The dinner dragged on much more slowly than I had imagined it could. Since I wore white, I barely ate out of fear of spilling anything on my dress. I had never felt so judged in my entire life. I could feel Aurora and Elora waiting for me to screw up so they could pounce, but I wasn’t sure how either of them would benefit from my failure.
I could tell that on several occasions Garrett tried to lighten the mood, but his attempts were rebuffed by Aurora and Elora, who dominated the conversation. The rest of us rarely spoke.
Tove stirred his soup a lot, and I became mildly hypnotized by that. He’d let go of his spoon, but it kept swirling around the bowl, stirring the soup without any hand to guide it. I must have started to gape because I felt Finn gently kick me under the table, and I quickly dropped my eyes back to my own food.
“It is so nice to have you here,” Garrett told me at one point, changing the entire topic of conversation. “How do you like the palace so far?”
“Oh, it is not a palace, Garrett,” said Elora with a laugh. It wasn’t a real laugh, though. It was the kind of laugh rich people use whenever they talk about new money people. Aurora tittered right along with it, and that quieted Elora down somehow.
“You’re right. It’s better than a palace,” Garrett said, and Elora smiled demurely.
“I like it. It’s very nice.” I knew I was making bland conversation, but I was afraid to elaborate more.
“Are you adjusting here all right?” Garrett asked.
“Yes, I think so,” I said. “I haven’t been here that long, though.”
“It does take time.” Garrett looked at Willa with affectionate concern. His easy smile returned quickly and he nodded at Finn. “But you’ve got Finn there to help you. He’s an expert at helping the changelings acclimate.”
“I’m not an expert at anything,” Finn said quietly. “I just do my job the best I can.”
“Have you had a designer come over to make the dress yet?” Aurora asked Elora, taking a polite sip of wine. It had been a minute since she’d last spoken, so it was time for her to assert herself once more in the conversation. “That dress the Princess has on is very lovely, but I can’t imagine that it was made specifically for her.”
“No, it was not.” Elora gave her a plastic smile and cast a very small but very distinct glare at my dress. Until just that second it had felt like the most beautiful thing I had ever worn. “The tailor is set to come over early next week.”
“That is cutting it a bit short for next Saturday, isn’t it?” Aurora questioned, and I could see Elora bristling just below the surface of her perfect smile. “That’s just over a week away.”
“Not at all,” Elora said in an overly soothing tone, almost as if she were talking to a small child or a Pomeranian. “I am using Frederique Von Ellsin, the same one who designed Willa’s gown. He works very quickly, and his gowns are always impeccable.”
“My gown was divine,” Willa interjected.
“Ah, yes.” Aurora allowed herself to look impressed. “We have him on reserve for when our daughter comes home next spring. He’s much harder to get then, since that is the busy season for when the children return.”
There was something vaguely condescending in her voice, as if we had done something tacky by having me arrive here when I did. Elora kept on smiling, despite what I now realized was a steady stream of polite barbs from Aurora.
“That is one major benefit of having the Princess come home in the fall,” Aurora continued, her words only getting more patronizing as she spoke. “Everything will be so much easier to book. When Tove came home last season, it was so difficult to get everything just right. I suppose you’ll have everything you want on hand. That should make for a stunning ball.”
Several things were setting off alarms in my head. First, they were talking about both me and Tove as if we weren’t even there, although he didn’t seem to notice or care about anything going on around him.
Second, they were talking about something going on next Saturday that I apparently needed a specially designed dress for, and yet nobody had bothered to mention it to me. Then again, this shouldn’t surprise me. Nobody told me anything.
“I haven’t had the luxury of making plans a year in advance the way most people do, since the Princess came home most unexpectedly.” Elora’s sweet smile dripped with venom, and Aurora smiled back at her as if she didn’t notice.
“I can certainly lend you a hand. I just did Tove’s, and as I said, I’m already preparing for our daughter’s,” Aurora offered.
“That would be delightful.” Elora took a long drink of her wine.
Dinner continued that way, Elora and Aurora’s conversation barely masking how much they detested each other. Noah didn’t say much, but at least he managed not to look awkward or bored.
Willa and I ended up watching Tove quite a bit, but for entirely different reasons. She stared at him with unabashed lust, although I couldn’t figure out what he’d done to deserve that, other than being attractive. I kept watching because I was certain he was moving things without touching them.
The Kroners didn’t linger after dinner, but the Stroms did. I assumed that was because Elora actually liked Garrett and Willa.
Elora, Finn, and I walked the Kroners out, with Finn coming along only to open the doors for them. When saying their good-byes, Aurora and Noah bowed before us, making me feel quite ridiculous. There was absolutely no reason why anyone should bow to me.
To my astonishment, Tove gently took my hand in his, kissing it softly when he bowed. When he straightened up, his eyes met mine, and very seriously he said, “I look forward to seeing you again, Princess.”
“And I, you.” I was so pleased that I had said something that sounded completely perfect for the moment. And then I smiled much too wide, I’m sure.
Once they departed into the night, oxygen seemed to return to the house, and Elora let out an irritated sigh. Finn rested his forehead against the door for a moment before turning back around to face us. I felt much better knowing that everyone else had found the evening exhausting too.
“Oh, that woman.” Elora rubbed her temples and shook her head, then pointed at me. “You. You do not bow to anyone, ever. Especially not that woman. I know you thrilled her endlessly, and she’s going to be telling everyone about the little dim-witted Princess who didn’t know enough not to bow before a Marksinna.” I looked at the floor, feeling any sense of pride vanish. “You don’t even bow before me, is that clear?”