Even without her black mask, Maxim recognized the Raven. No one he had ever seen before had hair quite so golden and when she turned around, he found his gaze drawn to her crystal orbs. The same glint of mischief that he’d seen before resided in her eyes and though he was sure she was there to steal from the guests, he smiled.
“Hello, swordsman,” she returned, her startled look morphing into one of amusement. “I hope you have been practicing since our last encounter, for you were in great need of it if my memory is correct.”
“Rest assured milady, I have taken up my sword each and every morning since our little tift in the forrest. I see that you now wear your trophy,” said he, gesturing to the small ring that graced her long fingers. Her eyes traveled down to the piece of jewelry and she grimaced slightly. He leaned close to her and spoke quietly in her ear. “Do not worry, I have no intention of taking it back. It looks far lovelier on your hand anyway.”
He was rewarded with a genuine smile and it lifted his heart. The beauty before him was so great and pure that Maxim was once again in awe. Though he had pictured her face many times since their first meeting, his memory did not do her justice. Her ruby red lips looked plumper and the gentle shape of her jaw lent an elegance to her features. Yes, Hanson was correct; he was very much in love with this little thief.
“Dance with me, Lady Raven?” he asked, offering his arm for her to take. Hey eyes grew wide and seemed to search the room for a frantic moment, looking for someone. It then occurred to him that perhaps she hadn’t come alone.
“I suppose one dance would not hurt, but then I must go. And I am no lady, so you needn’t call me one.” Raven took his arm and he happily lead her toward the center of the room. Heads turned in their direction as they moved through the room, which caused her to lower her eyes. It was clear that she did not care for attention.
Once situated with the other couples and hands placed gingerly on shoulder and waist, while their others were locked together, the music began. The song was a slow one, warranting very little movement from the dancers. They swayed gently, meshing with the other dancers in a slow waltz that moved them gracefully across the floor.
Raven’s eyes seemed to search the room and so missed the look of longing that Maxim cast her. He moved his hand down her waist slightly and was amused to feel the heavy weight of what must be her conquests of that night. Really he should not think it so funny that she was stealing from his peers, but he could not help chuckling.
“What’s so funny?” she asked, her eyes finding his face and narrowing. Perhaps she was trying to look menacing, but all she succeeded in doing was making herself more attractive. “Is there something on my face?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” he laughed, leaning down close to her ear. She tensed at the nearness, but did not pull away. “I was simply wondering how you can dance with so many jewels in your pockets. One would think that so many precious stones would weigh you down considerably.”
Surprisingly, she blushed but her gaze held firm and she tried desperately to keep an uncaring look on her face. “They are very heavy, but I do not mind and scarcely notice,” was her haughty response and she stuck her nose up slightly. “I have had much practice carrying heavy pockets out of this castle.”
“Is that so?”
Raven bit her lip and looked away, refusing to comment. It pleased him more than it should have to learn that she had stepped foot in the castle before and that she might again. Maybe if he told the servants of her likeness, they would report to him when next she visited. For now though, he would simply enjoy holding her close to him.
The song ended moments later but Maxim was loathed to let her go. He held on a seconds longer than the others couples before he finally released her, letting her take a step back. The two stood apart, neither quite certain what to do next. But they did not have the chance to decide, for Anne came rushing toward the pair.
“Maxim, you must introduce me to your partner! For it must be an extraordinary woman indeed that can bring my brother to dance. You may not be the wiser, but he is quite against dancing and I haven’t seen him partake in it for many years,” said Anne, smiling broadly from her brother to Raven.
“Maxim? The prince?” she gasped, turning her head from one sibling to the other, her eyes wide and her mouth agape. He greatly wanted to hit his sister, but restrained himself and instead worked to sooth his partner.
“I’m sorry for my sister, Lady Raven, she is very nosey,” he said with a pointed look to his sister, who looked positively delighted to hear him speak her name. “Anne, shouldn’t you be nagging that future husband of yours?” This was his not so subtle way of telling her to go away, which she promptly ignored.
“That is such a lovely name, Raven and you are very beautiful too. I have not seen you before at court. Are you simply visiting or have you come to live in Harendale? Perhaps we will see more of each other before I move away,” she spoke animatedly, but it was clear that her listener was quite uncomfortable.
With flickering eyes, she began to move away from the royal siblings. He wanted to reach out and stop her, but he felt that it would not be a good idea to draw more attention to her. So he simply planted his feet and prepared to scold his sister once she was out of sight.
“Yes, I am visiting my uncle, the Duke of Tristle and I will be leaving very soon, so I am afraid that I will not be coming back to court,” Raven replied, mustering a tone of regret as she edged away. “I wish you all the happiness in the world upon your marriage, but I’m afraid I must go now. My uncle will be wondering where I’ve got off to. It was an honor to meet you, your majesties.”
Maxim did not want to see her go and unfortunately it seemed that he would not, for at that very moment, all hell broke loose.