Trying to stay still and not appear unsettled, Cade stood close to the dais as he waited for Mae to walk in with his father. He wished he could be the one to escort her into the ball and dance with her, but he knew his father wanted to make a point. It was just one dance, and then he could hold her in his arms.
A few young ladies came up to greet him, and he nodded to them and said the proper words. He knew they wanted to be asked to dance the first with him, but he would dance with no one until he could be with Mae. He might sit out the whole night unless he could stand up with her. It would not be proper, but he had no desire to hold anyone in his arms but her.
The doors finally opened, and everyone grew quiet. The usual servant came forward and announced Mae and Cade’s father. Everyone gathered closer to the middle of the room, leaning forward to the point Cade could not see. He gave a small frustrated growl and walked a bit further to try and catch a glimpse of her. Coming to the edge of the crowd, he stopped and thought his heart might have stopped beating for a moment.
To say she was beautiful would not even begin to explain how she looked to him. He always found her beyond lovely, but at that moment, she was looked almost unreal. The dress she wore, the way her hair was done, her tiara and jewelry all seemed to come together to make her shine like never before.
He could see her looking around the crowd as she walked forward with his father. When her eyes found him, they stopped. He tried to smile at her but wasn’t sure he was successful. She looked intently at him for one moment before Cade’s father got her attention. She smiled sweetly at the king as they took their place for the first dance. The music started, and they began to move around the space.
Cade watched them, seeing Mae laugh at something as his father beamed. It had been so long since Cade at seen his father smile as he was. There was a new lightness to his father that wasn’t there before, and Cade attributed it to Mae. Everything was better with her in his life. Before her, he woke up on his best days with indifference and his worst with dread. Now Cade looked forward to every day. He laughed more than he ever had. The fear he once felt that controlled his life was slowly lifting away.
Others joined Mae and the king on the dance floor, but Cade kept his eyes on Mae. When finally the music stopped, he went towards her and his father. He met them on the side of the dancing space.
“I hope you enjoy tonight, my dear. It is your birthday, so you should do as you wish,” said the king.
“I shall, your majesty.” She glanced at Cade. “And now I wish to keep my promise to Prince Cadel and dance with him.”
The king kissed Mae’s hand before letting it go, and Cade moved forward to claim her. He held out his arm to her, and she took it.
“I am glad to see you, my prince,” said Mae as they walked to the dance floor. He said nothing as they took their place. He carefully wrapped his hand around her waist as his other one took her free hand. He stared at her as the music started, too struck by her to form any words.
“Is something wrong?” asked Mae worriedly. “Do you find something amiss about me?”
He swallowed and shook his head before pulling her as close as he could. “You look perfect, hardly real.” He leaned in and kissed her lips softly.
“I am not sure that is appropriate public behavior for a ball,” she said with a small smile.
He did it again. “I don’t care what is appropriate. I will do as I wish tonight as long as you don’t find it unpleasant.”
“I do not find it unpleasant at all,” said Mae. She looked around the room, seeing others watching them, whispering to one another. “But I don’t want you to think it is necessary. You don’t need to put on some display just to gain support for me.”
“I couldn’t care less about who is in the room or watching, Mae. All I see is you.” He brought her hand he held to his lips and kissed it.
“I think you must have been holding back or hiding your talents from me, my prince,” said Mae in a teasing way. “You are much smoother with your words than you let on.”
“I have been very truthful since the beginning with you. If I have improved in my address, it is only because I finally have proper inspiration.”
She laughed. “See, there you go again. Tell me the truth, Cade. You have wooed women before with your words. You were holding back with me when we first met.”
“I am telling you the truth. You think my words are empty flattery and made to sound impressive, but they are what is coming to my mind at the moment. I am being straightforward with you as always, telling you exactly as I feel.”
This time she leaned forward and kissed him. “I believe we have given your lords and ladies plenty to talk about, and it is only the second dance of the night.”
“Indeed,” said Cade. “I will have to do something bold to shock them later tonight. Of course, when I refuse to dance with anyone but you, that should be enough to make them tsk and whisper.”
“You cannot mean it,” said Mae. “You will have to dance with others.”
“Why?” he asked. “I am to be king one day. I usually do not like to take advantage of the position, but if I can’t enjoy the privilege that comes with it every once in a while, what good is it.”
