The next few weeks passed quickly, and the day of the Serckrean ball of marriage offers dawned sunny and hot. Alexander had spent the previous night in his own room, according to Serckrean custom. He dressed quickly and went to find his father. Edward was in his room, on the balcony, and he turned as Alexander entered the room. “Alex! I haven’t seen much of you since we arrived,” he said, entering his room. “yes... I’m sorry about that,” Alexander replied, and Edward replied, “don’t worry; you’ve been spending time getting to know your son. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Alexander said, “about that... and the Serckrean ball this evening... father, I wish to make an offer to Catharine.” Edward looked around quickly, and said, “are you sure?” Alexander replied, “yes, father.” Edward sighed, and then said confidently, “then I can only offer my blessing and hope she will accept. But talk to her mother before then, and see what she has to say about it.” Alexander replied, “thank you father”; as he left Edward’s room, he fell into step beside Anna. “Have you seen Catharine this morning, Alex?” she asked. “she’s gone to train and exercise Alexis,” Alexander replied. Stopping briefly, he looked worried. Anna, looking at him, said, “Alex, what is it?”
Alexander replied, “Anna... can you keep a secret? You can’t tell anyone this, not even Laura, Sophia, or Lucy – especially not Cathy.” Anna replied, “of course I can, Alex! What is it?” Alexander replied, “I’m... I’m going to make an offer to Cathy at the ball this evening.” Anna almost squealed, “Really? Oh, Alex, that would be great!” she hugged him, and Alexander chuckled briefly. Then, holding his sister’s shoulders, he said, “remember! Not a word to anyone, especially not your friends or Cathy!” Anna nodded, and said, “oh, this is so exciting! Can’t I tell at least ONE person, Alex, please?” Alexander replied, “no! I haven’t spoken to her mother yet. Anna... come with me – I... I hate to say this, but I’m nervous.” Anna smiled and replied, “of course – but I’ll wait outside alright?” Alexander nodded, smiling, and turning, he stopped a servant and asked, “where can I find the Lady Keleya?” The servant replied, “she is... out in the courtyard, I believe, sire. Either there or in her room.” Alexander nodded, and turning to Anna, he said, “let’s try her room first.” Hurrying up to Keleya’s room, Alexander knocked. “come in,” Keleya said, and Alexander entered. Keleya was watering a flower, but she said, “ah, Alexander. I was expecting you.” Alexander, frowning slightly, asked, “you... you were, my lady?” Keleya replied, “of course. You wish to ask my permission to make an offer to my youngest at this evening’s ball, don’t you?”
Alexander replied, “I do.” Keleya turned to him and said, “how much do you love her? Really?” Alexander replied, “I’d die for her, lady. I’d die without her. I can’t love anyone else; it wouldn’t be the same.” Keleya, nodding slowly, said, “just the answer I was hoping for”, and going to a small desk, she opened a drawer and took out a small box. Going to Alexander, Keleya opened the box to reveal a small ring. “my mother gave this to Harold when she granted him permission to marry me”, she said, “and now, I give it to you so when Catharine accepts you, you may give it to her.” Alexander looked up at Keleya, and she said, “you have my permission and my blessing in this, Alexander. I hope I may call you my son after this.” Alexander pressed his lips quickly to the back of Keleya’s hand and said, “thank you, Lady Keleya. I will not regret making this offer to your daughter.” Keleya replied, “I know you will not readily disappoint her, Alexander. Go – get ready.” Alexander bowed swiftly, and stepping out of Keleya’s room, he grinned and said, “she gave her permission.” Anna hugged him around the neck and said, “I knew she would. And even though it probably doesn’t count coming from me, I give you my blessing, too. And I wish you good luck.” Alexander raised an eyebrow at his sister, and sighing, Anna added, “now can I tell someone?”
