“I can’t dance with Lady Milan,” Tehveor said.
Darshon leaned against the wall, balancing his foot over the lowest paneling and watching his cousin squirm beneath his brother’s request.
“I must accompany Princess Kathlin tonight,” Kael said. “But Milan has recently lost her father, and their lands are precarious. At least one of us must dance with her to establish a public display of goodwill.”
“But my hands aren’t healed,” Tehveor whispered, flipping his palms to show the ragged scars. “Mother says gloves would draw more attention, but if I took her hand, she would feel it.”
Kael flinched. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Well, he doesn’t have any qualms about dancing with Silvah,” Darshon said.
Tehveor sent him something close to a glare. “Silvah already knows.”
“It’s true,” Kael said. “Milan may uncomfortable with the scarring, and we can’t risk the offer going bad. You’ll have to dance with her.”
“Me?” Darshon’s foot dropped to the floor as he straightened. “Why me? It’s not my fault her father died.”
“Because you’re the only one who can,” Kael said. “We must reestablish the relationship, or their family could be endangered by the neighboring lords who want their province. We need show they have our protection.”
“Protection, or affection?” Darshon asked.
“Both, if you think you can manage,” Tehveor muttered.
Kael cast him a glance before turning back to Darshon. “Ask her for one dance. Give her one compliment, and then you may have the rest of the night to do as you please. You can manage that.”
“They’re coming,” Tehveor whispered.
“Do as I say,” Kael ordered before he turned toward the prince and princess of Kathonia.
Princess Kathlin’s skin glowed. Her arm rested on her brother’s embellished sleeves, but it was bare all the way to the strap that draped across her shoulder, then swooped into a low neckline before rising to the other shoulder. He’d never seen that much skin on a girl in his life and even Kael blinked in surprise. The rest of her body was hidden between a tight waist, as though most of the material had been saved for the skirt which consisted of layers and layers of material the rippled with every step.
Darshon leaned toward Kael, muttering, “I’ll dance with her.”
“I’ll let you,” Kael whispered back because he wasn’t looking at the sculpted shoulders. He was keeping his eyes trained respectfully on her face — and her face was no beauty. Perhaps it would be if she smiled, but she eyed Kael with as much enthusiasm as Darshon felt about dancing with Milan.
The Kathonian princess, who would possibly wed his brother someday, swept into a low curtsy, exposing even more of herself, though her downcast eyes and drooping mouth caused the act to look more like a mockery than politeness.
Darshon bristled, but Kael offered his hand anyway, “Good evening, Princess.”
“I’m sure it will be a very good evening,” Kathlin replied in well-rehearsed Erish.
Beside her, Prince Gilgerar sucked in a deep breath, already glancing toward the doors of the balcony to the great hall. “I was told it is customary for your family to enter unannounced,” he said. “Is that what is expected?”
“Only during informal gatheringss,” Kael answered. “Tonight we will be announced by rank according to your customs.”
“According to our customs?” Princess Kathlin asked, raising an eyebrow toward her brother. “How accommodating. It’s a pity you’ve never traveled to our home to see the customs for yourself.”
The underhanded implications irked and Darshon’s eyebrows tipped as he spoke what she was too underhanded to say. “Why?” He asked. “So we’ll realize how very far we are from meeting your expectations?”
Kael’s face flushed as he glared at Darshon, but the princess took up the invitation. “I don’t think a visit is necessary for that. But don’t trouble yourself. We don’t expect it to begin with.”
“We understand of course that there are cultural differences which will be accommodated and honored,” Prince Gilgerar said with his own glare for his sister and a glance toward Kael exchanging two resigned expressions of two leaders who needed to remain friends, no matter what they thought of each other.
Kael swallowed but the far door opened, and Remarr stepped through with a bow a little lower than usual. “My Prince, they are announcing you and Prince Gilgerar.”
“Thank you, Remarr,” Kael said.
As the two princes left together, Tehveor turned his face from Kathlin’s open stare. She must have felt his glance because she lifted his chin toward him.
His rank was above hers, but they were both the younger children, so when their names were called, he offered his arm to the bared one. They glared at each other before moving into the great hall where he watched her expression morph in one of the long mirrors that lined the walls. He didn’t smile as she did, but he worked to pull the scowl into a more neutral expression.
There was no reason for her to scorn the public rooms. Their bed chambers were more practical and less ornate, but the great hall made free use of the glass-makers, even scattering crystal droplets suspended on cords that caught the light and cast rainbows through the room. Glass was coveted in Kathonia and one of the few secrets Erilerre had managed to keep. Between the mirrors, the walls were covered with gold that caught the light of hundreds of candles glittering from their brass holders.
