Chapter 1

The Wedding

The sun shone brightly on the spring morning. A cool breeze stirred the few clouds in the bright blue sky, and whistled through the trees dotting the landscape. The day was quiet and beautiful. Birds tittered in the trees to one another, as if they, too, were spreading the news of the Duke's wedding. One did not have to be a resident in the village, nor a worker in the Duke's fields to feel the excitement in the air. The village itself was in high celebration. The Duke had chosen one of their own daughters to be his bride just a few weeks earlier. It was the widespread opinion amongst the villagers, that the just and fair man was getting his due from his lands at long last.

The Duke himself was nearly dressed and ready, since weddings were something he attended often, not to mention two of his own. He found he could still wear the same suit that he had worn at his last wedding, 15 years earlier, with some slight alteration, to allow for the expansions of his waist in that time. He had not gotten fat, but 43 years, combined with a lack of time on the training field had begun to take their toll. The black jacket and pants provided good contrast with his close-cropped-graying hair. He still looked good in the mirror, and time had not decreased the number of women that looked at him, appreciating what they saw. He knew he could never pass for the twenty something that wore this suit last however.

His mind wandered back all those years, to his now estranged wife Corrine. and her declaration that she wanted no more to do with him. What did she know? She had been Duchess, and he had resigned himself to stay with her and accept what fate the gods had dealt him. She had not given him sons, and neither had her predecessor. There were only daughters, the vile, ungrateful creatures. He gave them everything a daughter could ask for, even without asking, but it was never good enough. One wanted materials to make dresses and books, to give her ideas for more. One asked for paints, canvasses and brushes. Lately she even had began to ask for instruments, as if to play her own music. The eldest of his daughters, Elizabeth, even fancied herself as a wielder of magic. "What utter garbage," he thought. What man, in his right mind would want to marry a woman like that?

Oh, they were certainly pretty enough, and as daughters of a Duke, they came with a nice dowry. But they were not interested in marriage. Their interests, however, were not his concern. When he decided it was time to be married, his daughters would obey with the grace that had been taught them all of their lives. And they would marry well, bringing strong allies to his side. It would be up to their husbands to eliminate their absurd fascination with the bards that came through and entertained at the villages. The worthless minstrels filled their heads with all manner of ridiculous ideas. He would be sure to choose a normal man for them. Ones that could handle his daughters' independent natures, and could curb their inappropriate interests.

In another part of the mansion, the bride-to-be, Shen, stood watching as her gown, chosen by the Duke, was sewn together onto her body in the mirror. The gown was snow white satin, with matching-colored lace at the cuffs and in the bodice. The sleeves ran the full length of her arms, and rounded off around her wrist, with the added lace tapering to a point at the back of her hand, attached be a small circlet of satin ribbon to her middle fingers. The bodice itself was cut low and daring, a "v" shape down to her navel, but the lace sewn in covered her to nearly her neck. The lower part of the gown, while clinging to her legs, would allow just enough movement for a three-quarter stride. Her shoes had been a gift from her father. They were a dyed, white leather creation, that covered her entire foot to just past her ankle, and sat flat on the ground, as her father knew her lack of experience with heels. The Duke had approved of them, especially, it seemed, since they did not make her much taller, and the Duke preferred her that way. She wore no jewelry, as the Duke felt that she would not need any prior to the ring she would be given that afternoon. And there was no veil, again, at the Duke's insistence. His bride would have nothing hidden from him.

Her black hair was washed and curled, and sitting in a heap atop her head. There had even been a makeup artist that came in and decorated her face. Shen had a natural grace and gentle, subtle beauty. The makeup artist had carefully applied just a little bit of makeup to appease the Duke and bring that out. Her face was alive with color such that she had only seen on the actresses the came traveling through the village with the bards. Her gracefully slanted brown eyes had been lined with a thick black color, and their slant accentuated with extra lines from their corners. There was a pale blue powder added to her eyelids. She had been told that blue was the Duke's favorite color. Her high cheekbones had been brushed lightly with a dark red powder, and that, coupled with the dress, made it look even more like the blushing bride she was.

