Catherine Felius POV:
Focusing on my breathing became easier after Ann taught me the [Meditation] Skill; it helped to calm my nerves and keep me focused as I sat in front of the mirror. A proper [Lady] sat calmly and did not twitch or fidget, even when they were in private with their personal servants. It was just that doing nothing was so hard!
My debut at Summer Solstice Ball was in an hour, and there was nothing I could do to prepare for it!
Which wasn’t to say I wasn’t being prepared, Ann was buzzing around behind me like a particularly busy hummingbird. She was arranging my hair, applying my makeup, and giving me something called a “manicure,” seemingly all at the same time. Dad had introduced me to her as my personal maid and bodyguard, but Ann wasn’t a [Personal Maid] or a [Bodyguard], but a [Battle Maid] and my only friend.
“Perhaps you might make some friends tonight,” Ann said, stopping long enough for me to see her smile before she blurred again. “You don’t need to worry, you are a vision of loveliness even without me, but after I finish they will fall to their knees when they see you!”
I appreciated Ann trying to encourage me, but it didn’t help the pit in my stomach. I loved Ann - she was like the sister I never had - but she had no sense for politics at all. While she could talk a surprising amount about philosophy considering the status of her birth, none of that seemed to translate over to the practical side of things. The way life should be and the way people should behave for society to be as good as possible is not the way things actually are.
I ponder this as Ann stands me up and begins working on the ties for my corset. Mom and Dad warned me about the increasing infighting at the Duke’s court, and that it was merely mirroring what was happening at the King’s court in Versaill. Vurden, and my parents territory, had been mostly unaffected by the droughts in the southwest, but that hadn't stopped the economic ripples from reaching all the way to the northeast of the country. The skirmishes with Ibyra in those same southern territories had left them near bankrupt a decade ago, and Royalist nobles in the northwest and northeast had pitched in large amounts of coin to help rebuild the region.
Then the droughts hit, and the investment evaporated like the region's streams. Suddenly, many Royalists were bankrupt and the Noble factions were ascendant. It had thrown the kingdom into chaos and everyone was scrambling for an advantage, and House Felius was no exception.
"Annnnd, perfect!" Ann roused me from my musings as she guided me in front of the full body mirror. I could barely recognize myself, but I was used to that with Ann.
"Ann, there are nobles that would kill for a Skill like that," I sigh, and the beautiful doll in the mirror copied me. "I would be lost without you."
"Nonsense!" Ann laughed, but she looked proud nonetheless. "If we switched clothes you would still turn heads my Lady, and it really isn't so much a Skill as it is just skill."
The girl in the mirror, soon to be a young [Lady], was stunning in her red and pink dress - mostly in red, to suggest maturity but with enough pink to remind of her youth - her face pale except for slightly rosey cheek and ruby red lips. If you look closer at her face, you’d find more makeup skillfully and tastefully used; her eyelashes were long and she had eyeliner that made her green eyes pop out and seem to sparkle. Her long blonde hair had been worked into a mix of braids and ringlets. With a crown braid on top below that her straight hair was curled into soft waves that flowed down her back. The crown braid had a small amount of rubies and diamonds braided into it so that her hair sparkled whenever she walked.
And this girl in the mirror was me. I looked less like a [Noble] or a [Lady] and more like a [Princess], and all because Ann had an eye for fashion that seemed to be far ahead of the court’s trends. Her use of jewelry was inspired, and thankfully for my dear dad, far cheaper than the current trends. Where gigantic jewels and large pieces were the current rage, Ann had scoffed at such things.
“The purpose of jewelry is to show off the [Lady],” Ann had said. “It is not the purpose of the [Lady] to show off the jewelry! You should shine and always be the center of attention, not a rock!”
A knock at the door and Ann flit from my side to the door to welcome my dad in and I saw him in the mirror and I turned to greet him.
“Look at you my dear Cat,” he smiled widely as he saw me. “You look absolutely stunning, no one will be able to take their eyes off you tonight; if only your mother were here to see this…”
“Thank you dad,” I smiled. “Honestly, it doesn’t even feel real to me yet. I am somewhat in a blur right now…”
“If I know you my dear, you will not just be fine, you will be the star of the night.”
Cadence Lee POV (as Annora)
If I had been in Cat’s place, I would have been a nervous wreck - not least because corsets are horrible torture devices, but also because her debut is far more important than I would have thought years ago. A debut was not merely an introduction to society, but the event that would evolve her class from [Noble] to [Lady]! Plus, the current political atmosphere was starting to look like Game of Thrones, just with less blood. Less blood so far, anyway.
