1. The Ball

She smiled with delight at Alex’s words. He knew how to tell a story well. For the past half hour she had sat captivated by his description of his journey to reach her, through marshland, fighting off bandits, commandeering a boat at the pirate’s port. He had completely distracted her from the ball itself, until a pair of blue eyes over his shoulder brought her back.

Huntsman was frowning at her from the side of the hall. He was a tall and muscular man, with long fair hair to his shoulders and a rough beard. He wore his dark guard’s uniform, with no effort to blend into the crowd of courtiers and guests laughing and dancing nearby. Ella saw some ladies eyeing him appreciatively and suppressed a smile.

“What are you smiling at Princess?” Alex asked.

She turned back to him. His own smile was incredibly infectious and she could not help but grin back at him. His dark hair was cut shorter than most, in the style of a recent trend, and he wore the white jacket and sash of a Prince of Hauve. The youngest of his brothers, Ella found him the easiest to talk to, less haughty than the other two, whom she found a little too aware of their superior status.

“I’m allowed my secret smiles aren’t I?” she laughed. It was easy to be happy around Alex; he demanded nothing of her. All he wanted when he visited was to tell her stories and make her laugh.

She glanced around the great hall of the palace, breathing in the atmosphere. It had been some time since the last ball. The stone walls and columns, the crisp linens, and the cutlery and goblets all gleamed golden and silver. The attendees wore all the colours of this season and the last, swirling around the dance floor like a shifting mosaic of bobbing heads and fluttering fans. The orchestra swelled in its balcony, spilling light music down on to the crowd.

“Are you allowed to dance too? We’ve been sat here all this time; I’m afraid I’ve stolen you away from your father’s ball,” he asked, offering his hand.

Ella smiled ruefully, “I’ve already promised my first two dances to someone else actually. Will you find me later?”

She started to rise, only to find a familiar hand in hers, helping her up. They had both missed Huntsman’s silent approach. The Prince looked a little surprised and annoyance flashed across his face; this was clearly a mere guard demanding the attention of the Princess, but she was all smiles as she turned back to him expectantly.

“I will hold you to those dances your highness,” he promised, kissing her hand- the one that was not still held by her unexpected acquaintance.

The pair made their way to the dance floor through the thronging courtiers, who hovered like colourful butterflies near to the King’s dais. Ella’s lilac ballgown floated down the steps, the train rippling like water. Her tiara twinkled in the candlelight from the three enormous chandeliers suspended above them. The guests looked exuberant, just as her father had wished. With news of the war at their borders coming thick and fast, he had felt that everyone needed a little light relief. Plus it was all about strengthening relations, he had emphasised, inviting Princes, Dukes and Counts from many surrounding areas to join their revelries. Ella sighed at the thought. This was not a problem that her two older brothers faced. They were allowed to focus on the battles at hand.

Huntsman turned curiously at her sigh. “What’s the matter Princess, you seemed so merry only moments ago. Did I steal you away at the wrong time?”

His deep voice sounded troubled and she smiled kindly at the obvious jealously on his face. “Not at all,” she replied.

As the orchestra started a new piece, they stepped together onto the marble floor to join the dance. It had been some time since she had danced with him, and both felt it immediately, in the heightened awareness of every touch, the shift of his hand on her waist, the way her arm rested on his, their other hands entwined. He held her a little too intimately for such a public place, but she had not the desire to step back. From the corner of her eye she saw Alex watching, his expression still peeved.

“I don’t like the way you smile at him,” Huntsman growled under his breath, too quietly for the closest partners to hear them.

“I’m here for my smiles, you know that.” Ella met his eye and held it, even as they turned together. “It is not like you to be so troubled.”

Huntsman was not fond of these luxurious balls, she knew, but he was not usually this gloomy in the face of fine food and music. She thought of the last time he had held her, during the barn dance out in her father’s fields, stamping their feet to a very different kind of music. He had been so merry at the time but now he just seemed on edge.

“I smile at him because I like his smile. When I give him one, he gives it straight back,” she quipped, hoping to lighten the mood.

“He hopes you will marry him,”came the response and she frowned immediately at the direction his mind had gone. There was the reason for his distraction.

Glancing around, all that she saw confirmed his fears. On every balcony stood young men, all sporting their finest regimentals and hoping, no doubt, to strengthen the relationships between their nations. No thought was to be given to the relationship that the newlywed couple would enter into, not when politics was concerned.

As if following her thoughts, Huntsman’s arms gripped her tighter and she gasped involuntarily at the expression on his face. He looked passionate beyond words and she sought wildly for a way to soothe him. There were no promises she could make that her father could not force her to break.

