It had been several days since his father had told him he was to be married to Nieneve Dracarys and now it had reached Leopold that she had entered the castle.
The servant delivering the news stood in his bedchamber, eyes watering from the smoke that lay thick in the air. Leopold dismissed him and turned back to his friend, Arfur Swornsby, the third son of one of the king's many bannermen. They began to giggle like two young girls, the scent of opium distorting their surroundings and giving everything an edge of hilarity.
Leopold had not had so much fun in what seemed like months, having been confined within the castle grounds until his wedding day. His uncle, as much as the prince had protested, issued the order, telling him it would not do for him to go frollocking about in less-than savoury establishments near the time of such an important event. However, Apophis Vyper had turned a blind eye to his nephew's friends sneaking things into the castle so long as no one else noticed.
"You better go," said Arfur, choking back laughter. His cheeks were flushed almost as red as his hair. "Before you insult the Dracarys and they call off the wedding."
"What a shame that would be," Leopold replied, dramatically brushing a hand across his forehead and causing his friend to laugh even more.
"You should go like that," Arfur suggested, pointing at Leopold nightwear which he hadn't bothered to change out of. "It really... brings out your eyes."
"Oh, how you flatter me so." Leopold pinched at his freckled cheek. Arfur shoved him.
"You dare strike your future king?" The prince cried out in mock-fury.
"Only when he acts like a tit!"
They began playfully to shove and punch each other until a knock at the door interrupted them. It was his uncle. Even in the room's hazy atmosphere his snakelike eyes were sharper than ever. Their dark green irises glistened with what would have been fury, if Apophis was the kind of man to lose his temper.
"Are you still not ready?" He asked, his voice deadly calm. Leopold felt his friend cringe away from Apophis' silent rage. "Nieneve Dracarys and her brother Pharneus are making their way over to the dining area as we speak."
He snapped his fingers and a handful of servants gathered behind him. "I will make excuses for my incompetent nephew just this once. You have one hour to dress and get yourself to the dining hall."
His uncle did not have to add a threat at the end of his words. It already hung there thicker than the smoke. Apophis whirled around and left the room, leaving the prince to get ready.
Leopold entered the dining hall in half the time his uncle had told him, dressed in his finest clothes and purple cloak with the king's sigil stitched onto it. He felt Apophis' eyes fix onto him, watching his every move. Behave, he was telling him.
A magnificent feast was laid out before him and its smell seemed even more alluring after spending the whole afternoon chasing the dragon, but he forced his attention onto the girl sitting at the table next to his empty seat.
Woman, he corrected himself as he got closer, yet she still had a youthful look about her. The whispers he had heard on the way there had been true; she was much more beautiful than her portrait. Although the artist had perfectly captured one feature: her eyes.
As he stood beside her he saw a coldness in them that seemed to transport him to the Northern lands. He stifled the urged to shiver and knelt down gracefully on one knee, just as he had been instructed to do. He took her small hand in his and brought it to his lips, kissing it gently.
"Your highness," she replied, surprising civil.
As he lifted his head, she smiled at him and blushed lightly. When her eyes met his, she looked away timidly, far from the cold bitch he had initially thought she'd be. Perhaps he had just imagined it? Her eyes now looked to him as vast as the ocean, but had the same warmth as its water close to the shore.
Throughout the meal they talked only as much as expected, exchanging small talk and being civil to each other. They were uncomfortably aware that everyone else at the table were watching them closely. No doubt there will be gossip drifting around the castle the next day, embellishing the event, making it more interesting than it actually was.
In fact, the only topic that stirred Leopold's full attention was when Nieneve spoke of the household which she grew up in. The wide, open landscapes she described, trees taller than this castle's tallest tower and lakes that eased the heat of even the hottest tower.
Leopold, who had rarely been past the city's boundaries, was mesmerised by nature and the fresh air seemed to him almost as sweet as opium.
"I would like you take me there sometime," he blurted out without thinking.
Her eyes widened in shock, and then she smiled. For a minute her face was serene and wise beyond her years, making him feel like a floundering little boy.
"I should like that very much," she told him, before complimenting the food again to smooth over the awkward atmosphere.
When the feast was at an end he noticed his uncle slip back in the room.
"Where did you go off to?" He asked, walking over to him. Apophis inspected his wobbling stance.
"How much wine did you have to drink?"
"Not that much," Leopold lied. "But you know the trouble with these celebratory banquets. Servants keep filling up your cup without you even noticing." He hiccuped loudly. Fortunately Nieneve and her brother had vacated the dining hall a while before the affects of the alcohol had began to show.
His uncle stepped close to him so that nobody else could what he had to say. "I've made arrangements for you to be able to leave the castle unnoticed so that you may spend the rest of the night with the buffoons you call friends. This is on the condition that you bed no whores and return before dawn."
Leopold nodded and listened closely to the instructions that followed.