Invitations and Ballgowns
The gilded invitation sat lonely on Princess Cyra’s desk, shining in the mid-evening sun.
She shuddered in disgust at the thought of having to dress up in a stuffy dress, slap a smile on her face, and pretend to enjoy the mingling, cavorting, and revelry of another party. One party a year stood to be her limit; the annual Yul festivities gave her enough merriment for a thousand lifetimes. “Your Highness,” her lady-in-waiting, Mirabel, stood behind Cyra, brushing her chestnut hair absentmindedly. “The invitation is from Princess Clara.” Mirabel waited for some form of acknowledgment of the name Clara; some sign that she recalled the face associated with the name.
“Who?” ‘Clara’ didn’t ring any bells. Cyra turned her head to look at Mirabel in the mirror, her amber eyes meeting her reflection. Mirabel paused, unsure if she was joking or not. When Cyra just stared at the pale woman, Mirabel continued.
“Princess Clara; she lives north of the city. She was the Maid of Honor at Princess Odette’s wedding last season...?” An image of the swollen Princess Odette played through her mind; the white dress completely engulfing her figure as she walked down the aisle. A faint memory of a tall, stick-thin brunette behind her took hold, and Cyra nodded slowly. She didn’t remember much of that wedding (her gown had been absolutely uncomfortable, which hampered her memory of that night). Still, she did remember the stark contrast between the two women.
“Ah, yes. Tall, skinny, brunette. Wide eyes.”
“Yes, this invitation is for her engagement party to Prince Avisi from the West. She’s invited many royal families to this event... You should consider attending this one! If... even for an hour.” Cyra looked at the red-head with a deadpan expression. One whole hour would be a lifetime. But Cyra saw the sparkling, hopeful look in her eyes: she desperately wanted to go.
Cyra sighed, letting her head fall sideways into her hand. “An hour couldn’t kill us. I’ll go. But you’re the only lady going with me.” Mirabel brightened immediately, smiling widely.
“Truly, Your Highness, it will be worth your while.”
“Ugh.” The feeling of pinching inside Cyra’s shoes began before she even exited the carriage and stepped onto the cobblestones. Mirabel noted her discomfort and helped her out of the carriage once they arrived, and Cyra wobbled to the carpet that existed explicitly for this issue. “I should be permitted to take my shoes off.”
“Not here!” Mirabel gasped, alert to the necessity for decorum. Cyra brushed her hands down her gold and mockingbird blue damask gown, smoothing out invisible wrinkles as she stepped down on the steps’ intermediate landing area. If only she could stand here for the rest of the night...
Mirabel descended before her, her red curls bouncing as she stepped. This provided a beautiful contrast to the ivy green hand-me-down dress Cyra had allowed her to have as a birthday present. Slapping on a smile and slowly taking the steps, Cyra met her royal counterparts below, faking excitement and joy. Mirabel wandered off to mingle with the other ladies-in-waiting as expected. Despite her maid’s absence, Cyra didn’t feel any more uncomfortable than she already was.
“You came!” Princess Clara burst through the gathered crowd, her wine red gown sweeping the floor behind her. The woman had a glass in one hand and the other - the ring hand - extended out for a hug. Clara pulled her in close, the scent of white musk enveloping the air around them, and whispered, “I didn’t think you enjoyed parties, little Cyra.” Cyra pulled back, half-amused, and replied,
“I wouldn’t miss your engagement for the world, Clara!” This did little to phase the Northern Princess, who waved over a tall man with floppy blonde hair. His outfit was almost akin to a jester’s attire, with bright colors and too-tight pants. Cyra held back a laugh as Clara introduced her fiance.
“Avisi, this is Princess Cyra.” Cyra smiled at him, tipping her head slightly.
“Lovely to meet you.” Prince Avisi was also pretending to care, his flute empty of champagne. Poor fellow.
“She’s Princess of the Eastern Court. Her mother and father sit on the High Council.”
“Ah!” Avisi turned sharply to her, his eyes alight. The mention of the prestigious High Council caught his attention, as it did with anyone and everyone who met her. “Your parents are part of the five courts that make up the High Council? Have you... have you ever met High King Omar?” Avisi got closer to her with his last question, his eyes searching hers. It took all Cyra had in her not to roll her eyes at the sound of that name.
“I have. Omar is the head of the Council, after all.” She muttered dryly, picking at her sleeve. High King Omar was not a subject she intended to discuss. Clara noticed her sudden discomfort and placed a hand on Avisi’s arm, turning his attention back to her.
“We are glad you’re with us, Cyra. Please, go have some refreshments. I’m sure the dancing will begin shortly.” Cyra took her leave quickly, making a beeline to the tables of food and drink. Boredom ensued as it always did at these pointless functions. With very few people she knew available for conversation and dancing out of the question, Cyra ventured into the massive garden alone. She held a cup of tea close to her as she made her escape to the fresh air.
