and she clutches her fiancé’s hand to her chest. “We could go to that new restaurant that just opened. It's called . . .” She taps her chin with a finger, white nail polish glimmering in the low candlelight. She puffs her cheeks out like a child.
“It's Greengarde’s ,” says Arving Haigh with an indulgent smile. “You’ll love that one. A close friend told me it has some of your favorite foods.”
Lord Solomon pours himself a glass of brandy. Sloane-Amalia scrunches her nose up at it. “I’ve been meaning to take you there anyway, Emma. This will be an opportunity for us all to go as a family,” he says. Emmaline Solomon says something in response but Sloane-Amalia doesn’t listen. She focuses on pushing down that old jealousy that tries to take root.
First and foremost, Sloane-Amalia needs to protect her betrotheds. When she’d accepted the Red Priestess’ offer of a traditional marriage, she’d expected little in the way of love. But Minisa, Kain, and Warrek had slowly become a part of her until she couldn’t tell where they began and where she ended. The future she imagines with them didn’t include anyone surnamed Solomon or Haigh.
Mind made up, Sloane-Amalia stands. The highborns follow her as if they’d been expecting her to, though Emmaline Solomon is a bit slower. She folds her arms behind her back so no one sees how deeply she presses her fingernails into her palms. Determination sits heavy in her chest as she glares.
“You won’t meet my betrotheds. We will go into the dining hall, we will eat, and I will leave. That's it.” And she leaves the lounge, the crowd parting from her path like a wave being split.
She wasn’t going to let these aristocrats — who saw all the islands’ suffering and turned away in disgust — taint that with their games. This marriage would be hers and hers alone. She is a Justice; one of the first female judges with a long backlog of successful cases and the unending adoration of the common people that never failed to back her up in elections. She didn’t need to entertain her paternal blood, she was only here for her colleagues. No more, no less.
The dining hall is empty when she enters it. Her heels click sharply against the hardwood floor as she searches for the porcelain plate with her name tag. She refrains from fidgeting with the sleek paper. ‘Justice Sloane-Amalia S’ it reads, because bastards are only worthy of a single letter from their highborn family’s name. She accepted what they thought of her. The aristocracy call her the Beggars' Champion, the Bastards’ Ambassador, the Whore of the Old Gods.
Staring up at the chandelier — a grand contraption of metal, bronze, and glass that gives the room a red tint — Sloane-Amalia smiles sardonically.
But the common people call her Ours, and that's all that matters.
* * *
Emmaline smiles because she knows that she’s won against the thousand other candidates competing to be the next Lady Paramount Haigh. Tonight, her engagement was officially announced and in three month she'll be married. But all everyone seems to want to talk about is her ungrateful half-sister. She smiles despite that.
“Honestly it's a tossup as to whether she’ll succeed or not. On one hand, the people practically worship her, but on the other hand she’s not of the Faith.”
“I know, thrilling, isn't it. I haven’t had this much fun since the Pink Wars.”
“You think she’ll talk to us if we approach her.”
A snort. “Yeah sure, once you give up all your riches and convert to the old ways.”
“I don’t know, maybe I will. Women of the Old Gods get to keep as many consorts as they want, don’t they? You know I’ve always been a bit of a follower anyway.”
Emmaline’s future twin brothers-in-law laugh, no doubt thinking themselves clever even as their mother Lady Liliyana Haigh glares daggers. Forks and knives clink against plates as Emmaline stops herself from gritting her teeth, though no one notices. Branton Haigh, a completely average knight with eight mistresses to his name, gulps down his wine and laughs without restraint, slapping the thick wood table as he does. Branton wears a bright green overcoat. His older brother Carron Haigh, wearing a black overcoat, scoffs as he watches him. Emmaline can see the festering resentment in him as he takes a neat sip from his cup. He didn’t seem to be joking.
“Enough idle talk, we should be focusing on what's more important." Carron said, changing the subject. He gives Emmaline a strained smile. “You’ll be joining the family soon, Emma, are you —"
"Wait, wait are we just going to ignore what Ronny just said? That's insane," Branton chuckles, resting his chin on his fist. He looks eagerly between his brother and his mother.
Lady Haigh sighs, exasperated as she sets her salad fork down with a click. “Branton, it was a joke. Your brother may be like your father the most, but he is capable of humor when he wants to be,” she says and takes a sip from her glass.
“What makes it so insane?” Carron crosses his arms and frowns at his brother, who stares at him mouth agape. “It's not like the church would ban it or anything.” Emmaline expects Branton to thunder a laugh and disturb the room, but he doesn’t. He just grins silently, like a cat would at a mouse.
Lady Haigh pauses, ignoring the servant who takes her plate. With a pinched expression she says in a low voice, “Carron, don’t go telling your jokes so freely. Rumors may rise.”
“But what if it's not a joke,” Carron pushes. “What if I just want to be someone’s consort, what's so wrong with that.” His voice is loud and the room suddenly silences. Emmaline’s heart jumps in her chest. It always came back to one person, didn’t it?
“Lord Carron, what are you saying? My sister is a very faithful woman,” the words almost burn her to say, “I can’t imagine her entertaining anyone but her legal spouses.” Emmaline gives him an apologetic smile, gracefully shrugging her shoulders.
Branton laughs again but Carron ignores him. “I know, but maybe she could match me with a trio from the Red Sect. I heard many are looking for a fourth and—”
“Enough. Eat now.” Lady Haigh’s voice is softer than Emmaline had ever heard. Her face is like stone and the murmurs from the others at the table cease completely. Black-gloved servants come out carrying bowls of raspberry ice cream and place them in front of the guest, accompanied by octagon-shaped pieces of red velvet cake and white wine. Emmaline eats, glancing down at the end of the table.
The subject of the Haigh family’s turmoil sits amongst some of the most important men in the Paele Isles, charming them with feral smiles and ignoring her father every time he tries to speak. Emmaline wants to scream. Dressed in blue velvet that hugs her ample figure and silver jewelry that sparkles, Sloane-Amalia was a portrait of the Ancients. Skin the color of the ocean’s depths, eyes dark and shining, hair like that of a furious storm cloud. Men, Emmaline knew, lusted for her half-sister in secret. Men like her future husband, who sits beside Sloane-Amalia instead of Emmaline. And smiles with lively eyes at Sloane-Amalia instead of Emmaline.
She focuses on finishing her dessert, pushing down that old and stinging jealousy. It wouldn’t help anyone. Today was her day. After years of working towards capturing a good husband, she had finally done it. He was handsome, learned, and of elite breeding. She would marry him and give him heirs and rule his household, and all he could do was pine desperately after a woman who was very quickly becoming someone he couldn't touch.
Emmaline fights a grimace at her line of thought. She shouldn’t be jealous. Sloane-Amalia was a bastard born of two-sided adultery, a woman, a heretic, and soon to take part in the blasphemous tradition of four people marrying. And yet she was also a Justice, worshiped by the smallfolk, had the envying attention of politicians and ministers, and made men all over the Isles whimper her name in their dreams.
And all Emmaline had was a rich betrothed.
That was fine, she reminds herself as servants clear the table and pour even more wine. That was what good noble girls do; they get married to the highest bidder, and have his children, and turn their noses up at bastards with impossible ambitions. Emmaline is the Darling of the Isles, the Ideal Woman, and a model for maidens everywhere. She presses her lips together, pretending that her eyes didn’t want to water and she didn't want anything to be different. She peeks up again at the far table, a shaky breath escaping her.
Lord Arving Haigh will be her husband and she his wife, and that's all that matters.