Sorry for the delay! As I mentioned in the previous post, I was dealing with a bit of a depression crash for the past couple of days. It happens sometimes, and I couldn’t push myself to get the re-write completed.
However, don’t fret, chapter four is still incoming. I’ll be posting it tomorrow in the late evening for me here in Japan. After chapter four I’ll announce a date and final decision on how and when I’ll be posting the actual book.
Chapter 3: The Dance
With only an hour left before the ball was set to start, Amelia found Elan trying on her tenth dress.
“What is going on in here?” Amelia asked with arms motioning to the dresses strewn about the room.
Ken followed behind her, his eyes roaming about from dress to dress. “I was going to ask if you might need some assistance getting ready.” He picked up a shawl off the floor. “It looks as if I came just in time.”
“I’m trying to find the right look, that’s all.” Elan said, as if it was not a big matter that she’d tossed half her closet about the room.
Elan couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought to request something new for the event, but she had no time. Between trying to become a Queen or trying to keep the kingdom running, why would a new dress matter? But now! Oh, the regret!
“Oooooooh?” Amelia got that look on her face, the same look she had on before she suggested they go find the wine for just a taste.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Elan said as she got out another dress to look at in the mirror, “it’s only for the sake of diplomacy.”
“I see, and would this diplomacy take place in the foyer or your bed?”
“What? Just asking.”
Elan went into her closet with a huff. She elected to ignore the fact that Amelia was coming in right at her heels. With quick hands, she went through two more dresses but hated them immediately.
“Elan,” Amelia said, her voice losing its teasing tone, “you don’t need to impress her, you know that right? She’ll just be here and gone again anyways.”
Elan paused, but then went right back to shuffling skirts around. “I know that, Amy, but the kingdom needs her on our side. The signing of the Alliance Accords is a pivotal part of our peaceful relations. The Altier family has a reputation to uphold-Where are my damn belts?”
“Right,” Amelia said as she plucked out a red gown from the depths of the closet. “Which is why you’re so panicked, then?”
“Yes, of course!” Elan grabbed the red dress, putting it in front of herself.
With a slight wince, she remembered this particular outfit was a gift from a man out East who wanted her hand in marriage. He had chosen golden edges, a curvaceous design with a long dip between her breasts, just enough to show off cleavage without technically being too much, but it hinted at more. The fabric clung instead of flowed.
Elan never wore it out in public, fearing the gossip. “It’s not our colors, and I would look like a harlot.”
Amelia rested an arm on her shoulder, giving Elan a cheeky grin in the mirror. “And that’s a bad thing?”
Elan stared at the mirror for longer than she cared to admit, a hand smoothing the fabric down onto her frame. “Perhaps with a bit of jewelry and coat it would be more acceptable.”
Amelia shook her head. “No no, we need a statement.” She tapped her fingers on her bottom lip. “You want to match her in esteem and looks, play on an equal field…” She turned around to peruse the closet again. “A bit of jewelry. Yes! This will do.”
She raced over with an intricate golden headdress in hand. She put it atop Elan’s head, settling it atop the crown of braids Elan created that morning. The headdress itself was molded like that of a flower crown made of roses.
On each side of Elan’s face, two very wide and long lines of golden tassels fell down to stop just above Elan’s hips. The decorative lines held tiny roses here and there, sparkling in the light. The headdress hung just long and thick enough to cover up Elan’s breasts, but still teased about what was underneath.
“Raven-kin supposedly love shiny things,” Amelia said.
Elan stared at the ensemble. “It’s risky, and it’s not a bit of jewelry. This is practically a crown!”
“It’s perfect.” Amelia said with a purr. “If you want a fae queen to pay you any attention, a safe outfit would be the wrong way to go.” She whispered up to Elan’s ear. “Besides, I think Ravenna would appreciate the risk. Admit it, you want her, and more than just some diplomatic rendezvous.”
