The rest of the evening went downhill pretty quickly from that moment on. As soon as the waltz ended I was dragged away from Lucian and sat down in a chair on the dais to be introduced to a long line of men, all my suitors. They all looked the same and the names disappeared from my head as soon as the next man approached me.
I could see Lucian standing at the edge of the crowd that was gathering around me, a mischievous smile on his face. I had to fight very hard with myself to not laugh when he pulled faces at me, rolling his eyes and yawning. For someone I had only just met he seemed to know me very well.
I could almost see the end of the line when a man in very smart blue military uniform, highly decorated with gold brocade and medals, approached, bowing gracefully before taking my hand and kissing it. He was very handsome, but the first thing I noticed was his eyes, which were incredibly blue, the brightest I had ever seen, and his hair was so blonde it was almost white. He was tall too, towering over most of the other men in the room.
‘My lady,’ he said graciously, with a thick accent, his words very clipped and vowel sounds short. ‘I am Markus Birke, Prince of Basedow.’ I could feel the whispers going around the room as the heir to the throne of the most powerful country in the Known World presented himself. I could see Lucian’s smile disappear from his face out of the corner of my eye as he pulled himself up to his full height.
‘Welcome to Elra your highness,’ I said as pleasantly as I could, my smile fixed onto my face. ‘It is a great honour for me and my family to have you as a guest here. I’m sure our home is nothing to your fine castle back home, but I hope you have everything you need.’
‘Of course my castle is a lot bigger and grander than this, and there are definitely flaws to the way it is run, but I have found my quarters perfectly adequate.’ He said this completely flatly; clearly unimpressed by our home and unaware of the shocked stares he was receiving from everyone else in the room. It took all my strength to not retaliate and kick him out of the hall then and there.
‘I’m sure there are many things we could improve and I’m sure my parents would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.’
‘So you don’t take an active role in the running of the castle?’ He asked almost looking down his nose at me.
‘Of course not,’ I said, mimicking his snootiness. ‘I am a princess. Why should I involve myself in such trivial matters.’ I couldn’t help smiling when I saw the look of utter confusion on the Prince’s face. I saw Lucian giving me a small thumbs up and a wink from his place in the crowd and for some reason, because I’d impressed him I felt warm and satisfied inside. I tried to shake off that feeling as Markus regained control of the situation.
‘Things are done very differently here,’ he said in a non-committal way, not saying if this was a good or a bad thing.
‘I’m sure,’ I said in an equally ambiguous manner, still smiling sweetly at the Prince.
‘May I have the honour of a dance my lady?’ Markus said in his clipped tones, holding out his hand for me to take. I could feel my father glaring at me from a few steps away, begging me to agree and not make a fuss.
‘I would be glad to your majesty,’ I said, taking his hand and standing up to a round of applause and the hurried flicking of music as I was led back out onto the dance floor. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me as we began to dance. Markus wasn’t a natural dancer like Lucian was, but I could feel that he’d had years of training because he executed the steps with perfect precision.
He said nothing as he led me around the floor and I found my eyes wandering across the faces in the crowd until I caught sight of Lucian’s face, which was a mixture of amusement and something I couldn’t put my finger on. He was looking at Markus as though he wished he would disappear in a puff of smoke. For some strange reason this made me smile.
The dance ended and our audience applauded, even Lucian. Markus bowed to me once more.
‘That you my lady. That was a pleasure.’
‘The pleasure was all mine,’ I replied as required. ‘I wish you the best of luck in the contest and hope to get to know you better in the future.’
The Prince bowed again, taking my hand and kissing it before straightening himself back up to his full height, clicking his heels and walking off.