My own confidence only lasted until I was dressed in the elaborate gown Anna had tricked me into accepting.
“Stop fidgeting,” Anna said as she readjusted my gown.
I was not fidgeting without reason. The style of the dress, and the weight of it, was uncomfortable. Not to mention the beads, strung together and wrapped everywhere, hopefully keeping my magic safe from detection. The dress hid most of them, between its length and the excessive sleeves. I did not even worry if the visible ones looked nice. After pouring my chaos energy into it, I felt empty.
Avery had also taken as much as she could and stayed a short distance away. “You look lovely.” She was wearing the same gown in white, to match her crown of poisonous lilies. She appeared almost solid.
“How is there so much fabric in all the wrong places?” The back was heavy and seemed to have collected together all the missing fabric from the front.
Anna gave me a lesson in fashion, not that I listened, and fixed the visible beads, although she would have liked to remove them and replace them with finer jewels.
That I would be dressed more appropriately for the occasion than I had intended made it feel like everything was spinning out of my control and playing into the Count’s plans perfectly.
How could I have thought to outwit him? Even my escape was beginning to feel allowed. He needed me here, in the palace, and here I was.
Anna pinching my cheeks returned my attention to her. “Ouch!”
“You are too pale,” she said, eying my face critically. “That will help you look more alive.”
“It is important. People find liveliness attractive.”
“I thought it was gold they liked.” The dress was flecked with it.
“Yes, well.” She looked over me again and smiled, pleased by the result. “Come! I think you may steal the attention tonight.”
“Stop dragging your feet. Perhaps that admirer of yours will be there.” Being a master of taking people where they do not wish to go, Anna had brought me to the ballroom door faster than should have been possible.
Or perhaps I did not feel the passage of time properly. “Ah…” I hesitated and pulled away from her.
She looked at me kindly, releasing my arm. “I will be inside.”
I took a deep breath and a step, intending to follow.
“What do you think you are doing here?” the Captain caught my arm painfully, whirling me away from the ballroom.
“I am enjoying my first royal ball, Captain.” If I felt numb, how did his expression still cut? I pulled away from his grasp.
“And what of your sister? Do you care nothing of her fate?”
“I am presently more concerned with my own fate,” I said thoughtlessly and truthfully.
“The bride is the only one that matters.”
“Look who came,” a voice I could never forget drawled in my ear, freezing my blood. “You are beautiful.” He spoke so gently, one would think he cared. His hand brushed a stray hair from my face and he let his fingers trace my cheek. I held my breath. “Captain Eliot Silver! I nearly did not see you there.” Proving himself a liar, he added, “As you say, the bride is the only one that matters.” Putting his hand out to me, Count Tergin said, “A dance, my sweet wife?”
I could not look at the Captain.
All my plans and intentions felt distant and impossible as I was swept up by the Count’s energy. He led me into the ballroom to join the other couples on the dance floor. Between the motion and my own lightheadedness, everything seemed out of focus. “I knew you would come,” he smiled at me, sickly sweet.
“You know me, always there to take one for the Family.” I could not hear my own thoughts, and was surprised to hear myself respond almost naturally.
He threw back his head and laughed before pulling me close for the dance. “That’s my girl. I guess Callily really did know best, giving me you.”
But it did not ring true. Through my clenched teeth, I only murmured, “She really did.”
“Admit it,” he whispered in my ear, dipping me. “You want this.” He spun me so that I could see the lights and the gowns and the splendor. He pulled me close, “to be queen, to be beloved by all. I know you.” He released me again and I tried to catch my breath.
For a moment as the Count spun me, I saw the Captain conversing with a man I did not recognize. He did not look pleased, and I had to smile bitterly.
Count Tergin smiled to see it. “We are the same, you and I. We were made for this.”
He could not see past the surface.
“You are wrong.” I was only glad that at least, at last, all was revealed. If the Captain hated me now, it would be because of my actions, my choices. It was a small improvement, but I appreciated it. “We are nothing alike.”
Tergin only laughed. “Cousin,” He called, leading me off the dancefloor. It must be nearing midnight. I clutched my wooden beads.
There was no way a mage worth his water would let a random mage anywhere near the King, let alone a chaos mage. And if I was not there, Kiva was a fine substitute. However much of her story was true, I doubted she would stand against Count Tergin. And as for the rest, who would doubt Zaphar, King’s Mage?
I touched the beads at my throat. I could feel them everywhere, most hidden by the fabric of the gown.
Zaphar smiled at us, but his eyes were cold. “Count Tergin,” he spoke stiffly. “I trust you are well?”
“Look after my wife, would you? I’ve a few things to arrange.” Tergin strode off, unaware or uncaring that the king’s mage watched him go with unfriendly eyes.
“I do apologize for my husband. He often oversteps his bounds. I have no doubt it will get him into trouble one day soon.”
Zaphar turned to me, and I regretted speaking. “Will you honor me with a dance, Cousin?”
I wished to refuse. I was shaking everywhere, causing my wooden beads to clank together ominously.
