The strains of a waltz filled the air with a poignant melody. This evening the king of Lamau hosted a ball. Women in brightly colored dresses swirled around the room on the arms of courtiers equally garbed in brilliant shades.
Jalese sighed. As usual she hadn’t been asked to dance. Why would any of the courtiers want to escort a plain, ordinary and often clumsy young woman, even if the king was her uncle?
When her cousin, Cyna, glided by on the arms of a handsome man Jalese sighed. Cyna’s bright pink gown clung to her lush body while the paler gauze draperies moved like a cloud around her hips and legs.
Envy shot into Jalese’s thoughts. Cyna was all she wasn’t. Cyna’s blonde hair hung in ringlets down her back. Her eyes were the blue of sapphires.
We should be friends, Jalese thought. But we’re not.
One day soon their uncle would name as his heir the niece who found a husband who would be trusted with the rule. A princess needed a prince and there were none available in the nearby kingdoms.
The music ended. The king rose from where he sat with his friends. Jalese left the secluded window seat. The sorceress of Lamau appeared at the king’s side. Her appearance was magical. She raised her hands and sent clouds of scented flowers through the room. “A prince has been summoned and will soon arrive.”
A hundred voices murmured and the sound rose in pitch. Jalese drew in a breath and felt her hopes vanish like rain puddles after a summer storm.
Cyna clapped her hands. She whirled. Like a homing pigeon she appeared at Jalese’s side. “Isn’t the news wonderful? A prince has been found.” She patted Jalese’s shoulder. “Do you know what this means?”
Jalese did but she refused to cede the crown to her cousin who had arrived at the castle eight years ago. Though Cyna had been born on the same day in the same hour and minute as Jalese when she appeared the king had been surprised to learn of her birth. His estrangement from his oldest sister had been complete.
Jalese’s thoughts raced with questions. When would this mysterious prince appear? What kind of man would he be? Her uncle was a good king who cared for the land and the people. Would a stranger possess these qualities? If he did could he maintain them with Cyna as his bride?
The sorceress bowed to the king. “Be prepared for his arrival. He will be found and must be freed.” She vanished.
Once the buzz of voices became whispers the king walked toward the refreshment room. “Come, food and drink awaits.” He led the way to the buffet tables.
A cluster of courtiers surrounded Cyna. Jalese tried to escape but her cousin grasped her arm.
“Join us for the repast.” Cyna’s honeyed voice added to Jalese’s edginess. “The sorceress’ announcement will bring you much attention. When I wed this prince there be any number of my court who want to wed a princess.”
Cyna’s unspoken words were clear to Jalese. “I’m not hungry.”
“I won’t let you run off the way you usually do. Did none of the courtiers ask you to dance? If you continue to lurk in dark corners you’ll never wed.”
Jalese stumbled several times in the journey to the buffet room. Twice she almost fell. Her thoughts were as scrambled as breakfast eggs. One of the courtiers pulled out a chair at one of the tables for her. Why all this attention, Jalese wondered. Being with these laughing maidens and men made her wary. If only she could escape.
The courtiers strode away. With grace Cyna lowered herself onto one of the chairs. “Someone must take you in hand. When I’m queen you’ll need a home elsewhere.”
Jalese’s hands fisted. “The palace has been my home since I was two.”
“And mine since I was twelve.” Cyna smiled. “When I’m queen I’ll make many changes. Uncle is too generous to the people and the taxes are much too low. The entire palace must be redecorated.”
Jalese stared at the table. Cyna would also spend money on jewels and fine clothes. She would beggar the kingdom. Jalese looked for an escape but her cousin blocked the aisle. A man servant filled goblets with deep red wine. The courtiers arrived with plates of food.
Cyna lifted a carydad and turned to Jalese. “Try one. They’re delicious.”
“And poison to me.” Jalese jerked back and her hand hit one of the goblets. Dark red liquid spilled across the table and spattered her bright green gown.
Cyna’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh dear, you’ve ruined your gown. A blessing though. That color makes your skin look muddy.”
Jalese pushed her chair back and fled from the room. Instead of going to her chamber she slipped from the palace. Surely her cousin would invade her privacy with dulcet words of sympathy for another ruined gown and jab holes in any self-confidence that remained.
Jalese wanted what she could never have. She wanted to be the queen. Her uncle spent hours teaching her the things a ruler should know leaving little time or inclination to learn the graces of a lady.
When she reached the towering trees of the woods behind the palace grounds she sank to the ground. Though autumn had arrived the night was unseasonably warm. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders. She cried until no more tears would come.