Alex wheezed quietly as she felt her mother lacing down the back of the dark red ball gown she was wearing. Her dark brown hair had already been done into an elegant up-do, decorated with small, dark red flowers, with a few ringlets and her short bangs loose. The necklace and earrings she wore felt cold and metallic against her skin. The smell of perfume was slightly suffocating in the modest wooden room, making it even more difficult to breathe properly in the already-tight corset.
"Why do these dresses have to be so restricting? Is there really something wrong with me going in pants—hey, ouch! Not so hard, I'm still injured!"
Alex's mother smirked as she jerked the lace through the last few holes of the bodice, causing her to wince. The bruises from yesterday's duel weren't helping, but how was it possible for the dress to feel tighter than the corset?
"Oh please, those little things you call bruises are nothing compared to the injuries you've come home with before." Alex's mother clicked her tongue. "But I still can't believe you've managed to avoid every single formal event since your knighthood…"
Alex sighed. Her streak would have been unbroken if her mother hadn't been the first to the door when the invitation arrived.
"I swear, though—you and your father will be in unimaginable trouble if you come home all bruised and battered like this again," she grumbled.
"Do I really have to go, though? What's the absence of one knight?"
Alex's mother paused tying the bodice for a moment, but shortly continued.
"The absence of one knight at the coming of age celebration of the member of the Royal Family they represent," She finished tying the bodice. "Would be a great disrespect to the King."
"I'm only one knight, though…and I can go visit Prince Julian any time he'd like. There are plenty of other knights more important than I am."
Her mother quickly turned her around. Alex quickly regretted wording her thoughts like that as she saw her mother's unsatisfied face. She felt her heart sink into her stomach as her mother frowned. Her mother sighed as she walked toward a small vanity and picked up a pair of short white gloves.
"Somehow I feel like you don't place enough value on the considerations of the King. You understand how hard you've worked and how hard you continue to work for the kingdom. And you should be proud to be going to Prince Julian's ball. He's finally turned eighteen, and you need to keep up appearances outside of the battle hall." Her mother's voice was slightly chastising as she walked back toward Alex, and held up the pair of gloves. "Alexandra—I have supported you in your decision to follow in your father's footsteps, and I have disinfected and bandaged more wounds than I care to count. At the very least, you owe me this."
After a moment, Alex gave a resigned sigh and took the gloves from her mother.
"Emile is waiting for you downstairs. He looks quite dashing tonight—I'm almost jealous."
"He always looks dashing, Mother." She laughed quietly and wiggled her fingers into the gloves, trying to get them as comfortable as possible.
"You know, you put him through a bit more than he deserves, and he's not the same little boy he was when you two were growing up together."
Alex looked pleadingly at her mother. She had heard this before, but there was a lot more on her mind than finding a fiancé. She was young and considered herself to be in her prime as a knight in the Royal Court. Her mother gave one last sigh before finally waving her hand toward the door.
"At least try to have fun tonight."
"I'll try," Alex responded half-heartedly as she left the room. She reached the stairs and gave a small grunt as she picked up the front of her white-and-red dress. She begrudgingly moved down the stairs, spiting her decision to spar the day before and spiting the boned corset and tight dress with every step.
"You look stunning, Alex." A voice pulled Alex from her focus on the stairs and her attire. She looked up from her feet to see Emile standing at the bottom of the stairs, his hands in his pockets. He wore black trousers and a black jacket with a low, white vest and shirt. His dark hair was in its usual style, parted to the right and loosely combed back. His boyish face looked surprisingly mature as he watched Alex continue down the stairs.
"I can't say that I feel as stunning as I look." She exhaled as she eased herself down the last few steps.
"You went ahead and sparred even though you knew that the ball was tonight?" Emile asked incredulously.
"Yeah, yeah…I already got worked over by Mother. You look really nice tonight, so save the discipline for later, okay?"
"You're not getting out of it…" Emile gave Alex an unconvinced look. "But I will save it for later." His skeptical expression turned into a crooked smile. "There's a carriage ready outside."
Alex smiled in return, but gave a reluctant sigh and slipped her arm through his.
"Then let's get this over with."