Stroking his fingers was a small enough movement, surely, to be missed by those watching eyes. She bit her lip with worry. The music morphed into the second piece, slower. They copied the dancers around them, taking stately paces around each other, moving to touch then turning away, keeping the appropriate distance. At last they reached the section of the dance where hands could clasp and she moved into his chest.

“If I could dance every dance with you, I would,” she whispered.

His eyes softened, crinkling at the edges. “I know.”

He spun her away again with the music, her dark, waist-length hair rippling out behind her in waves, before catching her hand again. Ella could sense the appreciation from the crowd for the way her gown flowed with the movement, but could find little joy in it this evening. Of course Elena, her seamstress, would make her the most eye-catching gown for tonight of all nights. As if she wanted any further attention from the crowd.

As the music wound down, she could see Alex striding down the steps, eager to reclaim her attention. She turned back to Huntsman, searching his face. Would he be calm? But her fears were unfounded. He was mild mannered if not entirely friendly when he released her hand. Only the tension in his eyes as they parted hinted at his unhappiness.

“You dance with the guards too Princess,” Alex started straight away as he led her back into the dance. “You amaze me with your generosity.”

“Some of the guards here are childhood friends, as dear to me as my brothers,” Ella responded lightly.

He humphed, “He could have at least worn a formal cape like the others.” Indeed all the other guards in the hall sported floor length crimson capes that gave them a very heroic air. Privately, Ella didn’t feel Huntsman needed it.

They danced the next two without speaking, but by the time he led her back to the raised dais he had returned to his previous joviality.

“You must come and visit me at our court, my lady, we would throw a ball in your honour.”

Ella smiled tightly but Huntsman’s remarks had her guarded now. She had always welcomed visits from the young Prince but now his comments seemed weighted with importance.

“Perhaps, if my father visits,” she answered, leaning against the golden railing to watch the dancers below. Huntsman had vanished.

“Come Princess, what’s the matter?” Alex leaned backwards against the railing to face her and the other lords on the dais. He smiled impishly, “I will have you laugh again.”

She tried not to smile back but his grin was contagious. “I would like to visit,” she admitted, “if only to see the lavender fields again. They were beautiful!”

“And the blossom in the Spring, the way it falls like painted rain,” he persisted.

“Yes, the apple blossom. Do you remember the sheer amount of it that got caught in my hair?” she giggled at the memory.

“You must have been washing it out for weeks!”

“Months!” She laughed, but saw that his gaze had turned speculative, his eyes on her long tresses. She spun quickly at the sound of her name.

“Ella!” The King was beckoning to her.

She took her leave of the Prince, who graciously let her go, and weaved her way through the guests to her father’s side. He kissed her cheek and she smiled as his whiskers tickled her ear. The King was growing older and a little on the portly side, but it was clear to see he had once been a heroic figure of a man, and muscles still bulged down his arms. He wore cream with a champagne sash and a golden crown hugged his temple. He had recently started wearing a monocle for reading and used it now to peer down at his only daughter.

“Well, you seem to be getting along with Prince Alexandr Hauve more and more,” he beamed.

His daughter bit her lip. “He amuses me,” she shrugged, but the King would have none of her coy behaviour.

“He likes you. You like him. It’s clear when you look at him!” he exclaimed and Ella cringed inside. Was that was Huntsman saw when he looked at them? That wasn’t how she felt.

“So why do you wince every time I mention marriage to you?” he continued, finally lowering his voice.

There were more than enough eavesdroppers in the surrounding crowd and Ella blushed, glancing around at them pointedly. Her father, thankfully, got the hint. “Okay, okay, we will speak no more of it now. But later, I expect a full report!” he snapped, just as he did to his generals.

She smirked, “Yessir!”

It was a game they had played since her infancy, when she had sat by his throne, toying with her doll as important matters were discussed over her head. At the end of the meeting, her father would always turn to her and demand a full report on her singing lessons, her writing, and later her horse riding. She had always felt pride at being included in his important business updates, even if she knew her older brothers had rolled their eyes behind her back. It was kind of her father, in a world were daughters meant very little.

Later that night, after her handmaids had finished helping her undress and truss up her hair with ribbons, Ella lay alone in the darkness, lost in thought. If she had to marry without love, she could do much worse than the handsome Prince of Hauve. Alexandr. The name conjured no feeling in her. He could make her smile, but she smiled easily and often. His kingdom was beautiful, but she was in love with her own.

She knew the problem, of course. Those who have never known love may give their hand freely and without pain to the most advantageous match. She recalled the feeling of Huntsman’s hand on her waist and shivered as goosebumps ran up her spine. Her scalp tingled as she imagined what it would feel like for him to run his hands through her hair. Slipping out of her warm bed, she scampered, bare-foot, across the stone floor to where the dying embers of her fire still glowed. Crouching, leaning into the hearth, she inhaled the smell of wood smoke and sighed. He could have been in the room with her.

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