Chapter 16 Part 1 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book 1
The Keep's servants slept little the week before Neya's Day. All the rooms, even the bedrooms in the Old Residence Wing, were turned out and prepared for guests who might or might not be staying. As they did at the turning of every spoke, the maids received new pinafores, and the footmen new shirtfronts. The maids beat every carpet, brushed every curtain and tapestry; the footmen, under Affton's hypercritical eye, polished every piece of silver, every candlestick, every brass doorknob, grand entrance and mudroom alike, even though their sheen already blinded the onlooker.
On Neya's Day Eve, the King traditionally hosted one of the last great balls, a high point of the waning social season that would end a spoke later, along with the spring, on Nerr's Day. This year was no exception, and the day found the Keep in an ever mounting frenzy of decorating; garlands draped every bannister, huge sprays of hothouse flowers filled every alcove, topped every table, and more flowers hung in swags from the ballroom ceiling, gigantic ropes of pink, white and red. Even the servants' quarters boasted little bouquets of more common flowers, and those rarer blooms whose stems had decided not to cooperate and snapped short instead.
Temmin let the family know he would only be attending briefly, wishing, he said, to spend Neya's Day elsewhere. His mother pursed her lips in silence; his father clapped him gently on the shoulder and said, "Why wouldn't you, indeed?"
For her part, Sedra sighed and wished the ball already over and done. She was twenty-one, and tired of her siblings' teenaged drama. Temmin could take the whole staff to his bed for all she cared, though she wished he'd be more discreet; at least Papa stopped his whoring at the door to the servants' quarters. Ah, well, it was time. Mama couldn't keep him a child forever.
She marched down the ballroom stairs on her father's arm, a good daughter of Tremont, if one in pinching shoes. To her relief, Temmin led Ellika out on the floor first for the opening dobla, the two near as well-matched as the Obbys, as she overheard one of the footmen whisper in exchange for an elbow in the gut from his fellow.
At the end of the dobla, Temmin relinquished his second sister to her throng of admirers, and offered his hand to Sedra. "Just the one, Seddy," he wheedled, "and then I'm off." The orchestra struck up a modern dance, one their mother frowned on and thus irresistible even to the straitlaced Princess Royal; she fastened up the train of her dark gold gown and let him whirl her onto the dance floor.
Temmin beamed down at her. "You're in wonderful looks tonight." He himself looked older; his beard had filled in since his arrival at the Keep, and he held his head more confidently. Perhaps he was growing up more quickly than she'd thought.
"And you are looking suspiciously cheerful, baby brother," she replied.
"Baby, am I?" he cried. He seized her firmly round the waist and romped her down the room double time, scattering the other dancers. Temmin's hair flew all around his face, a gangly, exuberant, golden puppy in spite of his newfound poise. He danced her around in such a hectic way that she hung on for dear life, a task made harder by her own helpless laughter.
"Temmy, do slow down!" she gasped.
"Say I'm not a baby!"
"You're not a baby! You're not a baby!"
He smirked, and resumed the usual pace of the dance. "You're entirely too serious, Seddy. You should laugh more."
"You're entirely too ridiculous," she said, smiling up at him as she caught her breath against her corset. If she were queen, tight-lacing would be the first thing she outlawed. "I take it your giddy demeanor can be traced to your trip to see your little friends."
"Ah," he said, his face closing in a way she'd never seen before, irritatingly secret and a tad superior. "You might say that." The dance ended. Temmin kissed both of her cheeks before he released her. "Wish me well, Seddy."
"Wish you well? It's Neya's Day Eve. You should be wishing your sisters well."
"Even so. Please."
She studied his face, open once again and earnest, a seriousness her little brother rarely wore. "Yes, of course, Temmin. I pray for you every day, just as I've sworn to on all the Nerr's Days of your life, you zany."
"'Zany,'" he repeated. "Yes. That's me." He kissed her cheek again. "Goodbye." She watched him out of the ballroom, ignoring several attempts to lead her into the next dance. Troubling and unlike him. His infatuation with that maid and her man had changed him.
Two hours later, Ansella retired for the night, leaving her daughters with the King; unlike the Queen, neither princess could leave until he did. To Sedra's frustration, Harsin, his white smile sharp within his salt and pepper beard as he worked the room, showed no signs of boredom.
And then: "Where is Prince Temmin?" She was tiring of the question.
Usually by now her father had made his excuses and slipped off with one of his mistresses. Sedra saw his new favorite, the odd little thing with a pointed chin and dark, feral eyes that already sparkled with too much wine, and wondered again why he would not leave. Her shoes hurt, and she wanted to go upstairs and curl up with a book by her fire.
Lord Corland appeared in the corner of her eye, in urgent conversation with her father--when had Corland come back to town? She prayed he'd left his odious son Fennows in Maryakuspa, for Ellika's sake if no one else's.