“Your parents already await you in the coach, M’lady.” A worn out servant said over Khloe’s shoulder, aged face reflected in the mirror. Khloe made a point to dot a few dark freckles on her nose with gold; her rich brown cheeks and hair already gleamed with matching glitter.
“Dotting a few of my freckles isn’t too much, is it, Etta?” she asked as she eyed her reflection. The untamed curls in her bobbed umber hair sparkled every time she turned her head.
“You’re right beautiful, miss. Now please get a move on before your father loses his temper.” Khloe rolled her dark eyes and stood up from her cherry wood vanity in a huff.
“Very well,” She sighed. “I’ll not have father spoiling my entrance with that gloomy face of his.” She jested to her ragged servant who met her with a wan smile.
“If you don’t want him to make a face, you should behave yourself.” Etta admonished in a soft mothering tone. Khloe regarded her with fondness.
“Do take some rest while I’m away; I hate to think I’ve exhausted you so.”
“Aye, ma’am.” Khloe swept out her room and down the stairs.
Even clad in a ball gown she was swift, her high heels made little more than a tap as she glided down to the coach where her family waited. Servants ducked their heads as she passed through the gathering hall and straight out the front door, door man just fast enough to yank it open. She uttered a brief ‘thank you’ as she followed the steps down to where the coach, and her bristling father, awaited. With her footman’s help she ascended into the coach and settled into a seat beside her mother. Lord DuPont, arms folded, tapped his index finger on his bicep as she ignored him.
“There is a point where fashionably late becomes absurdly late and I would think you’d know the difference, Khloe.” The coache's jolt and clop of the horse’s shoes punctuated his anger.
“Indeed. That’s why we are to be fashionably late instead.” She retorted in a curt manner. Her father’s square jaw tightened and muscles in his face tensed beneath his thick dark beard. Even garbed as a courtier, Lord DuPont was a form to be reckoned with. Straight backed and barrel chested even to this day, men who served under him as a general in the emperor’s army could still not meet his gaze. The glower in his eye others feared, Khloe met in kind.
She stood apart from her family, not clad in the blue and green colors representing their house but rather, in a resplendent backless gold frock with slitted sleeves that shown her freckled shoulders. Disdain clear in her father’s eyes.
“What is this unsuitable gown you’re wearing?”
“All the rage or so I hear.” Her father’s dark hazel eyes leveled with hers as the coach rumbled over uneven cobblestones.
“It is not what we agreed. You were to make yourself presentable, represent this house, our house!” Khloe grunted her annoyance.
“Father, I have hopes to be married some day; I am a woman, not a flag.” She contended.
“Must we do this every time?” cut in Lady DuPont, dark curls wound to her head so tight it was a wonder they didn’t snap in all directions. “For once, I would like to sit in a coach with my family and not have it turn into a battle of wills.” The lord and lady exchanged grievances and Khloe ignored them. The fourth party in the coach, dressed in formal blue and green wear by his father’s demand, was Anaiah. Gone forgotten every time his sister and his father quarreled, Anaiah took advantage of his invisibility and said nothing. He wished he could take this time to read. He knew he could use magic to illuminate the coach and rustle up a book he hid under his seat but he wasn’t keen on catching his father’s attention after his mood soured. Anaiah gazed out the window at endless darkened farmland as they approached the emperor’s palace. He felt uncomfortable in his clothes and tugged at his sleeves, embarrassed his tunic mirrored his father’s.
The light from the city grew brighter as the long carriage ride wore on, soft velvet cushions unsuitable to combat the constant shuddering of the chassis. Lady DuPont, having had the last word with her dour husband, watched out the window as the glow in the distance neared. Brilliant in her blue and green satin ball gown hemmed with sequins; after three children and a life time in service to the emperor’s academy, nary a grey hair graced her head. Khloe watched her mother’s brown eyes sparkle as they crossed the bridge into the city. Despite that, hours earlier, lady DuPont had been less than eager to leave their youngest sister, Adalie, at home while she attended; Khloe felt her mother’s excitement at the prospect of court. I don’t blame her; they’re a damn sight better company than General Grumpy-Beard she brooded. She refused to look at her father, feigning interest in the multicolored lanterns strewn from building to building. Common folk danced in the street and trailed the carriage, waving their hands and giving drunken bows.
