The Best of Impressions
"Hmm... it's still missing something..."
The young Lord Alfonso, son of one of the most important and powerful families in all of Valua, frowned at his reflection in his favorite gilded mirror. It was a carefully cultivated sort of frown, meant to express his displeasure without leaving lines or marks on his perfectly sculptured face. His cream-colored silk dress suit was very fine, and offset his beautiful turquoise eyes perfectly. But he simply was not satisfied with his appearance.
"Yes, something is missing," he said again. "Something... oh, I don't know what... but something very important..."
"Young Lord," the old head servant said timidly, and held up a ruffled pink cravat. "Is this what you have forgotten?"
"I - of course not!" he snapped, snatching it away. "I was merely... ah, merely examining myself without it before making my decision. Don't be ridiculous!"
"I apologize, young Lord," the old man said humbly.
"Good," Alfonso said under his breath as he took off his jacket. One of the other servants, a young woman with shaking hands, fastened the pink lace around his neck, and another helped him back into the jacket. He looked at himself in the mirror, and his lips curved into a smile of approval. "That's it," he said. "That is absolute perfection. And I can certainly ask for nothing less, now can I?"
"Of course not, young Lord."
"Yes, nothing less than perfect," he said, half-ignoring the old man. Yes, he did look very fine. Not gaudy, as he was sure his peers would be, but vibrant and alive and beautiful. Handsome, he'd decided some time ago, simply was not strong enough a word to describe himself.
He needed to be at his very best, of course, for it would not be many hours before he would be introduced to the Empress herself. He wanted to make the absolute best of all possible impressions on her, after all. He was the son of First Admiral Mirabel, a man of the noblest bloodline in Upper City - he simply could not fail to please her. He was only sixteen years old, and soon the world would be his.
He bowed, watching the motion carefully in the mirror, the perfect grace and fluidity of it. Marvelous, he thought, simply marvelous. "My honored Empress, may your reign endure for eternity," he said in his musical voice, "I am of course fully at your disposal-"
"Alfonso! What are you doing?"
He jumped in mid-bow, nearly hurting his back in his haste to straighten it. "Mother," he said when he could move his tongue again. "I was only preparing for... it was just a..."
He knew without turning to see her, merely by the tone of her voice, that she was very angry. He feared her anger, as any sane man would - she was not called the highest and the coldest of all of Valua's fleet admirals for naught. Being her son did not shield him from her anger - indeed, it only increased her rage. "Why are you dressed in all of that ridiculous frippery? Do you intend to be presented to Her Majesty in that?"
Alfonso's mouth opened for a moment, but no sound came out. His dress suit had cost a small fortune, blast it all, and she surely knew that. And she called it frippery! "But - but Mother-"
She ignored him. "You," she said, pointing to the head servant. Her brown eyes narrowed as she glared at him. "Follow me. I will show you the suit that my son will be wearing to the Imperial Ball."
The head servant looked hopelessly confused, but he could not argue with her orders. "Yes, Milady Admiral," he said, bowing.
"But... Mother!" Alfonso managed before his tongue failed him again.
"Stop arguing, Alfonso! You'll wear the suit I've chosen for you and you'll do it without complaint! I won't have you making a fool of your family in front of the Empress." With that she turned away and stalked off, with the head servant and most of his underlings in tow. Alfonso's personal servants stared after them as they walked out, utterly confused.
There was only one girl left there, a wide-eyed little waif who stared at him as if he was about to strike her. At least one of them had stayed behind to attend to him. He sighed and fell into his favorite overstuffed chair. Moons above, he needed a drink. "Girl," he said, closing his eyes.
"Go and get me some loqua."
"What... what kind?"
"I don't care," he snapped. "As long as it's worth drinking, blast it."
"Of course, Milord. I am at your service..." He heard the girl bowing and scraping her way to the door, then her hurried footsteps resounding in the hall.
Unfortunately, that left him alone in the room, and he was not fond of being left alone and unattended. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands, sighing again. What in the name of the six moons did she think she was doing, interfering with him like this? She hardly needed to baby him - he'd been going to balls and dances of all sorts since he'd been a young boy, most of them held by the very best of the Valuan nobility - he knew very well how to conduct himself! He was an adult by Valuan standards - couldn't she treat him like one?
It wasn't really a surprise, unfortunately. She'd always been incredibly strict with him, he thought bitterly - always demanding perfection, doing her best controlling everything that he did. He'd already began to hear her voice in his head, telling him to check this and that and make sure that it was all in place, and he couldn't rest until he knew that it really was.
Listen to me. Moons, he could hear her now, her voice low and musical and her face stern - she hardly ever smiled. Listen to me or I'll see that you end up like him-
He shuddered involuntarily at the thought. It had been almost three years since he'd seen him, but he'd never forget it.
