Threefold years and a moon had passed since the last visit from a dazzler. And while the war and deaths began, we were to view enchantments. I however, would be forced to watch from the balconies, as Cecily had been frustrated with me of late. She claimed much annoyance garnered from the patrons concerning me—as I was not become a dainty pet, or an artisan, she had to fend offers and lost prestige in her refusal.

She cursed my odd looks, not that I was more beautiful than others—no. I was passing fair, with out color my skin was fair and rose-leafed, my nose straight and pert; I possessed a clean brow. Cecily claimed there was a mist about my eyes, some enchanting flame that hid 'neath the iris and drew you in, a hypnosis. She told me this, you realize, as no complement, but in a fit of temper—her moods had become sour and grim of late; I suspected 'twas her marriage prospects that had come along with the news of war that particularly soured her. There was much talk of a match 'twixt her and the Prince of Ameron, a smaller country across the sea, and I'd heard her spit the word barbarian to her shadow.

Rain had come once again to visit Cecily; I wondered at his motives, for I suspected their current amiability nothing more than a façade. They were made for arguments between them. I suppose it would not bode well for Cecily to fight with her sovereign, but that compliance felt unnatural. Rain had grown well though, lost none of the feminine beauty that so defined his features. I oft wondered if something vain lived in me, for I was fascinated and enraptured by beauty, and at the sign of age or ugliness, a fit of repulsion coursed through my veins, my thoughts. I disgusted myself, yet I could no more control it than could I control the flow of the tides.

So when Rain deigned visit, I looked forward to the occasion, and took my own visit to the clothier. I had ripped a gown on the beach stones, and another in the fruiting trees. I cannot say he was much surprised to see me; I frequented Monsire Valduin's as a moth to a firing lamp.

"Vio!" he exclaimed, pins falling from his slender mouth, salt hued mustache impeccably trimmed and twisted as was the latest fashion.

"Monsire." I had no choice but to grin, though I hated that nickname. I shook my dark hair, impatient, for time here was important.

"I-"

"Yes, yes, young fille needs a gown. I know you, you have ripped the last one, no?" His tone was thankfully free of reproach, unlike Cecily's ladies. "Color?" Monsire waved me to the back, where the great bolts and swathes of fabric were like a sea. I particularly liked the teal, however, Monsire did not believe that I was suited to teal. He always chose red. And never cranberry, pink, or pale hues, only the deep, deep darkened hues, blood spilt at midnight upon silver sword point with shadowed moon and obsidian sheen. I liked the color, rich, it made me shiver with delight—but Cecily liked it not. She'd lost none of her vanity. But Monsire Valduin considered it an insult to his genius if I refused to don the hue.

I saved that for important occasions, and now chose a pale, watered silk verdigris; I knew it suited me, and would not cause Monsire an apoplexy, as when I asked for a pale lemon habit. He'd fairly screeched that the color was only for les rougessess, my titian haired fellows.

Monsire called to me from the back; no, he did not need to measure me again. I was free then, until Cecily needed me again, but I did not return to my rooms. I remained outdoors as much as possible, of late, to stay away from my room, and my dreams.

I had in the past nights been frequented with a recurring dream; always the same, and always I woke with the same foreboding. There was a dark, shadow tainted palace, like those from paintings of the primeval ages, stained with blood and the heavy tristesse of death. A man stood before the throne, holding out his arms, as if in submission. A strange sound would wail, like sobbing and sighs and laughter all blended, and then the man would shine with a light so radiant I was blinded. My heart would beat faster and faster, thumping so fast and hard it would burst, my head beat and throbbed; then, a circlet crafted of shadows and tears fell at my feet.

I always, always awoke sobbing quietly. I kept these dreams to myself, from even Ise, for what meant but that I was cursed indeed, and would bring only sorrow in war. It surprised me that I could manage to maintain a front so cheerful when all I held within myself was dread.

So of course, I was in the center of the gardens when the Arulan Preama arrived. He had come, I knew, to discuss alliances with Rain, speculations about the shadow armies of Mvor. The same ambassador, the shadow-man, who had—unfortunately—been present for my Blooming had come again.

I had not seen him yet, but as for the Preama, I disliked him; he was a perfidious man with a condescending air and a salacious eye. Pompous, and lewd. I attempted to wriggle out of participating in his welcoming banquet, but it was to no avail. I, luckily, sat far from the Preama; unluckily, however, I was seated next to his niece. She had dark hair, and a mordant sense of humor. I politely declined conversation, and adjourned to the gardens at the first instant possible. I doubted I had ever seen a girl with such a golden-green sheen to her eyes, or such a reptilian smile.

Once outdoors, I always felt calmer, more welcome. Yet, I was not alone.

"Violante." I turned, surprised—Rain hardly ventured into the gardens, and when he did, 'twas with any number of princesses he was meant to court.

I grinned, for a moment forgetting my precarious position in his half-sister's court. "Straying from your princely duties, are we?" I had learnt the art of teasing from my fellow Blossoms, if naught else. "Kingly, soon now."

"And what would a reputable lady be doing strolling in a garden—alone?" He smiled, a flashing grin of teeth white as fish bone. I still found him handsome, in his feminine, sensual way, yet as I gazed on the Prince, my thoughts strayed to another's face. But I pushed such unbecoming thoughts aside, and continued to grin at the soon to be King.

"My usual things," I meant to elaborate on my mind's wanderings, but he cut me off.

"Netting stars and weaving swords from star dust?" I never felt uncomfortable, though I knew we were never to be suited in station, and he was to be my sovereign as well; Rain knew me, and he might tease, but I did not think he would ever hold my curse against me. He had never, from the start.