She stared below her at the girl that was working on her dress. Melody was the Duke's youngest daughter, and had obviously done this sort of thing before. Her hands flew through the stitches rapidly, and with a well practiced ease. Shen discovered quickly that she was comfortable with the young girl. She was not rumored to be magically inclined, as her oldest sister was. Melody wore a plain brown peasant's dress, the same sort of thing Shen used to wear, all the time back home, before she was engaged. She was also barefoot, a testament to her age, and one of the few things that she could get away with at the Ducal Manor. She found, however that she could not make out any details in the young girl's face, as it was mostly concealed by the mass of blonde curls that hung to the middle of her back. Melody was slightly taller than Shen was, but that was the only thing that the girl had over her.

No one could mistake Shen for a young girl, especially not in her wedding dress. The dress, which was taking final shape around her ample chest and flaring hips, clung to her like a second skin, making it a bit difficult to breathe. "Does it really have to be so tight, Melody?" she asked the young seamstress.

Shen heard a mumbled response come from her side, but could not understand, between the thick layer of blonde curls, and what she guessed was a mouthful of pins, prompting Shen to ask her question again. The teenager paused in her sewing, pulled the pins out from her mouth, and stuck them into a large, tomato-shaped pincushion. Pushing the riot of blonde hair from her face, she responded, "I said, 'it is the latest style.' Father wants the best, and most fashionable everything - including your dress. It is what he wants, and it is what he requested of the seamstress that he hired, and it was the last thing she told me, before she decided that what he was paying was not worth his constant interference and bossiness."

"So, Duke Romanov did not put you up to this himself?"

Melody sighed. "No, my father, in his infinite wisdom, does not believe that his 13-year-old daughter is capable of anything that goes beyond her dolls, which I have not touched since I was 10. Certainly, I do not have the ability to stitch together a few pieces of cloth to call a wedding dress. Especially not one for his bride."

"Well," huffed Shen, pondering the Duke's rigid ways. "I can see that some changes will have to be made within the walls of this house, before I can effect any changes in my village."

"So, not the shy little blossom that 'his bitterness' was looking for," came another female voice from the doorway, drawing the attention of the other two.

"Elizabeth, did you complete the thing that you were doing for luck?" Melody asked her oldest sister.

"No," Elizabeth replied. "Still waiting for paint to dry, and I thought I would avoid that end of the manor if I could in case father finds it."

Shen mentally appraised the younger woman in the doorway. Elizabeth was noticeably taller than her, but lacked her curves. Her expression soured with jealousy, at the beautiful round face, which never wore makeup, even for formal affairs such as today. There was no mistaking this girl's father was the Duke. She had the same icy blue eyes, even the same basic body shape, albeit taller, save for the smallish breasts sitting high on her chest. Elizabeth walked with perfect posture and steps small enough that they barely disturbed her royal blue gown, which hung nearly to the floor. Her hair, much like her younger step-sisters was blonde, but unlike Delilah and Melody, Elizabeth's was straight and cut so that it only hung down to her chin.

Elizabeth made her way across the room, to the pedestal that Shen was standing on and looked at her, cocking her head from one side to the other, arms crossed, and eyes running up and down the older woman's body, as if she was a cow being sized up for purchase. "Does he know that you have a personality, or did he just look at your hips, and decide you were the one?" Elizabeth asked her voice thick with sarcasm.

Shen glared up at the younger girl. "How dare you take that tone with me?" Shen snapped. "I do not care if you are Duke Romanov's daughter. You will address me with respect, or be silent. In a few hours, I will be Duchess, and I will be the lady of the house. The things that I say will be law. And furthermore..."

