It was a charmed life living on the floating island of Rynne, especially for those of noble blood. Every need was attended to, every wish fulfilled. Dawn Leville wandered around her family’s estate aimlessly. It was a sweet spring afternoon and her feet found their way into the back gardens. Her mother, Jocelyn Gael-Leville, was taking her tea by the fountain. Settling down in the chair opposite mother, Dawn heaved a little sigh.
“Don’t sigh like that, Dawn. It isn’t ladylike.” Her mother set her cup down on the china saucer and placed her hands in her lap. “Come, child, tell me what is bothering you.”
“I’m bored, mother,” Dawn whined. Immediately she could tell that she had said the wrong thing in the wrong tone of voice because Jocelyn’s lips thinned into a line. She cringed, the silence stretching on. Then her mother said something that shocked her.
“Well,” she replied, standing. “I think it’s time that you were introduced as a lady to our society.”
She blinked her light green eyes in shock. Dawn had been pining for this for almost a full year now, but she had always been refused. Instantly she grew wary.
“I’m…. overjoyed, mother, but…” she hesitated, “Why now? What’s the catch?”
Jocelyn gave her daughter a dark, wolfish smile. “The catch is that you’re going to have to think like that for the rest of your life now, my dear. Our society isn’t all parties and wine, galas and pretty dresses. We make alliances, form contracts, discredit and destroy our enemies and we do it all with sweet smiles and soft words. If you’re so bored of your care-free life, I think it’s time you learned how to be a productive member of this family.”
Swallowing, Dawn wasn’t sure how to feel about the news. She was getting something she had wanted, but the price seemed very steep. Her mother sensed her trepidation.
“It’s a package deal, darling. If you want to be a lady you’ll learn to act like one. And,” she added with a little twist of her lips, “We’ll need to start working on your betrothal. Oh, it’ll take some time, don’t you worry about that, dear.” She patted her daughter on the cheek as her face went slightly ashen at the thought of marriage.
Jocelyn stood, arranging her skirts and picking up her fan.
“I’m so glad we had this chat, darling. I’ll go tell your father the good news.”
Dawn was left in the garden staring after her mother.
“What have I done?” she thought worriedly.
Months passed. At the time, Dawn had thought her etiquette training was wretched. This was worse by far. Every day her mother drilled into her the nuances of courtly plots and conniving. She was taught how to hold her expression, her body, her posture so as to not give away her emotional state. She felt like she had been re-built from the ground up. Her brain was trained to begin second-guessing everything anyone said to her, scanning for hidden meanings. She was forced to memorize the different family’s business associations, resources, alliances and enemies. Jocelyn was relentless and ruthless in her teaching. Wrong answers and forgotten lessons were punished severely. By the end of it, not only did she resent her mother, she resented her entire social caste.
“Well,” her mother sighed one evening after they had finished a review session. “I guess you’re as ready as you’re going to be.”
A huge weight lifted from Dawn and she squared her shoulders. Her mother looked her over with shrewd eyes. Chin tilted in defiance, she met her mother’s gaze.
“Good,” she nodded, standing to leave. “Tomorrow we start planning the ball. After that, we’ll work on your betrothal.”
The next month was a whirlwind of event planning. Caterers were called, decorations ordered, dresses made and tailored to perfection, and of course, guests invited. Jocelyn pushed Dawn into the active role of party planner, explaining that it would be perfect practice for running a household once she was married. Dawn was exhausted by the time the party date arrived.
Summer was well established so the doors to the ballroom were opened to allow the sweet night air to float in from the gardens beyond. From a secret place behind the wall designed for spying on just such an occasion, Dawn looked upon the party-goers with excitement. They filed into the room in pairs, their names called out grandly by the marshal. As her mother had instructed, she made note of who arrived together, and which circles the guests gravitated towards and mingled within.
Above the dance floor, the chandelier whirred and floated, propelled by cogs and clockwork machinery. The women were resplendent in their fine evening gowns of silk and satin, and the men were handsome and proper in their formal suits. Servants skirted the social circles, offering wines and sweets, and the musicians played a soft tune in the background.