The lush grass surrounding the garden encouraged her to ditch her painful shoes, and she unlaced them before leaving them behind to search for somewhere to sit. Relief washed over her as she traveled through the cold grass, sipping her tea and admiring the beautiful foliage and horticulture that lined the path to a lone bench underneath a tree. Moonlight shone down on the large open area in front of it and lighted the various colored orchids surrounding the courtyard. Cyra sighed as she placed her teacup in her lap and looked up at the moon. Her eyes drifted closed, the stillness of the moment overtaking her while the night breeze drifted by her ears, caressing her warm cheeks and cooling the heat in her dress. With the relief came another sigh, and with the sigh, she leaned back into the bench.
“Boring, isn’t it?”
Cyra jolted upright, sending the teacup clattering to the ground. The person who startled her came closer, and her eyes landed on the tall figure of a man she did not know. Squinting her eyes, she opened her mouth to offer a rebuke, but he stepped into the moonlight, his golden eyes stealing the breath out of her lungs.
Fear pooled hastily in her belly. What was he doing at a lower royal’s function?
“No, no.” The man quickly interrupted her thoughts, laughing a little. “You are not the first tonight to mistake me for him.” He took a few steps toward her, though Cyra still felt apprehensive. “You can call me Hal.”
“You look just like the High King. Are you his--”
“I am related to him, yes.” The handsome fellow grinned sheepishly. He had dark brown skin and a full, brown beard; his features were sharp, yet his golden eyes were soft and curious. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to startle you.” He added, changing the subject.
“No, it’s quite alright.” Cyra looked down to the teacup deposited in the grass and leaned down to get it. Hal bent down to pick it up for her instead, placing it in her outstretched hand.
“You didn’t last long in there...” He started, looking up at her sweetly. “You must not like parties.” The resemblance between him and the High King was absolutely astounding. Perhaps he was his brother... that would explain the similarity. Cyra did not realize he had spoken during the middle of her wonderings, looking up at the straightened man only when he hummed in question.
“My apologies; I was lost in thought.”
“I simply inquired about your identity. You are surely not related to the bride-to-be.”
“Not by any stretch of the imagination. I’m Cyra. My mother and father are King Ekbert and Queen Bilka.”
“Eastern Court... Your family--”
“-- is on the High Council. Yes.” She interrupted. Hal gave her a half-smile and shook his head.
“Not my first thought. I was going to say that your father is the great-great-grandson of High King Duchaine the Third.” Cyra paused, unaware that anyone but her family knew this fact off the top of their heads.
“Yes, he is.”
“Well, I am honored to be in your presence. It is not often that I meet someone with such a charismatic leader in their lineage.”
“The stories are inspiring.” Cyra agreed but refrained from telling Hal any sliver of the truth about Duchaine. That was a best-kept secret among her family - maybe even the best-kept secret. Hal moved to sit next to her, and she obliged by scooting over while gathering her skirts. In the light, his laurel crown and cream-colored attire (the edges of his tunic were covered in stitched golden leaves) made him alluring, god-like, even. He looked upward, letting his breath go, the visible puff of air drifting into the night. The handsome nobleman then spoke gently.
“It has been quite some time since I’ve spent a night hiding from a party. But, as it were, I don’t get invited to many.”
“You must not enjoy them either.”
“I’m afraid not.” He looked down at her, smiling yet again. Cyra felt utterly charmed and enveloped by it, his eyes crinkling at the edges like they were old friends. How many women had he delighted with that smile? “I envy the gardeners. They have such a lovely job.” Hal changed the subject again, looking out into the spacious greenery. “Do you ever wish you were a gardener?”
“At times, I think it would be a wonderful profession. Nothing to care for but yourself and the flowers... No parties. No thrones. No successions. No pinching shoes.” Hal let out a sharp laugh, lifting up his feet to show his own shoes: Persian boots.
“These things are terrors to wear. I can only imagine how much worse women’s shoes are...” He shucked off his shoes, placing his bare feet in the grass. She lifted up her feet from beneath her skirts and showed her own bare feet. They both laughed again, wiggling their toes in the grass, the blades caressing the soles of their feet. “You’re enthralling... I am inquisitive about you. You must be engaged to a kind suitor. Or at least have quite a few.” He looked at Cyra quizzically, expecting some form of assent.
But memories of her previous engagement flashed before her, the failure of such never leaving her mind.
“No one. Engagement isn’t something I’m currently seeking. I’m working towards inheriting the kingdom and taking my parent’s place on the High Council.”
“Marriage isn’t on your mind at all?” Hal leaned forward, lacing his fingers together.
“No.” Cyra lied. “Is marriage on your mind?” Hal looked at his hands suddenly. Cyra sensed a story behind his changed gaze; he wouldn’t answer her, letting a pause hang in the air.
“I think about it all the time.”