Author: Lena Austin
Artist: Renee George
Ever read Dante's Inferno? The old boy must have a new nickname—Pinwheel—for all the turning over in his grave he's doing.
At long last, her father stood, signaling with a wave that the dancing would begin. Servants rushed to obey, but Zara rescued the bowl of grapes and hid it in a niche behind a tapestry. It would serve her well to have a cool, sweet treat to see her through the hours of dancing ahead.
Defiantly, she popped another into her mouth and grinned like a conspirator at Prince Kennit when he hid a large goblet in the same niche. He leaned over to whisper, "I shall share my water, if you share your grapes."
Nodding agreement, Zara allowed her father to sweep her into his arms for the opening dance. At least dancing quickened the heart and brought a flush to one's cheeks. She would take what she could get in the way of exercise. Undoubtedly by now the stablemen had their orders to tell her that her stallion had a rock in his hoof, a sprain in his foreleg, or any other lie to forestall her riding him away, even for an hour.
No sooner did her father relinquish her hand than a dance slate was pressed into her palm by the seneschal, who'd kindly–he thought—taken a list of partners for her. She glanced down, and read quickly. No prince was permitted more than two dances in a row with her, though there were conspicuous empty spots left on the list for her to discreetly signify her choice by permitting more than two dances with any prince that caught her eye.
Naturally, Prince Bram the Perfect was first on the list. King Ragnar was making his preferences perfectly clear. She was beginning to hate that word.
Zara handed the slate back to the seneschal with a nod of thanks, and raised her arms for Prince Bram to take her back out on the floor. She ignored the tremble in her stomach, and told her fears to settle. He may be boring, but he was the best choice so far.
But her stomach did not settle. It rumbled and grew worse. Her face felt flushed and her fingertips felt as if they were ice cold. She could no longer feel her feet, and every step became an agonizingly icy stab. Zara persevered, knowing it was likely she'd caught some small illness from all the newcomers. Tomorrow, she promised herself a morning of rest.
Many of the older courtiers retired, including most of the contenders after one dance with her. The drunkards stumbled through a dance with her before being discreetly removed by the staff, and the oldsters confessed themselves quite worn out and retired from the field. Only one contender had to be threatened with being fed his balls before he stopped fondling her, so Zara thought she got off lucky.
Finally, only Prince Bram and Prince Kennit remained. Kennit took pity on her feverish face and asked that a small table be set near one of the open windows, permitting a cool breeze to dry the sweat pouring from Zara's brow.
Prince Bram, not to be outdone, fetched her grapes from their hiding place and fed them to her one by one, pausing only when she turned and shared Prince Kennit's goblet.
Finding a common subject to discuss had been difficult, for they, all three, had vastly different interests. The three of them settled on a card game made fashionable in Bram's kingdom the previous summer, and he taught them to play "Bell and Candle" with enthusiasm.
Zara noted their differing styles with interest. Bram played with reckless abandon, bluffing and making daring plays to get desired sets of matches. Kennit played with care and precision, rarely making a bluff but devastating when he did because it was unexpected. She counted the cards and noted the matches already made, and could guess at what would be dealt next. Between them, they rang the bell provided by the staff equally well.
Soon, Zara's illness began to tell upon her. She fought her wavering eyesight and surreptitiously wiped the sweat pouring from her brow, using the ruse of setting the water and grapes on the ledge of the open window to cool them as an excuse for sticking her face in the wind as much as possible, even if the breeze seemed to stick a thousand icy needles in her skin. It dried her sweat and made her appear less like an apple-cheeked peasant, didn't it?
Kennit had escorted her to the window, ostensibly to get a drink for himself from the goblet. He leaned close and whispered, "You are ill, Zara. End this charade and stop teasing. Pick Bram and have done. Go to bed. Your wedding and bedding of his perfection can wait a few more days."
Zara planted her trembling hands on the ledge and ate another grape for its cool sweetness in her hot, dry throat. The floor seemed wreathed in smoke. How odd. Was there fog and the window allowed it entry? Shame washed over her as she realized that's what both the princes thought–that she was teasing and being coy. How wrong they were! "I'm not teasing, Kennit. I can't decide." The fog rose higher, swirling around her thighs. She reached up to close the shutter, and her hand met only air.
Bram's chair scraped. "Watch her. She's going out the window!"
Kennit's hand closed about her wrist. "Stop, Zara. Stop. If you can't choose, then go to bed. None of us will die before the morrow."
Zara swayed and fell into Kennit's arms. "Pardon. Are you sure, Kennit? Why can't you be perfect too?" The fog wrapped around her and enveloped her.
His soft voice was the last she heard. "I am. I'm perfectly me, and that's all I want to be."
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