Elizabeth cut her off by holding up her hand and speaking a few quick words, silencing Shen with magic. Shen looked fearfully into the cold blue eyes of the oldest Romanov daughter. Elizabeth spoke slowly, with menace in her voice. "Woman, until I decide otherwise, you will be silent. I do not care what you want, do, say, or feel, and neither does my sister. All my father wants from you is a son. Beyond that one duty, I would bet my spell book that you will not be allowed to do anything that you want. If you wish to be comfortable here, you had better learn your place, the Duke's rules, how to hide from him, how to move about unnoticed, and to cope with the fact that you are here only as a woman, not meant to be a ruling party."

Shen glared at her with hate in her eyes, but nodded stiffly. "That's better," Elizabeth remarked, dropping the spell.

"Liz," Melody said, drawing attention away from the glaring women, "instead of putting the fear of Father into her, maybe you could help me out? I am fair certain that he is almost dressed and ready, and you know what he is like if kept waiting."

"Sure, Mel," her sister replied. "Not to worry, Shen," Elizabeth said, crouching on the side opposite her youngest sister, taking up a second needle. Elizabeth's movements were not as fast as Melody's, but just as straight and tight. "He will treat you well, and take good care of you, at least until you give him another daughter. And we would stay out of your way, unless you think we can help you."

"Like with a new baby," Melody added. "I can hardly wait to have a baby around here."

"It will be nice to have a small one around here again, Mel," Elizabeth said wistfully. "Someone we could teach magic..."

"And sewing," Melody added. "There's always room here for another seamstress, especially if Father gives up on you or decides to marry another."

She stared down at the two young women sewing her into her dress. "What happened to your mother?" she asked quietly.

Elizabeth paused in her sewing. "Father was away as a diplomat, and continuing to be introduced to society and at court, and learning to run his lands when I was born, as he had only recently been titled. His father and brothers were killed by the Drow elves."

Shen gasped in horror. Her mother had told her of the great tragedy that had befallen the area when she was a baby, but no one in the village spoke much about it. Merely of the fact that it was tragic, and that the youngest Romanov was the new Duke. Some of the older men in the village, her own father included, still referred to him as "the new Duke." A very few of the same men seemed to think that the Duke had been left alive by the Drow, so that they could take what they wanted from the land, without fear of repercussion, but they were all written off as insane.

"I was five months old when he finally returned," Elizabeth began again, choking on the words that were coming. "When he found out that I was a girl, he could not throw my mother and her belongings out of here quickly enough. He kept me, only because I am a Romanov, and this is our home. My mother," she said, tears threatening to spill now, "I was told much later, drowned herself in the river."

Shen watched the younger woman shake her head, as if to clear away the bad memory. Elizabeth took up the needle again, and began stitching. Shen spoke, still keeping the quiet voice, "Amelia... "

Elizabeth's head snapped up. Her eyes seemed to stab at Shen from the very mention of the name.

"She... she was my mother's best friend. I was very young when it happened, but I still remember Mother crying for a long time. I never heard if she knew how it happened, or even suspected. By all accounts, Amelia was quite a woman, and she loved your father with a fierce passion. Mother spoke very well of her and had told me that she was even a little jealous of Amelia. My father is a traveling merchant, and we are well taken care of, but to be married to the Duke, there was a position that would never want for anything."

Elizabeth dropped her needle and ran from the room, crying. "You are not making friends, Shen," Melody observed.

"I did not agree to this marriage to make friends," Shen retorted. "I am here because somebody needs to help make a better life for the people of my village. The Duke is good to us, but still, the farmers need more lands for their families, the merchants that travel to the distant lands need better escorts, the orphans need better care, and there seems to be so much more... and I will do whatever it takes to get what I want."

The afternoon sun was starting to sink, and the wedding still had not taken place. The Duke paced in his study, while Lord High Priest Zhou sat amused. Zhou sat on a large pillow, preferring as all the elder priests did, the comfort of a proper cushion beneath him, as opposed to a high-backed chair. His left hand idly fondled the silver disc-shaped pendant at his chest, while his right rested on his knee. The blue and silver robe that he wore gapped open in front, revealing his chest, and the various tattoos of the sun and moon adorning it. It had taken 78 years of life on this world before the old Shukenja had decided to settle down in the village nearest Duke Romanov. And now, two years later, he would be performing the ceremony to marry the Duke and the young village girl. "Patience, my son," the priest said. "Tymora will smile on you, and you shall find this day end with your new Duchess beside you, helping you make plans for the future."

