They walked through the beautifully decorated hallways, illuminated by lit candles that lined the walls. Their flickering caused the light to dance over the tapestries painted on the walls. As Gomez led them forward, the sound of the clamour of instruments, set to a tune, filled the air, harmonizing with a woman's singing voice. It was a song Marielle recognized. The melody transported her into a memory, where her mother sang to her as she played on the floor with her younger brother. She imagined she could even smell the vangar pie cooking in the kitchen.

The daydream was interrupted as the music got punctuated by the uproarious laughter of a lively discussion faintly heard. Finally, the three of them approached the thick wooden door that led to the reception room. Gomez knocked and the discussion ceased. Even the music stopped for a moment, changing from the tune Marielle remembered to a more melancholic song, Winter in Revanhold. Another song that her mom would hum when, as a toddler, Marielle would fade into her sleep.

When the door flung open, she was greeted by the sight of rows of people, crowded around, and staring. At a quick glance, their number was uncountable, and all but a few were wearing elegant, almost gaudy clothing, and exaggerated smiles. Complicated stitched in patterns of red, yellow and white, showed their affiliation and demanded the respect deserved by a member of the Castellian family. The music crescendoed as she walking into the room. Her face flushed red. Her eyes had to fight the force of gravity as it pressured her gaze to look at the floor, but instead, she willfully forced her eye-line to match the audience. She wore the best smile she could muster and curtsied appropriately.

Out from the crowd, a familiar face stepped forward. Julianna DeCastellian, Marielle’s new mother confidently strode forward, and even when Marielle thought she would stop for a traditional greeting, strode forward still. Julianna’s arms stretched open and smothered her new daughter in a warm and long embrace. Marielle accepted and returned the embrace, as was polite. But even after Marielle released her hug, believe the appropriate amount of time had passed, Julianna kept her arms tightly around her for a beat and even pulsed a squeeze before finally letting go. “Everyone, I present my new daughter, Marielle DeCastellian, daughter of Count Anthony Jorel of Jorland. May you all be pleased to meet her, and welcome her with grace into our family.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you all,” said Marielle, with a confident and determined voice.

“Let’s begin the introductions.” Julianna raised a hand and made a come hither gesture. “First you must meet our head of the family, your sweet brother-in-law, Giovannus and his wife.”

Two figures stepped forward, a man and a woman. The man wore a striking outfit, not because of its grand elegance and colours, but because it completely lacked those things. He wore a plain white robe with a simple design that any tailor could make, above it a white sash with the crest of Venocia stitched in light blue thread. If Marielle hadn’t heard Julianna’s word, she might have thought he was a commoner or a servant.

“Lady Marielle,” said Giovannus, as he bowed slightly. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I am Giovannus DeCastellian, first son of Giovanni DeCastellian, and the head of the Castellian family.”

Marielle studied the face of the man she heard so much about, the fiend who killed his own sister and tried to kill Augustus. The man who sent an assassin to kill Castor. He appeared much older than Augustus, with a receding hairline and harsh facial features. An oversized nose, dark eyes surrounding blue irises, and black wavy atop his head where it still grew and on his chin as a fashionable beard.

“I have heard much about you,” she said, making an effort to emphasize her smile. “Nothing but great things, I assure you. It’s an honour to finally meet you, and put a face to what I’ve heard.”

“Yes,” said Giovannus, grinning as he looked over at Augustus. “I’m afraid I haven’t heard much about you, but I would be delighted to learn of you through conversation tonight. But first, I must apologize for my choice of dinner-wear, forcing you to look at this garish work robe. You see, there was a matter of some importance that the Senate needed to discuss today. Pascal, Cladius and I had to come straight from the Senate floor, without time to change. Do you forgive us?” Giovannus looked at Marielle with puppy dog eyes and pouted, waiting for a response.

“Of course,” said Marielle, and Giovannus had an overexaggerated look of relief. “Matters of the city are of a much greater importance than a simple dinner party. In fact, thank you for coming to this dinner party after what must have been a long day.”

“Then, with that out of the way, allow me to introduce my wife. Lady Yolanda DeCastellian, daughter of Duke Achilles Ellais of Pynter.” Cued by her introduction, Yolanda stepped forward to stand directed beside Giovannus and humbly curtsied.

