Spinning through the shed leaves and petals like a living dervish, she laughed quietly and closed her eyes. It felt so good to be outside, to be surrounded by trees and flowers and clear air. Too many years she’d been confined to enclosed halls and windowed chambers. Too long since she’d stared at the moon and picked out the stars. In truth, she ought to be in bed, for the morrow would come soon enough, but just this once, she had to take the chance.
Putting tomorrow firmly from her mind, she let her feet find the pattern in the music that wafted over the hedges. So far from the festivities, the sound was faint. It was just loud enough to serve her purposes, however, and she laughed again, louder this time. Finally, she recognized the tune; far more staid than she had ever heard it before, but she knew it and the words. Breathlessly, she sang as she danced, whirling down the path lit only by the moon and the stars.
Dimly, she became aware of another person on the garden path ahead of her. Such was her mood that she took no thought for consequences. As if anyone would recognize her in her mosaic-finery, crafted from the broken pieces of discarded fashion, which her hair uncoifed and flowing free in the night air. Tonight was for freedom, for laying aside responsibilities that would still be waiting in dawn’s light.
Letting the smile on her heart flow to her lips, she danced up to the woman on the path. Grabbing the lady by the manicured and lotion-softened hands, she spun them both into her dance. The older woman made a small exclamation of surprise, then decided to dance along. The younger woman was glad; tonight was a festival of sorts, was it not? Everyone should let loose the stays of propriety, just a little bit, just for a few hours.
The music was louder here, was they danced down the graveled path, disturbing only the bordering flowers with their skirts and the sleeping birds with their laughter. The song ended by flowing into another, one they both knew. With shared giggles and a matching twinkle in their eyes, they sang the lyrics seldom repeated in fine company as they spun down another branch of the path.
This time, the song ended in silence. Their dance ended with the younger woman dipping in the older’s arms, her long hair dripping over a small pond lit by the evening sky. After a moment, they giggled again and straightened.
“Oh, child! That was such fun!” the lady laughed as she struggled for breath. “I can’t thank you enough for coming along when you did. I was in such a mood, darker than a new moon, and you provided just the thing!”
“Oh, my pleasure, milady! My pleasure, indeed! I am so pleased that you indulged my moment of silliness!” On whim, she leaned over and placed a chaste kiss on the other’s smooth cheek.
“Well, child, we all need some silliness in our lives. Things become far too serious for us to forget how to be silly!”
The young woman, looking nearly half her age and acting two thirds of it, laughed again and spun in a circle. “Agreed! And tonight is the perfect night for it, don’t you agree? A ball, held in the most beautiful gardens in the kingdom, filled with beauty and splendor and all of God’s creation—it’s the perfect setting, don’t you agree?”
“Absolutely. Come now, show those steps you were doing. My old feet couldn’t quite keep up with you.”
Their laughter echoed across the quiet, warming it far better than the breeze did.
“Mother? Are you there, Mother?” A young man strode up the path, following the sounds.
“Over here, dear!” the familiar voice sang out to him from around the path’s curve. More giggles followed, along with hushed conversation. He turned the corner and nearly bowled into his mother and a young woman he’d never seen before. For a moment, he wondered how much and of what they had been drinking.
“Yes, darling; what did you need?” his mother asked, her face flushed and her eyes filled with mirth. He glanced at her, then at the young woman, then back.
“I’d wondered where you’d gone; I was worried when you didn’t come back—“
“Tush,” she interrupted him, lacing her arm through the stranger’s. “I told you I wanted some time to think.”
“This is what you call thinking?” he replied quietly, raising an eyebrow.
His mother gave an uncharacteristic snort and clutched the woman’s arm. She also giggled, putting her head next to his mother’s as though they shared some great secret. “No, my son; this is what I call clearing my head! We’ve been having a marvelous time, and I’ve been learning some new dances!”
“New dances? With all we have to do tonight, you’ve been out here dancing in the dark?” He couldn’t keep the exasperation out of his voice. He turned on his heel to go, to leave her to her folly, when the stranger spoke up.
“But is it folly, dear sir? Is it folly to enjoy a fine, clear night? Is it folly to remember how to smile, how to laugh and dance? Perhaps you do have many tasks, but that’s never a reason to forget to dance!”