Dawn made a note when the heir to one of the newest, but very wealthy noble families arrived by himself. William Lyon was a dashing young man a few years Dawn’s senior. With his flowing blonde locks and deep brown eyes, he had caught the attention of many of the ladies who were of lesser noble standing. Pursing her lips, Dawn considered him from head to toe, watching him move around the room.
While William’s house was certainly rich, they lacked the reputation to make alliances and forge new contracts easily. In contrast, Dawn’s own house was ‘old money’ and while no one could contend they were well-bred, they were not as financially stable as many people believed. A partnership between the two houses could benefit both greatly. She made a mental note of this and looked over the party for new arrivals.
The marshal called out the name of Mary Van Carrat with a slightly less grand “and guest” tacked on the end. The Van Carrats were certainly a house of note. Mary’s father owned most of the clockwork patents in the city, so they were both established and had an ever-renewing income. Perched upon Mary’s shoulder was her ever present automaton. The little dragon fluttered its delicate bronze wings and looked around the party with jeweled eyes. It was hard not to be jealous of the girl. Dawn noted that as soon as she entered the room, she ditched her partner and floated around the room in a pale pink dress, looking like a princess. She practically was a princess. And while she was trying not to be obvious about it, she was making her way towards the heir to House Lyon.
Deciding that her entrance shouldn’t wait any longer, Dawn picked up her skirts and hurried through the passageway and out into the unused first floor study. Making her way to the sitting room where her mother was entertaining some of the ladies of the attending Houses, she knocked politely. Anxiously waiting at the door for the answer, she rushed in as the “Enter” command issued from her mother’s lips. Jocelyn’s mouth twisted at her daughter’s haste.
“Mother,” she started before she could be scolded, “I think it’s time for me to enter the party.” She touched the curls spilling over her shoulder in the prearranged sign that signaled a rival was getting the upper hand. Jocelyn’s expression changed instantly into a lighthearted smile.
“Oh, darling,” she cooed, standing and moving to Dawn with a flourish, “You’re growing up so fast! I don’t think I can bear it!”
The ladies in the room let out a communal murmur of endearment for her mother’s completely faked tender affection. Jocelyn even sealed the deal by shedding a single, perfect tear. Dabbing at it with her silk handkerchief, she sighed.
“Yes, yes, darling, of course. Let’s go inform the marshal.” The guests filed out of the room towards the ballroom with quick words of encouragement for Dawn. She carefully composed her expression into one of innocent anticipation and measured the genuineness of each. Her mother was last in line. She nodded her approval.
“Who?” she inquired curiously.
“Lyon,” Dawn replied with a sly smile.
“Hmm,” her mother mused, looking thoughtful. “Interesting choice.” She fussed with her daughter’s strawberry-blonde curls that had been brushed until they shone in the candlelight.
“The idea has promise,” Jocelyn conceded, and then moved to instruct the marshal.
Dawn waited nervously in the hallway, making sure her skirts were arranged to her liking. She touched the golden hair stick to make sure it was in place, the fire opal at the top catching the light and accenting the color of her hair. Try as she might to remain calm and poised, she was still apprehensive. Her entire reputation could flourish or falter depending on her performance.
Joined by her father on one side, and her mother on the other, she took deep breaths as she waited to be announced.
“It is now my pleasure to introduce to the assembled Lords, Ladies, and heirs, the eldest daughter of Lord Thomas Leville and Lady Jocelyn Gael-Leville, heiress presumptive to the House Leville: The Honorable Miss Dawn Leville!”
With practiced steps, she was paraded into the ballroom. Her father took her mother’s hand and led her off to the side, and Dawn was on her own. All eyes were on her. Her cream colored gown was exquisite, she knew, and there were a few, most likely feigned, gasps of adoration that went up from the assembled crowd. Letting her stance and posture claim the entire room as her own, she drifted further in and the band struck up a beautiful tune. She curtseyed to the throng and was met by applause, secretly activating the switch hidden in her skirts. The applause changed to genuine awe as the opals sewn into her gown lit up from within. It had taken weeks to fashion the dress, and Jocelyn had paid good coin to keep the Van Carrat craftsmen silent on the design.
