39: A Final Dance
We entered the palace and were swiftly directed to the grand ballroom by servants whose job was only that. There were even more servants that waited by the entrance, taking everyone’s coats and stowing them. I had handed them my luxurious fur stole, reluctantly, and Dean gave them his overcoat. Quiet and polite, they stored them for us to retrieve when we left. I told myself I could recover the stole at any time after resuming as High Suryan Premiere, but I doubted I’d have the chance to wear it again. I’d grown quite attached to its furry comfort in the short time I’d worn it.
Arm in arm, we promenaded with the crowd, not making any pauses for small talk, unlike everyone else. I noted the heavily armed guards lining the perimeter. Most were standard infantrymen, but a few Suryan recruits mingled within their ranks. The recruits, mere children, stood stiff and nervous, unlike the guards, who just looked bored. I noticed that some of the guards wore a different armor than the usual royal garb. Perhaps the King was supplementing his defenses with hired hands. It wasn’t unheard of to do so, but it usually wasn’t necessary. Why expend the extra resources on hiring men if you had your own already?
The grand ballroom was well lit, a vast expanse of marble floor, with couples dancing in the center to a tune woven by a small string quartet. They were playing a slow, Thiolish waltz, typical of a formal dance like this. The dancers moved in unison, spinning and twirling in the stiff ballroom dancing poses.
At the back of the hall on a slight dais was the elegant resting table where the royal family sat. It was largely unoccupied, though I immediately saw princess Nya, bored, sitting in her seat to the King’s left. She was the only one there, aside from a lady in waiting, who looked eager to join the dancing, but unwilling to leave the Princess. She was probably assigned to chaperone Nya, who was often a source of mischief.
I suppressed a grin, recalling certain trouble she and I used to get into at parties like this. Once, we had replaced a basket of bread with a basket of trapped frogs. We had spent weeks collecting those poor amphibians, keeping them alive by feeding them the crickets we could gather, just so we could release them during Nya’s birthday gathering. We had been such children, behaving so, but I missed those simpler days.
We meandered around the ballroom, taking in as much as we could. I already knew the layout of the ballroom, and the surrounding rooms, though Dean was likely memorizing an escape route and who knew what else. I went through the motions, pretending to search, but really, there was nothing for me to gain. I was leaving soon, anyway.
The song, the traditional Thiolish waltz, had stopped, and another one began. This one was a number that apparently didn’t have a choreographed routine, so more couples joined in, simply enjoying the melody and each other’s company. I looked at Dean, one eyebrow raised, posing the question.
“Would you like to dance?” I asked, extending my hand out so that he could take it. “We could explore the dance floor discreetly.”
“If you insist,” he responded, his expression stony as he took my hand.
He had been stiff and tense as soon as we’d entered through the palace gates, but he softened a little as we assumed the ballroom stance. His hand was on my waist, his other supporting mine in the air, our chests open and upper backs tilted backwards. Looking around, we did slow circles about the dance floor, surveying the entire room. I caught Princess Nya watching me more than once. She looked a vision – her dark blonde hair curled and perfectly coiffed into an immaculate updo, her graceful, slim figure wrapped in a deep blue dress that clung tight to her body, widening slightly at the knees. She was watching me carefully as I danced, and I made sure to not make eye contact. It would make Dean suspicious; I was sure.
Though this type of dance required a sturdy posture, he was still excessively rigid, his lips constantly stretched into a thin line, eyes narrowed as he gazed around. I wondered when Spenser would be able to rejoin us. I had no idea how many implosion bombs they had to plant, and I hoped that this wouldn’t drag out the whole night. Once more, the song inevitably ended and we pulled apart, my hand that had been grasping Dean’s sticky from nervous sweat.
“How long do we have to stay?” I asked quiet enough so that only Dean could hear me.
This evening was becoming more and more uncomfortable for me, and I realized I didn’t want to return to the King. I wanted to return to the compound, to our shared room, to the comfortable companionship I had found, the simple friendships I’d built. Life was much more pleasant there, rather than as a Suryan Mage. I chanced another glance over at Nya, who was still watching me. I knew what I wanted, and that was almost worse. I still had one last thing to do before I could rid myself of this entire experience.
“Until we get the signal that they’re finished,” he said, not meeting my eyes.
“What’s the signal?”
“I’ll know it when I see it,” he responded cryptically, standing stiffly in front of me.
“Maybe we should split up,” I suggested.
He looked doubtful.
“We would be able to cover more ground that way,” I suggested, “and since we don’t know exactly how much time we have, we should make the most of it.”
