Despite the banners and flowers giving the ballroom a festive air, the atmosphere felt tense to me. Cal and the senator were directing the draping of tablecloths over the circular wooden tables in the hall. Of all people, Aliasse and I had been recruited to help.
Watching us, the king sighed. Perhaps the silence and our meek obedience had troubled him. Aelius tapped his cane against the floor with an appreciative thump. “This place looks lovely, Avi.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” I jumped at the unexpected address and then glanced at Aliasse, who gave me a supportive smile. “The other girls were a lot of help, more than me, really.”
The past few nights resulted in less and less sleep as the night of the ball approached. All the favors I pulled came through. Even the musicians promised by the senator had arrived the day before. Their conductor, Epsin, had the same charming features as Mina! He had tried smooth-talking me before I had shooed him away to a spacious chamber to practice with his band.
Apparently, the music of Haiathiel came primarily in the form of singers. One or two would carry the melody; the others would provide the backdrop. The few instruments Haiathiens had developed included a type of small drum, and a flute that could reach pitches unreachable to any human voice. Simple as it might have looked compared to a full orchestra of instruments, the sample they sung for me had made my throat thick.
Remembering it made my eyes blur with tears now. I blinked them away as the king hobbled over and took my hand.
His skin felt like parchment against my own: a nice comfortable touch unlike the ones I had shared with the senator or Cal. This touch did not bring insurmountable guilt. “In the end, you brought this together, Avi,” King Aelius murmured so only I could hear. “I should have said this to you much sooner: you, my dear, are more part of the family than a servant. You are family here…no matter who you choose.”
Who I choose? Without clarifying what he had meant, Aelius gave my hand a pat and then veered towards Cal. Behind them, the senator and Aliasse were discussing one thing or another. It was probably none of my business anyway…
Since I was the odd one out, I scurried out of the ballroom as discreetly as possible. The corridor outside had a touch of a draft, likely from the window someone had thrown open. The fresh air smelled like the first day of spring: budding greenery and wet dirt. Outside, the ice hiding the earth had evaporated. Despite the change in weather, Eli, the cousin that Cal so wanted to see, had delayed his arrival until the date of Cal’s actual marriage and coronation. The prince of Haiathiel did not throw a fit, but his disappointment was written in every half-hearted smile.
Still, he showed surprising enthusiasm for the ball. In fact, he had been teaching his maids how to dance to the most common Haiathien ballroom songs. Cal had also been attending to administrative and military duties, having furtive meetings with Senator Holt, and planning castle renovations. He was too busy perhaps to notice that I skipped the dance lessons.
“Avi!” Eager footsteps raced towards me, and a moment later, the prince of Haiathiel enveloped me. “Where are you running off to?”
Finding my reservoirs of resistance dried up, I buried my face into his shoulder. His cologne was spicy and crisp enough to agitate my nose. Cal chuckled as I reeled away to sneeze. It sounded like a honk from a goose, but he merely drew me closer again as if nothing had happened.
“If you were going nowhere, you were going there at an urgent pace.”
I sniffled. “Not my fault that I walk fast.”
“Avi, what is it? You’ve done a wonderful job preparing this ball, but you seem upset.”
Cal patted my head, and the warm weight of his hand made the twisted knot in my chest loosen. “Nothing? You’ve been sighing and looking lonely all day. You’re missing something or someone. Your parents? Your world?”
If only I missed something as reasonable as that. “I’ll sort it out on my own. Really.”
He tilted my chin upwards until our eyes met, and for once, nothing suggestive ebbed from him. “Then how can I thank you for this party?”
Trust Cal to make me feel so loved. “I want you to forget whatever has upset you and enjoy the ball.”
“I will, Avi.” He sealed the promise with a kiss on my knuckles. “If you do the same.”
Upon entering the ballroom, Otelius turned a proud gaze to the rectangular table where twenty-eight of his “daughters” sat. Each wore a gown of vibrant color; modest scarves rested on their shoulders, and silk-lined slippers peeked out from under lacy hemlines.
Most of the guests had not arrived though a few had come early. Gatherby was beaming around the room underneath his black, round cap that complemented a dark suit and pants typically worn by stewards. Meanwhile, his wife had evidently taken “princess” to mean a hoop skirt and a drenching of jewelry. With their three children squeezed between them, they lingered in the wide expanse of marble floor reserved for dancing and mingling. At Otelius’ stately approach and the sight of a crown upon his head, they bowed or curtsied as appropriated by gender.