Lifting her chin in pride and confidence she looked around the room, making eye contact with all her future allies and enemies. She let her flashing green gaze linger on William with a subtle hint of promise, and it bore into Mary with a silent warning. The little Van Carrat heir apparent was fuming, the clockwork dragon on her shoulder hopping from foot to foot in worry.
“Oh, yes,” she thought smugly, “I could get used to this…”
Both her parents smiled in support and she felt so satisfied she could burst. Then, in front of everyone, William walked up to her. The crowd fell silent and she could feel the hatred from Mary.
“My lady,” he purred in a rich baritone, “May I have the first dance?” He held out his hand to her, waiting for her acceptance.
Curling her fingers around his she lowered her eyes demurely. “I am honored, my lord.”
She shouldn’t have been so surprised that he had taken her bait. It was quite the flattery for a noble of such a house as the Leville’s to be interested in a member of a new family. Since Dawn was the guest of honor at the ball, the privilege to be her first dance was also quite notable.
They joined hands primly, and he placed his hand so it just barely grazed the small of her back as they danced. He was poised and confident, even as they moved across the floor. Dawn resolved not to let his ego get the best of him. She was not so easily won, after all.
“Still,” she thought as they danced, gazing up into his boyishly handsome face, “I could do so much worse.” Relishing the way his eyes drank in her face Dawn danced with him for slightly longer than was required out of propriety. Glancing around at those gathered to watch, she could see the whispering. This pleased her greatly and she made her excuses to William and danced with other guests.
“Who does she think she is?” squeaked Mary Van Carrat to her friend Priscilla of House Evios.
“It is her party, Mary,” Priscilla retorted, rolling her eyes.
“Even so!” she huffed, feeling petulant. She had planned on catching the Lyon boy’s attention that evening and the stupid Leville girl was ruining everything.
“Her House is crumbling around her ears and she doesn’t even know it,” Mary spat.
“Or she does know it, and that’s why she picked him.”
Mary glared at Priscilla, but her mind worked furiously thinking about her point.
“Are you kidding me?” Jason Labarde punched William’s shoulder when he returned to his only friend and ally. “I can’t believe you just walked out like that!”
“Please,” William straightened his suit jacket, “Compose yourself, Jason.”
“Some balls you got there, Lyon,” Matthew of House Idaeus injected himself into the conversation, stopping the celebrations of William’s achievement short. He snorted with derision. “I can’t believe the girl actually let you be her first dance.”
William shrugged at him in indifference. “And why not?” he challenged. “I’m certainly more well-dressed than you tonight.”
The heir of Idaeus’ expression hardened. “I’m going to laugh in your face when your pathetic attempt to enter our society falls flat. Your House funds will wither and dry up, Lyon, and, to be honest, the only reason we even let you in here is because your daddy paid good coin as a bribe.”
The young lads watched as Matthew stalked away, marching up to Dawn on the dance floor and gruffly disposing her current dancing partner. She handled the situation with diplomatic grace, and William felt a surge of emotion deep in his chest.
“Damn it all, Jason,” he dropped his voice low so that it didn’t carry beyond the two of them. “She’s everything that I could want in a woman.”
“Not to mention that marrying into a House so old and ingrained in society would stop all this petty nonsense from families like Idaeus?” Jason supplied with a foxy lift of his brows.
“Well, yes, I’m sure my father would approve such a merger, but I mean…” he trailed off, “Look at her,” he breathed, watching as she spun around the floor, hips swaying and long hair flashing red-gold in the dim light. Her laughter lit her face and while it was soon swallowed up by the chatter around them, the sound was musical.
His friend snickered lightly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man become so smitten so quickly.”
Jocelyn Gael-Leville had made her rounds around the party, secretly maneuvering her way over to the Lady of House Lyon.
