Everything stopped when the ballroom doors were thrown open. The musicians fell silent, dancers froze in their steps, and conversation ceased entirely. Everyone was staring at the stairs of the grand entrance, where Ashen of Azure descended.
When she reached the main floor of the grand room, men abandoned their partners and rushed at the newcomer. They all vied for her attention, trying in vain to earn her affection, none of them noticing how hers and the prince's eyes had locked from so far apart.
The prince leaned forward in his throne. He was not surprised to see a woman so beautiful, most of the nobility were blessed with fine looks and wealth. What did shock him was the color of the maiden's dress, the color of the kingdom's greatest enemy.
The woman nearly disappeared in the crowd of suitors. All that could be seen of her was her red hair.
A collective gasp echoed through the room when the prince stood. The ball, a celebration of his recent engagement to his cousin, had started hours ago, and despite the attempts to persuade him otherwise, the prince had remained on his throne. Now, though, he passed through the crowd. Everyone stepped back, giving him a clear path to the newcomer.
"I believe this poor woman has had enough," he called out. "There are plenty of other lovely maidens. I see no need to harass this one."
Grudgingly, the suitors returned to their disgruntled partners, but the dancing did not resume. Everything remained still and silent, the people of Viridian anxious to see whether the prince would attempt to claim the woman.
"I apologize for the behavior of my people," he said, kissing her hand. "You would think they were a pack of wolves rather than the finest gentlemen in Viridian, possibly the world."
Ashen smiled. "Do not apologize for the behavior of others, even your own people. You seem to be minding yourself."
"Yes, but I know not how long I can hold off when I am in the presence of such a lovely young woman."
"I am sure you will try," she replied.
"In vain, perhaps."
"Perhaps," she agreed. She smiled again. "I suppose you are Prince Emlen, future king of Viridian, the esteemed Pirate Slayer. That is quite a title."
"Yes, but I am far more interested in what title you possess, milady."
"I am no royal, nor noble, and hold no title," she told him. "I wouldn't want to anyway. It's so tiresome, having such a long string of words to accompany such a short name."
Emlen laughed. "What then, may I call you, if you have no title?"
She considered, then replied, "Most do not get a chance to call me anything, and when they do, it is usually unrepeatable, but I suppose Ashen will do."
"A fine name for a fine lady."
"A fine lady who would like her hand back," she said.
Emlen blushed, realizing he hadn't let go of her hand. Everyone in the ballroom chuckled and their prince hastened to drop Ashen's hand.
"Don't," she said, "but I might let you make it up to me."
"Would you accept a dance?"
"You just gave me my hand back and now you want to take it again."
Emlen laughed and smiled, "Can you blame me?"
"I'm afraid I can't. Very well, I accept."
The music began again almost immediately. The prince couldn't very well dance to nothing. Once Ashen and Emlen began their dance, others joined them. Within a minute the ball was back in session, as if nothing had interrupted it to begin with.
Ashen let the prince lead her through the dance. She didn't like to be led, but she made an exception. The night had to move seamlessly. That meant letting a man control her.
"So?" Emlen asked quietly. "What kingdom do you hail from? Certainly not mine, no one living in Viridian would deign to wear blue."
"I was born in Azure," she admitted, lowering her voice to a whisper, "but I spent most of my life at sea with my father."
"Oh, that's wonderful."
"It was, until my mother died."
"Yes, that's more like it."
"Were things ever the same?"
"No, they weren't. My father just hasn't been himself since her death. His first mate, Smiegal, has been incredible to me. I am grateful for him and my father's entire crew."
"It is nice," Emlen agreed, "when people who really knew and cared about them are able to take care of you."
"Is that what happened when your parents died?"
The previous king had been killed by a pirate eight years ago. His wife, horrorstruck, had committed suicide, leaving her son in the care of his uncle.
"I wish that was what had happened," he said, turning solemn. "King Ignacio, he is not fond of me."
"It might hurt him to look at you. Do you resemble his elder brother?"
He laughed coldly. "We share the common looks of our people: brown hair, medium skin, and brown eyes. Otherwise, there is the family gift."
