The next few days were a blur of preparations and avoiding Oryn. The servants around the manor had been rushing about trying to prepare everything for the night, some even staying well past their normal hours to make sure everything was ready.
It must have been quite the ordeal.
Carena and Tristan had been busy with their various responsibilities in regards to the preparation. I hadn’t seen Carena except for a few brief meals in between appointments with florists, decorators, and even musicians.
I watched as each room was cleaned better than it had ever been before. Carriages loaded with food and supplies for the night made the long trek from Abberton several times over the days. The smell of roasting meat and heavenly food wafted from the kitchens and snaked its way around the hallways of the manor, making it nearly impossible to not be hungry all the time. A few nights, I found myself sneaking down to the kitchens, grabbing a few pastries from the baskets they had been stored in.
No one was going to miss three or four pastries.
By the time the day of the ball arrived, I had come up with six or seven excuses to present to Tristan about not attending the ball. As I was pulling my dress on for the day, a loud bang on my door had me scrambling to finish the lacing. I yanked the door open, my heart in my throat, to find Oryn waiting on the other side.
“Good morning, sunshine.” He said with a lopsided smirk. I go to shut the door in his face, his hand coming out to stop it from slamming.
“We need to talk.” He says, his voice dropping to a serious tone.
“Is Carena okay?” I ask, letting my grip on the door loosen a fraction.
“Yes, yes she’s fine.” He pulled a basket out from behind his back, the contents of it covered with a cloth. “But the kitchen said they couldn’t use these pastries and that they had cooked too many for the night. They were going to toss them, but since you seem so fond of them, I thought it would be a crime to get rid of them.”
I looked from the basket to him, folding my arms over my chest and raising an eyebrow.
“A peace offering for being the scoundrel I am.” I remove the cloth to expose dozens of finely baked goods, tossing him another glance. I hadn’t seen him since our little excursion the other night. I had felt him near me, but I hadn’t so much as spare him a glance the past few days. It seemed he knew that space was necessary, and maybe he had needed it too.
What had been said was...difficult to forget. But that didn’t change the fact that a part of him had been right.
And that was why I hadn’t spared him a glance.
He held the basket out towards me, which I took without hesitation.
“You don’t need to say anything,” Oryn said, his shoulders shrugging. “I think it’s best if we leave it behind us.”
“But you were right,” I whisper, my heart pounding in my chest as I admitted it.
“Wait.” Oryn holds his hands up, a smile starting to tug at the corner of his mouth. “Are you admitting that I was right about something? Are you saying that you’re...wrong?”
“Don’t push me,” I say, a smile threatening to take over. I open my mouth to say something along the lines of thank you when Carena rounded the corner, her heels clicking against the floor.
“Aurelia Selene put those doughy delights down.” She said rushing over to me, practically prying the basket from my hands.
“Selene?” Oryn questioned. I only shrugged my shoulders as Carena grabbed my wrist and pulled me into my room.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I turned, finding Carena squaring off to Oryn who was trying to follow us into the room.
“It’s the day of the ball and I have to keep an eye on her.” He crossed his arms over his chest, “It’s the whole reason I’m here.”
“Yeah, no. You’re going to have to wait outside.”
“How am I supposed to watch you from outside?” Oryn said. Carena didn’t let him have another word before she walked up to him, set her small hands around his much too large bicep, and pushed him from the room. He seemed genuinely taken off guard as he stumbled back into the hallway, his eyes darting to mine and back to Carena as she slammed the door in his face. She turned, sighing.
“I swear, there’s no privacy around here.” She began to walk towards me but seemed to have second thoughts. Turning back to the door, she opened it just a crack.
“Sorry!” She yelled into the hall, then shut the door again, locking it for good measure.
“You feel better?” I said.
The rest of the day was spent preparing for the evening. Carena had servants bring several items to our room, each more expensive looking than the last. There were lotions, creams, brushes, powders, gowns, shoes, and much more. Each item Carena declared to be the most amazing thing she had ever used. Her excitement was infectious enough that I found myself letting her apply whatever she thought necessary to my face and hair.
I had asked if it was all necessary after about the fourth different oil she had massaged into my face.
“It’s for the sake of beauty, dear.” She said in a refined tone, her lips pursed and eyes closed. “Just kidding. Trust me, your face will thank me later.”
