Princess Progenna Mariana, fourth child of Queen Alexandria and King Jonathan of Valborough, watched the couples twirling around the dance floor. Beneath their feet, colored mosaics
representing the eight magical elements danced as well, the patterns changing in time with the music. The annual ball in celebration of the queen's birthday was in full swing.
Mariana smiled as her brother, Crown Prince Ramone, Heir Apparent, danced with his wife, who would be delivering their first child within the next month. The white sash draped from Grand Duchess Victoria's right shoulder to her left hip indicated Air Sensitivity and explained how she could be so light on her feet even with such an advanced pregnancy. Mariana idly ran her fingertips along the fold of her own black satin sash, narrower than any the rest of the royal family wore. Traditionally, black was for children whose sensitivities haven't manifested yet, or the rare Insensitive Commoner invited to royal celebrations.
The color of her sash shouldn't bother her anymore. Everyone in the kingdom knew that Mariana had no sensitivities. In fact, even her title, "Princess Progenna," had been created especially
for her. With no magical abilities, she had no place in the line of succession, but she was still the daughter of the King and Queen. Every part of her life marked her as different from the rest of the family.
The music from the quartet of stringed instruments stopped, and the couples paired up in two lines in the center of the floor for the next dance, a lively reel. Mariana moved along the tapestry covered walls toward the three sets of double doors that led to the balcony.
She had to find March Darius, son and heir of Margrave Sasoin, and as he didn't appear to be dancing with some other woman, she assumed he was outside, getting some fresh air. As she passed by, guests bowed their heads and muttered greetings. However, she ignored them all, her interest only in finding the March and secure a third dance with him. Suddenly, her progress was halted by a black wooden cane thrust horizontally in front of her. On the other end of the barrier was a short bald man with one eye who smiled at her, his yellow chipped teeth nearly the color of one of his sashes.
"Sahdeer Valentine," Mariana said, making a small curtsey in greeting. "How nice to see you this evening."
"My dear Progenna Mariana, I have been hoping to dance with you."
Her stomach roiled at the thought of touching him, even if it were only his hand. Sahdeer Leo Valentine was a Fauna and Flora Sensitive, as evidenced by his silk green and brown sash.
While he was a wealthy man with several estates throughout Valborough, he was old enough to be her grandfather. He had a puckered scar running from above his right ear, across his empty eye socket, his nose and left cheek and down his neck to below the collar of his shirt. The same battle that had given him that scar had also taken his left hand, leaving a stump that was now covered by a custom made velvet and lace cap.
"Thank you, Lord Leo," Mariana said with a small curtsey, "but this dance is promised to March Darius."
The lopsided smile on the elderly man's face disappeared, and Mariana took an involuntary step back from the angry glint that sprang into his good eye.
"I didn't realize the King had given permission for your relationship with young Sasoin to become public here at the Queen's birthday celebration. I am sure you wouldn't attempt to force the
King's hand by declaring your intentions without his knowledge. You may be merely a Progenna but--"
Mariana scowled and interrupted him. "I was not aware that your counsel with my father had extended to family matters. Who I dance with and how often is really none of your business, Sahdeer Valentine. Now, if you will excuse me, I believe our conversation is at an end."
"Of course, Progenna." The man bowed as protocol demanded but he never took his eye off her face, giving her the sensation that someone had slipped ice down the back of her gown.
Quickly, she turned away from him, and unfortunately, the path to the balcony as well. She decided to slip into the ladies' dressing room and wash her hands, as that was the only thing she could think of to rid herself of the feeling of being covered in some kind of ooze.
Sahdeer Valentine had been a figure in her life since she was a child, and he had always frightened her. The Queen had explained the circumstances behind the horrifying injury to his face
when she was ten. That was long after the first time she'd seen him, when she had run away to hide in the butler's pantry behind a barrel of apples. Mariana's father trusted Valentine's counsel on matters of kingdom defense, so the Sahdeer was often included at family meals. Mariana still found him frightening, even though she was almost twenty years old.
The dressing room was empty, fortunately, so she quickly washed her hands and adjusted the jewels in her hair. Those small routine behaviors returned her to a sense of normalcy, and she left the dressing room, head held high and all thoughts of Sahdeer Valentine dismissed from her mind.
"Princess?" A tall, slender man with dark hair and eyes stepped in front of her before she got halfway across the ballroom, blocking her view of her destination.
"Frederick. My title is Progenna." Normally, Mariana hated the way that word set her apart, but Frederick had stepped outside protocol. He was her brother's chief of staff and certainly knew better. A man she'd practically grown up with, he was like an annoying older brother who tried to dictate her behavior, and she enjoyed taking any opportunity to put him in his place.