Alexander said, “well...” and Anna said, “please!” Alexander laughed, “alright – but I’m going to be there when you tell her.” Anna grinned and said, “I’ll tell Katie – she’s been thankful to Cathy ever since Cathy confirmed Thomas’s feelings. Katie and Thomas have been inseparable ever since.” Alexander said, “Katie and Thomas, are you serious? Wow, I never saw that one coming.” Anna said, “I KNOW! But I know Katie would readily keep any secret to do with Cathy.” They soon found Katie and Thomas talking quietly in the courtyard. “Katie!” Anna called as Alexander and she approached. Katie said, “I’ll be right back”, and her hand slid out of Thomas’s as she stepped away. She looked back at him, smiling, and then turning to Anna and Alexander, she said, “what is it?” Anna said, “Alex’s got a secret, and I can only tell one person about it.” Katie asked, “is it about Cathy?” and Anna nodded vigorously. “of course I can keep it, what is it?” Katie asked, and the two Eleayan twins told her in hushed tones. Katie grinned furiously and said, “does she know ANYTHING about this yet?” Alexander replied, “no. I want it to be a surprise for her.” Katie said, “I promise I won’t tell a soul. It’s just... Thomas can be trusted with this, I know he won’t tell a soul.”
Alexander sighed, and said, “fine, but neither he nor you can say anything to anyone else, alright?” Katie nodded, and returned to Thomas. Just as she reached him, Catharine returned on Alexis. She smiled as she saw Alexander, and Anna’s hand clasped Alexis’s reins as Alexander went around the side. Catharine slid her leg over Alexis’s neck, and dropped into Alexander's arms. “hello, you,” she said, smiling broadly. Alexander pressed his lips to hers gently, and let her down. “I’m just going to put Alexis away. Anna, mind... mind coming with me?” Catharine said, and Anna replied, “sure, I’ll join you.” Catharine said to Alexander, “wait here for me?” and taking Alexis’s reins, her hand brushed against Anna’s, which still hadn’t let go of the reins. In the end, they both held the reins as they led him back to his stall. Catharine untackled him and as she put his saddle away, she paused. Turning, she said, “Anna...” Anna, who had been stroking Alexis’s muzzle gently, looked at her best friend and replied, “yes?” Catharine sighed and said, “I... I think I’m...” Taking a deep breath, Catharine said, “Anna, I think that I’m...” Eventually, she simply smiled, and her hand dropped to her stomach. Anna, looking from Catharine’s face to her hand, had her expression change from confusion to amazement, and she said, “are you sure?”
Catharine nodded, smiling broadly and almost laughed, “yes, yes I’m sure.” Anna stepped forwards and saying, “oooh, Cathy,” they hugged. As Anna stepped back, Catharine said, “I’m hoping it’s a girl this time.” Anna smiled and said, “I hate to say this, especially of you and my brother, but you’ve been busy.” They laughed, and Catharine said, “I know but...” she sighed and went on, “it’s like he can’t get enough of me.” Anna held her hands up, pulling a face and said, “please, no more.” They laughed again, and Anna said, “does he know?” Catharine’s smile faded slightly, and she shook her head, saying, “no. That was my real reason for taking Alexis out for a ride; to clear my head and think of some way to let him know, but... huh, I was too excited over all this to think straight.” Anna replied, “and I don’t blame you. come on – Mr. ‘can’t get enough’ is bound to think we’re up to something.” Catharine smiled broadly, and they left the stables together. Alexander smiled at both of them, and linking arms with Catharine, he frowned as Anna said, “I just need to go and find Sophia and the others. I promised I’d find them when I found Catharine.” Catharine said, “oh, yes – we said we’d go out and find some jewellery, didn’t we?” Anna nodded, and Catharine said, “I shouldn’t have unsaddled Alexis, should I?”
Anna replied, “no,” and disappeared into the palace. Catharine said, “you don’t mind coming with us, do you?” Alexander replied, “I need to pick out something to wear for the ball, so I’m going to stick here, if you don’t mind.” Catharine replied, “of course not, Alex. I’ll... see you when we get back.” Alexander nodded, and went up the stairs, passing Sophia, Lucy, Laura and Anna. Catharine said, “I’ll just get three people to help tack up some horses. You wait there” and motioning to three servants, she led them to the stables. Anna said, “you girls wait here, alright?” Sophia, Laura and Lucy were left to talk amongst themselves, as Anna followed Catharine to the stables. The servants quickly saddled up three, and bowing, left. As Catharine made to put her saddle of Alexis, she gasped suddenly, and staggered back, her saddle landing unceremoniously in the straw beside Alexis. She had become unnaturally pale, and she pressed a shaking hand to her stomach. Anna said, “Cathy, are you alright?” Catharine replied, “yes, I’m fine,” the colour already returning to her cheeks. “I guess this means you can be absolutely sure about it,” Anna said. Catharine smiled, and replied, “I guess I can – I just wish it hadn’t been so unexpected. That frightened me”, and she took a deep, calming breath.
