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As the heat of midsummer faded into autumn the glow of pregnancy had long faded under the hot sun and thick air of July and August. September brought some respite with cooler temperatures and crisp autumn air, but October brought the ultimate relief.

Cecily arrived in the early afternoon in the dying days of October.

I was delighted to have my little girl placed in my arms, but for the unpleasant, nagging feeling in the back of my mind that she wasn’t a boy. For once, I did not mind and was easily able to ignore my inner critic that has always sounded rather like my Mother. I was too caught up in the happiness that arrived with my daughter. I pointedly ignored the little voice in my head that said Mother would be painfully disparaging in her admonitions once she heard the news and I refused to consider that my husband might be disappointed. He had never said a word throughout the duration of my pregnancy as to his preference for a son, though I expected no less. Of course he would want a boy; a boy would be his heir. There are no laws against daughters inheriting their Father’s titles or estates in our Kingdom, as I have heard there are in others—my Mother and I are proof of that—but sons are still very much preferred as heirs.

He was not. It was the ultimate shock to me. He was at home when Cecily arrived, not away at court as he confessed to me later that he feared might be the case, and he was utterly enthralled by my—our—tiny daughter. He has yet to say a word against her being a girl rather than a boy; not even a comment that the next one would be a son.

Mother was. Her letter in response to mine giving her the news was just as scathing and disappointed as I anticipated. Though precisely what control I had over the matter I have yet to discern; its not like I had a conscious choice over my child’s gender any more than Mother had over mine. Yet, it really mattered to me quite little at the time, as I was still riding the wave of euphoria that came with pouring over every aspect of my little girl; her tiny hands with their exquisite tiny fingernails, her chubby little feet, her wide, bright eyes like her father’s, pert little smiling mouth and exuberant little laugh when she was tickled.

Unfortunately, it matters more now. With the approach of Christmas both my Mother and Josef’s mother have come to the Viscount’s Manor for the holiday. Lady Amherst I am moderately pleased to see again. She does tend to wear on me a little for, though she is a sweet enough woman, she is also shrill at times and has a sharp tongue when she is upset. Thankfully, she has little reason to be upset. She is immensely pleased with how I have taken over the running of her old household and was quite happy with what I had done to the Hunting Manor, the house she retired to after her husband’s passing; she didn’t want to be underfoot, she told me after informing us of her decision to take up residence there back in the spring. I suspect it had more to do with the common sense that two mistresses in one house was a poor idea. She is certainly delighted with her little granddaughter and often when I am searching for her, I have found my mother-in-law cooing over little Cecily.

Mother is far less impressed with my daughter, and has made no bones about telling me so. Needless to say, I am far less excited about her presence in my home. There is always something for her to criticize. No matter than I run nearly the most fashionable home in the Kingdom now, there is ‘something wanting in your decoration of the secondary parlour’ or there is ‘a distinct neglected quality to the guest rooms that is certain to leave your visitors feeling offended that you don’t care for them as you should.’ My tongue and cheeks have become quite sore from the frequency with which I have been biting them to keep from snapping back at her. Never mind that guests of nearly every high-born rank have visited my home and found it delightful and elegant, nor that I have become one of the most esteemed hostesses in the land despite my youth. She easily looks past such commendations straight to my deficiencies. But I have long since learned that nodding and agreeing with my Mother’s reproaches and promising to see to them is far less painful than contradicting her.

But, since she has little interest in my daughter save for lamenting that she was not a boy, I have yet to see my Mother anywhere near the nursery. So, my daughter’s room has become my refuge. I close the door quietly behind me, holding in a sigh of relief as the sounds of our guests diminish with the thick door closed behind my back. Mother and Captain Steffan are having some sort of disagreement with Josef’s younger brother Georg, while Lady Amherst is attempting to mediate with little success. I’m not even entirely certain where Josef is. With an absent gesture, I send Cecily’s nurse to wait in the next room, desirous of a few moments alone with my baby. Allowing my courteous mask to drop the instant the plump woman is out of sight, I am leaning over cradle in an heartbeat, greeted by my daughter’s cheerful burbling coos, her little arms waving up at me as I reach for her. I can feel my body relaxing as her squirming warmth settles into my arms, her little hands grasping at my curls. Unable to help myself, I coo back at her as I pace around the room, my feet dancing a little as I hum my Papa’s waltz.

