He stood before the mirror, seamstress fiddling with his sleeve. He regarded himself gravely. “I’m too…”
“Shiny?” Janet grinned, walking around him, hands resting upon her very round belly. “I like the gold braid. It’s a nice touch.”
“I feel ridiculous.”
“But you look wonderful. A credit to our house.”
“I wish you could go instead.”
She patted her belly gently. “Hey, I’m actually supposed to be on bed rest. House arrest, more like. I get tetchy, wanting to go out and get things done. I’d go if I could.”
“But your midwife would kill you,” he said resignedly. “I know. I’m just… not much for balls. Or any formal event, really.”
“You’ll do fine.” She fetched his mask and handed it to him - pale leather, molded to the contours of his face and lifted in elegant whorls, edged in the gold of his house. He tied it on, ribbons beneath his hair. He looked stiff, formal - foreign. Janet nodded approvingly. “All you have to do is make an appearance. Shake a few hands - all of the Kithrayna, a few of the Council. Represent House Tallart with your usual elegance and dignity. Then go home and relax. So says your Kithara.” She kissed his cheek. “And your cousin. And as your cousin? Try to have fun, Alex. Dance with a pretty girl or two.”
He smiled. “I’ll try, so long as you rest. Take care of yourself.”
“It’s a deal.” He shook her hand with mock solemnity, and she swatted his arm. “Go! Dance!”
It was like stepping into someone’s fantasy. Lilting music - he spied the string quartet in the corner. Elaborate dress - ballgowns and waistcoats and everywhere, masks, all proclaiming the wearer’s House with bold color and style, but hiding their true identity. A sea of people that he did not care for. A chore, a favor for poor Janet. He sighed and entered, accepting an offered glass of chardonnay. Fortifying himself for the evening of mindless chatter.
And then, across the room, he saw her.
Her. Katrina. It had to be.
She wore the green of her House, deep bottle-green ballgown, grand and beautiful. Her hair had been artfully piled atop her head, some locks free to cascade down her back and mingle with the laces of her corset, and she wore a delicate handpainted mask adorned with sparkling beads trailing down her cheeks. Her lips were pomegranate-red, but her eyes… her eyes were the same. And he would know her anywhere.
She was with Stephen, of course. Arrogant, petty Stephen, his green complementing hers. His everything complementing hers. Of course they’re together. The Great Houses flock together, and House Tamra the greatest of all, absent Lishaya or no. He did his best to fade into the woodwork. I will put in just enough time to avoid rudeness. Pay the respects of House Tallart. Then I can return to my place.
Oh, this is not my place.
And improbably, across the crowded and gaudy ballroom, her eyes caught his - and she left Stephen’s side, Janos’s side, and came to him. “Dance with me,” she said, a little breathless. “Please, Alexander.”
So he found himself in the center of the ballroom, dancing with the most beautiful girl in all of Shayara, the eyes of the junior Council upon him, heavy in their regard. “Why?” he managed.
“Where have you been?” She was distressed, just a bit, under her facade.
“I - in the Library, I suppose.”
“You never came to see me. I haven’t seen you since that first day.”
“I’m surprised you remembered me.”
“How could I forget you?” Her eyes were open, honest; she radiated truth. “Did you forget me?”
“It… is not my place, to court a young woman I’ve only met once. And especially not a Tamrani woman, and one so firmly taken into the embrace of the Council.”
“You left me to Stephen, and Janos, and the rest of them.”
“I hate Stephen.” She took a deep, hitching breath. “And Janos frightens me. Alexander… I love Shayara. But I hate being with the Council. And I *missed* you.”
“You barely know me,” he half-whispered. And I barely know you.
She stood on her tiptoes, pulled his head down, and kissed him.