Took me long enough!
The Church of Saint Ozma
"You're not touching your ham," King Taiyang said, pointing his two-pronged fork at Ruby's still half-full plate. "Usually by now you would be on your third serving."
"I don't feel very hungry today, father," Ruby muttered, pushing around her peas and gravy around her plate. The small loaf of bread sat on the edge of her dish, a single bite taken from it, and soaking up gravy, leaving it soggy and unappetizing.
"Well," the king said between mouthfuls of his own breakfast meal, "it is delightful to finally see you eating like a proper lady for once."
Ruby's eyes glanced over to her older sister. Yang was eating slowly, still picking at her plate, cutting into small bites of ham and dabbing at her face with her meal handkerchief to remove the excess grease. Even the self-proclaimed warrior princess she was, she still ate like a true royal. Yang ripped a piece from her bread loaf, eating it, then sipping on a teaspoon full of gravy, instead of mopping it up with her bread, like Ruby, or any man would. Ruby rolled her eyes. The perfect daughter. Beautiful, tall, strong. Not afraid to punch someone in the face, yet still able to act with perfect ladylike decorum.
She loved Yang; she really did. But did Yang have to be so perfect, all the time?
"You missed the entire night's rounds, Rubes." Yang said after she finished munching on her food, laying down her cutlery at the proper angle so the attendants would know she was finished with this course. "It's not like you to miss the joust. Did you even see Lord Wukong's tilt? Or Sir Callows'?"
"I was not feeling like myself. I chose to leave for some fresh air."
Taiyang hummed, "are you feeling alright? Shall I fetch the royal physician to check on your health? You do look pale. A proper bloodletting can cure you of your ailment, or so I'm told."
"That's quite alright." Ruby bowed her head in thanks.
"You do know that I care deeply for your health, Ruby. I would hate to see you fall sick like your mother."
"I know, thank you," Ruby replied. "I would tell you if it was anything major. It will pass."
"As long as you are healthy enough to join us for morning prayer." Taiyang sat back in his seat, returning his attention to finishing the meal in front of him.
"I am," Ruby said, picking at her food a little more.
The three of them sat in silence, continuing their meal. The one meal a day that would be done without the full regalia that came with feasting the king and his princesses. Ruby enjoyed this meal above all others. It was still stressful, seeing as how her father was able to freely comment on her behaviour, but at least there were no sly comments or quiet glares when she cut into her meat, instead of delicately separating the pieces along the grain.
Sometimes, being a princess was hard. At least the dresses were nice. Ruby eyed Yang once again. Her hair was long and fell down her back and over her shoulders in pristine golden waves. The crown rested on her brow, matching her complexion well. Her beautiful lilac eyes were shut as she sipped silently at her tea, holding the tea-plate underneath to catch any nonexistent drops. She wore a long tunic, fastened tightly around the waist, in proper Valian fashion. Dozens of laces held the garment together, all carefully tied by her handmaidens. Overtop was a silk waistband which wrapped around her bodice to hide any loose threads and seams. A faux gold weave lined the dress's trim, encircling her dress's wide collar and the edges of its sleeves. It was short sleeved, cut off just below the elbow, to cool her in the heat of the day. Underneath her tunic, she wore her cuisses and greaves. The black armour would protect her thighs and lower legs. Her tunic would likely be shed in favour of the rest of her suit of armour, come the day's end.
There lay the only difference between the two of them where Ruby knew she was more ladylike than her elder sister. While Yang preferred to traipse around in knight's cold plating, she much preferred her dresses. Her long red skirts were layered upon each other, from the light underskirt to her silk long tunic to the heavier, embellished outer tunic. Her entire ensemble was held together, not with tight laces and drapery like Yang's. Instead, she had chosen to use the latest trend in Atlesian female fashion, a corset. She preferred it on the outside of her dress, displayed to the world, rather than underneath all her other clothes. She had purchased it and would feel no shame in displaying it for all to see. And she was sure that Weiss would love to see it too.
"I almost forgot to mention. Tonight, the Schnee daughters will be supping with us. As will King Ironwood. Along with a surprise guest, coming special for you, my Ruby."