Every eye stayed on the princess who glided beside him, unflinching beneath the ripple of shock her dress created. If she’d meant to attract Kael’s attention, it had backfired, but King Galephy’s eye slid all over her in a way that turned Darshon’s stomach.
The two kings stood next to each other, creating a contrast even with Galephy’s most ornate clothing. A thick red, black, and golden cloak hung from his shoulders, fastened with a brass brooch. The heavy embroidery on both cloak and vest didn’t hide the coarseness of the material, though the legendary crown of the Castallion dynasty rested upon his head as it had the very first king of Erilerre who lived so long ago that no one recalled his name. He stood with feet apart, eyes searching, mouth stern; even in the robes of a king, he remained a warrior in jewels.
King Farious stood at his right, several inches shorter, with fairer skin and a carefully tailored beard and hair. His hands were softer, face relaxed, and his clothing rippled with a golden sheen indicating they were entirely unsuitable for labor or war of any kind. But the Kathonians didn’t need to battle. Their country sat like a gem on a crown, nestled at the top corner of Erilerre, shielded by the sea on one side and Galephy’s troops stationed through his land on the other. Between the two countries, Farious was the coffer and Galephy the sword. Which meant that Gilgerar was the oil that greased the trade industry, and Kael was the shield that would hold the thieves at bay. Princess Kathalin wouldn’t be sitting on even one layer of her finery if it wasn’t for Kael’s barbaric little country, consisting of wilderness four times the size of her cities.
Darshon seated the princess and her skirts next to her brother before taking his place between Kael and Tehveor. King Galephy set his hands on the table, indicating for all to sit, but in case anyone missed it, one of the Kathonian servants put a pipe to his lips and blew a long note that rattle Darshon’s ears. Servants stepped together to pull out each chair for the guests, followed quickly by another who set a bowl of soup at each place with an impressive efficiency considering this level of pomp was reserved for Kathonian royalty and only the two largest gatherings of the Erish year.
But what their table must look like. All insults must stop now, but the glimpse of the royal family lined across from him, made him duck his head against a laugh. The Kathonian family created such a contrast, all fair-haired and blue-eyed, dressed in yellows and reds. Queen Rianne’s sleeves were also cut off, though her neckline displayed a more modest swoop that showed off an entire array of jewels that were mined from Kathonian lands. She leaned forward, exchanging pleasant remarks with Queen Margaret and occasionally touching her husband’s arm, fighting a losing battle for his attention.
While Kael asked Gilgerar about social events in his country and Tehveor worked to eat while keeping his palms turned downward, Darshon dropped his eyes to the food, relieved to have something to focus on. Every bowl was unique with a series of lines that formed knots and birds, animals that symbolized a good wish for whoever received the nourishment. He laughed at his, wondering if a servant had taken pains to place the carved cat in front of him. He hated cats, but he could use the extra measure of cleverness the image bestowed. He peeked at Kael’s, but it was no surprise to find the Phoenix which perhaps brought the most luck of all.
Floating on the top of the soup was a sprig of mint, likely a tribute to the Kathonian Queen’s favorite flavoring. Eggs had been whisked in as well, creating tiny white strands. The soup warmed the room, the wine loosened tongues, and the room hummed with laughter and chatter that was impossible to separate into sentences. The bread was twisted to resemble small animals and birds and arrived with all manner of sauces to be dipped in. Some sauces were sweet, others tasted nutty there was an entire block of butter that was molded to look like a castle. The bread was as diverse as the sauces, some light and flaky, others dense and rich but the roll within closest reach was knotted in a decidedly feline shape. Darshon cast a suspicious glance at the servant filling his glass, watching the man’s lip twitch.
By the time the course was over and the music started for the first dance, even Princess Kathalin had lost the cool demeanor and seemed interested in the main courses of the meals the servants were preparing to bring in. Darshon emptied his own wine glass as a servant whisked away his plate and the emptied platters. He flipped the glass upside down, squinting at the girl across the room.
“What are you doing?” Kael asked.
“Comparing,” he answered.
Kael squinted at him, then glanced across the room toward the mingling crowd. “Comparing what?” he asked.
“Milan’s dress,” Darshon replied with a spreading grin. “I think they’re nearly the same shape.”
“Ayth, Darshon!” Kael reached over, forcing Darshon’s hand and cup onto the tablecloth, but the prince of Kathonia snorted as the musicians began to play, covering the clatter.
Darshon glared at his brother before he caught a glimpse of Galephy sending his own glare, so he stood as soon as the two princes responded to the call to dance.
Kael dutifully asked Kathlin to accompany him, and she accepted with a charming smile that covered her disdain for the Erish prince and everything his country offered.