Khloe preened straightening her back; she loved adoration no matter the source. She didn’t lie to herself about it. The carriage swooped into a large courtyard roundabout lined end to end with other carriages varying in ornamentation. Each one more gaudy than the last, some magicked into silver, others daring to sport inordinate gobs of gold, and an unfortunate overturned glass carriage in jagged pieces off to the side. At this Anaiah shook his head.
“Someone pulls that glass rubbish every year and this always happens.” He moaned. “If folk would stop using hollow blown glass as the base of their spells, we wouldn’t have these sorry wrecks.” Khloe snickered behind her hand at her little brother. He could wait out a monsoon in all politeness but the instant wayward magic was afoot he’d have more than his share to say about it.
“Oh how inconsiderate of them.” Khloe goaded, masking her sarcasm with feigned surprise. Anaiah met her eyes, his face serious.
“Exactly. Imagine of a horse were to injure itself on broken glass and go speeding off into other carriages, or guests on their way inside; the kind of damage to people and property could be considerable. It’s downright irresponsible.” Khloe couldn’t contain her laughter and broke into a chortle. Anaiah’s face fell. “You’re having me on, aren’t you?”
“Not at all, you’re just so passionate.” She teased. Anaiah let out a long sigh and returned to his gloomy disposition.
Lord DuPont’s mouth twitched as he glanced down at his children.
“I want no nonsense out of either of you tonight; the emperor will want to meet you both. Not a single slip up, do you hear?” Anaiah’s dark complexion paled.
“S-surely she won’t be talking to Khloe and I, th-that would be…” panic spread over him followed by chills. “Mother, please don’t make me talk to her. I’ll embarrass me.” He shook his head, “-I mean, I’ll embarrass you, us! Oh man alive.” He buried his face in his hands; the braids in his long hair fell about his shoulders.
“Lighten up head case, it’s easy.” Khloe straightened her shoulders and raised her head. “You approach with dignity, bow on cue, flash a smile and then whatever she says you follow it up with something pleasant. Even you can think of something pleasant.” Anaiah dropped his hands and pleaded with his father.
“Father please, I don’t want to make a fool of myself. It’s the emperor.” Anaiah gave Khloe a sharp glare, his eyes pitch in the changing carriage light. “You can’t flounce up to her like you own the place, Khloe. There are rules, there are protocols, there are…there’s—a thousand things and you have to do them all right!” as the carriage stopped Khloe batted her hand at him.
“Enjoy the ball from behind your vase, wallflower. You can wave to the emperor from afar, I’m sure that’d be acceptable.” The door to the carriage opened and Khloe tried to vault out. Her father seized her by the arm.
“Best behavior.” He intoned, warning reflected in his intense hazel eyes. He leveled his gaze at Anaiah. “Both of you.”
“Of course.” Khloe promised with a bat of her gold dappled eyelashes as she stepped out into the fresh air. Before her stretched a long royal purple carpet sided with hanging glass lanterns. A long gossamer trail of frocks and glittering jewels followed up a large white stone stair case, to gold inlaid double oak doors large enough for a giant to stroll through. The castle stood white in the blackness, its contrast emboldened by a bejeweled blanket of stars. Khloe took a deep breath, enjoying the sweet summer scent and glowing brighter with the hum of levity and gossip radiating over the attendees. Khloe eagle-eyed a dark blue gown belonging to Lady Ancelet who idled near the lines end.
“Anise!” Khloe shouted as she hurried over, a girl in a dark blue gown swept around with a smile.
“Khloe you finally made it!” the two reached out their arms and embraced. Khloe assessed her, coiled braids held up by her bejeweled crespine, a style Anise never attempted before; her tear drop eyes accentuated by blue refractive kohl to match her dark blue satin gown. Khloe gaped; the satin gleamed, dotted with rhinestones and hemmed with silvery lace.
