Pavane: a majestic processional and introductory dance of the Meridellian aristocracy. To music in 2/2 or 4/4 time, the dancers rise onto the balls of their feet and sway from side to side.
"Pull it harder," I urge Manif. The maid pulls the strings of my corset tighter and tighter, trying for that becoming hourglass shape the dress is made for. When it is just right, or as close to perfect as we can hope for, she helps me into the beautiful purple dress. The green Xweetok steps back to admire my outfit.
A glance in the mirror tells me what I already know. The soft velvet fabric falls gently to my knees, and the dress, instead of making my wings look garish and awkward, accentuates their see-through vulnerability. I smile.
"Thank you, Manif. You are dismissed." She nods and quickly leaves the room. I return my cobalt-eyed gaze to my full-length mirror with pleasure.
I am beautiful, a good thing for a Shoyru princess to be. My striped pelt fairly glitters in my room's soft light. I will have many dance partners at the ball.
The ball. In an hour, I will be standing under bright lights, swaying to music as pets jostle for my attention. And one two three four, one two three... I count off the start of a dance and begin to whirl in front of my mirror. The violet dress flies out to the sides of my legs, almost like a carnival ride in how it spins and dips.
I stop twirling, and the skirt twists around my legs. I look in the mirror one last time, for strength, to fortify myself. And one two three four, one two three.
The ball has started. The band strikes up a slow-moving number; all around me, dancers pair up and rock from side to side. And one two three four, one two three. In my high heels, this is hard to accomplish, but I'd like to try anyway. Can't have the princess sitting out. This is my big time.
A towering orange Lupe bows deeply in front of me and offers his hand. My tiny hand is dwarfed by his large furry one, I notice, as I step onto the floor with him.
This dance leaves time for talking. The Lupe smiles at me, showing a mouth full of perfectly white manicured teeth. "I'm Wren, milady," he says, ducking his head respectfully.
I'm confused. Isn't Wren a prince? Only royals are allowed here, and his clothes suggest an affluent home. Why should he be respectful to me? We should be equals.
"I'm Princess Nephi, as I'm sure you know..." I trail off, unsure. I do not know what to say to this courteous gentleman. "What kingdom are you from, Prince Wren?" And one two three four, one two three.
His lip twitches up for a fraction of a second before settling back into place, not even enough to really be called a smile. "I'd rather you not know, if it's all the same, milady."
"Why?" The question bursts out of my mouth before I can stop it. "I apologize. I did not mean to be so abrupt." I stare at the floor, a blush racing to color my cheeks. When I have collected myself, I notice that the slow song is still playing. I chance a look at the band; they are watching Wren and me dance.
"It's a long story." He is also studiously inspecting the tiles at our feet.
"Whenever someone says that to me, I know they just don't want to tell me," I snap. Embarrassed, I back away from his suddenly-constricting arms. With a flourish, the royal band ends the song. I glare at them, promising mentally that I will have them punished for letting us dance as long as we had.
They seem to understand my stare, for they burst into a rendition of an upbeat one-two-one-two-three tune, distracting me.
Wren is at my elbow, turning me around. "Get off of me!" I sputter, wrenching my arm from his grasp.
"If you'll follow me, milady." His voice is sharp. I flinch instinctively before following him to another room.
He watches my eyes intently. "I didn't want to create a scene in the middle of the ball." Wren's tone is still pointedly biting. He coughs and clears his throat. "Forgive me, milady."
"A scene?" I cry out. "A scene! My subjects will talk more because you forced me to leave my own ball!"
Wren looks slightly amused. "Goodbye, then." He walks out, back to the party room. I am left alone in my pretty dress, with my pretty tears running down my face.
I just offended a prince. Moreover, I just screamed at a prince, and a respectful one at that! But I must wipe my tears away and go play the perfect hostess.
I do just that, dancing with every partner in my ever-growing line of hopeful dancers. As I twirl, I am constantly aware of Wren; he dances with all the girls in the room. He is a graceful performer, gently guiding his dance partner through the steps.
The ball is almost over, and the crowd is thinning as gentlemen and ladies decide to set off for home. I slump down in my chair, waiting for the maids and servants to begin clearing the hall so I can leave.
"Would you spare me a dance, milady?"
My head jerks up at the sound of the familiar voice. A tall orange Lupe stands before me, bowing deeply. A sarcastic smile lingers on his lips.
I frown, confused. "Pardon me, sir, but I do believe you had a dance earlier, and showed no interest in another one?"
