It was the dark blue hour of a winter afternoon after sunset. Snow was lightly falling again, glistening bright in the light of the palace's many candles, the lanterns and lampions hung all over the walls. The entire court was alight. Warm yellow lights illuminated the palace and the garden, leading the way through the wintery landscape as the darkness fell around them.
From the main entrance voices and laughter came, the first guests arriving to the ball with much chatter and many greetings. Soon the entire court would be brimming with colors, flowing ballgowns and shimmery satins, with ribbons and jewels and fur-trimmed coats. For now, however, it was only just coming alive, lying quietly in anticipation of music, dance and joy.
The most important person, however, was still missing.
"Your Highness," Olive's voice sounded through the garden as she crossed the snowy paths. She, too, was dressed up for the ball, but her bodyguard duty had saved her from the hassle of putting on a gown befitting of a noble, the kind that needed three maids to get in and out of. Instead she wore a knight's uniform decorated with gold, her long cape flowing freely behind her in the breeze.
"Your Highness!" she called again, her voice coming closer. "Gem, you egghead, it's almost time!"
Gem crouched down behind the snowman he had built. With a little luck, he thought, she would pass right by him and leave him alone.
Olive's footsteps halted close by.
Gem held his breath. Nobody here but us snowmen, he thought.
An arm reached around the snowman, grabbing him by the collar and yanking him out.
"There you are!" Olive said, looking triumphant but not at all surprised. "What are you doing out here? You should go greet the guests!"
Gem, fully dressed up for the event as he was, pulled a face. "Do I really have to?"
"Baby brother, we talked about this. You're the host. You can't skip your own ball!"
"It wasn't even my idea," he replied, pouting.
"No, but it's your responsibility. You can't pick out a spouse if you're out here playing in the snow, anyway."
"Damn right I can!" Gem crossed his arms. "My one true love could walk through the garden and find me and we'd build a snowman together. I can't marry anybody I can't build a snowman with."
Olive sighed audibly, letting go of his collar. "What are you, a kid?"
"I got priorities!"
"Childish priorities. C'mon, stop sulking, you're not five anymore." Olive turned around, motioning for him to follow. "Just talk to as many people as you can, dance a lot, you'll be fine. It's not like royals should marry for love, anyway."
Gem pulled a face at her back. Immediately she turned around. "Did you say something?"
Sometimes, he thought, he had a serious suspicion his sister was psychic. "Nope," he said, still sulking.
"Good! Otherwise I would've needed to spar with you again and we can't do that now." She continued walking with a bounce in her step. Gem, who knew as well as she did that sparring was just an excuse for her to legally beat him up, couldn't help wondering if she was a sadist. Then again he suspected all older sisters were like this sometimes.
The palace was bright after the falling darkness outside, so bright that Gem squinted his eyes in a most un-princely manner. So many lamps, he thought. Did they always light up this many lamps for a ball?
His father hurried to meet him and Olive, followed closely by his mother. Once again they were telling him what they had been telling him daily for the past week: what to look for in a spouse, to not be led only by appearances, follow reason as well as his heart. He could recite the speech by heart.
Idly his eyes roamed over the guests. There were many pretty young ladies in pretty dresses and many handsome young men in dashing suits. None of them caught his interest. They were all so…ordinary, so one like the other, so incredibly interchangeable.
Not like he expected to feel anything else tonight.
More and more guests arrived. Gem heard many names and saw many faces and remembered none of them. The palace grew louder and more and more crowded. Speeches were made, music was played, and finally the dancing began.
Gem would have liked to do the introductory dance with Olive, but as a bodyguard on duty she wasn't allowed to dance. So, instead, he danced with his cousin, who was married with children and almost twice his age. A deliberate choice, so none of his marriage candidates would fight over being his first dance partner.
Then the dance was over, and it was the moment to pick the first candidate to dance with.
Gem stared into the rows, the faces filled with anticipation. The suits and dresses blurred before his eyes. These people all looked the same. They weren't what he wanted. They weren't what he dreamed of.
Before he could make up his mind, the first young lady approached him. Gem danced with her for a few turns before she was pushed away by the next person, and the next, and the next. Nothing happened, except that he became steadily warmer and his feet grew sore.