Ruby almost spit out her tea at her father's remark. Instead, it left her coughing and clutching at her throat. After a few seconds of choking, she relaxed enough to take a calming sip of tea, waving off the attendant who came rushing towards her.
"My apologies. I was not expecting such good news," Ruby said eloquently, hoping her reaction could be misinterpreted to mean dining with the Atlesian king, rather than her lover.
"Good. I hope that you will act properly in front of the king, the Schnees and your lord guest?" King Taiyang raised a single eyebrow.
Ruby gave a single nod of understanding. With that, the king clapped loudly, signalling for the attendants and servants surrounding their table to go about removing the plates and cutlery from them and begin cleaning and preparing for the next meal to be held in his majesty's dining pavilion.
Ruby rose from her seat, allowing a servant to pull it out for her, and followed her father and Yang out of the large tent and into the wider world of the Grande Tournament fairgrounds. At once, they were surrounded by a dozen knights and royal guards. Protection was required around the king and princess heir. Even though both were more than capable of defending themselves, it would not look favourable for either to be assassinated at their own tournament.
The Royal Guard marched in formation, keeping a tight diamond around the three of them as they walked the path towards the exit to the grounds and entrance to the main town where the tourney was being held.
The stark contrast between the clean and polished buildings where she walked now and the rugged, desolate hovels she saw the day prior was off-putting. Was the town normally so divided between cleanliness and putrescence? Or was it done purely for their sakes? And the sakes of all other nobility attending these games.
There was not enough time to ponder such thoughts for long, as they arrived at the largest building in town. The tall bell tower of the church rose high above any of the other dwellings. The bell itself shined in the morning sunlight. The church was made of cobblestone brick, etched with spiralling designs and strange, otherworldly silhouettes. Ruby was told that the etchings on the outside of churches, along with the vibrant stained glass windows which covered the building, all told the stories written in the holy scriptures.
The most noticeable stained glasswork, was a large circular one, cut just above the doorway and reached near the top of the structure, just underneath the steeple and bell tower. It held a four-pointed star, each point representing both a cardinal direction, as well as a gift bestowed upon humanity by the Lord of Light and Lord of Darkness. At the center of the star was a small cane with a silver grip. The staff of Saint Ozma. The four-pointed star was likely the most well known symbol of the faith, followed closely by the staff. Both seemed to be slapped onto everything of note.
Even her father, the king of Vale itself, wore the four-pointed star as a pendant around his neck. Far too many houses and family crests bore the four-pointed star as a show of piety. The young princess technically owned a clip with which to hold her travelling cloak in place, with the very symbol, but she had long since discarded it somewhere deep within one of her closets.
As they reached the entrance, the head priest of the church stepped outside to wish them welcome.
"Your grace," he said with a low bow at the waist. Yang and Ruby gave each other quick looks, egging the other on to break out into laughter first. The top of the priest's head was shaved completely bald, while a ring of hair encircled the spot, flowing long in the back. The princess heir was the first to crack, disguising it as a clearing of her throat remarkably well.
"And you as well, your royal highness," the priest had assumed that Yang was trying to gain his attention. He bowed to her as well, before standing and turning back to his church, leading them in.
He did not bother to glance at Ruby, not that Ruby minded. She was used to it. Most priests did not like her. Likely due to her tendency to question the logic of events in the holy scriptures. Possibly because word had spread that she defended some of the points made by the Lord of Darkness.
"But why was bringing her back from the dead evil?" Ruby remembered asking so long ago. "The Lord of Light did it all the time and we love him for it."
"The Lord of Darkness is to be respected and feared," the monks had informed her with a pat on the head. "Never understood."
It made little sense to her seven year old mind at the time, even as she continued to argue with the monks about it and a plethora of other inconsistencies she had found. She eventually learned it meant religion did not like to be questioned. That was acceptable, Ruby would just refrain from sharing her thoughts on the subject in the future.
"It is with great honour that you have allowed us to host you and your heir once more for these morning prayers, your grace." The priest clasped his hands behind his back as he strolled through his church.