Prince Gilgerar leaned toward Darshon whispering, “You’re right, though. They do look the same. All the Kathonia women are wearing them, and they’re a monstrosity to contend with. One dance will beat up your shins.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Darshon said. “Perhaps you’d like to dance with your sister’s admirer.” He jutted his chin toward Lady Milan, who was really too pretty a girl to ruin it with a ridiculous skirt. “Since you have more experience.”
The prince laughed. “Nobel attempt.” His eyes swung to Silvah, who leaned in toward Tehveor. “But I’d enjoy dancing with that girl. Would you introduce me?”
Darshon glanced toward Silvah with a bit of surprise, though he wasn’t sure why. Gilgerar had no way of knowing her noble blood was among the poorer districts. Tehveor would be disappointed. But he glimpsed Ceslaya’s cheeks flush at being overlooked by the prince who was no longer bound to acknowledge her own, unidentified birthright.
“She’s not too plainly dressed for you?” he asked.
“Not at all,” Gilgerar answered. “I find the change refreshing.”
“Of course,” Darshon said, pushing back his own chair.
Silvah and Tehveor both looked up with surprise before they rose to meet the pair.
“Tehveor, of course,” Darshon said, “And Lady Silvah.”
Silvah swept into a graceful curtsy, startled to find all eyes still on her when she rose. She cast a curious glance toward Tehveor, then Gilgerar when the prince offered his hand.
“Would you do me the honor, Lady Silvah?” Gilgerar spoke in Erish, but the girl’s eyes widened a bit before she took his hand.
“Of course,” Silvah said, and Gilgerar whisked her away.
Darshon slid into the empty spot next to Tehveor.
“Well,” he said. “I suppose you won’t be dancing with her after all. And no. That wasn’t my idea.”
Tehveor’s fingers curled around his palms before he recovered, eyeing the crowd for someone else. “Well, I needed to talk to someone else. I suppose now is a good time.”
He moved away toward a girl with dark curls that Darshon didn’t recognize, and Ceslaya rose slowly. They eyed each other before Darshon held out both hands.
“I suppose that leaves us.”
It was meant to spare her more humiliation, but she smiled softly, reaching to touch his chest before she shook her head. “Thank you anyway,” she said.
Then she melted into the crowd, leaving him standing alone. He sighed as a servant stepped around him, then reached to finish off Tehveor’s goblet before he searched the crowd for his assigned partner.
Milan would be easy to find even without the dress. Her face was small and round and her nose was flattened, giving a mouse feeling to her features. She was pretty enough in her own way, but if she was the only one he took on the dance floor all night, come next dance all of the girls would be wearing the goblet skirts.
The idea made him laugh, and he was still smiling when he approached the small group of girls who quieted and curtsied.
“Good evening,” he said, receiving a chorus of “Good evening, My Prince.”
Milan spoke the softest of all. Her dress offset the flaming in her cheeks that only deepened when he offered a hand. “Would you dance with me?”
She flinched beneath the faces that turned toward her and the other girls’ smiles wavered like they were unsure whether to be relieved or jealous they were not singled out by the younger prince.
“I’d be honored,” she lied and slipped her hand into his.
What did girls do to their hands to make them so soft? He caught his frown before it showed. Tehveor was right. She would have noticed his blistering palms. Darshon felt his own skin scrap as they turned toward the dance floor, but if Milan noticed, she covered well.
Dancing was easy compared to swordplay. The movements were set and agreed upon without any sudden deviations or surprises by your partner. The music kept a steady beat, slow enough to avoid taxing his heart, and lending its own encouragement to keep pace. He might enjoy dancing if he were free to choose his partner.
“I’m sorry about your father,” he said. He’d meant to follow it up with the reassurance that the loss would not turn her family from their home, but Milan flinched so hard he shut his mouth.
“Thank you,” she said, but the tone wasn’t grateful at all.
His mind spun faster than they did as he searched for a topic a girl would like, then grunted with the hoop swung forward, knocking into his shin and throwing him off balance. Her body pressed harder into his right hand, and he struggled to hold her until she regained her own balance.
“Sorry,” he whispered, the added, “That’s quite a dress you’ve got.”
Her mouth dropped a bit, as her chest rose and fell in short breaths. “Don’t you like it?”
“No, it’s ridiculous,” he said, then winced when the girl flinched. She opened her mouth, but the hoop swung away, then back like a pendulum, knocking his shin again and he muttered, “But I’m very curious about what’s under there.”
Milan halted in the middle of the dance floor, and the white around her blue eyes made her face look even smaller.
“You wish to know what’s under my dress?” she sputtered.
“Yes,” Darshon said, then jolted, “Wait! No! No, I mean the–.”
