The Longest Battle – Ch 17 – After the Ball

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Way sat with her toes barely brushing the cool water of the pond. Torches flickered in the light evening breeze but did little to wash out the brilliant vista of stars above her. By her side sat a pair of ordinary slippers. Their black satin sheen was marred with the sort of scuffs that only an exuberant night’s work could provide.

Behind her, a castle rose. Its towers would never hold against an invader but they were never meant to. They stood as elegant words written on the tapestry of the city’s skyline. Though the hour was late, and the revelers had long since retired to their beds, there were still candles burning outside the shuttered windows. Each marked a wish for joy from the castle’s prince to his long suffering subjects. Unlike in previous years however, on this anniversary of the prince’s birth, those wishes had come true.

Way smiled at the ripples in pond as they stirred the reflected sky into a sea of brilliant, stormy light. She wasn’t built for quiet moments, but she loved them nonetheless. There was nothing like being wrapped in solitude when you knew you weren’t trapped there. Like all quiet moments though, she knew it would end and breathed in more deeply to hold onto it for a few more precious seconds.

“So this is where you escaped to.” Jess said. She was using her ‘stern mentor’ voice though Way suspected she was more exasperated than angry.

“I wasn’t escaping, I was just letting things calm down. How did the ball turn out?” Way asked.

“Cindy was stabbed.” Jess said.

Way let her awareness expand. The world hadn’t gone wrong, hadn’t broken, so the underlying threads that connected everyone were still in place. Cindy was injured but not dead. Not the best outcome but less troublesome than the alternative.

“How is she?” Way asked Jess.

“Recovering.” Jess said.

“Who stabbed her?” Way asked.

“The Major Domo. He was aiming for Henri though.” Jess said.

“That’s surprising. I really thought it was his advisor that had it in for for Henri.” Way said.

“He did. The Major Domo was working for him.”

Way closed her eyes and pictured the scene.

A bustling, joyous crowd had packed the castle as night fell. It was Prince Henri’s 18th birthday and while they had come to celebrate the occasion, their joy and liveliness was more due to the impending end of the Royal Advisor’s rule.

Sixteen years had passed since the death of the King and Queen. Nostalgia had given the former monarchs a cache of love and devotion which they had never enjoyed in life. The Royal Advisor had amplified that by providing as stark a contrast as he could to their rule. Taxes had seemed mild to the point of being unnoticeable compared to the burden the Advisor laid on the people. The Queen’s punishments were the models of fairness, with a perfect balance between mercy and justice, compared to the draconian laws the Advisor enacted.

In their hearts, the populace had known that the Advisor’s time was limited. He controlled the military but the day that the Generals and Dukes could give their pledge to the Prince, the Advisor’s reign would be at an end. So they endured.

The announcement of the ball had come as a promise kept to many of them. The rumors were that the ball had been called by the Prince himself, with no consultation from the Advisor. It had been decreed that all of the city must attend and that there would be contests of dancing from which the Prince might select his future bride.

“They’re expecting to see the happy boy that they’ve seen at the yearly festivals” Jess had said. In the place of a smiling youth upon the throne, the citizens had found a nervous teenager who turned dejected and morose as the night wore on.

“He doesn’t like the dancing!” more than one of the party goers had commented and it seemed to be true. The Prince had started the evening watching the dancers with an intensity that had scared several of them off the floor. As time passed though, his smile had drooped into a frown and his shoulders had sunk.

“He’s waiting for someone he knows.” Jess had said.

“Who?”

“A girl he met while he was playing at being a commoner. He slipped away at the last Winterfair and they had themselves a rather wild run from a band of miscreants. It all ended well except for one problem.”

“He never got her name?”

“He never got her name. He did get to see her dance though and, in his eyes, she was the most graceful dancer who ever lived.”

“Hence the ball.”

“Exactly.”