As much as she didn’t want to admit it, Elan quietly confessed to herself that yes, she did wish for more. Ravenna awoke desires in her she hadn’t felt in so long, not willing to compromise her place as a Contender for the Crown. Her mother would have been furious about her “getting distracted.” But she lost, and she did need to court before marriage anyway. No one would fault her for a little flirting before marriage.
Elan nodded as she shifted the dress. “Help me get it all on, then.”
Ken sighed as he continued picking up clothes. “I shall get the makeup.”
Amelia squealed. “I’ll get the perfume.”
Just in time, they managed to get on the whole dress with its back laced up tight and the headdress secured with pins. Ken had taken two of the braids to allow some tresses to fall with the headdress’ tassels. Amelia worked on the last bits of makeup as Ken smoothed out the hair.
Elan’s eyes were lined with very concentrated liquid charcoal, a relatively recent trend. Her lips were painted a deep purple to contrast with the red. With her fingers, Amelia put on a bit of light white powder on Elan’s cheeks to make a glowing effect.
Ken noticed the look in the mirror and said, “I don’t think you’ve ever looked so stunning, my lady. Well done, Miss Amelia.”
“Thank you! I think she’s got exactly the right amount of beauty and poise to pull this whole thing off. Don’t you?” Amelia moved to the side to let Elan get a real good look at herself.
“I do, my lady.” Ken put down the brush. “It’s perfect.”
Elan breathed in and out. She’d never, ever dared to try and stand out to this degree in her entire life. Sure, a few pretty looks in court and she wore makeup before, but this look? It made her look completely different.
“I hope it’s appreciated,” Elan said. “Thank you both for your help. We should go.”
Princess Flora stood at the top of the stairs, her eyes narrowed at the lobby. When Elan walked up to her, Flora didn’t turn to see her. Elan’s eyes roamed over the princess’ dress.
It was odd. Instead of her usual elegant dresses, Flora chose one with a thick, sapphire blue, and around her waist as a silver belt meant to tie in tight at the back. In the usual fashion, most women chose a dress with an open neckline to counteract the more fierce look of the high waisted belt. Flora chose one with shoulder pads and a sharp-V neckline instead.
And of course, her hair was braided up around her head, holding the light silver crown stable.
When Flora did turn to see her, for a split second Elan swore she saw fury cross over her face, but it was gone in the next. With a tight, small smile, Flora said, “Ah, Elan, you look fantastic!”
Elan bowed her head, but kept her eyes locked with Flora’s. “Is something wrong? You seem tense.”
Flora’s smile didn’t falter as she shook her head. “Of course not, I’m merely impatient to begin. Are you ready? Follow me in, your parents are already downstairs.”
Flora motioned to a servant below. A man downstairs shouted out to the general attendees, “Princess Flora Calden, Heir to the Throne of Surene!” He also announced Elan and then Amelia. The Princess of Surene held her head high, her smile much brighter now.
Following after her, Elan made more of an impression by stark contrast alone. She was aware of the gasps in the room, people immediately whispering to each other about her outfit and headdress. It took effort, but she didn’t look over at the fae across the way. Pretend you are above the people in the room, pretend you are above the people in the room, she kept telling herself. Valeria’s advice helped her immensely with this situation.
She approached her father, who gave her a winning smile. He said something to a man beside him, who in turn rolled his eyes. No doubt, a poorly done compliment. Behind him was her mother who looked…displeased. Elan knew she would be hearing a very strong opinion from Lady Brienne about her chosen dress later. Oh well, too late to go back now.
Her father kissed her on each side of her cheek and said, “Elan, my one and only, what a look you’ve chosen for tonight! You look absolutely dangerous. I didn’t even think this dress would suit you, ha! Look at what I know.”
He took her arm, tucking it into his own as they walked towards the ballroom. Elan could feel her mother’s glare into the back of her head, but continued to just ignore it. However, she did try to see out of the corner of her eye if Ravenna was pleased with her.
