The next twenty minutes were a panicked frenzy of skirts, hair pins and stockings. She spent a good five minutes frantically attempting to lace the back of her dress and corset by herself before finally admitting defeat and stumbling over to the door to yell at one of the passing maids. She'd horribly startled the girl, but she barely had time to throw a "Thank you!" over her shoulder as she raced out into the hall. Her corset, pulled just a little too tight, squeezed her lungs and threatened to reduce her to fainting as she hurtled through the main doors and down the palace's stone steps to the enormous courtyard where her mother, father, elder brother, and a few of the most important members of the household were already gathered.
"I hope you won't be this late to the ball this evening, Oriana." Her father said as she rushed to take her place next to her brother Ophir. Oriana smiled guiltily at him.
"I apologise, father." While she could push her luck with her mother, her father would stand for none of it. He gave her a single, silent nod of acceptance and then turned back to face the gates.
"What was it this time?" Ophir whispered from the corner of his mouth, though his tone was far more playful than their parents and Oriana couldn't help grinning.
"Just making sure I get enough beauty sleep to make a good impression for the kingdom." Oriana said, and Ophir snorted loudly. Their father gave him a sharp look and Ophir quickly made a show of clearing his throat.
"Sorry, Father, there was something in my throat." Their parents rewarded Ophir with a hard, warning stare, but Oriana knew Ophir would get away with it. He always did.
While Oriana resembled their mother, Ophir was practically an exact copy of their father. Both tall, slim men with dark chestnut hair – though her father had a slight belly and his hair was streaked with grey. Her father had trained the servants well, and they revered Ophir, their young lord, almost as much as they did her father. They all knew that one day Ophir would rule over them and he would remember those who were good to him and those who weren't.
Oriana, though undoubtedly respected as none wanted to face the wrath of Lord Oberon Cagiano, was not revered. She would be married off soon, so what she thought of them scarcely mattered. She sometimes had fun with this; testing servants with impossible tasks and rudeness to see how far they would stretch before they broke or refused. It wasn't like there was much else she was allowed to do.
Oriana swept her eyes around the empty courtyard taking in lazily the pale grey flagstones, empty cloisters, and the old marble statue of some distant relative long dead with his sword pointed skyward. Oriana would much rather have waited in the entrance hall where there was at least a few pictures and flower displays to admire. She shifted from foot to foot impatiently until her father shot her a fiercely quelling look.
At last, the sound of horns broke the silence in the courtyard and a servant cried out, "The royal party of Grishmore approaches!" Then horses were filling the courtyard faster than Oriana could count them as the first guests arrived. The three horses leading the party stopped a few feet in front of the steps Oriana's family waited imperiously at the top of. A portly man with greying sandy hair dismounted first, and the rest of his party followed suit while he moved to the horse beside him to help a plump woman down.
It wasn't either of them that caught Oriana's attention, it was the boy. It was the boy with soft, tufty blonde hair, eyes the blue of a summer's sky, and the grace of fourteen swans when he dismounted his dove-white horse. Her head swam and for a moment, she wasn't sure if he was real or not. He was the precise image of the boy she had danced with in her dream not an hour ago, right down to the freckle in his left eyebrow. She had thought, in her dream, that the boy was the most beautiful thing she'd seen in all her life; and now she set eyes upon him in the real world he was, if anything, better.
The boy turned to follow his parents who were climbing the immaculate stone steps towards Oriana and her family. For a heartbeat, he looked up at her, and Oriana felt she might faint.
Ophir gave a snorting cough beside her, and Oriana's gaze unwillingly snapped from the boy to her brother. Ophir raised a dark eyebrow and shot her a look that mocked her more effectively than any of his sarcastic taunts ever could. Oriana delicately closed her mouth and discreetly wiped the beginnings of drool away from the corners of her lips. Shooting Ophir a frosty glare that seemed only to increase his mirth, Oriana turned back to the people now reaching the top of the steps.
"Oberon!" The sandy haired man embraced her father as though he was an old friend.
"Henry." Her father returned the embrace more politely than enthusiastically but smiled nevertheless.
"And Cordelia!" The man broke away from her father and moved to her mother. "My, my, you haven't aged a day!" He treated her to the same exuberant hug - which her mother returned even more stiffly than her father had. The man seemed to sense her discomfort for he released her quickly and turned now to Ophir.
"Well, aren't you quite the strapping young lad! You look just like your father when he was your age! Not so young now, eh Ron?" Henry grinned cheekily at their father. Oriana exchanged a furtive glance with Ophir, and saw her own confusion mirrored on his face. For someone apparently so familiar with their parents, neither sibling could remember a man named Henry ever being mentioned, let alone visiting. "You must be about the same age as my boy!" Henry continued exuberantly, "Eric, come 'ere."
Oriana's prince charming, Eric, appeared immediately at his father's side and Oriana let the discussion of sparring partners float to the edges of her awareness as she took the opportunity to examine the boy more closely. She wasn't disappointed. From his long golden lashes to his perfectly polished riding boots he was everything she had ever dreamed of. The sunlight glowed around him and made him shine like a star from the heavens. He was awe-striking in every way.
Then his eyes were meeting hers again and as all the breath rushed from her lungs she became dimly aware that Henry's greetings had turned upon her.
"And this... This must be Oriana." She was uncomfortably aware of the careful calculation in his gaze as his eyes trailed across her face and along her body as if searching for gold. A heartbeat later he had swept her into the same eager embrace he had treated the rest of her family to and all traces of calculation had been replaced by a warm smile. "Stunning to behold." He declared as he released her and a smug grin eclipsed Oriana's face.
