Chapter 18 - The Ball

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The eight of us that remained gathered in the dining hall later that afternoon. Or rather, evening as we were now on a semi-nocturnal schedule. Lydia seemed to have calmed down, though she was antsier than usual. I gave her arm a reassuring squeeze and smiled. She smiled back, though her eyes looked rueful.

"What's up?" I asked her. "Are you worried about the king? Melanie said he's fine." I didn't want to mention the fact that he visited my room earlier.

She shook her head, frowning slightly. "I just... I keep picturing it. What would have happened if you hadn't done anything. It would have been too late to save him." Her gray eyes were far away, unreadable.

"So I guess if you win you owe me, huh?" I said, elbowing her playfully.

Lydia's response was a forced smile. My laughter dissipated. Before I could ruminate on her mood, Melanie strode into the room, diverting my attention.

"The anniversary of His Majesty's coronation is in one week. He plans to hold a ball in celebration. All of His Majesty's political constituents will be in attendance, as well as other noteworthy individuals," Melanie began.

"Will my family be there?" Sabine piped up. I resisted the instinct to roll my eyes. Did she ever miss a chance to remind everyone of how well-connected her family was?

"No, Miss Ambrose. None of your families will be in attendance. Although it is outside of the norm, they are aware of the situation and they understand," Melanie explained. "However, all of the Dukes will be there. In fact, you will all meet each one of them personally."

Sabine seemed appeased by that answer. Lydia stiffened next to me, listening intently to Melanie's words.

"That is actually your challenge," Melanie went on. "You will all be sharing a dance with one of the five dukes. During the dance they will ask you questions to gauge your suitability as queen, and at the end of the evening they will report their experience to His Majesty. Your goal is to impress them."

"But some of us can't dance," said Rebecca Tyler, a girl from the black team.

Melanie smiled cheekily. "Don't worry. We plan to rectify that immediately."

After we had gone upstairs and changed into attire appropriate for a dance lesson, the eight of us were escorted down to the basement and into a large room with lacquered parquet and floor length mirrors. A thin, severe looking vampire woman in her forties greeted is with a cold glare. She wore a black leotard and ballet flats. Her blonde hair was pinned back tightly. She reminded me oddly of Melanie, though older, thinner, and with a more pronounced distaste for everything around her.

"You may address me as Madame Orlova," she announced, her accented tone contemptuous. She paced in front of the group, scrutinizing us coldly.

"When I was human and young, I was the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet. I toured every corner of the world. Everyone was in awe of my talent. I have several lifetimes of expertise. And yet, I find myself here, expected to teach you girls something as idiotically simple as ballroom dancing."

Everyone bristled at the insult, though none said anything to challenge her. I hoped a chasm would form underneath me, swallowing me whole and sparing me from a week of instruction with this woman.

I flinched as she passed me and she shot me a withering glare. "My skills are wasted on you lot. Yet your king paid handsomely, so teach you I shall."

After her little speech, Madame Orlova made us take turns showing her how well we could dance. Each demonstration left a scowl on her face. The only competent dancers in the group were Sabine and Olivia Pierce. They received blank, indifferent looks instead.

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