It was quite large, with a main chapel area, as well as two smaller alters on either side of the building. A large four-pointed star hung like a chandelier overtop the pews. At the front of the main chapel standing behind the podium was a monk with very much the same hairstyle as the one leading the royalty, though with much less fancy garments and jewelry. The head priest's long earrings were studded with different gemstones and twined with colourful metals which hung down past his shoulders. The priest's cloak was dark brown, trimmed with golden thread in fanciful religious patterns. In contrast, the monk's earrings were short, just a single white pearl fasted with iron hanging just down to his chin, swaying as he spoke and sang his prayers to the small mass of nobles in the building.
"This way," the head priest gestured for them to take passage to one of the smaller side altars.
"May the Lord shine his light," the monk said to the group as they walked by, bowing his head to each the head priest, king and crowned princess in turn.
"May his Brother cast aside darkness," the priest gave the traditional response immediately.
The small altar they arrived at held enough room for one monk and a handful of people. The priest gestured for the three royals to kneel on the soft pillows in front of them and began the morning ceremony.
It started just like all others did. The priest would dip two fingers in white wine and step in front of each of them, drawing the four-pointed star on their foreheads in one fluid motion. Fingers starting just below the hairline with the point of choice, separating and swinging down to create the equal points of creation and destruction, before returning together at the bottom with the final point of the star; knowledge.
Once Ruby's forehead was marked, she was given a chalice filled with the same white wine to take a single sip from. Like always, she scrunched her eyes and held back a shudder as the sour taste burned the insides of her mouth and clung to her throat like feces to a shovel.
Alcohol was not the proper way to start the day.
"Choice," the head priest said, reading the first words in his leather-bound book of scriptures. "Given by the Lord of Light. True freedom of wills. To choose to bask in the glorious Light of the Golden Brother, or slave in the incandescence of the Violet Brother. Gifted by the brother of good, honoured by the brother of bad. The truest of all the gifts given to humanity by the twin lords."
With the first part of his sermon done, he entered into a long song in an old language. Ruby had no idea what he was singing, but the hymn was beautiful to hear. Melodic and weary, it felt like the head priest was telling a tale of woe. With his rising pitch during faster beats, only to slow down into dramatic pauses, Ruby could almost feel the clashes the brother gods went through before making their peace with the creation of the world itself.
Ruby wished she could curse herself for hearing such beauty in a religion that forced her to hide her true self and wished to kill her had they known.
"The balanced gifts of creation and destruction," the head priest continued, pausing his song to continue the sermon with the next two gifts. "Creation was gifted by the Lord of Light. Destruction by the Lord of Darkness. Without destruction, creation has no meaning. Without creation, nothing could be destroyed. And so, like all things perfect, creation begets order. Destruction begets chaos. Two opposites, perfectly balanced in every way, making the whole stronger than the sum of its parts."
His song continued in clipped, staccato notes. There was a battle, but it was different than before. It was no longer a battle for supremacy like before, but now a battle of wills. Of which brother would be favoured by their creation, the humans. As this part of the hymn neared its end, his notes were drawn out, as finally an agreement was established. But not before one final gift was given.
"Knowledge." The head priest's voice was clipped and curt. Ruby peered up at him. It almost looked like he was staring only at her. "Given by the Lord of Darkness. A last curse on his brother and their combined creations. To know truth is to know untruth. To know peace is to know war. To know plenty is to know little. To know the joys of birth and marriage is to know the sins of the flesh. Gifted by the brother of bad, honoured by the brother of good. The most tempting of all the gifts given to humanity by the twin lords."
His song continued, but Ruby was barely listening. She had heard this sermon many times before. Twice every week, since the moment she was old enough to remember attending church, in fact. He had added a line in, and it sent her heart beating wildly in her chest.
To know the joys of birth and marriage is to know the sins of the flesh.
Why is he looking at me? If he knew, I'd be dead by now. Ruby's thoughts clouded her mind so much that she almost missed the proper spots to bow or reply in the morning prayers. One benefit of having a tall father and sister at times like these, meant that they were always in her peripherals.
Once he finished the song, the head priest moved on to a few more prayers, many of which Ruby had remembered by heart. She joined in at the proper times, sang alongside in lyrics she did not understand, and made the symbol of the four-pointed star on the back of her hand when required. All with minimal attention given to what she had been doing.