He looked back at her, really seeing her for the first time. The darkness hid as much as the moonlight revealed, but she was long and lithe, with dark hair flowing unhindered around her shoulders to her waist. Her gown was unusual, nothing like what a proper lady should wear. His mother’s gown belled out at the waist and tightly clasped her arms, with yards of lace and edging at the modest neckline.
The girl, as he thought of her now, wore a long, flowing gown more akin to a shift than a dress. It looked to be made of many layers of thin fabric that draped her frame and caught in the breeze. Little decoration accented it, yet the seams, running crazily across the whole, did what rickrack could not. The sleeves were likewise loose and flowing, reaching to her wrists but without defining the arms within. Her hands, he suddenly noticed, had the oddest coverings he’d ever seen: a kind of half-glove that left the last two fingers and outside of each hand bare.
“Dancing is a luxury I have no time for,” he finally told her.
Ignoring his warning, she laughed. “Then you are a poor man, indeed, if you cannot afford to dance! Come now, give a smile; laugh! Remember when your heart was unburdened, and let it be again, if only for one night!” She spun in a circle.
He glanced at his mother with some concern. Was the girl right in her mind? His mother, however, joined in the laughter. “I agree wholeheartedly, darling. You’re too serious; I’ve told you that often enough. There’s a time for straight faces and a time for silliness. And as this dear child has reminded me, tonight is the perfect kind of night for silliness!”
The two women grabbed one another’s hands and, before he could protest, began dancing their way back up the garden path. His half-voiced complaints went unheard and unheeded. After a moment, he fixed a frown on his face and marched over to them.
“That is quite enough, Mother!” he said, forcing them apart. “There are far too many things that require your attention right now, and dancing is not one of them!”
Before his mother could make the indignant reply that rose to her lips, the girl broke in with a quiet voice.
“What hurts do you bear, dear sir, that the thought of enjoying even one night causes you such pain?”
She had turned so that the moonlight fell more directly on her face. Her eyes were filled with concern, which made them wide an luminous. For a moment, he forgot to breathe.
Then he recalled himself. “And who are you, girl, that you address me with such familiarity?” he snapped
“Millam!” his mother scolded.
The girl’s eyes went even wider as her hands flew to her mouth. “Oh!” she cried, staring at him. She turned to his mother. “Oh!” Then back to him. “Oh!”
Fluidly, she dropped into a deep curtsy. “Forgive me, Prince Millam! Queen Valbia!”
“Now see what you’ve done!” Valbia cried angrily, dropping down next to the girl. “That was completely uncalled for, my son! We were doing quite well without silly formalities.”
“Who are you?” Millam demanded, waving for the guards who always hovered just out of sight. “How did you get in?”
“Stop!” Valbia declared firmly, rising to her feet. “This child means us no harm; none at all. It doesn’t matter how she got in or who she is.”
“Mother, don’t be absurd. That we currently have no one publishing threats against us does not mean no one makes them in secret. How do we know—“
“Hold your tongue!” Valbia ordered him with regal air. “You are not king yet, my son, and as your Regent, I still have some authority. I also have experience that you yet lack. I’ve spent nearly an hour with this child, and I can tell that she means us no ill. She’s enjoying the ball, nothing more.”
“Dressed like that?” he drawled, waving at her unfashionable outfit. “She looks like a wind waif, or some kind of spirit.”
“And I daresay she’s far more comfortable than I am,” Valbia retorted with heat. “And you know quite well that wind waifs and spirits aren’t real, so no more such talk from you! Now, this dear child and I will continue to enjoy our evening, with no more back talk from you. Might do you well to enjoy the night, too.”
Valbia had raised the girl from her huddle. The girl’s eyes were still wide but no longer afraid. Millam sighed in defeat.
“Very well, Mother; go and dance like a hoodlum in the dark with an unknown girl. Never mind what anyone else will think when you don’t show up for the rest of the ball. Never mind that I will have to make your excuses and endure it alone.”
Valbia rolled her eyes. The girl looked from him to her and back.
“Do pardon me, Your Highness, but why do you have to go back? Why make excuses? Why subject yourself to something you hate?”
