For hours, Andria sat before her vanity as handmaidens painted her cheeks with rouge and gently tugged at her golden hair. The still air within her dressing room was nearly stifling. She had hoped her memories of these evenings of preparation were nothing more than nightmarish caricatures sculpted during her childhood. However, her maturity made none of it any more tolerable.
Her heart raced. Dread easily weighed her down like a stone.
Once she was done sitting, Andria stood for even longer to allow the girls to tailor a gown made of finest silk and pleated damask to the very millimeter of her frame. The youngest of the girls, Bryony, frequently pressing her slim fingers to Andria’s spine with growing emergency.
“Mustn’t slouch, Milady,” Bryony reminded again and again, holding a needle between her teeth, her brows fixed in concentration. She fit Andria into a corset as Gwendolyn—an older handmaiden Andria had never met until her return, who had dark eyes and a round face—braided and wrapped Andria’s hair into an eloquent bun.
Evelyn hung various necklaces of exquisite jewels around the Princess’s neck. A bright grin lit up her big, blue eyes.
“Beautiful, Milady,” she said, turning Andria toward her own reflection: someone unrecognizable stared back at her—some stunning creature as fragile and flawless as a doll. Not one strand of hair was out of place, not one string of fabric undone. Andria furrowed her brows: this was the Princess of Aramore whom had everyone expected her to be. This painted skin was her gilded, deceivingly desirable cage. Her handmaidens never saw the illness that struck her stomach as they rejoiced in their job well-done. The only true part of her left was the golden locket sitting on her collarbones.
“Do tell us how the evening unfolds, Milady,” Bryony begged. Andria knew, by the way Bryony gazed at all of her beautiful gowns, that she dreamed of a collection of her own. Being a handmaiden, however, it was a duty of hers to dress without drawing attention to herself. “Especially with Prince Edmund. I hear he looks so dashing at these balls.”
Bryony clasped her hands together, swooning.
Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. “Bryony. He is only another prince.”
“A handsome one at that.” Bryony beamed at Andria. “How eager you must be to see him again!”
Glancing at Evelyn, Andria tried her very hardest to keep her smile from fading. Well, she thought, this is awkward. Evelyn, too, looked red in the cheeks.
“It’s been years since we last spoke,” Andria mustered with an anxious grin. “He has probably changed immensely.” Or maybe not, she realized. For all I know, he still might be the pompous, promiscuous prick he was before.
“Fret not, Milady,” giggled Bryony. “True love always prevails.”
“True love?” Andria wondered aloud, trying to hide her cynicism. This was an arranged marriage. Surely no one believed there lasted any genuine love between her and Edmund. Right?
“Milady,” Evelyn said hurriedly. “Your crown! I nearly forgot.”
From the vanity drawer, Evelyn retrieved a delicate tiara of pure gold. Its small rubies shone in the candlelight as Evelyn placed the diadem upon her head. Bryony and Gwendolyn admired from afar. They had no idea this acted as just another noticeable weight upon Andria’s shoulders.
Like a child, Evelyn embraced Andria and buried her head in her shoulder.
“We would bid you fortune, Milady,” she said. “But you’ve never needed such a thing.”
“Not like us mortals,” Gwendolyn joked. Andria laughed with the girls. It made her glad to know how comfortable they had become around her.
“Your kindness, as always, gives me strength through my fear,” Andria said, hugging Evelyn tightly back. Evelyn blushed deeply, grinning proudly, her eyes twinkling.
Bryony answered a knock on the door: Sir Ronald entered with a bow.
“The moon is out, Milady,” he said. Tonight, he wore something different: an elegant, maroon uniform—a content change from his usual servant’s attire. “Your family awaits in the solar.” A cold sweat broke out upon the back of Andria’s neck as she hastily bid goodbye to her gleeful handmaidens and followed Sir Ronald out of her tower. A few guards flanked the hallway and marched on either side of her. She peeked into the passage that led to Xavier’s tower; as always, he must be preparing his arrival with his family.
She could barely wait to see him again.
Though this ball was merely another opportunity for her to be caged and shown like a circus animal, it would serve as proof to Xavier the worth of his sacrifices—proof that he redeemed himself.
Trailing behind Sir Ronald and a handful of guards, Andria eyed the palace servants trotting about who hastily decorated various tables with ornate cloths, polished statues, and situated exotic plants. She tried to catch anything that might distract from the dryness in her throat and trembling of her hands.
Eventually, she decided to count her steps.
Thirty-six. Thirty-seven. Thirty-eight…
Who am I kidding? This is useless.