Yolanda’s dress was bright and beautiful, putting her husband's Senatorial robe to even greater shame. She had a pretty face, with smooth features and a youthful aura. "It is a pleasure to meet you," said Yolanda. "May we become like sisters who are the best of friends. Please let me show you the best eateries this city has to offer and where to find the most stylish fashions."

"That sounds splendid," replied Marielle, while looking off to find Augustus for some direction. But Augustus was already in the crowd, mingling with another man who wore the same Senatorial robes as Giovannus, and another two men in fine clothing. "I will be sure to make some time for that when I am able. However, I must warn you, I have been frightfully busy lately."

"I will send someone over the day after next to arrange things with your scheduler." The two girls nodded to each other then Giovannus put his arm over Yolanda's shoulder and ushered her away to make room for more introductions.

It was one introduction after another. Most of the members of the Castellian family she had heard of during her studying in Jorland, and she made an effort to imprint the face upon the name in her memory, lest she call someone by a false name. Memorizing their spouses was significantly more difficult. She had to learn their name, where they were from, and attach them in her memory to their spouse. She tried making mnemonics and silently repeating facts in her head, but she knew it was hopeless. In the end, she decided she would do her best, but would rely on their forgiveness when her memory inevitably failed her.

The women all made the same offers as Yolanda, and despite Marielle's best efforts to, with gentle tact, not make any definite plans, a few of them claimed they would follow up later by sending someone to their home.

After the introductions were complete, she joined Augustus, who sat with a small group partitioned off to the side. They were mid-conversation as she approached, but stopped to welcome her into a comfy seat.

Augustus nodded to her, saying, "Thank you for displaying artisan levels of patience with that line of introductions. A dizzying experience I'm sure."

"It was no bother. I was happy to have the opportunity to meet my new family in such a personal way."

Augustus smiled with his approval and turned back to the group. "Now, where were we? Pascal, you were telling of the Senate."

"Yes, Fauntain gave a terrible speech. No one said anything of course. He mumbled through it, making no sense. I swear, Claudius made a game of trying to get me to laugh during his speech." Pascal, dressed in senatorial robe, began laughing and struggled to get to his point. The others laughed softly in anticipation of hearing Cladius' antics.

Cladius, who was also present, continued instead. "I looked at Pascal, and once I captured his attention, I mimicked Fauntain's dumb hand movements. I think at some point some tutor told him he should move his hands to add emphasis when he gave a speech, and did he ever take that to heart!"

Cladius stood up from his seat and started moving his hands around, clearly intended it as an imitation. "We must take a stand against the Bremen kingdom," Cladius began in a droll voice. His hands moved about seemingly randomly, pointing at his temple, outstretched in a welcoming gesture, then on his hips. "The Bremen kingdom have been making increasingly unreasonable demands in the past years, likely a result of their child king." Each few words, he would pause and a new random hand gesture would be used.

The group's laughter intensified. Even Marielle laughed without having an reference to judge the imitation. She laughed at the thought of a man so blinding following a tutor's advice. It was like a man being told by a tutor to walk forward, and then blinding following that advice right off a cliff.

Pascal's hand was on his chest, trying to hold back his laughter. Inbetween breathes he attempted to speak. "That was the gist of his speech, a valid enough point, but that man has no talent for talking. He fumbles his words, and when he says something wrongly… He goes back and keeps saying it until he's said it correctly. 'We are fools to be pushed around,' 'We are not FOOLS to be pushed around,' 'We are NOT FOOLS to be pushed around.' He said it three times!"

Cladius jumped in to finish the thought Pascal tried to tell. "And not the way Descartes would give his famous speeches, each repetition more dramatic than the last, poetically adding emphasis. He says each line as monotonous as the last. A truly boring speaker."

Augustus laughed too. When the laughter passed he picked up an overfull glass of wine and took a sip. It caught Marielle off guard. "Augustus, should you be drinking their wine?"

"It's fine, Pascal assures me all rights were observed before we arrived, the wine is properly blessed for consumption."

"I meant… Never mind. We can surely trust noble uncle Pascal that the rites were observed."

"Oh that's right you don't have a glass yet," said Cladius. He made a hand gesture and a servant appeared and placed a glass in front of Marielle. "Augustus, pour your wife some wine, the good stuff."

Augustus picked up a bottle that was already opened on the table and poured a generous helping in the glass. "Here you go, my sweet. Enjoy it."

She took a sip and did, in fact, enjoy it. It tasted sweet.


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