When Regan got back to her room she found it full of mannequins, each one dressed in a gorgeous gown. “What are these?”
“These are for you, for tonight,” replied the maid. “Which one do you prefer?”
“Oh, they are all so beautiful!” She went from one to another, feeling the smooth silk on this one, the exquisite lacework on that, elaborate embroidery here, wonderful prints there.
“Would you like to try them on?”
“Do we have time?”
“Certainly, milady. They wouldn’t dream of starting the ball without you, so take all the time you need.”
She spent an hour trying them all on, finally settling on one with a simple, elegant line that flattered her figure best. “Excellent choice, Milady. Now it’s time for your bath, and then the hairdresser will be in, and your makeup artist. And while you’re doing all that the Crown Jeweler will be along to help you with your jewelry selection.”
The Grand Ballroom was in the “business” wing of the castle, removed from the living quarters but still attached. Regan and her chaperones were escorted through a maze of twisty little passages, all different, until they came to a large hallway that ended in massive carved doors. Julien was waiting there for her.
“You are stunning!”
“Why thank you, Your Majesty. You’re not too shabby yourself!” Regan’s eyes twinkled as she gazed on Julien, who was dressed in what appeared to be a uniform resplendent in gold braid with a purple cape attached. Regan’s dress was deep red that darkened to black at the floor and trailed slightly behind her. Her reddish-brown hair was piled high on her head and held in place with ruby-studded hair pins that matched the ruby choker that graced her neck.
François stepped forward and spoke to the chaperones. “Monsieur, Madame you will enter first. I will announce you, then please descend the stairs. I will summon His Majesty and Milady when you reach the bottom of the stairs. Please don’t stumble — it is considered bad luck.”
No pressure! thought Regan.
Renee offered Amanda his left arm, and François nodded approvingly. Then the doors were opened and François stepped forward, beaconing Renee and Amanda to follow. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Monsieur Renee Spiegel and Amanda Clarke!” Polite applause broke out as they descended the grand staircase. Then it was Julien and Regan’s turn.
“Nervous?” Regan just nodded. “Relax. Be yourself and you’ll do fine.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, His Majesty King Julien and Milady Regan Cunningham!” Regan clung tightly to Julien’s arm as they descended the stairs to loud applause, her free hand lifting her skirts slightly to make sure she didn’t trip on them. Julien was like a rock at her side, steadying her and giving her the courage to face the maelstrom below.
Maurice was at the bottom, waiting to direct them to a spot where a receiving line was forming. Julien stood on one side of Regan and introduced each of the waiting nobility, while Maurice stood on the other and murmured facts about them into her ear. “Sir Blahblah, I’d like you to meet Regan Cunningham. Regan, this is Sir Blabby Blahblah.” “Sir Blahblah is in charge of Blobbity Blob.” It went on and on, the assorted personages all blending together into an amalgam of sensory impressions.
Then it was over, and the King led her out onto the dance floor. “I certainly hope you can waltz,” he said.
“Only if you lead!”
The orchestra started up, and for a time it was just the two of them dancing. She let her body follow his as they circled the floor, all conscious thought held in abeyance as the music and the mood took control. She didn’t even notice when others joined them on the floor, until finally the music stopped and her mind engaged once again. Julien led her to a table at one side where Maurice was waiting.
“Everyone will be asking you to dance. Come back to the table after each number and Maurice will make sure you dance with the right person at the right time, and also see to it that you get sufficient breaks.”
“What? I have to dance with strangers?”
“Yes, unfortunately that’s the political reality here. The Royal Council in particular will be wanting to check you out up close and personal, so to speak, so be on your guard.”
“But what about you? Will I get to dance more with you?”
“Of course! But right now politics must come before pleasure.” With that he turned her over to Maurice, who had her first dance partner waiting.
Every dance seemed the same. How did you and the King meet? What do you do? How do you like our country? Where are you from? She soon decided to turn the tables on them and asked as many questions of her partners as they were asking her. And she made an effort to remember their answers, thinking it might be important in the future, though she wasn’t sure how.
She noticed that Amanda and Renee were being subjected to similar treatment, although from a different set of interrogators. She’d smile at them any time they passed one another on the dance floor, and Amanda at least would grimace back. Renee seemed to be taking it all in stride.
After about the sixth or tenth dance she was again with Julien. “Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked.
“Not until just now. Thank you for rescuing me!” She put her head on his shoulder and he laughed.
“What’s this? Are you letting a bunch of stuffy little men get you down?” Her head popped back up and she looked at him.
“It’s not fair! They’re tag-teaming me, and I scarcely get a chance to catch my breath between songs. My feet are beginning to hurt, and this ball looks like it could go for hours yet!”
“Well, if you’d rather we can sit this one out.”
“No way! You will dance this entire song with me, then we will sit the next one out. Together.”
“Whatever you say, dear.” She relaxed into his arms and they continued to waltz until the song was over, the Julien escorted Regan back to the table and pulled out a chair for her. “We’re sitting this song out, Maurice,” he commanded, and sat next to her. The efficient wait staff set glasses of water and wine and plates of fruit and cheeses before them.
“Please explain to me why I have to dance with all these stuffy little men.”
“You’ve been dancing with members of the Royal Court, giving them a chance to get to know you and judge your fitness.”
“Fitness? For what?”
“Why, to be Queen, of course. Should our relationship get to that point they want to know what kind of person you are. This ball is your formal introduction, a chance for them to size you up for themselves.”
“Oh, God! No pressure, indeed!”
“Don’t worry, you’re doing fine. Think of it as just an elaborate excuse to have a party, and don’t worry about it.”
“But, aren’t you king? Can’t you simply issue a royal decree or something, and marry whomever you want?”
“Where did you ever get that foolish idea? Kings have never been able to marry whomever they wanted. My ancestors’ marriages were always driven by political considerations, national interests, and treaty obligations. The rules have actually loosened up a lot in the last fifty years or so, but even though I can now marry pretty much whomever I want it is still in my best interests to consider the political ramifications before I do. Letting them get to know you in advance will make things go much more smoothly when I finally pop the question. If I pop the question.”
Regan’s heart was racing at all this marriage talk. Will he? When? What will I say if he does? In order to calm herself down she focused on the politics.
“So what exactly is this Royal Council? Isn’t it just a bunch of advisors?”
“That’s what they started out as, but over the years power in the kingdom has shifted to the point where today they are the government for all practical purposes. It’s a really complicated power sharing arrangement, and right now they have the upper hand. They’d love to get rid of the royal family, but the moment they do the kingdom disappears and Austria takes over, reducing them to nothing more than a city council, if that. That’s the only real power I have over them, that and my ownership of the mines. Oh, there are a few other entanglements, but that’s what’s key.”
Regan had some more questions, but before she could ask them it was time for her to get up and dance with yet another stuffy little man.
Next chapter -> After the Ball