I had done it. I’d pulled off the impossible and scraped together the party to end all parties on a woefully limited budget and timeline. My sisters doubted me. My friends said it couldn’t be done. But I’d called in every single favor owed to me, and look at me now.
I sat at the head of a packed ballroom on a raised dais in a gold-gilt chair bedecked in enough gems to rival the crown jewels. Sure, these were fakes made out of glass, but from a distance, they sparkled just like diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. My dress was a stunning blue sleeveless ballgown, cut so low in the front that it dipped between my breasts. The skirt of it hugged my ass and thighs before flaring past my knees. It was a nightmare to walk in, but I looked like an absolute goddess in it, and really, who needed to walk when I was floating on the high of my success?
I leaned to my right, where my friend Andy sat in a slightly lower and less ornate chair, playing the part of my consort for the night. “How do I look?”
She rolled her eyes at first but gave me a dutiful once over. The nearby witchlight painted her brown skin in varying tones of ochre, teal, and seafoam as it changed colors in time with the music. Her elbow-length locs swung over her shoulder as she leaned closer and shot me a deadpan stare. “You look fucking gorgeous and you know it, Bri.”
I sent her an exaggerated wink and sat back in my seat, grinning. I did know it, but it was nice to hear that nothing had changed in the hour since the party started. My strawberry-blonde hair tumbled around my shoulders, curled into loose waves. I’d lined my large blue eyes in kohl, filled in my brows with a delicate pencil, and stained my lips and cheeks with a rouge another of our friends, Tamara, made. She called the color Scarlet Seductress, and from the looks being thrown my way, it was living up to its name.
My gaze drifted across the ballroom to the dancefloor. There were so many couples on it that the crowd had spilled over the edges, tables hastily pushed back to make more room. People wound around each other, flirting and gyrating as the musicians I’d hired played a dark, sensual melody.
I glanced to the left, where a statue of a flirtatious nymph rose from a shallow basin. She held a marble jug tipped sideways, a steady stream of wine flowing from the mouth of it to fall back into the pool at her feet. As I watched, a young nobleman tipped his empty glass into the stream, refilling it before strolling away. There were several of these statues dotted throughout the room, each offering a different type of wine, mead, or ale. From the noise of the crowd, the closeness of the couples on the dance floor, and the constant jovial sound of jests, conversation, and laughter, my guests were doing their best to take advantage of this easy access to alcohol while it lasted.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving us,” a man lamented.
I turned to watch Lord Edmond Diamin fall prostrate at my feet.
Andy snickered beside me, and I didn’t bother to hide my own amusement. Eddy was another of our close friends. Tall, with flame-red hair, ruddy skin, and a love for food and drink, he never took himself too seriously, so he was a staple at every palace party.
He arched his back and propped himself upright on his elbows, staring at me with guileless brown eyes. “It’s going to be so boring without you.”
“I know,” I said, leaning forward to cup his chin.
His gaze fell straight into my cleavage, but I couldn’t blame him for that. I’d worn this dress for a reason, and seeing the heat in his eyes gave me a small burst of confidence and drove away the nerves that had threatened when he mentioned my upcoming departure. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t think of that tonight, that I would throw myself into this one last party and give myself a sendoff that none of my friends and sycophants would ever forget. And that’s what I would do, godsdamn it.
Eddy closed his eyes and pretended to sob. “I’m going to miss those tits so, so much.”
I laughed and gave his cheek a gentle slap. “I’ll have the court portraitist paint you a copy of them before I go. That way, you can look at them whenever you like.”
His eyes snapped open, and all pretense faded as he stared at me. “You swear to the gods?” I nodded, and he rolled onto his back, arms splayed wide over the dais. “Myrodis, take me now, for I may die a happy man.”
I was torn between laughing and rolling my eyes that he would invoke our patron god, the god of summer and harvests, to come reap his mortal soul. “But you haven’t even seen the painting yet, Eddy.”