And so the day continued like this. We snacked on the pastries Oryn had delivered, prepared for the ball, and just generally enjoyed our time together. Carena chatted away, trying on dresses, doing her hair and makeup, as well as helping me with mine. She talked about the people that were on the invitation list, who was dating who, who hated who, and who loved who without the other knowing. She talked about the drama between a few of the politicians, the affairs, the star-crossed lovers. She talked endlessly about the men that would be coming without dates, and who she was planning on chatting to tonight.
Listening to it all, I found myself thinking about what Oryn had said in the darkness of the abandoned ballroom. If I had been born differently, would I be worried about the same things Carena was? Carena lived a carefree life, one where she did not have to hide behind walls and secrets and long-sleeved outfits. She was able to go down to the ball and think about all the people she would meet, not about all the people who could hurt her. For a moment, a pit of envy filled my stomach, burning bright and hot. I cannot remember the last time I saw a boy and thought about chatting to him because he was cute, or because I was interested. I cannot even remember the last time I had a friend that wasn’t Carena.
I blinked and found Carena staring at me, her green eyes wide with concern. I must have dozed off into thought. But as I watched her, I found the envy subside. It wasn’t her fault that we were born in these roles. I couldn’t envy her for the freedom she had because the truth was, we were in it together. Her freedom was hardly realistic. She had a fraction more security than I did, because at the end of the day, if I were to be caught, so would she.
There is always a future for those who are willing to fight for it. Oryn’s words flashed through my mind. Wasn’t I doing that though? Wasn’t this fighting?
“Are you okay?” She asked. I nodded, forcing a smile. I glanced out the window, the sun beginning to set behind the rolling hills. It was getting closer to the time we had to head down to the festivities, but Carena and I were still undressed. She had brought us robes, and I sat on my bed watching Carena prepare to put on the dress she had picked for the night.
It had taken her five different tries until she had decided upon this particular dress. I had to help her get into it, the lacing in the back was simple but difficult for her to reach. It was a tight-fitting dress in the chest, but the rest flowed elegantly to the floor. I looked up and stared at her figure in the mirror she had transported to my room. My chest squeezed as I looked at her, at the woman she had grown up to become.
If only mother could see her now.
The dress she wore was stunning, showing off her figure. It was a deep emerald dress with a long slit that reached mid-thigh. She wore strappy heels that laced up her calf, a new fashion she said everyone was wearing in Abberton. Her sleeves were small straps that did nothing to conceal the freckles on her shoulders and the neckline of her gown plunged a bit too low for comfort. I touched the hem of the sleeves to my robe. I wondered what it would feel like to have so much skin exposed at once, to feel the air rush up and down your arms and across your shoulders.
Would I want that? To be able to wear something other than the gowns I was so comfortable in? Would it be possible to have a future where I could walk into a crowded room and not be killed for the exposed marks?
“Won’t you be cold?” I ask instead, trying to push the dangerous thoughts away. Carena chuckled and wrapped her arms around my waist, pulling me into a fierce hug.
“I have a surprise for you.” She whispered. I pulled out of the hug, looking at her. Because of the heels, she stood at my eye level. She stepped away, her heels clicking against the wooden floor. I certainly hope the surprise wasn’t a pair of those shoes. She reached into the wardrobe that leaned against the wall, pulling out one of the most beautiful gowns I had ever seen.
It was all black, long sleeves, and a little daring.
“Is that my dress for the night?” I asked. Carena nodded, her smile growing as she walked over to show it off.
“I had it made for you as soon as I knew you would have to attend tonight.” I reached out, fingering the soft silk material. It felt like liquid beneath my fingers. I looked back at Carena, a smile pulling at my lips.
She helped me step into the dress, her hands cold against my bare skin. Once the dress was pulled up, she began the process of lacing the back. I stood with my back to her, facing the mirror. I watched as Carena’s eyes wandered the length of the markings, her cold finger tracing the swirls down my spine.
“It’s a shame.” She says, almost to herself, “That such beauty has to be hidden away.”
I didn’t say anything as she continued lacing the gown up. I didn’t say that the marks were far from beautiful, or that most see them as a curse. Only Carena would find something like the marks beautiful.
