The past three hundred years or so had been peaceful ones in Cartheigh. The military engaged mostly in protecting the Dragon Mines, regulating the skirmishes between other countries, or keeping order during the occasional plague. The nobility had, as is often the case, reaped the greatest benefits of three centuries of good fortune. As a group they prided themselves on their sophistication, worldliness, and enjoyment of the finer things. Carthean literature, art, music, and dance were universally admired. Along with love of music and dance, and wealth and idle time, came an appreciation of a good party. The court at Eclatant did nothing on a small scale, and the national holidays were no exception.
There were four Fests, one each season, all falling in the mid-months. First came the Awakening, at the beginning of the year in the month of MidSpring, followed by the Waxing in MidSummer, the Harvest in MidAutumn, and finally the Waning, usually held in MidWinter. To Eleanor’s unease, the Waning Fest had been moved forward several weeks this year to coincide with Prince Gregory’s nuptials. The excitement would begin with the Engagement Ball and end with the Wedding Ceremony and Celebration.
In long-gone years Fests had been one-day, community or family affairs, and for most common people they still were. At Eclatant, however, each holiday included a week of parties, contests, plays, and concerts. The palace reached full capacity, and those who could not secure lodging on the grounds invaded the townhouses of their friends and relatives.
Happily, Gregory did not mind if Chou Chou accompanied Eleanor to most events, as he often brought along his own gray falcon, Thunderhead. Many people brought feathered companions, and at every party the servants erected an elaborately carved roost in a corner. Dozens of parrots, ravens, hawks and falcons would congregate and chat amongst themselves while daintily nibbling chocolate crackers. The birds swooped about, lighting on the chandeliers for a good view before dropping in on their masters and mistresses to share gossip. Gregory sometimes even brought his two favorite hunting hounds. They wandered in and out of guests’ legs, asking politely for food and drooling. The older courtiers found the dogs to be in very poor taste, but of course no one said a word. They simply dropped tidbits and hastily moved on, before their shoes were covered in slobber.
So here Eleanor stood on Gregory’s arm, in an alcove off the Grand Ballroom, waiting to enter the Engagement Ball. Chou Chou sat her right shoulder. She couldn’t see the crowd, but the thrum of conversation drifted around the corner. As the moments ticked on, her dress assumed the weight of three gowns and she feared her stays were cutting off blood flow to her head. The gown was thick eggplant colored velvet, embroidered with heavy amethysts. She prayed she would not start sweating.
Chou Chou whispered advice in her ear. “Imagine them all naked, even the fat ones.”
The trumpets sounded promptly at seven. The royal callers introduced King Casper, and then the highest-ranking advisors, starting with Ezra Oliver. Gregory wagged his eyebrows at her and stole a quick kiss. As always, his grin lifted her spirits.
“His Royal Highness, Prince Gregory, and Mistress Eleanor Brice. May HighGod bless the Kingdom of Cartheigh!”
Eleanor held her head high as they entered the ballroom. The crown cheered wildly. Whether they approved of her personally or not, everyone in attendance embraced the glamour of the ball and the spirit of the Fest. Eleanor smiled and waved. She was one of them, part of the spectacle, proud of her country.
Chou Chou flew off as she and Gregory danced a long, slow waltz. As he led her around the dance floor the assembled crowd ooohed and aaahed. His hand felt firm and right on her back. When the song ended they bowed to each other. Chou landed again on her bare shoulder as the crowd pressed in. Everyone wanted a chance to compliment the future princess. He flapped his wings in her defense.
“Peace, Chou, you needn’t stay here all night. You’ll be squashed.”
He spoke into her ear to be heard over the crowd. “I think they have all accepted you’re staying around. They can’t scare you off.”
She cupped her hand over his head. “If you really want to watch after me, go see what you can see.” He winked and flew off to the party roost.
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