"Mother, where are we going? Why are we in this cesspool?" Alfonso protested as she led him through Lower City. His legs were starting to ache with the effort of keeping up with her; Moons, but she moved quickly when she was angry. "Be quiet and hurry," she said, giving him only the briefest of glances. "There's something that I want to show you here. I want you to remember it next time you consider defying me." She was moving quickly, and Alfonso had to almost run to keep up - he knew that he looked completely undignified, and if any of the rats were watching him he knew they'd be laughing at him. Honestly, all he'd said was that he didn't want to go to one of the parties she'd told him he needed to attend, since he'd happened to have other plans at the time. He didn't really think it was worth all of this trouble... They kept walking through the dirty Lower City slums, surrounded by grime and ugliness. He couldn't help but shudder - his mother had told him when he was younger she'd throw him into the slums. Briefly he wondered if she still remembered that. Then she took a sudden turn down a dark alley, and Alfonso had no choice but to follow, looking around nervously. He had no reason to be afraid, he was sure that he could best any of the scum down there... he kept repeating that to himself over and over again, hoping that after a while he'd believe it to be the truth. Finally she held up a hand and drew to a halt. "Here," she said, very softly, pointing to a dirty window. "Look in here." Curious despite his fear, he stood up on his tiptoes and peered through the grime-streaked glass into what seemed to be a dirty shop - he saw rat-gnawed bags of grain and a few moldy loaves of bread. An old man sat at the counter, his head resting in his hands - at least Alfonso believed he was old. His hands were dirty and gnarled, and his entire body shook. His rags were dirty and tattered. Alfonso frowned. "Just another slum rat," he said softly, looking back at his mother. "Why did you bring me all this way just to show me this old man?" "Because that's no ordinary slum rat," she said coldly. The man in front of him lifted his face out of his hands and stared off at something off in the distance, as if reacting to her words. His face was seamed with age and pain. "That man used to be one of the most prosperous merchants in Upper City. All of the world came to trade with him, and he was one of the most charismatic men in all of the nations." Alfonso just stared. That man? He had all of the charisma and personal charm of a spiny angler. "What... why is he here?" "Because he used to be my husband, and I was displeased with him." Alfonso turned away to stare at his mother as she spoke, her face unrepentant and thoughtful. "I ruined him, of course. I took all that he had and cast him out of my home, to scrape by and make a meager living here, far from the luxury he was used to. He should have known better than to incur my wrath. If he had stayed loyal to me, rather than seducing those Nasrean women under the pretense of his business..." She trailed off, looking down at her son. "But I have said too much. Let nothing of this conversation pass beyond the two of us." "I... I will never speak of this to anyone, Mother." "Good." She frowned a bit deeper, regarding him. "Are you afraid of such a thing happening to you now?" "I.. ah..." He babbled for a moment before finally deciding that she would know if he did not tell the truth. "Yes, Mother. I am." "Good," she said. "You should be. I will not tolerate any failure in you, Alfonso. You are my only son." "Yes, Mother."
"Hm?" He looked up, startled out of his reverie. The girl he'd sent to fetch the drink had returned, with a crystal decanter of yellow loqua and a tumbler of ice. "Ah, that," he said. "It's about time. Pour me a drink, girl."
"I... ah, yes, Milord."
He sighed to himself as she poured his drink with shaking hands, and made a point to talk to the head servant about her. Knowing one's place was well and good, but this girl's cringing was irritating him. Still, at least she didn't spill anything, and she had selected a fine loqua. He drank the stuff quickly, wincing as it set a not-entirely-pleasant electric tingle through his body, and put the glass back down. "All right," he said. "Pour me another-"
But the door opened before the girl had the chance. The head servant walked in, holding a hideous blue suit out before him. "Your attire, Milord - by orders of Admiral Mirabel." he said, clearly nervous - and he had every cause to be, as far as Alfonso was concerned. The thing was somber and dreadfully dull, a horrid shade of blue - and trimmed with silver, for pity's sake! What was his mother thinking? It wouldn't suit him at all!
He sighed heavily and stood up. There really was no help for it - if he didn't do what his mother told him to do, she'd be very angry with him, and he had no desire to anger her. His senses were still tingling from the strong loqua - stronger than he'd expected, really - but he did his best to ignore the sensation. "Very well," he said, "let's get this over with."
It took a while to get the thing properly fitted; it had been tailored for someone roughly Alfonso's height, but somewhat broader and bulkier. Making the tiny adjustments required for the fit without spoiling the garment was difficult, although Alfonso would've been just as happy if they had ruined the damned thing. It was just as hideous on as he'd suspected, if not worse - it made his face look washed-out and pale, completely overpowering his fair complexion. The blasted thing lacked any sort of flair at all - it looked like a military uniform, not something that one would wear to a fancy dress party!
"All right," he interrupted when all of the measurements were made, and the pins were put into place. "Before you start stitching this blasted thing, let me show it to my mother." Perhaps she'll come to her senses, he added silently, not daring to come out and say it.
"Of course, young Lord."
Alfonso turned without another word and walked off. The thing felt horrible to walk in, on top of everything else - worse than the usual fancy outfits, even. It felt stiff, as if it had not seen the outside of a armoire for years. He had to wonder if perhaps that was the case. It almost felt as if she'd been saving the thing for years, just for the chance to publicly humiliate him.
He found her in her sitting room, drinking warm red loqua the way she usually took it - no ice, and spiced with Cinol. He'd tried a sip of a similar beverage once, and his mouth had felt burned for weeks afterwards. The discomfort seemed to have no effect on her, and he could never quite understand how.
She looked up as he entered the room, regarded him incuriously with her piercing brown eyes. "So you listened to me for a change," she said calmly. "Come here, then."
