The band was warming up when Jack and Cathy arrived in the clearing for the ball. They found a table that seemed well situated: not too close to the dancing area to garner too much attention; not so far back as to seem anti-social; and not in the middle where Jack could feel overwhelmed. Others were already milling about, and soon enough a group came that recognized Cathy and immediately swooped to their table to sit and gossip.
“Who’s this fine gentleman?” a woman named Tammi asked about Jack.
Jack knew her well enough. More So than Tammi would ever admit to the man who was currently escorting her, but either she didn’t recognize him or she was pretending so that she wouldn’t accidentally out herself. Jack hoped it was the former and ran with it.
“My name is Sam. It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss…”
“Tammi,” she replied, and gave a small curtsey.
Jack gave small bow of his head. “I would rose to greet you all, but,” he held up his cane.
The women and their escorts excused him from the courtesy and went down the line of introductions. Tammi was being escorted by a fair haired gentleman named Francis. Then there was Winnie, a delightfully curvaceous woman with red hair, who was escorted by a young man named Cornelius who was her exact opposite: lanky and awkward. Finally there was Fran, who was as thin of frame as she was stern of mouth, accompanied by a very short gentleman named George. The women all talked of the town, while the men discussed business, game, and other matters. They all kept up the idea of high class as the seats filled and the dancing began. Once the food and drink was brought around, though, the topics of discussion quickly became more casual, verging at times on vulgar.
The music came to an abrupt end, and an announcement was made that the royal family had arrived. “Fashionably late, of course,” Winnie commented to the group, and was met with appreciative snickers. Jack found himself craning his neck to see the subjects of attention. He didn’t remember them ever making this much of a show of the royal family before. Not that he ever cared before, he reminded himself. Even some of the nobles seemed confused though, with many of them whispering to each other. Some people bowed to varying degrees, but there was no precedented pomp and circumstance that anyone seemed to follow. Finally he caught a glimpse of her. She was radiant in a gown of purples and blues, with her hair coiffed in a spiralling updo of curls and ribbons. Delicate makeup accentuated her features, but did nothing to hide the fierce blushing that she was doing.
Nadine had never felt so self conscious. She had asked, begged, that no announcement be made. Her mother had insisted, though. “How else will the eligible bachelors know that the belle has arrived to the ball?”
“Perhaps by looking at our reserved table,” her father had quipped.
In the end, though, SAthira had her way. NOw the princess was being stared at, whispered about. Nadine felt like she would melt under the heat of their gaze. They all knew, of course that she had borne a bastard, and a blasphemy at that. She looked beyond the nobles crowding the dance area to the draconians who lounged at the tables. How many of them had she begun to know as neighbors and friends during the nights she had crept down to Water Street? How many of them had known who she was the whole time? Well, they all knew now, and now she could never be normal, even for pretend. She ran her fingers over the scar on her palm. After an eternity, she was finally escorted with her parents to their table, and the band struck up again. Plates of food and goblets of drink were placed in front of them, and family friends and high ranking nobles began cycling through to give pleasantries to the royal family. Nadine gave her best smiles to each guest that came by. Then the available men began arriving to ask for a dance. This was the moment Nadine had been excited for. One by one fine gentlemen escorted her to the dance area. They showered her with compliments and praised her elegance as they slid through the twisting moves of their traditional dances. At times they were side-by-side with pairs of draconians, and Nadine marvelled at their combinations of food, hand, and wing movement. They had an intimacy to their dancing that was almost resque.
During one dance, Nadine was being bored out of her mind by the droll of an overly pompous nobleman who seemed to think that she wanted to hear the minute details of his father’s farmlands to the west. Just as she thought she would finally lose her mind, she heard a familiar laugh. She perked up her head and looked frantically in the direction of the sound, but the tables were packed too densely and the field was too dark to pick anyone out. But he was out there. She knew it.
“Is something wrong?” the nobleman asked.
“What? No. I just… heard something strange.” Nadine replied.
The nobleman looked in the direction she had looked in. “What a blight on society,” he commented with a voice dripping with disdain. “I don’t know why we allow them to be part of this event.”
Nadine moved back from her dancing partner. “Without them there would be no event. This entire day is meant to celebrate the peace that we’ve had between our races.”
“Please. They lost the war. We’re celebrating our victory over those bipedal monstrosities. Oh, wait. That’s right. You fornicated with one. That’s why you have to redeem yourself by marrying someone of proper birth.”
The sound of the slap rang out through the ball. Couples around them stopped in their tracks and stared at the two. The nobleman made a move to retaliate against Nadine, but three guards swooped in, one to restrain the man and two to escort the princess back to her table.
“Sam. Sit down please.”
Jack looked down at Cathy, who had an iron grip on his sleeve and murder in her eyes. It was only then that he realized he was standing, cane in his left hand, and his right thumb on the release button for the hidden blade. The other people at the table were watching him in rapt curiosity. Jack let out his breath and slowly sat back down.
Cathy patted his arm and said to the others in a reassuring voice, “Sam came from a harsh village. He’s always ready for a brawl.”
“Is that why you walk with a cane now?” Tammi asked.
“Yes,” Jack replied. “The boss at the work yard was very strict, and the other men were more so.”
The group nodded in understanding, and directed the conversation back to more pleasant and amusing topics.