Before long, it was over. Taiyang rose from his knees first, rubbing away the aches in his joints with a satisfied sigh. Ruby and Yang stood up once he looked to be ready. Ruby stretched out her own legs, leaning down at the waist to try and touch her toes. This movement brought out an undignified snort of disdain from the head priest. Ruby turned to look at him; he returned to reading his texts.
"Donations to the church, your majesty?" The head priest said, bowing his head to the Valian king. "Every amount helps to honour the two brothers and ensures the continuation and spreading of their good names across this world."
Taiyang nodded, refastening his cloak, "speak with my captain of the guards. He will deliver your charity."
"You honour us all, your majesty. May the Lord shine his light. Unto you, my king, unto you, crowned princess and unto your whole kingdom."
"May his Brother cast aside darkness," Taiyang confirmed.
"May his Brother cast aside darkness," Yang replied.
Ruby remained silent, twisting her back to remove the final straining cracks. With prayers concluded, it was time for Ruby to return to what she loved; the Grande Tourney. More specifically, the squire's tournament where Weiss was set to compete that day with the sword. Just thinking of watching Weiss sent incredible tingles through her body.
She looked back at the four-pointed star in front of the church, muttering a small, "sorry" before skipping off to stand with her sister in the circle of royal guards. King Taiyang, checking to ensure his daughters were around him first, nodded to the lead guard and the procession began its slow move towards the festival grounds.
"So," Yang said, grabbing onto Ruby's arm, "Cardin or Neptune?"
"Huh?" Ruby contorted her face, unsure what her sister was asking.
Yang huffed, rolling her eyes dramatically. "Cardin. Or Neptune? It's an easy question?"
"I… I'm not sure what…"
"Father? How did you raise a second daughter with no ability to decipher hidden meanings?"
"It's because your sister possesses all your mother's traits, while you-"
"Possess all of my father's. Yes, I know" Yang interrupted the king with a giggle and a flick of her long, golden locks.
"Actually, I was going to say that you possess all the traits of my concubine," the king said with a joking smile.
"Hardy har har, father. Like you could bed anyone other than mom, Brothers rest her soul."
"I still don't know what you mean!" Ruby complained, latching onto Yang, giving her a little shake, much to the amusement of her father and sister.
"She's asking you which of the two you would marry, Ruby. Were you not already engaged that is," Her father explained.
Ruby blushed brightly, wishing she could just tell them the answer was neither. That Weiss was the only girl for her. Weiss and her perfect smile, and beautiful blue, "eyes."
"What was that, Rubes?"
"Eyes," Ruby repeated. "Neptune has such pretty eyes."
Ruby flinched at Yang's snappy reply. Did I use the wrong word?
"I think you mean absolutely gorgeous," she continued, fanning herself with her hand and pulling at her neckline with the other.
"Yang dear, modesty." Their father commented, striding forward without even pausing to look at his two daughters' discussion.
"Of course, my apologies father." Yang bowed her head to him even if he could not see it, only to send a sly wink in Ruby's direction. "I do believe Cardin is the more… masculine of the two. Something about him just… you understand, right dearest sister?"
"I most assuredly do no, sister dearest." Ruby giggled behind her fingers. "I honestly do not find the appeal in him. He looks brutish. I prefer, lithe. Though, I guess like matches like after all."
Ruby ducked under the slap to the back of the head that she was sure was coming, laughing at Yang's grumbling.
"Are you calling me brutish?" The crowned princess growled, locking Ruby's head under her arm, all the while continuing their walk towards the tourney grounds.
"H-hey!" Ruby sputtered between giggles. "I'm calling you manly!"
"That's it!" As Yang prepared to mess with Ruby for the insult, King Taiyang quickly put a stop to the rough housing, grabbing both girls by the shoulders and tearing them apart.
Ruby immediately shrank in on herself under his intense gaze. Her eyes flickering from the ground to his own, then back again. She hadn't been doing anything, at least not really. She glanced over at Yang, who looked very much the same as her, recoiling when the king turned his glare at her. Even at his age, he still looked very much like the lethal warrior and conqueror he had been in his youth.