“Ah, my dear Lady,” Jocelyn leaned in to greet the other woman, one cheek pressed against hers in a warm gesture. “It is so good of you to come! My husband and I thank you for attending, and bringing your lovely son with you,” she added with a bright smile.
Caitlyn Lyon returned her smile with some trepidation. “I hope my son’s actions won’t affect Dawn’s prospects, my lady,” she offered, attempting to smooth over any damage.
“Whatever do you mean?” Jocelyn placed a hand to her breast in mock horror. She knew very well how the Lyons were regarded in their society, but Jocelyn had the chance of establishing herself with a new persona here and she wasn’t going to waste it.
“Obviously my William won’t act on Dawn’s acceptance of his dance,” she continued, very much trying to make an impression and ingratiate herself to the much more highly regarded Lady.
Jocelyn smiled, nodding towards the doors opened to her family’s gardens. She dropped her voice low so only Lady Caitlyn could hear.
“I think we may not have a say in the matter at all, my Lady.”
William and Dawn, hand-in-hand, with backward glances over their shoulders, disappeared out the door and into the night. Caitlyn gasped, spluttering out her apologies. Jocelyn patted her shoulder affectionately, soothing her.
“The heart wants what the heart wants, my Lady,” she purred quietly. “Who are we to deny our children this one pleasure in life? Our Houses are a good match, don’t you think? If our children fall in love and wish to be married…” she left the thought hanging, flashing the woman another smile. “Think about the possibilities,” she insisted before moving on again to make more small talk with the other ladies.
Caitlyn’s worried expression was about more than just a simple breach of etiquette on part of her heir. Jocelyn resolved to investigate the matter further.
Tugging on William’s hand, Dawn led him through the maze of hedges and low bushes to a secluded bench near a small fountain. The air was cool and she felt refreshed after all the dancing. Water trickling and splashing in the background, she turned to William with a smile and found his eyes riveted to her, filled with desire. She blushed prettily, taken aback by his attention.
“You look ravishing, my lady,” he managed. “Those opals make it seem as though you are surrounded by fireflies out here in the garden.”
Dawn thanked him demurely, noting that his confidence from earlier seemed to have left him. Perhaps her plan had worked, or something else happened before they met again. Instantly, she suspected her mother. Crickets took up their evening song once again, filling the silence that stretched between them.
“Why did you accept my request for the first dance?” William blurted, rubbing the back of his neck in worry.
The question caught Dawn off-guard and she blushed, stammering out a reply. “What? It would have been rude to-“
“Yes,” he interrupted, “It would have, but that doesn’t seem to stop many of the people here.”
“I…” She felt a surge of sympathy for him well up inside her. “I’m sorry that it’s been so hard for you and your family.”
He drew closer, cupping one of her cheeks with his hand. “My father was wrong about the Leville’s. Or at least… about you.”
Dawn felt her cheek grow hotter under his hand. “Wh-what does he say about my House?”
William sighed, catching her by the waist with his free hand and pulling her to him. “He thinks that the other Houses, and yours in particular, are all schemers and plotters. He says that none of you have the heads for business, except for maybe the Van Carrats, and that’s why-” He shook his head, breaking off mid-sentence. “It doesn’t matter. He was wrong.”
They stared into each others eyes for long moments. Slowly, William’s head dipped lower. Dawn rose up on her tiptoes. Their lips met in the barest whisper of kisses. Dawn’s mind let go of the past few months of training and she simply allowed herself to be swept away by her first kiss. His lips were gentle against hers, hesitant and testing. His hand slid from her cheek to tangle in her hair and her own fingers rested against his chest. She could feel the pounding of his heart beneath her fingertips. Dawn knew that her own heart was beating just as fast, and butterflies flitted about in her stomach.
“I was a fool to think that all nobles were as conniving as my mother. There is good in this world – in this society. William is part of it.”
A rustle in the bushes close to them had them both jumping back in fear. Mary Van Carrat’s bronze dragon took to wing, whirring and fluttering back towards the manor. Dawn gasped.
“I didn’t know that it could fly!” she sputtered, shocked.
