The rest of the night was simply more dancing. The Lady was passed from partner to partner, dancing with Viscounts, Erls and Dukes. ‘Her feet must be agony,’ the ladies whispered. ‘I wouldn’t want to be her for anything. All that dancing? Ptah!’ But her face remained impassive, cold, beautiful. She was a mistress at emotionlessness.
Finally, with a last flourish, the orchestra ended the final dance of the night, and everyone collapsed gratefully into a seat for the banquet. No splendour had been spared here either, with golden chairs, red velvet cushions, more pennants and, of course, the food.
Course after course arrived: thin slices of ham with sweet melons from Graecia; baby leaf salads with goat’s cheese and small tomatoes from the palace’s gardens; succulent pork with roasted apricots, a thick creamy sauce and cinnamon; mint sorbets to clear the pallet between courses; deep red wine, dry white wine, sweet pink wine… And finally, as the hour neared midnight, champagne was brought fourth, and the King rose to address the whole table.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he began with a smile. ‘My deepest thanks for joining me here tonight in the celebration of the birthday of the Honourable Lady Beatrix, Countess of the Yild Valley and surrounding areas, daughter of my dear departed brother and his wife.
‘Before his death, I promised my brother that I would care for his daughter as if she were my own child. This, I believe, I have carried out to the best of my ability. I have watched his daughter grow to be a fine young lady, worthy of any man whom she marries. I truly believe my brother would have been proud if he could have seen her now.
‘Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to join me in a toast – to the Lady Beatrix, may she have long life and prosperity!’
Countless glasses were raised in the air to the chorus of ‘the Lady Beatrix!’.
‘And now I would like you to join me at a game of billiards!’
A laugh rippled around the room, and Aaron leaned over to speak to the King. A smile dancing in his eyes, Roald raised his wineglass to his lips once more, and the Lady found herself watching their carefree exchange.
For a moment, everything was normal and as it should be. But as the great clock began to chime midnight, everything changed. By the time it finished chiming, Disnarta would be a completely different place altogether.