Honestly, it wasn't so much that I didn't understand the politics of the situation - despite what Cat might think - as it was that I understood it too well. I wasn't a particularly avid student of history, but I wasn't an idiot. Anyone who has made it through my old world's education system could tell you how this story will go.
Skirmishes and droughts in a feudal society? The southern territories will inevitably have a famine. While the [Lord]'s and [Lady]'s plot and play games of politics, marriage, and debt, the famine will weaken the immune systems of the people in those territories and disease will spread. Disease and hunger will cause the population to flee, spreading disease further.
The population will collapse and the [Noble]s, already in debt to the north, will be even more unable to pay their debts back. Without money, their military forces will weaken. They will have less soldiers with less training and lesser arms and armor; their forts and walls will decay from lack of upkeep; granaries to feed armies and guards will be empty.
What happens then? The neighboring countries to the south will scent blood in the water and invade. Of course, being a feudal country themselves, that would overextend Ibyra as the new territories would be too far from the central authority to control and therefore, too costly and dangerous to garrison and arm long term. And so they would be taken back and skirmishing would begin again, until the next opportunity presented itself.
Of course, the ultimate solution to this is a strong central government with competent ministers and minimal corruption, which was basically the exact opposite of feudalism. With the resurgence of the Noble faction, that had absolutely no chance of happening any time soon.
This was mostly academic though. House Felius was a Baron family; it was easier to count from the bottom of society than the top to find their rank. They might hope to leverage the current instability into becoming Viscounts, but the overall political situation would be led by the Royal family, the Dukes, and coalitions of Counts. House Felius simply have to do it's best to weather the storm in the future.
Now, however, was not time for political musings. I, as a servant, don't get to ride in the carriage along with Cat and Lord Felius. Instead, I am sitting next to the [Driver] as we approach the ducal palace. The palace alone is a powerful demonstration of the difference in wealth and power between a Duke and a Baron.
House Felius was wealthy - obscenely wealth compared to the commoners - but their manor was roughly what you would expect from a medieval manor. Which is to say, the average college apartment in my old world had a greater level of comfort and luxury then the manor had. It was not overtly magical, even if the staff were Skillful.
The ducal palace by contrast, shone with magic. Quite literally in fact, as it made use of magical lights of multiple colors and the architecture was made of sweeping delicate arches and towers with massive glass windows. It looked like something Disney might have built with modern technology, and seeing it up close brought me my first feelings of awe in this world.
The grand entrance, lit by floating orbs of light in the dusk, was a path of white marble inlaid with designs, running straight through gardens to the manor and flanked by [Guard]s in the Duke’s livery. The doors of the entrance itself were thrown open, bathing the area in light and music. The [Driver] had produced an invitation to show the [Guard]s and we pulled up to that fantastical path.
I used [Burst Of Speed] to appear by the carriage door, opening it for Lord Felius and Cat and bowing as Lord Felius stepped out, and then held his hand out to help Cat down from the carriage. They would walk into the main entrance, but as a mere [Personal Maid] - as far as anyone who checked my Menu could see anyway - there was no way that I could walk with or even behind them. Instead, after I closed the door and sent the [Driver] on his way, I was ushered to a side path. I was - as always - thankful for the [Burst Of Speed] Skill, because other [Maid]s probably had to run for this next part. Instead, I easily overtook the Felius duo and reached the servant’s entrance before they made it to the main doors. I informed the [Herald] of the names and titles of Lord Felius and Cat so that he could announce them as they entered.
After that, I entered the gigantic ballroom, seeing the explosion of color and culture that was the Duke’s court. It was a breathtaking and stunning display of wealth and beauty, again lit by magical lights with [Servant]s in livery serving delicacies from silver platters to the elegant nobles. Not long afterwards, the [Herald] announced their entrance.
“Announcing, His Lordship [Baron] Felius and announcing and introducing the former [Noble], now [Lady], Catherine Felius in her debut to the court, his daughter!” The [Herald]’s voice was clear across the entire ballroom, and if everything had gone correctly, that announcement had triggered Cat’s Class evolution.
I would have to ask afterwards, because I probably would not talk to her until the party was over. While I do wish I could have joined the ball, I would be instead off to the side and against the wall throughout the entire event. The Duke’s [Servant]s would be handling the service tonight and I was mostly here as a prop.
