Thankfully I was saved from saying anything to the stranger by the sound of a gong, silencing the entire hall. Every pair of eyes turned to the high table at the far end of the hall where a group of people were entering, all dressed extravagantly. I smiled internally as I recognised my family standing on the dais at the end of the hall.
‘Welcome,’ I heard my father say, his voice echoing around the now silent hall. ‘It is wonderful to see you all here tonight at this very special occasion. Many of you may have noticed that there is one person missing from my family who are standing with me. As many of you know my youngest daughter has recently turned seventeen, and is now ready to be married. I am sure many of the young men who have travelled here from distant lands are very eager to meet her, and she is here tonight.’ There was a murmur that spread through the crowd at this and I felt the man standing next to me tense.
‘Unfortunately there is a small test for any of my daughter’s suitors to pass. The first of many. Lady Liliana is hidden among you this evening,’ my father announced to more excited mutterings. ‘The task for the suitors is simple. Find my daughter and bring her to me and you will have an advantage going into the next challenge.’ He paused as the crowd erupted, all discussing the unexpected actions my father was taking.
‘What do you think he’s doing?’ The stranger whispered in my ear. ‘Why have a contest for his daughter’s hand?’
‘I have no idea,’ I said, trying not to give the game away. ‘Maybe he wants to make sure she chooses the right man.’
‘But selling her off in this way. It’s like some sort of auction.’
‘Except it’s the men who have to perform for the King’s approval.’
‘Are you one of the men who are competing?’ I asked trying to sound casual and uninterested when deep down I hoped the answer was yes.
‘My father sent me to compete. Personally I don’t think this is the right way to find the person you are going to spend the rest of your life with. Political alliances and status are all important, but they don’t make you happy.’
‘So how would you like to find your future wife?’ I asked, looking up at him from behind my mask.
‘I’m not sure. But not like this. I want to be able to talk to her without worrying that there are other men, who might be stronger than me or more politically able, competing against me, and could win simply because they have better credentials.’
‘But surely if the woman liked you more than the others she would choose you.’
‘I don’t think Lady Liliana is going to get much of a say in the matter, do you? It’s a political statement. Marry off the youngest daughter to whoever will bring the most power and influence to the Royal Family. It’s happened hundreds of times before and will happen for years to come.’
‘I would say you were a very depressing person, sir,’ I said, giving him my lopsided smile, which made me look like I was up to something.
‘Then I will have to prove you wrong,’ he said, giving me a cheeky grin in return. ‘Would you care for a dance madam?’
‘But the dancing hasn’t started yet. It won’t start until the a member of the Royal Family leads and I don’t think they’re going to be starting any time soon.’
‘Then why don’t you lead?’
My head snapped around and our eyes met from behind our masks. His eyes were sparkling with glee and pride at guessing right.
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said cagily.
‘It’s alright my lady, I won’t tell your father the real reason I know who you are.’
‘And what would that be?’
‘I’ve remembered where I’ve seen you before. Earlier today, you crossed the entrance hall with your brother. I could never forget such a beautiful woman.’
‘You were the man coming in from the rain,’ I breathed, suddenly managing to put two and two together.
‘But it wasn’t just that. You are totally different to every other girl in this room. Your dress is extra-ordinarily fine; not many people can afford that sort of craftsmanship. You hold yourself differently because you know you are a princess and are the social superior of almost every other person in this room. You can speak how you like to people because you are in control. You look like royalty.’
‘How did you get all of that?’ I asked, shocked that I had given so much away.
‘I’ve spent my fair share of time with royalty. My father is the chief advisor to the King of Rosarin. I know your sister very well.’
‘You know Lucinda?’ I felt my face light up at the thought of my eldest sister, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. ‘How is she?’
‘She is very well, but she misses all of you terribly and wishes you would visit her.’
‘I would but my father would never let me go, and I’m sure whoever my new husband will be will agree with him.’
‘It depends on what sort of man he is. If he cares about family then I’m sure he would understand you wanting to visit your sister and would be all too happy to let you go.’
‘Then I’ll have to hope I find a man who finds family important,’ I joked, trying to lighten the now heavy mood. ‘Now you know who I am, I feel it is only fair you tell me your name, son of the chief advisor to the King of Rosarin.’
‘My name, my lady, is Lucian d’Arco.’
‘Welcome to Elra, Mr d’Arco.’