Reuniting Prince Henri with his star crossed love hadn’t been Way or Jessica’s reason for traveling to his realm. They were hunting down the man-in-white who had entered the world on an unknown errand. Jess had made it clear that, since there was no sign the man-in-white had disturbed the balance of the world, they would do no more than blend in and look for him.

Way had dutifully kept that in mind up until the orchestra began to play a song that she knew. She was certain she’d never heard it as “Way” but some part of her, some old part, knew the melody.

Without thinking about it, she let the surge of people carry her out onto the ballroom floor and she began to dance. She’d lost herself in the tune, her feet tracing patterns long forgotten, her arms weaving liquid patterns that spoke of happiness and longing and hope. She’d danced for minutes before noticing that the people around her had cleared out a space to let her move freely. She’d blushed at the attention but the swell of the song had carried her onwards. Right up until someone had laid a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

“You are making a spectacle of yourself.” the Royal Advisor had said.

Way glanced at his hand and then met his gaze directly. She knew she was supposed to blend in and not call attention to herself. But he had touched her.

“I don’t recall asking your opinion.” she said. It was a generous warning. More than she felt he deserved. From the crowds there was a bustle of excitement as something moved through them towards the pair.

“You will come with me.” the Advisor said. He tried to grab Way’s arm and drag her with him. That’s what he attempted. What he actually accomplished was to be flipped head over heels and land in an undignified sprawl a dozen feet away.

“Such insolence!” the Advisor said and drew his sword. Blood ran down from his nose which had been smashed in by the fall. The crowd gasped at the naked steel in the Advisor’s hand. Some snickered or even cheered at the bloody nose he’d been given. Between that and the pain he was in, the Advisor looked ready to skewer Way on the dance floor immediately.

“My lady…” Prince Henri began. He’d raced through the crowds to be at the side of the masked girl who had danced more finely than anyone he’d ever seen. Anyone save one that is.

“Give me that.” Way said, snatching blade out the Prince’s hand and knocking him back. She knew that wasn’t the right form of address when speaking to a Prince, but she was annoyed.

The fight against the Advisor had been an interesting one. Way hadn’t made herself into a superhuman paragon of battle prowess. Just a very good fighter with more years of experience than would strictly have been reasonable. The Advisor had proved to be an accomplished duelist as well. In the end it was his inherent malice that betrayed him though.

They’d fought to the top of the castle’s ramparts. Faced with an equal foe, the Advisor had resorted to taking hostages to gain the advantage. Fighting to save them had proven difficult, until one of them, a girl who was terrible at dancing had put her two left feet to better use and stomped on the Advisor’s to free herself.

The Advisor had stumbled at that, wobbled and then fallen backwards over the edge of the castle wall into the deep gorge that lay below it.

Way hadn’t fled the scene after that. She’d merely found it sensible to be somewhere else while Jess sorted things out.

In her mind’s eye, Way saw Jess rescuing the trapped girl, Henri’s love. The Advisor had, of course, captured her and was going to use her life as a token to force the Prince to abdicate the throne and turn it over to the Advisor permanently. They’d arrived at the ball just in time to see Way and the Advisor leaving the great room in a flurry of sword blows.

It had been Cindy, the girl, who noticed that her Prince was alone in the crowd and that the Major Domo was heading towards him with an evil look. Faster than Jess could follow, Cindy had thrown herself through the crowd and knocked Henri out of the way of the assassin’s dagger the Major Domo was holding.

There had been another fight after that. A brief one that ended with the crowd piling on the Major Domo and bearing him away to an unpleasant yet richly deserved fate. A physician had been called and Cindy had been carted away to what became the safest room in the castle.

Way had no doubts that her recovery would be complete and magically quick. It was unlikely that the Prince’s wedding anniversary would be more than a few weeks after his birthday if Way’s guess was correct.

“But what I don’t understand is why you were out there alone!” Jess finished saying as Way opened her eyes.

“Well, I really like to dance.” Way said.

“And I wasn’t alone.” she added as she put her hand over the ring Jin had given her and felt its warmth.

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