Anna said, “here – just sit down for a few minutes, and I’ll finish tacking Alexis up, alright?” Catharine nodded, and Anna quickly put Alexis’s saddle on, and did up the girth. “don’t worry about Alexis’s reins, Anna – just take two of the other horses,” Catharine said, as she stood up and took the reins of two of the horses. Anna took the reins of another two and Alexis followed up in the rear. Sophia, Laura and Lucy went down the remaining steps and before long all of them were trotting out into Seleucia. They spent the remainder of the morning and some hours of the afternoon looking in various jewellery shops for the right jewellery. In the end, all except Catharine found jewellery. “don’t worry – I’m sure I’ll be able to find something back at the palace to go with my dress,” she said as they left the final jewellery shop. “I know, but I just feel we’ve left you out,” Laura said. “and I say, don’t worry, Laura,” Catharine said, smiling broadly. “Cathy, have you told them about your little secret yet?” Anna said, mounting her horse, and smiling broadly. Lucy said, “oooh, what secret, Cathy?” Laura said, “it wouldn’t have anything to do with Alexander, would it?” Catharine smiled, nodded, and Sophia said, “Go on then – spill the beans!” Alexander sighed nervously as he waited with his father and Edrelaos in the main hall. “Alex, relax – she’ll come,” Edward said. Alexander, looking at his father, nodded once, and then again with more confidence.
His head whipped around as the door opened, but it was Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy. Alexander relaxed slightly, and Anna, approaching him, said, “Catharine and Edrea aren’t going to be coming through the main doors, Alex. She said she’d come through a side door after the fanfare.” Alexander nodded, and turned quickly as a trumpet’s fanfare sounded throughout the hall. Keleya, standing at the front of the hall, motioned to her left, and said, “my daughters.” Edrea and Catharine entered, both looking stunning. While Edrea wore a simple, white dress which curved around her legs in a diagonal, exposing her left leg from just above the knee downwards, Catharine wore a twilight blue dress, which the right shoulder off the shoulder, and the left shoulder balanced on the tip of her shoulder. It was studded with small diamonds, which caught the light perfectly, and had a thin strap going across her back; there was a gap under this until the dress came round, several inches above the base of Catharine’s back. The dress fitted perfectly, following the lines of her curves; with it, Catharine wore a simple diamond necklace, and diamante earrings curled from her ears. Her hair had been pulled up into a bun, but some of it trailed in slight curls over her shoulder.
Anna laid a hand on Alexander's shoulder, and said in a low voice, “Alex! Alex, you’re staring.” Alexander blinked, and looking at Anna, he nodded once and murmured, “thank you, Anna.” Catharine said, “Anna!” and Anna, looking round briefly, said, “I’ll be right back, everyone”, and left in Catharine’s direction. Alexander stood where he was, lost in his own thoughts. Edward put a hand on his son’s shoulder and said softly, “Alex... your mother would be proud of you tonight. And I’m very proud of you – on her behalf as well as mine.” Alexander replied, “thank you, father”, barely turning his head slightly; his thoughts and eyes were focussed on Catharine, who was standing and talking with Edrea, Anna, Laura, Sophia, Lucy and Katie; all of them were holding a glass of champagne. She laughed at something Katie said, and her eyes flicked to Alexander. She smiled broadly, and Alexander bowed slightly in her direction. “are you sure I can do this?” Alexander asked his father. “You wouldn’t have asked my blessing if you didn’t think you could do this,” was the reply. Alexander nodded, and the evening progressed. Finally, at roughly ten thirty at night, Keleya stood at the front of the hall again, and as silence fell, she said, “you all know why we are gathered here tonight. There are many, young men here who are eager to find a wife for the future, and only so many will have this happiness granted to them.”