“Do you expect me to stand by your side the whole night and wait for you to have the inclination to dance?” asked Mae.
“You will have to dance with others as this ball was given in your honor. I will stand close by and glare at any young men who pull you too close or try to whisper something in your ear.”
“You don’t need to worry about that. I will take care of any man who does anything close to what you are describing,” said Mae. “I could never truly hurt someone with my power, but I could give them a small shock.”
“I remember,” said Cade. “My hand was numb for almost a minute in that tavern after you ran.”
“I never like being told what to do,” she said as she laid her head against his shoulder.
He looked down at her. “What would you like to do now, Mae?”
She leaned up. “If I didn’t have to be here?” He nodded. “Not that I am not grateful to your father and you for this event, but if it were my choice, I would go somewhere quiet with you.”
He whispered to her as the music stopped. “Then I will find a way to make it happen before the night ends.”
He took her back to the edge of the dance floor before she was claimed by a young man, the son of a lord from just outside the city. Cade knew he was good-natured even if he was a little dull, but he still watched Mae as she danced with him. A few ladies came near him, one or two daring to speak, but Cade did nothing to encourage them. They walked off looking almost scandalized.
When there was a break for supper, Cade hurried to claim Mae from her last partner. He whisked her away before she barely had a chance to thank the young lord for his dance.
“You have been much too busy tonight,” he said as he took her towards the banquet hall.
“As you said, this ball is in my honor, so I must play the part. At least I have had mostly agreeable partners, though a few were a little snobbish, asking questions about Adaria like it was some savage land.”
“You should ignore them. It only shows their ignorance. They think they are cultured and well-traveled because they have been to Calder or on the edge of Glynston, but they hardly know the kingdom.”
“Have you traveled much?” she asked.
“Unfortunately not. I have been to Calder, of course. I visited a lord in Glynston with my father once, but beyond Bevins, that is it.” They came to their table, and he pulled out Mae’s chair. “I am very much looking forward to traveling with you to Adaria. We will see Morven on the way. Perhaps on the way back, we could stop in Calder. I think Thad has a house there.”
“I would like to see the sea,” said Mae as she sat down. “I haven’t been there since I was a young girl, and it was only for one day.”
“Then I will take you there. If not on this trip, perhaps on our wedding journey.”
She beamed at him, and he started to say more before the Highest One sat down next to her.
“Are you enjoying your ball, Lady Maela?” he asked.
“Very much, Highest One,” said Mae. She reached for the nearest wine pitcher.
“Let me, my lady,” said the Highest One, reaching for the same pitcher.
His hand hit her wrist, and she drew back with a slight hiss, taking off the bracelet on her arm.
“What is it?” asked Cade.
“It is nothing. I suppose there was a sharp edge in the bracelet. It caused a small knick on my wrist.”
“Oh, my lady, I apologize,” said the Highest One as he reached for his napkin. He put it on Mae’s wrist as Cade picked up the bracelet.
“There is a small sharp edge where the metal was forged together,” he said.
“I feel awful about this,” said the Highest One, sounding stricken. “I never would have given you anything to harm you. I hope you know it.”
“Do not trouble yourself,” said Mae as she pushed the Highest One’s napkin away. “See, it is barely bleeding now. Accidents do happen.”
“Let me have the bracelet, and I shall have it mended,” said the Highest One.
Cade kept the bracelet in his hand, looking at it. “I can have it done, Highest One. It is no trouble.”
“I would rather fix it myself since it was a gift from the council, but if you would like to see to it, I will not argue.”
“I will take care of it,” said Cade, and he slipped the bracelet into his pocket.
At supper, Mae was recognized by the king, and Cade was forced to share her as many came up to wish her well. He stared at Lord and Lady Gibbens with disapproval as they curtsied and bowed before her.
“I hope you are enjoying your ball, my lady,” said Lord Gibbens.
“Very much so, my lord. I cannot thank the king enough for going to all this trouble,” said Mae.
“It was no trouble, Mae,” said Cade. “My father was pleased to see you properly recognized for your coming of age birthday.”
“And your dress is very unique,” said Lady Gibbens. “Is it from your land?”