He pointed a finger skyward. “Hold that request, if you please, oh benevolent one. It was spoken too soon and half in jest.”
Andy and I shared a look, grinning. Gods, I would miss him, miss her, miss this.
Stop it, I scolded myself. There was no use dwelling on that now. I’d never been morose in my life, and I refused to succumb to sadness when there was still so much fun to have.
“We should dance,” I said.
Andy was out of her seat in a flash. “Thank the gods. We’ve sat here lording over this party long enough. It’s time we show them how it’s done.”
Eddy rolled to his feet and offered me his hand. I took it and let him hold it tight as he led us to the dance floor. We gathered others to us as we moved, Tamara slinking out from between two towering lordlings to fall into step on Andy’s other side, her blonde hair almost white, it was so pale, a stark contrast to the black dress that clung to her voluptuous curves. Jerome and Megan broke away from another group and fell into stride next to me, Megan squeezing my arm, her green eyes flashing with warmth and affection, black curls loose and bouncing over her shoulders with every step. Beside her, Jerome shot me a smile, white teeth contrasting with his dark brown skin in the dim light, then curled his arm around Megan’s waist and leaned in to whisper something in her ear that turned her positively scarlet. They were married now, had been for months. I glanced around at our small group, wondering when we’d all grown up, when things had gotten so serious.
I swear it felt like yesterday that we used to chase each other through the castle hallways, a band of feral miscreants plaguing our elders and driving the palace officials mad with our constant antics.
We needed to bring some of that chaos back, and I knew just the thing to do it, but first –
“Shots!” I yelled, snagging a tray from a passing server and handing out the signature mix I’d created for the night. It was called The Tipsy Princess, a mix of strawberry liquor, blonde rum, and cucumber coolie. They were refreshing, delicious, and deceptively strong.
Four hours later, fifty future lords and ladies stood crowded around the drawbridge chanting, “Let it down, let it down, let it down!”
The poor guards looked out at us in confusion. Foreign threats and attacks they were used to; they had no idea what to do with a drunken, insider threat.
I strode to the front of the crowd and pointed an imperious finger, trying to figure out which of the twin guards I was looking at. Logically, I knew there was only one of them, but my eyes were fuzzy from drink, and I swear the guards were multiplying before them. “My name is Princess Brianne of Tisalt, and by my royal blood, you will lower this gate, sir.” The order was only slightly ruined by the hiccup that followed.
“Let it down!” Eddy started the chant back up.
“Let it down! Let it down!” we all chorused.
The guards relented, cowed into submission by our yelling or worried we were about to wake the entire castle, and slowly, the drawbridge began to grind open. A raucous cheer went up in celebration.
“What exactly are you doing?” a far too sober voice drawled beside me.
I glanced up to see Effran, my father’s captain of the guard, looking bleary-eyed and rumpled like he just rolled out of bed. His blonde curls were a riot, his uniform half pulled on.
“Flopping competition,” I said. The drawbridge clanged into place, and I pointed past him toward it. “To the moat!”
“To the moat!” the crowd roared around me.
We surged forward as one. Effran kept pace with me, and I wondered which of my discreet royal guards thought he needed to be woken up for this.
“Make sure no one drowns,” he called out, and it was then I noticed the other uniformed men and women falling in behind us.
I shrugged and lifted my skirts to keep pace with the others. At least the guards weren’t trying to end our antics this time. Maybe Dad knew I needed one last hurrah, and he’d ordered them not to intervene unless we were in danger. I made a mental note to thank him when I sobered up. Given how he’d reacted the last time I’d stormed into his and Mom’s room shitfaced in the middle of the night, he wouldn’t welcome a repeat performance of it now.
As soon as we were on the bridge, the noblemen began shucking off their heavier layers, discarded boots and jackets dropping into the water as they rolled and floated over the edge. We had just come out of the rainy season, and the moat water was high enough that only ten feet separated us from it, sufficient for a decent flop but not so far away that someone might get hurt diving in.
