The army of servants led Kya in silence down several large, stone corridors with arches of colorful stone glaring down from above. She wondered idly where they were taking her, however, as none of them made eye contact the whole way, she could only assume they were en route to some kind of punishment. But that was alright, punishment was a predictable cycle even if it was slightly undeserved. Mr. Sloane had had that ‘insult' coming for a while. So, deciding not to waste her time and mental energy on what lay in wait for her at the end of her journey, Kya instead turned her thoughts to the question of where all these servants had come from. Had so many people always worked in the castle or were they extras for the ball? Perhaps, she mused with a faint smile, they are the Auxiliary Princess Recovery Squad.
She also did not think of the mysterious man. She would save that for when she had a long period of time to ponder their conversation and tabulate all the questions she planned to ask him at the ball. If he was even there, which she doubted. Palace security was always tight but it was even more so during any kind of party so that the nobles in attendance would feel protected. The doormen knew everyone invited by name and face and if someone showed up that didn't belong an army, similar to the one surrounding her now, would descend on him and throw him in the dungeon, no questions asked. There was no way he would get past the front door. And so she decided then that her first question for the man, if she saw him again, would be how he got in.
She stopped herself there, knowing that if she really got rolling she wouldn't be able to stop at all. Besides, they had arrived at their destination: the throne room. She should have guessed this was where she would end up since it was here that she was always punished for her infractions.
The large, ornate, gold doors opened to an even bigger, more elaborate, gold room topped off by two enormous, superfluous, shining gold chairs. Kya never could see the purpose of a gold chair when any other chair would suffice. They all served the same purpose after all and, if anything, a gold chair was probably just more uncomfortable that a regular wooden one. Either way, it was in front of these gold chairs that Kya now stood, awaiting the arrival of the king, the queen and the punishment.
A young squire burst through one of the side doors in that moment and announced in a loud voice, "Ladies and gentlemen, His Majesty, the King of Zander and Her Majesty, the Queen of Zander."
All the soldiers/servants dropped to one knee at the proclamation, making Kya feel slightly awkward to be the only one still standing but bowing to your mother and father before being punished set a bad precedent. She was not surprised to see none other than Mr. Sloane himself storming in behind their royal majesties, looking every bit as furious and mousy as ever.
The king and queen took their very uncomfortable seats with as much grace and ceremony as was to be expected of people of their status. They both wore their gold crowns and their fanciest, most expensive clothes, perhaps in preparation for tonight's ball. Their stern expressions told her that Mr. Sloane had, no doubt, already told his colorful side of the story.
"Well Kya," intoned the king in a resounding voice that echoed the length of the chamber, "What have you to say for your self?"
"Not much," she replied flatly, not out of lack of defense but out of desire to hear whatever fairytale her lackluster teacher had spun.
"Mr. Sloane here," continued the king, gesturing to the teacher with a wave of his hand, "Claims that you screamed a number of obscene words at him before throwing a textbook at his head before storming out of the room in a fit of rage and running down the hall shrieking like a sea monster. Now, is this true?"
"Not really," Kya replied, trying and failing to contain her laughter, "The screaming was decidedly more of the banshee variety."
"The type of screaming is not the issue here, Kya," the king droned on in a bored, detached voice, "Do you admit to these acts or not commit these acts?"
Kya opened her mouth to speak, to argue that nothing of the sort had happened, to tell the truth. But the looks on the faces of the king and queen stopped her from uttering a syllable. Their disapproving eyes and the angry frowns etched onto their mouths delivered the verdict before hearing the whole story. No matter what she said, they had already sided with Mr. Sloane. And of course they did, she was only a dumb princess after all, just like her sister. What did she know? Nothing. Their eyes said it all.
And so, with a resigned sigh, she answered, "Yes."
"Then you know that there will be a punishment for this."
Kya rolled her eyes. The king droned on like a judge in a petty court case. She was glad she hadn't wasted any energy arguing with him, she would save that for the mystery man at the ball tonight.
"Well then, I think that, in way of punishment, you should sit in your room during the ball tonight and think about what you did. Then-"
"But wait!" exclaimed the queen in a high, nasally voice, "It can't be tonight, not this ball. You know what tonight is, dear." The queen shot the king a half-anxious, half-upset glance, as if trying to remind him of something without actually saying it.
