Ean knocked on the door and waited.
Next to it, Lahnria stood guard, ignoring him. He didn’t know if the Tixeries would be switching out before or during the dance, but that was their business.
He turned his attention to everything that needed to be in order for the ball, searching for anything he’d missed. Starlights, hung and working. Palace photographers, assembled. Guards for the dance, all chosen and equipped. Musicians, assembled with instruments. Organ, powered. Recorder in working order for all the speeches…
He raised his hand to knock again. The door opened before his knuckles could land.
He stared at her, feeling hot and confused.
Like the time a horse had kicked him in the breastplate and launched him into a wall.
Ahttah! She’s beautiful!
He hadn’t really seen her for two weeks and now…
She was glaring at him. With one eyebrow raised.
It was Trin’s “are you going to stop being stupid?” look.
When had she learned that?
Why couldn’t he say anything? Talk!
“Oh, uh, good evening, Princess Rehksskari.”
“Good evening, Prince Tavarin.”
They stared at each other again, saying nothing. He tried to remember what to say next, but it wasn’t coming. Her eyes narrowed further. Why was she being so hostile?
“The ball,” someone whispered. He glanced to the right and saw Lahnria still staring straight ahead, like she hadn’t said anything.
Right, the ball.
He looked at Ember again, trying not to notice either the subtle murder in her eyes or the way her asymmetric hairstyle set her face off just right.
“It’s time to go.”
Ember sighed, then nodded.
“Do you have your sword?”
“You’re a Tavarin lady, remember? Also, we have a little ritual to go through at the start of the ball.” He hoped she remembered the ritual. Bethania had said she took Ember through it but…
Ember glanced at her empty hip. Mirza appeared at her side and held out her arming sword in its scabbard. Ember took it and shoved it into the sash at her left hip.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Do you remember the words to the opening exchange? Bethania told me she took you through it all.”
“I’ve got it.”
“Are you sure? We can go over it again on the way…”
“It’s ten words,” Ember said. “I can remember it.”
That was Trin’s “I’m going to hit you now” look. This woman was spending far too much time with his sister and Tan-tan.
“Right,” he said.
He held out his arm. When she took it, he winced at the strength of her grip.
All Tavarin family balls took place in the grand ballroom, on the bottom floor of the palace just beyond the entrance, making it easy for visitors coming by gondola or elevator from the central cliff station to get there. When Ean and Ember arrived the vast arch-roofed hall, enclosing almost half a true-feld of hardwood floorspace, already had over a thousand people in it, some listening to the orchestra tuning or standing and eating in small groups while others gathered around the long hors d’oeuvres tables or sat at dining tables conversing.
It didn’t feel close to crowded.
Spotlights found them the moment they entered through the double-doors connecting the ballroom to the rest of the palace and three or four of the new flashbulbs popped. Ember covered her eyes against all the intense light and Ean closed his eyes until they had a chance to adjust to recover from the brightness.
“My arm,” he whispered.
“What?” Ember asked.
“Stop crushing it.”
Her hand loosened.
The ballroom returned. The photographers waited at a respectful distance, reloading their flashbulbs and film-plates. Ean looked around to see how everything was.
Was that one of the spotlights burned out up in the rafters?
Ember. The ball. Too late now.
He would have to trust that someone else would fix it or not. He had other things to do.
Ean glanced at Ember and saw her blinking and scanning the guests. He placed his free hand lightly over hers and lead her toward the table set aside for the king and his immediate family.
She jerked to a stop and he looked back at her. She was glaring at his hand.
“I’m sorry…” he started to say.
She shook her head and looked away. He took his hand off hers and started forward again. She followed.
As they neared the table his father looked away from a conversation with one of the chief council members and waved him over. Trin, dressed in the same green and red dress she always wore for fancy occasions, looked back from the opposite side of the table and grinned at them both.
Ean waved with one hand then looked past her and saw that the councillor, councillors, his father was talking to were Vagan HarBrathan, an old-line Liltan noble, and Aleahza Meakrun, a half-kentinshir chiefly supported by the Rancher’s cooperative, together two of the chief members of the Fortress party, the largest faction opposing Ember’s presence.
And both of them saw Ember.
He guided Ember to a seat right next to Trin, opposite the two councillors–that was why Trin was sitting on the other side from Father!–and pulled the chair back so she could sit down.
“Prince Tavarin!” Councillor Meakrun said with a bright smile that didn’t, quite, reach her eyes. “You’re here! And with your lovely guest, Lady Firrisskahv.”
Ean still had his hands on the chair back and felt Ember twitch. He opened his mouth to correct the councillor but Ember beat him to it.
“My apologies, Councillor. I am properly called Princess Ember Rehksskari, late of Tenkreille. I hid my name for fear of those hunting me.”