"Lord High Priest," the Duke said through clenched teeth, "this is my third... my third wedding. I understand where I will be at the end of the day. But, she still is not out here and ready yet, and we should have been married and eating by now. There are things, that must be taken care of, and soon. I can not wait much longer."

The Duke moved to the chamber door, yanking it open, and was five steps through the hallway before a flash of blue and silver was standing in front of him, startling him and forcing him to step back.

Zhou smiled at the Duke. "I was speaking to you, my son. If you feel the need to go for a walk, however, I will join you in that. One moment please." The Duke watched as the old man hobbled slowly back into the study and returned with a cane, making him arch one eyebrow questioningly. Zhou chuckled at the younger man's expression. "It is important, for all men, to keep up appearances. Those that would seek to do this bald old man harm would expect little trouble from him. I like keep all of my potential opponents off guard. Let us walk, now. Show me around your mansion, as I do not believe that I have been here since days after my arrival."

The pair walked down the narrow hallway into the great room, where the large double doors, surrounded by a grey white stone archway marked the way to the world outside. There were great stone pillars lining the pathway from the doorway to the staircase at the end of the path. On the pathway itself, was a royal blue carpet, wide enough for four men in armor to walk abreast with room to spare. The Romanov family crest, a crossed battle axe and trident, was filigreed in gold at the base of each column on the carpet. There was a large fireplace on either edge of the room to insure comfortable warmth, even through the occasionally harsh winters that were experienced in the area. There were plush couches and pillows on the left side of the stairway, near the fireplace, where the men were now walking through. A life-sized portrait of the former Duke, Edward Romanov, hung above the fireplace. And ordinarily, there was a similar set up on the other side.

Today, for some reason, all of the furniture seemed to be moved to one side of the room, and on the floor in front of the fireplace, a white double circle was painted in the stone. The Duke glanced around the area, and began to rub his head on both sides at the temples. Zhou looked at him and grinned. "Trouble, m'lord?" he asked.

"Elizabeth Anastasia Amelia Romanov!" the Duke bellowed, his voice echoing through the nearly empty room. The silence that followed was palpable and uncomfortable. Finally, a pair of footsteps could be heard approaching the area, though obviously not rushed. When the delicate figure made its way around the corner, the Duke's mood fouled even further. The girl was a near duplicate of Melody, only without all the hair in her face, and dressed in a gown of the family's colors for the wedding. "Delilah, where is your sister?" he asked through clenched teeth.

"Which one," the 14-year-old asked, "the one sewing your bride-to-be into her dress?"

He grimaced at the idea of his youngest playing seamstress, before he turned to the side and pointed into the sitting area. "The one that did that?"

"Oooohhhh," she replied, feigning surprise. "I believe that Liz went to go and help Mel while her paint dried. Was there something you needed?"

"Yes," the Duke answered in the same falsely sweet tone his middle daughter was using. "Could you ask her for me," his tone getting louder now, "why in the nine hells would she start doing this nonsense..." he turned, and stopped in his anger when he realized the old Shukenja was staring at him, and no longer smiling. He took in a deep shaking breath. "Pardon me, Lord High Priest, a major family matter has come up, and it will require my immediate attention. Perhaps, another time for this tour then?"

"Certainly, m'lord," Zhou responded evenly. The Duke turned on his heel, and strode quickly back down the hallway, where the sound of his study door slamming could be heard echoing both directions, making the old man chuckle.

Elizabeth came silently into the room, and clutched her smaller sister to her. "I am sorry Del, I did not mean for you to be the one that took his ire."

"Do not worry yourself over me, big sister," Delilah said smiling, returning the embrace. "I like to think part of my purpose here is to get him to yell at other people. I accept him for what he is. He is just a bitter old man who never got what he wanted out of life."