I shifted my attention to the dress. It was tight through the top, like Carena’s, with a similar neckline as Carena’s. The material was silk, the glossy sheen catching the evening sun. It was a light fabric, cool to the touch, and the skirt fell in soft waves to the floor. The gown wasn’t meant to be worn to catch people’s eyes like Carena’s was. The sleeves of the gown were very modest, with billowing sleeves of silk that cuffed at my wrists with delicate pearl buttons. The neckline wasn’t as daring as Carena’s, much lower than the normal collared dresses I wore. But Carena had been brilliant with the design of the dress.
The black of the gown matched the color of my markings perfectly. There would be no accidental sighting of marks, and if for some reason someone thought they saw something, it could easily be explained away as a trick of the light. The lightness of the dress gave me room to breathe, to keep myself cool in the middle of a suffocating room.
Once Carena was done lacing everything up in the back, she motioned towards the mirror and I was surprised by what I saw. The black of the gown made everything about me stand out more. My eyes popped to a vibrant, crystal blue. My white hair, for once, didn’t stand out awkwardly. My fair skin seemed creamy in the dress compared to the ghostly pale color I was accustomed to.
It seemed Carena had worked the magic of her own, making my startling appearance seem almost normal.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit...much?” I asked Carena. She only chuckled as she handed me black slippers that went with the gown. I slipped them on, the length of the dress covering them.
“You just know you look good and you’re afraid to go down.” She winked at me through the mirror. As I stood, looking at the two of us, I couldn’t help but notice how different we looked. How unsisterly our appearances seemed.
Maybe if I was caught tonight, I could convince them Carena wasn’t my blood sister. That may only get her a prison sentence for harboring an enemy of the crown.
In the mirror, I watched the door of my room crack open, Oryn’s tall frame filling the space. We both turned, Carena smiling as she looked from him to me. Oryn looked at both of us, but I could have sworn his gaze lingered a moment longer on me.
“I came to tell you that guests are arriving.” He muttered. I noticed that, for once, Oryn wasn’t wearing his normal clothing that I had grown accustomed to seeing. He wore an all-black suit, his hair was pulled back, out of his face. It even looked like he trimmed the stubble that was always clinging to his jaw. For once, he didn’t look like a wild man. He looked sharp, cutting, and devastatingly handsome.
I glanced at Carena, who only continued to smile knowingly as she looked at me, then back at Oryn.
“Don’t you clean up well!” Carena exclaimed as she stepped away from me towards the door. She turned her back to Oryn, giving me a wink as she said,
“Well, I’ll be headed down then.” And bolted from the room, the tap of her heels disappearing down the hallway. Oryn stood just inside the room, his shoulders tense as he waited for me to follow him.
“You look nice.” He said with a smile. His eyes were the deepest blue, his face cast in shadow. Without thinking about it, I cleared the shadows away making it easier to see the expression on his face.
Which was difficult to decipher.
“Thanks,” I say, shifting from foot to foot. I stood in the center of the room, not sure what to do. I hated the attention the night was going to bring. Everyone would stare, wonder, question my presence. I thought back to Council Day, the way the women would stop and stare, the hushed whispers and side glances. I was different from them, and this Kingdom didn’t know how to deal with different.
“What are you staring at,” I ask Oryn, my frustration getting the better of me.
“I just don’t think I’ve ever seen you so uncomfortable,” Oryn says, leaning against the door frame. “I could go down naked if it would help you feel better.”
“That would certainly turn many heads,” I say with a whisper of a smile.
“Are you complimenting me?” My cheeks flushed red as I looked at Oryn.
“What, no! I...” I stumbled over my words. I stood up straight, frustration already starting to settle, clearing the nerves from my mind. Oryn gave me a wink as he motioned for me to follow him.
He was getting a rise out of me on purpose.
I followed him down the hallway, trying my best to keep my nerves in check. I had shut off that flow of magic long before I left my room, but now I could feel it pressing in. Oryn glanced back at me, his smile broadening as he slowed to my pace.
“Why are you smiling,” I say through a frown.
“Because tonight is going to be fun.” Oryn said, “And after this, you finally get to be rid of me. I was certain that would have put you in better spirits.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
A rebellious part of my heart plummeted at the idea.
“There are about to be hundreds of people watching me, waiting for me to slip up. This is hardly a night of celebration. We could all be killed.” I huff as I try to push past him. His hand rested upon my shoulder, causing me to spin to a stop. I look up as Oryn steps in front of me. He looked into my eyes, the soft pressure of his hand sending warmth through me.
“It’s only an hour. You can do this.” He said softly. “Remember everything we worked on the other night. I’ll be near you the entire time and if anything happens, I have your back.”
