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Mariushall, Hupfelde, Goetic Empire
December 31st, 1902

ce and thick glass chill his lips. The whisky goes down, lightly stinging his throat.

There was a time when the dominant emotions he experienced in her presence were annoyance and general displeasure. Unbecoming of a man of his stature, yes, but something about her seemed to override years of grooming to be a proper royal. Evidently, he had the same effect on her. Before he’d left for the Academy, at a ball he couldn’t remember where it had taken place, Augusta had made the rumour mill spin with accusations of “ungentlemanly conduct” on his part. In his defence, her slap was quite loud, and the long empty halls made for excellent echo chambers. She’d set him up for failure on that one.

The manor grounds are quiet. The full moon blankets the surrounding gardens in a faint blue sheen.

At the Naval Academy, the break from royal duties was sorely welcome. No more of Father’s verbal lashings, no more of Adi’s half-assed attempts to “correct” his behaviour, and no more practiced smiles and rehearsed motions at faces he couldn’t bother to remember for more than 24 hours. Mercy, how he missed the banter between his fellow crewmates, and how he could drop the royal act with them. If it hadn’t been for that damned night in Sungkou, perhaps he wouldn’t be sulking in his office. If he’d eased off the rice wine that night, perhaps he’d have settled into his niche in the Navy by now. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been shackled to Augusta as a mutual punishment. For him, a lesson in discipline. For her, retribution for her father’s actions.

He groans. This is rock bottom, he supposes. A failed career, a loveless marriage, and a disappointed family. He isn’t even thirty yet.

He’d run through the whole gamut of reparations to her when they’d reconnected under those unfortunate circumstances; apologies for his past behaviour (the memories of which send shivers down his spine), apologies for the state of affairs that they’d landed themselves in, and promises of faithfulness and respect becoming of a proper spouse. The royal vaults would be hers to indulge in, should she require funds. On the more intimate end, he promised to keep a respectful distance from her unless told otherwise. Children would be on her terms. How very progressive of you, a friend had quipped.

The creaking from his chair and the whispers of a light breeze mask quiet footsteps outside the office.

He wonders if a jinn had followed him from his stay in Alvastadt to curse his words then. As if the wedding wasn’t tiring enough, the exhaustion still lingers even after a year. Under his father’s conditions, he and Augusta were to return to the spotlight, frequently attending backroom politicking hidden behind dinners, galas, and balls. The one currently occupying his manor was no exception. He and Augusta had earlier donned their masks as the devoted husband and the loving wife, welcoming the guests to the New Year’s Ball.

He doesn’t hear the footsteps stop outside the door. He finishes his drink, twirling the glass in the dim moonlight.

It’s pitiful, he thinks, how she’s come to occupy both of his worlds, awake and asleep. Casual library conversation with her on the most obscure topics seemed to revive the curiosity he’d thought had been trampled over with Sungkou. Distance, despite his efforts, was no longer an obstacle to his want. He wonders if he’s truly gone mad, ravenous for a crumb of her attention, the honey of her eyes on him.

Her name tastes like honey on his tongue as he mumbles it. Against the pitch black of his eyelids, he imagines a laugh, rare and sweet.

It is something he has heard only once the entire time they have been together. It had been the anniversary of his beloved father’s coronation; in hushed tones, he had rattled off something degrading regarding a rather boisterous ambassador they’d been “requested” to entertain. She’d stifled a snort into a giggle, but it was enough to send his misguided spirit soaring.

I wonder if he’s ordered Suevre for dessert, that lard.” He smirks at the insult. Not his best work.

Not your best work.

His eyes shoot open, and his whisky-induced trip down memory lane comes to a screeching halt as he swivels around to meet her eyes. “Augusta!

I apologize if I’ve caught you off guard,” she says in a measured tone. “You disappeared after the ball started.

Ah,” Her concern catches him off-guard. “You need not worry about me.

Something resembling worry plasters her face, and it pains him to see it. “I understand. I just wanted to make sure you were alright.

The silence that follows is overwhelming. His mouth is agape, but the blood pumping in his ears and the throbbing in his chest strangle him. Midnight and the new year will come soon, and the ball will eventually come to a close. He should accompany her down to the ballroom, but the words refuse to leave his chest, let alone rest on his tongue.

You don’t have to go, Caspar.” Her voice cuts through the fog. It, too, is loaded with concern.

The clock in the hallway clicks, as if waiting for his answer. She is too nice to him. With a deep breath, he collects himself.

You deserve better for your last dance, you know that?” He shakes the empty glass in the air.

She smirks at his self-deprecation, but her eyes catch the other meaning. “We’ve danced before. What’s one more?

A sigh escapes him, surrendering to her stubbornness. He supposes he can let himself indulge in her presence, even if it’s just for tonight. Walking up to her, he offers her his arm and a sly smile, the very one that always makes her roll her eyes. Her eyes shine instead.

Let’s show those old gits how it’s done, shall we?

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