Chapter Five

All the murmurs and whispers behind my back were going to drive me mad and quick. Even the few stares weren't that bad.

The best was the one girl who looked me dead in the eye and said, "You're supposed to be dead."

"Well, you're supposed to have manners," was my response before I took Karenna's arm and strode off in the opposite direction.

Karenna leaned in close, and said, "You shouldn't let it bother you."

"How can it not?"

We strolled to the other side of the room, away from most of the other girls, grabbing a glass of lemonade from a table as we went. I leaned against the wall, sipping my drink slowly as I surveyed my surroundings.

All the girls participating in the Princessions and their companions were being sequestered in a small room off of the main ballroom. We were all waiting for our call into the hall to be formally introduced in front of the nobles assembled for the start of the Season.

Kornelius had given me a little bit of a pep talk – basically to keep an even head about the whole thing and try to get along with the other ten girls present. Imogen's advice was a little different. She told me to find who I could keep on my side and stay away from those girls who would try to discredit me. It was a nice way of saying to avoid Bianka, and I was more than happy to do that.

I spotted Morgana on the other side of the room and with a smile and wave, she was quickly making her way over to where I stood. I introduced her to Karenna and she me to her Aunt Josefina.

"I really have to ask where you found that fabric?" I asked as she slid up beside me.

Morgana looked down at herself with a shrug. "This old thing? It was a dye mistake I had a couple of months ago when Father left me alone in the workshop. I kind of like it though."

"You cannot tell if it's meant to be purple or pink."

"I think that is what I like best," Morgana giggled. "So, you scope out your competition yet?"

My lemonade almost got caught in my throat. "My competition?"

"Of course. I've been nosing around. Everyone is saying that you and Lady Bianka are the clear favorites for Prince Laurence's hand. Ladies Violetta and Aryanna have been mentioned in passing but only because their fathers are extremely wealthy, but they do not have the connections your father or Lord Damien have."

"Wonderful," I groaned.

"I would think you would be happy to hear it, dear," Aunt Josefine commented.

"I just…" I started but Karenna put a hand on my shoulder and leaning in answered for me.

"She is happy. Just a little surprised, right?"

"Of course," I muttered, staring into my glass.

"Besides," Morgana continued, "I'll be on your side."

"You don't have to do that."

Morgana waved her hand, plucking a glass from a passing tray. "You know how I feel about Bianka. And even though I have little interest in our dear Prince, it doesn't mean that I don't want the best for him. He deserves that much."

We talked a little bit more before we were summoned to form lines. Morgana gave my hand a reassuring squeeze before finding her place a couple of spots in front of me. The line felt very random but there had to be some sort of order since I found myself at the very end of the line. Wonderful. I wanted to disappear somewhere in the middle where no one would pay that much attention to me, but being last was like being first (where Bianka stood) where all the focus would be.

I heaved a heavy breath, feeling Karenna hand upon my shoulder. I glanced over at her and she simply smiled.

"Just breath. You will be fine."

The King was giving some sort of welcoming speech as the doors were opening, but I couldn't make out a single word he was saying. I looked over at Karenna who simply shrugged. I was going to have to ask someone later.

The line slowly dwindled until it was just Karenna and I. I headed towards the door and found Kornelius immediately on the other side. He offered me his hand and I clutched on it as if my life depended on it.

All the people were on either side of the room, leaving a clear walkway from the door to the front where there stood a raised dais. There the King sat upon his throne with Imogen at his left side, Eryk dutifully standing behind her chair. The seat to the King's right was empty for at the front of the platform was Laurie.

I had seen him dressed up in all his finery before, stiff black pants tucked into knee high boots, crisp white shirt, elegantly tied white cravat, and black coat. He had a sash of black edged in orange – his Colours – across his chest, my fur cloak about his shoulders and his silver crown resting low on his brow. His face was stiff and he looked uncomfortable with his hands folded behind his back.

But the light seemed to come back into his eyes as he saw me walking towards him.

I had thought you changed your mind. His voice echoed in my mind.

Couldn't let you have all the fun.

Even though his expression did not change, I heard him chuckle.

I am going to have to pick someone to dance with first this evening. Laurie continued talking even though, my father was making the formal introductions. It's not like he didn't know how I was.

