Five opals, thirteen diamonds, and a ruby as big as a fist to finish it all off. A golden tiara that was a bit too heavy to be practical, and silver-threaded shoes that were too tight to make dancing a pleasure. While the attire was familiar, tonight it felt more wearisome than usual for the young woman who stood waiting to be announced at the door. “A curtsy to the princes, a handshake to the lords and ladies, a nod to the barons,” she reminded herself one last time. “Lead with the left foot first, eyes straight ahead.”
As she spoke, she heard the call of the announcer within the room: “Princess Kathryn of Iridalys!” The gilded double doors flew open and light flooded into the dark hall, blinding her. Leading with her left foot and taking a last deep breath, she stepped into the swirling ballroom to the sound of clapping and the sight of every head bowed. No reason to be nervous. No reason why her hands should be shaking the way they were.
Her brother approached her first and held out his arm to escort her. “Sister,” he said with a smile, “You are as gorgeous as ever.”
Kathryn maintained her polite smile as she said, “Thank you, brother. I believe you and I are to open the dance?”
“Yes, we must show our solidarity, after all.” He led her to the center of the floor and held out his hands.
“Of course we must,” Kathryn said impassively. She tried not to lower her head despite the dozens of eyes fixed on her as the watchers waited for the music to begin.
Then the orchestra started to play, and Kathryn swirled across the dance floor, ignoring the pain in her ankles. Keep smiling; it couldn’t last more than a few hours, she thought. Her brother glanced over at her stiff face and smirked. “You look even more tense than usual. I take it Father said ‘no,’ then. I rather hoped he would disregard such a silly idea out of hand. It would be too ridiculous.”
“Father hasn’t decided yet, Illian” Kathryn replied evenly. “If you must know, he said he would tell me later tonight. And anyway, I don’t remember telling you about it at all.”
“Father told me. You can’t be serious, Kathy. I don’t believe you actually want to marry that trash-our enemy.” Illian’s grip on her hand tightened, pulling her off balance. “Am I wrong?” She chose not to respond.
Finally, the dance was over. Kathryn curtsied, a little too quickly to be polite, and deserted Illian, who stood there watching her go with a grim face. He was soon distracted by another guest. But Kathryn’s second partner was worse than her first. The minor lord was a poor dancer, and she felt the pressure on her ankles growing, which made the whole thing quite miserable.
After the dance, the young lord asked, “May I get you a drink, your highness? Some wine, perhaps?”
“No, thank you.” Kathryn glanced over at the door that led to the balcony with a hint of desperation. She poppy-red from the heat of being in proximity to so many people, plus the exertion of dancing, and fresh air was the only thing she wanted at the moment. But as she tried to escape her admirer, he held her hand to stop her.
“Are you sure? There are a lot of good wines here.”
Kathryn was tempted to take off her heavy tiara, since it was giving her a headache, and see how well it would function as a weapon to ward off unwanted attention. But it was well settled on her beautifully swept-up auburn hair, and she was afraid her hair would come down with it. On the other hand, she could wait to see what the familiar figure standing at the back of the ballroom would do if this annoying little lord didn’t let go of her hand soon. But she only said with a polite laugh, “Oh no, I never could handle wine. It makes me quite sleepy. But if you would be so kind as to get me a fan, I would be in your debt.”
He eagerly hurried off, and she, just as eagerly, hurried off to the balcony, out of sight of the pomp and prying eyes of the ballroom. But the departure of a princess rarely goes unnoticed, and the figure that had been standing near the back of the room watching her every move smirked when he saw her leave and remarked, “You won’t escape that easily, princess.”
Outside, Kathryn adjusted her tiara, sat down on the ivory railing, and pulled off her shoes, breathing a sigh of relief. A second later, she jumped so high she nearly fell backwards off the railing when a dark figure leapt down from the roof over the balcony.
“Whoa!” A strong hand reached out and caught her around the waist, and she found herself glaring up at a disheveled young man who looked utterly unfit for the fancy atmosphere of the ballroom.
