The castle banquet hall was crowded. People were everywhere, gathered around the tables with smiles on their faces. The air was thick with the savory scents of cooked meats and delectables, as well as the perfumes of ladies. Newel could hardly move without having his elbow jostled by a passing nobleman. And the noise of happy chatter droned about him.
At first, Newel could not distinguish words in the hum of talking voices. But gradually, he was able to focus on one group at a time and discern their words. Most everyone was talking of the wedding they had attended that morning -- the wedding of King Alton and his new bride.
"Such a beautiful girl," enthused one woman in a bright blue dress. She nodded at her companions. "And from one of our finest families, too."
Newel moved passed her, anxious to escape her annoying enthusiasm. But he only found more like her.
"Never did I see such a happy bride," another voice intruded on Newel. He turned to see an older woman in a pale silver gown. "It is a blessed match. Our king will be a happy man for all his days with such a pleasant and pretty queen by his side."
"He had only been back from the war for 6 months before he married her, but they say he visited her nearly every evening during those 6 months," said another voice. "He has been so kind and devoted in his courtship. It is no wonder she is in love with him."
"Aye, and rumor has it that they had been acquainted even before he went to war," filled in a young woman, eager to have her say.
"He will be a happy man indeed," said a middle-aged gentleman, raising his glass in a toast.
Such seemed to be the pervading opinion of all the gathered crowd. And, as tedious as the repetition was, Newel also found it to be rather convincing.
It was even more convincing as Newel wandered around the crowded hall. Everywhere he looked, he saw happy couples. A lady looked at her husband with adoring eyes as he said something witty. A young bride handed a glass of wine to her equally young husband, and she seemed so happy to wait upon him. An older woman laid her hand on her husband's arm and informed the circle of friends gathered about her that her husband was the finest marksman of her acquaintance.
It seemed a harsh thing that Alton should once again have all the blessings of which Newel was deprived. Why should he have a wife when Newel did not?
"Why should he?" Newel muttered under his breath. "Why shouldn't I?"
The more he thought about it, the more he realized that there was no reason why he should not have have a wife. He could hear his mother's voice in his head saying, "Your brother? Bahh...He is not so great as they say," and "Are you not the son of a king? Are you not the son of Mara?...You will be the great one."
"If Alton can have a wife, so can I," Newel whispered to himself. "He is nothing special."
The thought tickled and teased him until it grew into a firm conviction. There was nothing else to be done but to get a wife. He would show Alton! With this in mind, Newel began to study the young women gathered around the tables. Any of them would do -- so long as she were sufficiently beautiful and of a good family.
There was such a variety of young women to watch that Newel spent nearly an hour in his occupation. It was a pleasant hour, and he took delight in imagining himself with a wife who adored him, waited upon him, and who thought he was the finest man in the entire world.
He had narrowed his choices down to three when the door opened and a new girl entered the room. Newel caught his breath as she walked across the floor to join two other girls. Her hair was exactly the color of his own mother's, and it was twisted around her head in a style very similar to one she wore at times. Her dress was simple but elegant, showing taste and good sense. And her face was sweet and shy. There were no affected airs with her. She moved with a natural grace. Newel was much pleased with her. Here was a girl to rival the new queen!
A satisfied look spread over Newel's face as he watched her. She would be his wife. He had no fear of rejection. Already he had formed his guaranteed plan. First, he would find out everything about her and her family. He would find their weaknesses. Then, slowly, he would begin to squeeze them like a constrictor snake squeezes its prey...like he had done for Darenheim and many other estates since then. Such techniques had made him a rich and powerful man, and they would now secure for him a wife. When he was her only hope, he would make her an offer she could not refuse. And he defied Alton to produce such a prize. His only challenge in this case would be to see if he could bring it all about in 6 months -- thereby beating Alton even in the speed of his acquisition.
The girl looked up then, chancing to meet his eyes as he stood there planning her demise with a scheming heart. Her eyes were timid, wondering, curious as she briefly returned his gaze. Good night! What eyes she had! They were of the deepest blue, and Newel felt that they did him great credit.
She blushed then and dropped her eyes. One of her companions reached out to her, drawing her back into their conversation. Newel felt a twinge of disappointment, but he retreated to a place against the wall where he could watch her patiently.
"Mine," he whispered, as a ray of light glistened against the girl's glossy hair. "Soon she will be all mine."