The knights of the Galenic standard hold their posts here and there, their faces a mixture of stoicism and indifference. Their armor shines, white and gold, reflecting the glow of the evening fires. The Galenics have retained the favor of King Frederick's family for decades, and this night is merely one in a long series of associations.
As for King Frederick, sovereign of Lorendheim himself, he sits on a raised throne looking out onto a cavernous ballroom, greeting the guests as they offer him their fealties and watching them mingle with each other afterwards.
At the moment, he is now quite bored.
"Lady Ophelia of Mendingham," he mutters, watching the massive woman exit his presence. "No manners or decorum whatsoever in the eight unfortunate years I have known her. Where is Mendingham, anyway?"
The young woman standing by his left hand gives no indication of a response.
"How many more?" King Frederick asks.
"Many more," the young woman answers.
The ruler of Lorendheim stretches in his seat. "I'm a King, Maia. I shouldn't have to go through this."
Maia shifts a little, her armor settling against the edges of Frederick's throne. "You're a King, my liege," she says. "This duty is yours alone."
"Spoken like a Galenic," King Frederick observes, "Not very sympathetic, but spoken like a true Galenic."
Three figures approach the throne, each one in heavy robes of varying colors: One ancient-looking man, one younger man, and one woman who is younger still.
King Frederick sits up. "Metrians," he whispers.
"Lord Atharus," Maia reminds him, "although I am unfamiliar with his followers, my liege."
"Are you sure that he didn't just conjure them up at a moment's notice? I hear that the Metrians can do anything, you know," King Frederick asks her, smiling.
"Atharus doesn't really like these parties, does he?"
"Seems like it," Gharen says, watching the room carefully.
Cerise looks around as well. "It looks like the Galenics went for a show of force this time. You could hardly walk around without bumping into someone in armor."
"Well," Gharen says, glancing at her, "it's not as though they would have all those coats of shine and not be able to resist showing them off."
"Gharen, Cerise," Atharus says, without glancing at either of them.
"Yes, sir?" Gharen answers.
"We're about to present ourselves to the King. Be quiet."
"Yes, sir," Gharen says.
They reach the front of the carpet, at the foot of the throne. Atharus gives an elaborate bow, appropriate for his age and his status. Gharen and Cerise give much simpler greetings.
"Lord Atharus," King Frederick says, studying the three of them carefully. "We are glad you could join us on this most festive occasion."
"I don't join parties, Frederick," Atharus starts, tapping his staff impatiently. "If you send me even one more invitation again, I'm going to come over here personally and bop you on the nose."
"Is that why my last messenger had that burnt smell about, Atharus?"
"He was rude. May I take my leave now, Frederick?"
King Frederick laughs, although the Galenic bodyguard at his side places one hand on her weapon. "You're never afraid of speaking your mind, are you, Atharus?" King Frederick remarks.
"No one should be afraid of speaking their minds, Frederick. It's one of the virtues of speech."
"Yes, yes," King Frederick muses, "Such wise words from the wisest of Metrians."
Atharus straightens. "If you need me, Frederick, then you know where I am. Don't send any more of your silly invitations."
"Of course," King Frederick laughs, "of course. Enjoy the celebration, Atharus."
Atharus gives him a sharp glare, and then begins storming off. Gharen and Cerise follow him after a quick apology.
"Men like Lord Atharus are refreshing, in a way," King Frederick observes.
"He is a dangerous man," Maia chides him, gently.
"He'll keep his temper in check," King Frederick says. "The invitations were a pittance, compared to the few things that do make Atharus angry."
Both of them watch as a small circle of riotous colors and strange designs crawl through the crowd in their general direction.
"Maquin Dreamweaver," King Frederick guesses, "and I believe that means that the Masquers have arrived. Did we double the guard as we agreed earlier, Maia?"
"Yes, my liege."
"Good," King Frederick says, leaning back and settling himself on the cushions. "I wouldn't want them to think that we're not giving them a challenge."
Maquin curtsies in a manner more suitable for a lady of the court than an eminent male fashion designer. His hand mask bobs a little to the side, carved in the fleeting expression of a merry jester.
"Your majesty," Maquin says.
"Lord Maquin," King Frederick nods. "You always add such... color to the proceedings."
"You must excuse our tardiness, your majesty," Maquin fawns, waving the mask at his entourage. "It always takes a little time to make oneself presentable."
"So I am sure," King Frederick notes. "What of your sire, Maquin? I have never heard of Lord Gallos failing to attend one of our celebrations."
"Oh, he's already here, your majesty."
King Frederick looks puzzled. "He has not presented himself yet."