“I knew you’d be likely to coddle any babies that came along.” I manage to keep my jaw from snapping shut in dismay, though I can feel my back straighten habitually at the tone my Mother used. I hadn’t even heard her approach or the sound of the door opening. I force myself to recover quickly, turning around to face her.

“Surely there is nothing wrong with wanting to hold my firstborn,” I respond calmly, keeping my arms relaxed around Cecily. As if sensing the tension in the room, Cecily stills, looking up at me with her wide eyes. I smile sweetly down at her, hoping to reassure her after the harsh bite of my Mother’s voice. I would not let my Mother see how much she’d shaken me. As always, she seemed to know anyway. Her eyes glint, and her nose wrinkles as a hint of a smirk curls her lip

“Perhaps if it had been a boy, an heir. But a girl? No. She’s not worth the time.” This time I cannot not help but gape. That she would be so disparaging of her own sex’s worth? Even knowing her character as I do, I am taken aback at her assertion.

Was that what she thought of me? Was that how she had spoken of me when I was a new babe?

She ignores my astonished reaction, looking critically around the nursery, tutting with disappointment as she fingers the furnishings.

“Surely you could have managed something better than this,” she chides, her nose wrinkling at the antique cradle placed in the centre of the room and poking at the gossamer curtains I had draped around it. As she looks up at me, she wipes her finger on one of the soft blankets, as thought even touching the piece somehow sullied her hands. I try to bite my tongue, but this time I can’t quite manage it.

“It is an Amherst heirloom,” I explain, imagining my voice is coated with honey to keep from sounding aggravated, “every Amherst baby since my husband’s great-grandfather has lain in that cradle. My husband the Viscount insisted that we continue the tradition with his firstborn child and any that follow.” I emphasize Josef’s title, unable to resist a dig of my own. Mother sniffs at the clarification, obviously disparaging of the tradition. I hold back the urge to simultaneously roll my eyes and scowl at her. I don’t mind the tradition in the slightest. I think it is a beautiful cradle. It is elegantly constructed of deep-coloured cherry-wood with beautifully painted scenes from old stories around the sides. The head and footboard are intricately decorated with carvings of flowers, leaves and all manner of protective sprites, all lovingly painted and gilded with life-like vibrancy. When the housekeeper had it brought out of storage to show me, I instantly approved. It is a cradle fit for the most noble of children.

Of course Mother disapproves.

“Well,” she waves off my words and strides back toward the nursery doors, “put the baby away and come back downstairs at once. There are details to be arranged before attending the Ball tomorrow night. I trust you have at least managed to arrange invitations for your Stepfather, your brother and myself,” she adds imperiously. She doesn’t even wait for my answer before disappearing out into the hallway. It takes a great deal of effort to keep my hands from tightening around Cecily in my anger at Mother’s presumptuous and insulting behaviour. But I obey her nonetheless, tenderly laying my daughter back in her cradle and summoning the nurse back to watch her.

She is right in one respect; there is still a great deal to be done in preparation for the King’s Ball tomorrow. With a sigh, I resign myself to seeing to the list I have worked up in my head of things left to be done.

Every year, between Christmas and the New Year, the King holds a Ball to confirm and celebrate the investiture of those new to their titles. Because of Josef’s inheritance of his Father’s title since the last Celebration, this year he is one of the new Lords to be confirmed in their position. It is exciting, for it means that not only am I to go to the Palace for the first time, but I am to attend a Royal Ball. It is a test above all others for my self-control, for I am, truly, excited.

Mother always said that undue excitement betrayed a lack of refinement and control. So I hide my excitement, even as I stand patiently while Gina puts the final touches on my new dress...a ball gown, the most elegant and lavish gown I think I have ever worn. It is fitted to my body above my waist and flaring out wider than any gown I’d had below my waist. It is a beautiful rich wine red trimmed with paler red accents and blue jewels that sparkle in the candlelight. My pale skins glows like marble and the vibrant colour makes my dark eyes appear luminous and even more intense than usual.

Despite the anticipation churning in my belly, I am excited. But I will appear poised, collected. I will look radiant, pleased, dignified, but I won’t let myself look excited or giddy, no matter that I feel like vibrating and hopping with my delight.

And I certainly won’t betray my disappointment that my Mother and Stepfather must accompany me. For a short time, I debated telling her that I was unable to get her an invitation; it was too last minute, none of my contacts who could have seen to it responded in time, or any number of other perfectly plausible explanations. But I did not do any such thing. I was far too eager to prove that I could rather than pretend I could not simply to spite her. I wrote to a handful of my most influential of contacts and managed to get my Mother, her son and her husband a place on the guest list.

