“Tonight is going to be such a lavish affair!”
Sofia flounced around the room as she finished fitting me into a swirl of cream-colored skirts, oblivious to the frown that was written all over my face. “Just wait until the prince sees you in this gown—he won’t be able to take his eyes off you!”
I squirmed uncomfortably. “I think you overestimate the ball’s appeal. The entire production is to impress the Pythians—Blayne and Darren have orders to engage the duke the whole evening.” I made a face. “Mine are to embarrass the Crown as little as possible.”
“You won’t embarrass anyone in this, my lady.” She adjusted the top. “Even if you make a mistake you will be far too enchanting for them to take notice.”
“Where have you been all my life?” I gave Sofia a mock curtsy with grand flourish. “You do wonders for my self-esteem.”
The other lady-in-waiting, Gemma, scolded me for moving. The two proceeded to pile my locks into a tumbling array of curls, a couple loose strands to soften the hard lines of my face. Then they hung a small gold chain around the base of my hairline, a small sapphire hanging from its clasp.
I could admit I did feel a bit like Sofia described by the time we were finished. I had never seen Priscilla in anything half so nice as what I was wearing now. I knew the king had only issued such an extravagant order because of the Pythians’ arrival, but there was no harm in reaping the benefits.
When I arrived at the hall outside the grand ballroom, I had another small victory when I caught sight of the non-heir.
He was staring. A lot. Lips slightly parted, I don’t even think he realized that he was doing it.
Maybe Celine was right. I should wear dresses more often.
Darren muttered something as I took his arm—just loud enough for me to hear—and I was blushing uncontrollably. I looked away immediately, but out of the corner of my eye I could see his gaze hadn’t left my face.
We waited for the herald to announce us to the awaiting audience.
When we were finally called, Darren led me across to King Lucius and the crown prince at the edge of the room.
We sat in silence and watched the courtiers mingle for the next hour. Finally, when I was fighting hard not to fall asleep at the chair, the herald returned to announce our guests of honor had arrived.
“Duke Cassius, brother and ambassador of King Joren of Pythus, and his attendants.”
I watched as a towering man sauntered out into the hall, thick, corn-yellow braids swinging with each mighty stride of his legs. He bore a heavy cloak trimmed in fur, and heavy boots that seemed to crush the rug as they moved. Every step he took seemed slow and deliberate—a fact made even more evident by the quick patter of his guards.
When he finally reached the throne, Duke Cassius bowed the bare minimum afforded the Crown, for the bare minimum of time. Then he returned to a stand, the hint of a sneer playing along his lips.
“My dear, King Lucius. It’s been years. You’ve grown a beard.”
“And Duke Cassius. Always the charmer.”
“Am I?” The man smirked. “I do not remember paying you a compliment.”
Standing uncomfortably, I watched the royals proceed. For a moment there were false pleasantries, and then I heard Darren laugh—a little too loudly—at something the ambassador had said. As soon as the duke turned his back I watched the non-heir wipe his sweaty hand on his sleeve.
Blayne cleared his throat expectantly and addressed the duke with more force. “Care to take a tour of the grounds, Your Grace? I assure you it will be much more alluring than talk of old men’s beards.” He was using his courtier’s charm, the one that might have fooled me years ago before I discovered his true nature. It was full of airy brevity and wit. Persuasive. I could immediately see why Ella had found him captivating before the incident that had forced her to leave court.
“I have only just arrived. Any gracious host would have already found me something to drink.”
My head swerved in the duke’s direction. It was impossible to miss the absence of Blayne’s title, or the command in his voice.
Already I could see why the Crown had spent so much time preparing for the ambassador’s arrival. In the two minutes that had passed since his introduction, one thing was already evident: the Pythian duke was not going to see his niece wed to Jerar’s crown prince willingly. And whatever the duke believed, his brother—the king—was sure to follow.
How were we ever going to convince the Pythians to accept Jerar’s proposal?
Blayne nodded pleasantly in return, and I wondered if he had heard the duke’s underlying scorn. “Certainly, Your Grace.”
Still, his expression didn’t falter.
The duke adjusted his belt and watched the crown prince through narrowed eyes.
“Rupert!” Blayne snapped. So he did hear it, after all.
A nearby guard dropped his post at the young man’s command. “Yes, Your—”
“Get the Pythians a drink. They are thirsty.”
“Sir, I’m not supposed to leave my post,” the man stammered.
“Then. Find. Someone. To. Do. It. For. You.” Blayne flashed an apologetic smile at the duke. “I apologize for not anticipating your needs earlier, Your Grace.”
“Do you?” He studied the prince with a furrowed brow. “I’ve heard you only anticipate your own. Why else would the Borean princess flee an arranged marriage?”
Ella would like this man. I bit my lip to keep from snickering. It was wrong to be feeling amiable in such hostile conversation, especially when the stakes were so high.
