Beta'd by the forthright Insane Scriptist.

I am now taking several months off writing Black Sky. See you all in the autumn!

Of comfort and company

Xanxus had told her on Friday afternoon that he had a surprise outing planned for her for the following morning and that he'd already warned the children about it. Easily catching the implication that all three of her older children were fine with their father taking her away for couple time despite Saturday being a family day, Dorea had agreed. She'd asked a few questions –so she knew what to wear– but taken care not to pry. Her husband wanted to surprise her and she trusted him, so she would allow herself to be surprised.

She'd picked a black day dress, suitable for walking around outside but also for sitting down, with frills and swags in ruffled silk crepe and fern-pattered black lace over smooth grey silk in the deep vee over the front of the bodice. The dress was fairly high-necked, but there was room for a five-string pearl choker with a pearl and coral clasp above it, which brought together her coral tiara and the cameo brooch she intended to pin to one side of the ruffled border framing the lace panel.

The coral tiara was possibly the oldest one in her collection, dating to before the Secrecy Statutes and very simply made of polished coral branches, cleverly strung together with a few carved leaves to look like skeletal winter branches or twining ivy. It quivered slightly when she moved, the various sections being sprung on wires, adding to the overall effect; it was almost attractively macabre. It was also orange, so it stood out against her hair and drew the eye to both the clasp of her choker and the cameo brooch.

She did have several coral necklaces, but that would have been too much orange for this dress. Even the more peach-toned set; the pearl choker worked better. She was wearing pearl and coral earrings that matched the choker though, as the pearls outlining the teardrop-shaped polished coral beads were suitably restrained.

She could have worn cameo earrings, but they looked too busy. Just the brooch was enough there. Looking in the mirror, Dorea was pleased to see that the colour of the coral and the lustre of the peals made the black look less flat; taking a moment to consider her appearance, she added a three-string pearl-and-cameo bracelet to the ensemble. She wasn't planning on wearing gloves, but she would certainly be taking mittens along in the pockets of her cloak in case they ended up spending more time outside than the minimum of moving from place to place.

Xanxus was well aware of the social implications of his wife's abrupt taste for black; he'd already had his suspicions there before Knight confirmed them for him. The Lightning had scrupulously added that he wasn't sure Dorea was doing it on purpose; the coloured jewellery suggested not as full mourning attire included black jewellery, which she had certainly inherited plenty of should she feel it necessary to wear such. However her current taste for pearls and cameos were still typical mourning accessories –if not for deep mourning– so even if it wasn't on purpose, that his wife felt most comfortable dressed in a way that signalled she had experienced a loss was significant. Her mode of dress was making a statement others would be able to understand easily.

In order not to give mixed messages Xanxus had decided to do likewise; moral support was important and this way people wouldn't ask probing questions. Besides, he liked black. Magical fashion might imply he should be dressing like a fancy chicken, but he much preferred to be monochrome if at all possible and tasteful if not. His fashion preferences leaned towards minimalism and he cared far more for function than ornamentation; unfortunately being royalty meant compromising there, so his magical wardrobe was slightly more colourful than he would have been most comfortable with. The black trousers, calf-length robe-jacket-thing and damasked silk waistcoat he was wearing today were much more his style, even with the non-negotiable gold piping around the jacket's shoulders and the thin gold diadem Bastiano had politely suggested he wear seeing as he would be officially attending an event in Sabina.

The diadem was light and comfortable, easy to half-hide in his hair and stayed on by magic, so it wasn't really an issue; it was basically a ribbon made of beaten gold with a granulated edge. Xanxus knew he was going to have to get used to this kind of ornamental shit eventually, so the sooner he got over himself the better. If he could make it a habit and be comfortable with it, other people were less likely to consider it weird.

Shamelessness really did let you get away with almost anything, as Bel proved fairly often. People reacted to unconscious confidence without even realising it; maybe he should start wearing the diadem around the house? Familiarity bred contempt and all that, so it was probably a good idea.

Xanxus knew that if he did that he'd end up wearing it to the Varia, but the only person likely to comment there was Squalo. Wait, Luss would too: she would consider it an indication of something about him changing, so would be interested in getting the specifics. Squalo was however the only person likely to poke fun.

If he did, Xanxus would make a point of dragging the shark to an event where he had to wear an excessively-bedecked and heavily-gilded ridiculous outfit. Just to make sure his Rain knew that he could make the swordsman's life hellish if the asshole didn't shut up about the sartorial requirements of his Sky's new position. He knew magical fashion tended towards the absurd; he didn't need to have his ears talked off by the shark complaining about it too, no matter how amusing the snark would be.

Getting out of the carriage, Dorea looked up at the steep earthen outer wall of Sabina's hippodrome –which was technically in a neighbouring village entirely devoted to raising and training winged horses– and knew what the surprise was. "Xanxus, are we going to see a race?"

"Last two-horse chariot races of the season today," her husband told her. "Saw your name on the owners' listing."

