Chapter I

The Lady Beatrix.

Her titles included that of the Countess of the Yild Valley and surrounding areas, daughter of the deceased Erl and Countess of the same, and ward of His Royal Highness the King Roald. But was already famed throughout the kingdom of Disnarta as the most beautiful lady ever to draw breath.

None knew what true beauty was till they had seen her on the night of her sixteenth birthday.

The whole of the capital of Disnarta, especially the castle, had been in preparation for weeks, decking out ballrooms in the appropriate blue and red pennants of Disnarta, setting up beautiful tables, preparing delicious banquets, so that on that particular night everything would be perfect. For the Lady Beatrix, as King Roald’s niece and ward, was the fourth most important person in the country.

That particular night.

In reflection of the importance of the ceremony, all the great Erls and their Countesses had been invited. If a passing servant had happened to glance around, or a musician look down from the gallery, they would have seen them all:

the handsome Erl Annesdale and his young, pretty wife the Countess Lillian, his two young sons Tarquin and Andrew left at home;

the older Erl Hathering, left a widower after his own wife’s death three years previously in the Plague of ’64, but who looked as young as ever;

Erl Lockspate, one of the youngest Erls, his shaggy golden head shaking in laughter;

Erl Durithar, tall and forbidding, cunning and calculating, a great strategist and loyal friend of the king;

Erl Whitwyn, one of the king’s oldest friends and advisors who had grown up with the king and told of many pranks they had played together when young;

Erl Tarnsbrough, highly moral and chivalrous, who enjoyed lecturing people on the benefits of such attibutes;

Erl Otha, exactly the opposite – a practical man of action, not knowledge, although he was a genius of rhetoric;

and Erl Hannart, charming every female in the room – be she young or old, plain or pretty - but always returning to the arm of his loyal wife.

Down there also was the king himself; his son, the Crown Prince Owain; and the Erl of Aratheon, better known as Aaron, the Prince’s cousin, and second in line for the throne.

As you can imagine, all these Erls made a decent amount of noise, and combine this with the noise of the orchestra, and it was a wonder anyone could hear themselves think.

But all stopped, all noise ceased, as the Lady Beatrix, the image of perfection, began her long decent to the ballroom floor. Dressed in a long, flowing crimson dress that billowed from her hips, accentuating her slim waist; and with her famous black curls cascading artfully over one shoulder to contrast with the pure white of her skin, she descended slowly from the upper gallery to the ballroom floor below with a grace that stunned all onlookers into an awe-filled silence. Wives clutched at their husbands, jealousy flaring in their narrow breasts.

When she reached the bottom of the staircase, the eight Erls and their families bowed their heads with the utmost respect. As her dainty foot touched the ballroom floor, the king her uncle took her hand, bowing to kiss it with soft lips, before guiding her around the room.

‘My Lady,’ he said, a smile upon his old, handsome face. ‘You are purely radiant tonight.’

Countess and king came to a pause at the very centre of the ballroom, and the orchestra began to play the traditional Disnartan waltz.

‘Your cousin is watching you, my dear,’ Roald said as they began the steps, perfectly in time.

The Lady allowed herself a small nod of indulgence. ‘Of which cousin do you speak, My Lord?’

Roald laughed quietly to himself. ‘Erl Aratheon, of course. Aaron is a strong, upright young man, you know. He loves you very much.’

The Lady frowned almost imperceptibly. ‘My Lord,’ she began. ‘I do not believe-’

‘I know, my dear,’ sighed the King. ‘But it would secure your position. It will not be long before he thinks of marriage, and I would urge you to consider it also. He is a good man. I owe him much. Disnarta owes him much. I am sure you could be very happy together. Just think about it.’

If this made the Lady uncomfortable, she showed no sign of it. If it threw any shade on the rest of the evening, she showed no sign of it.

Thinking about it, she showed very little sign of anything.

The End

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