“Really, Ren?” she said, in a voice that was deceptively even despite the way her heart pounded at the surprise. “Do you have to pop out of windows and off rooftops all the time?”
He grinned and released her, stepping back so that he could offer a low, exaggerated bow. Kathryn was fairly tall, yet he absolutely towered over her. “Forgive me, your highness. I didn’t realize you were so easy to scare.” He raised his head, and his blue eyes twinkled. “What’s the trouble, Princess Pout? Did the bores chase you out of the party?”
“Hardly, but these shoes did.” She held them up with an expression of loathing. “I think this whole notion of elegance has been taken rather too far.”
Ren plopped down next to her and examined the emerald that adorned the front of her dress. “Can’t say I disagree. Golly, what a rock.” He paused and then said casually, “You should really talk to your father.”
She froze, studying his face and seeking some sign of seriousness. But there was none, and she relaxed. “About what?” she questioned
“About these rocks, of course. They’re too heavy for a tiny little weak thing like you.” He glanced at the tiara. “Like, doesn’t that thing give you a headache?”
Kathryn leaned forward to tap him on the forehead. “You’re the only thing giving me a headache. Aren’t you supposed to be watching the ballroom for anything suspicious?” she asked.
“Nope, I’m supposed to be watching you, Princess Pout. Like always, I get saddled with the biggest responsibilities.” He let out an exaggerated sigh. “And by the way, you shouldn’t come out here by yourself. You’re making my job harder. Just ask me to come with you.” He paused. “Say, how long do you think we can get away with it before they come looking for us?”
“Oh, they’ll be here any second,” Kathryn predicted, pulling the wretched shoes back on as she talked. “Anyway, I have a dance with Father soon.”
“Is he well enough to be dancing? I thought he was still a bit weak,” Ren remarked.
“I suppose he’s well enough to have one dance with his daughter. Now, head back into the ballroom over the roof. There’s no need for them to see us together.”
Ren rolled his eyes. “What, are you ashamed of me all of a sudden? It’s not as if people will be surprised to see me doing my job.”
“No, but people might talk anyway. Go on!” She hurried inside, and he watched her go.
“Never bothered you before,” he muttered as he followed her instructions.
Inside, Kathryn kept a smile pasted on and bowed, curtsied, and nodded her way across the ballroom in the general direction of where her father would be discussing politics with her uncle. Every step, her body felt heavier, and she almost regretted moving in that direction. Almost, but not quite.
When Kathryn finally reached her father, she noticed that his face was a bit paler than usual. But nonetheless, she held out her hand. “Father, I believe you promised to dance with your daughter tonight.”
Her father had a sad look in his dark eyes as he accepted her hand. As soon as the orchestra members saw that the king was dancing, they switched their cheerful tune to a slow waltz that almost felt mournful. The reduced pace was a welcome respite for Kathryn, though.
Kathryn said, “Father, have you decided-”
He interrupted her. “My dearest child, are you sure this is what you want? I’ve talked with Illian, and he’s very much against it.”
Kathryn winced. She lowered her head, hiding her face as she said, “Illian doesn’t know everything, Father.”
“No, but he’s a wise leader and a good strategist. He has more experience with the world than you, and I think it’s only natural that he’s concerned about you marrying the man he was facing in battle just a year ago.”
“A good strategist would also know that we need to solidify the treaty, and this is the best way to do that, is it not?” Kathryn raised her head. She knew the future of her kingdom could depend on her next words. “Illian is a war hero. He was wounded twice and sacrificed countless subordinates and comrades. You yourself ordered the strategies that saved our country. You sacrificed your health for your victory. But now, we must sacrifice for peace. And that is a sacrifice only I, not you or Illian, can make. Your majesty, I am the daughter of a king. I was created to obtain and wield power for the sake of my kingdom. You have told me that every day. Let me do what I was made for.”
The rest of the room seemed to have fallen away as she waited for his answer.