She stood up as he approached and put her mug of loqua down, and looked him over critically. Instead of doing the sensible thing and immediately realizing that he looked hideous, she nodded in what seemed to be satisfaction. "Good enough," she finally said to his surprise. "Not perfect, but a good sword will help matters considerably."
"Of course, Mother," Alfonso said stiffly. "I will fetch my ornamental blade at once-"
"No," she interrupted, "not that gaudy piece of trash. Wait here a moment." She walked across to a wardrobe near the side of the wall and opened it, stepping inside.
Alfonso fumed, hoping that she didn't look back and see him. She was going a bit too far, calling his sword garbage. He'd spent a great deal of money on that blade, which was trimmed with gold and sparkling gems - she had no idea how much he'd spent cleaning and sharpening it expressly for this occasion.
She knew, however. Somehow she always knew when he was angry at her. "Stop that," she said without turning around, "and don't complain. I went to more trouble than you'll ever understand, preparing this sword for you."
"Yes, Mother," he said, trying to sound as resigned as he could manage.
After a few more moments of searching she turned back to him, carrying a sword belt of dark blue leather and a sword sheathed in the same material. He took it from her carefully, warned by the expression on her face that spoke of sudden and immediate punishment should he harm it. It was quite fine, even from what little he could see; a great deal of craftsmanship had been put into the making of it. The hilt was fine silver inlaid with deep blue enamel, and the belt and sheath were soft and quite supple, and freshly oiled. He drew it and examined the shining silver blade - two feet of gleaming metal, etched with a complex scrolling pattern that he had never seen the likes of before. It was purely decorative, of course, like all swords worn to dress occasions. It was also a saber, he noted with some disdain; left to his own devices, he much preferred rapiers. But his mother did not appear to have consulted him in the matter.
That was what bothered him - no matter how fine the blade was or how carefully it had been made, it was still evidence of his mother's attempt to control what should have been his night. He hated this, hated the whole situation, and wished that he could just stand up to her and tell her off. But he couldn't; he didn't dare.
He didn't say anything - he never really had to, anyway. She could apparently see everything he was thinking, even when he tried to hide it. "Is there something wrong with my preparations, Alfonso?"
"Of course not," he said, not as convincingly as he would've liked. "It's a fine sword. It matches... it matches the suit perfectly."
She stared at him a moment longer, then seemed to relax a bit. She sat back down in her chair and looked back up at him, sipping from her loqua mug. "You've forgotten something very important, Alfonso. I have served the royal family of Valua for much longer than you have even lived. I have a good sense of which of your many attributes Empress Teodora will appreciate when you are presented to her."
"Yes, Mother," he said yet again.
She narrowed her eyes at him, and leaned forward. Her lips twitched slightly. "Alfonso, if anything goes wrong tomorrow night at the Ball, I'll toss you into the Dark Rift and leave you there. You're the last member of a proud family, by Thunder, and if you humiliate us tonight I'll make you envy my former husband. Do you understand me?"
"Ah... I... yes, I understand, Mother," he stammered, swallowing hard. He had no doubt at all that she meant it, that she would drag him from a tow line from the stern of the Lupus if he dared mess anything up.
"Good." She leaned back again and closed her eyes. "Go back and have them alter your suit. And I recommend you send some time practicing your waltz tonight. It's gotten a bit rusty, and that won't do at all."
"Of course, Mother." He turned and walked away, fuming the whole way. How dare she insult his skill at dancing?
The head servant greeted him when he arrived at his chambers, but he was having none of it.. "Get this thing off of me and alter it," he snapped. "My dear mother refuses to see reason. And send my dancing tutor here once I've had a change of clothes."
"And hurry up about it!" he snapped as the old man hurried out. Moons above him, but he needed to get away from her for a while. This was going to drive him insane, particularly the fact that if he didn't do as she said she was perfectly willing to cut him off without a second thought... if not worse. He thought again of being dragged from her ship, easy prey for all the monsters in the darkness below the clouds, and shuddered.
His tutor arrived quickly, and he was soon absorbed in his dancing practice - he didn't particularly like it, but at least it was something he was good at, something he could lord over others. It was later than he'd planned before he went to sleep.
The weather on the night of the Grand Ball was very nice, at least by Valuan standards. The sky was completely overcast, of course; no force in Arcadia could drive away the clouds and the thunder that gathered under the yellow moon. But at least there was no rain, and only a slight breeze. Alfonso took it as a good sign. Even the weather did not dare spoil this night for the Empress... or for him, perhaps.
The night had lost quite a bit of its savor for him, however. He could not stop himself from frowning as he descended from his family's private rail car, arm in arm with his mother. He should've been in his own finery, not that itchy, stiff blue uniform. He looked horrid that way, with his fine lovely hair slicked down flat and his delicate, expressive hands trapped in stiff dark gloves.
His mother gave him a quick warning glance as they walked down the path to the palace, escorted as they went by the highest elite of the Empire's soldiers. She looked elegant and imposing, as always; she wore her military uniform proudly. Her hair had been dyed silver - it made her look quite distinguished - and her figure was still very fit. Alfonso had to admit, however grudgingly, that he owed at least some measure of his beauty and charm to hers.