Eric stepped around his father, reaching for Oriana's hand and pressing the softest of kisses to the back of it. Oriana struggled to draw breath. Her head was swimming as Eric met her eyes and she saw an almost greedy pleasure there. "Might I have the pleasure of your first dance this evening, princess?"
Oriana struggled to gather her senses enough to form a coherent sentence. Before she could manage it, her father spoke for her.
"I'm afraid Oriana's first dance is already spoken for." The only pair of eyes that didn't leap to her father in surprise were her mother's – which were glaring at Henry's unintroduced wife as though willing her to light on fire.
Henry blinked in surprise, bushy eyebrows drawing together in confusion. "I thought we were the first guests to arrive?" A whisper of accusation slithered upon the words.
"You are!" Oriana spoke before her father could and all eyes, even her mother's, swivelled to her. Her cheeks glowed, but with rage at her father rather than embarrassment. "And I –
"Enough, Oriana!" Her father broke across her before she could even begin.
"Be quiet!" Her father had turned slightly purple and Oriana reluctantly shut her mouth – though she continued to glower openly at her father. "My daughter has forgotten that her hand in the first dance was requested by letter; I'm afraid it has long been spoken for. Her second dance, however, is still free."
It wasn't clear to Oriana if her father had meant to placate Henry or highlight that he and his son had been dubbed second best. Henry didn't seem certain either, as he did not answer at once but rather regarded Oriana's father with a shrewdness that bordered on mistrust. "I wasn't aware that dances with the princess could be secured in writing."
"It was a special case." And though her father smiled, there was an obvious mockery in it this time.
"I see." Henry's face was stony. After a moment of very pregnant silence, his face cracked into a jovial smile again. "Well, I daresay that my son's charming enough that a second dance will be just as beneficial as a first." He was better at disguising it than her father, but Oriana could have sworn that the Henry's smile was just as mocking as her father's had been.
"We shall see. But you must be tired from your journey. Our servants will escort you to your quarters." Her father answered and though the words were friendly, his face did not even pretend to be so.
Eric took Oriana's hand once more as his mother and father began to advance up the castle steps. "I will count every second until we see each other again." he pressed his lips to the back of her hand again and shot her a dazzling grin that put her in danger of swooning, before following his parents into the castle.
The moment his trailing boot heel disappeared through the door, Oriana's mother was upon her. "Close your mouth, you silly girl." She pulled Oriana away from Ophir and berated her in furious undertones, "I don't want to see that kind of gormless display from you ever again. You are the princess of Mithmorgo, and I expect you to conduct yourself with at least a shred of decorum. Your father and I have spent too long organising this ball for you to wreck everything by fainting into the arms of the first suitor you –
"Suitor?" Oriana's heart beat so fast and loud she was convinced for a moment she could hear it. Any resentment she felt towards her mother for her embarrassing chastisement immediately surrendered to the tsunami of jubilation exploding through her. "I'm to be married?" Her smile stretched so wide her jaw began to ache and she thought she could feel the beginnings of happy tears forming in her eyes. "Oh, mother, thank you!" She threw her arms around her startled mother. She patted Oriana gingerly on the back as though expecting her to change her mind at any moment. When Oriana finally let go, she regarded her daughter with a pleased but slightly tight-lipped smile.
"Well... I'm glad you've decided not to be difficult about this."
Despite the reprimand snaked into her mother's tone, Oriana didn't feel the least bit ashamed. She was difficult when, and only when, it was necessary. It was hardly her fault that her parents didn't understand that the things they found frivolous were what made her life worth living.
"Mother, this is what I've always wanted." Oriana replied truthfully. Her mother gave her the same, tight smile and Oriana wondered if her lips had forgotten how to curve upwards properly. It was a shame. She might have been beautiful if she had smiled more.
"I can see you're excited, and I'm glad. But remember: you're a princess. Your marriage must be to someone your father and I deem suitable." Oriana barely suppressed an eye roll.
"How could I forget? You remind me at least seven times a day." Her mother's lips tightened even more.
"Yes, well, to be a princess is to -
Obnoxious trumpeting overrode whatever her mother had said and they both turned, startled, to see the next party of guests pouring into the courtyard.
"Behave this time!" Oriana's mother muttered the words furiously into her ear before hurrying back to take her place next to Oriana's father. Oriana too returned to her place in the line, but she was hardly conscious of doing so. Her mind was full of church bells and wedding vows and a groom with shaggy blonde hair who shone like a star beside her. After all, Eric was a prince. How could her parents find him anything other than suitable?
Well, well, well. Someone's well and truly fallen for their prince within 30 seconds of meeting him. I'm sure there's no possible way this could end badly. Still, better Eric than King Garrett, right? He seemed awfully suspicious, I wonder what he's up to? There's only one way to find out what happens next. I'll be right here again next week with an update!
Someone's well and truly fallen for their prince within 30 seconds of meeting him. I'm sure there's no possible way this could end badly. Still, better Eric than King Garrett, right? He seemed awfully suspicious, I wonder what he's up to? There's only one way to find out what happens next. I'll be right here again next week with an update!
If you want to read some more of my work in the meantime, I've got an E-Book out on a site called ISSUU. The book's called Just Between Us. It's a YA short story about a girl called Serena discovering the real reason her mum's dead set against her best friend. Very different from this story, but just as intriguing, I promise! Here's the official blurb to entice you all more:
"He's not really your friend, Serena, he's –
Serena's best friend Alex has picked her up when she's at her worst more times than she can count. You'd think her mum would be grateful, but she isn't. On the contrary, she does everything she can to keep the two apart. Is she just being over-protective after everything Serena's been through? Or is there something more sinister going on?
You'll find the link in my profile if you want to check it out - looking forward to seeing what you think!