'Are you alright in there?' Imara's voice floated gently from behind my bedroom door. 'Alex? Are coming out? The party starts in an hour or two and I need to get you ready.'
'I'm not going,' I yelled through the wooden door before burying my head back in a pillow.
'Yes you are,' Imara insisted, her voice taking on a harder edge. 'You are going to go ad find out some useful information about our good friend Mr Hurst.' I groaned in response, trying so hard to hide my face in my pillow that I was almost suffocating myself. The door opened and I didn't need to look up to know the look Imara had on her face.
'Go away! I've said I'm not going and that's my final decision.'
'No it isn't. You are going to get up and get ready to go to the ball.' Imara busied herself getting my clothes out of the drawers and arranging them on the end of my bed. 'I don't even know why you're feeling so down anyway?'
'Who says I'm feeling down?' I replied defensively.
'So the moping around on the bed, refusing to leave this room is just because you feel like it?'
'I just don't feel well, that's all.'
'So it's got nothing to do with a certain gentleman who might be interested in someone other than you?' The look on Imara's face, saying she knew she was right, combined with her smug tone, suddenly filled me with a sense of annoyance and I sat up.
'If that's the way you're going to behave, then I'll go.'
'Perfect,' said Imara, all sweet smiles again. 'Let's get you dressed.'
I stood on my own at the ball, feeling sorry for myself on the inside but trying my hardest not to show it, which isn't as easy as you would think. None of the happy smiling couples spinning around on the dance floor, the groups of women gossiping and giggling at the people around them and the men talking war and politics very loudly in large groups, made me feel any better about myself.
Rebecca was there, of course, looking as stunning as she had the night before, definitely dressing to impress someone. After our earlier conversation I felt nervous about approaching her but wasn't feeling confident enough to talk to anyone else.
'Whenever I see you at one of these parties you are always standing alone,' said a smooth voice from my right. 'That really has to stop. It just isn't right for a beautiful woman like you to be standing alone.'
'Well maybe you just keep looking at me at all the wrong times.' I'd meant for my tone to sound light and jovial, but there was a hard edge to it I couldn't disguise.
'That might be true,' Hurst considered, 'but as you are alone now I wonder if you would give me the pleasure of this dance.' With the eyes of the rest of the room carefully sneaking glances at us, I felt I couldn't say no.
I remained silent as he led me out onto the dance floor and as we began to move in time with the music. My eyes never met his face, always watching the people around me.
'Are you alright Alexandra?' I didn't turn to look at him, scared of what look I might see on his face.
'Yes, I'm fine thank you.' My tone was cold and flat, quite unlike how we had talked before.
'You just seem a bit... distant. Is it something I said?' A growing rage began to boil up inside me and I suddenly wanted to scream at him, telling him he was a bad man and he shouldn't be treating the monarchy in the way he was. Instead, my retort was fairly damp and undramatic.
'It's just that I've been told there is other company you enjoy better than mine.' I could feel his body tensing as I said this and instinctively turned to look at the twisted look of confusion on his face.
'I don't know what you mean?'
'Don't lie to me, please Mr Hurst. Everyone knows about your relationship with her Majesty.' I accidentally let out some of the anger I'd been suppressing, making my voice louder than I had intended and a few people dancing close to us turned to stare.
'I'm her Majesty's special councillor. Why should that mean I want to spend more time with her than you?'
'We both know that's not the full story.' When he still insisted on looking confused I decided to enlighten him. 'Your affair. The whole court knows about it so don't even try to deny it.'
To my dismay he let out a raucous laugh. 'You really listen to trashy court gossip like that? I thought more of you.' He smiled fondly at me, almost patronisingly so. 'There is no secret affair with the Queen. Neither of us are popular people at the moment because of our views on the war and most of the court are trying to bring us down. The easiest way to do that is through gossip.'
'Oh,' I said blandly. 'I'm sorry.'
'Don't worry about it, I can easily forgive you. I know certain people can be quite... persuasive.' I noticed his eyes resting on Rebecca as he said this but I pretended not to notice. He was probably seeing things where they didn't exist.
'So why are you so unpopular?'
'I can't talk about this here.' He'd suddenly become very cagy about the whole subject, acting like he didn't want to discuss it any more.
'Then let's go somewhere else.'