Several weeks passed after the discussion of Taika’s plan. By now, summer had arrived. And with summer, came gardens in full bloom, ready to begin producing their annual yield, and deep green trees full of noisy birds and squirrels. This lovely display filled the queendom with excitement and life, but there was only one thing dominating everyone’s mind. The Ball.
With all of the work done lately, the citizens of Cupola were looking forward to a couple of days of celebration. But Anya didn’t feel that way. To her, the anticipation of the Ball felt more like a conflict between her desire to go to it and her ever increasing dread of its arrival.
She had come to realize a few days ago she would not be working the week of the Ball and spoonpole tournament. But she didn’t want to tell Taika that. Anya honestly hoped it would all just disappear, even though she knew better. For now, she told herself she would tell Taika during her next week off, and try to ignore the fact that her friend probably had a replacement plan already underway.
Anya did decide to ask her mom about going to the Ball though. The other girls in the kitchen talked about nothing else for several days, and poor Anya simply could not take it anymore. She walked home through a welcomed cool drizzle. Her skin got sticky, and her hair wet, but it felt refreshing compared to the steaming kitchen she had just left. She went inside and set up to wash before bed.
“Yes, dear.” Her mother was frying some summer squash over a small fire.
Anya draped the dividing sheet over the rafter. “Can I go to the Ball this year?”
“You?! Ha ha ha ha ha! Who would want to go to the Ball with you?” She hadn’t noticed Terrence scrubbing his clothes in the corner of the room.
“Terrence! Apologize to your sister! That was a horrible thing to say!”
Terrence sputted, “Come on, Mom. She’s too young to go.”
“No she’s not, Terrence. Any Cupolian twelve and older is allowed to go to the Ball and participate in the main spoonpole tournament.”
“Well, I’m not taking her.”
“No one’s asking you to take me, troll breath. Mom, do I have to go with someone?”
“No, honey. Anyone can go, and they can go however they choose. But…” She sighed heavily. “I’m afraid the only thing you can wear is my old dress. We can’t afford a new one.”
A dress?!! “Uh … Do I have to wear a dress?”
Terrence guffawed, “Oh! This is gonna be good!”
“Shut up, fairy fart!”
“That’s enough you two!”
Terrence got up and went to hang his clothes outside, grinning broadly the whole time. Her mother asked, “What else would you wear, dear? Your Elf uniform? We can worry about the dress later. Go ahead and wash up now.”
Anya walked over to dump Terrence’s old wash water out of the window. It made her start thinking about what he had said. She’d never even thought about going on a date before. Whenever she pictured herself at the Ball, it was always with her friends, you know, all together like, as a group.
Her thoughts rambled so much she spilled water all over the floor when she rinsed out the tub and filled it back up again. She quickly wiped it up with a rag before allowing her thoughts to stray again. What if her friends already had dates? Then she would be left all alone. Oh never mind. No one would go on a date with Gevin. Oh dear. What if Taika had a date? Well, this could get awkward.
Yesterday’s drizzle made for a miserably humid day and caused the kitchen to become absolutely sweltering. Anya didn’t even have to heat her dish water half of the time, and everyone seemed to work more slowly. Often times, the servants would have to go outside in order to breathe.
Anya and Basil were coming in again from one of those trips when Basil asked her, “Are you going to the spoonpole tournament?”
“Oh yes! I play every year. This will be my first year in the main tournament, of course.” Anya smiled from the memories of playing spoonpole with her friends.
“Which side are you on, East or West?”
Basil smiled and walked over to the blistering hot range. “I’m on West, too.”
“Hey! Let’s practice some before the tournament.”
Basil stirred a pot of chocolate. “I’d love to! All of my older brothers are really good at it, so I’m always having to fight extra hard just to have a turn. It’ll be nice to play with someone different for a change, someone who wants me to be there instead of just tolerating me.”