My own instincts, partnered with the lessons I received from Lady Meyer and my mother-in-law, Lady Amherst, mean that I have a talent for throwing dinners and parties that are both memorable, entertaining and, perhaps most importantly of all, sophisticated and fashionable. With the rules and etiquettes and formalities Mother and Bonner drilled into my head, and the lessons in more practical aspects of being a sociable lady and perfect hostess from Lady Meyer, polished by Lady Amherst, I have yet to be at a loss for what to do, what to say, or how to act around anyone of any rank in any situation I have encountered so far. It also means that because of my promising reputation, I am on speaking and easy correspondence terms with several influential members of the King’s Court.

Dislike her, even hate her as I am sometimes wont too, I cannot deny that Mother, with the help of her puppet Bonner, helped mould me into the perfect hostess and a highly accomplished noblewoman. That I have and excellent memory has not hurt either. Bonner was always very keen to ensure that I cultivated that. And it has proven a most valuable tool. I rarely forget a name or a title or any number of bits of information about my acquaintances once I am introduced, though faces I have a little more trouble holding on to. It means I knew exactly who to contact to get my Mother, Herbert and Captain Steffan invitations.

But I am under little obligation to pay obeisance to my Mother all evening. I am a Viscountess now, and tonight is to celebrate my husband coming into his title. I would be perfectly within my rights to ignore my upstart Mother all evening should I choose. It is a power I exercise as Josef and I descend to the waiting carriages. There are two waiting; my stepfather’s and ours. It cheers me to notice how much more splendid our carriage is and how elegant our matched bay horses are compared to my stepfather’s. I breeze past my Mother on my Viscount husband’s arm, barely sparing her a look as he guides me to our carriage. I fight back an undignified smirk at how scandalized and incensed Mother looks in her borderline vulgar gown; it is entirely too richly bedecked for her station, and she looks cheap for it. I know I am going to pay for my audacity later, but for now I mean to enjoy it. With a huff, Mother all but storms to her own carriage, ignoring her husband’s proffered hand. I fight back a second smirk, hiding it behind my mild smile.

Accepting my own husband’s hand up into the carriage, he climbs in after me, careful not to tread on my skirts. Behind us, the door clicks shut, and with a sharp word from the footman and a snap of the coachman’s whip, we are off to the Ball. Thankfully, Amherst Manor is not terribly far from the Palace, but it still takes plenty of time for us to get there, allowing plenty of time for thoughts to bounce and jangle around in my head, especially given the spare conversation from Josef. I have a several recurring moments of numbing worry for my little Cecily—this is the first time I have left home without her—but I remind myself firmly that she is in her nurse’s capable hands. But as I repeatedly force myself to move past my anxiety for my little daughter, my excitement is once again free to continue building in my chest.

I have never been to a Royal Ball before. I feel like I’m sitting on pins and needles as our carriage makes the final approach to the Palace along a grand avenue of magnificent hundred-year oaks, each one bedecked with glimmering garlands and hanging lanterns.

Then the Palace proper comes into view. I cannot help the gasp that escapes my lips. It is beyond anything I have seen. It takes every ounce of self-control I have to keep from hanging out the window like a country-bumpkin to stare at the vista before me.

Though the carriage has been travelling steadily uphill, the Palace sits in a valley, surrounded on three sides by hills covered with lush forest, though this time of year it appears a bit ragged with many trees leafless for the winter. Of course in the dimming twilight, those woods, even given the cheery atmosphere of the evening, loom like a protective guard around the golden seat of the King, bare branches jutting like spikes over the road where, in the summer, feathery boughs of leaves would throw their shade. But the Palace itself occupies the centre of a great plain in the cradle of the valley, resplendent in hundreds, no, thousands of glittering lights. It gleams in the night, glowing amid the snow-covered forest around it like a crown of purest marble and gilt sitting upon a satin pillow.

On the other side of the carriage, Josef is watching me, a hint of a smile on his face as he takes in the excitement that I cannot quite hide. I can’t help but smile back. It is peculiar having my husband taking such an interest in me, even used to it as I have become over the course of my pregnancy with Cecily. I expected to return to our habitual indifference toward each other now that he could lavish attentions on Cecily directly. And so far I have been proven right in my prediction. But this sudden interest tonight inspires a tiny flutter of hope to wake in me, no matter that I try to restrain it. Normally, I scoff at hope—it has done me little good up to this point except prepare me for disappointment—but there is something heady and intoxicating in the atmosphere this evening. Perhaps I am right to hope.

