Elea Carlyle’s castle was fully decked out for the ball, with hundreds of candles and oil lamps making the ballroom seem a little smoky. But the lights glittered off mirrors and polished silver to create a magical effect.
The servants had been getting the castle ready for the past two weeks and it was n6w on full display.
So were the guests. The two dozen paying participants of this year’s Royal Season spent the past few days at dance lessons, dress fittings, and sword fighting classes, with an occasional break to explore Krim’s premier tourism destinations.
As each coach pulled up to disgorge its passenger a flock of liveried servants swooped down to help each guest exit their vehicle and to escort them into the castle.
“Princess Wynefrede Aumberden of the kingdom of Choochovia!” a manservant announced and Wynefrede stepped into the ballroom. She was one of the last ones to arrive, but it was befitting since, thanks to her parents’ money, she had the highest title of them all, second only to the queen herself. As far as she knew, there was no kingdom of Choochovia on Krim. It was probably just an in-joke, a nod to the fact that her family originally made their trillions in the railroad industry.
The queen sat on a gold throne at the far end of the ballroom. When Wynefrede walked in, the queen raised her hand and the string quartet in the corner ceased playing. The four couples who had dared the dance floor moved off to the sides.
The queen motioned for Wynefrede to approach.
Wynefrede stepped forward. The tight lacing of the slightly anachronistic corset under her ball gown helped ensure a perfect posture. Wouldn’t her mother love to see her now? She’d always wanted her daughter to be a little princess. And, now, she was.
Everyone watched as she practically floated down the length of the ballroom towards Elea. She stopped a few steps short of the throne and, in keeping with the general tone of the event, attempted a curtsey.
“Turn around, child,” the queen said, and made a circle in the air with her finger.
Wynefrede spun around and curtsied again.
“Very nice.” Queen Elea tilted her head towards Pleasance, who was standing next to her. “Is that dress by Tottie Lovell?”
“No. The local dressmakers said they were fully booked. We had to import a couple of teams from World of Battle.”
“The dress almost makes up for the unpleasantness of seeing your name the paper this morning,” Elea told Wynefrede. “It ruined my morning. I hate the idea that my name would be associated with any kind of scandal. I hope that you will manage to stay out of the papers in the future?”
Wynefrede nodded. She’d meant to say something snide or sarcastic, but the entire setting was a little overwhelming. Instead, she searched the crow for Margarett and Benedicta and joined them as soon as she made her excuses to the queen.
“We should be out there mingling,” Benedicta said. “But all anyone is talking about is that stupid Nightingale article.”
“Why are you complaining?” asked Margarett. “The rumor about you is that you’re a famous actress.”
“Yes, and now everyone is too intimidated to talk to me. Instead, they gossip about which actress I could be. The whole point of coming to a private world like Krim is that people would be forced to pay attention to me as a person.
“At least people aren’t trying to guess what your financial scandal is,” said Margarett.
“I’m more curious about who just got out of murder rehab,” said Wynefrede. “At least, that sounds interesting. And wouldn’t my parents love that? They spend a fortune to get me on a dating experience and I come home with a murderer.”
“If you don’t get kicked out first,” said Margarett. “I heard that Elea Carlyle is morbidly afraid of scandal.”
“I don’t see why she’d care what a tiny local paper says on some out-of-the-way little world,” said Benedicta.
“It’s not just the local paper,” said Margarett. “Haven’t you noticed? There are a bunch of off-world reporters here. They might not be able to write about anything that happens in-world due to the anti-spoiler laws, but if it involves the real world, they can.”
“And Elea Carlyle is here on Krim under her real name,” said Wynefrede. “If she’s hobnobbing with someone who’s a murderer in real life, that would be a real story.”
“I knew that,” said Benedicta. “I’ve been stalked by the paparazzi often enough. For some reason, I thought that Krim would be safer. It’s private. And there aren’t any cameras allowed.”
Wynefrede looked around. There were dozens of servants in the room, carrying drinks around, serving as guards, or just standing around, waiting to be called on.
Margarett glanced at a small crowd of servants standing near the main entrance to the ballroom. “I bet a good number of them are actually reporters,” she said. “Just waiting for us to give away our real identities and do something newsworthy.”
“It doesn’t seem right,” said Benedicta. “I bet Royal Season paid them a fortune to come to Krim. And now they’re just going to stab us in the back.”
“Speaking of stabbings, are either of you planning to go watch the battle tomorrow?” Wynefrede asked.
“Are you kidding?” said Benedicta. “How can I pass up the opportunity to have a genteel picnic on a hillside and watch while two armies hack each other to pieces?”
“I’m in, too,” said Margarett.
“Meanwhile, we should get out there and mingle.” Wynefrede nodded at the other guest. “I bet all that gossiping about us has whetted their appetites and now they’re just aching to get the real scoop.” She waved at a trio of gentlemen standing near a floor-to-ceiling window and holding drinks. They immediately straightened their backs and smiled at her.
She turned away. “What are they doing now?” she asked the other two women. Margarett glanced over Wynefrede’s shoulder. “They’re talking, about us I think. Oh, one of them is coming over. I think he’s going to ask you to dance.”
“Oh, good,” said Wynefrede. “I hope it’s the murderer.”