The Grand Palace was of course very impressive, with its brightly lit turrets and the lights that shone all around it. Alfonso had seen it from a distance before, but it was even more impressive up close. He tried his best to act jaded, which he supposed was appropriate, but it was difficult as he entered the palace; he had never been inside before, had never seen the ornate tapestries and fine, valuable works of art that decorated its marble walls.
"Don't gawk," his mother hissed as soon as he turned his head to examine a particularly interesting tapestry. "You're a nobleman, not a slum rat."
"Yes, Mother," he said automatically, fixing his eyes straight ahead. Naturally she was criticizing him. She was probably going to criticize everything he did that night.
"That doesn't mean you ignore everything, you twit! That's disrespectful. Just try to show some subtlety for a change."
Alfonso stifled a sigh. That had certainly proven his point. Moons, but the woman was impossible to please... the night had barely even begun and already he was wishing he was elsewhere. He'd known that would happen as soon as his mother had taken such a blasted interested in this... why didn't she leave him be?
They reached the Great Hall without further comment, at least. It was every bit as towering and grand as Alfonso had expected. A symphony played somewhere in the background, hidden from public view, their chamber music barely audible above the hum of conversation. The huge hall was packed with people, most of whom he recognized as the cream of Upper City nobility. All of them were tastefully dressed in the latest fashion, gaudy in their vivid colors; Alfonso once again felt painfully out of place among them -
"Come on," his mother said, interrupting his self-pitying thoughts. "We must present ourselves to Her Majesty; she does not like to be kept waiting!"
"Yes, Mother," he said dutifully, and followed her through the crowd.
The Empress Teodora, master of all Valua's holdings, was not nearly as imposing in the flesh as she was in the many portraits she had commissioned. She was of merely average height, and while her portraits made her look dignified in the royal gowns, she was merely awkward when one looked at her upon the High Throne. She wore so much jewelry around her neck that it was a wonder it didn't snap from the weight, and her violet hair was piled high on her head. She smiled as the two approached, although Alfonso could detect a note of something considerably less friendly in her voice; he had quite a lot of experience in hidden expressions of hostility. "Ah, First Admiral Mirabel, my loyal servant. We are pleased to see you here."
She bowed solemnly. "I am, of course, at Your Majesty's service."
"Indeed." Her face softened somewhat as she turned to look at Alfonso. "And this must be your young son..."
Alfonso started to answer for himself, but was quickly cut off. "Yes, this is Alfonso, my only child."
"A fine-looking young man, I must say. Certainly more dignified than the strutting peacocks out there." Her smile was almost genuine now. "It is a pleasure to meet you at last, young Alfonso."
"Ah... thank you, Honored Empress," he said quickly, bowing low to cover up his momentary lapse of manners. He would've continued, but his mother pulled him back, away from the throne. The introduction appeared to be over.
"That was passable," she said when they were well away. "I'd suggest learning to hold that tongue of yours more often. You always have talked too much. Now hurry - it would be most impolite to linger here."
Silently she steered him through the crowds, not even letting him stop to greet the few friends that they passed. It irritated him to no end - what were they doing now? He'd thought that he would at least be free to mingle after meeting the Empress...
At last they slowed to something resembling a reasonable pace, and his mother seemed to have finally decided on their destination. They approached a table laid out with fine drinks and expensive canapis. An unlikely pair of individuals stood next to the table, speaking to each other in voices too low for him to hear as they approached. One was a young woman with what would've been striking auburn hair had it been properly styled; instead, it curled haphazardly down her back. She held a glass of yellow Loqua with shaking fingers, and her bearing was awkward - she slouched in an expensive gown of violet silk, and was clearly quite uncomfortable in it. She was a slum dweller, if Alfonso would venture a guess, although he couldn't understand what madness would ever allow such a one to be welcome in the Grand Palace for even a moment.
But even he, who spent so little time considering the military structure of Valua, knew the man that she stared at with wistful eyes - a tall, imposing lord in a black uniform, his black hair just beginning to show traces of silver. He wore the emblem of the Dragons, the symbol of Lordship over the entire Valuan Fleet. Only Lord Galcian himself was permitted to wear such a thing; anyone else who had dared would have been arrested on sight.
The two of them did not notice the newcomers, until his mother quietly but pointedly cleared her throat. The girl jumped, nearly spilling her loqua, and looked nervously from the Lord to the Admiral. Galcian, however, was not startled at all; he merely looked up and smiled. "Ah, my First Admiral. I must admit, I'm rather surprised to see you here. I rarely see any of the fleet commanders at these little... soirees."
"My fleet has been occupied with an infestation of pests in Mid Ocean," she said pointedly. "But they do not require my personal attention for the moment. It would be most impolite to shun my Empress on this particular occasion."
"I see." He half-smiled at the two nobles. "Belleza," he said to the girl, without even looking at her, "leave me for awhile. Go and await my summons on the west balcony."
"Yes, Milord," she answered in a surprisingly confident tone. She turned on her heel and walked unsteadily away.
His mother turned her head to watch her leave, and raised a pencil-thin eyebrow. "Allowing a rat to attend a royal ball, My Lord?" she said softly when the girl was out of earshot. "How charitable of you."
"Belleza is one of my wards," he said, unrattled. "She was an orphan, but her... unusual actions during her term of military service attracted my attention. She has a great deal of wit and an agile mind, which may prove to be of great value to my fleet."
