If the meeting feast had been magnificent, then the engagement dinner was ten times more so. As Leopold entered the dining room, he was followed by several other noblemen and noblewomen. His uncle, Hand of the king, was positioned at the door and was greeting everyone who entered with an uncharacteristically cheerful grin. He wished he was as good an actor.
When he reached Apophis his uncle smiled at him, but his eyes remained hollow. "Ah, the prince has arrived. You boy," he gestured as a passing servant. "Show the prince to his seat." The servant nodded and led the way.
Nieneve was already there, wearing a beautifully flowing emerald dress, laughing and joking with a couple of servants. Leopold noticed how the silver clasp around her waist emphasized the curve in her figure. He licked his lips nervously. There was something about this woman that unnerved him slightly.
Her sight fixed on him and she smiled. It was small and polite in comparison to the broad grin she had given the servants, yet still breathtaking. Just looking at her smooth, flawless skin his fingers itched with the desire to press themselves against her, perhaps even inside of her. He hoped now more than ever that the g-ds would grant him luck tonight, so that he may succeed with his dare.
He saw that Pharneus Dracarys sat beside her stiffly, his eyes smouldering. He was obviously displeased that his sister had chosen to acquaint herself with the palace's workers. Each time a servant offered to refill his chalice with more wine or fetch him some more food he snapped at them. Nieneve ignored her brother's bad manners, yet the flush across her cheeks betrayed her embarrassment.
Nobody mentioned the empty chair at the head of the dining table. Perhaps everyone was secretly glad the king had not bothered showing up to the event. Leopold was relieved and he did not care if it showed on his face.
He leant over to Nieneve and whispered in her ear, "would you care to dance, my lady?"
She frowned. "But the feast has barely started."
A hand moved under the table, her brother's, giving her a subtle pinch. Leopold pretended not to have seen. "Actually, I would like that very much, your royal highness," she said suddenly, her attitude changing. She beamed at him and held out her hand. He took it.
They were both aware of the eyes that followed them as they waltzed around the dance floor. Even the other dancers which they weaved through paid more attention to them than their partners.
"You're an excellent dancer, your royal highness," Nieneve complimented him. It was small talk, a line which would have been expected of her. He had tried to dance a little closer to her, but she always managed to widen the gap between them in the steps that followed.
"Please, call me Leopold."
She turned her head slightly away. "Oh I couldn't, your highness. It wouldn't be appropriate."
Leopold tried a different tactic. He whispered to her, his lips so close to her ear that she almost shivered as his breath tickled her skin. "You look beautiful this evening." His hands slid down an inch so that they rested just below her belt. "Your dress matches my eyes." He smirked though she could not see him do so. It was a good thing that his father had decided to give this event a miss. No doubt the sight of that dress would have gravely offended him.
The music came to an end then and so she took the opportunity to back away. "Thank you, your royal highness," she said with a curtsey. "May we return back to the table?" It was phrased as a question, but her tone suggested otherwise. He nodded.
As they made their way back to dinner, the light chatter that resonated throughout the room died away completely. A knight that bore the uniform of the King's Guard loudly announced the arrival of his majesty the king.
The dining room's large doors slid open and in stepped a man with iron grey hair, a patchy beard and sallow skin. If not for his royal attire and golden crown that lay lopsided on top of his balding head, he could have easily been mistaken for a beggar. The king clutched onto a chain which was attached to the collar of a slave girl. It was a different slave to the one he saw beside him over a week ago. Leopold shuddered to think what had happened to the last one.
The king dragged her with him to his seat as if she were some dog. Her eyes flicked from noble to noble on the way there, silently pleading with them to save her. Everyone turned away from her, including Leopold. All except from Nieneve. Her pretty features had twisted into an expression of horror and disgust.
She could not help herself and opened her mouth to say something. Leopold prepared himself to cut in over her; better him than her to face his father's wrath. After all, he was used to it. However, Apophis materialised behind them and placed a hand lightly on her shoulder.
"Best not to say anything, my lady. His majesty is a very sensitive man." His voice was quiet so that only she and Leopold could hear him.
The king sat down on his seat and sharply yanked on the chain so that, with a strangled gasp, the slave girl was forced to her knees beside him. Several servants came over to him, filling up his chalice and plate, all muttering "your majesty" in scared, dreading voices.
Leopold watched as his father's eyes scanned the faces that sat at the table until they found him. For a moment they fixed on him, glaring at his son's Slythonian features. Then they were caught by the emerald of Nieneve's dress. It was as though a fire had been lit inside his eyes, a fresh hatred brightening his stare with a fury so hot that the grey of his irises smoked.