Enjoying the slow procession immensely was Aelius. Dressed in a fine cotton suit and trousers, he trailed after King Otelius with a beam for the ballroom’s new arrangement. To one side of the table for the king’s daughters were six tables reserved for the senators and their princesses. On the other side, behind Epsin’s singers, were two tables for children. The clustering of the seating felt almost familial.
As Otelius took his place at the head of the center table, Epsin conducted the stately welcome song into a cheerful tune of anticipation. Nodding his head to the springy beat, Aelius stood behind the king’s seat while Otelius addressed the girl seated to his left. “Do not fret. Our guests will arrive fashionably late.”
“After all this trouble, they better come,” Avi murmured. She adjusted her shawl as if to hide more of her bared shoulder. For some reason, the seamstresses had chosen a fiery red cloth to make her dress. The design was similar for all the maids, leaving the color unique for each girl.
Bearing the entire weight of the gown, two thin straps secured the bodice. The shoulders peeked through a space cut between the straps and the remaining sleeve, which hung in loose pleats halfway down the upper arm. Avi did like the sleeves, which billowed outward with every movement.
The rest of the gown was simple down to the waist, where it clung slightly and then widened to accommodate the hips. There, the seamstress insisted, on placing a loose cloth belt—the shade darker or lighter depending on the base color—to further emphasize the figure. Below the belt, the cloth gathered in six layers of horizontal folds for an outwardly cascading effect. The bottom of the dress skimmed the floor, and Avi had already tripped over it this evening. At least, no one had noticed. Avi gave a sigh that coaxed a fatherly smile from Otelius.
“Your Majesty, welcome!” Letris Calpurnius had emerged from the side entrance to the kitchens. He wore a white, long-sleeve shirt over which a vest of Haiathiel blue and a silver cravat had been secured. His trousers were a spotless black, looking freshly pressed. At the center of the room, he dropped into an elegant bow to Otelius before snapping back up to give the startled “king” a grin.
“Save the bowing for when more of our guests arrive,” Otelius said but not without amusement. With a carefree laugh that made his maids peer after him with interest, Letris capered off to stand beside Aelius.
There, he placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Isn’t this fun?”
Before Aelius could agree, a sardonic voice cut in, “It is when you’re merely tasting the food rather than serving it.” Holt strode towards them in a uniform similar to the one worn by Letris. However, the color of the vest—a deep, dark green—reflected the colors of Hamada.
Aelius chuckled. “Do not worry. You will only be serving the king’s table and the children. The others have brought their own serving men. As a matter of fact, I have already informed Gatherby of his duty. I will tell the others as they arrive. You need only show them where to go and cart the food from the kitchen to the corridor outside the ballroom.”
Holt sighed then to remember the twittering women in the castle kitchen. As excellent as their cooking had smelled, he was reluctant to return to their inordinate interest in him. “I understand, Your—uh, sir.”
“For now,” Aelius added, “relax and wait for the others to arrive. Then, we can start with the refreshments and appetizers.”
Letris looped an arm around his father’s shoulders. “You truly are getting into the role.”
“Being a steward such as Otelius requires it,” Aelius returned, smiling as Senator Holt took a position beside his son.
Not quite out of earshot, a corner of King Otelius’ mouth lifted. Avi, who had been listening to the conversation without daring to look at the speakers, considered the empty seat beside her. All the other maids but Callie had arrived and were chattering like morning birds. Across the table sat Lianne and Aliasse, the former in silver, the latter in a dark green that matched Holt’s vest.
Matching Lianne’s gown, a diamond choker glittered at her throat. In contrast, a string of silver-bound emeralds adorned Aliasse’s neck. Remembering, Avi touched the round ruby of her own pendant. Cal had burst into the seamstress’ spacious chamber when they had almost finished preparing for the ball.
Once their screams faded to laughter, Cal had presented each girl with a piece of jewelry from the royal coffer. He secured each clasp by his own hand. This gesture of love had earned the prince many embraces and a smatter of kisses. This time, he had not refused them.
At last, Callie entered from the ballroom’s side entrance. She looked slightly flustered but managed a grin as nearby Gatherby’s young daughters stood to curtsy. The girls elbowed their younger brother, who, grumbling, slipped from his own seat at the children’s table to bow.