With that, the first offer began, made by a Serckrean noble to Edrea. Several offers were made to Catharine as well, and Alexander's heart sank with each offer made. Finally, when the last offer was made – Thomas making an offer to Katie – Alexander felt a jolt in his stomach. “are there any more who would like to make an offer of marriage to a woman of their choice?” Keleya asked. Clearing his throat, Alexander stepped forwards, trying to ignore the butterflies in his stomach. “Prince Alexander, of Eladreaya,” Keleya acknowledged, and Catharine, who had turned to say something in a low voice to Edrea, turned back to stare at Alexander. Keleya finished, “who do you wish to make an offer of marriage to?” Alexander replied, “Lady Keleya, I wish to make an offer of marriage to Catharine, princess of Serckrea.” Catharine blinked, and looked to the side as Edrea put a hand on her younger sister’s shoulder. Keleya nodded once, smiling broadly, and said, “Catharine. Will you step forwards please?” Catharine, looking up at her mother, nodded once and stepped forwards until she was level with Keleya. Her right hand seemed to rise automatically to hold her left elbow gingerly, as though she was slightly embarrassed by it all.
Alexander, stepping forwards, said, “I... I’m afraid I didn’t have a speech prepared. But... I’m willing to try.” Catharine was silent for another moment, and just as Alexander was beginning to consider leaving, Catharine asked, “what... what do I have that you could possibly want from me?” Alexander replied, “You have my heart... my soul. I may not be able to write a love song, or a sonnet, or a love poem like the best poet around. I may not be able to fight for your admiration, like one of the Keleysanel. I am not going to use my status to attempt to win your heart, because we are equals in that respect, amongst others.” He stepped forwards, and said, in a softer voice, “But I can love you, with every part of me – all my heart, all my soul; and I know I speak the truth when I say that all I will ever want, is to be able to make you smile. All I want is to be able to make you happier than any person can be. I know I have made mistakes in our relationship in the past. I’m not proud of them. I’m not proud that I thought they were the right choices. I will readily admit that I was a fool to make those mistakes, but I am willing to try again by spending the rest of my life with you”.
Taking both her hands in his, Alexander gathered his courage and continued, “And I don’t care that I might die defending you, because I’m more than happy to just have a happy, long life with you. I love you. I always have, and I will always, for all eternity, love you. The choice is yours, Cathy. May I, love you for as long as I may live, until death claims either one or both of us? May I marry you?” There was a collectively gasped, “oh” from Anna, Sophia, Laura, Lucy and Kati, none of whom seemed to noticed that they had done so. Catharine was silent for a while, and just as Alexander made to turn away and take his hands from hers, her hands tightened on his, and she said in a soft voice, “Alex.” Alexander turned back, and Catharine looked at her mother, nodding once. Keleya smiled and said to those present, “my daughter has an answer to those who have made offers to her.” Catharine looked back at Alexander, and said, “Alex...” The silence extended, and just as it became almost unbearable, Catharine looked up at his face and finished, “yes.” Stepping towards him, she said, “with all my heart, yes!” Alexander pulled her close and pressed his lips joyfully to hers. There was at first a brief scattering of applause, but then it grew until the rafters seemed to thunder with it.
Alexander pulled the ring Keleya had given him, still in its box, from his pocket, and opening it, he took the ring from the box. Thomas stepped forwards to hold the box, and taking Catharine’s hand in his, Alexander slid the ring onto the appropriate finger. Catharine looked at it, and looking at her mother, she said, “your ring... you knew about this?” Keleya said, “I believe he wanted it to be a surprise for you.” Catharine smiled, and looking back at Alexander, she said, “well I’m very surprised. But... gods, I’m so happy, too.” Alexander cupped his hands around her face, brushing loose hairs from her face and kissed her again. Anna stepped forwards to hug her new sister in marriage to be, and Catharine, now crying with happiness, hugged Anna back. Edward stepped forwards, and wrapping an arm around Catharine’s shoulders, said, “I see I have a new daughter now.” Catharine replied, “I have another father. Gods, this is too good to be true.” Risekian, appearing in the corner of the hall, stated, “but not too good for it not to be your destiny, Catharine.” There was a flurry of movement as those in the hall made to bow or curtsy to a member of the Five Gods. Alexander made to do so as well, but Catharine caught his arm, and gently pulled him upright again. “you chose well, my daughter. I am pleased for you and with you,” Risekian said, smiling.
