Over the next ten days, as well as juggling all my duties, I was preparing for the ball. The Palace Tailor made me a long golden dress out of silk. It flowed to my ankles but left my arms bare. To match, I was given a topaz pendant and pretty, open-toed heels. I bought a necklace strung with turquoise and blue beads from Martha for the Eagle Empress, which was meant to ward away evil, and a box of chocolates from the finest chocolatiers in Wavia for the Eagle Emperor.
I took the time to visit the triplets Charity and I had helped deliver, giving Tally some of my old baby clothes which she was extremely grateful for and honoured to accept. There was one spare afternoon which I spent reading more of Henry and Vanessa's story.
The next time the pair met - in a room Vanessa by letter had asked Henry to book in a Wavian tavern not well-known to royalty, or indeed any other person outside the area - Vanessa greeted Henry by flinging her arms around his neck.
"Oh, I missed you," she cried. "I have found my family so tiresome and my life so dull since we spoke to each other. I know not why but I have craved your company, so much so that I have become sore within. It is so good to see you again - so wonderfully, gratifyingly good."
Henry was startled by Vanessa's revelation, especially since he had experienced exactly the same symptoms as her.
"How odd," he murmured.
"Pardon?" Vanessa asked, releasing Henry and stepping back a little.
"I missed you too," Henry explained. "In fact, seeing you again fills me with great, inexpressible joy and an exhilarating energy that runs wild within my veins."
"But what could this mean?" Vanessa asked, puzzled.
"I cannot say. But," he said, taking her hands in his, "Let us not have to endure this pain any longer. Let us meet, infrequently to prevent suspicion but regularly so that our bodies can know that suffering is unnecessary. We should hold these meetings in each of the four kingdoms and ask those whom we trust to help us. I fear this course of action is reckless but I need to keep seeing you, Vanessa. I fear my sanity depends on it."
Vanessa nodded. "I could not bear for us to stay apart."
After lunch on August 1st, Charity took me upstairs to paint my nails - a glossy colour that was like the shade of my hair, only brighter and shinier - and then ran me a bath before helping me into the dress and curling my hair. She tied it in a bun, leaving a few loose strands hanging down on either side of my face, then put my topaz pendant around my neck.
"Why can't you stay?" I asked, as she set to work putting powders on my face. Tonight, Charity was riding with me to Majesteria but then returning home.
"I have a meeting with our allies."
Ah yes, the allies. When we had returned from Majesteria after my visit to see the Supreme Ruler, Charity had introduced me to a dozen Wavian citizens who believed in and would gladly fight for our cause. Amongst them was a young girl who had fallen in love with a Phoenix she had met in the Land of Boulders (who was leaving Fireland because of his disagreement with the Phoenix-Dolphin Conflict and resentment towards the rulers) and had not seen him since their brief encounter. She inspired me to not care about anyone's opinion of my attraction to the High Prince and moved me with her determination to find ‘Flerrick' again.
"Is it okay that I don't intend?" I asked, as Charity made the finishing touches to my appearance.
"Of course," Charity said. "We would rather you went out and enjoyed yourself. After all, there may be a chance of you changing Tiger's heart and that would help us no end."
"Thank you, Charity."
"It's no problem, Selena. There." The last word referred to the completion of Charity's work.
I stood up and made my way over to the full-length mirror in the corner of my room.
The girl in the silvered glass was totally unrecognisable and absolutely magnificent. Her jaw dropped at the same time as mine but even when we reached out to touch each other at the exact same moment, I couldn't believe it was me I was seeing.
"Hm, it's only four o'clock. Dinner is at five thirty. We'll make a move right after that but what to do until then?"
There were butterflies in my stomach. I felt, suddenly, inexplicably nervous. I started to feel a little light-headed.
"Um, I'll read," I said. "I need to calm down."
"Okay," Charity said, smiling.
She began to tidy my dresser as I carefully sat upon my bed and picked up ‘Punishable Courting'.