"How long before I can leave?" he asked Olive in an undertone when he finally took a break from dancing to have a drink. "I'm tired already."
"Leave? It's your event," Olive answered. "Are you sure you didn't like anybody you danced with? No one stood out?"
Gem gulped down the contents of his cup. "Nobody. They all look the same."
"Give them a chance." Olive leaned against a pillar, scanning the crowd. "I'm sure the right person is out there, you just have to find them first."
Before Gem could answer, a hush went through the hall.
The doors of the ballroom opened. The crowd around it parted, stepping aside as if to make room for royalty. The announcers didn't announce any names. Everyone seemed to stand in awe, holding their breath at the new arrivant.
Half bored, half puzzled, Gem followed their gazes.
The music stopped.
Standing in the doorframe was a stranger the likes of whom he had never seen before.
And in that moment, he knew.
"That's the one."
~ ~ ~
The carriage halted before the palace, and the door opened before Cinder could do anything about it.
"Go in there," the faceless driver whispered, helping him down. "Dance. Don't worry about your family; the magic will make sure nobody recognizes you. At the stroke of midnight, come back here. The carriage will take you home safely."
Cinder hesitated. A strong part of him still wanted to run for it, find his way home on foot, but he didn't know it and it would take hours. He was here. He was in this costume, whatever it was. They wanted him to go to that ball so badly.
Fine. He'd go in there. He could still hide in the crowd and speak to no one until midnight, when he was not only free but also supposed to leave. It would be a long few hours, but he'd survive it. Plus, maybe there was free food.
With a jittery sigh he climbed out of the carriage and made for the palace door.
His footsteps were loud on the stairs, the soles of his shoes hard and unyielding. The sound was too loud in the quiet, drowning out the muffled voices and music from inside.
The guards that stood at the doors eyed him with curiosity. Cinder straightened his back, wondering if they would ask about his identity and stop him from getting inside. Part of him hoped he would. If anyone gave him an excuse to turn back and stay away from the ball, he would take it and thank them.
But the guards only stood in awe as he approached, bowing to him as they let him inside.
Bright lights greeted him. Cinder shielded his eyes. His footsteps were even louder inside the palace. It was warm. It was uncomfortable. At every step he expected someone to throw him out as an uninvited guest.
"Let me take your coat, my lord."
He almost jumped. The butler beside him seemed to have manifested out of nowhere.
"Thanks," he said, slipping out of his coat. The butler bowed low and motioned him along. He followed warily.
Lord? Bowing? What was this treatment? Who did they think he was?
Finally he approached the doors to the ballroom, which seemed to open before him by invisible hands.
The hall fell silent. The music stopped.
All eyes rested exclusively on him.
Cinder held his breath. It was too hot in here, and it was uncomfortable. The stares were too intense. The lights were too bright. He didn't want to be here.
What were they all staring at, anyway? Was this another effect of the spell?
The crowd parted before him, forming a lane. At the end of the lane stood a figure clad in white. A figure who now came striding directly up to him.
He was tall, Cinder thought as he stood before him. Tall and well-built, like most royalty, and fair-skinned like them too. His hair was a bright golden-red, a little messy and spiky in a deliberate fashion, his eyes brown and somehow naïve-looking. To some people he might have seemed like a full-grown adult, but Cinder wasn't fooled by his stature. His youthful features were enough to betray that this boy couldn't be a day older than Cinder himself.
And right now he was looking at him as if he had seen a miracle.
"Where have you been?" he asked, as if welcoming an old friend from a long, lonely journey. "What have you been doing?"
Cinder squirmed. He had no idea how to respond to that without being horribly rude.
"I've had things to do," he said vaguely. "Places to be."
"But now you're here."
The boy in front of him was all but glowing. His eyes were shining, his cheeks reddened in a way that didn't seem to come from the heat in the room. Cinder was growing increasingly uncomfortable.
"Now I'm here," he said, "for some time."
Maybe, he thought, if he kept being uncommunicative, this guy would get tired of him and leave him alone. Or at the very least get the hint and stop staring at him so much.
The boy, however, grinned from ear to ear and took an exaggerated bow, extending his hand.
"May I ask for this dance, my lord?"
Cinder looked around for an escape but couldn't see a way out. And to make matters worse, the entire ballroom was still staring at him.
This was going to be a long night.