She snorted, with an expression that made it quite plain that she was utterly unimpressed. "As you say, Milord."
Galcian smiled and looked down at Alfonso for the first time, who had stayed very quiet during the odd exchange. "So this is your son," he said. "A pleasure to meet you at last, Alfonso. I can only hope that your prowess might someday match your mother's strength."
"Thank you, my Lord. I am honored by your words," Alfonso said quickly, bowing low once again and hoping that he was being appropriately respectful.
Galcian glanced up at his mother. "You've coached him well, I see."
"Of course," she said. "He's only just turned sixteen; he's still too young and frivolous to speak for himself." Alfonso had to force down more anger at her casual insult.
"Yes, I had assumed this was the boy's first visit to the Grand Palace," he said, lifting his arms to encompass the whole of the structure. "A gaudy sight, but I suppose it must be truly impressive for one so young. Tell me, Alfonso, what do you think of it?"
Alfonso's heart jumped into his throat. "It is... certainly unlike anything else I have ever seen, my Lord," he said, hoping that would be enough.
"Indeed. Teodora has changed this place a great deal in her brief rule..." Galcian stopped for a moment, a wry smile coming to his face. "She has decorated it with many portraits of herself," he continued, turning and pointing to a particularly large and imposing portrait far above the Hall. She looked very regal and stern; the artists who had painted that piece had earned their gold for it a million times over. "That spot once contained a portrait of Emperor Jorge himself. Tell me, have you ever seen a portrait of your late Emperor, may he rest forever in peace?"
Alfonso froze. He did not know what to say - if he said he'd seen one, he would be lying, but if he admitted that he had not...
"Well?" Lord Galcian pressed.
"You are trying to trick my son, Lord Galcian," his mother interrupted, and for maybe the first time that night Alfonso was grateful for her intervention. "That would be impossible, and you know it very well."
"It was only a simple test, Admiral." Lord Galcian smiled wryly. "But what the Admiral says is the truth. The Honored Empress, may her rule endure forever, had all of the portraits of her former husband destroyed upon his death, and made looking upon his image a crime punishable by a painful death in the Coliseum. She did so to secure her place as legitimate ruler of the Valuan Empire, of course. There were those who had doubted her ability to match her husband as a sovereign."
His mother frowned severely. "So she claimed. I believe that was only a poor disguise for a weak woman's sentimental actions. She only had them destroyed because she couldn't bear to look at them herself."
Galcian looked at her again. "Perhaps so... perhaps she acted not as Empress, but as a loving wife mourning her lost husband. But I would have imagined that you, of all her subjects, would have understood such actions quite well -"
"My Lord," she interrupted him with a voice like steel, her eyes suddenly narrowing and becoming very dangerous. Her hand moved down to grip the hilt of her sword, and Alfonso had the sudden sinking feeling that it was her real sword, not a reproduction. "If you do not take back that slanderous statement, I will challenge you here and now, in front of all the nobles of Valua!"
Alfonso shrunk away from her as much as he could manage without being incredibly obvious about it, suddenly nervous; he had never seen her so angry before. He desperately wanted to sneak to the table and take a drink...
"Well," Galcian said with a particularly cruel smile, "I suppose that choosing a new First Admiral would take far more time and energy than I can spare for the moment. Very well, then - I withdraw my words, Admiral Mirabel."
"Good." Her fingers released the hilt of her sword, but her hand did not stray far from it.
Alfonso let himself exhale. Moons, but he wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else... it was etiquette that stayed his hand, for leaving the two dignitaries without being dismissed would been a tremendous breach. Feeling uncomfortable and more than a little sick, he shut his eyes and turned away from the two. That sort of rage... he wanted to be as far away from her as he could get, lest she take it out on him.
A strange sight greeted him when he calmed himself enough to open his eyes again. Not far away, just visible in the crowd, he saw a young boy - no, he corrected himself, a very short young man, perhaps his age, perhaps a few years younger. He was turned partially away from them, and did not immediately notice that he was being stared at. His clothes were as gaudy as those worn by most of the crowds, right down to his huge green felt shoes with pointed toes. But the most bizarre thing about him, the thing that had caught his attention right away, was the strange glass helmet he wore, almost like a bubble of glass upon his head. Odd bellows on his chest pumped constantly, for some bizarre purpose that utterly escaped him.
The small man turned and saw him, and sneered at him before turning away again. Alfonso felt an angry flush on his cheeks. The nerve of that -
"Well," his mother interrupted his train of thought, "I see that another of your... your pets is in attendance tonight, my Lord."
"My wards are my own affair, First Admiral."
"Of course they are. However, I am certain of one thing - it will be a very dark day for Valua when rats and kobolds are permitted to command her proud Armada."
"I choose my Admirals by their value to me," Galcian replied coolly, "not by their rank. You would be particularly wise to keep that in mind."
"Believe me," she said, "I intend to."
There would've been more, Alfonso was certain, but then the chamber music abruptly stopped, and the symphony started to play something else that he did not recognize, a lively waltz. Galcian looked up. "Ah," he said, "this is interesting. I've not heard this piece played since before His Majesty's death." He looked down at his brooding First Admiral curiously, then held out his hand to her. "Perhaps we can continue this fascinating philosophical discussion after a waltz. If you would do me the honor?"