And so it was, that Anya and Basil met up to practice for the queendom-wide spoonpole tournament. The meadow between Cupola and the western forests were used as a training area for the West side team. There were already several other people there, getting in some extra drills before the big game. Anya waited outside the western castle walls until she saw Basil and a small boy coming her way.
“Here! Over here!” Anya waved at them. Basil waved back to acknowledged her.
Once they got there, Basil said, “I hope you don’t mind, Anya, but Ted here needs to learn the official rules of the game. He’s my little brother, and it’s the first time Mom’s letting him in the kids’ competition.”
“That’s fine.” Anya looked at the young boy. “Hi, Ted. Is this your first time playing spoonpole?”
Ted was a very small, very thin boy. In fact, he was so small, he was almost as short as his sticks. He wore round glasses that hung off the sides of his face, and although he appeared to be about eight, his voice sounded more like twenty. “No, but I have to have everything memorized before they’ll let me join the others on the playing field.”
Basil said, “Well come on. I’ll quiz you on the way.”
They all three sauntered to the practice field. Basil held out her sticks. They were about three feet in length, wooden, and had a small leather cup on one end of each of them.
She quizzed Ted. “These are your spoons. What are the requirements?”
“Each player will carry two spoons at all times.” Ted recited in a bored, monotonous manner.
“What is the history of spoonpole?”
“Nearly two centuries ago, the kingdom of Cupola was divided into the east side and the west side which warred with each other. The King declared that the two divisions would play a game of two spoons and a pole, and the winner would win the battle.
“He set the winning score at 1000. After over three weeks of playing, neither side had reached 1000 points. And when asked, no one could remember what their actual scores were. This was, of course, the King’s intention all along.” Ted took a deep, spiritless breath and kept on as they neared the playing area.
“Cupola celebrates this peace by reenacting the tournament every year.” The threesome reached the edge of the field and stopped. Ted, appearing slightly irritated by now, looked calculatingly at the players already on it.
Anya stood there in disbelief at this little replica of Taika. “Are you sure you’re not Taika’s younger brother?”
Basil ignored Anya’s question. “What are the rules?”
He continued to study the players on the field while droning on. “Rules are simple. No contact with the ball is allowed, except with a spoon. You must touch the pole at the end of the field with the ball, or the spoons holding the ball, in order to score a point. The first team to 50 points wins, no matter how long it takes. The children’s score is set at 15. No lethal force is allowed. Players may be switched out every four hours.”
“And it just gets creepier,” said Anya.
“Nothing. You ready to play?”
They spent the afternoon practicing together. Ted was a fast little booger, and sneaky too. The girls teamed up against him, and he still almost won. Later, a family of four asked if they could join in. They agreed and made their teams.
The father and Ted stood facing one another with the ball on the ground between them. Ted stared at the ball intensely. The man smiled kindly. He had no idea what he was up against. As Basil called, “Go!” the father scooped up the ball. Ted rolled against his legs and tripped him. The surprised father threw the ball to the mother on his way down. He landed with an, “Oof!” and astonished eyes. The mother caught his toss and ran with it between her two spoons until she neared their goal pole. Anya tackled her to the ground before she could reach it. The ball dropped and rolled across the grass. Basil quickly picked it up and started sprinting for the other side.
The two children of the family were too young and couldn’t catch up to Basil. She reached the pole and easily grazed it with her pressed together spoons, scoring her team a point. After that, the father took Ted a bit more seriously. They played several more rounds until evening came. In the end, they let the younger ones score a few goals on their own to give them some confidence. Ted was adamantly against this, declaring that children must learn failure to succeed in life. Basil just rolled her eyes at her younger brother, but Anya looked at him in alarm.
Everyone fully enjoyed themselves and left on friendly terms. The family even invited the trio over for supper at their house later in the week. They all agreed to the date, thanked them, and went on their way.
“What a nice family! I’m looking forward to her stuffed pheasant.” Basil smiled.