The carriage ride was filled with Alex's numerous sighs and a little bit of small talk initiated by Emile, but Alex was content with letting the sounds of the moving wheels and the horses' hooves dominate the conversation. Alex anxiously fingered the buttons on the carriage's velvety seat. She ached with every bump on the road and longed to be back home, taking a warm bath and sleeping away her bruises. The carriage suddenly came to a stop sooner than Alex would have liked.
"Lady Alexandra, Lord Emile. We have arrived at the King's castle." The footman shouted.
Alex gave a pleading glance to Emile. He responded with a shrug of his shoulders and a silent, sheepish apology on his face. He delicately exited the carriage and poked his head back in to try and give her a reassuring smile.
"It will be over before you know it." He chuckled. "And when it's over, I can tell you why you shouldn't spar the day before a ball."
Alex sighed again in defeat and began to maneuver her large hoop skirt out of the carriage. Emile offered his hand to her, along with the footman as she lowered herself from the footstep. She looked around at the castle and the paths leading to the entrance. The ground was paved with white stones that reflected the setting sun in shades of orange and yellow. The castle had two tall stone spires that loomed over the courtyards and the other houses where members of the Royal Court lived. There was a long red carpet laid out from the doors to the castle and exaggerated floral arrangements in the small gardens around the various fountains scattered around the courtyard. There were many people outside, talking and enjoying the ambient atmosphere that came from the castle at sunset.
Emile offered his arm to Alex again and she quickly placed her hand on the crook of his elbow. They stepped onto the extravagant carpet and made their way to the entrance of the castle. Alex anxiously grabbed her dress with her free hand.
"Emile, this is my first ball as a knight of the Royal Court."
"Yes, and?" He glanced over at Alex in confusion.
"I have absolutely no idea how these work."
Emile raised an eyebrow and smirked.
"…Are you nervous about this? You never get nervous about anything."
"That's because I'm confident when I have a sword in my hand! Right now, I'm all dressed up and," She squirmed a little bit. "This corset is giving me worse bruises than those training swords." Alex gave a heavy sigh. Emile laughed quietly and shook his head.
"You wouldn't find it so funny if you had to wear one yourself."
"Oh, don't get me wrong—I'm very thankful I don't have to wear one," he chuckled again. "But in all honesty, if you follow my lead the night will be over before you know it. You will probably be better at this than you think."
The soldiers guarding the entrance of the castle stopped the two for identification.
"Alexandra Esdras Waldgrave and Emile Levesque." Emile responded.
One of the soldiers glanced back and forth between Emile and Alex and a scroll of names he held. The soldier nodded to the other after a few moments and they pulled their spears back to their sides.
Emile bowed and Alex quickly followed suit with a small curtsey. They continued through the stone entrance into the large castle. Alex looked around the castle in awe. Despite her family being a part of the Royal Court, she had never directly been in the King's actual castle before. Elegant, branched candlesticks lined the walls with lit candles gently flickering. There were various different paintings of men and women Alex didn't recognize all along the walls, which must have been the ancestors of the Royal Family, she thought, divided by elegant purple draperies with golden fringe and tassels. There were suits of armor lined up underneath the paintings, each holding a different weapon. The faint candlelight reflected dim orange glimmers from the suits of armor and gave a faint sparkle from the golden thread in the tassels and fringe on the draperies and carpet. They slowly began to reach the ball room, marked by two more soldiers who stood vigilantly in front of two large opened doors.
Gentle, off-white light and lively music and chatter poured from a large chandelier in the ball room. Alex caught glimpses of other women wearing elegant dresses in shades of green and blue and pink, accompanied by well-dressed men in their two- and three-piece suits.
She could feel her heart starting to race. She had never truly considered what her fellow knights looked like outside of the battle halls and began to wonder if she actually belonged to this world. Being a female knight was one thing, but she had always avoided attending the various balls and parties that had been thrown. She had been content with her life as a knight, where peerage didn't matter—or rather, where gender didn't matter.
Alex stood still for a moment, staring into the ballroom.
"If I follow your lead, will it really be okay?" Alex stammered. She clenched the sleeve of Emile's jacket.
"You look just as beautiful as any of those other women in there, if not more. I promise, everything will be okay." Emile looked over at her and smiled. She looked back at Emile and felt herself blush. A twinge of confidence crept into her thoughts with his smile.