“You could not possibly understand the weight a ruler must bear.” Millam replied with sober dignity.
Valbia snorted loudly. “Balderdash, Millam. She makes a valid point; you don’t have to go back. You should stay and dance with us!”
“Mother, have you gone mad?” Millam yelped. “You know who guests with us tonight—“
“Quite well, and better perhaps than you do, my son. We’ve spent many hours with them already, done our duties by them. Now, they need time to mingle, to sharpen their claws against each other’s backs. Let them be dreadful if they will. There’s no need to subject ourselves to that any longer.”
Valbia’s grin became decidedly mischievous. “With any luck, they’ll do themselves in, and we’ll have fewer to sort through on the morrow!”
Millam groaned and put his head in his hands.
The same whimsy that had led the young woman out on this night came to her again, and she minded its whisper. Stepping forward, she boldly took the prince’s hands and peered earnestly into his face.
“You Highness, you will soon be king. The weights you mention will only grow heavier with time. How will you bear them if you do not learn to rest? The trials will be there when you waken in the morning. Why let them ruin this marvelous night?”
Millam, too shocked at the girl’s temerity to yank his hands away, stuttered back, “You call this night marvelous? This night? Have you any idea, girl, what those people are even here for?”
She laughed gently, without malice. “Yes, Your Highness. As your coronation approaches, so too does your wedding day. All your kingdom waits to learn the name of your bride. Not that many of them would do you any good.”
Her frankness shocked him anew. “How do you mean?” he demanded.
She dropped his hands and spun away. “Oh, Your pardon, Your pardon! I should not be so forward or rude! This is a night for merriment, not for gossip.”
“Gossip can make for much merriment,” Valbia offered gleefully, “and I want to hear what you know about those cats over there!” She jabbed a finger in the direction of the humming voices of the crowd.
“Oh!” the half-gloved hands flew to the rounded mouth again. Millam sighed.
“You might as well tell us; Mother won’t rest until she knows everything you do about the—guests.”
“Oh! Well, no one from the seaside districts would make a good match, for they are all sworn to Lord Fillip, who has never been your friend.”
“We knew that,” Millam replied darkly.
“But did you know that his new wife holds the great merchant houses in her sway?”
Millam and Valbia both straightened. “No,” they replied in chorus.
She nodded and half-turned to wander up the path. “It’s true. Lady Reann is the daughter of Merchant Gonnel and the widow of Lord Robarr. Between those, she commands great respect and power among those who bring goods into the kingdom. She also has five daughters, all of whom are here tonight.” Sh skirted an amused glance back at the queen and prince, who had been following her slow walk.
Valbia laughed with real delight. “Oh, child! Truly you are a fount of information! I am parched, so walk with me and tell me more as I go in search of refreshments!”
Millam followed somewhat helplessly after the pair, listening despite his pretended indifference to the girl’s detailed information about four-fifths of the females who had come to vie over him. Without malice and without hesitation, she laid bare their plots, agreements, fealties, and inadequacies. His spirits sank with every word. This is what he had to look forward to; selecting the least worst of the lot.
Of those who had no major flaws, the girl spoke kindly enough. She gave their individual quirks and peccadilloes, but she also highlighted their pleasantries. None sounded very good to him, but at least there were a few that would not attempt to steal his crown or ruin the kingdom.
They came to a small table nestled in a tiny clearing the bore carafes of wine and plates of dainties. The girl exclaimed when she saw it.
“How delightful! How wonderful! Thank you!” she called into the moonlit dark. Then she turned back to Valbia and Millam. “Your servants are truly marvels, to have this set up and waiting just as we came ‘round the corner. They serve you well!”
“So they do,” Valbia agreed as she poured a cup for herself and the girl. “I don’t tell them nearly often enough. Thank you!” she called into the dark, just as the girl had. Millam rolled his eyes and filled a cup for himself.
The girl drank deeply, with evident pleasure. As she lowered her cup, though, something caught her attention. She froze for a moment, then turned slowly, scenting the wind.
“What is it, child?” Valbia asked,concern creasing her brow.
“The flowers,” she murmured. She turned this way and that, and finally saw them. Abandoning her cup on the small table, she flung herself down next to one of the innumerable flowerbeds.