Most of the winged racehorses she owned were for riding: high-altitude, low-altitude, track and long-distance cross-country –where cross-winds and updrafts were more of a hazard– but she had a few that were trained for chariot racing. Only two-horse chariots –the quadriga was unsuitable for winged horses– but it was still a fast-paced and very exciting event. Twelve laps of the hippodrome made a race: four on the ground, four low enough to keep the horses' shoulders beneath the top of the track wall and the last four having to stay below the upper rim of the seating. The horses' speed increased at every height change and with incredibly tight turns at each end of the stadium and up to ten chariots in each race, crashes were a regular occurrence.

Betting on chariot races was a national pastime in Sabina and there were respectable sums on offer as prizes, both for owners and drivers. Chariot racers were larger and heavier than jockeys; they had to be, to steer the team around the termai at each end of the embolon in every lap and keep them on course.

"It's been a while since I watched a chariot race," she admitted, leaning into her husband's side as much as her skirts allowed. The excited atmosphere in the chattering crowds all around them buoyed her up a little, adding a zing of anticipation to the proceedings.

"View's good from the royal box." Xanxus placed his right hand over her hand resting on his left arm and led her into the tunnel and up the steps to the suite of rooms behind said box; there was a bathroom and a dressing room, along with a generously proportioned sitting room complete with a wine cupboard and chilled larder for storing food. The box itself was easily as large as the sitting room behind it, with a wooden roof and side panels to ensure nobody seated on either side could see in. The view of the course was indeed excellent; they were exactly in the middle of the hippodrome and just high enough to be able to see all the way over the embolon.

The chariots for the first race were already lined up down below, staggered across the width of the track with grooms and assistants fussing over horses and equipment. Dorea spotted her chariots –black with purple trim, hitched to matched Granians– then took a few moments to look around at the crowds. The box probably muffled sound; it didn't sound as loud out here as she'd expected it to.

Her husband came up behind her and Dorea turned to hug him. "This is a lovely surprise, thank-you."

He kissed her hair. "Good. Sit with me?" The seats were generously proportioned and richly upholstered, quite unlike the bare stone steps in the rest of the hippodrome; Dorea let herself be steered onto the central one, which wasn't quite large enough for her to sit beside her husband without leaning into him.

His arm around her waist was very comfortable; Dorea had no objections whatsoever. The box was even slightly warmer than outside despite being open at the front, so she was comfortable sitting with her cloak unfastened and her husband's hand resting on her thigh.

Most of the other horses racing were Tulpars –a central Asian winged horse breed– or Pegasoi –which were obviously Greek in origin, but were mainly bred in Scythia and Sabina these days– which were chariot breeds; Granians were generally intended for long-distance racing and were often too long-winged to turn tightly, but Dorea had faith in her grooms and trainers. They had assured her that these particular pairs had what it took for harness racing and she believed them. They had as much stake in this as she did; more even, as she was unlikely to invest further in chariot racing if the four pairs currently harness-trained did not perform well in this year's season.

A member of staff came into the box with programmes, followed by another two who brought out a table and set it with finger food and mulled wine. Well, the Zabini called it 'kondito' and made to an old Roman recipe, but it was warm spiced and sweetened wine and therefore essentially mulled wine.

Alcohol levels in the kondito depended on how hot it was when served, since the Zabini method involved either infusing the wine with the spices while cold and letting them soak for weeks on end, or boiling the spices and honey in a small amount of water to produce a thick and aromatic syrup which was then mixed with wine after it had cooled. Dorea suspected their efforts to preserve the alcohol content was a siren thing; her husband drank a lot of wine and never seemed to get tipsy at all.

She made a point of asking for hers to be hot, so as to banish the alcohol; the server heated up a mug's-worth for her in a little pan with a quick spell. Xanxus requested 'warm,' drank the entire glass immediately and then served himself more from the insulated jug.

Then the drivers came out onto the course, and as the cheering started the grooms swiftly carried off their equipment, signalling that the race would be starting in the next quarter of an hour. Dorea snuggled into her husband, cradling her drink in mittened hands, and waited for the announcer to start talking. Whoever it was would definitely mention their presence, seeing as Xanxus was the Principe, and her husband would probably be awarding the laurel wreaths to the winning charioteers at the end of each race. Hippodrome staff would escort the driver up to the royal box so that their Principe didn't have to exert himself, Xanxus would either have them kneel so he could do the crowning himself or direct the referee to do it, the crowds would cheer and then the winner would be escorted down again as the track was prepped for the next race.

In the long gallery on the opposite side of the hippodrome from the royal box, the covered space for owners, other rich guests and the announcers –who would probably be broadcast on the wireless– people were finally settling onto their seats. Then the announcer's voice filled the massive space, warmly welcoming everybody in rapid-fire Sabine, and the event began.


Termai = pillars in a hippodrome marking the lap turning point.

Embolon = central divider down the length of a hippodrome, so that racers going in opposite dicrections don't crash into each-other.

Conditum = 'spiced' (Latin) a Roman spiced wine, also called konditon (Byzantine Greek, loaned from the Latin)