"Oh!" said the king, memory jogged, "Right. Well then, you'll have to sit out the next ball. And now, if you'll excuse us, we have some very royal business to attend to."
Kya arched an eyebrow as the king and queen made a spectacle of themselves trying to leave the room both quickly and royally. Something was definitely going down tonight at the ball and her parents were in on it. Did they know about the strange man? Was the whole thing a set up? Were the three of them in cahoots? It was hard to say.
Nevertheless, the punishment suited her just fine. Any other ball she would have gladly missed but this one seemed as though it were bound to be full of surprises.
Kya spent the rest of the afternoon and a good deal of the evening in the tailors' quarters where she was forced to stand painfully still while they stitched a ball gown onto her. One twitch and she would end up with a handful of pins stabbing through the thin fabric of her slip and slicing at her skin. The flurry of activity in the room was maddening, especially because she couldn't move at all. Tailors and seamstresses darted left and right armed with measuring tapes, colorful fabrics and ribbons. A constant stream of people flowed in and out of the room moving so fast that sometimes they were only blurs of color.
All of this, the stillness, the gluts of fast-moving people and those infernal pins she could have endured, had she been allowed to think. Unfortunately, her sister, Princess Orla, was receiving the same treatment not ten feet away and insisted upon chattering endlessly and obsessively about a number of pointless subjects; princes and royal, handsome, young men not the least of her topics.
So poor Kya was forced to listen to her sister's ridiculous, mindless blathering for a grand total of six hours. And while she never partook of the conversation in any way, the nonstop noise kept interrupting her thoughts and made it almost impossible for her to get her head straight. This was the reason why, by the time all the pins had been removed from her dress and her skin and she was deemed a finished product, she found herself in the crowded ballroom without any idea what she was going to say to the mystery man, should he show up.
The massive hall was filled with royalty from wall to wall, an impression that was only intensified by the mirrors. Hundreds of people (at least it felt like hundreds of people to Kya) were crammed against the walls in order to give the dancing couples room in the center as they jogged briskly to an upbeat tune. Kya drew a deep breath and tried to keep her head from swimming. She had a feeling of claustrophobia building up inside of her like water rising slowly. She had to get off the dance floor. Picking up her skirts and running as quickly as she could in her heeled shoes, Kya fled to one of the parlors being used as a sitting room tonight. In her hast to escape the throngs of dancers she accidently ran into a gentleman in a nice black suit at the threshold of the sitting room.
"Pardon me," Kya said, not looking at him but past him into the parlor where there was air to breathe.
"Good to see you again princess," answered an all too familiar voice.
Looking up, she was shocked to recognize her mystery man, in the flesh, grinning good-temperedly at her surprise. His hair was still a wild mess of black, and Kya got the feeling that it was rarely anything else, and his features were still straight and angular but other than that, he looked completely different. His tanned skin was clean of any dust or dirt marks and his suit looked amazing, especially on him. It was hard to believe, looking at him now, that he wasn't royalty. He could have fooled anybody.
Kya was only vaguely aware of the song in the ballroom ending and so she was exceptionally surprised when the man, what had been his name? Nero, wasn't it? When Nero gave her a slight bow and asked with his usual grin and confidence, "May I have this dance, Miss Kya?"
For a minute, she couldn't respond. No one had ever asked her to dance at a ball before. Princes usually preferred to fawn over Orla. Finally, she came back to herself and answered, "Of course."
They walked out onto the dance floor to the tune of gasps and whispers and wide-eyed stares. No one recognized the dashing gentleman in the black suit nor did they see why he would want to dance with Kya when he could clearly see Princess Orla giving him an appreciative stare while trying to shoot daggers at her sister for stealing the prize of the night.
"So," Kya said in an attempt to be causal and ignore the shocked crowd at the same time, "How did you get in here?"
"I never left."
"So it was all a rouse then?"
"Of course it was, but you already knew that," he pointed out.
