I breathe in.
I sit in the carriage. The slightly constraining bodice of the unusually tight dress I’m wearing makes my breathing heavy and labored, and a couple drops of perspiration roll across my skin, glistening in the light of the setting sun. The dress was created specifically for this journey, all flowing hems and and graceful edges. Specialized glass beads, and even shards in some places, glitter everywhere--on the flare of the skirt, dripping down from my ribcage, gathering around the crevice in between my breasts, even skating across the plane of my right shoulder and collarbone. A wreath of delicate, pastel flowers rests in my ornately braided hair; my brother placed it there with careful, slim fingers. I swallow down a lump in my throat; I could not match their infectious happiness when I was selected. I rub my slightly chapped lips together, smearing the dark lipstick I had applied earlier. Contrary to most Zyelians, who kept their makeup (if any at all) light and fresh-looking, I preferred darkness, into my eyes and swiping over my lips.
I shift uncomfortably. Though the seat in the carriage is a gorgeous crimson-colored velvet plush, the beads and other adornments hanging off my dress pinches and stabs into my skin. My fingertips shake lightly and I sneer in disdain. Though not one to particularly like the company of most people, I do well enough presenting myself in front of them and making an impression. I busy them by trailing them over the thin pane of glass on the carriage’s window. I can tell by the slight lack of sufficient annealing that it is Kataigída’s work. I run my fingers over the edge, feeling home pull at them insistently. The carriage bumps along gracelessly, and a smirk quirks at my lips. Like it or not, this will certainly be an adventure.
A shimmering flash catches my eyes, and I crane my neck to look out of the carriage window. Sherra Palace, floundering in its glory and luxury, stands squatly straight in front of me. Gold spirals, like arrows trying, with no avail, to pierce the sky itself. Beautiful stained glass windows bathe in the sun, their colors flinging shamelessly without restraint. My stomach twists unpleasantly. The sheer extravagance makes me unsettled. Zyle values the pure, untouched beauty of nature more than anything else. Here, it’s razed, destroyed, obliterated.
The carriage comes to a halt abruptly, and I descend from my perch on the nest of decadent, crimson fabric. A servant helps me, his face utterly stoic and serious. He speaks.
"Lady Orage of Zyle, I have been given instructions to help translate your words to the royal family." I give him a grateful look, and pass him a thin sheath of glass, one of my own design. I also pass over a container of ink and a quill, plus a silken cloth. He nods at me and leads me up a set of stairs to a pair of heavily embellished doors, where a footman waits. I barely have time to stare at the exterior, half in awe and half in something akin to disgust, before I am ushered into a front hall. A few girls wait in front of me, some nervously fidgeting, others looking around with their mouths agape. I lurk to the side, surveying the room coldly. I catch none of their eyes, instead focusing on the glass that hangs everywhere. I decode their makers, through subtle nuances, a splash of color here and a smooth twist there. Only masters of Zyle would be able to decipher this language.
I take a deep breath. "Lady Ávra, of the Orage clan, from the region of Zyle," I hear the footman announce in a reedy voice.
I sweep into the hall like a summer tempest, just barely restrained and controlled. My stride is purposeful, accompanied by a cacophony of delicate sound caused by the glass adornments on my dress. My expression is composed, neutral, I can’t afford to let any show on my face. I am not at an advantage. This is a new playing field--this isn’t even my game. It is all Emperor Nixus’. I consider the fact that I am supposed to make an amiable impression, but I have never been one to plaster a fake smile on my face. My icy eyes bore into the emperor’s, unyielding. I have to stop my mouth from twitching into a small smile as my gaze roams over his regal, sharp features. You think I’m just going to sit down obediently and let you force yourself into my words, I think, a laugh bubbling silently. I never was one to follow the rules.
When I am all but a couple feet in front of the delicate mass of gold and wood that is the throne,
I glide my body into a dainty courtesy, keeping eye contact with the royal family. I beckon the servant forward, and I hastily write a message on the board for him to read aloud.
“‘I apologize for not kneeling in front of your Majesty, but unfortunately I daresay the glass on my dress would have sliced open my knees, and I doubt you want blood all over this ornate carpet. I am Ávra Orage of the region Zyle,’” the servant reads off, before wiping down the pane of glass. I allow myself a minute sheepish smile. The emperor’s expression remains stagnant, but something shifts in his eyes.
My eyes trail over the faces of the princes. The first, Prince Prar, sits cooly, fingers intertwined in his lap. His face lacks any emotion, but his fingers twitch and his eyes dart in a fraction of a second. He’s anxious, I can tell, and his body is like a tense string on a violin, restrained and taut. His shoulder muscles strain against his shirt. Prince Prar’s jaw clenches as he appraises me with cold eyes. The second, Prince Delt, has elvish features and eyes that brim with mischief. He throws me an almost lewd smirk and tilts his head, eyes tracing up and down my figure. My palms sweat slightly and I can feel a flush rising to my cheeks but I keep my ground. The last, Prince Tamd, fidgets nervously, his body as restless as a hummingbird. His fingers and feet tap relentlessly, but then his long fingers spider up his arm and he picks at a stray thread, winding it around his index finger. He nods at me, eyes a whirlwind of emotion and a timid smile appearing on his face.
Emperor Nixus clears his throat, and my eyes flash over to his unmoving form. He regards me with an intense expression of utter calm, and a vacant wild that steals my breath. I cannot read his face, which sends a series of chills down my spine. This rarely happens. Us glassmakers are used to looking for the smallest of details, and are revered for our uncanny perceptive abilities and hawk-like eyes. He takes a deep breath, eyebrows furrowing just a bit.
“Lady Ávra Orage,” he says, rolling my name around in his mouth and spitting it out. The soft syllables come out sharper than the gentle lilt of home, and the “r” that normally catches in Zyelians’ throats is smooth. I bite the inside of my cheek and taste copper. “Why is it that you are here?”
The servant hands me the glass and I stand for a few moments, thinking, face drawn. I scrawl on the surface in elegant, loopy letters before handing it back to the servant.
“‘I am here,’” he reads, and pauses, “‘to prove myself.’”
The emperor locks his eyes with mine and I stand squarely with bated breath. He nods, and I courtesy roughly, still holding his gaze in mine, only breaking it when I turn to walk towards the other candidates. I look back. He’s still regarding me, like a missing puzzle piece, like an enigma that cannot be solved.
I breathe out.