“You must have heard wrong.” Blayne’s smile never fell. “Princess Shinako didn’t flee. In truth, she was so close to my dear, sweet brother that upon hearing his love for a lowborn the two of us agreed to call off the wedding and cede her dowry to the Lady Ryiah you see here before you now.”
Duke Cassius took notice of me for the first time. His scrutiny made me want to squirm; I could feel his gaze taking in every inch of my uncomfortable appearance, from my burning face to the nervous wringing of my hands. “You are lowborn?”
I opened my mouth, wetting my lips to reply.
“My court heard the rumors, but I never imagined that bit to be true.”
How could I explain? Blayne’s explanation now was the Crown’s interpretation of Ascension Day, and I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. I could see King Lucius watching from the corner of my eye.
Darren placed the palm of his hand on my back. “Lady Ryiah hasn’t been lowborn since her apprenticeship. She earned a place in court of her own accord, as a mage.”
“A mage to marry into the Crown?” His tone held blatant disbelief. “Doesn’t your Council of Magic forbid it?”
I glanced to Darren but he just shook his head, eyes fixed on his father. Blayne and the rest of the duke’s retinue had gone silent.
King Lucius corrected the duke with a curt address. “You forget yourself, Cassius, the Crown already has a mage in its ranks.”
“Prince Darren?” The man scoffed. “I’ve heard the tales your traders spin in Pythus. Forgive me if I am a bit skeptical of a prince as prestigious as they claim.”
The king’s reply was instantaneous. “Darren will be a part of the Candidacy. I trust your brother will be sending his emissaries the same as the last?”
“He will. And I will be a part, regardless of however this plays out.”
King Lucius’s hand tightened on his throne. I could see him struggling to maintain composure.
Blayne took over for his father, trying to flatter the duke instead. “I recall you won quite a bit on a wager for Marius during your youth.”
“Yes.” Cassius didn’t bother to hide his contempt. “What can I say? A Pythian never loses.” His eyes stayed glued to the king’s. “We take our bets very seriously.”
“As do I.” Lucius’s words were ice. “And there is no surer bet than my son.”
It didn’t take much to recognize they were no longer talking about Darren or the Candidacy. The air was drowning in tension and neither the king nor the duke looked away. I wondered who would win: the brother of one of the most scrupulous kings in history, or our own?
The refreshments arrived just in time. Two sets of servants jostled around our circle, thrusting drinks into hands before the two leaders could pull out the swords and duel on the spot. Blayne took over the conversation, and slowly the tension began to ease into more pleasurable territory.
Sensing an opportunity to escape, Darren took my hand just as his father called his name.
The prince groaned. “I’m sorry, Ryiah.”
Don’t leave me!
My teeth grated. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.” As long as the courtiers don’t try to engage me in conversation about their estates. I forced an encouraging smile on my lips as we parted ways.
The few times I had been forced to partake with the court I’d been engaged in an endless barrage of conversation. It wasn’t because I was charming, or debonair, or full of charming remarks.
It was because they all deemed me a gullible pawn in their play for power. One that I wanted nothing to do with. Every smile and eloquent aside held a secret, and I wasn’t fool enough to pretend I could see through to the true intentions behind. Darren had warned me many would seek out friendships to secure royal favors, and I had yet to discern the ones I could trust.
I had never made a promise to engage in frivolities—if the ambassador was occupied then I had fulfilled my duties, and after the many cautions not to “humiliate” the Crown I told myself the best tactic really was evasion. I could not embarrass myself if I had no one watching to witness my courtly blunders.
Several minutes later I had made it to the palace kitchens, dress and all, and I was cackling away, sitting on the stool next to Benny as he finished the final touches to that evening’s dessert, berating his least favorite members of court. The air smelled of candied ginger and mace. Mixed with the steady heat coming from the ovens I could almost pretend it was summer, and I was out in the field practicing my lunges with Ella instead of a cold, marble palace.
Benny finished icing his newest creation and looked up from his task. “How are the negotiations faring?”
“I wouldn’t know.” I snatched a tart that had not quite finished cooling and yelped, dropping it back to the rack. Too early. “The Pythians don’t seem to like us much.”
“The servants they brought claim their princess has already received an offer of marriage from Prince Klaus.”
The Caltothians? “King Horrace’s only son?”
“Precisely.” The cook crooked a finger at me. “Two different heirs offering the shrewd Pythians their hand. Make no mistake, the prince that the ambassador chooses will decide the war.”
My hunger vanished and the contents of my stomach plummeted. There it was. A reminder how important these negotiations really were.
I excused myself. What was I doing? I couldn’t keep avoiding the festivities, not with so much at stake.
I had barely made it back to the ball when Blayne grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me out to the balcony. Darren was nowhere to be found.
It was hard to see with the absence of the sun, and the air frigid with winter chill. “Where were you?” he hissed. White clouds of air escaped his breath. “My father noticed your absence.”
The lie slid from my tongue like butter. “I got lost. The palace is so large, and there are so many halls.”