“It is,” said Mae. “It has been in my family for generations, worn by each young lady as she turned eighteen.”
“That explains the interesting style, I suppose,” said Lady Gibben with a smile that almost looked like a sneer.
“She is very lovely tonight, isn’t she,” said Cade quickly as he took Mae’s hand and kissed it. “I cannot take my eyes off of her.”
Lady Gibbens looked either shocked or disgusted. “Your tiara is lovely,” she mumbled.
“A gift from the king,” said Mae as she glanced at Cade’s father. She caught his eye, and the king turned and smiled at her. “He is very kind to me.”
“He treats you as you deserve,” said Cade. He looked at the Gibbens. “I believe the music is about to start, so you will be needing to head back into the ballroom.”
They both looked at him, obviously picking up that he was dismissing them.
“Good evening, your highness, my lady,” said Lord Gibbens as he bowed before taking his wife’s arm and leading her away.
“I am sure she has been whispering to her friends all night about my outdated gown,” said Mae. “I even tripped during one dance, and I am sure I heard some laughter somewhere. It must have been them. I have no doubt they will come up to me soon, and I will have to deal with them.”
“Then they can deal with me,” said Cade. “Come dance with me, and then stay by my side the rest of the night. It is your ball, and you can do as you like.”
“You wish to shock everyone more than you already have?” she asked.
“I only want to do as I like, and I hope as you like as well.” He stood up and held out his hand to her. She took it, and he walked with her into the ballroom.
They took their place on the floor as the music started. This time they did not speak much as Cade pulled her close, his hand rubbing against her side. Mae sighed quietly, and he looked down at her.
“Is something wrong?”
“Not at all. I only feel a little guilty because all this was done for me, but I find myself wishing it were over.”
He laughed a little. “Is my dancing so bad?”
“Of course not. If all I had to do were dance with you the whole night, I would be content.” She looked down. “I find that I do not like the idea of leaving your arms.” She shook her head. “Perhaps I have had too much wine. I should not have said that thought out loud.”
“Do you mean it? Is it the truth?”
She looked up at him. “Yes.”
He leaned down and kissed her jaw close to her ear. “It is your birthday, and you should have what you want.”
“What do you suggest?”
“That we leave this place directly after this dance. I have somewhere I want to show you.”
“I am not sure. I do not wish to offend your father.”
“He will not be offended, Mae. We can say goodnight to him before we make our escape.”
When the music ended, Cade took Mae by the hand and walked over to his father, who stood close to the dais, drinking a glass of wine.
“Father, Mae is tired and ready to leave. I think the crowded room is giving her a headache.”
His father took a long drink before looking at Mae and then Cade with a half-smile. “Is that so? Perhaps, she needs to go rest then.”
“I hate to be rude and leave a ball given for me,” said Mae.
“I told you after our dance to do as you wish. If you want to leave, you should. I suppose you will escort her out, Cade?”
“Yes, father. I will see she gets safely somewhere to rest.”
His father looked amused. “I am sure you will.” He took Mae’s hand and kissed it. “Good night, my dear.”
“Have a pleasant evening, my king. Thank you for everything.”
“It is only what you deserved, but if you wished to show your appreciation, perhaps you might come to visit me in the next few days in my study. I haven’t seen much of you lately, not that I am complaining.”
“I will be more than happy to visit with you anytime,” said Mae.
“Go get some rest or whatever it is you require. Cade, do not think you have to sneak away. I think walking her out for many to see might do some good.”
Cade nodded as he offered Mae his arm. “Good night, father.” He led Mae out of the room, passing through the crowds, giving nods or quick words for those who spoke to them. When they got out into the hall, they moved towards the stairs.
“Where is this place you want to show me?” asked Mae.
“We will have to climb the stairs, and you might want to change or at least grab a cloak. I believe it is a cold night.”
“You know I do not get cold, but I would like to change into something more comfortable and let Enid know that she does not have to wait up for me. I would not want her to get worried if I were late coming in.”
He looked down at her. “I think that would be a good idea.” They walked to the second floor, and she took her arm off of Cade’s. Before she could turn towards her room, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her as he had wished to since the moment she walked into the ballroom.