Elan found those dark eyes open wide. Ravenna didn’t glance like a lady of the court would, quick to avert and stare from peripherals. She stared with obvious fascination. Her lips were parted as if she wanted to say something. Her guard beside her with the leather wings knocked his elbow into her side, and Ravenna shut her mouth into a thin line. She was interested, success!
In the ballroom, Ravenna walked along with her group towards the edges of the circular dance floor. She said something to her entourage, and they all spread out along the outer line. The music began playing a soft warm up song, a simple and old tune from Lady Brienne’s time. Everyone began mingling about, but not yet dancing, it wasn’t that kind of song.
Flora stopped the procession, turning around to whisper to Elan. “Elan, if anyone asks, my ankle is tender and I wish to let it heal.”
“Understood,” Elan whispered back.
What was actually understood was, well, Flora perhaps appeared to be the most graceful of all the contenders. In reality, she simply could not dance. Not for lack of trying or for lack of careful instruction, the woman just lacked any semblance of rhythm within her movements. Flora once broke a dancing partner’s toe with the heel of her shoe when they were all about thirteen or so. Since then, it’s been an unofficial decree to never, ever let Flora twirl about with courtiers.
Elan turned to whisper to her father, “Be sure you and mother keep a close eye on the fae, try to keep them at a distance from Flora. They might wish to have some fun, but…”
“I understand, love, we’ll be discreet but forceful.” He quirked a brow and his eyes flickered to her dress. “So, what’s the story with your attire, may I ask?”
Elan shrugged. “I just felt like making a statement.”
The Duke Altier chuckled as he released her into the dance hall. “Then you’ve succeeded, love, good luck!”
He winked as he took his wife’s hand quickly before she could shoot over to his daughter for a discreet tongue lashing. Brienne shot words at him as they went towards a stage meant for them to oversee the party. Princess Flora drifted away to mingle with her parents and their friends.
Elan was moving to go closer to Ravenna when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to see Jalek, his cheeks red and a hand held out for her. “If you wouldn’t mind, Elan, I’d like to steal your first dance. You look amazing.”
“Oh, Jalek,” she said with a big smile, “I don’t mind at all.”
Amelia coughed as she suddenly appeared by her side. “Don’t you think you should wait for a certain someone to come up to you?”
Elan looked out of the corner of her eyes to see Ravenna chatting with one of the other fae. Ravenna was looking at her, it was obvious, she didn’t even bother to try and hide her gaze. It bore into her, ignoring everyone else in the room.
Elan grinned. “Somehow I doubt she’s going to let me get away.”
Jalek’s eyes widened into saucers. “Are you serious? You’re trying to seduce the damn fae queen?” He hissed at her. “Elan! She’s a fae, and she’s a queen, what is wrong with you?”
Elan shrugged a shoulder. “I’m allowed to court who I please until engagement or marriage.”
“Fae and queen,” Jalek said slowly and with force. “Not to mention, she’s got heartbreaker written all over her. She’ll love you and leave you!”
Larent walked up to them and growled. “Can all of you just go around the room or something? It’s strange to see contenders on a dance floor all bunched up like this. People are getting nervous.”
Jalek said in a rush to his brother, “Elan wants to seduce the fae queen!”
“And how is that a problem? She’s twenty years old, she’s allowed to court whomever she pleases.” Larent took his fiance’s hand and tucked it into his arm. “And furthermore, it’s in the name of diplomacy. You courted the princess from across the sea once.”
“Hey, that’s different!”
“Why?” Elan asked. “It’s not that different, I suffer no illusions about her temporary stay. It’s for a couple of days, what harm could it do? To have some fun?”
“Why are we all whispering and gathered around in a circle in the ballroom?” Flora interjected with her sudden arrival.
“I will explain later!” Amelia hissed at her.
“That’s not an answer!” Flora retorted.
