1. One Fell Swoop

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This is nothing like anything I've posted before, but I've got a soft spot for it, and I hope you guys like it anyway. :)

Polina stretched her neck as far as it would stretch, straining to get a glimpse of the enigmatic bride through throngs of guests. Beads of sweat rolled off her forehead; it had been unusually hot that day, and the hordes of people pressed together in the hall did not allow any of the day's heat to escape. Her gown, a fantastic dark-coral concoction dyed white at the hems with beaded white bands weaving around the sleeves, had begun to feel like a prison cell. It would be a shame if it were ruined by sweat, she thought. Polina hoped the ceremony would end before the heat would be bad enough to have to deal with that.

In her moment of mental complaining, she had entirely forgotten her mission of spotting the future queen, but it took little effort now. A scandalized murmur rippled through the crowd as she entered the hall. She was tall and severely stately, almost imposing. Her long raven hair was arranged in a complicated array of braids and twists, leaving some of it to cascade down her back (it was, Polina observed, extremely long). And her clothes! Her dress was unlike anything Polina had ever seen before. It was green, something between cotton and silk, simply cut, with long, billowing sleeves that seemed to float when she moved, and a gold sash around the waist. From the looks of it, she was wearing boots. Yes, this woman was walking proof of everything she'd ever heard about Galwyn, straight down to the falcon on her shoulder. The Dosinskiyan aristocracy clustered into the hall did not appear to like this.

Polina blinked confusedly when she first noticed the bird, certain she was seeing things. But there was, indeed, a large white falcon perched on the woman's shoulder, scanning the crowd with its beady eyes. Polina shifted uncomfortably as the falcon's gaze neared the spot where she was standing. Her sister, Lara, standing beside her, nudged her with her elbow.

"Polya?" she hissed through her teeth.

"Yes?" Polina replied absentmindedly, still eyeing the falcon.

"Do you feel like the falcon is...l don't know, looking at you?" Lara asked timidly.

"...In a way," she answered slowly. "But I think it might be...sizing up the place, let's say. This must all seem very strange."

"I can only imagine what Katya and Tanya will have to say about that," Lara commented.

Polina had to restrain a most unladylike snort. Katya and Tanya, better known as Lady Ekaterina and Lady Tatiana (as they insisted everyone call them), seemed to have no other purpose in life than to stir up gossip. This poor woman was going to be cannon fodder for the two of them within a day. She glanced over to see if they were already at it; it appeared that, indeed, they were, but the beginning of the ceremony forced them to shut up. Mercifully, it lasted only ten minutes (probably at Crown Prince Dmitri's request; he had the attention span of a fly). The wedding reception, held in a much larger (less packed, and less sweltering) hall, was to follow immediately after. The couple, flanked by several intimidating armed guards and three stoic Galwynian women in identical teal dresses, exited the hall, cueing their overheated guests to follow.

Clearly, everyone was as desperate to escape, especially one strange young man wearing an unmistakable shade of orange. He shoved half the crowd aside as he ran through the throngs of people, a flash of silver at his waist drawing more than a few stares. Polina's eyebrows shot up, but said nothing; odd, yes, to be armed at a wedding, but it did not necessarily mean he had bad intentions. She decided to keep an eye on the man as a precaution. Just in case it would be of use later, she filed away any details of the man's appearance she could glean. He was an average height, wiry, and far too tanned to be from anywhere nearby. His bright blue eyes and unruly mop of curly black hair weren't even close to typical Dosinskiyan features, either. Definitely a foreigner. Maybe that explained his odd behavior.

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