"The whole purpose of the spell that I was working on here," Elizabeth said, gesturing, "was to bring some luck to him on this night, for his new bride to be pregnant with his son, and soon."

Zhou took this all in, before clearing his throat, reminding the teenagers that he was still in the room. "If it is luck that you seek, then perhaps I can help you call to Tymora's favor?"

"I would never turn down an offer like that, Lord High Priest," Elizabeth grinned at him.

"You may call me Zhou, child," he whispered, leaning his head in conspiratorially, "as long as your father is not around. So," he said at normal volume again. "I have seen this symbol once or twice before. This is quite the serious invocation. Any small mistake could change the good luck that you seek, to bad. Are you certain you are up to it?"

"I have done this before," Elizabeth replied, still grinning at the unexpected favor from the older man.

"Yes," Delilah continued, "down in the village for one of the families that had fallen on particularly hard times. They say thank you, by the way."

"You and Melody are going there tonight, yes?"

"Yes," Delilah replied. "Mother... she is not well. She did not take the news of the marriage well."

"I will join you," Zhou told her, "if Corrine will allow my company."

"That should be fine, umm... Zh... No, um... Lord, uh..."

"You may call me by name as well, child. Just not if your father is around. It would not be proper." They walked over to where the circles were painted in the stone. "You have done this before, you say? Does Duke Romanov know what you are capable of?" Zhou asked.

"No," Elizabeth replied, shaking her head. "If my father had any idea how strong I was, he would not treat me like an idiot child. I honestly think that he believes humans cannot wield the kind of magic that he has seen used by the Drow Elves."

"He has seen the dark ones' magic?" Zhou asked, his expression turning horrified.

"From what I have heard," Delilah answered for them, "he was nearly the victim of it. The Drow were raiding here, and they came in and killed his father and brothers. Our father barely escaped with his life, ducking away from some spell that one of those evil Drow women was casting at him."

Melody came into the area, as Delilah finished speaking. "I heard that he jumped out of one of the windows trying to get away," the youngest Romanov daughter added to the conversation. "That was how he got that scar on his forehead."

"I have told you before, Mel," Delilah said. "There is no way he could have survived it. The study where Grandfather's body was found is on the top floor. Our father would not have lived if he had jumped through a huge glass window, and fell four stories to the ground, right Liz?"

"Absolutely, Del," came the response. "I bet you heard that from one of those crazy kitchen maids that were talking about seeing two of the Drow using one of our uncles as a cushion when they ran off. No, Mel, nobody saw any of the Drow and lived to speak of it except our father. And only he knows how he escaped."

"Not all of the maids are crazy, Liz," Melody insisted. "They saw the Drow while hiding in a pantry. They saw them kill our uncle."

"Of course, Mel," Elizabeth said, rolling her eyes. "So, I thought you were sewing Shen into her dress. Did someone come and take over?"

"No," Melody answered, "I finished. That is actually what I came out to say. She is finally ready, so we should get on with the wedding."

"Excellent, child," Zhou said, clapping his hands together. "Send someone to inform your father. I will finish my own preparations, and you will all have a new Duchess within the next hour."

It took just ten minutes for the Shukenja to find his white silk shirt, put it on, re-wrap his robe and make it to the chapel. The rest of the wedding party was already seated, and the Duke paced impatiently. Zhou made his way to the altar with the sacred items necessary to complete the commencing ritual. A chalice that the Duke and his chosen bride would both drink from, rings they would link together, and a candle they would both light and then present to the goddess, all designed to demonstrate the blending, joining, and binding of the two families. Lastly, and with some disapproval, he placed a delicate silver chain with a charm depicting the Duke's family crest on the alter. This was not an item normally used in a wedding of this faith, but had been added by the Duke himself to remind all that the woman wearing it belonged to him alone, as if the ring she would wear after this day would not be enough, both would remain on her body, around her finger, and around her neck, never being removed until the day she died.