“That does sound lovely. I don’t think I’ve ever had pheasant. Oh wait! Yes I did! The Wolf’s had it once when I was over.”
Basil looked over her shoulder to keep her sibling in check. Ted trailed along behind them, looking as emotionless as ever. She whispered to Anya, “Guess what I overheard at work today.”
“What?” Anya had no idea what she could be talking about.
“Canis plays on the East side.”
Anya grinned broadly. She couldn’t wait for this year’s tournament.
Ted called out from behind them, “Whispering is rude you know!”
Basil sighed and said, “He always did have super hearing. The little weirdo.”“I heard that!”
The next evening, Anya had supper waiting for her family when they returned from work. She left the door open to help with the heat of the house, so there was no knock to announce the two nasty, sweaty people coming through the doorway.
“Oh man! Is that you?” Terrence came in holding his dripping shirt in one hand, sweat forming thin dirt valleys down his tanned and muscled upper body. His nose sniffed the air above him. “I could smell that halfway down the street!” He threw his shirt on the floor, grabbed a bowl, and filled it sloppily.
“Terrence! Have some decency, please.” Their mother was similarly soaked with sweat. She leaned up against the doorway, set up perfectly to be in both the shade and the cooler outside.
“Hey, Mom. Rough day?” Anya filled a bowl and brought it to her exhausted mother, who took it and came in to eat.
“It was miserable, Anya. There wasn’t a single breeze all day. The sun was relentless.” As her mother sat on a stool and bent over her food, Anya noticed the red on her neck and chest. She quickly got a rag and dipped it in their bucket of water.
“Here, Mom.” Her mother smiled at her daughter, thanking her for her kindness. Anya filled the small wash tub with warm water, closed the door, and put up the dividing sheet. Since they weren’t forced to save half of her wages for the winter this year, she had spent it on things to benefit the family. This included the extra set of clothes she started laying out for her mother and brother. “Mom?”
“What’s it like? At the Ball?”
“Oh Anya! It’s beautiful! Pixie lights hang from the ceiling, setting the most romantic scene. There’s one long table filled with every food imaginable, and you can eat and drink as much as you like. Everyone is so happy and has such a good time…” Her mother stared off into space, her glassy eyes and smile giving way to sadness.
Anya could only see the back of her mother’s head. “Mom? How come you never go to the Ball?” She patted the side of the tub and held her arms out for her mother’s clothes.
Turning, she took her daughter’s cue and peeled her filthy clothes off. “Part of it was because you two were never old enough to go, and I didn’t want to leave you here alone.”
Anya looked at her mother with remorse. She didn’t mean to stop her mom from having a good time.
Her mother sank into the water, not seeing her daughter’s guilt-ridden face. “But the real reason was probably that the Ball was always such a special thing with me and your father. I could’ve gone and let Terrence watch you in more recent years. And before that, I had others offer to watch you both for me. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t make myself go without him.”
Anya’s guilt turned to sorrow. She had forgotten about that. This year had been easier on her mother, but it still didn’t make up for losing a husband.
Terrence cleared his throat and said from the other side of the sheet, “Um, Mom? I was wanting to know if I could go to the Ball this year. If I could use some of my money, that is.”
Their mother grinned insightfully and said, “Actually, you might be able to fit into your dad’s old Ball costume. You can try it on sometime and see.”
Anya cocked her head back and asked the sheet, “Why would you want to go to the Ball?”
Terrence cleared his throat again. Their mother interrupted, “Terrence has a girlfriend.”
“She is not my girlfriend! We’re just friends. I just thought it might be nice to … you know … take her out someplace nice and—”
“Take her out?”
Their mother was still grinning. “Alright you two. I’m done. Terrence, it’s your turn. Supper was very good, sweetheart. Thank you.”
Great. If Terrence could get a date, then anyone could, including Gevin. And that meant Anya would be the only one who didn’t.