But the girl hadn’t waited to hear what he’d meant. She was already darting through the dancers, leaving him stationary beneath the scrutiny of curious stares. His parents sat together at the table, keeping the interest of the visiting King and Queen, but Margaret’s eyes darted toward him. He didn’t want to know where Remarr was and when Kael spun nearby, he turned toward the outer doors.
The couples broke apart as the song ended, giving him a chance to blend until he’d cleared the door. He wouldn’t have stopped no matter who called his name, except it was Kael and his brother was going to be angry enough without him refusing to respond to rank.
He turned as Kael caught up, sputtering, “What did you say to her?”
Darshon spread his hands. “She asked if I liked the dress.”
“Darshon!” Kael lifted his face toward the ceiling.
“Well, she shouldn’t have asked me if she didn’t want to know,” Darshon answered. “It’s a favor, really. She looks idiotic, and no one else will ask her to dance if they have to contend with that weapon she calls a skirt.”
“There are other things you could have said to distract her,” Kael said. “Lovely music. Would you like a drink? You have such beautiful eyes. Look, there’s Master Derron coming through the door!”
“I wouldn’t have talked to her at all if you hadn’t commanded it!” Darshon spat. “The third cruit is slightly out of key. She doesn’t have beautiful eyes – they look like muddy pond water – and I don’t care if Master Derron is standing on his head! None of that changes the fact that she looks ridiculous, and I look drunk tripping over her. Even you know the dress is hideous.”
“That’s not the point,” Kael said.
Darshon bowed deeply, swinging one arm out to the side. “I’m sorry I don’t have your gift of flattery.”
Kael sputtered. His eyes slit. “I cannot accompany Milan while escorting Princess Kathlin. I would trade with you, but you’re already at each other’s throats. I don’t care how many lies you have to tell, I want you apologize and try to see that she has a nice time for the rest of the evening.”
“You’re encouraging lying?” Darshon asked.
Kael caught his arm. “I must return,” the prince said, “I cannot argue with you. Set it straight. That is an order.”
Darshon glared at Kael’s back before muttering, “Your last order didn’t go very well.”
But he did need to talk to the girl if nothing else to clear his own name. She wasn’t hard to find. He heard her heavy breaths before he rounded the staircase to find the girl standing near a window, though there were plenty of benches lining the hall.
He saw her and stopped, swallowing before he said, “I meant the hoop. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Or – scared.”
He couldn’t tell what she felt because she wouldn’t look at him, but she wiped her cheek and growled, “I wasn’t crying.”
This was a terrible idea. Darshon eyed the bench, then sat so she could sit if she wanted – if she could manage.
“The dress is hideous, but you’re not,” he said.
The girl lifted her face slowly, but nothing about her expression indicated anything close to reconciliation.
Darshon sighed. “Look, I’m not very good with words, and I’m not good with people. I’m untactfully truthful and blunt and no matter what I say, it will sound wrong, so the only solution I can come up with is to let you be blunt as well.”
“You want me to be blunt!” Her eyes slit before she threw her dainty hands to both sides. “All right then, I will. Just because you’re a prince, doesn’t give you the right to be mean and arrogant and humiliating! You were the one who asked me to dance and then stumbled and talked like a drunk!”
After the torrent was gone, Darshon smiled and held out both hands. “There. Don’t you feel better?”
The girl sniffed, thumbing a lock of hair back behind her ear, peeking at him.“Actually, yes. I think I do.” She peeked at him, adding, “Though I would feel even better if you looked at least a little hurt.”
Darshon shrugged. “Well, I am mean, and I am arrogant, and I was a horrible dancer, but that is because your hoop kept hitting my legs.”
Milan’s mouth opened and shut. “You’re very blunt.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “And I give you permission to be blunt, too, anytime you wish.”
She huffed a skeptical laugh. “That’s a bold offer, My Prince, to allow me to tell you anything I think.”
“I’d rather know than guess.” Darshon held out a hand, wondering she would say next. “Now, shall we try dancing again? You can blame the clumsiness on me.”
Milan let out a slow breath, then said, “It’s whalebone. I’m only wearing it because it was a gift. I’ve been bumping into things all night.”
“Well, don’t wear it if you don’t want to,” Darshon said.
“I must!” Milan said. “Mother insisted.”
“Did she insist you wear it all night long or simply make an appearance?” Darshon asked.
Milan blinked. “Well, I can’t change now. Not in the middle.”
“Sure you can,” Darshon said. “If you hurry, you won’t even miss the main course.”
The girl hesitated, swinging her eyes toward the great hall before she swallowed. “Would you wait? I couldn’t bear going back in alone.”
“All night, if I have to,” Darshon answered. “Though try to hurry. I’m hungry.”
She huffed a laugh, then put the slender fingers to her temple. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’ll be back.”
She turned quickly, but Darshon still thought he glimpsed a smile.