Unfortunately, Frederick ignored the jibe. "I assume you're looking for March Darius. Do you think a third dance would be wise this evening? I'm sure you don't want to take the spotlight from the Queen."
"Have you been watching who I dance with, Sahl Mindenwall?" Mariana smiled. He would bristle at his formal title as heir to the estates owned by his father, Lord Hakon, especially coming from her. "Are you calculating the value of aligning with the King's Insensitive daughter?"
Frederick rolled his eyes, and then, apparently realizing how immature that action was, he straightened his spine. He stood about half a hand taller than she was, but his proud manner made her feel much smaller.
His brown eyes grew darker as they met hers. "Mariana, you are like a sister to me. I don't want to see you get hurt. Perhaps it would be better for you to find a different young man to dance with." He looked over her head toward the crowd.
"Baron Purchon seems to be without a partner. I'm sure he would be happy to dance the next set with you."
Marian bit back a growl. "Why does everyone in the kingdom think they can dictate who I dance with?" She tried to push by him, but he stopped her with a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Someday, your brother will be king and who you marry will be of extreme importance. You would do well to choose more wisely."
She glared at him, wishing she didn't have to tilt her head up to do so.
"Darius is the son and heir of a Margrave," Mariana said. "He is entirely suitable as a husband, especially for a princess who is not in line for the throne. That is, if he were to ask the King for my hand." She added the last bit quickly. Even with few people overtly listening, the ballroom was filled with Air Sensitives, who could, potentially, listen in to the slightest whispers even from the other side of the room.
"There is more to suitability than birth status," Fredrick said. He took her arm as the music changed again to a waltz. "If you are not interested in dancing with Purchon, perhaps you would do me the honor?"
Mariana wrenched her arm out of his hand. "No. I have no intention of dancing with you. Don't you have some woman more suitable to consider marriage to?"
"I am not considering marriage to anyone at the moment, Princess Progenna. You know this. I serve at the pleasure of the Crown Prince, and right now, I am trying to keep you from making a mistake that could cause embarrassment to the throne."
"What kind of embarrassment?" Mariana narrowed her eyes. "Surely, you don't believe the court gossip about what the Marches do when they go into town."
Frederick actually blinked in surprise, and Mariana raised her eyebrows.
"You didn't think I'd heard it?" She shook her head. "I am not a child anymore, Frederick, but you would be surprised at how many people forget that. Apparently, it is easy to ignore an Insensitive. People talk much more freely around me than perhaps they should."
"What have you heard?"
With a sigh, Mariana took a glass of champagne from a passing waiter. "Just disgusting speculation about what Darius and his friends do at the taverns at night. Dice and card games and lots of drinking." She shrugged. "I don't see how any of this affects me."
Frederick looked around, and she followed his gaze. Several of the lesser nobles of the court had stopped their conversations and were not hiding their interest in Mariana's.
"Let's continue this somewhere a little more private," Frederick said and took her arm.
She pulled away. "No, let's not. I understand you are concerned but I questioned Darius...the March." She looked around, meeting the eyes of the eavesdroppers. As she expected, most had the good sense to look chagrined and turn back to their companions.
"What did he tell you?" Frederick asked.
"He said some of the other sons of landholders enjoyed spending time with serving wenches and other women who...ply their trade at night. Being...with a commoner doesn't affect their ability to bond when they wed a Sensitive."
"And does March Darius...approve of this?"
She shrugged. He hadn't really answered her when she asked that question, but obviously, she couldn't tell Frederick that.
"He doesn't do that sort of thing." Mariana couldn't meet the Sahl's eyes, so she found a spot of lace on her sleeve hem that needed her attention.
Frederick sighed. "He's out on the balcony, Progenna, but he's not alone. There are two women with him. He may not be interested in shop clerks or tavern wenches, but there are commoners at court as well."
Mariana's heart began to beat so loudly she wondered, briefly, if Air or even Water Sensitives would hear it. "Only maids or those in the kitchen. Surely, you don't believe that he would dally with the likes of them when he is practically promised to a daughter of the King." She raised her head proudly.
"Promised, Progenna? Has there been an understanding?"
He knew there hadn't been one. Mariana clenched her jaw. Why was she letting him get to her like this? He might be the Crown Prince's Chief of Staff, but he had no say over her life.
"I am going to the balcony, to get some fresh air," she said, dropping into a curtsey. "It has suddenly become quite stuffy in here."
Frederick did not bow, meaning that he did not regard their conversation finished. "Progenna, I am only thinking of your welfare. I saw Darius go outside with the women, both of whom are
daughters of minor nobles. I heard their laughter and some of their conversation. I promise you, you do not want to go out there. I would hate to see you humiliated."