We parted, remarking on the upcoming season, and I soon there after fully threw myself into that. Just as soon as the rains had come, it seemed their season ceased, and spring came to reign in full. I believe late spring is my least favorite season, for it is slow, sunny, and when Cecily commissions her gowns for the Tulips. This is the highest event of the warm seasons at the Blooming Court, which leads to great strife and petty jealousies among the ladies.

Of course, Monsire Valduin tried to convince me to wear the gown of the Lily Queen, which, yearly, I refused, and he in turn, refused to allow any other clamoring to don it, and locked it away in hidden place. It was not the gown I was disappointed in, no, it was exquisite beyond doubt, but I could not don what it stood for: the Lily Queen was of the other world, the tricksy and the glamorous, and I refused to give in to that pressure.

But that year, I was informed I had no choice. Ise had been speaking of all the costuming she stayed up half the night for, and Monsire Valduin fitted yet another Blossom. In a fit, Rain and Cecily fair burst through the doorway, as much as their regal stature would allow, and commanded my presence immediately.

"Violante." Cecily spoke first, a tight glance at her half brother. "You may not refuse to costume as the Lily Queen."

Impatient, Rain gave to me the reason. "The Preama's niece is demanding the honor. She plays the part at home of harvest queen."

Cecily snorted. "Yes. And the silly chit's got into her patronizing little head the two are the same." She continued, "So, you have been presented with this part last fete…and have been fitted and playing for years. Do you understand?"

I gulped, and nodded, not able to answer anything at all. Cecily had sword-steel in her voice, and Rain's eyes were pleading.

So Monsire Valduin received his wish. And the night of the Tulips, I waited, hidden 'mongst the fens and ferns, peering through the fauna's latticework at the couples strolling in the garden. I could not enter the pavilion yet; I had need to linger until all, save the Tulip King, were already present. But I enjoyed viewing all the other guests' costumes. They were elaborate, some even ostentatious, except for one.

I caught sight of her, far down the path, striding alone. She was breathtaking. Adorned in only a thin layer of coarse wool, hued the lightest gray 'twas almost blue, with no decoration, her hair twined into thousands of tiny, shining braids, she set herself apart from the rest of the silken-clad and bejeweled peacocks, like a diamond glittering amidst dyed carnelians.

Ise.

Almost jealous, I gaped at her attire; was she meant to be clothed as a paesan? No, I shook my head, no. For while some might think so, the paesan life was hard, dirty, and without dignity. Ise carried herself in regal stature, in her every line was grace; a grave, and perhaps mocking, smile shaped her lips.

I believed, maybe, in that moment, Ise beautiful. And there I almost cried for her. For one night, she had captured her true spirit, and that in itself was as rare as comes.

After Ise had gone, I only passing noticed the remainder of the costumes. And then came time for me.

Though I'd seen my reflection—both the gown and I were magnificent—I never expected the entire pavilion to hush, instantly, upon my announcement. Which it did, and I stood atop the staircase, the sound of my own breathing heavy in my ears.

I scanned the crowd for Rand, but saw him not; however, I did see Rain, his upturned face expressionless. Something tightened in my stomach, and I suddenly wished I had never agreed to this ensemble. I squared my shoulders, sucked in a deep breath, and started down the steps, sending haughty stares at those who had previous snubbed me.

Vain and petty, I knew, but I could not resist it. If it was small of me, so be it, I knew I would no doubt later pay a price.

"Violante." Rohan, attired as a provincial Callaisienne maid, approached me first. She inclined her head, as she would never have done in a real social setting, and bestowed me with a tight smile. In turn, I tilted my head to one side, and smiled true in return, for behind her, Rain appeared. I gestured to my costume to illustrate my compliance, but lost the smile and kept my face devoid of expression for scowling behind Rain was the Preama's niece. Rain had not noticed her, though I marked that she—banned from the Lily Queen—had attired herself as an ancient Arulean Priestess. She stood out from the garb, but her visage darkened as Rain held out his arm to me.

"Your highness," he teased. As I was about to place my palm on his forearm, however, a screech pierced through the festive air. Through the gently wafting music, all chatter lulled, heads turned to the source of the noise.

Save one.

Mine.

For the primal sound had erupted from my throat, as a hand had brushed upon my bare shoulder. I knew the touch, and though it was a man who smiled without mirth, it was death that had swept through my soul. He did not address my faux pas.

"Dance with me, dina." His eyes were dark bands of iron, his posture bellicose and grim. I swept away from Rain, compelled; eyes remained on me, curious and reproaching for ignoring their King, but my gaze kept trained on the Mvorian's face. He was a good dancer.

"Tell me, dina, what you see that all else miss." His voice was gripping, and horrifying, a double-edged sword, to draw you close, then lop off your head.

"I don't know what you mean." As much as I spoke my mind, I knew, somehow, one day he would hold my life in his hand—and crush it like soapstone. "I'm just a courtier. And one easily spooked, it appears." I attempted to laugh off my scream. The ambassador did not return my smile; his dark gaze stripped my heart.

"Mvor does not appreciate liars, little dina. You would do well to remember." He bowed, for the song had ended. He left me standing frozen on the center of the floor. I shivered, knowing I should move, willing my limbs to work, but I stood still as a dying branch in the midst of eyes mockingly appraising me.

"Violante." Ise stared at me, a frown wrinkling her dark brow. She held the back of her hand flat against my throat; it felt like sun and earth and warmth. I wanted to tell her not to look so, for it would start even more tongues wagging, and really, the incident had been nothing. Except horrifying.

Ise pushed me into motion, back into the couples, past Rain and the Preama's niece, and I couldn't wait any longer in that room. The atmosphere had become invasive, cloying—I felt my feet already flying toward the door, fleet and anxious.

The Lily Queen awaited the final dance alone.