I have your back.
It was a comfort to hear those words, to know that someone else was watching out for me that could help me if I needed it. I reached out towards Oryn, seeking darkness in his words but finding none. It seemed he genuinely wanted to protect me, to help.
I pulled out of his reach, away from the warmth.
“I know,” I said as I walked past him and continued down the hall. I didn’t hear him follow for a few moments, but soon, the heavy steps echoed my own. With my back to him, I allowed my cheeks to flame.
I could hear the festivities of the ball long before I rounded the corner that led to the ballroom. There was laughter, the tinkle of glasses and platters, soft music, and an overwhelming sense of refinement. I stepped through the grand entrance of the ballroom, looking out over a sea of people.
The room was the largest room of the entire manor and by far the most beautiful. It was decorated with a theme of gold. Every lantern that hung from the wall was gold, the floor had rivers of gold through the marble, and even the staircase had railings that were made of gold. It was made complete by a massive, golden chandelier that hung high above the dancers that moved about in the center of the room.
I braced myself for what I knew was coming. I looked to the butler, who stood at the top of the staircase receiving and announcing guests and gave him a nod. He turned to the crowd and said,
“Miss Aurelia Stillwater, granddaughter of Tristan Stillwater.” Several heads turned in my direction, but I trained my eyes forward and focused on not tripping down the marble staircase. For the most part, people continued mingling, walking about, or dancing. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I immediately started looking for Carena. I should have scanned the crowd when I was at the top of the stairs because now that I was level with everyone, it was hard to see amongst the sea of people.
“Mr. Oryn Harrison, friend and ambassador of Aramoor.” The butler announced. I turned to find Oryn making his way down the stairs. I hadn’t heard this part of the plan. I had known he would be near, but I had no idea he would be formally attending the ball. I figured he would disguise himself as a servant, or completely cloak himself in invisibility as I’ve seen him do.
He held his back straight, his head high, and eyes sparkling as he took each step as he owned them. I looked at the few women that were around me and almost groaned with disgust. Several women watched him descend the stairs, their eyes wide and even a few with their mouths slightly open.
“Have you ever seen him before?” I overheard one woman say to another.
“No, I didn’t even realize there was a new ambassador from Aramoor. I didn’t think it was big enough to have their own ambassador.” Another woman said.
“I don’t care where he’s from. He’s mine.” Right as the woman said this, Oryn walked by. He looked over in my direction and the direction of the other women that stood motionless.
“Ladies.” He nodded his head, giving a wink to me as he walked by. One girl looked in my direction, a look of pure hatred in her gaze.
As if it wasn’t difficult enough to slip by already. These women looked at me with a new interest, and some looked as if they were ready to kill me outright. I gave them all a nod and slipped further into the crowd, away from their gossip.
I made sure to circulate the room, nodding to a few people I recognized from Council Day and grabbing a glass of champagne from a passing servant. I kept my eyes out for Carena, but I still was unable to find her. I made my way towards the side of the dance floor, not too close so I would be pulled in, but far enough away that I could keep an eye on the dancers.
And that was where I found Carena.
She was being held by a tall man, his blonde hair short and his kind eyes smiling down at my sister. She laughed at something he said as they moved around the dance floor in time with the music.
My hand tightened on the glass as I watched the man lean closer to whisper something in her ear.
I looked around at the people who circled the dance floor, some watching the dancers, others waiting to dance. Several men kept their gaze on Carena waiting their turn to try and have a conversation with her, or maybe a dance. Anger hot and sharp flared through me as I looked at each man.
“Easy now.” A low voice said from behind. Oryn stood beside me, his eyes trained on Carena as he said, “He’s not hurting anyone.”
“Not yet at least.” I mutter, downing the contents of my glass. Oryn watched with a skeptical eye. I wonder what it’s like, to have so many that want to dance with you, or even just talk with you. Even standing along the edge of the dance floor, the few people that were nearest to me took a few steps away, creating distance. I looked over at Oryn, sizing him up, head to toe. A rush of courage swept through me. I was tired of standing on the sidelines. Maybe it was the champagne, but I couldn’t stop the words from tumbling out.
“Do you know how to dance?” I asked Oryn.
“Are you asking me to dance, sunshine?” He smiled as he waited for me to answer. For a second, I hesitated. This was a bad idea. But when I looked out at Carena, I found that I didn’t care. That man was standing much too close for comfort. I grabbed Oryn’s hand and pulled him onto the dance floor.