Oh, really. What are you implying? I asked as I raised my hand. He took it in his gloved grasped and placed a light kiss to the top of it.

You will see.

My eyes grew side of their own accord as Kornelius led me over to the join the other girls.

Even though there had to have been at least a hundred people in the hall, the clicking of the heels of Laurie's boots against the white marble echoed as he stepped down from the dais.

With his arms still tucked behind his back, Laurie began to stroll between the gathered crowd and the rest of us.

"As my father, King Nikolas, has extended a message of greeting and welcomes, I would like to do the same," Laurie began, his voice ringing off every surface, commanding the attention of those gathered. "Tonight marks the beginning of the Summer Court, where we welcome back old friends and maybe make a few new ones. To enjoy our time together, to discuss the trappings of the past and to plan for a brighter future.

"Tonight also marks another very special beginning. As the King has announced by the end of the season and my twenty-third Name-Day, I will choose a bride. So, thank you my lords for presenting me with your daughters, granddaughters, sisters, nieces, and cousins. I am not only looking for a wife but a she-elf who can one day be Queen of this realm and rule beside me. This is no easy task that I would present to you, but if someone in your life didn't think you could handle the pressure, you would not be here right now.

"But for now, let us enjoy our evening together and I would like to start it off with a dance."

The mischievous twinkle in Laurie's eye made my heart fall into my stomach. He turned to the line of girls again, some clutching their hands to each other. Some more poise than the others. I caught Bianka out of the corner of my eye fixing her dress and looking rather smug as if she knew who he was going to pick.

But I knew Laurie better than that.

Don't you dare. I hissed as I saw him slowly working his way to the end of the line. Closer and closer to where I stood.

And why not? He asked with a chuckle, pausing for a moment to peak at one of the girls I didn't know. She looked quite ready to throw up.

It would look like you favor me.

But don't I?

"Lady Marsella Kornelius," Laurie's strong voice echoed throughout the room as he stopped before me with a click of his heels and a shallow bow.

I hate you. "Your Highness," I replied out loud, dipping into a deep curtsey.

No, you don't. "Would you do the honor of dancing with me?"

Oh, yes I do. "I would be most honored."

You think me wrong for wanting to dance with my friend?

I laid my hand in his as he led me out onto the floor. I picked up my skirt with my left hand as his wrapped around my waist; our right hands connecting over our heads.

I know you're not that stupid.

The first notes of the music started and in an instant, I know what he was up to. It was the Avhestyn. Laurie had picked it as the first dance. He had planned this.

I've wanted to dance this with you since the Fall Festival. Ever since I saw the way you mastered it with our dear Captain. And yes, I did plan this. And yes, I am trying to make a statement.

And what would that be? I asked even though part of me already knew the answer.

He twirled me around three times before I faced him again.

This choice is not mine to make. It was made for me from the moment I was born. People think that I have been presented with twelve possible brides that if anyone of them were to impress me enough, that I would choose them. But I have no choice. I have never had a choice. My life, my heart is not my own to decide. The Crown dictates what my life is supposed to be, what my life is to become. I chose you for this dance because not a single one of them excepted it. I allowed myself that one moment of selfishness. To put what I want before what others expect of me. And right now, I want to dance with you.

In all the time, we had spent together, I had never heard Laurie speak that way – so lonely, so desperate. Probably more than anyone else, I understand what he meant. I had spent almost my entire life controlled and watched by Faeries, never being able to take a single step out of line for fear of their retribution. For Laurie, it was the same. There was a certain expectation for him and he had to follow it even if it was not what he would want for himself.

Forgive me. I whispered as the dance was finally drawing to a close and I was inhaling large amounts of air through my nose.

There is nothing to forgive. And I should be apologizing to you.

For a dance?

For drawing so much attention to you.

I didn't quite grasp what he meant until the dance ended and he returned me to my father. He lightly kissed the top of my hand again before taking his leave. He turned to his place beside the King, my eyes never leaving him as he sat down.

I couldn't really say what happened next. We were given a few more minutes to mingle with each other before the dinner was going to be served.

Karenna grabbed my arm and dragged me to the far side of the room before I could get ambushed by the other girls. I leaned heavily against the wall for a moment, almost wanted to disappear within it.

"He has put a target on your back," Karenna whispered into my ear as she handed me a drink from a passing tray.