Every kingdom's royal family had a gift. The Azurians could perform spells ranging from pitiful to impressive depending on how close they were to the direct line. Viridians had minor elemental abilities. Most of their royals could barely control one element. Even the most powerful struggled to control a single one of the four.
Ashen opened her mouth to reply, but was unable to when the music grew much louder, the song and dance changing.
"Would you like to continue our discussion in a more private place?" Emlen asked, glancing around.
She followed his gaze and saw that a lot of people were staring at them. Women had their eyes on the prince while men where avidly waiting for the mysterious girl in the blue gown to lose interest in her current partner.
"Would we be able to disappear without someone coming after us?"
"You're right. Men would come charging forth, resuming their quest to claim you for themselves."
"Never mind. We will just have to lose them if they do pursue us."
She let him lead her away from the dancers. Several people did look tempted to follow, but their partners pulled them back, trying not to claim a better companion but to maintain the one they had.
They had reached the door when someone stepped in front of them. He had the Viridian's traditional appearance, though his hair was more black than brown. He wore an eye patch over his right eye and was the only one besides a guard who had a sword sheath on his belt. He wore a green blazer with gold buttons, black trousers, and black boots. He wore a golden pin over his heart, but Aspen didn't know what it meant.
"Carting off this poor maiden?" he asked. "Hardly seems polite." His comment may have been intended as a joke, but his face was rigid and his voice serious.
Emlen smiled, clearly taking it as a humorous statement, rather than one of any truth.
"We would just like to get away from all of the attention," he told the man.
As if to prove his point, china smashed somewhere across the room. A drunken guest was stumbling about, running into people and things. The men's jaw tightened and his hand instinctively moved to his sword. Noticing this, Ashen realized he was a solder, perhaps a member of the Viridian Guard. To be attending the ball rather than working it implied he had a high position, perhaps Captain of the Viridian Guard, or General of the Viridian Army.
"That seems rather unlikely," he replied, "The announcement is at midnight, which is in only ten minutes. Neveianca will be looking for you."
Neveianca was the current king's daughter and Emlen's future bride. The Viridians had a tradition of marrying royalty, no matter how close or distant they were. With Neveianca's father being ill, the Grand Duke wished Emlen to be ready to ascend to the throne at any moment. This included having a queen and therefore the possibility of an heir.
"Could you delay her, and anyone else who might come after us, just long enough for us to talk?"
The man raised his eyebrows, or rather, eyebrow, as one was covered by his eye patch.
"Talking? Alright, then, I can distract a few of the nobles, ones that might go looking."
"With your charismatic personality, I'm sure we're covered," Ashen said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"An Azure, how delightful," he replied derisively.
Hoping to smooth the tension, Emlen said, "This is Peder, my brother and Captain of the Viridian Guard."
"So you are a soldier," she said, shaking his hand briefly, "delightful."
Peder glanced and Emlen and pretended to whisper, "Is it wise to trust this woman, an Azure?"
Ashen flashed him a smile. "Most people find me actually quite charming. You know, for an Azure."
Emlen put his arm around her waist.
"Peder, I appreciate what you're doing."
"As do I," she agreed. She flashed a smile at Peder. "I am Ella, by the way."
If the prince was puzzled by her use of a false name, he didn't show it. He led her out of the ballroom, giving smiles to a few nobles who happened to glance in their direction.
Once they were away from everyone, he said, "You didn't use your real name."
"I didn't feel comfortable doing so. He is quite," she paused, looking for a polite word, "interesting."
"He doesn't trust most people," Emlen explained. "Despite our family tradition of keeping the blood within our line, almost every noble has been trying to marry off their daughters to me. Distant cousins have made attempts on my life numerous times. He is always vigilant because he always has to be."
"Yes, but," she paused again, carefully choosing her words, "he didn't seem to like me very much."
Laughing, Emlen asked, "Are you upset he didn't shower you with affection?"
"Well, yes, actually, it's strange."
He laughed again. "My goodness. And you seemed so modest earlier."
