Cerin knew this was a mistake. She should never have accepted the invitation to come to the EveWinter ball. What was she thinking? Cerin was the daughter of a merchant. A very rich, powerful merchant, but nevertheless she wasn’t royalty. Why had they invited her?
Cerin was nothing much to look at, with mousy brown hair, brown eyes, and pale skin. She usually kept away from the sun as it would burn her skin in just a few minutes of being outside. But winter in Severin was usually dark, cold, and gloomy anyway.
Severin was a coastal town filled with narrow streets, now covered in snow and ash from the many chimneys burning coal. Streets that were as of now busy with huddled townsfolk hurrying home as the pale sun set over the grey ocean beyond the shadowy docks. Iron carriages were pulled by dark horses intent on getting home to food and warmth for the EveWinter holiday.
As gloomy as the outside buildings were in Severin, the insides were oases of light, decorations, light music, and celebration. The colder and grayer the outside became, the greater the contrast became to rich warm hearths, smells of delicious food, and smiles on everyone's face as they came in - red cheeks from the cold air and mittens quickly discarded to hold hands to the fireplace.
Cerin wished she was at home, sitting before her own fireplace. The EveWinter tree was decorated and the many gifts her parents had bought for her were waiting for her. A warm cup of apple cider was probably brewing above the fireplace, as her nanny Irin probably puttered about, singing to herself some EveWinter song.
Instead, she was dressed in a red velvet dress that seemed two sizes too small, in the Great Hall of the Queen's Home. The sounds of countless dukes, lords of smaller Houses, and other nobles filled the Great Hall with indistinguishable voices. Cerin sat at a empty table near the back of the hall, her elbow on the table with her hand on her chin - pouting slightly. She was bored, uncomfortable, and wished she was anywhere but at an incredibly stuffy EveWinter party.
When her parents had discovered the over sized letter with fine gold filigree on the front with her name on it - Cerin von Braun - they were beside themselves with joy. It was a Great Honor to be invited to the EveWinter party at the Queen's Home. Cerin couldn't possibly consider turning down this amazing opportunity to mingle with other noble children her age, as well as the business opportunities her Father and Mother could imagine.
Her father, Martin von Braun was a fairy wealthy merchant - who ran one of the many shipping businesses that ran across the coastal lands. He never passed up an opportunity to network with other "higher class" members of Severin's citizens. Her mother, Mary von Braun, was known for her high fashion sense, and always would be seen going to only the best parties, wearing the finest clothes her husband could import from the Far Lands.
Cerin sighed. She pulled a small book from her purse. The Knights of Midnight was her latest acquisition. There were at least SOME benefits of having a wealthy father. Cerin had a library that could rival some of the scholars from the Hundred Schools, if they enjoyed trash fantasy and adventure novels. She smiled inwardly. At least in the back of the candle - lit Great Hall she could read her new novel in peace -
"There you are!" a bubbly voice called out to her from a figure closing in on her quickly. Cerin cringed.
A second later, a red haired tornado of a girl plowed into her with a huge hug, nearly knocking her out of her chair. Shadren was Cerin's "best friend" from school. Only Shadren thought that, of course. In Cerin's eyes, if she could hide from Shadren Collisade for the rest of the school year it would be counted as the greatest of fortunes.
"Hello, Shadren." Cerin sighed. Her book had fallen to the floor as she had the life nearly knocked out of her from her bubbly friend's embrace. As she reached down for it, another hand grasped the book and lifted it to his face.
Oh no. No.
Cerin slowly looked up to see Eloric Flynn standing before her with a bemused expression on his face. All dressed in dark blues and blacks - EveWinter's best was barely good enough for the Flynns. He was tall for a Flynn - tall, thin, but strikingly handsome with a flame of blonde hair atop his jaunty face and deep blue eyes. The Flynn's were near the highest of the merchant classes - formerly humble tailors who had struck it rich by importing fine fabrics and jewelry and fashioning only the best dresses and suits. Everyone in the Seven Kingdoms coveted a Flynn masterpiece.
"The Knights ... of Midnight?" Eloric read the title aloud with one raised eyebrow and a slight grin.
Biting her lip, Cerin snatched the book out of his hands.
"And what of it? At least it's more interesting than this infernal EveWinter party." Cerin replied, her face almost as red as her dress.
Eloric blinked as the book disappeared from his hand and his smile broadened.
"Cerin? Cerin von Braun? Is that you? I would never have recognized you in that dress. You look quite ... different tonight." His smooth voice sent shivers down Cerin's back. Eloric Flynn was talking to HER. Strangely enough, it was Shadren that saved her.
Moving smoothly between them, Shadren proffered her hand to the bemused boy. "Good EveWinter, Eloric. My name is Shadren Collisade. " Still bemused, Eloric absently took her hand and kissed it formally.
"Good EveWinter, miss Shadren. And to you as well miss Cerin. I hope you enjoy the book. The ending is quite surprising. I've read it, twice."
If Cerin could turn any redder, she would have. She muttered something and sat back in her chair, turning away from the both of them.
"What was I thinking, coming here? I'm going to make a laughing stock of myself." She thought.
A moment later two other boys caught up with Eloric and pulled him away to talk with another group of noble teenagers. Cerin sipped some of the spiced tea and wondered if she could hide under the table for the rest of the night.
"Did you SEE that, Cerin? Eloric Flynn talked to US! That book thing you did was so clever! I'll have to remember that." Shadren was whispering to her conspiratorially while Cerin tried to make herself smaller.
Finally, Cerin turned to her exuberant friend and looked at her for the first time. Shadren was dressed in golds and purples. Her dress was fine by any standard and showed off her own figure. Her halo of curly red hair set off her freckled face and laughing green eyes. Shadren was from a family originally very far away - filled with misty islands, ancient castles, and the origin of many of Cerin's novels. It was a place of magic, and Shadren always seemed to have a special quality to her that Cerin envied.
While Cerin was pale, brown, and mousey, Shadren was exuberant, bubbly, and the life of the party. Cerin could not for the life of her understand why Shadren liked her. They were nothing alike, but perhaps that was the reason.
EveWinter music began to fill the smoky Great Hall. That was the signal for all to rise, as the Queen and the Princess were arriving. Cerin felt her throat tighten. She had to somehow manage to avoid any more contact with other nobles and "high society" contacts as her parents called them. She just wanted to find a corner and read her book in peace.
Unfortunately, that was not going to be her experience tonight.
As the Queen arrived, spotlights from high above the rafters shown down upon her. She was approaching her late middle years, but you could not see it. Her face was proud, strong, and intense. Cerin inadvertently cringed at the sight of their Monarch. Her dress was all furs and shades of blue. Like a winter morning shining on a snowy lake. Diamonds like stars in an early morning sky covered her dress, while a thousand shades of blues and purples gradually darkened as they reached the floor. She was stunning, and all eyes were upon her.
Until, that is, the Princess arrived shortly behind her mother.
Cerin's mouth opened in a gasp.
The Princess was wearing a red velvet dress. Almost the twin to her own.
Shadren turned to Cerin with big round eyes.
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