Mostly, because as a [Battle Maid] I was supposed to keep my eyes open for physical dangers to my employer. Although, that was honestly pretty much pointless. The Duke’s security was likely far better than I could provide, but it never hurt to be prepared I suppose.
Funnily enough, after a while I found that even a magical fantasy ball filled with intrigue and the possible chance for assassination could be pretty boring if your only interaction with it was looking at it from the side. I watched as Cat met a whirlwind of nobles and noticed she was catching eyes from all over the room. There was a certain amount of pride in that, considering the effort I had put into her looks for the night.
There were introductions, then dances, then drinks and more introductions, before more dances. She accepted almost every dance, with only a few declined for political reasons. House Felius’s relative neutrality was quite a burden for her to maintain. I was pretty sure Cat didn’t have any stamina Skills, and I doubted that she had gained any with the [Lady] class, so it was doubly impressive that neither her posture or smile slipped the whole night. Towards the end, the ball broke up into smaller groups in the side rooms where the fun of the ball turned more towards intrigue and backroom deals.
This would be Cat’s greatest challenge, as her father ran in different circles than she would as a young [Lady] and for the next two hours she would have to navigate these waters herself. Muffling enchantments in the room meant that I was not able to hear the conversations despite the relatively high Perception I had after I had gained Class levels. Tonight, as it was her debut, all she had to do was smile and politely decline to participate in most of the intrigue around her. Lord Felius had certainly given her some goals to accomplish, but the ultimate goal for the night was merely for her to be introduced to the court without scandal.
It didn’t look like that would be easy though, as a young [Lord] was being rather persistent. A tall, dark haired and dark eyed [Lord] whose style and fashion left something to be desired. He certainly had fine clothes, but they were wrinkled and a mess and his hair is a mess too. Worse, he was important enough that I had been taught to recognize him through his portrait.
[Lord] Charleon Marcule was the grand-nephew of the Duke and because the Duke wasn’t a [Duke] but a [Prince] - the Duke’s father had been the brother of the previous [King] - that meant that despite being a non-inheriting member of a branch family of a branch family of the Royal family, he still had Royal blood. The whole thing was complex, but the short version is that Charleon’s father was a [Count] who was deeply envious of his uncle and the Class of [Prince] and wasn’t afraid to use his family’s connections to crush who he didn’t like.
Politically, socially, and probably even personally, Cat had no desire or reason to mix with someone like him. His branch of the family was too entrenched in the Noble faction to allow House Felius to maintain its careful neutrality. Charleon should know that, and yet there he was obviously pressuring Cat to drink-
“Unfortunately, Milady,” I said as I gently took the wineglass from her, having used [Burst Of Speed] to appear by her. “This cup appears to be tainted, and I could never allow a young [Lady] like yourself drink from it. Please, allow me to get you another.”
“That would be acceptable Annora,” Catherine said without a blink, despite Charleon nearly jumping out of his skin when I suddenly appeared beside her. “A red this time please, properly watered as I still have a long night ahead of me.”
“Of course, my [Lady],” I bow slightly as Charleon sputters and glares at me and then I am beside one of the [Guard]s, who jumps even more than Charleon did. Honestly, making people jump will never stop being funny, but I have a job to do.
“This cup is poisoned,” I show the wineglass to the [Guard]. When he takes it, I am gone again before he can ask anything, getting a new glass for Catherine. I deliver it and am back at the [Guard] a second later. “I will be informing [Baron] Felius of this, I was led to expect that I could expect more from the security around this event.”
I am glaring at the [Guard] while keeping Cat visible in the corner of my eye. This really was unexpected, although given the nature of the court, it might have just been a test to see if Cat had [Poison Resistance]. Merely a formality almost, a trial that the nobility go through, but I wasn’t about to believe that.
“I- I- will inform my superior!” the [Guard] withered under my glare, which made me frown.
“You do that,” I said, eyeing him carefully. “Now, preferably.”
Stuttering, the [Guard] quickly left, which convinced me - even more than the poison did - that something was wrong. A [Maid] intimidating a [Guard]? I didn’t believe it; I didn’t have any intimidation Skills and one would expect a [Guard] to have Skills countering fear. On the other hand, it wasn’t uncommon for [Lord]s and [Lady]s to have Skills that allow them to see Classes, so the man probably was a [Guard].
Unless most of the nobility were in on whatever plan this was or a [Mage] had used magic to hide their Class… The night was nearly over though, so I could only hope that I was just being paranoid and that nothing more would happen.
I wasn’t able to convince myself of that considering I had just prevented a poisoning barely a few minutes ago.
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