“Did you get this today? It’s gorgeous. I knew this ball was fancy dress but, goodness you’re brighter than the stars in this thing.” Anise’s round face blushed.
“A-actually it’s a gift from my betrothed. I’m finally going to get to meet him, can you believe it?” Khloe beamed.
“He’s come here to meet you in person, after all these years of writing back and forth? You and your parents must be thrilled…or terrified.” She said with a smile to set her anxious friend at ease.
“I really want him to like me.” Anise admitted as her hands tugged at a handkerchief.
“So both, then.” Khloe affirmed by looping her arm through the crook of Anise’s own. “You’ve nothing to worry about. He’ll see you walk through that door and be unable to look away.” Anise sighed.
“I think my father is having the worst of it. You know how he is, doting, loving, a worrier.”
“Like someone else I know.” Khloe’s teasing met with Anise’s faint laughter.
“I may have to be more concerned about him tonight than anyone else.” Khloe glanced back over her shoulder at father’s imposing frame next to his diminutive dutiful wife and nerve wracked son.
“Wish my father could be so…fatherly.” Anise shook her head.
“He’s a military man; my father is a merchant, they lead very different lives. Too different to compare, I think.” Khloe exhaled.
“I suppose you’re right. Still, I’d like my father to be as considerate of my feelings as your father is to you. How many times did he ask you if you were alright with the engagement growing up? How many times did he offer to give you an out if you were uncomfortable?” Anise giggled.
“Too many to be sure, it’s just his way; I’m his only child and he wants me to be happy and provided for. I wish he’d consider himself more in these days. I’ll soon be married and he’ll have to get used to living with mother alone.” She said, sadness creeping into her voice.
“It worries you, doesn’t it?” Anise nodded in response.
“I don’t want to be apart from him. That’s the hardest thing about all this, even though I’m excited, I’m not inclined to abandon my home, my parents.”
“You’re not abandoning anything.” Khloe gave her arm a comforting squeeze. “You’re adding on to what’s already there.” Anise’s face brightened.
“Thank you, Khloe, it means the world.”
Anise glanced back behind them at Khloe’s family.
“My goodness is that Anaiah?” she said with genuine surprise.
“As fidgety and nervous as ever, he found out we might have to briefly bow to the emperor and nearly had a conniption.” Indeed Anaiah appeared as a man in a panic. His jaw clenched tight and his eyes angled down as his father said something to him neither Khloe nor Anise could hear.
“His hair is so long, and when did he get so tall?” Anise asked.
“Looks the same to me as ever he did.” Khloe said without interest. Anise giggled under her breath. “What?”
“You know the girls at court are going to love him.” She teased.
“Hah, so he finally grew into his big feet and his giant ears. No cure for his bumbling though, I bet he drops his drink on the first girl to introduce herself.” Anise pinched Khloe on the arm.
“Don’t be mean. I bet he’ll do fine, maybe make a few lady friends this year.” Khloe snorted.
“Yeah if they were made of paper and introduced themselves as books.” The line inched toward the door, the arduous process of announcement made the wait longer. Even as they reached the stairs an eternity passed watching glass lanterns bob in a faint breeze.
Khloe went ahead into the vestibule with Anise and skipped the over produced introductions leaving her family behind. She heard her father’s admonitions playing out in her head as she left them behind at the door. The antechamber led up a flight of white stone stairs; the candelabras alight with color changing fire that cast star shapes upon the walls. Anise ogled, wide eyed.
“Oh Anaiah is going to love this.” Anise said as the champagne colored fire faded into a spring green, star patterns on the walls shifting into flowers. The two stood rapt as colors continued to change, following the theme the seasonal theme; fall orange and leaf tracing giving way to the light wintery blue and snowflake outlines.
“Well, I think I’ve discovered where Anaiah will spend the evening.” Khloe tugged at Anise’s arm. “Let’s go to the real event, shall we?”