"Did you think I'd let you go so easily?"
"This is neither the time nor the place, Princess."
"Stop your complaining!" She always says that. "You will make yourself available at my leisure, sir. Now, then, shall we dance?" And that's what she said the first time they danced. Verbatim. L'Arachel remembers absolutely everything, provided it pertains in no way to paying him. Now, with that unconsciously disdainful expression she's probably had since birth, she lays her hand in his. "Come."
"This is preposterous," says Rennac, though he gives little resistance as she hauls him out to the floor. In reply, she smiles winningly. "Ridiculous," he mutters.
"Bow to your partner," she says mercilessly, still smiling. She releases him and dips a slight curtsy. He bows – what else can he do? She puts her hand back into his, the other on his shoulder. His free hand goes to her waist. The music starts.
He's heard any number of silly girls go on about falling in love with someone because of some "connection" they felt in the dance. He's never seen it happen, and it doesn't happen here. They are both very good dancers, and they know each other rather better than most of the couples on this floor can claim (not that they're a couple). That's all.
Presently L'Arachel says, "You're not smiling."
"I'm not complaining, either."
"That's very true. And odd." The dance continues as together they sweep through a wide turn. "One might assume that, if you have nothing to complain about, you must be happy. So why don't you look it?"
"It's not that I have nothing to complain about," says Rennac. "I'm just planning on delivering my complaints at a more appropriate time."As an itemized list.
"Ah." L'Arachel nods, satisfied, but then switches over to that slightly haughty look again. "Then smile. You are dancing with the Princess of Rausten."
So he smiles.
The song ends. L'Arachel glances around, then quickly reattaches herself to Rennac. "You don't mind, of course."
"You're unspeakably honored."
"Good." This dance is faster, and doesn't allow her many opportunities to talk to him. He's always liked her better when her mouth isn't running. But for the third dance – another slow one – he attempts to beg off.
"People are starting to notice, Princess. They don't like you paying this much attention to a commoner."
L'Arachel somehow manages to look down her nose at him despite being shorter. "Then you should feel doubly honored." Her eyes rake over him quickly. "Besides, not many will suspect a dandy like you of being a peasant."
"Because I'm not a peasant, there's a difference –"
"It's just incredible that you think everyone is so far beneath you –"
"That's because I'm the princess of Rausten," she says with what she probably thinks is saintly patience. "Let us dance." Before he can muster another coherent objection, she has latched onto him again and begun moving in the stately, prescribed steps of a court dance.
"You're supposed to follow my lead," he grumbles. Her eyebrows shoot up. He sighs and shakes his head. You can never tell a princess what to do. Trying will only make you old before your time. That may well be the only useful thing he learned during the war.
She smells, he realizes, exquisite. He tries to recall the scent, wondering if he ever handled it during his father's brief and disastrous stint dealing in perfumes. There was that time the cart overturned, and everything smelled like Frelian snow lilies for… Right. Frelian snow lilies. How apropos.
"You aren't still bitter, are you?" she asks unexpectedly. He hasn't been paying much attention to the dance – he has done it so many times that he can let his memory carry him through the steps.
"That depends," he says. "What about? Do you mean the fifty thousand gold pieces I still haven't seen?" He pauses, marking her annoyed expression. "Then yes."
"I mean, about all of this."
"All of what?" Realization dawns, then a sort of horror. "Oh, no, no, never, why would you even think I'd –"
"You should be," says L'Arachel. She is holding onto him more tightly than protocol demands or, probably, can even abide. Now she spins away from him, and now returns. "You're about to lose me."
A short, explosive laugh escapes him. "That's all I've striven for for… what is it? Seven years now?"
"And you, Rennac of Carcino, are as rude as ever," she huffs.
He smirks. "Then get your fiancé to rescue you."
"Don't be tiresome. To think I used to enjoy dancing with you."
"What? You're the one who insisted! Is fickleness just another one of your royal prerogatives?"
"Yes," she says frostily. Then, "You're unusually clumsy tonight."
"Nonsense. I'm in top form."
"Then your form has sadly deteriorated since the last time we danced."
The truth is that he has seen Prince Innes out of the corner of his eye, finally goaded into rising by Princess Tana. Why this should lead to a missed step, he can't begin to fathom. But the Frelian prince is accosted by one of his female relations before he can get far. He looks miserable. Rennac smiles a little.
"We are very well-matched," L'Arachel says after a while – Rennac has recovered his poise and they are among the only people on the floor who can make five-four time look so effortless.
"You and I."
"Sure," he says guardedly.
"'Sure?'" she repeats, incredulous. "Perhaps you are unaware of the compliment you have just been paid."
"I prefer my payments to be monetary."
L'Arachel sniffs loudly. "How did you come to be so single-minded?"
"Largely through necessity," he says pointedly.
She sniffs again. "You may look the part, but you are no gentleman."
"Why, thank you." She always looks insulted like that when you don't act properly chastised.
They spin together. Rennac sights Prince Innes again. He has managed to shake off whomever that was, and he is coming this way.
L'Arachel sees him, too. "I expect he'll want to cut in. It's only proper."
"Past time you were delivered from this lout, eh?"
She considers this for a moment. "Not yet." Then she briefly takes the lead, whirling them away, out of the prince's immediate reach. He scowls, clearly miffed at his bride-to-be. Rennac can appreciate the sentiment.
"I think," he says, "this is the part where I say something trite."
"Oh?" She pulls him closer. Rennac finds himself counting the points of contact before he can remind himself that she is a self-righteous harpy, a virago of the highest order, etc. Gods know how long it's been since he's been properly paid. He can feel her breathing. She's so obnoxious – but she means well, really; she's always meant well, and has never stopped boasting about it – she's also gorgeous –
"Something like, 'you can't put this off forever, Princess, you must face the truth.' Maybe, if I feel especially pretentious, I'll try to make this dance into some extended metaphor for our lives."
"Cease this insulting talk at once," says L'Arachel.
Prince Innes catches up, looking peeved. Rennac hands L'Arachel off considerably more gracefully than he would have if this really were an extended metaphor. She has long been his favorite nuisance, though he frequently assures himself that this is because anyone who owes you money is better company than someone who doesn't. Even among royalty.
This is not the end. L'Arachel will insist that Rennac be among their guard during their honeymoon, ignoring his protests, and will continue to ignore his protests until they're both dead. She will, from time to time, still force him to dance with her, and he won't complain, and she'll be willfully oblivious to all murmurs of scandal.
Rennac has no way of knowing this. So he leaves the ball early, comforting himself with the knowledge that Innes is a horrible dancer.
Also, with the contents of the prince's coin purse.