Violeta was greeted by a roar of applause as though it were an achievement to reach twenty one years of age. Robert slipped inconspicuously to the left of the doors so that Violeta could be the centre of attention.
Feeling shy despite knowing most of the guests intimately, she walked forth through the crowd and joined her father on a glass block in the middle of the room. Her mother stood among other people, watching her, smiling.
The king clapped his hands together once and the ballroom instantly fell silent.
"Good afternoon, friends and family," said he, in a loud, booming voice. "And also to a prince highly renowned in his country, Prince Robert." People gasped in wonder and delight, and looked excitedly about the room, trying to spot him. All eyes eventually fell upon him, standing in a corner. Everyone stared, and the people closest to him looked honoured and amazed. Robert bowed but then held out a hand and gestured at Violeta as if they were actors being applauded at the end of a play.
She blushed and looked back at her father.
He was smiling at her and had a twinkle in his eyes. He turned back to his audience, and said he "Welcome to my daughter's birthday ball. As always, she will say a few words and then choose a man with whom to dance to open it. Afterwards, everyone may dance."
King Peter stepped off the block and made his way to stand beside Queen Mariana.
Violeta swallowed anxiously and raised her voice as said she "My honoured guests, I am oh so pleased that you join me in celebrating my twenty first birthday. The occasion would truly not be so special without you. Now an adult, I would like to prove to you that I can be depended upon to act maturely and appropriately in all situations, and that you will not find cause to call me childish or insincere." She took a deep breath before revealing who would open the ball with her. She glanced over at Robert. He was smiling gently and she longed to say his name but felt that she could not. She might be unworthy of him and he might resent her if she made him dance with her against her will. In addition, it was unheard of to ask a prince who was not a relative to dance, even at a birthday celebration. And so her next statement was "I would ask Prince Zack to open the ball with me."
There were gasps of surprise as Zack walked forwards and joined her. Prince Robert looked calm, unruffled, but there was something guarded about his eyes.
Zack himself looked bemused.
"It is your birthday," whispered he, "so you could ask any man to dance with you." As the band began to play, he took one of her hands in his and placed the other on her waist. Her free hand moved to his shoulder. They began to dance on the block, merely turning and moving forwards and backwards because of the limited space. Zack continued. Said he, "The most handsome prince in the land is present, yet you ask me to dance?" The look he gave Violeta was questioning, matching his tone.
"I am shy," confessed she in a murmur.
Zack nodded his head slightly, though his brow was furrowed. Suddenly, however, he grinned.
"Unless you are attracted to me," said he, winking.
"Oh, of course," replied she, pretending to be serious while in reality teasing. "I much prefer fair hair to dark hair." She looked up at Zack's short, straw-coloured tufts as if she wanted to stroke them but her gaze returned to his chestnut-brown eyes and she winked. She resisted the urge to poke her tongue out.
He chuckled quietly. "Careful. The most handsome prince in the land may become jealous."
"Why?" asked Violeta, amused.
"One can just tell that he always has girls pursuing him," replied Zack, with a knowing smile.
Throughout the dance, the cousins conversed about happenings in their kingdoms, plans for the year and which presents Violeta wished for, until the music began to fade at the end of the song.
"Shall I kiss you?" asked Zack, laughing.
"I would rather you did not," teased Violeta.
As they stood still and let go of each other, Zack leaned forwards and kissed Violeta on the cheek.
"Happy Birthday, cousin," murmured he, before stepping down onto the floor.
"May the main dancing commence," announced Violeta, flushing slightly as she caught sight of Robert watching her. The music restarted as she stepped down from the block.
The prince's expression was unfathomable. Violeta hoped he had not received the wrong impression of the relationship that existed between her and Zack. She slowly made her way towards Robert, sharing a few words with those she passed and instructing present-bearers to place the gifts on the glass block, thanking them for being so kind.
Eventually she reached the corner from which Robert had not moved.
Nervously, said she "Hello."