The cool, indifferent marble of the floor; the elegant curve of the chairs, the noble velvet of their cushions; the delicate, flamboyant, orchids in their jade-green glazed pots, resting atop the deep mahogany of the table; it all mocked him. In well-rehearsed choir, the furniture sang of wealth and waste at forte. It was a song Thainen was all too familiar with. He had spent all his life hearing it and drinking it in. He had lived his whole life taking advantage of it, drunk on the power it instilled.
Crown Prince Thainen reflected on the fact that the first step towards his future would transpire within the walls of this room. This opulent, decadent room, this shrine to grandeur and oppression and inequality.
Thainen felt utterly restless. The collar of his shoulder felt as a noose yet to pull tight—restrictive and ominous. The linked cuffs of his shirt felt like manacles, his waistcoat a straitjacket. While these clothes were his own, they felt like a strangers; tight and loose and out of proportion. Had they always felt like this? Thainen could not recall. Thainen could not even call to mind the amount of time between the present moment and the occasion when he had last felt the need to wear clothing this formal.
He tapped his fingers on the mirror-surface of the mahogany table; just like home. Thainen could see his hand’s reflection in the table, semitransparent and ghostly. They were the same hands he had always possessed. The same clothes and the same hands. He leaned over the table, and saw his same face reflected—or perhaps not. His pale skin seemed paler, his red eyes seemed wilder, his cheeks seemed hollower, his dark hair seemed more disarrayed—and somehow, wrong. Perhaps the barber has decided to cut it differently this time.
What did it matter? He was who he had been—before. He possessed his same hands, his same clothes, his same face. Why not have a go at his same smile? He coaxed the corners of his mouth to lift, his brows to relax.
The person smiling back at him was convincing enough; at first glance, he was the dashing, charismatic face of the Thainen the world remembered. The longer he looked, though, the more the illusion decayed. Three seconds revealed an edge of mania in that smile, and depravity showed at six.
Thainen’s smile faded into a grimace, and he ripped his sight away from the reflection; the effigy. In the past, he would have laughed at people who claimed inability to face their own reflection; called them melodramatic, perhaps. Thainen did not favor admitting that he could very well belong to their number.
His thoughts shrank away from the matter, resting on a topic somewhat less uncomfortable. Where is the empress? She had sent a missive informing Thainen that she would be content to meet him at two hours before noon on Thursday, in the Orchid Parlor. Well, it was Thursday. A servant had informed Thainen that this room was, in fact, the Orchid Parlor, if the silly little flowers themselves weren’t testament enough. Referring to the indifferent black face of his wristwatch, Thainen saw that it was but several minutes until the appointed time. A respectable host would have arrived by now.
Thainen checked his watch again. Something is amiss here. His erratic intuition was acutely aware of this. His red eyes flickered back to his watch.
With considerable chagrin, Thainen realized not only the crime committed here, but the perpetrator; himself. He would have liked to shift the blame to his watch, but how can a poor, innocent object be held accountable for its condition? It displayed the correct time, all crimes aside. It displayed the correct time of Thainen’s old life, miles to the east, across the ocean; it displayed the time of Magtara.
After barely a week in Soltara, the watch was but a strikingly literal testament to the fact that Thainen had yet to adjust to this new place, this new time—this new life.
Thainen fidgeted with his cufflinks, clasping, unclasping. He would like to embrace this place as his new home; all its detestable dysfunction aside, Thainen would like that very much. The only point of contention for Thainen was how Soltara would return the embrace. If they were going take his image, slap it on wanted posters beside the common criminals of the land and label it Public Enemy Number One, the regret he felt for his arrival here would be unfathomable. He knew very well that Empress Helena of Soltara currently had the reins to his life firmly in her grasp. He knew this, and he loathed the fact.
The only action available to him at the moment was to feign patience while twiddling his thumbs and whiling away the time. The idea of waiting another hour in this room did not rest well with Thainen. It crawled like a stirred nest of stinging ants, over his skin and through his core.
The quiescence of the room was not at all consoling. It was maddening.
By no expenditure of personal fortitude could Thainen remain here.
With the ostensibly natural dignity Thainen had exuded since birth, he stood and departed from the Orchid Parlor with brisk strides.