Callie left them with a graceful nod and scurried over to sit beside Avi. As Otelius stood to greet incoming guests, Lianne halted her conversation with Aliasse to spare a few words for the library maid.
“Where have you been?”
“Nowhere,” Callie exhaled, so out of breath that she earned a round of skeptical looks.
Rosaline, seated on Callie’s other side, hid a smile behind her sheer shawl. “She must have had a pre-ball flirt.”
“Who would you offer yourself to besides our prince?’ Though her tone indicated disapproval, Lianne looked intrigued.
With one eye on Otelius and the other on the three men—the king, the prince and the senator—standing not too far off, Callie admitted, “He’s a soldier. His name is Jerrid.”
“You don’t mean the man guarding my chambers?” I said.
Callie fidgeted with the square garnets of her necklace. “Well, yes. When I went to find you earlier this week, I ended up conversing with him. He seems passionate and so brave!”
Apparently, he had fought in the war in Gatha four years ago and helped organize the capture of Jameson. Despite his past exploits in the past, he was glad that this time, the war had not escalated. Still, he would defend Haiathiel and its prince to his last breath from that rat Mativ.
I had to give Jerrid credit for calling Mativ a “rat” since I had struggled for so long to find a more polite way to refer to him other than by “bastard” or merely “traitor,” which couldn’t encompass the damage Mativ had done.
Callie was still blushing. Perhaps she was waiting for us to pass judgment. Since no wanted to speak up, I said, “He’s a good man. Just be careful.”
“I will,” Callie declared. “I wasn’t going to sleep with him. I could never hurt Cal like that.”
Was that why I continued to push Gale away? Two weeks without the senator had made me ache for the man’s proximity. My ears longed for his words, sharp as they sometimes were. My eyes wanted to see a smile or even a scowl. His kisses, like the ones I dreaded before, didn’t seem so terrible now.
Partially, those thoughts felt like a betrayal to my prince. Cal had wanted—maybe still wanted—me as his bride if I couldn’t find another for him. Then, Aelius had spoken those curious words about being part of the family no matter what I chose.
Well, Gale was bound to chastity. Therefore, for his sake, this vague desire to develop a romantic relationship with the senator could only remain that: an unfulfilled desire.
“It’s fine if I get Cal’s permission.” Callie’s voice pulled me from frantic thoughts.
“Permission,” I repeated. “Do you think he would allow us to go?”
Callie waved at our prince, who winked back at her. “If I am certain that Jerrid is the one for me, I will ask Cal to release me from his service. He is kind enough to grant it.”
The sound of clapping drew our gaze across the table to Aliasse. With her curly hair up in a ribbon, she looked like a noble lady. Her eyes, outlined in black kohl, seemed even more brown and lively.
“We should all find a purpose outside of being the prince’s maids for the rest of our lives,” she said.
Lianne gave a dismissive flip of her blond hair, which was half up for the occasion. “I wouldn’t mind serving Cal for the rest of my life.”
“Even when he’s old and wrinkly?” I wondered. That elicited laughs to break the sudden tension between Lianne and Aliasse.
“Can you imagine Cal an old man?” Lianne smiled. “In any case, by the end of this ball, he will be growing old with me as his queen.”
Aliasse straightened in her seat. “Is that so?”
“All of us have a fair chance. We are all princesses.” Callie’s words lowered hackles. “Still, the purpose of this ball was for one of us to convince Cal that she is his true love, isn’t it?”
“Yes. There’s even a certain magic in the air,” Aliasse said with a grin for me. “The perfect place to find one’s true love.”
Almost, I glanced in Gale’s direction. Instead, the flood of more arrivals drew my attention. The senators and their families had played along; the men were in suits or vests worn by chamberlains and high-class servants while the women paraded princess gowns more elaborate than those of the twenty-eight daughters of King Otelius. These “princesses” shepherded their garbling, well-dressed children to the tables behind Epsin’s choir.
Then, suddenly, I felt Aliasse’s stare on me. By reflex, I reached out to pick up my fork. Since my plate was still empty, I pulled my hands into my lap.
“The atmosphere is so different,” Aliasse said, ignoring my gaffe. What was this churning in my stomach? “Oh, hello there, Gale.”
Without turning my head, I could feel the senator standing behind me and Callie. Sans any reservation, Callie giggled and held out her hand. “Hello, Gale.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him place a brief kiss on my friend’s hand.
