When the ceremony ended, we filed out, two by two, just like we came in, but to my confusion, the line kept filing along, along an ornate corridor, then out into a long covered walk that looked vaguely like a line of Japanese toriis, except holding up a roof. Maybe it was the fact that all the columns and crossbeams were painted red.
Although we were maintaining the line, the silence ended. I was hearing chattering ahead and behind, so I felt okay with leaning over and asking in a whisper to my maid Esrene, “Where are we going?”
She looked over at me, surprised. “Nobody told you, Young Mistress? The Welcome Ball is next.”
Suddenly, the reason they made the students dress as if for a ball became clear. And the reason Carson had forced me into a quick refresher course in dancing. My resentment over lost sleep vanished in an instant. Although someone really could have thought to tell me. I really need to work with the household staff on communication, consultation and confirmation.
It was a darned good thing he did it, because I’m terrible at dancing. No, wait, that’s not actually true. I’m competent at dancing. Let me describe the issue accurately.
Carson, my dance tutor, and Benedetta, my etiquette tutor, use each other as demonstration models, having me watch them interact, then having me take Benedetta’s place. So she watches my feeble attempts to emulate her graceful perfection.
Once, while watching the ten-year-old Tiana dancing with her husband, Benedetta stopped the couple and made Tiana dance with her, instead… with Tiana leading as the ‘man’ of the couple. After a dozen or so bars of music, she stopped, and then did one of her signature whacks on my head with her fan. (They aren’t hard, just surprising, because she’s preternaturally fast with a fan.)
“It is as I thought, Young Mistress,” she told her.
“What?” Tiana demanded, while rubbing her head and looking resentful.
“You dance like a man.”
Tiana couldn’t really help it. She’d been in sword instruction since the age of eight, and she had developed leg motions that emphasized and capitalized on body strength. But from that day forward, she’d purposefully repeated to herself, gracefully, gracefully, with each step, striving to become a lithesome flower like Benedetta or Mother on the ballroom floor. She had improved a lot, apparently, but I wasn’t feeling the confidence from her.
For obvious reasons, I and my inner Robert were in even more need of that fluid elegance that the couple had shown Tiana. The last thing I wanted to hear from any of these pearls of society now surrounding me was, “You dance like a man.”
Although, as soon as I had that thought, I scowled to myself. Shouldn’t I be happy to hear that I dance like a man?
When I practiced my sword, when I fought, even when I fed, I felt Robert’s masculinity very much alive and well. In those moments, I was living a male dream, doing manly things, kicking ass and engaging in intimate contact with comely beauties. Frankly, the Robert in me was exulting in it. So why was I now hopeful I could be as properly feminine as my fellow female students?
An image of the original Tiana was also alive in me, though, so I think the original Tiana’s mortification when Benedetta told her “you dance like a man” had cut deep enough to reach my own heart. That was my best guess. Or maybe I just felt like I owed it to Tiana and my teachers to do my best as her.
At the other end of the walk, we entered the Banquet Hall, a Viennese dream of a ballroom, and the two-by-two procession broke apart. Students began forming up into groups, and conversations began. The little dance orchestra at one end of the hall began warming up, but my sensitive ears were still able to follow many of the conversations. It was often about the new war, about fears and worries, but also about which boys the girls wanted to dance with.
War or no war, they had all been looking forward to this dance.
I noticed guys didn’t seem to have those conversations as much. My Robert side knew why. Guys don’t tip each other off about which girl they’re going after first.
Esrene and Ferna bowed and informed me that they were expected to help with the buffet.
“Hold on,” I raised my voice slightly just as they were about to turn and leave. My fan was already in my hand, since the evening was quite warm, so I snapped it closed and held it up like a teacher’s pointer.
It was probably because of all the pomp and circumstance and rigid adherence to etiquette that I had just been going through, but at that moment I was as fired up over doing things properly as Benedetta might have been, and they had just committed a serious foul.
Both of them looked confused, but they turned back to face me and listen.
I waggled the closed fan as I told them, “You are no longer in Pendor. This is Atius. Maids do not bow here. They curtsey.”
Part of me was thinking, am I really this uptight about such a thing? But I had already opened my mouth, so I had to see it through. And in the same moment, I realized I had a very good reason, for their own sakes, to correct them.
Both of them paled, and then did their fumbling best to imitate what they had seen others do. Dorians always bow, so curtseying was a foreign act for them.
I was bothered by the fear on their faces, but I had to keep up my act. I gave a slight smile, tipped my nose up just slightly, and declared, “Well done. As expected of the maids of Pendor House. Go.”
They both nodded and scurried away, still looking worried. I sighed and made a mental note to have Genette work with them on it.
Cord had a complicated look on his face.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
I think I was making him nervous, too. He hesitated a moment before answering.
“Are they in trouble, Young Mistress?” he wondered, his eyes glancing toward the departing girls.
That shocked me. “The maids? Absolutely not!”
“But you were troubled by them, weren’t you?”
I bunched up my brow, a little puzzled, then shook my head and repeated, “Absolutely not. I was concerned that the other maids might look down on them. People around here don’t follow Dorian customs. Bowing is something only men do in Atius, except for when women dress in a masculine fashion for work, like a lady house knight. If you are wearing feminine clothing, you must curtsey in this culture.”
He nodded his understanding, still looking worried. I shook my head again, then smiled lightly. “Cord, I’m actually quite pleased with them. After all, they do excellent work, and as a bonus, I have the prettiest maids in the room. Don’t you agree?”
His face grew troubled again. “For me to say so, Young Mistress…”
“Come on,” I teased. “You’re a man. I know perfectly well you’ve noticed them. They’re both cuties, right?”
Actually, Esrene is better described as a babelicious hottie. DD cup at minimum. Although I wasn’t going to mention that out loud.
A slight blush confirmed my surmise, and I chuckled.
The little dance orchestra began to play a light, cheerful tune, a normal opener for Orestanian balls. They would start with this soft background music to just fill the hall with sound and get people into a good mood. Then, at the appointed time, they would play a toccata to announce the start of the dance, before beginning the actual dance music. And yes, as you might have guessed, it was going to be waltzes and polkas with occasional group dances like mazurkas thrown in for variety. We were going to be in Victorian ballroom mode from this point until the party was over.
I saw a certain young man headed my way, so I asked Cord, “You don’t intend to escort me all evening, do you?”
He straightened slightly, then said, “You are the first daughter of the house, Young Mistress.”
“Cord, you couldn’t possibly be thinking you’re here to guard me?”
“Young Mistress?” he asked, confused.
“I’m a royal knight, I’m carrying my sword and my swordsmanship is lethal and experienced. You don’t need to protect me. Your job is to guard those two young beauties we just sent off. Haven’t you realized that yet?”
It should have been obvious, frankly. At my noble rank, society expected me to have at least one guard and two maids attend me at school, but Mother needed Cord to shield her young relatives, my two highly attractive, fairy-blooded maids, from sexual harassment. Noble boys have been known to coerce pretty young commoners at the academy. Noble power, distance from home and teenage testosterone is a dangerous combination. That had been a big part of the reason for the knight’s pledge, frankly.
“Well, um…” he glanced in the direction of the two maids, looking bashful.
I leaned toward him and quietly noted, “It’s a good excuse to stay near them, too.”
As my hands waved go, go, Cord grinned a bit sheepishly and headed in that direction. That was at the time that Rod was nearing me. I was thinking over whether to still act miffed at him or forgive him for being late. I had just decided to forgive him but insist on an explanation about Mireia when a bright feminine voice called from just to my right.
“Your Highness! How lovely to run into you! It’s been since the winter soiree, has it not?”
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