“Oh sure,” William breathed, still catching his breath himself. “They’ve made huge advances in clockwork technology recent- … uh,” he blushed. “I guess I shouldn’t be telling you that, huh?”
Dawn was still too surprised by the sneaky clockwork secret agent to think about that at the moment.
“What was it doing here? Why did it follow us?” Rubbing her hands over her arms, Dawn suddenly felt a chill. William immediately shrugged out of his suit jacket and laid it about her shoulders, moving her shimmering red-gold curls aside. She shivered again at his touch. He started to move away, but she caught his sleeve.
“Not here,” he whispered, a crease of apprehension between his brows. Chocolate brown eyes studied her upturned face. Leaning in, he kissed her again. Then, with a short squeeze of her fingers, he dashed back into the ballroom.
It agonized William to have to leave Dawn standing there with that bewildered expression on her face. He knew he was treading on thin ice, but he wanted no more part in the dangerous betrothal game that his parents were playing. The Van Carrat heir was a good match for his family. He knew that. With their clockwork designs and the Lyon’s money, their families could make enough coin to refill the Van Carrat coffers and ensure that the Lyons became ‘old money’. But after those piercing green eyes had landed on him in the ballroom, claiming him like a lioness over-seeing her territory, he was captivated. Mary was a pretty girl, but Dawn…
He slipped back in from the garden and scanned the party-goers.
“Damn it! Where the hell is my mother?”
Hilary Van Carrat advanced on Lady Caitlyn Lyon until she was pressed up against the bookcase in the study.
“You promised me that your son and my Mary would be betrothed, my Lady,” she snapped, mockingly. “What was that display on the dance floor with the little Leville twit?!”
“Y-you know boys,” Caitlyn stammered, “I’m sure he was just doing it on a dare or something, Lady Van Carrat.”
“You’d better hope that’s what happened, and that Jocelyn’s temptress hasn’t taken it as an advance!”
The woman of the Van Carrat house stormed out of the study leaving Caitlyn seething with repressed rage.
Jocelyn gripped her husband’s forearm tightly.
“Make it happen, Thomas,” she warned before releasing him. Turning on her heel she strode purposefully back towards the ballroom. Thomas Leville sighed and re-entered his private study.
“What was that all about?” Stephan Idaeus inquired with a raised brow.
“You know women,” he shrugged. “Something about the wine being tepid,” he lied smoothly.
Cigar smoke was thick in the air. He took his place in his favorite armchair again. Picking up his glass of whiskey, he swirled the liquid around in his glass, letting the conversation flow around him for a time.
Eventually the men started filing out.
“Ah, Lord Lyon?” Thomas stood from his chair. “A moment?”
A few of the men exchanged glances, but Joshua Lyon nodded and stood with Thomas. The Lord of Leville waited until the door clicked closed before he spoke.
“Joshua,” Thomas began, taking a sip from his glass, “I have a proposition for you.”
“You’ve been good to my family through this time of transition, Thomas. “ The senior lord of the House Lyon leaned against the edge of the desk. “I’m listening.”
Delicate bronze wings glinted in the candlelight. Mary Van Carrat gently stroked her dragon’s neck after her mother finally calmed her down a little.
“Mother,” she complained, her voice still sullen, “I really wanted him.”
“Van Carrats do not accept defeat, daughter,” Hilary stated in a sharp tone. “We are not letting this go.”
The younger of the Van Carrat line considered that for a few moments. Finally she spoke.
“No,” she stated. “Leville has won him. I won’t whimper at the table for scraps like a dog. I want something else now.” A wicked smile stretched across her face. The clockwork dragon mirrored her expression.
Later that night, Dawn was undressing for the evening in her bedchambers. Stepping out of the heavy cream dress, she exhaled a huge breath. Her corset was still constricting her movement, but the weight of the dress was oppressive and being free of it was a relief.
The knock on her window almost made her jump out of her skin. Grabbing up a robe, she wrapped it around her frame and rushed to the window. The sheepish smile of William grinned at her from behind the glass. Grinning, she opened the window to the chill spring air. Taking his hand, she helped him into the room, then hurried to throw the bolt on her bedroom door.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered.