“Ladybells!” she exclaimed with delight. “Mama loved ladybells! She used to paint pictures of them in the winter time. She said it kept spring from seeming too far away. Our gardener taught me how to make them from paper, so Mama would have them by her bedside even when she was too sick to go out and see them.”
Millam wandered over and glanced down at the shadowed patch. “Why make them of paper? You could have put the real ones in a vase by her side.”
“Oh, Mama didn’t want to cut up the flowers and keep them inside, just for her.” The girl looked up at him, eyes bright with memories and, perhaps, unshed tears. “She wanted the flowers to be where everyone could see them. She thought it was selfish to keep something beautiful hidden away so that no one else could share in its beauty.”
“What does she think now?” Millam thought he knew the answer. He was right.
“Oh,” she said, turning her eyes back to the flowers, “Mama went to Heaven many years ago, when I was still a child. That’s why I’m so glad to see these ladybells; they remind me of her and all the fun we had!”
“Fun,” Millam half-stated, half-asked.
“Oh, yes!” She jumped up and spun around the small clearing, laughing. “We would do all manner of things! Like take blankets out at night and fall asleep under the stars. We would watch the clouds and find shapes in them. Mama loved being outside, surrounded by God’s creation. The hardest part of being sick was being inside all the time. Look! There’s a fountain!”
She skipped away, and Millam curiously followed. The girl stood on the raised rim of the pool that caught the fountain’s spray, peering delightedly into its shallow depths.
Turning back to him, she called out, “Come see! Doesn’t it look like starlight falling to the earth? Come, catch a hand full of it and drink! Isn’t it sweet and clear?”
“It’s only water.”
“In the day, perhaps that is true, Your Highness. But it’s night now, and it’s a night of merriment! So this fountain is not of water, it’s of moonbeams and starlight, sparkling in the darkness, shining and refreshing the weary!”
“If you prefer,” Millam allowed grudgingly. She giggled, unperturbed.
“Listen! Listen! They’re playing another rondo! Come, Your Highness, dance! Music is made for dancing!”
Before Millam could protest, she had his hands and flung him around the fountain. He spared a moment of surprise for the strength in her hands and the ease with which she dragged him through the steps before his feet took over.
They danced around the fountain and down another garden path, he with carefully measured steps, she with gay abandon and much laughter. As his breath came with more difficulty, his feet forgot their right order. Her laughter finally infected him, and he chuckled.
The set ended and they fell to the grass, laughing and gasping for breath. “Oh, that was fun!”
“So,” he wheezed, working to bring himself back to order, “what else did you do for fun with your Mama?”
“We ate cheese!”
“Oh, yes! Mama loved cheese; any kind of cheese! Papa would always bring her some new kind of cheese from every trip he made! Sharp, sweet, crumbly, mild, any and every kind at all. Mama said we needed to dance because we ate so much cheese!” More giggles.
“What kind of cheese do you like?”
“I like best the soft, savory cheeses. They’re best with the dark bread that you can get in the city here, or from the bakers in Wyynstaat. Have you ever had it? Oh, you should! It’s a good kind of bread, the sort you need in the wintertime and that goes best with a thick stew. Fine-flour bread is tasty, but it doesn’t stay with you the way dunkbrote does.”
“And one must always choose the best foods to keep one energized for dancing.”
“And what else?”
She filled his ears with tales of her childhood, of exploring the forests and town, watching the birth of calves and lambs, sneaking out and about. She told him about going to Sanctum every High Day with her Mama and Papa (when he was not away), of helping to feed the poor, of playing in the streets with other children.
The distant players began another set, slower this time, which interrupted her tale. The slower pace still left him breathless, for she insisted on complex footwork that put his courtly steps to shame.
They fell again to the grass with laughter as the last notes faded, then sat in silence for several moments, catching their breath.
“You like to dance,” he said with a boyish grin. “Have you always liked to dance?”
“Always,” she replied with her own girlish grin. “Mama and I danced all the time, and Papa, too, when he was home.”
His brow furrowed for a moment as he thought. Then he made up his mind. Grabbing her hand, he lurched to his feet. “Come on! This way!”