Later that week, Anya was airing out the house again when she ran into Gevin’s mother hanging up some laundry in the street. “Why hello, Anya!”
“Hey, Ms. Lancaster.”
An agreeable woman of average height and build, Holly Lancaster’s shown slightly darker than Gevin’s. “I haven’t seen you in a long time. Gevin tells me you work in the kitchens now. Do you like it there?”
“Sometimes. I don’t like it there, but I like all the perks.”
Ms. Lancaster threw a sheet over the line. “He told me about your visits to the stables and the food you bring. That’s very nice of you. You’ve been a wonderful friend of Gevin’s ever since Eachann died.”
“Thanks. I never had time like that working in the Queen’s gardens. It’s nice to get out and do things.”
Anya well remembered when Gevin’s family moved in. Eachann Lancaster, his father, had died of the Blue Death, a horrible disease where the sufferer turns a multitude of colors until they reach blue and swell to enormous proportions before finally succumbing several weeks later. Gevin’s older brother, Clay, had been Mr. Lancaster’s squire at the time. Thankfully, another knight took him under his wing, but a squire’s pay was hardly enough to support their family on its own. So, Ms. Lancaster, Gevin, and his younger brother Brent, went to the fields like so many other victimized families. Shortly thereafter, they were forced to move into cheaper housing, and that’s when they popped up next door. They’ve been the best of friends ever since.
Ms. Lancaster pinned a ratty old shirt up next. “Gevin seems to enjoy his new job too. I was worried about him at first, being afraid of horses and being away from his family and all. He had even developed a scary habit of stuttering there for a while.”
Anya’s breath caught in her throat, but she tried to act surprised at this. “Oh, really?”
“You remember. Ever since that night he fell in the lake.”
Anya feigned recognition. “Oooooh.”
“I was fearful that the job was too much stress for him, causing his speech impediment. But it cleared up after that hunting trip with you and Taika.” She smiled unknowingly. “He does just fine now. He really likes it! By the way, what happened on that trip?”
Anya tried to bluff her way through this very difficult conversation by looking inquisitive. “What do you mean Ms. Lancaster?”
“Well, it was a hunting trip. And you were gone almost three days, but you didn’t catch anything?”
Anya shook her head. “Sadly, no. There were too many predators about, and they got there before we could. The only thing we found was a gramwhat.” It wasn’t a complete lie. There were surely predators there somewhere, and they did find a gramwhat. But she still reddened brightly. She grabbed a pair of trousers and hung them on the line to hide her face.
Ms. Lancaster mistook her action as a thoughtful gesture. “Thank you, dear. Incidentally, you are going to the Ball, right?”
“Of course. It’s my first time. I wouldn’t miss it.” Unless, of course, I’m left going all alone.
“Your mother asked me to give you dancing lessons, if you want them.”
The basket of clothes lay empty. Anya thought for a moment while she threw her extra pins into it. Dancing. Dancing? She didn’t realize there would be dancing involved. Other than the few times with Taika’s family, she had never danced before in her life. And dancing with Taika’s family wasn’t exactly difficult. She and the other women just bobbed up and down in a circle. The men did all the work.
Ooohh, this was not good. She was going to be in front of all the adult citizens of Cupola. Every eye would be judging her every move as she proved herself worthy of attending such a grownup function. Anya lost her ability to speak at that point and just stared at Ms. Lancaster, dumbfounded.
Gevin’s mother picked up the basket and addressed Anya’s rigid body, “It’s OK, Anya. Dancing’s easy.”
Anya continued to stand still, staring with plastered eyes at Gevin’s mother and having no idea how to respond to this.
“I’ll teach you.”
She managed to raise her eyebrows a bit, intrigued.
“Can you come over tomorrow night? I can show you then.”
“Um … Sure.” Well, at least her mouth was still working.Ms. Lancaster smiled and went inside. And Anya stood there, staring at the door now made forever scary by the woman who just went through it.