“You were shirking your duty.” His nails dug into my skin, and they hurt. “You accepted your responsibilities the moment you and my brother decided to play me for a fool.”
“I’m sorry.” I wasn’t, but I wanted Blayne gone as quickly as possible. My pulse was thundering in my ears. I was fighting every instinct not to yank my arm right out of his grasp. Or worse. The prince’s expression was reminding me all too well of that moment in the hall my first year of the apprenticeship, the last time I had been at the receiving end of his threats.
What do I do if he strikes me? Defend myself and risk the king’s wrath? Or take the hit against every instinct I have? I’d never felt more helpless—a black mage of Combat—and yet I was no more than a helpless little girl in the presence of the Crown.
My free hand formed a fist.
Blayne’s gaze missed nothing. He took a step back, releasing my arm with a sneer. “I’m not going to hurt you, Ryiah.” His tone was chaffing. “We are friends, or have you already forgotten?”
I said nothing. It was the safest reply I had.
“You have five minutes to gather your wits, and then I expect you to converse with the rest of them.” His voice rang out as he left the terrace. “Do not give the Pythians a reason to question the hospitality of Jerar. A reclusive princess does nothing for our court.”
I waited until the crown prince had faded completely from view, vanishing in the crowded floor of jewel-toned dress, and then walked to the edge of the balcony’s rail and let out a shaky breath, clutching the cool surface against the frantic beating of my chest.
“That one truly is as pleasant as he first appeared.”
I choked, spinning around in alarm. Standing in a darkened corner was the Pythian ambassador. “Duke Cassius!”
“I would have made myself known sooner,” he noted, “but I never had the chance.”
He had witnessed that entire conversation between Blayne and me. Panic clawed at my throat and I tried to remember what we had said. Luckily nothing to indict Jerar—but it hadn’t been in our favor, either.
“If you don’t mind, I would like to stay.” The man didn’t bother to wait for an answer. “The entire court has been a bustle of fools…I would like to converse with the one person who seems so eager to avoid it.”
Earlier I had seen the spark of interest when he heard I was lowborn. Now he was studying me with that same glint in his eye, and it did nothing to assuage my nerves.
I knew I needed to stay. I didn’t want to, but this was the moment the king’s scholars had been preparing me for, the reason the king had summoned my presence in court for the Pythians’ arrival in the first place. Friendly discourse that would earn their favor. An example of posterity with a prince of Jerar. Especially the latter.
“Nothing would delight me more,” I squeaked. Was that really my voice? I swallowed the lump in my throat and spoke in what I hoped was a much more relaxed tenor. “I would be happy to converse. How fare the Pythian—”
He cut me off. “You fear the prince they intend for my niece.”
I should have left.
“You are unhappy and uncomfortable amidst the grandeur of your king’s palace,” the duke continued. “True, a bit of that could be because of your lowborn upbringing, but there is more to it than that. You do not like a life at court. So why are you here?”
I didn’t bat an eye. “Darren.”
“He is quite handsome.” His russet eyes were glued to mine. “You’ve found yourself a happily ever after in a time when there is none.”
“Y-your niece could be very happy with Blayne,” I stammered.
“Now you can’t possibly believe that to be true. Not when you were cowering in his presence just moments before.”
The man laughed throatily. “Your Blayne is pretty, but cruel. The Caltothian prince is but a boy and spends his time picking his nose.” His lips curled up in disgust. “I seek your audience because you didn’t grow up in court, my dear. You haven’t learned how to lie. I can read every emotion on your face; I could tell how upset you were by the prince moments before, and I can see how nervous you are now. And that makes yours the most valuable opinion in this room.”
He took a step closer, the heels of his boots a rattle. “Now tell me why I should pick King Lucius’s son for my niece.”
I never should have gone off on my own. The king gave me very specific orders not to embarrass the Crown; his threats had stressed the stakes of earning the Pythians’ favor. And now here the duke was, asking the one person whose face was, apparently, an open book. Because I was lowborn.
I struggled for a reply that would appear honest without putting Blayne in a negative light.
“The thing is … I don’t really know him.”
His lips twitched at the lie.
“Well enough,” I blurted. “I don’t know him well enough. I-I didn’t like Darren either, when we first met. I hated him.” Nice, Ryiah, make him hate the whole family. “B-but that was before I got to know Darren.” No point in lying since he could read the truth. “I am still getting to know Blayne…”
I started to get nervous:
“I-I can’t promise she would be h-happy… But if you choose Jerar you could save hundreds—thousands.” I swallowed. “If you choose Jerar there will never be a war. Caltoth would never dare to attack us with your brother’s support—”
“You disappoint me, Ryiah. Desperation and fear will never win you an ally.” The duke gave me a pitying smile. “Thanks for your time.”
Then he adjusted his cloak and left me standing there, clinging to the rail.
We were going to lose the war, I realized. The Pythians had already picked a side.
It wasn’t ours.