“Wait, wait!” I yelled as a few eager beavers stumbled toward the edge. “The rules, first. We must converse.”
Women crowded around me as we started scheming, all of us talking over each other in our haste, some throwing out ridiculous ideas like, “They have to do it blindfolded,” or, “While reciting the last dirge of Deeks Withers.” I snickered at that one, imagining two dozen drunken noblemen trying to recite stodgy poetry as they flew through the midnight air. Finally, we came to an agreement, and I turned and addressed the men.
“The rules are simple. You must do it fully naked or not at all.” Snickers erupted from behind me. Some of the women had betrothed amongst the men, and they wanted to get a sneak peek at what they were in for on their wedding nights. The rest of us were just horny louts supporting them. “Only belly flops will be counted,” I continued. “No side or back ones. We will judge the winner once everyone has gone.”
“What do we win?” someone yelled.
I grinned. “The winner will get a kiss from each of us.”
I’d never seen people strip so fast. Two men tipped into the water in their haste.
“Disqualified!” we called after them, laughing.
“Go one at a time, you ingrates!” Andy bellowed, and the men began to form into some semblance of order.
Beside me, Effran groaned. “I can’t believe I got woken up for this.”
I elbowed him. “Shut up, or I’ll order someone to throw you in.”
Megan pushed between us, mouth hanging open. “Holy hells, look at Eddy’s rig.”
“You better not be!” her husband yelled back.
I threw a hand over her eyes, laughing and staring because, damn, she was right. Eddy was hung.
Andy snorted. “Who would have thought?”
Another woman beside her cackled. “I would have.”
I craned forward to see Lady Cara Devin, future Duchess of Lamont and one of the most stuck-up girls at court, openly ogling my good friend. “Cara, you didn’t.”
She sent me a mischievous smile. “Oh, I did.”
I should have gotten her drunk more often. Who knew what a salacious woman hid behind all that snobbery?
No regrets tonight, I reminded myself, turning back to the frivolity.
“Jump!” a woman behind me yelled, and the first man went in.
“Ooh,” we all groaned when he hit the water face-first with a splat!
Maybe this wasn’t my best idea. What if someone actually got injured?
He came up laughing half a second later, and relief coursed through me. It would be fine. The water was warm from the summer sun, and we had sober guards and good swimmers in our ranks to fish out anyone who might get themselves into trouble. And if anything got really dicey, there was me, the last resort.
“Next!” Andy called, and the competition began in true.
There were some truly terrible belly flops, a few side flops, and face dives as people lost their nerve at the last minute, but the absolute best moment came when Eddy, always looking for a laugh, pretended to stumble and fall off the bridge, managing to turn at the last second and make the biggest splash of all. The competition was only two-thirds done, but from the looks we all shared, we knew he’d be the winner. Unsurprisingly, no one outdid him, and we stood on high and declared him the champion to a resounding chorus of cheers and hoots.
“As the winner, I get a favor, right?” he called up at us, his arms swishing back and forth in the water as he kept his head above it. Most of the men had stayed below, splashing each other and taunting their rivals.
“You mean besides more kisses than you probably deserve?” Andy called down.
I grinned, feeling drunkenly benevolent. “Yes, fine. What do you want?”
His teeth flashed white in the moonlight. “You have to join us down here for the kisses.”
I looked over at Andy, who was shaking her head.
“Don’t you dare,” Effran said, reaching for me.
I leaped off the bridge before he could catch me, plunging feet first into the gross, dank water of the moat.
Ew. This was a mistake.
Goodbye, gorgeous shoes, I thought as they fell from my feet and plummeted into the depths. Though the water was less than pristine, it still wound around me like a doting pet, welcoming me into its depths. The fear and anxiety I’d suppressed for weeks floated away from me into the murky green. It was hard to be worried beneath the welcoming weight of so much water.