They walked into the ballroom and were met by many stares from the various guests. The extravagance of the ball room was more than enough to distract Alex from her nervousness for a moment. It was a deep golden color with purple tapestries that were draped along the walls and the stairs that led to the second level of the ball room. The chandelier, upon closer inspection, was extravagant and golden, with vine-like details, and hung in the middle of the ceiling with more purple draperies extending from the center toward the edges of the large room. Alex saw the orchestra playing near the other side of the large room, but reveled in the lush sound that seemed to snake past the guests. There were waiters with silver trays skillfully flitting past the large dresses that encompassed the room. Alex noticed that the sea of guests ended where the shiny marble floor met a light wooden floor. Was that where the guests would dance? Alex started to get lost in her thoughts when she realized that there were several pairs of eyes looking in her direction.
Her heart began to race again as she looked to either side of her. There were so many faces she didn't recognize. She felt herself inching closer to Emile, hoping that he could hide her.
"Why…is that Lady Alexandra?" An energetic young man bounded up to the two of them, dressed in an elaborate, purple coat and ornate attire. His sandy-blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail that swished from side to side as he walked.
Alex jumped slightly as she heard her name called. She smiled as best as she could, trying to disregard her racing pulse.
"It is Lady Alexandra, and Lord Emile!"
"Prince Julian, it is an honor to have been invited to this coming of age celebration." Emile responded happily with a handshake to the light-haired young man.
Prince Julian had a smile wider than Alex had seen on anyone who had been eighteen before.
"T-thank you for the gracious invitation. My parents give their regards." Alex stammered.
"Lady Alexandra, consider me honored that you were able to attend my coming of age ceremonies!" Prince Julian took Alex's free hand and quickly kissed it.
Alex felt herself gasp, but stopped herself before she pulled her hand away in surprise. As ashamed as she was to admit it to herself, she had never had her hand kissed before. There were no niceties like this in the battle halls. She found herself surprisingly happy to be greeted in such a way.
"I understand that you get very busy, and so I am truly grateful that both of you are able to be here tonight." Prince Julian's tone lowered a few notes as he released Alex's hand and bowed.
"Well, I won't keep you from the rest of the ball," Prince Julian glanced past Emile. "I've got a few more guests to greet, and Lady Alexandra—you look absolutely dazzling tonight." He nodded his thanks and walked past them, eagerly greeting the new guests. Alex felt her cheeks and ears burning.
"Now that wasn't so terrible, was it?" Emile laughed as he looked at Alex.
"Has Prince Julian always been so…friendly?" She felt her head spinning.
"You're doing great."
Before Alex had time to compose her thoughts, another man came forward to greet them.
"Alex! I did not expect to see you here tonight, especially after that vigorous duel you had yesterday!" His voice was deep and cheerful.
Alex laughed unconvincingly as she remembered the various bruises she had on her torso.
"To be honest, I didn't really expect myself to be here tonight either…"
"Hello, Joshua. When did you get here?" Emile kept a crooked smile on his face.
"Not too long ago. It's good to see you both here tonight."
Joshua Hale was a tall man, taller than Emile—who was already relatively tall to begin with—and large in stature. He wore his light brown hair slicked back and looked slightly intimidating in his dark blue dress uniform. The jacket buttoned up the center in two rows and had golden shoulder pads with fringe. His pants were a cream color and he wore black, knee high dress boots.
"How is Tabitha doing?" Alex began to feel her reservations melt away, being in the presence of another friend.
"She's doing well. She's been able to go to work more consistently in the past month."
"If you'd like, I can come by sometime to examine Tabitha for her monthly checkup," Emile replied.
"Oh, that would be great—" Joshua began to respond as a hush fell over the entire ball room.
"Ladies and gentlemen! I am pleased to have all of you here this evening for my son's coming of age!" A deep voice bellowed throughout the ballroom.