My reasoning must have worked, because he nodded in agreement.
“Go dance and mingle. Find out what we’re dealing with, here,” he ordered briskly, doling out the command as authoritatively as a general.
It suited him, I thought. I curtsied perfectly, taking my leave. He walked away to go get a drink, leaving me alone and standing still. I felt his absence immediately, my stomach sinking, and I sighed deeply. Time to get this over with. Time, once again, to wear the mask of High Suryan Premiere, and do what I must to get the job done.
Damn Nya for putting me in this position. I wished, and not for the first time, that I had never met her. That I’d never left my hometown village, that I’d been able to stay with my sister and father in our little run down cottage, farming our mediocre crops. But those days were long gone. I had promised Nya that I’d be true to her, that I’d act in her best interest until my dying days. And since I’d promised this, become a Suryan Mage, she’d promised that my family would be alright. I owed her everything.
I hadn’t always resented this promise. At first, it was the only thing that held me together, knowing that my family would be okay without me. Then she was the only thing I could hold onto, my only constant. As I’d relied on her, we’d become friends. I remembered those days fondly; when I was still just a recruit, and I felt honored that the princess would speak to me at all. Then, our friendship turned into my first kiss, and the next few.
But time waits for no man. I was promoted, became High Suryan Premiere. Nya became of marrying age, and even though our relationship wasn’t strictly taboo in the Kingdom, as a princess, she couldn’t marry me. She had to be able to produce a lineage, after all. So, the King had forced us apart, attempted to minimize our contact.
I remembered the day he did so, when he had called me into the throne room alone. He told me to break things off with her, that I wasn’t allowed to see her except as a royal guard. I remembered how my heart broke hearing those words, how I had to conceal how it crumbled. A Suryan is composed and stoic, especially the High Suryan Premiere. I looked around the ballroom, despondent, seeing nothing but blurs of people as they passed me, too involved in themselves to see anything else.
I thought I knew what to do, but now, I wasn’t so sure. Was there still time for me to follow my heart? Was there a way I could escape all of the ties that held me down? I tried to think of a solution, but I couldn’t concentrate. My thoughts scattered, slipping through my grasp as if I were trying to cup water in my hand, seeping through the cracks. Instead, I just felt dejected as I slowly meandered through the thick crowd, stepping on more than one toe accidentally, and into the hallway.
The guards lined the hallways, preventing guests from wandering too far. There were less people out here, but some were either still making their way into the ballroom, relaxing in the less crowded space of the corridors, or simply getting to know one another better in the quieter space. Regardless, I felt immediately soothed; the cool marble floor under my feet was familiar, despite the strange extravagant garments I was unaccustomed to wearing. I gazed around, trying not to look suspicious, looking for Spenser. I doubted he would be here yet, but it couldn’t hurt to look. Perhaps I should go ahead and alert one of the guards to find him?
I started to step forward when a quick movement caught my well trained eye. Spenser. He was walking quickly to meet me, from the direction of the front staircase. His prompt steps caught the attention of several other party-goers, but they paid him no mind after he passed, although I did notice an appreciative glance come from several women as he walked by. He did look rather dashing in his nondescript, but very well kempt and tidy outfit of a black doublet, decorated with thin, crimson embroidery weaving its way through the designs. The dark clothing complimented his lighter complexion, and I understood why the women were staring. He did look handsome tonight.
Finally, he reached me, and I turned to face him. Though, before he could say a word, he blanched, his face turning white and eyes widening.
I did an abrupt about-face to come nose to nose with Princess Nya.
Her hazel eyes glittered with mischief. “Just what are you doing here, Fields?”
Of course, she would ask me the question I didn’t know how to answer. “I’ve come to see the King,” I said, recovering my composure.
She looked me over, a flicker of disappointment shooting over her lovely face. I thought of the last time we spoke, when she had told me I held the fate of the Kingdom in my hands.
“Well, then we mustn’t keep my father waiting,” she said. She took stock of Spenser with a look of appreciation. I supposed she wasn’t immune to a handsome man, either. “And who is this gentleman you’ve brought along?”
Spenser stepped in to bow his head to the Princess, “Spenser Red, your Highness.”
She held out her hand in greeting, which he accepted and placed a light kiss on the tops of her fingers. I watched her blush in response.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” he said gracefully.
“And you as well,” she responded, not reacting to the bastardy revealed by his last name with the expected grace of a royal princess. “This way,” she gestured, turning.
This time, she took my arm, resting hers in the crook of my elbow, and began to walk with me. Spenser trailed behind as we made our way to see the King.