Home, some part of me recognized, and I would have laughed if there wasn’t a risk of sucking in a mouth full of moat water. I was a princess of Tisalt, so why did I feel more like myself here, in these stale, dank depths, than the glittering ballroom I just left behind?
Godblessed, came the answer, unbidden to my mind.
Right. Of course. And no one, not myself, my friends, or anyone else, would ever let me forget it. It’s why Effran tried to grab me before I jumped in – so I didn’t do something foolish like hide down here forever to avoid facing my fate up on the surface.
It could be worse, I told myself. You could have been godborn instead.
I shuddered. Yes, it was bad enough that I’d been blessed by the ocean god Ocanic at birth and could control and manipulate water; I could only imagine how much worse life would be if that god had fathered me instead.
But why had I been blessed? The palace mages and scribes had been working together to solve that riddle since the day I was born, but despite all their research and spellcasting, the answer remained out of reach, likely obscured by the very god who’d gifted me. It was rare for humans to be blessed by the gods, granted some small measure of their powers. Human mages had to work for every ounce of magic they possessed. They had to learn rune carving, master complex potion making, coax the magic from the ether around them, and bend it to their wills. Most spells took hours to create. Godblessed and born were different. I didn’t have to wave my hands or make woo-woo noises. All it took was a thought, and the water obeyed me.
Some small part of me hoped the scribes and mages never figured it out because I both anticipated and feared learning why I was blessed in equal measure. There was always a reason a person was chosen, one that typically wasn’t apparent until some critical moment in their lives. The last Ocanic godblessed Tisaltian was born three hundred years ago. She was a street urchin, and no one even knew she’d been gifted until she saved the capital city from dragon fire.
It meant my life would be epic, my name spoken about in the ages to come. So, who could blame me for trying to have a little fun while I could? For throwing raucous parties and leading my fellow nobles into moontouched antics like this? I didn’t want to have so much pressure placed upon me; I didn’t want whatever terrible fate was in store for me. Because epic lives were never easy. That street urchin had died in defense of the city, killed by the very dragon she’d been trying to save it from. Sure, she’d taken the thing down with her and so lived on in infamy as Danicki the Dragonslayer, but, yeah, no, thank you. I’d rather live a happy, shallow, long life than be flambéed like she was at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Gods, she was only four years older than me when she died.
Motion above me drew my attention upward. I’d been holding my breath for too long, and I could feel my body changing, a slight burning along my neck that warned me I was about to form gills.
I let the water curl around me one last time and stroked my hand through it like I was petting a beloved cat. With an unspoken farewell, I kicked my feet and surged toward the bright light of witchlights and the glowing manflesh above me.
Suddenly, I’d never regretted my ability to see underwater more. Because, wow. Men really weren’t meant to be viewed from below.
Hands hauled me up as I reached the surface. I broke free from the water to see my friends shaking their heads at me. None of them looked worried over my prolonged absence, but then they were used to me getting distracted any time I was around so much water.
Eddy swam toward me, grinning. “About time you rejoined us. But, Gods, Bri. I didn’t think you’d do it.” His gaze dropped down, trying to see below the surface. “You ruined that gorgeous dress.”
“Worth it,” I told him, wrapping my arms around his neck and planting a kiss on his lips that I hoped he’d never forget. I broke off when I felt his sizable manhood start to swell against my belly, laughing and splashing him in the face as I pushed away.
“Who’s next?” I called up.
Megan shrugged, muttered, “Fuck it,” and jumped in. The rest of the women followed suit, and soon, a school of nobles swam like fish amongst the reeds and rushes of the castle moat. I treaded water, grinning at my friends and fellow aristocrats, grateful for this one last reckless night they’d given me.
In three days, I’d be married to a barbarian king, a man with a black reputation for violence and cruelty, and I needed all the good memories I could get if I had any hope of surviving him.
Copyright © 2023 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.