Not soon enough, our carriage rolls to a stop at the base of the Palace steps. With a click, the latch of the door is loosed and it swings open. I follow Josef out and, as courtesy dictates, he is waiting with an offered hand to help me down. And then we are mounting the steps up to the immense doors of the Palace. Even with the cool mid-winter temperatures they are flung wide open, easily able to accommodate four Ladies with skirts wider than mine along with their escorts. And the sight of those Ladies and their Lords in their dazzling array of party dress is enough to render me speechless. It takes more effort than I have ever needed to expend before to keep my face pleasantly neutral and not gawk at the scope and splendidness of the scene around me.

And we are only in the Entrance Hall of the Palace, not even in the Ballroom proper. There is a string quartet serenading the arriving guests and Josef and I barely step over the expansive threshold before waiting butlers are there to collect and stow away our cloaks and stoles. With an amused quirk of his eyebrow, Josef takes my hand again and leads me onward down the long Gallery immediately adjacent the Entrance Hall. It is taller and more grand than the entryway by half, with rich paintings of past Kings and Queens of our land lining the walls on one side and an immense, unending bank of beautiful clear and stained glass windows on the other. I fight back a welling of sadness in the back of my mind; I was supposed to walk down this hall for the first time on my Papa’s arm. At the end of the Gallery we come to a flight of stairs made of the prettiest golden yellow marble I have ever seen.

Then we are in the Great Ballroom and a Crier announces our arrival. I pause at the top of the pair of Grand Staircases, each one curving down to the ground floor on either side of the balcony Josef and I now stand on. Across the cavernous expanse of the room, sitting on another stairless but matching balcony, is the figure of the King and his Queen, tiny for the distance between them and me. Directly below them is a landing with two great thrones set upon it. Two similarly grand staircases curl down to it from the level of the King’s balcony and a third flaring staircase completes the journey to the ballroom floor. A wide walkway is set into the walls around the perimeter of the Ballroom both on the upper level were I am and down below. I imagine the one up here would ultimately lead to the balcony where our rulers sit surveying the entrance of their guests.

Huge columns, similarly inset against the walls, ring the immense room, providing spaces around which guests can congregate while staying out of the way of the dancers. And behind the columns giant, soaring windows that stretch from the floor to the soaring painted ceiling look out at the night sky, the glass doors at their bases and the level above flung wide open to terraces and balconies overlooking the snow covered gardens; even before the dancing has truly begin, the Ballroom is near stifling hot, and the cold breeze wafting through them is a godsend.

And oh the dancers! Though we are by no means late to the Ball, there is already a small collection of couples weaving and gliding across the polished marble floors to the quiet music the orchestra, nestled perfectly within the arms of the huge twin staircases Josef and I are about to descend, is playing, despite the fact that the ball hasn’t officially commenced yet.

Over our heads five huge crystal and gold chandeliers hang down the centre of the Ballroom with twelve smaller but no less impressive chandeliers flanking them. The huge chamber is awash with light, every surface gleaming and glittering. Warm light from thousands of candles flashes off the Ladies’ jewels and the polished leather boots of the gentlemen shine. Meticulously cleaned old candelabras are paired with the huge columns and the rich swathes of fabric that make up the drapes for the huge windows are pulled back in thick, luxurious folds of blue and gold.

It is not quite exactly as I pictured it, but better, somehow truer to the words my Papa had used than my imagination had been. It is not so ostentatiously opulent as I imagined, but no less luxurious and sumptuous in its older, more refined beauty. A thickness rises in my throat, and for the briefest of moments I fear I am about to start crying. It is so beautiful, just as Papa always described. I can picture him joyfully leading the orchestra through one of his compositions while the dancers spin and fly over the beautifully patterned marble.

I wish he were here with me.

Fingers squeeze questioningly over mine, and I look over to my husband to see a faint frown creasing his brow. I take a deep steadying breath and smile reassuringly at him.

“My Papa told me of the Palace when I was a little girl,” I blurt out, surprised at the compulsion at first. But it feels good to share it, I realize as the words continue to tumble out of my mouth. “It is exactly as I imagined, just as magnificent as he described.” The crease between Josef’s brow fades to be replaced with an indulgent smile.

“It certainly is that,” he responds, gently pulling on my hand to guide me down the steps out and among the growing assemblage of Nobles.

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