Councillor Meakrun turned her attention to Ember and the smile flickered but held. She regarded Ember for a moment with eyes that were subtly, unnervingly, reflective, then tilted her head and spread her long ears further out in a gesture that normally showed acceptance.
“Ah, yes. Well, such things happen.”
Ean quickly took the seat next to Ember and tried to figure out how to head off the conversation before it became a situation. He started praying as soon as he realized more people were watching than just the occupants of the table.
“How are you liking our little nation now that Prince Tavarin has made a place for you? Do you find it peaceful?”
Oh no. Please don’t bring that up…
“Why, yes, it’s delightful,” Ember said. “I’m very grateful to Prince Ean for fighting so hard on my behalf.”
Was Ember… gushing? Ean glanced at her, and saw what looked like a very honest smile on her face.
“He certainly has done that,” Councillor Meakrun said. “And with a betrothal, no less!”
There it was. Right out in the open again. Now that would be on everyone’s mind for the whole ball.
“Yes, it certainly is a strange solution,” Ember said. “But, as I was always taught, it takes a wise man to see an asset where others see a problem, and to acquire it boldly.”
Ember smiled until her canines were showing.
Councillor Meakrun leaned back slightly and shot a glance at Councillor HarBrathan, then responded with her own smile upgrade.
“I’m not sure I see what you mean, Princess Rehksskari.”
Ean started to say that hadn’t been his reason for defending Ember at all when he felt steel fingers grip his thigh under the table and drive into the sensitive nerves above his knee, just…hard…enough.
He shut up.
“Well, Councillor,” Ember said, “because of Prince Ean, your armies now have actual field experience against a live Garagran. Our Generals in Tenkreille always said that putting cavalry to route was one of the easiest ways to win a battle, especially untried cavalry. I believe that would have described over a third of your standing army, wouldn’t it?” She paused a few heartbeats and Ean watched as Councillor Meakrun parted her lips but gave no answer. He also noticed that his father was watching Ember with his ears and eyes at full attention.
“Imagine, Councillor, if they had faced an angry Garagran in the field for the first time. Or worse, a whole battalion of Garagrans! It would have been terrible! Horses running madly in every direction, scattering foot soldiers and militia! But your Prince immediately saw how weak and cowardly I was and realized that I would make a perfect training partner for your cavalry. And now, your horses hardly care that I’m there, even when I’m breathing fire! And that’s not even counting all the tests your weapons-makers have been able to do, the practice for your ballista crews, the new camouflage schemes your armorers have come up with… Why, half the time I can’t even find your soldiers anymore until they start shooting at me!”
She gazed at Ean for a full two tikkets, still smiling–her eyes sparkling!–then looked down at the table and shook her head.
“And all it cost him to get this for the peace of his country was a few cows and some legal maneuvering. I honestly don’t see why more of his people aren’t as impressed with him as I am.”
Ember looked up at Councillor Meakrun with her eyes wide and her mouth slightly open.
“Can you tell me why?”
“Well, the King…”
“Oh, the King!” Ember turned to Ean’s father. “Begging your pardon, your majesty, but I’m certain that if you had seen the pathetic condition I was in when your son found me, you also would have realized how little of a threat I was and how useful I could be to your country.”
Ember paused with her eyes on the King, but with her head tilted down respectfully.
Ean’s father held out for less than ten tikkets before saying,
Ember nodded and turned back to Councillor Meakrun. “And this is, of course, why countries need wise rulers, both young and old, so that the younger can go out in the field and lay eyes on important problems first hand while the elder keep the entire nation knitted together from the top to the bottom.”
Ean fought to keep his mouth closed. Who was this? He leaned back slightly and looked at Ember in profile. He could almost see her swishing a tail that wasn’t there.
Ean’s father laughed.
“Indeed,” he said. “You bring up excellent points, Princess Rehksskari.”
Councillor Meakrun jerked slightly. Next to her, Councillor HarBrathan’s mustache twitched and Ean was certain the man was signalling the other councillor under the table.
Councillor Meakrun looked at the King, then snapped her eyes back to Ember.
“Yes, Princess Rehksskari. Thank you for that educational explanation. Councillor HarBrathan and I have others we need to speak with tonight, but it was a pleasure to meet you.”
The two councillors excused themselves and vanished into the crowd.
Ean looked at Ember, who seemed to be watching the crowd to make sure the councillors were really gone.
“What was that?” Ean whispered to her.
She looked at him and her gold eyes were hot, almost angry.
“You protect me, I protect you.”
Ean’s father laughed again and from the other side of Ember, Ean heard a snicker.
“I told you, Ean,” Trin said, leaning forward so he could see her and looking at him with both eyebrows raised.
“Told me what?” he said.
“One way, or another, Ean. One way, or another.”