The Duke, seeing that all was ready took his place beside the altar, just as the double doors of the chapel opened. His eyes narrowed in displeasure as his three daughters quickly moved down the aisle and took their seats in the front row. He kept his eye on his oldest, Elizabeth, and when she glanced at him and nodded, he signaled the minstrels to begin playing a gentle, lulling tune. It was the same music he had chosen for his other weddings, a regal but mellow song, fit for the occasion.

Shen stood in the doorway of the chapel and stared at the man she would soon be wedded to. "I hope I don't disgrace myself by falling on my face", she thought, "I had no idea he would seem so intimidating when this moment finally came." She glanced at the priest, and seeing the smile on his face, she brightened, knowing that with his blessing, the goddess Tymora would finally have answered the prayers of an entire village. She continued down the aisle doing her best to avoid the eyes of Elizabeth, sure that she would see, at the very least a simmering dislike. She had not meant to hurt the girls feelings with talk of her mother. Now was not the time to dwell on that small mistake, however. She would attempt to apologize later, after the wedding. No one seemed to understand that she truly wanted to fit into this family. She would have to find a way to make friends with the girls, but to hear them, and the Duke talk, she feared she may have to choose a side in some sort of strange, subtle power struggle that only those in the manor were aware of. If it came to that, she would choose the Duke, of course. He maintained the ultimate power, and it was through him that the changes she wanted to make in the village could best be affected.

The Duke watched as Shen made her way to his side. Unaware of her lofty plans, he contemplated the swing of her hips as she moved forward. "I must get a child on her soon," he brooded, He glanced again at his willful daughters, and briefly wondered a life for them aside from marriage. "Life would be much simpler, if not quieter if those wretched girls were gone. I grow weary of their constant insolence and blatant disregard for my rules," he scowled as he remembered the moved furniture and paint on the floor.

Shen reached the Duke's side and they both turned their focus to the holy man performing the ceremony. Zhou raised his hands in supplication to the goddess, and began the chant that would call her attention to the small gathering in the chapel. The words were that of an old nearly forgotten language that was now only spoken by priests. His voice was clear and strong, and the foreign language gave it a flowing, babbling river-like quality. When he reached the end of the prayer, he addressed the group gathered to witness the wedding.

"Duke Dominic Alexander Edward Romanov, do you come before the goddess Tymora to forever bind your life to that of this woman?" Zhou demanded.

"Yes," the Duke replied, in a clear deep voice that held no hint of uncertainness and all the authority one would expect in a strong, demanding ruler.

"Shennisse Gorbunova, daughter of the merchant Georgi Gorbunova, do you come before the goddess Tymora to forever bind your life to that of this man?" Zhou again demanded, though somewhat more gently.

"Yes," Shen answered in a clear yet soft voice.

Zhou muttered a few words in the ancient language, and the liquid in the cup began to glow, as did the tip of the candle, and the rings.

"The goddess accepts this union, as seen by the divine glow of the sacred cup, candle and rings. Drink, light and join these objects, then submit yourselves to her judgment. The Goddess will then decide if you are truly worthy of each other, that you may receive her blessing as well as acceptance."

The couple proceeded with the ritual and then knelt before the alter, hands joined. the priest moved to stand before a statue of the goddess and raised his hands high. "Goddess Tymora, this man and this woman seek your blessing on their union, give us now a sign that they are in your favor." He took the lit candle and placed it in the open hands of the statue, very softly he uttered more ancient words, and the flame of the candle leapt up and lit two other candles' places in the hollow eyes of the statue. "The goddess blesses this union, and looks upon you both with favor. Rise and begin your new life as man and wife."

The Duke turned and placed a light kiss on her lips, and offered her his arm. She ran her hand underneath, and fitted herself to his side, as they turned to face the crowd, now standing and applauding the newly married couple. They walked back down the aisle together, and made their way out the chapel's double doors, and across the open grassland to the banquet hall where lunch, music and dancing, followed by dinner awaited.