CHAPTER 1—PALACE INTRIGUE
On the night of her younger sister's coming-out party, Aurelia almost died. Of boredom. Her ankle itched as though a single ant were casually creeping over her flesh. She squirmed and stared blankly at the banquet-hall floor. If only she had not worn the violet silk with the stiff lace ruffle on the bottom. She longed to reach down and scratch, but years of royal training had not been entirely lost. She could not afford such a dramatic movement while her father was speaking.
The king stood at the head of the banquet table, his pale eyes staring at the guests' foreheads. His gold crown flattened his prematurely gray hair beneath its weight, and only his slate-gray mustache moved as he droned, "Loyalty and respect are the highest attributes of a young woman." Please. Aurelia raised her eyes to the fresco on the ceiling.
The back of her gilt chair bit into her shoulder blades, and the heat generated by close bodies made the dab of face paint on her cheeks gleam. Her lady's maid had dared her to wear the paint, and Aurelia had never refused a dare in her seventeen years.
Thinking was becoming a trial in this stifling atmosphere. Must nearly every lord and lady in the kingdom attend Melony's coming-out party? Where was the appeal in seeing Aurelia's younger sister dance with every titled man in the room? And why must all the dull society members insist upon participating in the celebration?
Aurelia reached toward her dessert plate and crushed the remaining cake crumbs beneath her fork. The rich smell of chocolate clashed with the multitude of perfumes oozing off the guests. Brocade sleeves and frock coats rustled as the speech dragged on, and the whalebone stays in Aurelia's corset dug into her diaphragm. Breathe, she told herself. It's going to be a long night, but then it will finally be over.
For weeks the entire staff had hurtled back and forth, preparing for Melony's debut. The ballroom and banquet-hall floors were waxed, and tall crimson candles in golden candelabras lit up every corner of the rooms. Long-stemmed roses sprang forth in bouquets of fifteen, one for each of the fifteen years leading up to this exceptional birthday. The pale green silk for Melony's dress had been imported a year in advance, and the palace musicians had been practicing just as long. At first Aurelia had enjoyed the beautiful dance rhythms haunting the palace hallways, but she had long since come to associate the sound of tuning up with the grinding of an oncoming headache.
At least her sister was enjoying herself. Sitting on Aurelia's right, in sharp contrast to her older sister's dark features and darker mood, Melony glowed. Her blond hair glistened in the candlelight and her green eyes matched the sparkle of the emerald necklace at her throat. A smile of sheer pleasure spread across her face. Any other observer might have assumed the brilliant smile was for the king, but Aurelia noted her sister's darting glances toward the end of the long table. Which young noble had captured Melony's interest this time?
Aurelia leaned over to whisper the question in her sister's ear, but a sudden wave of champagne glasses interrupted. "To Tyralt," the king said, his voice gaining in strength, "the most powerful kingdom on the southern coast."
Noting the hesitation on the faces of several of the foreign guests, Aurelia took a sip of champagne. She doubted her father's tactless statement was an accident. He preferred to use words rather than armies to maintain Tyralt's legacy of power within the region.
"I am told we live in an Age of Reason," the king continued, "of Rationality, of Enlightenment." His face cracked a smile as he aimed his glass in Melony's direction. "But I ask you, gentlemen, of what use is reason in the face of beauty?"
A round of chuckles rippled along the table, cleansing the air of the earlier tension. "To Melony, a true jewel of the realm," the king said.
"To Melony," the guests echoed with enthusiasm.
The gold clock chimed ten. At last! Time for the dancing to begin. The king stepped forward, offered his arm to his younger daughter, and led Melony out through the wide archway connecting the banquet hall to the ballroom.
As the crowd's eager eyes focused on the pair positioning themselves for the opening waltz, Aurelia knew her chance had come. Quickly she reached up to secure her tiara. Then, bending down, skirt hitched up, she scratched her ankle in a highly satisfying, undignified manner.