"Lord Gallos shall present himself to the King in due time," Maquin says. "He so loves moving among the people."
"I shall endeavor to find him, your majesty, if that is your wish."
"No, thank you, Lord Maquin," Kind Frederick says. "I am sure that Lord Gallos and I shall meet soon."
Maquin bows again, and replaces the hand mask upon his face. "By your leave, then, your majesty, I would impress the crowd with my rapier wit."
"Do that, Lord Maquin," King Frederick smiles, "Do just that."
King Frederick watches the colorful entourage scatter and disperse among the guests. "Sometimes I really can't stand mages. Too many things to keep track of," he mentions casually.
Then he catches Maia's watchful eye. "Present company excepted, of course," he adds.
"Are we really so complex?" Maia asks him, her voice completely neutral and even.
"Mages are more complex than anything within or beyond this world," King Frederick laughs. "Aran himself would find it difficult to compete."
"Aran would hardly appreciate your taking his name in vain."
"Let gods be gods, Maia. Aran has his own problems, as I have mine," King Frederick says.
There is a slight commotion near the front of the great hall. A loud murmur sweeps one end of the room to the other.
"More guests?" King Frederick asks, wearily.
The two of them bow before the King of Lorendheim, pausing only slightly to allow him the first chance to speak.
"Kharandon Greybane," King Frederick smiles, stepping down from his throne to acknowledge the healer personally. "I had not heard that you were back from Vanarum."
"I just arrived a few hours ago," Kharandon says, smiling back. "I would not have missed your celebration for anything."
"You never miss celebrations of this sort. You know the Festivals of Remembrance very well, old friend."
Kharandon glances at the young woman beside him. She remains calm and composed in her armor, but she looks at him for instruction.
"King Frederick," Kharandon says, "this is my sister. You may know each other already."
"Not as intimately as we think, but yes," King Frederick says, turning to her. "This is Octavia? The last we saw each other, you were only a little girl!"
Octavia smiles. "Time flies, your majesty."
"When did you become a knight, Lady Octavia?"
"Two years ago, your majesty."
"She was posted to the Northlands for that time," Kharandon explains, "but Lord Astaruc has transferred her here as a personal favor to us."
"Yes, he does hold you in high esteem," King Frederick says. "The three of us must meet for a private meal sometime within the next week. We sorely need to catch up on old times."
"Old times indeed, King Frederick," Kharandon answers.
"Good, good," King Frederick nods. "Go ahead and enjoy the celebration, then. I appear to have further 'duties' to dispense," he adds, glancing at the bodyguard standing next to his throne.
"I understand," Kharandon says, looking at the throne. "By your leave, then..."
"I haven't seen Kha in a while," King Frederick says. "It's good to have at least one person you trust in this room. Aside from you, of course."
"Lord Greybane is a Galenic," Maia says, "If you would not trust the Galenics, my liege, then who would you trust?"
"I admit that I would place more value in that statement if it did not come from you, Maia," King Frederick answers.
"I speak the truth, my liege."
"It is up to me to decide exactly what the truth is, and what the truth is not, Maia."
They remain silent, watching the crowd.
"It's depressing sometimes," King Frederick snorts.
He glances at Maia, smiles, and then turns back towards the crowd.
"That's about all I can take, Maia. I wasn't made to sit on uncomfortable thrones and welcome people all night," King Frederick adds, standing and looking upon the boisterous guests.
"What of the others, my liege?"
"Let them enjoy the celebration," King Frederick says, "Just like I plan to do right now."
The royal palace of Lorendheim stands in the light of a hundred torches, its walls, windows and balconies laid with yards of bunting and soft colored cloth. Beneath its lofty gaze the nobles of Lorendheim enter, each carrying their finest clothes, holding their finest gifts, bearing their finest lies.
Gallos contemplates the evening sky, looking out upon the obsidian ruins that the palace has been built on. Beside him, Rhias scans the night for unwelcome intruders.
"We haven't gone inside yet," Rhias finally says.
"I sent Lord Maquin ahead," Gallos tells her. "He knows what to say."
Rhias does not question her lord. She gives a passing Galenic knight a suspicious glance.
"What do you think of the King of Lorendheim, Rhias?" Gallos asks her.
She considers his question for a moment. "Youngish and restless," she finally says.
"A threat?" Gallos asks casually.
"No," Rhias says unhesitatingly, "but one who merits close watch in case he does become one."
"Indeed," Gallos says.
The Lord of Masks slowly crosses to a nearby doorway, motioning for Rhias to follow.
"Perhaps, then, it is time for us to enter," he says.