"Yang, you wish to be seen as a warrior princess? A warrior queen? Then learn when to place your hands on another and when to not. And do not hold another's neck unless you plan to kill them. Next time you do such a thing, I will assume you had taken these words to heart. Even if it is against your own flesh and blood. You are the crowned princess of my kingdom. Act as such."
"Yes father," Yang murmured, unable to look up at the king.
"And you. You are a princess Ruby. Engaged and almost of marrying age. Act like it. Unless you wish for me to send you off to live at a convent until your wedding day. I would very much prefer to keep my eye on you, but if I hear you comment about the nature of your crowned princess again, I will see you cast out of my sight and spend your days learning gospel hymns, is that understood?"
"Yes father," was Ruby's own saddened reply.
King Taiyang let go of them both, returning his attention to the stroll, hands clasped behind his back. "Very good. Yang, you will spend the morning with me, watching the next set of jousts. I heard that Lord Marrow and Lord Thrush will both be competing for your hand. Ruby, you are to watch the squires frolic with their wooden blades. I forbid you from watching the tournament. Hopefully then you will have learned your lesson."
"Yes father," Ruby said, mustering up as much sadness as she could to keep from crying out with joy. "But at least allow me to know of the victors come dinner?"
The king gave his youngest daughter a soft smile. "Of course. Even I would not wish such a punishment on you."
The final few steps to the tourney grounds entrance felt infinitely longer than the last few blocks they had trudged through. If not for the joy mounting in Ruby's chest at being so near to watching her love, then for the mocking gazes of other royals and nobles who had watched the two princesses be scolded by their father. Taiyang for his part, seemed unperturbed by the looks, holding his head high, almost revelling in their watchful eyes. Yang was attempting to look very much the same, if not for the embarrassed blush reaching up from her neck towards her cheeks.
Ruby wished her dress came with a hood to cover herself. She was also second guessing her decision to wear her corset on the outside of her dresses, as an Atlesian lady with a tightly cinched waist stared wide eyed at her. The Atlesian perpetually cooled herself with a feathered fan, constantly blowing air at her neck and chin.
The royal guards separated, allowing for the three royals to move freely once more. Ruby made sure to thank the soldiers before dashing off, picking up her skirts so she would not trip on them as she walked along the uneven ground.
The pathway to the squire's tournament was less travelled than the one to the main arena where the professional knights would be performing. As such, it was also not paved properly, only covered by grainy rocks and large slabs of pyrite to give it a fanciful, rich look. Ruby tried her best to stay on the large slabs, as she was often unbalanced walking on the uneven grains in her heels. She also very much preferred the sounds of walking on fool's gold, compared to faux sand.
A few people bowed to Ruby as they recognized her, and she graced them with a nod in return. Most people she passed were older knights, long since retired from combat and who wished to see the next generation of knights, or the lords who the squires were apprenticing under. She knew very few of them by face, though did recognize some by their family crests they had on them. There was the Vitruvian Man of the Polendinas, the spider on its web of the Malachite merchant guild and the twin flames of the Falls. Ruby was actually surprised to see that crest present. The Falls had fallen out of favour long before Ruby had been born. They had backed the house of Rose in the last civil war and had refused to surrender when the Roses bent the knee to the Xiao Longs.
Ruby had to pause and watch the weary old man hobble by with the help of his cane, head raised high, as his cape swung with each step. He looked tired but tried to hold himself with the same dignity he would have had his family's name fallen to shame. If Ruby could recall her teachings, the Falls had been one of the wealthiest in Vale. The Valian Schnees they had been called.
His golden eyes fell on hers. He stopped.
"You look just like your mother," he said, his voice crackling with age and eyes sparkling with silent wisdom.
"Thank you," Ruby replied, "I miss her very much."
Slowly and shakily, he knelt down on one knee, both hands resting on his cane for support. "As do we all. My liege."
Just as slowly, he stood back up, not bothering to wipe away the dirt which accumulated on his knee and scuffs of his pants.
Watching him go, Ruby was left with a strange feeling in her chest.
Thank you DeltaFell for Beta-ing this chapter oh so long ago!