Alex, Emile, and Joshua all looked up past the orchestra to see the King with a huge smile on his face and one of his arms outstretched with a glass in his hand. There were various other men and women dressed in elegant clothing standing behind him. One woman in particular had caught Alex's attention. She had long black hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail, accentuating her sharp cheekbones and elegant face. She wore a long, form-fitting black dress with lace sleeves that was exotic compared to all the other dresses being worn that night. Strangely enough, the advisor woman's name eluded her at the moment. Lost in her thoughts of names, Alex almost didn't notice the crowds of people begin to part themselves as Prince Julian made his way toward the King.
"Julian has grown into a fine young man, and I like to think that it is not just because of me but also because of all you wonderful people. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and in Julian's case—he has been lucky enough to be raised by an entire kingdom. Not just Julian though, but all my other two sons as well. I am very grateful to all of you for being here tonight and I hope that you will continue to support the Royal Family in the years to come."
"Emile, what's the name of the woman with the dark hair next to the King?" Alex whispered, leaning toward Emile.
Advisor Regnus? Alex thoughtfully lifted her fingers to her lips. She seemed so familiar to her, in a way that seemed deeper than just seeing someone on the street. She was so focused on the mysterious-looking woman that she had not noticed that Prince Julian had reached his father. She was shaken from her thoughts as the King bellowed,
"Please, enjoy the celebration!"
The orchestra's sudden music imbued a new sense of energy into the ballroom. Alex saw that couples began to pour out onto the empty wooden floor as the others moved back and formed a wall around the dancers. Brightly colored dresses began to twirl across the floor, only pausing to switch partners. Alex eagerly pulled Emile and moved closer to watch the dancers, admiring the grace and tact they moved with. It may not have been sword fighting or dueling, but she could appreciate the skill it took to be able to dance. She watched the men and women for a few more moments before her trance was broken by someone holding her hand. She looked to her side to see Emile.
"Would you care to dance?"
Alex grinned and quickly led Emile out to the floor. They fluidly fell into time with the other dancers, following the triple meter that the orchestra dictated for the dancers. Despite the soreness she felt, she happily waltzed with Emile around the floor. She also appreciated the skill he was capable of moving with. He was clumsy when they were younger, but he had grown into his skin. Alex's mother was right about that much.
They danced together for a few minutes longer before the dancers routinely changed their partners around the circle they had formed. Alex and Emile bid each other small goodbyes as they paired off with other partners. Alex absentmindedly danced with each successive partner, only focusing when her partner's skill was less-than-average. However, she soon found herself dancing with an attractive man whose light blonde hair was tied into a ponytail with one lock draped over his left eye.
"Heanius!" Alex gasped at the sight of one of her fellow knights.
"It's good to see you, Alex. I'm surprised that you're here after the duel yesterday." He flashed a smile. His dark eyes sparkled as he examined Alex.
"I'm about as surprised as you are." She chuckled weakly. How many more times she would hear that before the night ended?
"But honestly…I had no idea you could look so amazing."
"Oh, thank you…" Alex's felt her cheeks burning. Why was that so shocking to hear from him?
Alex felt Heanius's fingertips gently rub against her bare shoulder. She felt goosebumps crawl quickly from his touch. Alex's face continued to flush as she bashfully looked at the floor.
"Oh, don't tell me that the iron Alex can be felled by a few sweet compliments?" Heanius laughed in surprise.
"No, it's not that…just, believe it or not—this is my first ball since becoming a Court Knight." She responded delicately. Heanius's breath was starting to become sickly sweet as he gave a breathy chuckle. Her head was beginning to feel like her brain was replaced with a lead weight that was being flung in all directions.
"Well, better late than never, right?" He flashed a smile again.
Alex felt her head spinning faster and faster. Perhaps her dress was too tight? Was she properly breathing? Maybe the bruises really were more serious than she thought? Alex quickly shook her head, took as deep a breath as she could and tried to focus herself. In her focus she stumbled over her feet, momentarily stopping their waltz.
"Are you feeling well?" Heanius slowly eased them back into the triple-metered waltz.
"Ah, yes…I'm fine. I'm just a bit sore from yesterday."
Heanius nodded understandingly. They danced in silent for a few more moments.
Alex tried to convince herself that she was feeling fine, but she could feel her strength slowly leaving her body as she followed his lead. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep track of the right steps to continue on. She hoped she would have at least enough strength to get back to the table.
"How are the Lord and Lady Waldgrave doing?"
"They're doing well. You should come by and visit sometime."