They dashed up the path, stifling giggles. When the path found and incline and followed it, they did, too. After a few moments, he stopped by a tall hedge. Dropping to his knees, he whispered, “Down here! But don’t go too far, or you’ll fall.”
Immediately, she dropped down and crawled into the hedge beside him. Music floated up towards them, a different kind than the courtly tunes of earlier. This had an infectious, driving beat that pounded like a heart. As they crawled to the other side of the hedge, a tiny amphitheater came into view underneath them. The small hill they had climbed formed the farthest wall behind the seating, which ended some ten feet below them.
Their eyes passed over the elegantly dressed audience and riveted on the stage, which was filled with whirling shapes.
“These are the Ambidorni Dancers,” he whispered. “They came up just for this ball; they almost never come this far north.”
“I know!” she whispered back, eyes alight. “I haven’t seen them since I was a tiny girl!”
Renewed drumming prevented more discussion, so they let their eyes enjoy the feast. The lithe dancers sprang across the boards, thin costumes trailing behind like so many wisps of fog. Feet pounded the wood as sticks pounded the drumheads; arms and torsos flicked and waved in mimicry of the flutes and chimes.
He’d seen this particular performance last night, so he spared a few glances at her. She was enraptured, head bobbing subconsciously with the beat. Her delight made his grow, and he watched the performance with renewed eyes.
Eventually, the music ended and the dancers bowed to the polite applause of the nobles in the seats. The pair hiding in the bushes slithered backward and dashed back down the hill.
“That was wonderful!” she cried, hugging her arms before throwing them wide and twirling.
“Yes!” he agreed. ”Say, do you like fruit ices?”
He grabbed one of her hands. “Then come quickly! I think I remember where they’ll be serving them; if we hurry, we can get there before anyone else and have our pick!”
It was no great trick to do just that; most of the servants had pulled away after setting the tables; after a quick spy of the choices, they dashed up, claimed their prizes, and were away again.
When they’d found another nook in the garden to hide in, they flopped down to devour their treats.
“I haven’t had fruit ice in so long!” she said, savoring every mouthful. He looked up from his third dishful.
“Really? I know it’s a bit expensive, but surely you could have it at least once a year.”
“Mmm, not when ice is rationed as it is. But this makes me recall how Papa loved his ices. He’d insist on making them himself whenever he could. Made the cook nearly mad, having him in her kitchen! And he would try the most outlandish flavors. One time, he made it with peppers and spices. It was so awful, the dog wouldn’t eat it! We had to bury it in the garden!”
They laughed long over that image.
“Where should we leave the dishes?” she asked.
“Oh, um … they can find them, I’m sure. The gardeners will bring them in, in any case.”
She frowned slightly and tutted him. “That’s very unkind of us, to take and hide dishes. Let’s go back, then, and give them back.”
“Oh, well, that’s no fun. We stole these fair and square; they’re our treasure now! We should make a treasure trove for the spoils of … of conquest!”
She giggled merrily. “Of course! We’re brigands, after all! Let’s be off to find our secret hideaway!”
Another half hour of dashing and ducking brought them to a deeper section of the garden, so far in that the sounds of the ball did not carry. Another clearing held only a small bench of carved stone.
“Here!” he cried, “under this ancient altar, the only remains of a forgotten empire, we may safely bury our treasure.” They dashed across the grass.
“Wait!” she cried, grabbing his arm to stall his movement. “Look, there! This place is already taken!”
“What?” He looked under the bench but saw nothing in the shadows.
She knelt down gently and stroked the longer grasses aside. “See?”
As he looked closer, he did see: a small nest of five tiny eggs. He glanced at her, awed.
“How did you know it was there?”
“Did you not see the mother fly up as we approached? Look, she’s over there, flapping for our attention to keep her children safe.”
He did see, finally. Blushing in the dark, he admitted, “I didn’t think anything of her flight.”
She reached out and laid her hand gently on his arm. “We should never overlook the small or weak. Now come away; let’s leave her in peace. And don’t you think those bushes would be perfect for hiding ill-got gain?”
“Yes! That’s a marvelous place! You have yours, then? Good, let’s stow it here, make certain the leaves cover it; perfect!”