"I upset milady before I could ask for another," Wren says with a smile, standing up.
I search for the right words to send him away, settling on, "The ball is over."
"Oh, but I believe milady is mistaken," he replies easily. He gestures to the band, and they begin to play a deliberate dance.
"All right," I whisper.
"Pavane," Wren tells me.
What? I think. I echo my thought out loud. Wren grins and explains the measured steps we are taking. We are the only couple still dancing, and the hall is empty except for us.
The music stops. Wren bows again, his snout almost brushing the ground. "Thank you for the dance... dances... milady."
"You're very welcome, sir... Wren." A thought strikes me suddenly, a reverberation of something he said earlier. I'd rather you not know, if it's all the same, milady.
"What?" he asks, reading my expression with something like apprehension on his face.
"What kingdom are you from, Prince?" I say lightly. Wren drops his gaze, biting his lip.
"Well..." he trails off. "I'm from Darigan Citadel."
"Darigan Citadel!" My kingdom has been at war with Darigan for decades, each generation inheriting hatred and disgust from the last one.
In an instant, guards are upon Wren. "Spy," they hiss at him. One spits on Wren's feet. He doesn't protest, doesn't struggle, just waits while they drag him away, like he's been waiting for this to happen, and he's glad he took the risk all the same.
"No, wait!" I scream. I run after them and try to yank Wren's arms from their concrete grasp. "He's no spy," I spit out, furiously glaring into their blank eyes. "Don't touch him."
They growl back at me, ignoring my pleas. They should back down. Everyone does, for the princess.
But they don't.
Wren is in jail. Wren is in jail.
The thought has been running through my head since yesterday, the day of the ball. I couldn't possibly save him—he's a spy—he's not a spy—from Darigan. The words knock against my mind aggressively, attacking me until I can think no more.
I have to help him.
"Now there's a thought I like," I say aloud, fond of the sound of determination in my voice. I hear it so rarely, as princesses almost never get the chance to be determined. We're supposed to be pretty statuettes, like dolls on a shelf.
I run to my balcony window, throwing it wide. The stillness of the dark outside is a balm to me, and I smile. With the night as my witness, I quickly dress in trousers and a blouse, things I usually hide in the back of my closet. Tonight is different. Tonight, I am not a princess.
Tonight, I am a criminal.
It's not hard to sneak out of the castle. Because I know all the corridors and the watchmen who guard them, I manage the feat easily and am soon on my way to the Meridell Jail. I crouch on one side of a stone corner and catch my breath. I can hear the guards talking, endlessly talking, on the other side.
"Oh yeah, guess I'd better get started," a voice says. I can hear the guard heaving himself up—must be a Skeith, by the sound of his effort—and starting for my corner. With a squeak, I back up. A window catches my attention far above my head.
Interesting. It's unbarred. I unfurl my wings and force them to beat faster and faster. Royals are discouraged from using our wings to fly. They're more of a decoration.
I just barely make it through the window. I perch on the sill and look down. I'm right above a desk, where a bored guard guides his pen through eternal patterns on the tabletop. I look around for inspiration.
I give a silent plea to Fyora and jump.
Just as I had hoped, I land squarely on the guard's head. My weight, little as it is, knocks him out of his chair. His head hits the ground with a crack. I wince, but I have no qualms about taking his keys.
Wren's cell is the closest to the desk. I unlock it and wake him up, shaking him violently until he hisses at me to stop.
"Sorry," I whisper before leading him out of there.
The front door is unguarded now; the Skeith guards must have gone on their rounds around the building. We run back to the castle, where Wren bids me his goodbye.
I have so much I want to say, but the words are stilled on my lips when he turns his back on me and leaves.
Just like that.
I verbally berate the guards for letting a prisoner escape, and I make a public announcement declaring that, because of the "inability" of the guards, Wren has earned his freedom. He is welcome to come back to Meridell any time he likes, and he will not be touched.
He doesn't take up my offer until two weeks later.
"Thank you, milady."
"I'm no milady. Call me Princess Nephi, if you must call me anything at all. Nephi is preferable."
His eyebrows twitch in amusement. "Thank you, Nephi, for rescuing me, the warrior in distress."
"It's no problem. You're not a spy." The words seem inadequate compared to what we went through, but Wren accepts them. I smile, swinging back and forth on the beautiful porch swing. We're sitting on the patio out back of the castle.
Wren smiles as well, looking content. He suddenly stands up, holds out his arms, and begins humming. I get up too, and we begin dancing.