“I hope Your Graces are not too hungry. The royal steward says it is almost time to distribute appetizers.” A soft laugh escaped him as Rosaline also lifted a hand for him to kiss. Honestly!
“Will you be our server this evening?” Rosaline asked.
“Yes, Your Highness.” From the sound of it, I judged he obliged her with a swift kiss on the hand.
Ah forget being mad at him! Cal and I had promised each other to enjoy the ball, and I wouldn’t by staying scared of the senator. Not even a senator! He was a servant now and me a princess! He could ignore me no longer!
At last, I deigned to give him attention by turning towards him. “You cut your hair!” Where had all my princess-y snarks gone? Still, his dark hair was now closely cut to his head, giving him a boyish air. Perhaps it was because of his ears, which stuck out now that his hair clung to his scalp.
He rubbed a hand over his hair to make it stand on end. “Do you approve, Princess?”
“It doesn’t matter to me!”
“Your approval holds great weight with me.”
I waved him away. “Go attend to your duties!” Without argument, he went with a bow.
The girls close to our end of the table twittered. One of them, Maura, had to point out to the rest of the table, “Look at her turning red! That man has surely captured her fancy!”
Of course, with my luck, the entire hall had fallen silent as Maura spoke. Even Epsin had allowed a lull in the music, so Maura’s statement carried over to all the tables in the ballroom. All eyes fixed on our table, I surmised, the moment Gale had come over. It had been a show I hadn’t realized I was an actress in.
“Look at the swagger in his step!” Aliasse said, pointing to Gale, who was sashaying in the most exaggerated manner back to his post.
“I shall soon put an end to that!” The entire audience flinched as Otelius pulled his royal cape close and crossed the room to confront Gale. “How dare you approach my daughters!”
Looking chastened, Gale lowered his gaze. “Forgive me.” His apology rang out in a hall thick with bated breath.
Then, Letris stepped between the enraged king and the cowed servant. “Please hear me out, Your Majesty.” At the king’s curt nod, he said, “He sought only to ensure the comfort of your daughters. They are hungry for the feast to begin! So let us oblige them.”
“You, my taste-tester, who has saved my life many times over, are correct!” boomed Otelius in a volume that few had ever heard from the humble steward. “Servants, bring in the food!”
The senators of Haiathiel rose and followed Gale out of the ballroom.The senators returned with metal carts piled with bite-size chicken canapés, a moist fruit crumble, a spicy vegetable sauté and multiple ceramic jugs of water and wine. Before each “servant” returned to his table with a cart, he had Letris perform an inspection of the food—a mere guise for an opportunity to greet the prince.
Avi had looked over the food and drink directly after its preparation, but even now she craned her head to spot any glowing as Letris lifted each dish’s cover to examine it. So far, all the food appeared safe.
After a few minutes of this procedure, Callie prodded her friend. “Careful how hard you stare at it. They may think you a glutton for food.”
Avi was about to retort when Otelius filled the room with his words. “You may not believe it, my friends, but my taste-tester detects poison by mere sight! This magic has served the kingdom well for years, so feast without fear! Anyone that desires to crumble this kingdom is to be forgotten. Tonight, we have a visitor, Prince William of Helenth, who will be matched to a daughter of Haiathiel and become king after me!”
As Otelius gestured to the straw prince being escorted by two burly soldiers, waves of laughter rippled across the ballroom. Seemingly deaf to the sound, Otelius returned to his seat. The soldiers allowed the guest to fall into the chair beside the king at an unfortunate, in-human angle.
“Helenth! Where is that, William? It must be a place with very flexible folk!” Aliasse addressed the straw prince. Someone had marked the front of the head-shaped section of the sack with dotted eyes, a long nose and a scowling mouth.
“A pity you do not know of your neighbor across the seas,” spoke the straw prince. Gale, standing behind the prince’s chair with a dish, placed food in front of William. “I will show you later in the library, my lady, if you wish.”
Gale had never found a use for throwing his voice, but now, the maid were surveying him with awe; even Avi looked amused.
Gale returned to the cluster of extra carts for more plates. There, in the hearing of the “steward,” his stomach rumbled. Aelius grinned. “I’ll help you, so we can both eat sooner.” With that, the king and senator began to place the meal together.