“Everyone, just shhhh!” Jalek put a finger to his lips. Flora glared at him and pointed to her crown. Jaleck rolled his eyes at her. “Elan, listen to me, Queen Ravenna doesn’t look like the kind of person you court; she looks like the kind who wants to-.”
Jalek gasped at something he saw over Elan’s shoulder. “Coming over, coming over, everyone scatter!”
Amelia grabbed Flora’s hand and tugged her along with Larent. They went over to Amelia’s parents to talk. Jalek rushed over to his cousins who had some drinks in hand from the kitchen. Elan turned to face her.
Ravenna stepped up to Elan, and the Duchess in Waiting tilted her chin up. The raven fae bowed at the waist with respect and Elan bowed as well. When Ravenna stood up, she took another step forward, and Elan could smell something like pine coming from her. Her black eyes gazed over everything, from the headdress and over her face, her lips curling into a devilish smile further down.
“If I admit ignorance to your steps, would you teach me how to dance?” Ravenna held out her hand.
Elan placed her hand in hers. “But of course. You’re in luck, your majesty. Dancing was my best class.”
The fae queen grasped her fingers firmly and pulled Elan gently towards her. They were all of a breath away from each other now. Elan could hear people whispering furiously back and forth around them. Ravenna glared at the gossiping mob before returning her focus back to Elan.
Ravenna said, “It is a disadvantage of our kind keeping to ourselves, that we lose out on the modern ways of your people.”
“I doubt it would be the worst disservice to staying away.” Elan said as she turned to place herself beside Ravenna. She tilted her head back and puffed up her chest. “You might miss out on forming better relations. And wouldn’t that be a shame?”
Elan saw from the corner of her eyes that Ravenna’s gaze lingered.
“Yes, what a tragedy,” Ravenna finally said as she stepped in the dead center of the dance space. “I shall endeavor to make amends.”
“See that you do,” Elan ordered with a slight tremble.
She put a hand on Ravenna’s hip, then brought the fae queen’s other hand up to hold. She stepped back on her left foot. “Do you know the waltz?”
Ravenna nodded, following Elan’s movements, going forward. “Easy, a boxed pattern timed in four, switch out partners after five rounds.” She sounded disappointed by the idea. They moved together in the simple box pattern for a couple of beats, against the mellow music playing.
Elan shifted to Ravenna’s side, surprising her. “We’ve made some adjustments. This dance is timed the same, but the movements change and the music speeds up, then your feet move faster as well. If you can keep up with me, it should be easy enough.”
Ravenna laughed low. “I think I can manage. I’ve been told I’m light on my feet.”
Elan glanced over at the musicians. Ken was there, awaiting her signal. When she nodded her head, he said a few words to them, and they all grinned. The tempo changed abruptly.
Everyone moved at once. Husbands and wives left strangers for their loved ones. Partners stood side-by-side, facing away from each other, in three circles around Elan and Ravenna. This dance demanded mirrored actions, closeness, and more.
Elan slid a hand across the middle of Ravenna’s back. She loved how her dance partner’s eyes widened in surprise. “Do the same to me,” Elan said, “just do as I do.”
Ravenna caressed a line along Elan’s back. “I will endeavor to follow your lead.”
One of the musicians strummed his fingers along the strings of a large lute, while the harpist tugged on one thick string, holding a bassline. A violinist added another layer off the lute’s melody. After a minute to allow everyone to get in positions, they began the Final Affair.
Elan moved into the simple box step, Ravenna following in time. She released and twirled, and Ravenna caught her back up in her arms smoothly. Elan let her hand travel across the small of Ravenna’s back. The queen squeezed her hand, and smirked. The fae queen kept up as Elan moved them two steps around. As the song picked up, she did another release and twirl. The other courtiers moved around them in the circles, but Elan and Ravenna stayed in their small space.
“In two more measures.” Elan told her, we’ll break apart, twirl, and then return to each other.”