Before a pair of large, wooden doors, her guards convened in a line. Sir Ronald bowed after opening one of them: from where she stood, Andria could catch a faint glimpse of the solar, lined with beautiful cabinets, tall bookshelves, and podiums that held golden busts of sovereignty of the past. “Good fortune, Milady,” said Ronald as she passed through.
The door shut behind her.
At the center of the solar was a cozy arrangement of fine maroon sofas and chestnut end tables. A small throng of hosts—the royal family—and honored guests lulled about the room, as servants offered bowls of fruit to anyone who passed. A bright chandelier above Andria burned so bright it blinded her.
Benedict sat in an armchair beside a blonde girl, their hands linked together; he stroked her palm with his thumb, as though she was a treasure he loved having at his side. Andria grinned. Is this the girl I’ve been hearing so much about? Across from them, however, sat the Harcourts: Rolfe, Fiona, Violetta, and Asher—a pack of wolves dressed in uniforms and gowns. They laughed and joked in good fun, but Andria knew their company was never enjoyed by Benedict. What on earth is he doing with them? She could scarcely imagine him having made friends with a Harcourt.
Prince Benedict glanced at her, smiled, and beckoned her closer.
“Sister,” said Benedict, drawing her close. “You remember Rolfe and Asher. Fiona and Violetta.”
At once, the siblings stood and offered her a bow. Their courtesy, however, radiated as nothing less than manipulative. Andria was certain that Fiona and Violetta’s pearly-white smiles were mere masks to hide their scowling. Their sultry eyes looked her up and down as though she was a predator—threatening and unwelcome. Rolfe and Asher, on the other hand, ravaged her body with their eyes like she was prey—naïve and brainless, like the Alden does they so often see in Farradon. An easy victim.
Andria swallowed. Her face flushed as each of them approached her to kiss her ring. The things their father must have said to them once she left… Lord Harcourt was one of the most honored members of the King’s Court—thus, one of Andria’s own enemies within the palace. She saw Lord Harcourt’s handsome features in each of their faces—especially Rolfe, who stood well over six feet tall and had to bend an incredible amount to reach Andria’s ring with his lips.
“Charmed,” he said with a smirk. “Milady.” Those beckoning eyes—he might as well have asked to bed her. She had always heard rumors that he had never been the type of man to court women properly…
“And this,” Benedict continued, linking arms with the blonde girl at his side, “is Lysette.” Andria knew that name. Another Harcourt? She tried to remember. Lysette curtsied and pressed her lips to Andria’s ruby ring. She had the same eyes as her older sisters, but there was still something different within them. Perhaps it’s the kindness they’ve never had, Andria wondered with a smirk.
“‘Tis a pleasure to meet you, Princess Andria,” piped Lysette. Andria could tell that her excitement was real. “Benedict has told me so much of you.” Her cheeks reddened as she shrank into Benedict’s arm.
“Benedict hadn’t told me he had a sweetheart,” Andria teased.
“I wanted to surprise you,” said Benedict. Andria chuckled.
“I am surprised I never met you years ago, Lysette,” she said.
“Lysette is only fourteen years of age,” Rolfe Harcourt interjected. Andria’s eyes widened: Lysette looked at least seventeen to her, maybe even sixteen—but absolutely not three years younger than the Prince.
“Aye,” added Violetta. “Our baby sister.” In both hers and Fiona’s eyes, Andria very clearly saw a hint of envy. It must have been a massive blow to their egos when their youngest sister was the one to claim Prince Benedict’s heart.
“You are family now,” Andria told Lysette.
“Family, Milady?” giggled Lysette. Her smile was so lovely. No wonder Benedict likes her so much, Andria thought. Lysette’s brothers and sisters did not take as kindly to Andria’s comment. Family? said their growing snarls. Never. Andria had no idea that she could feel so unsafe and uncomfortable in a room of straitlaced nobles. She dared not look at their eyes, wishing she had the courage to change something.
Another door opened, an in strolled the King and Queen: Oliver wore a handsome uniform of gold and maroon, complete with a cape; Sonja was adorned in an ambitious gown. Both of their crowns sparkled in the chandelier light. They seemed to be in the middle of a conversation with a palace servant.
“Then let them in,” Oliver insisted. The servant fled the room in a hurry. Andria searched the room for anymore guests. However, the solar was empty except for her, the Harcourts, and her family. Her heart sank as she realized who her father must have been talking about.
A door swung open.
With the new guests’ entrance came a new stillness in the air.
Not to mention an overwhelming scent of liquor.
“Frederick!” called King Oliver as he met his fellow king with a grand smile and outstretched arms. They shook hands before Queen Sonja curtsied and kissed Frederick’s ring. Adorned in a stately regal uniform, royal broaches, and an emerald cape, Frederick returned the broadest smile Andria has ever seen on the man’s toad-ish, wrinkled face.
