After Evert had been King for ten years and still had no bride and no heirs, the leaders had begun to worry. They didn’t want to put the kingdom in turmoil, the way it had been after Elliot’s death. So they set up a ball where the eligible women were to come to meet the King, and that’s how Mina met Evert.
“That night was like a fairy tale.” Mina smiled and touched her husband’s shoulder. “The instant I laid eyes on him, I was in love. Luckily for me, he felt the same way. Four short months later, we were wed. Every day since then has been the happiest day of my life, and I can only hope that the next five years of marriage will be just as magical as the first.”
She beamed down at King Evert, giving him a look so sweet and adoring that it was almost uncomfortable to watch. And then, quietly, almost too quietly for us to hear, she said, “I am so grateful for you, my love.”
Since that seemed to be the end of her speech, the crowd applauded warmly for her, and she offered us all a wide smile before sitting back down next to her husband.
“She’s lying,” Ridley said as he clapped halfheartedly for her. “She doesn’t love him.”
“Why do you say that?” Ember asked.
He shook his head and went back to spooning the now-freezing-cold stew. “Nobody loves anybody that much.”
“And here you were going on and on about true love last night,” I said, surprised by the bitter edge of my own words.
“Was I?” He lifted his head, resting his eye on me, and I quickly turned back toward my own stew. “I remember saying something about settling down, but nothing about true love.”
“Same thing,” I mumbled.
“I don’t know. Some people love each other that much,” Ember insisted. “I think the Trylle King and Queen are super into each other.”
“I’m not saying that people don’t fall in love. People fall madly in love with each other all the time. But that right there”—Ridley gestured behind him, toward where King Evert and Queen Mina were seated—“that was all an act.”
“I think you’re right,” Tilda agreed, talking about the royalty in a way that was unusual for her. When I looked at her in surprise, she shrugged one shoulder simply and took a sip of her water. “Well, he is right. She was a small-town girl with big dreams, and marrying into money and royalty was her way to get what she wanted.”
“That’s all I’m saying.” Ridley leaned back in his seat, a self-satisfied grin on his face. Since Tilda so rarely chimed in on matters like this, having her on his side seemed like a boon.
“Good for her, then,” I replied glibly.
“Good for her?” Ember laughed. “You think it’s good that she tricked the King?”
“She didn’t trick him,” I corrected her. “He needed a beautiful wife to bear him children, and that’s what he got. Well, no kids yet, but she’s still young. She wanted to make a better life for herself, and she found a way. Maybe not the way that you or I would’ve chosen, but it was one way to do it.”
“Would you do that?” Ridley asked. “Would you marry someone you didn’t love to advance your life or your career?”
“No, of course I wouldn’t,” I said.
“Would you even marry someone if you did love them?” he asked. I could feel his eyes on me, but I refused to look at him, preferring to finish my wine in big gulps.
Before I could answer, Evert announced that it was time for the dance, and waiters came out to start clearing the tables and moving them out of the way so there would be more room for people to dance.
Then I didn’t have time to worry about Ridley’s questions or the way his eyes seemed to look straight through me. I had to hurry and help the waiters take our plates away, and then I was on my feet with the other trackers, helping to stack chairs and push tables to the side of the room.
But that was just as well, because I had no idea how I would answer.
At the end of the ballroom, a small orchestra played a mix of contemporary human music along with Kanin folk songs. A singer accompanied them, and she had a pristine voice with an operatic range. The songs would segue seamlessly from the Beatles to a Kanin love ballad, sung entirely in its original low Swedish, and then would switch to a beautiful rendition of Adele.
It was still early in the evening, so the dance floor was relatively full. Most couples swayed to the music, but some glided across the floor with the elegant, practiced steps that came from years of training. The royalty, especially those from Doldastam, lived pampered, sheltered lives with much free time on their hands, so many of them took up ballroom dancing to fill the time.
As the newest returning changeling and one of the highest-ranking Markis, Linus attracted a lot of attention, and his dance card was full. While he could be clumsy, and did trip over his own feet a few times, his dance partners didn’t seem to mind.
I watched him from the sidelines, ready to swoop in if he needed me, but he seemed to be doing okay on his own. His dance moves might have been lacking, but he made up for it by being nice and rather charming, in an unassuming kind of way.
Tilda and Ember didn’t have any charges to watch out for, so they were free to hang out with me, standing along the wall at the edge of the dance floor. Tilda wore a short flapper-esque dress that showed off her long legs, and as she swayed, the silver tassels would swing and bounce along with her. Even though we were supposed to be standing at attention at the side of the ballroom, Tilda couldn’t help herself. She loved to dance far too much. With her eyes closed, her head tilted back slightly, letting her long brown hair flow behind her, she moved gracefully in time with the music.
“I wish I could dance,” Ember lamented.
Tilda opened her eyes and glanced down at Ember. “Just dance. It’s fun even if you’re alone.”
Ember stared forlornly out at the crowded dance floor. “When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was go to the palace and attend one of these balls. And now that I am, I’m stuck at the side, unable to join in or have fun.”
“You’ve joined in. You got to have a nice meal, you got all dolled up, and you’re listening to the music,” I pointed out, trying cheer her up. “You’re a part of it.”
“Maybe,” Ember said doubtfully, but then she shook her head. “No, you’re right. I guess I just spent too much time daydreaming about dancing with Prince Charming. Or Princess Charming, as it were.”