Alex hoped that the idle chatter would distract her from her fading strength.
"I'd quite enjoy that. I must say though, your dress is exquisite."
"Oh, thank you…my mother found it on a trip to the Lundgren province." Alex closed her eyes like she was in pain and exhaled.
"…Are you sure you're all right?" Heanius tilted his head to the side.
"I think so...it's not a lady's place to complain, but you know these boned corsets…"
Alex longed for this dance to be over so she could excuse herself. How long had she been dancing with Heanius? His fingertips began to feel like hot iron against her skin. She tried to adjust her shoulders so he would move his hand, but to no avail. She could feel sweat forming on her neck as the nauseating heat came over her in waves.
Alex then noticed a welcome change in the music. Heanius also took notice and had a sad look on his face. She would use this chance to find a bit of fresh air. She looked up at Heanius and began to curtsey when black spots all but obscured her vision.
"You really don't look so well. Should I go get someone—"
As Heanius responded, Alex's vision went completely black. She grabbed onto his sleeves, but felt her body go limp. She could hear worried cries and shouts, but it all faded into nothingness.
Alex had passed out from overexertion before, but this was a bit different.
She found herself lost in a deep darkness, unable to move or speak. For a moment, she thought she was dead—however, sparks of bright yellow began to illuminate the blackness. They frightened her at first, but became comforting after a few more flashes. With each subsequent spark, she felt warmth and electricity course through her veins. It was calming and empowering to absorb the raw energy from each flash of light. Before Alex noticed a change though, the empowerment slowly began to turn into an uncontrollable force that longed to explode from her body. The calmness she had felt turned into fear as her body threatened to tear itself apart. She wanted to scream and shout for help, but she was unable to produce any sound from her throat. The pain was ripping at her body now for what felt like an eternity. It was becoming unbearable, and Alex began to wish for any kind of release from the pain. There was one large, final flash before everything returned to darkness.
Suddenly, Alex's eyes flew open to an abnormally harsh brightness, but her eyes focused to find Emile's worried face. He held her closely on his lap. She had noticed that a few strands of his dark hair had loosened themselves and that his gray eyes were filled with so much distress. She couldn't recall the last time he looked so scared.
"Emile…?" Alex murmured.
"Are you all right?" He asked.
She attempted to sit herself upright. She looked around, realizing that she was still in the ball room.
"I'm…fine. I guess I just overexerted myself tonight. Is the dress okay?" Alex tried to laugh off her fainting episode, but as she looked around the crowd of people, she caught sight of the mysterious, severe-looking Advisor Regnus. Her face had no expression aside from her dark eyes. They were focused on Alex and seemed to smolder like hot coals. Alex's heart raced with fear.
They locked gazes for a moment, but she quickly turned and left.
Why did Advisor Regnus look so focused on her? That kind of stare was not something you would use when someone fainted.
Alex had no time to ponder these things as she suddenly noticed Heanius sitting by her as well.
"Are you sure you're all right, Alex?"
His voice shocked her. Had he been here the entire time? His face showed a great amount of worry as well, but his voice sounded slightly insincere. Alex shook her head and lifted her hand to her forehead. A dull throbbing began to pound on her thoughts and the lights and chatter in the ballroom were only amplifying the pain.
"I'm sorry…I think I need to go home." She repentantly looked up at Emile.
"Don't be sorry, things like this happen. Let's just get you back before it happens again." His voice was painfully gentle and twisted Alex's heart in knots. Alex wished he wouldn't look so sad—it wasn't his fault.
Alex tried to stand up, but she felt a sharp pain shoot through her head. Emile had a sturdy grip on her waist and kept her from falling to the ground. Alex tried to keep her eyes closed in hopes that she would block out the painful lights. Heanius followed them as they began to move through the crowd of onlookers. Alex heard a muffled voice behind them that sounded like the King's or Prince Julian's.
"Please, give my apologies to the King and Prince Julian." She mumbled as she placed her head against Emile's shoulder. The return back to Alex's home was filled with blurred images and unintelligible voices. She last remembered resting on Emile's shoulder, but then everything went black. Alex feared that she would be exposed to the painful yellow sparks again. But there was nothing. There was no sound, no thoughts.