Chapter 17: Ballroom Entanglements

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The Princess Cynda pounced on Rob the moment he walked in the palace. "Where's your cousin? He should have been here an hour ago. I'll personally gut his bandmates one by one if he doesn't show himself immediately!"

"Whoa," Rob said. "Zev left the house before I did. He should be here. Can't other people play until he gets here?"

"Other people can play," she snarled. "But they're not the ones who should be playing. If I hear another bagpipe, I may have to spit in somebody's face. Step back if you see my lips pucker."

Then Cynda burst out laughing, her angry face tucked away like the saw blade on a Swiss Army knife. "Come along, doctor, don't take me so seriously. The stresses of hosting this ball have worn on my nerves, and I vent to those I like. Now. Where is your date? It's not that wild woman, is it?"

"I don't have a date."

"Doctor! You know they won't let you in without a suitable companion."

"That's what people keep telling me. But I don't like being forced into something I'm not sure I want to do."

"Stubborn. I like it! My husband is off on one of his hunting parties, and God only knows the whereabouts of your cousin, so you'll be my date. Take my arm. We can't have you walking into the biggest social event of the year without a beautiful woman accompanying you, now can we?"

Rob smiled cautiously at the Princess. Wearing a tightly-fitted gown that had been dyed a deep and expensive royal red, Cynda was undeniably attractive. But there was a hardness about her that made him want to, if not run away, than walk from her as briskly as good manners would allow. "I'm not sure I should."

The Princess held out her arm. "Don't be a fool, doctor. I'll walk you inside, nothing more. You're not that interesting, you know."

"Oh, I'm quite aware," Rob said as he took Cynda's arm. He didn't like it, but at this point he was determined to get inside, if for no other reason than to show the Godmother he wasn't afraid of her.

Well, he was a little afraid, but not enough to give in to her demand.

"With our King away in Paris," Cynda said as she led them up a wide staircase, "this is the first ball that's fallen entirely on my shoulders. Of course, once our dear ruler expires and the crown passes to me and my husband, responsibilities such as organizing the Harvest Ball will seem trivial in comparison to more pressing matters of state. But that doesn't make tonight's job any easier. So many moving parts. Who would have thought that putting together a simple dance would be like building a machine? Lose track of one rakish cog—say, a musician we're both acquainted with?—and the whole thing chokes and sputters."

"Zev will be here. He wouldn't miss out on his band's big night."

Cynda laughed. "Making a living as a musician. Can you even imagine, doctor? I was poor once, but even I wouldn't stoop that low. Here we are, now. Brace yourself; it's rather warm inside."

Steamy air washed over Rob as guards opened a pair of thick wooden doors. Inside, men and women in fancy clothes and fancier hats danced in the center of the high-ceilinged ballroom. Candles filled every available nook along the walls, and the fireplaces burned full-tilt, but it was still dim enough that Rob's eyes needed time to adjust. His ears took over somewhat, picking out a horn player, bagpipe and a rattly-sounding drum, although the musicians didn't seem to be up on a stage. The only raised object Rob could make out was the King's golden throne, which sat atop a dais.

Rob realized this was the audience hall where he'd met the Chancellor, the very first day he'd arrived here. He experienced a reflexive flash of homesickness for his life in Seattle and the creature comforts that this world lacked, but he shook off the feeling without much effort. The Godmother be damned; Rob had made a life here with a career, a home and plans for the future, and the things that would have struck him as strange not so long ago—the ludicrously tall hats worn by both sexes, the people dancing not as couples but in a ring-shaped herd, and the lack of electric lights or air conditioning—nearly went unnoticed now.

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