They laughed together, then fell quiet. He leaned backwards and grabbed her arm, pulling her down beside him. She squealed once in surprise, then settled by his side on the grass, staring the rough the tree branches at the stars.
“I’ve made you a thief, you know,” he mentioned casually. “You’ve stolen the royal silver, after all.”
“A person can only become what he wishes to be,” she replied quietly. “And I’ve stolen before.”
“Really?” He propped himself up on one elbow to grin at her. “What? Tell me!”
“Apples,” she replied, eyes filled with mischief.
“Apples!” he threw himself down in mock despair. “How can you live with yourself, having stolen apples?”
“Well, I was caught. Several times, in fact. And beaten for it twice.”
“Beaten?” He rolled his head sideways to look at her with concern.
“Well, I’d left my dress hidden in the bushes, for I’d been warned to not get another one dirty. I was in just my shift, like any of the wild children. The overseer would lash any that he caught in the orchards, and twice, he caught me.”
“He lashed little girls?”
“Oh, it wasn’t terrible, and he never broke skin, even on the boys. He only gave us a few stripes to make us think before going back.”
“And what could have made you not think after the first time?” he demanded, half upset, half amazed.
“Well, have you ever had a ripe Liala Apple, fresh from the tree?”
“Oh,” he sighed, eyes round, “a Liala Apple. That does explain it!”
“Yes!” She giggled again. “And I would have kept going back, even after the second time, but for Papa finding out. His punishment was far worse.”
“How much worse?”
“Well, he always bought a bushel of Lialas every year. That year, because I’d filched them, I didn’t get any of the bushel he bought.”
“How cruel!” he whispered. “I can see why you never stole another! And, feckless fool I, here I’ve caused you to steal again! Whatever will be your punishment now?”
She sighed and looked up at the stars. “I am far past a child’s punishment now. And Papa is far beyond punishing me.”
He also turned his gaze to the heavens. “I thought as much. So we have something in common, then.”
“Except that your father perished in service to his kingdom; mine had a winter cough that never went away.”
“And your Mama?” he gently prodded. She sighed.
“Many years before that. She was never strong, and my brother’s false birth undid what health she had.”
They lay in silence, staring up at the stars, not thinking about their gently clasped hands.
“I rather hope I’m interrupting.”
Millam bolted upright, the girl a second behind him. “Mother! What are you doing here?”
Valbia smiled gently as she crossed the small clearing. “I am sorry to call you away from the first respite you had in far too long, but, sadly, we none of us can ignore our duties forever. Another hour, and the ball will be over. You need to make your farewells of our guests, my son.”
Millam muttered darkly under his breath as he struggled to his feet. Belatedly, he offered his hand to the young woman. She gracefully accepted and rose her feet.
“You’re right, Mother; I’ve been remiss. It’s also been far too long since … I had a true respite, as you call it.” He offered his companion a crooked grin. She smiled back, then walked to Valbia and took her hand.
“I want to thank you again, Your Majesty, for allowing me my whimsy tonight. I believe that we all needed this time, and I think it has all done us good.”
Millam came up beside them, and she reached out to take his hand as well. “You have both been far kinder than I had any right to expect, and I am honored by your fair regard.”
“You have earned it, my lady,” Millam replied firmly. She ducked her head. Then she raised it, as though hearing something.
“The bells,”she murmured.
“The what?” Millam asked.
“You can hear the Sanctum bells all the way out here?” Valbia asked, incredulous.
She smiled sadly. “I always hear the bells of the Sanctoriam; I could never ignore them. Now, they tell me that it is midnight, and a new day has begun. Our night of pretending is past, and it is time for each of us to resume our assigned tasks. For you, your highness, it means that you must escort your royal mother back to the ball and make your farewells. Mind what I told you, now!” Her smile became slightly mischievous.
“And what of you, dear?” Valbia asked before Millam could.
“I will go back to where I belong, as well.” She quickly lifted their hands to her lips, pressing a kiss on the back of each. Before either of them realized it, she had put their hands together and released her hold. Without another word, she turned and dashed away, disappearing down another garden path.
Millam needed several seconds to find his voice. “A—after her! Bring her back!”
Several shadows detached and darted the way the young woman had gone. Millam swore. For once, his mother did not reprimand him.