Avery peaked out of her pillar nearby. “Are we killed?” Seeing the mage, and my continued life-state, she returned, satisfied that we were not yet killed.
His eyes flicked toward her pillar and my heart stopped. But he was only watching the Captain. “Never before have I seen him so unstable.”
“Oh? He looks the same to me.”
Zaphar laughed and took my hand, and I saw for a moment why he was considered handsome.
The Captain’s eyes rested on me, and time slowed. My limbs were too heavy to move. “Do you dance well?” I asked breathlessly.
Zaphar watched my face. “It must have exhausted you both, spending so much time together.” He guided my steps. “Will you be able to dance?”
It sounded as if he spoke of something else. “I must warn you, my teachers were a cook and a seamstress. Their Talents were decidedly elsewhere.”
“I shall bear that in mind.”
“Please do.” Though the room was spinning and I had no concept of what I was saying, I did hear the chorus of womanly sighs that followed us to the dance floor.
“Do you know your part?” Zaphar stood across from me in the line of dancers, but I did not think he was referring to the dance.
“I do,” I glanced towards Avery’s pillar, feeling the strain of the distance.
“And what is it?”
We would wait until the Count played his part, then she would rejoin me, and I would become chaotic. Beyond that, we had no plans. “Stand here, look pretty.” He twirled me in time with the music and the other pairs. “Dance well.”
Even in my mindless state, he was able to lead me flawlessly.
“They taught you well.”
“I will tell them that.” If there was time.
At one turn, I saw Anna giving me a huge encouraging smile. She was standing next to the Captain, who did not look in my direction.
“It is almost midnight.”
“Is that the magic hour?”
“It always is.”
The dance ended and we bowed with the rest of the couples.
“I will leave you here,” he led me to a table near my pillar, and I felt the pressure ease. “I trust you will not disappear.”
“Where would I go?”
“How true.” He left looking amused.
I leaned against Avery.
“Does he know? Could he see?”
“I don’t know,” I muttered into a glass of wine I had picked up as something to hold. “Does he know and not care, or does he not care to know?” I sighed and stepped away from the pillar to sit at the table. For once, I felt no temptation to eat. I munched on a small piece of chocolate cake, since it was there. I did not notice how alone I was, or see the Families, or hear their conversations or the music.
Only when everyone grew still and quiet did I realize there had been noise and movement. “Is it time?” I stood to join the others, only to be stopped by a hunk of muscle. Looking to its face, I recognized it for a guard of Count Tergin’s.
He grinned down at me. “Not just yet, Princess.”
The Count’s guards had made a ring around me. Though most appeared to be regular couples and courtiers, I recognized several of them. One of the women smiled at me as though she had not broken my arm the first time I had tried to run away. Or perhaps she smiled in remembrance.
“Dear friends and Family, honored guests,” the king spoke from the dais, his Charmed voice filling the large ballroom. “We gather today to celebrate ten years of prosperity, of peace.”
I did not hear most of his speech after that. I was too busy examining every guard and reliving every bad memory, and I could feel the chaos growing. I channeled it into Avery and the beads, barely holding control.
One guard, a man who had once thrown me into the river Essel for insulting the Count, tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me to look left and behind.
Standing on the edge between the light of the ballroom and the darkness of a shadow, Kivalya was dressed gorgeously in red, her hair expertly styled, bejeweled like a queen. She looked happy, oblivious to the guards that stood near her. One, a woman skilled at faking friendliness, whispered in her ear. They both giggled and stepped back into the shadows of the alcove.
The guard nearest me nodded to one near her, who nodded back. “Insurance,” he told me. “In case you should fall ill.” His smile was frightful, and I felt quite ill.
I took deep breaths and tried to focus on Anna’s serene face.
Why was Anna next to the king?
He held his hand out to her. “I intend for Niare to be a strong, happy nation for many generations to come.”
A few more pieces of the puzzle—the Captain’s coldness towards Anna, the way the palace staff looked at her, her grandmother’s insistence that she give up woodcrafting—fell into place. Contessa Annalize, as Master Thorne had said, was both well-beloved and important. Who better to marry the king?
Everyone was applauding. Someone took up a ‘long live the king and queen’ chant. I tried to join in, but the river-guard grabbed my arm, causing beads to press painfully into my skin. “Are we going?” It was too soon.
“No time like now.”
The room fell awkwardly silent, but no one was looking at us. Count Tergin had joined the king on the dais. The Captain stepped up to stand between him and Anna.
Count Tergin laughed at everyone’s scandalized expressions. “Your Highness!” He bowed showily as the room gasped, horrified and delighted at his use of a prince’s title for the king. “Allow me to congratulate you! She is a beauty.” He turned to smile at the contessa, causing the vein in the Captain’s neck to pop as he tensed even more. One hand rested on his swordbelt.
“However, I must disagree with you, though it pains me. In order for her to be a future queen, she would have to either marry a king, or be a king’s heir.” Tergin directed this to the crowd, who murmured and gasped appropriately.
The bookkeeper, of all people, stepped onto the dais.