“How scandalous,” Ravenna said dryly.
Elan rolled her eyes. “Be a bit patient.,” she said as they moved again, “that’s not the end.”
“Hmmm,” Ravenna stared into her eyes, “good. I would rather like to keep seeing you move.”
Elan stopped herself before blurting out, “I would like that too.” She bit her lip instead. She didn’t want to seem too wanting, Ravenna might not like that, or might get the wrong idea about her being clingy. A bit more teasing seemed more important.
At the right moment, the violinist let out a long note, and the dancers parted to twirl around. Just as Elan and Ravenna came back to each other, the pace sped up yet again, and the beats allowed for little time to twirl and return. Elan pulled at Ravenna.
“In three, two, one, support my back.”
Ravenna moved her hand just as Elan bent backwards. They shared a knowing smile, and then Elan was back up and sliding back into the waltz.
Elan liked how much skill it took to get the next part right, as well as how close it brought the two dancers.
“And now, we are going to need to trust each other,” Elan said.
Ravenna squeezed her shoulder. “I think I can extend a measure of trust.”
Elan blushed and smiled in return. “Good, I’ll try to be worthy of it.”
She grabbed Ravenna’s hand. “Go back!”
The fae queen did as told.
“Now twirl quick and come back.” Ravenna laughed. She executed a perfect twirl on one foot, then grasped Elan’s hand once more.
Elan moved two quick beats right and whirled on her foot. She caught Ravenna’s hand right on beat. The music sped up again, giving them no mercy. They had to be in sync, moving in their circle and doing their twirls right.
A few other dancers laughed as they side stepped wrong, unable to keep up. Elan couldn’t be bothered to see who they were. She was winded, needing to focus on her own moves, even though she was more interested in the queen catching her.
Ravenna looked like she was excited. Her smile was all bared teeth from ear-to-ear. Unlike Elan, she wasn’t breathing hard, but her feathered hair stuck up in odd ways with each new move.
“Next?” Ravenna asked.
“We come back together to put our arms around each other’s necks,” Elan said, panting and rushed.
Ravenna’s face scrunched up in confusion. “What?”
The music slowed. Ravenna’s eyes widened as Elan got in close, wrapping her arms around Ravenna’s shoulders. Ravenna laughed gently as she wrapped her arms around Elan’s waist.
“I like the additions,” Ravenna said as they rotated together slowly.
“Me too,” Elan said, “Would you like to know the story?”
“If it means we stay this way, yes.”
Elan rolled her eyes and laughed a bit. “It’s the story of a lady who wants to marry an elven man, but her parents refuse to let them even see each other.”
Ravenna rolled her eyes. “Why is it always the elves?”
“Perhaps because we actually see them more than once a decade?”
The queen nodded her regal head. “Hmmm, true. So, let me guess, it ends in tragedy?”
“Yes, he goes to their meeting place in the woods, and she isn’t there, but a basket with a baby is.”
“Ugh,” Ravenna eyes nearly rolled into the back of her head. “Why do you humans have to always make them have babies in these tales?”
“Perhaps because we’re mortal? So babies mean a part of us lives on?” Elan shrugs. “I think humans desire stories with legacies, but I’m not a great storyteller, too. Perhaps if someone else told it-.”
“No, it’s fine, really..” Ravenna’s gaze changed to a more contemplative one. “The child of a Duchess, so a Contender for the Crown.”
“Yes, precisely,” Elan said as she ducked her head, trying to ignore the bit of pain that stung from her failure.
Ravenna got even closer, surprising Elan into looking back up. Her lips were close enough to kiss, but Elan didn’t dare, not in the open. People would accept her flirting in the name of diplomacy, but not outright kissing intimacy.
“When the music ends, what do we do?” Ravenna asked, her lips nearly brushing against Elan’s.
“I suppose,” Elan said as she tucked a stray feather out of Ravenna’s face, “that’s up to you, your majesty.”