"Very well," she said, sounding less than thrilled at the prospect. She accepted his hand, and they turned and moved off into the crowd, to where the dancers were gathering. Alfonso stared after him - he had not missed the implied threats in Galician's words, nor the anger in his mother's. Whatever was happening between them was an old dispute, and he had no intention of becoming involved -
"Young Lord Alfonso?" a high-pitched and timid voice piped up behind him.
"Eh?" Alfonso turned around to see a short, stout young man dressed in the Empress's own livery, looking up at him with quick, frightened eyes. "what do you want?"
"Ah... The Empress desires your company, young Lord. She orders you to dance with her."
The young man nodded. "She is waiting for you, young Lord."
Alfonso's mind went completely blank with surprise. Surely this was some sort of joke. Someone he had some small acquaintance with had spotted him and had bribed this poor fool to trick him, and was currently laughing behind his hands at his confusion.
But if it was not a sick joke, if it truly was an order from the throne, he had no choice. Empress Teodora's word was law, and he was bound by her commands. Even she was bound by the rules of Upper Valuan social custom, it appeared; she could not dance unless a partner offered himself. But she could at least circumvent those rules somewhat. Rank had its privileges.
He nodded after what seemed like an infinite moment, and tried his best to swallow the lump in his throat. Far less risky to take the order seriously, he decided, than to ignore it. He could always claim ignorance if the worst happened. "Very well," he said. "Lead the way - I've gotten a bit turned around, I fear."
"Yes, young Lord." The man walked quickly away, and Alfonso nearly tripped over his own feet trying to keep pace - unforgivable clumsiness, he knew, and hoped fervently that he would prove to be more nimble during his dance, should this not be a joke. True, he was a skilled dancer, but he was not used to waltzes of this speed, and Moons only knew what his mother might do if he embarrassed his family in front of the Empress...
They reached the throne soon enough, and the Empress smiled down at him expectantly. "Why, young Alfonso. Did you wish to ask your Empress a question?"
Alfonso did not fight his terror so much as brush it aside, acting on reflexes born from long months of instruction. He bowed low before her, then stood and offered her his hand. "Glorious Majesty, will you honor me with a dance?"
"Yes," she said, taking his outstretched hand and pinning his mind squarely between relief and mortal dread. "I believe that I will."
She moved stiffly as they walked to the floor. The crowds before him parted as they approached, and the nobles stared at him in open amazement as they passed... not that they were any concern of his, of course. He was too terrified to enjoy the moment. The woman moved so gracelessly - what would happen should she grow jealous of his youth and ability? What would she do to him?
"Tell me, young Lord Alfonso," she asked just before they reached the dancing floor, "have you ever heard this waltz before?"
Alfonso briefly considered lying before rejecting the idea, remembering what Galcian had said. "No, your Majesty," he answered, "I regret that I have not."
"Of course not." She smiled, apparently pleased at his honesty - or so he hoped. "I've not commanded my musicians to play this waltz for fifteen years, after all."
Then they reached the proper place, and there was no more time for small talk as they prepared to dance. The waltz was quick and lively - a few of the dancers had already begun, although they stopped as soon as they realized who had joined them out of respect for the Empress. But what he saw of it before they ceased to dance frightened him yet more. He was suddenly very glad that he had taken his mother's advice and spent a few hours with his waltzing instructor the night before.
He moved slowly and awkwardly at first, praying that the Empress would not be displeased with him and that she would be able to keep up with him, but as the dance progressed it became quite clear that she was a much better dancer than he had first anticipated. Soon they were the most skilled pair on the floor, overshadowing all of the other nobles. Empress Teodora, who had moved so stiffly at first, soon began to dance with such grace that it seemed that she was young again.
By the time the dance ended, Alfonso was almost out of breath. But the Empress did not seem fazed at all as he escorted her back to her throne. "You are quite a marvelous dancer," she said to him on the way.
He bowed again, forcing himself to breathe. "I am delighted to have pleased you, my Empress. I live to serve you."
"Wonderful." She sat back down on her throne and waved her hand, dismissing him.
Despite his best intentions, Alfonso found himself staggering the merest bit as he walked back into the crowd, attracting more attention than he would've liked at the time. His legs were exhausted and sore, and he wanted nothing better than to sit down and thank all the powers above that it was over.
First, however, he wanted a drink. The table where he had chatted with Galcian... there had been quite a few fine beverages to choose from just on that table, hadn't there? Including what had looked like green loqua, something he'd heard wonderful things about but had never tried before... there was no better time than now, certainly. He deserved a drink after that dance.
It took longer than he would've liked to find it, but when he did he was well-rewarded. The green loqua was indeed very fine, despite being too watered-down for his tastes - it invigorated him, and tasted pleasantly of tropical fruits and spices. By the time he had downed his first cup it had already began to work on him, spreading a pleasant healing warmth through his legs and feet.
Still, he felt far too exhausted to mingle freely, and his mother was still nowhere to be seen - he had not seen her all the time he had been dancing, although he admitted that he might have been too preoccupied to notice. Despite his resentment of her presence, he had to admit that mingling was somewhat easier when a familiar face was about. As it was, however, he simply did not have the wherewithal to do so. Instead he took another glass of loqua walked about the hall, soon finding a set of stairs up to a balcony overlooking Upper Valua, with its jewel-like lights shining as if against a backdrop of black velvet. An impressive sight, he had to admit.