She did not shy away or even pause. She threw her arms around him and kissed him back. His hands moved against the satin of her dress, working their way down her curves and then up. He finally pulled away. “Meet me here in ten minutes. I cannot wait a moment longer.”
She leaned in and kissed his lips quickly. “I will try to hurry.”
Cade watched her go for a moment before walking to his room. He opened the door and took off his crown as he entered. As he placed it on a small table, his attendant walked into the room. He asked for some comfortable, warm clothes and his cloak as well as a blanket. His attendant paused for one second appearing to want to ask a question or two, but in the end, only bowed and did as Cade asked.
Once he was dressed, he put on his cloak and took the blanket from his attendant.
“I will not need your services for the rest of the night,” said Cade.
“You are sure, your highness?”
“Very, go enjoy the rest of your evening,” said Cade before walking out of his room.
He waited by the stairs until he heard Mae’s door open. Mae stepped out into the hall.
“No, Enid, it is not needed,” said Mae. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, and I will see you in the morning.”
“I can have some sent to you if you tell me where you are going,” said Enid peering from behind the door.
“I have no idea where I am going, and it is not necessary.”
Enid looked down the hall at Cade before nodding at Mae and disappearing back into the room.
“Is everything alright?” asked Cade.
“Yes. Enid just thought I might like some tea before we went,” said Mae.
“If you would like some, I can have some sent to us,” said Cade uncertainly. “I doubt it would take long.”
“I do not wish for it or need it. Now, where are we going?”
He looked at her in her simple blue dress and black cloak. Her hair was free of its braids and curled down her shoulders and back. As alluring as she looked in the ballroom, he thought he might prefer her like she was.
“Come with me, and I will show you,” said Cade holding out one hand to her while he held the blanket with the other.
She took his hand, and they climbed the stairs until they reached the top of the palace. Cade took her down the dark hallway to a room at the end. He opened the door and let her enter first.
“More stairs?” she said, looking at the spiral staircase in front of her.
“The last one, and not very long. It will be worth it, I promise,” said Cade.
She followed him up the staircase until they came to a very small room. He opened the wooden door there, and Mae ducked as she walked through. He followed her out to the edge of the tower that was open to the night sky. While she looked up at the starlit sky, he spread out the blanket on the stone floor.
“This is magnificent,” she said in a whisper as she slowly turned around, looking at the stars.
“I have always loved it up here. I come up here to think or be alone sometimes.” He walked up behind her and slowly put his arms around her. “I thought you would like it.”
“I do,” she said as she leaned into him. “The stars are so bright up here away from the lights of the city.”
He moved her hair away from one of her shoulders and bent down to kiss her neck. “Mae,” he whispered into her ear. “Can you do that trick with the lights that you did that night during my family banquet?”
She turned her head to look at him before holding out her hand. He saw her close her eyes for one moment before five small lights flew down from the sky and circled them. Mae put her hand on one of Cade’s, taking it off her waist and holding it out with hers. One of the lights flew close to them, finally landing in Cade’s hand. He rested his chin on her shoulder and looked at it, feeling the warmth it gave off against his skin.
“I don’t call down the stars for just anybody,” said Mae as she glanced at him.
“You don’t?” he asked, watching the light.
She shook her head. “Only for those I care about—for those I love.”
His eyes went from the light to her very quickly. He could see the slight blush on her cheek as she stared at him. It took him a moment to process what she had said. She looked away after the silence stretched on. “I probably shouldn’t have said it. I didn’t mean to frighten you. You don’t have to say anything back.”
Cade put his hand down, the light forgotten as he turned her in his arms. “You love me?” he asked softly.
She slowly looked up at him. “I do. I think I have for a while, but I tried to deny it and push it away due to fear.”
He reached up and put his hand on her cheek. “You love me.” He repeated with wonder.
“I do,” she said simply.
He kissed her tenderly, overcome by the idea that she could love him. He wished he could say something clever or memorable. She deserved to be told how wonderful she was, how she was more to him than he thought possible. He wished he could put into words what he felt like when he held her. As the broke part, he rested his forehead against hers and said the only words he could manage.
“I love you, Mae. You have called down the stars for me, and I would give up my kingdom for you.”
He brought her to the blanket, and they sat on the ground, wrapped up in each other’s arms. By the time the dawn came, he only wished for more of her.