“I wanted to see you,” he admitted with an embarrassed clearing of his throat.
“Really…?” The butterflies returned to her stomach in full force. “But, William, your parents have already decided-”
“No,” he shook his head softly, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll handle my parents. We’re a good fit, Dawn, and… I…” He swallowed, taking her hand and pulling her against him. “I want this.”
His lips found hers, and it was a completely different sensation not being separated by her layers of skirts. As Dawn raised up on her tiptoes, her chest pressed against his, the heat of his body warming her all over. Gentle hands caught in her silken tresses and she wound her arms around his neck to pull him all the closer.
The kiss deepened and she tasted the wine from the party on his tongue. She wanted to throw herself into the kiss, to lose herself in his affection, but guilt gnawed at her. She had picked him to be betrothed to, but not for the reasons he thought. She broke the kiss.
“William, I have to tell you something.” The whole story tumbled out of her in a rush. She told him of her mother’s lessons in courtly plots, her insistence that she could only be a true member of their family if she helped further the House’s goals, she even told him that she had first picked him for political reasons. Emptying all the truth she had kept inside, she laid it at his feet. When she was finished, he stood stiffly, the muscles in his jaw tight.
“Do you still feel this way?”
“No!” She pressed her fingers to her lips and repeated more quietly, “No, of course not. In the gardens you showed me that there was another way to survive in this society. My mother has always been a schemer. I can’t stand to be remade in her image. That’s not what I want.”
He remained silent, staring over the top of her head.
“William, please.” She bit her lip, tears welling up in her eyes.
The fight went out of him when he saw a tear spill over her cheek. Wiping it away with his thumb, he sighed, chuckling.
“W-what’s so funny?” she asked, laughing a little along with him.
“This does not bode well for me,” he said his face very close to hers.
“I’m not sure I get your meaning?”
“You already have me wrapped around your finger, and you’re not even my wife yet.”
Dawn smiled broadly, standing on her tiptoes again to plant excited kisses on his face. Her robe had fallen open and William’s eyes dropped from her face to the round tops of her breasts, made prominent by the bodice. She blushed when she realized what he was staring at with such desire.
“You know,” she drawled, reaching behind her to begin untying her corset. “If we lay together tonight… our parents will have no choice but to allow our betrothal.” She grinned wickedly as he swallowed visibly. “It would be a horrible breach of etiquette on your parents part to allow such a scandal to see light, and they’d be displaced as nobles. My House would endure, but they’d be hard pressed to marry off their only daughter who was now ‘despoiled’.”
His fumbling fingers joined hers in the quest to disrobe her.
“Why, my lady,” he responded, his voice low and husky, “Are you suggesting I spoil you?”
Dawn pulled him close again, her lips brushing his as she answered, “I am.”
He growled low in his throat and the sound of popping laces echoed through the room. She gasped in horror, but it quickly turned into a naughty giggle as her corset fell away and she was laid bare before him. Tenderly with shaking hands he lifted her and placed her on the wide feather bed. They kissed more as she undressed him, and he explored her form hesitantly with light touches.
“Dawn,” he murmured, his lips pressed against her creamy skin, “I have to confess that I’ve never…” She could feel the heat of his blush.
“Neither have I,” she breathed. Biting her lip, she decided to be bold and firmly grasped his manhood in her delicate hand. His low groan of approval emboldened her even more and all uncertainty was lost in a wave of shared lust.
“You do know where it goes, though, right?” Dawn teased. He nipped at her flesh, making her gasp and giggle, then showed her the breadth of his knowledge on the subject. As they moved together, slowly at first, Dawn thought she heard a whirring sound, but she quickly forgot all about it.
By the time the servant rushed into the room, the screams had roused the entire house. Ribbons of flesh were all that were left of the bodies of William Lyon and Dawn Leville. Even though the marks were clearly claws, they cut through flesh like sharpened knives. The animal responsible was never identified or found. The investigation failed to discover any bloody prints leaving the scene.
Enjoying the tales of Rynne? The saga continues here!