"I see," Kya said, nodding as she thought about it. The music started then. It was a slow song with a drifting, almost sorrowful melody that sounded a little out of place at a party. Without a word, Nero swept her up in his arms and began gliding gracefully across the dance floor. The other dancers and the people in the crowd made no attempt to hide their oppressive stares. There wasn't a sound in the whole hall except the music.
"So why are you here?" she asked, "Just for kicks and giggles?"
He chuckled at her choice of words. "That's part of it but really, I came to make you a deal."
"Interesting," Kya said, doing her best to sound as if it wasn't really interesting at all, "What are you offering?"
"Oh, nothing much," he said off-handedly, "Just a lifetime of freedom for a particularly intelligent princess under one small, insignificant condition."
"Which would be . . ." she prompted.
"She must join my crew."
She glanced up at his face to see if he was joking but his eyes were serious, scrutinizing her face for her reaction.
"And what crew would that be?" Kya chocked out after a pause, "The Breaking into Palaces Crew?"
"No," he said, humor returned, "My pirate crew, of course."
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "There are no pirates. The Royal Air Marshal killed them all and burned their ships."
"All but one," he replied with a smile.
"Surely you're joking."
"Oh but I'm not. Come join my crew. You can have a life of total freedom. Do what you want, when you want."
Kya thought back on her day, how she lived on a schedule with every minute of every day regimented. She made a face of disdain.
Nero smiled. "You know what I mean," he observed.
"I do but I can't leave," Kya told him. She realized her decision had already been made, before he even started talking. His offer was tempting. In fact, it was more than tempting, it was everything she ever wanted but she couldn't abandon her family to their own devices; they would never survive. "I have responsibilities here. I can't just go running off."
He nodded once as the humor left his face. He wasn't angry or disappointed, even though he probably wasted a lot of time and effort on this endeavor. And he certainly didn't look defeated. A wave of suspicion washed over her for a moment as she considered this but then, all too soon, the song ended. Nero stepped away from her with a wistful smile playing at his lips.
"Well then princess," he said, "I guess this is goodbye."
She hardly had time to whisper her own farewell before he turned and disappeared into the crowd as swiftly as he had arrived.
The second he was gone a glut of people rushed towards Kya. They crowded her, pushing and pulling from all sides, eager to know who that handsome gentleman was. The feeling of claustrophobia that Nero's presence had vanished returned at a frightening rate and in an exponentially higher intensity until two voices, full of authority, beat their way through the throng. The king and queen. Great, she thought when she caught sight of the curiosity on their faces, it was going to be one of those kinds of nights.
"Kya! Kya!" the queen's voice was a little worried and a lot frantic, "What are you doing? We've been looking all over for you! And who was that handsome nobleman you were dancing with?"
She shrugged to indicate that she did not wish to answer any of the above questions. It would ruin everyone's night to know that a pirate had crashed the party.
"Well," huffed the queen importantly, "The next dance is starting and we have someone we'd like you to dance with. Kya, meet Prince Zolan of Melawja's northeastern country, Estna."
Kya would have refused, having already danced once tonight but the prince gave her no choice. As soon as the music started he dragged her roughly out onto the dance floor and proceeded to attempt to dance. This attempt, however, was a disaster. The prince was a portly gentleman and was quickly proving himself graceless as well. He had a pudgy face with two beady black eyes embedded in his cheeks and slick, greasy, dull blond hair, not to mention that he smelled like something had crawled under his armpits and died. This gentleman also seemed to have two left feet and a ridiculous amount of trouble keeping them under him. The prince stumbled frequently into Kya and other dancers, trying to look graceful and elegant while doing it.
The dance was much too long for Kya to ignore the prince but too awkward for her to say anything. All she could think of was the remarkable contrast between her former dance partner and her current one. That gave her a bit of a laugh. But more than anything, she wanted to get away, go somewhere where she could sit awhile and convince herself that she had made the right decision. It certainly didn't feel like it.
When the song finally ended, the princess decided it was a prime opportunity to make such a getaway but her path out of the dance hall was blocked by her own father. The treacherous king grabbed both her and the obese prince by the wrist and proceeded to drag them, kicking and screaming in Kya's case, to the front of the room where the queen was waiting. Instinctively, Kya knew nothing good could come of this arrangement.