"No!" she exclaimed. "It's not like that; it's . . . what is his gift?"
Emlen frowned. "It's the same as everyone else in our family. Well, he controls the wind, whereas I control water, but . . ."
She cut him off. "He controls the wind, not just influences it?"
Shaking his head, Emlen amended, "Peder isn't any stronger than the rest of us. He's just got his gift fine-tuned."
Ashen glanced back at the ballroom skeptically. Peder was nowhere to be seen, already fulfilling his duty to his soon-to-be-king.
"Why are you so curious?"
"I'm a curious girl," she said.
"I suppose so."
Emlen stopped walking in front of the nearest door. He opened the door and Ashen peeked inside. It was the music room. She wrinkled her nose. She had no interest in music. Her hobby was a little more exciting.
"It's pretty," she lied.
The room wasn't very fine at all. Instruments stood in stands at the end of the room. Tapestries on the wall displayed normal looking instruments surrounded by music notes. The floor and walls were a plain stone, like most palaces. Not that Ashen had seen many castles. She had been inside one twice before, neither time as a guest.
"It's alright," Emlen said. "The people of Sienna favor the arts, so they have entire corridors dedicated to specific musical talents. They played a mourning tune at my parents' funeral. It was lovely."
"I am sure it was," Ashen said.
"What about your mother's funeral?" he asked.
"Oh, I am sure her parents hired a Siennan musician, but I was not welcome to attend."
Shocked, Emlen inquired, "Why would they forbid you to come?"
"They didn't know about me, and they hated my father," she replied. Looking at the chairs lined up at the wall, she frowned, noticing a curved sword, like a hook.
"Is that . . . ?" she asked, stepping towards it.
Emlen reached for it and picked it up. Ashen saw that it had a sapphire embedded in each side of the hilt. It was an Azurian weapon.
Emlen held it out to her.
"I left this in here, away from the ball. It tends to draw unwanted attention. It was the sword of the pirate who killed my father," he told her. "I won it from him when I killed his wife. Did you know that pirate captains usually make themselves a unique sword? This one is supposed to cause more pain when it wounds you. I don't know if it does. Its previous owner, Captain James of the Jolly Roger, didn't give me a single blow. It was barely a fight, hardly worthy of the title revenge."
"You killed his wife because he killed your father," Ashen repeated. "You truly are the one who killed the esteemed pirate, the wife of Captain 'Hook'?"
Ashen continued, "You've killed a lot of pirates, haven't you? That's how you got the title 'Pirate Slayer'."
"It is," the prince said.
"Before the pirates, it was magical beings, whether they were royal, like the Azurian sorcerers, or not, like the Faeries," she said.
"We're a hunting, warring people," he told her. "The only way to keep us from having a civil war is . . ."
"If you hunt other people," Ashen finished. "You give them permission, in fact, your family encourages them to murder other people brutally, all so they can bring home things like this!"
She threw Captain James' sword at the wall. It stuck there where it hit. Emlen stared at it.
"You're alright with a blade," he commented.
She knew he wanted to divert her from the subject of pirates. She had been getting increasingly emotional. She couldn't have that, so she decided to take his bait.
"I'm better than alright with a blade," she said. She lifted the front of her dress. She reached into her heeled silver boot and pulled out something.
Ashen was now holding a glass sword. Its hilt was made of some sort of stained black glass with sapphires embedded in its side. It was two of a kind, one of a set of dual swords.
"Incredible," Emlen said, reaching for it. Ashen let him take it. "How did you come across this?"
"I made it," she confessed. "It's completely unique. Well, it has a sister, but she isn't our concern."
Nodding, Emlen examined the blade.
"It's almost weightless. This really is glass, isn't it?"
"If it looks like glass, it is."
He stopped looking at her sword and stared at her.
"You got to impress me with your sword," she said, walking closer to him. "I wanted to impress you with mine."
Emlen smiled and began examining the blade. Ashen put her hands on the hilt and, with a sweet smile on her face, lurched forward. Emlen gasped as the sword impaled him through the heart.