Chapter 1 Part 7 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book One
Temmin spent the morning in etiquette drills with Jenks. "Tell me again how one would address the chief wife of the ambassador for the Vakale'le Confederacy."
"This is pointless--I already know!"
"Then tell me again."
By afternoon, he wanted nothing more than a nap on the green velvet couch in his study--the one near the fire. Perhaps a little lunch beforehand. A nicely roasted chicken, a glass of wine, some spring greens in vinaigrette. Soup would also be good. And bread with a bit of cheese and some pickle. And a pudding. Nothing too substantial.
Ellika found him two hours later, stretched out on the couch sound asleep with the napkin still tucked in his collar and crumbs in his moustache. "Wake up!" She dropped his carpet-slippered feet to the floor, and sat down next to him in a pale green froth of silk flounces.
Temmin opened one eye. "You look like a cabbage. A very large, very pretty cabbage. Go away." He put his feet in her lap and closed his eye again.
"I said, wake up, Sir No-Beard!" Ellika poked him in the ribs and bounced on the couch. "Wake up wake up wake up!"
"I am awake! And I'll have you know I counted ten whiskers this morning," grumbled Temmin.
"I'm less interested in the condition of your chin than I am in the condition of your feet." She dumped his feet from her lap and stood up. "On with your dancing shoes, young man, I intend to make sure you don't embarrass me or yourself at your birthday party."
"I don't see where my skill as a dancer has anything to do with you," he said as he removed his carpet slippers.
"I am widely held to be the best dancer in the City, Temmy, and it will not do to have my little brother stepping on feet and stumbling into people. Come on, up up up!"
Servants already filled the grand ballroom. Tables and chairs ringed the floor's edges; a small army of boys on ladders polished the gilt-framed mirrors covering the longest wall, their shape echoing the graceful arches of the red-curtained windows they faced. As soon as the Prince and Princess entered the room, the bustle came to a halt; the footmen and maids bowed deep and curtsied deeper, and the boys almost fell off their ladders in their attempts to show respect. Then, as one, the servants turned their faces to the walls.
"Oh, turn around!" said Temmin. "I despise that custom, and we don't stand for it at the Estate. Affton," he called to the butler, "please instruct the staff not to do that around me." The butler bowed, the smallest of frowns around his eyes. The servants turned to face the room again, timid and surprised.
Ellika stared. "Seddy and I have been asking them not to do it for ages and ages, but no one listens to us."
On the stage at the end of the long, gleaming floor stood two tall, thin men with identical black mops of hair, thick moustaches and emphatic eyebrows; the two were busily directing the arrangement of the orchestra's chairs, each contradicting the other. Ellika marched her brother to the stage and clapped her hands for attention. The two men turned in bemusement, and bowed.
"Master Sullo! Mister Sullo!" she called. "We require practice music. Indulge us, please."
The musicians blew out their moustaches like hairy little curtains; the music master took up his violin, and his brother flexed his long fingers above the piano. They struck up a tune, a simple dobla. Ellika gave a deep curtsey, and Temmin stumbled a bow. "Feet together, Temmy," Ellika murmured.
Temmin took his sister's hand and let her lead him through the dobla's repeating figures: step, point, switch hands and again, step step step step. A child's dance, the traditional opening of uncouth country barn romps or the most formal ball--cheerful, simple and innocent.
"It's like sitting a horse," said Ellika. "Balance and posture and keeping your joints loose! Now, see, this isn't so bad!"
Temmin took her hand in the turn. "It's just been such a long time--we haven't had a dance at the Estate since you left, you know."
"Why d'you suppose? Sister Ibbit disapproves of dancing."
"Oh, pooh. She would. Now, pay attention to what you're doing!" Ellika's sweet, sly smile and quick feet made it more than a children's dance. She added a little snap to the turns, sending her blond curls flirting over first one shoulder, then the other. To Temmin's irritation, she mesmerized every onlooker, especially the junior footmen. He tightened his grasp on her hand, and took her back up the floor away from the servants.
"Temmy, you dance well!" she crowed when the music ended.
"I s'pose I do! At least the dobla. I don't know if I remember anything more complicated. And we don't have any other dancers to practice with. So we're done?" he added.
"Nonsense. We shall practice the quarta." She ran a critical eye over the servants, still standing in an astonished clump at the floor's edge. "Dannikson! Wallek! I know you two can dance--I've caught you at it, and Affton, you are forbidden to punish them," she called up at the butler, who gave a frosty bow.
A freckled young footman with the brightest red hair Temmin had ever seen and an even younger maid shuffled out from the gaggle. The maid's turned-up nose and wide hazel eyes reminded him of the girl in the hedges at Whithorse, but prettier. A dark, shiny corkscrew curl escaped from her starched white cap; he suppressed an impulse to brush it from her blushing cheek, and smiled at her instead.
"You take Dannikson, and I'll take Wallek, Temmy," said Ellika. She took the footman's hand in hers, gazing up at him through her lashes. It set Temmin's teeth on edge. Was she flirting with a footman? Wallek held his head up, flushing beneath his freckles, but didn't meet the prince's gaze until Temmin took the maid's hand; his eyes met Temmin's in a clear flash of possessiveness, and Dannikson ducked her head.
Ellika cleared her throat and Wallek returned his attention. "Shall we dance?" she said. The four placed themselves in the pattern for the quarta, and the music began.
The steps came back to Temmin faster than he'd expected. He steered Dannikson more than led her, but soon her light, pliant step sent them gliding through the forms: twirling, changing partners, dancing in a ring, beginning again. The girl laughed, nerves forgotten, her cap's red ribbons flying; more curly tendrils slipped out to flutter at her nape.
Temmin pulled her closer by degrees. She smelled of hay and tea, and he wanted to bury his nose in her neck. Her quick pulse beat at her wrist beneath his fingers, her corset bones stiff beneath his hand at her back; he wondered how soft her breasts were, whether her nipples were the same sweet, rosy color as those of the girl in the hedge, and he grew impossibly, uncomfortably hard.
The dance ended. He came to himself and realized she'd sensed his interest, her downcast face mixing pleasure and fear. On a sudden impulse, he bowed over her hand, and released it with an intimate smile. Dannikson burst into a nervous titter, bobbed a curtsey, and ran to hide herself in the knot of maidservants. Temmin fastened his coat, and hoped it hid his arousal enough.
Ellika dismissed Wallek with a nod and a smile, and slipped her arm through her brother's as they left the ballroom. "I don't care for you flirting with footmen," said Temmin as soon as they were out of earshot.
"You were flirting. I was making my partner comfortable," said Ellika with a dismissive wave. "Dannikson and Wallek are sweethearts. Everyone knows. Don't let Mama see you flirting with the help, or you'll get the poor girl fired."