In a few minutes, the other senators finished distributing plates to their families. Some of them were new faces, younger men than those who generally attended Assemblies. Gale had already distinguished them by their features. Dirk Sherwood was the youngest in his late twenties. Olivier Joplin dripped with jewelry and clinked as he walked. Bellus Wright had dark hair and blue nervous eyes. Will Othing had a sharply pointed beard, a style in some parts of the city. Moel Keene was the most handsome of the six senators, and Jin Sylvan the oldest of them. These six had settled at two tables furthest from King Otelius. None had offered the prince an explanation for their many years absent from court.
Letris greeted them and looked them in the eyes. He never would have discerned them to be murderers. Their obvious negligence could be forgiven and corrected, but the ability to conspire and murder posed a danger to all.
When Letris judged that everyone—even Gale, who was sitting with the children—had their hands busy with food and drink, he returned to the king’s table. As if by cue, Otelius rose from his seat to immerse himself in conversation with his steward at the back of the ballroom.
Letris hovered over the straw person beside the king’s chair. “This prince,” Letris began, heedless of the roar of conversations. “I heard he is a puppet. Empty-headed, with no thought for his duty…he is not fit to be the next king of Haiathiel.”
The first to fall quiet were the closest maids. Then the hush spread to the rest of the ballroom. Letris leaped onto the king’s table, not even paying mind to Avi and Lianne’s protests, and stood straight. He held out his arms out to his audience. “This prince hides behind his father’s robes like a child. However, a prince must carry a kingdom’s weight. He must take action to care for his people. This William has done none of it. So, I cannot allow him to marry a princess tonight. In fact, I will marry a daughter of Haiathiel myself! This is my secret intent.”
Letris jumped from the table and landed on the marble floor as lightly as a cat. He retreated to his father’s side as if nothing had happened, and Otelius returned to take his seat with a thoughtful frown.
Meanwhile, a wild chattering filled the ballroom, drowning out the music. Once the swell of conversation faded a little, Lianne said, “What an interesting bit of dialogue. Did you write it for our prince, Avi?”
In mid-bite of a canapé, Avi shook her head.
Aliasse laughed. “You’re supposed to pop the whole piece into your mouth, Avi!” At the other girl’s scandalized expression, she changed the subject. “I think Cal’s words have more significance than mere words for a show.”
“It was a promise,” Callie agreed. “He’s become a true prince.”
“All he needs now is a queen,” put in Rosaline. “Do you think he was put out because of all that new work he’s taking on?”
Aliasse fiddled with her empty plate. “It was because of what he learned of himself.”
“Glutton,” Avi murmured as Aliasse reached out towards Avi’s plate. “About himself? Not…”
“Yes, he didn’t know before I revealed it to him.” Crossing her arms, Aliasse hunched in misery to remember the pain on Cal’s face.
“He could have told me,” Avi huffed. At the moment, Cal stood ramrod straight beside his father. “Still, he’s not upset anymore. I wonder why.”
Lianne frowned. “What are you two hiding?”
“It’s not fair for you to know something about our prince. We all should know if it we are to serve him well,” Callie said.
Aliasse plucked a considerable morsel of chicken from Avi’s plate with a quickness of a frog’s tongue. Ignoring the resulting squeal of protest, she said, “If Cal wants to tell you, then he will.”
Though Lianne and Callie exchanged unsatisfied glances, they returned to their food quietly. Avi sighed in relief and then flinched as Aliasse snatched the last cut of chicken from her plate.
“These are delicious. I want the recipe from the woman who made these!”
Callie placed a comforting hand on Avi’s shoulder. “This is why I finished my food quickly. Go nose around for more.”
“A princess does not go nosing around for food. I want it brought to the table.” Avi clapped a hand over her mouth as Otelius chuckled.
Instead of scolding her, Otelius stood and proclaimed to the rest of the hall. “Anyone who would like to dance may gather upon the open floor. Epsin, a dancing tune if you please!” Aside, to Avi, the king murmured, “You may inquire about more food in secrecy now.”
“Thank you.” Avi turned in her seat to watch a colorful swarm of eager women and their less enthused husbands spread out over the ballroom floor. The senators without wives danced with their daughters, and young, well-dressed soldiers were available for any senator’s daughters who remained without a partner. Otelius’ ‘daughters’ also flocked to join the dance, one brave girl touting the straw prince William along. The others found partners in the spare soldiers. Letris followed and snatched Rosaline to dance the first Haiathien waltz. They were soon lost in the couples whirling to the euphonious song of ancient romance.