He sipped the loqua, allowing the pleasant warmth to clear his mind of all thought. He needed this chance to relax, he told himself. He certainly wasn't going to have many other chances that night, not once his mother found him. Surely she wasn't going to be gone for long-
"Alfonso! What are you doing up here?"
Blast it! He jumped and turned around, looking full into his mother's very angry face. "Ah... mother... I'm only resting," he said petulantly.
"And drinking," she said, wrinkling her nose. "I leave you alone for a few moments and you try to wander off!"
"I'm tired, Mother. And whose business is it if I care to rest for a few moments?"
"You impudent little-" She cut the sentence off, stopping her tirade in mid-stream; perhaps she feared someone coming up the stairs behind her. "Forget it. Just get rid of that drink and get back into that hall before I drag you from the stern of the Lupus through Deep Sky! Do you think I achieved my rank by wasting my time drinking on balconies?"
Then she turned and stalked off, before Alfonso could even open his mouth for another retort. He was too busy staring after her in surprised resentment. This was going too far, even for her! He had already danced with the Empress herself - what else could she possibly want?
Finally he sighed and threw his glass over the wall. To the Rift with it, he'd do what she wanted. But he was starting to grow very tired of this mistreatment, and he silently resolved that he was going to know the truth of this by the time the night was over. In the meantime, he'd go back to the Great Hall, maybe find someone familiar - surely he wasn't the only young man of any stature in attendance.
He spotted a familiar face almost at once, as he nearly reached the bottom of the stairs. A pair of boys, and a simpering young lady - he didn't recall their names immediately but he was sure that with enough time and thought he'd eventually be able to make an educated guess. All dressed in the latest, brightest fashions, of course, like everyone else at the ball - Alfonso couldn't help but belabor the point, really. Still, he figured that even in his ugly costume he would be able to outdo the young men. Not that he was overly concerned with the affections of a foolish young woman - or of anyone else, really - but it was the principle of the thing, a game that they played. And, he thought with a small smile, that he was quite good at, perhaps because he did not have to deal with pesky things like sincerity and affection.
He approached them, smiling to himself as they made a great show of ignoring him. It was just to irritate him, of course. He'd have to-"
"What!" he snapped, without even looking behind him. "I'm busy!"
"Ah... my apologies, young Lord Alfonso, but the Empress herself demands that you invite her to another dance."
"What?" He turned around then, feeling the eyes of his friends on the back of his head. It was another little man in livery, no one he recognized. "Now?"
"Yes, Young Lord. Immediately."
He stared at the little man for a moment, and heard the others speaking softly behind him. He knew the way rumors spread through Upper City, like lightning through the dark clouds above Valua. Soon everyone he knew would hear of this night and his dances with Teodora herself, and he wasn't sure whether to be pleased or horrified by the prospect.
The music suddenly stopped, and he heard the orchestra playing the opening notes of the waltz - the exact same waltz that they'd played five minutes ago, he was sure...
"Of course," he said, resigning himself - remembering the look of girlish delight on her face made him nervous somehow. "I live to serve my Empress. Lead the way!" But he fretted over it as he followed the little man back to the throne. At least the green loqua had helped his aching feet somewhat, he tried to reassure himself - it might not be as unpleasant as he imagined.
Soon they reached the throne, and the Empress stood as he reached for her hand, smiling all too eagerly. Hopefully, he thought, this would be the last time...
The night was finally over, bless the Moons...
Alfonso climbed back into his mother's rail car and sat down with a groan, too tired and sore at that point to care if anyone was watching the undignified display. The Empress - that blasted waltz - he'd been dancing all night, and he did not have the constitution for it!
By Thunder, he was exhausted. His feet felt like they never wanted to move again. If he hadn't freely partaken of the green loqua that had been so thoughtfully provided, he was sure he would've collapsed long before now. It was amazing that he wasn't more inebriated than he was - the liquor must've been very weak. If he hadn't been in such horrible condition from the dancing, he would've felt quite good. He had to try to get some more of the stuff.
"Oh, sit up, Alfonso," his mother chided as she entered the car herself. The door slid shut on its own behind her; Alfonso's stomach lurched as the car started moving. "Don't slouch like that. What if someone sees?"
"I don't care, mother," he said without thinking. "I'm tired."
"Don't talk back to me, you lout. And sit up now! You can be as boorish as you wish once you're out of my sight, but I won't tolerate it!"
It seemed that he had little say in the matter. "Yes, Mother." He sat up, again stifling a long sigh.
The ride was at least smooth enough that it didn't bother his sore legs, although his mind was no more settled than it had been before. The repressed resentment and confusion was bubbling over, fermented by drink and by the constant ache.
"You did well tonight," his mother finally said when they were nearly back at their estate. "Empress Teodora was quite impressed with you."
"Was she?" he asked, in a tone that he normally would not have dared to use with her. It was the loqua, and the anger. "And I suppose that was just as you'd planned, wasn't it?"
