The ball was exactly as Hayden had predicted: rich, red-faced old men, affiliated with nobility, drank copious amounts of port and guffawed obnoxiously; clueless wives chatted with their husband's mistresses; Musicians played half-hearted melodies in between swigs of cheap whiskey. Most simply gathered and chatted the middle of the grand old room.
The palace, unlike the atmosphere, was magnificent. Hayden had been to Varla on numerous occasions, but the building never failed to leave him in awe. It sprawled for what seemed like miles in all directions, including up. The main tall was so tall, it seemed to Hayden as though it pierced the sky. The ballroom was an incredible example of human engineering. It was entirely free of columns and pillars, and yet the roof hung far above, seemingly defying gravity.
It was a credit to the architect that Hayden often spent more time gazing at the roof than at anything else in the room. This included the gaggle of girls sitting at the table not far from him, who were openly staring at him. Hayden had long ignored girls of nobility. All of those he'd met were about as shallow as muck ponds in high summer, and similarly charming. Virgil had told him that his aloof manner would attract more than deter them, but he had no idea how to go about getting rid of them without being rude.
Hayden's musings were interrupted by an explosion of brass fanfare from the doorway. Trumpeters filed through the door and lined up on either side, blasting a supposedly joyous refrain. Hayden thought such entrances were arrogant. If you had to go to such lengths to create a sense of importance, then you didn't deserve to be important in the first place. His father was the opposite of this adage. When he walked in a room, people grew silent without needing such a loud prompt. After a few seconds a large, beaming woman heavily draped in jewels and finery bounced through the door. Two footmen strolled behind carrying the Countess' flowing dress, while another followed the procession playing a lute. Their faces held fixed grins that told Hayden they weren't being payed any extra money to submit to such degrading duties.
She flummoxed to the centre of the large stage against the back wall and waited until she was sure all eyes were focussed upon her. At a wave of her hand, her advisors and senior generals also took the stage behind her. They too bore the same fake grins as the footmen. All but one, who had entered the room last, and was standing on the far left of the stage. They were cloaked in a black robe which completely covered their faces. Hayden had never seen them before in his visits to Countess Varla's court. Their presence didn't seem to mystify anyone else however; most were simply waiting for the Countess to begin her speech.
"Ladies, gentlemen, loyal servants and noble allies, thank you for coming tonight. Your presence marks you as people of good taste and learned constitution..."
Hayden stopped making an effort to listen. The Countess' falsetto drone was doing a number on his eardrums, and the raw drivel meant nothing to him. He had only really turned up to fulfil his role as the representative of Duke McCloud. If it were up to him, he'd be next to a fire out in the woods adjacent to the duchy.
"...once again, thank you for coming. Enjoy the evening!" It was over.
Hayden swigged the last mouthful from his glass of pressed apple juice and stood up, making for the door.
"Hayden McCloud: leaving early? All's well then. This is a ball for 'illustrious families' and 'people of good taste' after all. I suspect that's why your father didn't turn up. If he isn't already dead, that is." came a mocking drawl from behind him.
Hayden knew the voice instantly. It was Mikhail Andronov, son of Lord Andronov the Bear. The Andronov family were the most powerful in the kingdom, second only to the royal family themselves. Their family had a particular grudge with Hayden's family, which started after Duke Ezekiel had bested Lord Andronov in a combat tournament a few years before Hayden's birth. As his father was often away, he found himself the target of their jeers and insults. He spun around to face Mikhail, taking in the huge boy's figure with a critical eye. Like 'the Bear', he was a beast of a man, easily a head taller than Hayden. He was also about a foot broader, and much stronger. Nevertheless, he was surrounded by a gang of cronies who possessed about half a brain between them.
"Ahh Mikhail. How's the horse-riding coming on? Has your father found a horse that can stand to carry your considerable weight around for more than five minutes yet?" The large boy reddened and motioned for his gang to grab the antagoniser. Before they could take a full step however, something pushed them back. Hard. Without warning, the cloaked figure from the stage appeared at Hayden's shoulder.
"Now now, this is a friendly gathering. I suggest you either stop your silly games or take them outside." The voice was masked by the cowl and unrecognisable. Mikhail scowled for a moment before muttering an oath and stalking out of the hall with his gang in tow.
Hayden turned to the stranger with an inquisitive look. "What did-"
"What I did was prevent you from getting a well deserved beating. Perhaps you should learn to keep your tongue in check." Without a word, the stranger turned on their heel and disappeared into the crowd, who were trying their best to pretend as though they hadn't been watching.
Hayden ignored them and made for the exit, mind buzzing with questions. He sensed Virgil would be able to answer some of them.