“Adaia Mistler, Loremaster, what is that in your hands?” Count Tergin asked as though he had not planned every moment.
“This is the Saliz book of Kings. In this book, each king has named his successor. For five centuries, the Throne of Niare has been passed down to the next person written in this book. Shortly before he died, King Horatio II named his Heir.”
Everyone gasped, myself included. Two kings had given their sons the name Horatio?
“Who could that be?” Count Tergin asked gleefully.
My guards led me closer.
“Avery Saliz.” An older man joined the bookkeeper—Loremaster.
“Wistar Thalin, King’s Priest.” Count Tergin greeted him, but it felt like he was introducing him to the crowd.
“Child of Prince Alaric and Callily Willowfall.”
A woman joined the Captain. “Avery Saliz is dead,” she announced.
I clutched my heart, but it was still beating. After borrowing my sister’s name for a year, I had almost forgotten that it wasn’t mine.
I let out a sigh of relief and regret.
The guard snorted and pushed me forward.
The woman, presumably Rainora Atheron, Guildmaster, was holding the House Saliz genealogy book. She held it up, open to a certain page, as though we might see and read the small obituary.
Count Tergin was undeterred. “How strange it would be if the King put a deceased child as his Heir.”
That left only the king’s mage, who took his place beside the King in the center of the dais. “Blood will tell.”
I was then at the foot of the dais, though no one on or off the stage looked at me.
Zaphar held the book high so that all could see it. “Will any mage confirm my spell?”
Two mages joined him, nodding to the Captain as they passed.
Zaphar raised his right hand and five dots glowed bright red off the page. “Five Royals of House Saliz live. The one named Avery does not.”
My heart beat loudly, heavy and slow.
The two mages nodded their agreement.
Count Tergin smiled on, unperturbed.
The king’s mage turned to the Saliz book of Kings and repeated his earlier action. Only one dot on the page of names and blood splotches glowed red. “The King’s Heir lives.”
The room let out a collective breath.
The Captain looked shocked.
The two mages offered assistance by each holding a book so that the King’s Mage could compare the two. One dot glowed red on each page. The Captain turned to stone and Master Thorne, at his shoulder, turned green. He leaned over to the king to whisper in his ear.
“According to the Book of House Saliz, the blood of the King’s Heir belongs to Aevlin Saliz, child of Prince Alaric and Callily Willowfall.”
“Why, how confusing. Whichever is which?” Tergin helped the plot along.
“If the Royal Family were present, the Heir could be confirmed.”
“How nice it would be if they were here…”
Jaiden and Kivalya stepped onto the dais with a encouragement from Tergin’s guards. Kivalya shined like a queen. Jaiden looked bored. The King’s Mage pulled out a small ceremonial knife.
“Woah,” Jaiden held up his hands, “I was too old to be the heir.”
The king’s mage pricked one hand and the blood in the House Saliz book flared and faded. “Jaiden Saliz, son of Prince Alaric and Callily Willowfall. Not the King’s Heir.”
“I said.” Jaiden was permitted to step aside.
Kivalya looked like she thought it would be hers. She held out her hand as if she was conferring a great honor to the king’s mage.
Without ceremony, he pricked her, worked his spell, and said, “Kivalya Saliz, daughter of Prince Alaric and Callily Willowfall. Also not the King’s Heir.”
Tergin’s guards pulled her into the background.
“Is there no one else?”
Avery separated from her pillar as I was assisted up to the dais. I offered my hand.
Zaphar took it and looked at me.
“I wonder who you expect to be,” the Captain murmuered, voice pitched low so as not to carry beyond the dais.
“I do not think you want to know.” I didn’t look away from the king’s mage. As the knife touched my hand, I said to Zaphar,
“Careful. Something unexpected might come out.”
My hand stung. A drop of red flared on the knife and in both books a corresponding dot lit up.
Zaphar’s voice spoke into the hush. “Aevlin Saliz, daughter of Prince Alaric and Callily Willowfall. Avery Saliz, King’s Heir.”
Count Tergin clapped his hands together and reached into his coat for his ultimate prize, his marriage certificate.
I laughed, forestalling him. “Did no one ever wonder what prompted his choice?” I asked. I turned to face the crowd with a dazzling smile as Avery rejoined me. “I am, after all, my Grandfather’s Heir.” I opened my hands, spread my arms wide, threw back my head, and, with a laugh of relief, let it all flow out.
Glass shattered, wood splintered, and a crack split the dais in two, stopping at the throne. Everywhere people were yelling in confusion. Women screamed, their hair coming undone and dresses splitting seems, feathers and beads falling off. Men’s buttons fell off their doublets, revealing who was lazy and who was not. Cut and cooked pork turned into pigs, squealing. Squawking Birds flew off of plates as tables fell to pieces below and made bushes. The chairs gathered together to grow trees. Somewhere, someone slipped on a loose banana peel that was searching for its banana.
“Time to go,” someone pulled me away.
“What?” I resisted the pull.
“Someone’ll clean it up.” The king’s fool moved a tapestry to reveal a hidden passage and we slipped away, unnoticed in the chaos.