Prince Alaric stayed fast by Isabel’s side until it was time to go in to dinner and escorted her to a seat beside his. She noticed he would never allow her to linger too long among the younger male guests of the party, guarding her as if she were a prized possession. The Duke of Kendra also kept his distance and Princess Nerissa seemed to have her attention monopolized by King Jarek and his little companion.
Throughout dinner Isabel was able to engage in small talk, mainly because those sitting around her bombarded her with questions about the other realm, especially when she tried to ask questions about her father and the Duchy of Kendra. Was it true minstrels and actors lived inside little boxes in order to perform daily for ordinary people in their homes? Did people really travel on the backs of large shiny birds that ate the decomposed remains of their ancestors? How did one dance Gingham Style? The questions she answered were so outrageous that despite her best efforts to be polite, Isabel couldn’t help giggling from time to time.
As she spoke, her eyes would sometimes meet Prince Alaric’s, causing her heart to beat so loudly she was surprised no one else heard it. It amazed her to see him as mesmerized by her stories and answers to questions posed by the other guests as they were. However, after dinner the dancing began and the prince escorted Isabel into the ballroom. He planted her in a corner before whisking away some pretty blonde thing that had been making doe eyes at him all evening.
Standing amongst the elderly and the wallflowers of the group, Isabel watched as beautiful willowy women in elegant ball gowns flitted about the room in the arms of equally elegant and handsome men. The prince was never wont for a dancing partner. In fact, there were a few times when Isabel thought a fight might break out amongst the highbred damsels despite operating under the dance card system. Not once did Alaric look in her direction and Isabel sighed to herself. It occurred to her then his guardianship was simply his being a good host to a guest staying in his home. Why had she confessed to him about her unease and concerns about being out of her element? She had probably bombed miserably, despite his assurances, and so he deposited her amongst the lesser members of court to save himself from embarrassment.
Her face burned and her chest tightened with humiliation. She rushed out onto the blessedly empty terrace, sucking in the cool night air as tears stung her cheeks. Pendeja! You think a summer at charm school, a pretty dress, and a new hairdo changes anything? She was a fool, a damned fool, to think she could compete with the prim and delicate ladies of nobility for the prince’s attention. She who was loud and lanky and clomped around the palace like the elephant she often felt like. It was just as well she would be returning home shortly. Isabel was completely out of her league in Baelcrest.
“Lady Isabel,” a voice called, “are you well?”
Isabel shook herself out of her stupor and quickly wiped the tears away as she turned to find a short thin elderly gentleman approaching. The top of his balding head shone in the moonlight beneath a whisper of white hair like a mist. The rest of his hair was snowy white and a thin white mustache lingered beneath his long nose. A pair of kind blue eyes peered up at her from behind a monocle.
“Quite well, thank you sir.” She sniffed. “Just getting some air.”
“Yes, a room so full of pomposity can get a bit stuffy. I felt like getting a bit of air myself.” He chuckled. “May I join you?”
Isabel waved her arm to one side gesturing her consent and the two stared silently at the rolling hills and vast forest bathed in blue light.
“You are faring much better than I, had I a run in with the fearsome Lord of the Underworld, Lady Kendra. Will you be joining the fight against the sorceress?”
Isabel shook her head. “No, I have nothing to contribute to the effort. I intend to return home as soon as it’s safe.”
“I would not be taking your leave just yet, milady. Perhaps once the war is over you may be able to help restore Kendra. If you’ll forgive my saying so, the Duke is a coward and cannot be relied upon.”
Isabel suddenly felt defensive of her father, something she hadn’t expected, but the urge to set this old man straight was too strong to ignore. She turned and looked at him, Sir Hubert Wode from the fishing nation of Althea, if memory served.
“I know my father ran away when his father died but he’s been back these 20 years. Surely Kendra has fared better since his return?”
Sir Hubert’s mouth formed a thin line. “Twenty years? Why, the Duke has only returned six months hence.”
Isabel frowned. “Six months? My father left us when I was just a child.” If he wasn’t in Kendra, where did he go?
The elderly man looked around nervously and replied, “It is said the Duke has been seen occasionally in the company of the sorceress and her cohort, Torquil, the king of goblins. It is also said when Phaedra invaded Kendra with her monstrous horde rather than rallying the troops to fight, Duke Omar intended to flee with his best regiment as protection but they refused to leave, opting instead to defend the people of Kendra. The province fell within a fortnight and Omar was nowhere to be found.”
Isabel listened to the old man’s tale in silent horror. While she had never held her father in high regard, she could not believe the blood of such a selfish coward flowed through her veins.
“I daresay, I was impressed when I learned you had fought against the Lord of the Underworld.” Sir Hubert was saying. “You are not your father’s daughter.”
How did he know about that? Isabel gave the man a watery smile. “That I’m not.”
They stood in silence again for a moment before Isabel asked, “How are the people of Kendra now?”
The old man clucked softly, his blue eyes growing dark and cold. “Disease and famine have ravaged the land. The people are starving and miserable yet they fight back whenever and however they can. Your grandfather is surely spinning in his grave over the cowardice of his son. How the Duke dares to show his face among decent folk I cannot comprehend!”
His face was purple and he sputtered with rage as his voice grew louder and louder, drawing the attention of those in the ballroom. An elderly woman and a mousy looking wallflower moved him to a quiet corner to compose him while casting apologetic glances in Isabel’s direction. This exchange seemed to open the door for revelation from other guests for when she re-entered the room, Isabel received lengthy whispered accounts about the atrocities the people of Kendra had faced because of her father’s actions. She also got more details about her father’s flight, including a deathbed promise to stand by and protect the people of Kendra. By the end of the night, Isabel was livid. She scanned the room and spotted her father. When she caught his eye she had an overwhelming urge to have a heart to heart with dear old dad.
Isabel chased Omar into the hall and as he turned the corner she called out, “How could you?”
She was met with silence and wondered if perhaps her father had kept moving. She took a step forward when he stepped into the corridor.
“Is it true what they say? Did you abandon all those people like you abandoned us?”
Omar regarded Isabel silently as she trembled with anger. The longer he said nothing the more she wanted to lash out at him. She hated the tears that fell upon her cheeks when she was so enraged. The last thing she needed at a time like this was to show any sign of weakness.
“Where have you been, Omar?”
“Call me papi, Isabel, please?”
“Papi died when you walked out that door and after what I just heard there’s no chance in Hell he’s ever coming back!”
“Idle gossip, Isabel. You should know better than to listen to the wagging tongues of drunken old men.”
“Who is the Goblin King, Omar?”
The Duke went silent for a moment before whispering, “Isabel, please, you don’t understand.”
“You’re right, I don’t understand! I don’t understand how a man can turn on his own people, his own family and for what? How could you get involved with the enemy, with the very people who caused all this? What kind of man are you?”
“Watch your tone, young lady!”
“Young lady?” Isabel laughed. “I’m 25 years old, pendejo.”
She was interrupted by a sharp slap to the face and stumbled back outraged. When Isabel looked back, Omar was gone. Forget about playing nice, her mother would be lucky she didn’t kill the son of a bitch!