The wine burned a hole in my stomach.

"What do you mean?"

She didn't answer but jerked her head in the direction of Bianka, who looked very pale and much like she was going to be sick. There were at least four or five other girls surrounding her trying to make sure she was okay.

"She acts like she was just publicly scorned," I muttered more to myself as I took another slow sip from my glass.

"She has," Karenna hissed.

"Now really, Marsie, after being the complete center of attention, I'm quite surprised to find you all the way over here," Morgana all but shouted as she walked nearer, trailed by two of the other girls I didn't know, one in a burgundy dress and the other in pale pink.

I cleared my throat and tried to stand up straighter as if I had earned the honor to dance with Laurie.

"I needed a moment to collect myself that is all," I answered, crossed my arms, my glass lightly tapping my cheek.

"I would too," the girl in pink swooned. "The Prince is so handsome."

"Oh stop it, you nitwit! Can't you see were standing in the presence of our future queen."

I almost choked on my own tongue.

"Really, the both of you!" Morgana laughed with a shake of her head. No doubt trying to hide my surprise. "Marsie, let me introduce to you Lady Viviana Tomas and Lady Laryssa Stefan. They're cousins."

Laryssa, the one in pink, blinked her big green eyes several times as she regarded me. "But don't you think he's handsome?" Her voice was little and very confused.

Viviana whacked the smaller girl upside the head. "Are you done embarrassing yourself? Honestly, I'm just glad he picked someone other than willow branch over there."

"Bianka?" I finally managed to force something out.

"She has a name?" Viviana sniffed. "Oh yes, princess perfect Bianka. She has only been reminding everyone of that since she was thirteen. I can't stand her."

"Must you always be so mean, Vivi?" Laryssa piped up. "Mother always says we must be kind to everyone even if we do not like them."

Viviana rolled her eyes. "This is why I'm glad it's your father who's my relation. Besides, I'm on Lady Marsella's side."

"Are we picking sides?" Morgana interjected as she slid up beside me, linking our arms together.

"Of course," Viviana responded.

"I don't think that is a good idea," I muttered.

Karenna nudged her elbow into my other side, forcing me to look at her. She had her eyebrows raised as she looked the other girls over. She leaned in close to my ear again. I listened carefully, even as Morgana was saying something quite loudly again to Viviana and Laryssa about Laurie's finer qualities.

"It would be wise to keep whatever friends you can get, especially among the other girls in the Princessions. As you saw, there are those who would side with Bianka against you."

"But I don't want to get picked."

"That is no longer your choice."

"Marsie!" Morgana jabbed me drawing my attention back to the conversation. "The three of us are going to sit together when they call dinner, would you like to join us?"

Laryssa was bouncing on her toes with her hands clutched together as if she was waiting to receive the best present ever. Her infectious energy reminded me a lot of Imogen.

"That would be wonderful," I replied with a smile. "It is always nice to spend time with friends."

Karenna excused herself to find Kornelius before the dinner and made me promise to play nice with my new-found friends. As soon as she was gone, Viviana come up to my other side to take that arm.

"I like making friends with common enemies," she laughed. "Makes it more fun to plot against them."

"I don't think there will be…" I started but Morgana interrupted me.

"Oh there will be plotting. Look." She discreetly nodded her head in the direction of Bianka and her friends. "Do you not think they are trying to find ways to get rid of you? And get Prince Laurence's attention back on her."

"If you want, I'm well-versed in spreading nasty rumors," Viviana offered. "Morgana, remember last season where I convinced the entire court that Lord Basil's son had a tail."

Morgana grinned from ear to ear. "That poor boy and only because he had crush on you."

"You were simply trying to get rid of him because you had eyes for the Captain," Laryssa interjected.

I bit my tongue from asking a stupid question.

"Speaking of the Captain, I haven't seen him around at all," Morgana mused.

"He's not here," I answered, trying to make talking about Donavan seem natural and not like it was jabbing a knife into my heart.

"Oh, where'd he go?" Laryssa asked.

"He had business at home to attend to. I don't know when he will return."

The bell for dinner rang and we slowly made our way towards the table designated for the Princessions participants.

"Well, that's unfortunate," Viviana sighed. "He was quite nice to look at."

That made me laugh.