“No... for me, there was no choice,” Catharine replied, brushing a fly from Alexander's forehead with the tips of her fingers; they brushed gently past the edge of Alexander's mouth. Risekian turned to those who were still bowing and curtsying, and said, “all rise. I am not here for respect, but to see the one my goddaughter has chosen to spend her life with. And I could not be happier for her. She has chosen a man who will honour her for the years of her life she has yet to see pass, and love her beyond that.” Risekian, a glass of champagne materialising from nowhere in his hand, turned to Alexander and Catharine and raising the glass, said, “A toast – to Alexander and Catharine, who are from here on in the favoured godchildren of the Five Gods.” There were collective gasps around the room, and then the guests all chorused, “Alexander and Catharine, favoured of the Five Gods.” Risekian smiled, and said to Catharine, “I take it there will be a proper wedding?” Catharine replied, “you are welcome to oversee the preparations”; looking up at Alexander, she said, uncertainly, “is that - ?” Alexander replied, before she could finish, “it’s fine, my love. Lord Risekian, it would be our honour if you could oversee the wedding preparations, and if you could be a guest as well.”
Risekian smiled, and said, “thank you. I accept your offer, young Alexander.” Alexander bowed, and Risekian, returning to the corner where he had first materialised from, disappeared from the mortal plane of existence. Sophia, Laura, Lucy, Katie and Thomas approached Catharine, who had tears of joy slipping from her eyes again. Laura and Lucy hugged her simultaneously, and Catharine said, “oh – I never want tonight to end.” Katie said, “oh – did I say I told you so?” Catharine laughed, and Alexander asked, “why would you say I told you so, Katie?” Catharine replied, “oh – this was a long time ago, when I first met you. I promised never to fall for you, and Katie promised she would tell me she told me so when I did.” Alexander grinned and Keleya said, “if the newly engaged couple would take to the floor for the first dance?” Alexander took Catharine’s hand gently, and smiling, he led her out onto the dance floor. Turning, he pulled her gently very close to him, and his hand rested firmly on her back. Catharine’s head rested on his shoulder, her eyes never leaving his face as the music began, slow and steady, and they began to dance together, to applause as well as music.
Alexander said, “thank you,” as they danced, and Catharine replied, “even if Selstiern was still around, I would still have chosen you. I meant what I said when I said that there was never any choice for me to make. I could only ever be your woman, Alex.” As the flute’s last notes faded in the still air of the hall, Alexander paused, and pressed his lips to Catharine’s, dipping her slightly. Her hand, which had been on his shoulder, came up to curve around his neck, as she returned the kiss. The remaining guests applauded for a third time, and Catharine smiled as the kiss ended; she looked down as she smiled, her forehead resting gently against his. Keleya said, “may I just say, that there has been another offer accepted here tonight – Katie, from Eladreaya has chosen to accept Thomas, son of Matthias, also from Eladreaya.” Catharine, having looked round as her mother had spoken, smiled broadly, and approaching Katie, she took Katie's hands and said, “I told you he loved you!” before they hugged. Thomas approached, and Catharine rested a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. There was another dance for both the engaged couples, this one slightly faster than the one Alexander and Catharine had danced. After this, the ball ended, and Alexander and Catharine, looking each other in the eyes, nodded once at each other.
They would be together that night, no matter what anybody said about it. Catharine woke in the middle of the night, wincing at a sharp pain in her stomach. She lay beside Alexander, his arms comfortingly wrapped around her. Outside in the night sky, a full moon glowed, its light on her face, and on Alexander's.Alexander's head turned, and his eyes opened slowly. Catharine smiled, and breathed, “hey.” Alexander's hand slid along her side and as Catharine trembled slightly, Alexander whispered, “are you alright?” Catharine leaned on her elbow and pressing a kiss to his lips, she replied, “as long as I’m with you, then I’ll always be fine.” She lay by his side again as he murmured, “get some sleep, love.” As Alexander slowly returned to sleep, Catharine’s eyes became troubled, and she pressed her hand to her stomach again. A tear slid from her right eye, and she brushed it away again, as she whispered, “I’ve lost it”. That morning, Catharine had had an unborn child growing in her. That night, she had lost it.