She looked at him darkly. "Alfonso-"
"No, Mother, let me speak for a change!" he interrupted. "I do not wish to be used as a pawn towards some end I do not even understand! What is this charade you obviously did not trust me to know before you dressed me up and treated me like a... like a doll? Tell me!"
She scowled at him, and for a very long moment he was sure she'd snap, that he'd pushed her too far. It was with a feeling of great relief that he saw her relax. "All right," she conceded. "I suppose you may as well know what happened. After all, not even you could ruin the work you've already done tonight."
The car stopped, and the door opened. She got out first, speaking briefly to the car attendant in tones too low for Alfonso to hear. He nodded, and as soon as Alfonso had left the car he re-entered it; it immediately started moving again and sped off into the night.
The head servant greeted them as soon as they arrived. "Milord, Milady, has the night pleased you?"
Alfonso opened his mouth to answer, but was promptly cut off. "Immensely. Now, go and prepare the bedchambers - we will soon retire. The rest of the servants are to go to their chambers at once."
"Yes, Milady Admiral."
She watched him scamper off, then glanced down at Alfonso. "Come on, then. If you insist on knowing, I'll show you."
"Thank you, Mother."
"Just don't disappoint me," was all she said as she turned and led him into the estate, picking up a candle from a table in the foyer as she went.
She led him to her office of sorts, a small dressing room that she had converted some time ago. She took a lamp on the desk and lit it, then walked over to the large bookcase and did something quickly with the books that Alfonso could not follow. The bookcase swung open easily, much to his amazement - he thought he knew all of the secret passages in his home. This one had apparently fallen into disuse long ago - it smelled dank and musty.
His mother led the way into the passage, holding the lamp aloft. Alfonso was beginning to regret his determination; his feet were killing him, he had no loqua to ease them, and the passage was extremely unpleasant. "Mother, how long is this passage? And where does it lead?"
"You'll see soon enough." Her voice reminded him of the time she had shown him the old man in the slums, although at least she did not sound so cross. Still, it gave him a bit of a chill.
Finally they reached a door, and Alfonso watched as she pulled a key out of her pocket and unlocked it. It creaked horribly as it opened, and through it was a room long abandoned. Sheeting covered various pieces of furniture - a small table, an ornate bed, an uncomfortable-looking chair. Here and there gold glinted through the dust, catching the lamplight as she swung it around and inspected the room.
"I have not been here for a very long time," she said, setting the lamp on the dusty table.
"I never realized that this place existed," Alfonso said, staring around him. There was another door on the other side, that one bolted shut, no doubt leading to another long-neglected passage. Another wall was dominated by a painting covered with a white sheet.
"Of course not. This room must remain a secret." She walked up to the painting. "And this, most of all, must not be revealed to another soul. If I even suspect that you have told anyone what you have seen today, you'll regret that you were born, do you understand me?"
"I..." he swallowed hard. "Of course. Not a soul."
"Good." She pulled the cover from the painting with a flourish. Alfonso gasped as he beheld a face so like his own that he might have been looking in a mirror.
On second glance, that was not entirely accurate, he realized. This face was harder, its eyes a flinty blue instead of his own lovely turquoise, its hair a shade darker. But the rest... well, the resemblance was uncanny despite those small changes. The differences only made it more unnerving to look at. And the uniform was identical - even the sword on his hip was exactly the same as the one in the portrait. "Mother, who is this man?" he asked softly... although he was sure he knew the answer.
"The great and noble Emperor Jorge, once ruler of all Valua and husband to Empress Teodora." She was looking at the painting with a strange expression, not quite a smile, but closer than he'd seen to one in years. "I would have my estate and my life taken from me if the Empress knew I possessed this still, even after my years of service to the throne."
"But how did you..." he trailed off, watching her reach out and touch the portrait's cheek.
"Teodora has one weakness above all others - she is sentimental, though she hides it as well as she is able," his mother replied after a moment. "Her emotions are strong, and have often weakened her will to rule. It was her grief that drove her to order these images destroyed, for they reminded her of her one wish as a woman - to see her husband one last time, to undo the battle that took him from her. But her husband is dead, and nothing can change that."
Alfonso nodded slowly, simultaneously repulsed and attracted by the idea. It almost made him feel dirty, playing such a trick on an old woman, Empress though she may be.
"I know what you're thinking, Alfonso," she continued, glancing back at him. "Don't be so squeamish. You are meant for great things - they are in your very blood. But you must be willing to do what is necessary to claim your birthright, or those in power will take it from you. Let nothing stand in your way, including your own qualms."
"I see, Mother," he said. And why not? Why shouldn't he take whatever advantage was necessary? If the Empress wanted to dote on him, he surely could not tell her otherwise.
"I know that you'll make me proud, Alfonso," she said again, not looking at him, but rather still gazing at the painting. "You've already made the best of impressions."
"Yes," he answered, smiling very slowly. "I... I have, haven't I?"
A/N: I like to call this fic "The Alfonso Plot Idea That Refused to Die." Based on the Dreamcast version, obviously - I wrote this before I even knew that there was a plotline in the GameCube remake that contradicts some of what I thought Valua's power structure was like. I'd rewrite it, but I haven't finished Legends (and I can't figure out exactly what I'd need to change yet.)
Skies of Arcadia is owned by Overwerks, not me.