“Of course—this was a party I could not afford to miss,” said the Aldhavish king. Andria barely heard the rest of their conversation—she was too preoccupied with the second guest from Aldhaven: Prince Edmund, who sauntered into the solar as a servant draped the Prince’s cape dramatically over one shoulder. He wore a pout that certainly meant he was in a particularly broody mood and, like his father, was prepared to make ill judgments and drink Aramore’s finest ale until the break of dawn.
Is that man ever truly happy? Andria wondered.
As the Kings made their way to the opposite end of the hall, Edmund claimed one of the armchairs closest to Andria and snapped at a servant who carried a basin of grapes. Instead of retrieving a couple of the fruits, however, Edmund stole the entire bowl. He popped a grape on his tongue and stared at his boots.
You can’t be serious, thought Andria. Is he for real?
Edmund held up his hand as if to stop Andria from speaking.
“I know I am handsome,” he said, “but you needn’t stare.”
Andria’s jaw dropped.
“You’ve been staring at me. For quite some time, now.” A whiff of his breath crinkled Andria’s nose. Evidently, he performed a bit of what those of the Ground call “pre-gaming.” It is a wonder he can form a coherent sentence, let alone sit up on his own.
“You are drunk,” Andria breathed.
“I am enlightened.” Holding his head high like the Crowned Heir to the Throne he was, Edmund tossed another grape into his mouth. “Years ago, you said yourself that the only people who enjoy themselves at these balls are the drunkards. I decided to take your word for it. Your Elegance.”
“And you expect to be able to dance? Stumbling left and right like when you arrived,” Andria scoffed. “I won’t hold you up if you trip over yourself while we’re dancing.”
“Dancing is purely fanciful walking. Stepping in threes and looking blissful about it.” Edmund’s lips twisted into a smirk, and he giggled in a gentle way Andria didn’t expect—the prince had made himself laugh. “I can walk. Alas, I can dance.” Contentedly, Edmund raised his hands and swayed his feet ever so slightly to recall the traditional steps of Aramore’s ceremonial waltz.
Andria watched him without a clue of what to do.
Edmund soon lounged into his armchair with a huff, gazing at the ceiling as though reliving a daydream. His smile vanished, and he heaved sighed through his nose as though boredom won him over once more.
Andria, meanwhile, imagined for a moment the utter triumph she could experience in slapping the handsome prince upside the head right where he sat. Some ferocity ought to wipe that pride and entitlement from his poised and perfect face.
King Oliver arrived at her side.
“Awaken your prince,” he insisted. Andria looked at Edmund: in moments, he began snoring. “You and Edmund shall be the last to enter—and remember to smile.” Oliver pat Edmund on the shoulder, jolting the prince awake.
Andria glared at the floor as her father left her side.
“He is not my prince,” she grumbled under her breath.
Chatter of hundreds of guests seeped beneath the door. Andria trembled, unable to think clearly with all those voices swimming laps in her mind. She drowned in the sight of gold, the smell of fine wine, and the fear of failure—wishing she could call for her Guardian as she stroked her locket out of habit. With Xavier at her side, her doubt would disappear.
Out of the blue, Edmund yanked her into formation.
“Do not touch me.” Andria jerked away. Edmund sighed.
“Do you not think we should become familiar with one another?” he suggested. “Standing arm-in-arm is nothing compared to what’s expected of us once we marry.”
“There is no way in hell I will give my body to you—.”
Horns blazed from the opposite side of the doors.
Then, a resounding applause.
Oh, God. It’s time.
Prince Edmund snatched Andria’s hand in his.
“Now, now, this is all merely a good show, is it not?” he muttered, his breath on her cheek. Andria rolled her eyes.
“You play such a pointless game.”
“But an amusing one at that. Yes?” To Andria’s surprise, Edmund did not laugh. Something besides amusement rested in his eyes: an honest melancholy. “‘Tis an art, rendering them breathless with a simple lie. In no time, we become a symbol that cannot be eradicated. A symbol that is adored.” Edmund cleared his throat.
“I have a riddle for you, Princess,” he slurred.
Andria shut her eyes and heaved a sigh.
“An adored man claimed his loyalty with the falling of the sun. And in the morn, once allegiance crawled to him on hands and knees, he surely had me won. What am I?”
Andria considered his riddle.
Adoration, she thought. Then loyalty. Then allegiance. Then…
Good God, that’s simple.
“Power,” she resolved. Edmund smirked.
“Impressive,” he muttered. Not really, Andria thought.
The light of a thousand candles blinded Andria as the grand doors opened before her. All that met her ears was fanfare, chatter, and laudation as she made her first appearance in five years, arm-in-arm with the man who scared her away.
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