He spun me with surprising dexterity as we launched into the dance. We moved in time with the music, blending in with the other dancers seamlessly. I kept my eyes on Carena, and when we had the chance, I moved us closer to her.
“Why do I get the impression you are only using me at this moment?”
“Because that’s exactly what I’m doing,” I say, trying to ignore the feel of Oryn’s hand on my waist.
“Is it so difficult to let your sister talk to another man for one night?”
“There’s an aura of bad intentions around him.”
“You can see that?” Oryn looked over my head at the man, his eyes squinting.
“No.” I admit, “But I’m sure there is.”
Oryn chuckled, the sound of it turning a few heads towards us.
“What are you going to do when she finds someone she likes?”
“Kill them most likely,” I mutter, trying to turn us to get a better vantage point.
“What if that someone is Marked?” Oryn asks with a raised brow. I look up at him, confused by his question.
“She wouldn’t be near any long enough to fall in love.” I say, “Please don’t tell me you’ve gone and fallen in love with my sister.”
Once again, Oryn chuckled as he smiled down at me.
“No,” He said with a glimmer of mischief in his eye. “She’s not my type.”
“And what is your type?” I found myself asking. My cheeks flamed as I realized the awkward turn this conversation could have. “Never mind. Don’t answer that.”
Oryn only smiled as he spun me in time with the rest of the dancers. My black dress fanned out around me, spinning midnight as Oryn pulled me closer.
We waltzed in time with the music, the melody lifting me off my feet and turning my mind into a blissful daze of steps and spins.
For a brief moment, I forgot all about Carena and the ball, the pressure of the gazes that followed us. I forgot who I was, what I was, who Oryn was. All of it slipped away as we danced across the golden floor, the music filling our minds. Oryn held me throughout the song, only letting go when the steps called for it. He watched me with a strange intent, and for once, I didn’t feel uncomfortable under the gaze of those blue eyes.
I let myself have this moment, this gap in time. It would most likely be one of the few I would ever have of its kind and I intended to enjoy every breath of it.
The music came to a quiet stop, each dancer bowing or curtsying to their partner.
Oryn stepped off the dance floor wearing a smile on his face. I walked in the opposite direction, not wanting to draw any attention towards the two of us. Several women watched me with a curious eye, but none approached.
I grabbed another glass of champagne off a passing tray, sipping it as I wandered through the throng of people, coming to a stop near the back of the room to catch my breath.
“Did you hear about the raid in the Genk District? They caught twenty Marked hiding in the walls of a few of the homes.” A woman’s voice hushed whisper found my ears, the tone of it laced with scandalous disbelief. I glanced over at a group of people standing a few feet away, huddled together as they chatted.
“The guards caught that many?” A man asked. Another woman chimed in.
“No, the guards are never smart enough for a raid like that.” She smiled excitedly as she lowered her voice. “I heard it was the hounds. They found the Marked in a matter of minutes after they were released on the street.”
My blood ran cold, hand tightening on my glass. I didn’t move for fear of drawing attention to myself. I glanced across the dance floor, searching for Oryn, who was now nowhere to be seen.
“I heard they were letting them go through the forests tonight. Especially the ones around the manor here.” The voices dropped even lower, but nothing could keep me from hearing the secrets that drifted on the shadow.
“They have reason to believe that there are some Marked in the pine forests surrounding this very manor.” One man said. A woman gasped, her hand splaying across her chest.
“Are we safe?” She glanced around the ballroom, her eyes inspecting every person that was near her. I had to get out, away from the suspicion that was surmounting.
“Of course we are!” A cheery man piped in, “We aren’t Marked. The hounds only follow the scent of the Marked, not the Vrunadians.” A few chuckled nervously, letting the tension roll off them.
I imagined that magic shutting off, my emotions starting to boil within.
If the hounds were indeed in the pine forest that surrounded the manor, what would stop them from catching my scent? From heading into the manor to find me and Oryn?
“Excuse me miss?” I jumped, turning to find a servant girl carrying a tray of various foods. I looked at her, something about her seeming off. “Master Tristan wishes to see you in his study.” She curtsied as she hurried away with her plate of food. I cut a glance to the group of people I had overheard, who continued their conversation about some of the foods that Tristan was serving. They didn’t watch as I discarded my glass and left the room.