The party was full of people who wanted to dance with her, and Irene did not wish to be near any of them.
It was not that she did not know what was expected of her. She had been trained well as a king's daughter. Her teachers had made sure she knew that the greater dances -- those that her father and brother must arrange of politics and intrigue -- might well hinge on her smiling prettily on the right man when he asked for a dance, and turning a cold shoulder on those judged not to deserve her attentions. She knew, just as she knew that the handsome men and boys who bowed to her didn't want Irene at all. It wasn't her pretty face that drew them, or her sparkling wit. Just her father's favour, and what it might mean for their lands.
Irene knew well what mask she was expected to wear. But at thirteen years old, with suitors pushing and vying for attention, sometimes it grew too heavy to be borne.
She had said she needed air, and ignored her father's frown as she slipped from the room. There would be scoldings for that later -- worse scoldings when he heard that, by slipping away in a flock of girls and making her escape once they were safely out of sight, Irene had neatly given both her guards and attendants the slip. In a place so crowded, she had simply needed a few moments without the strain of feeling eyes upon her. Air? No. Just room to breathe.
In any case she was certain, as much as any thirteen year old, that her father's rules were both restrictive and unneeded. The guards were there for show, to make the statement that Attolis was important enough that even his daughter should need that extra safety. There would be no value in sending assassins after her, for what chance was there that she would inherit the throne? She was unimportant, at least relatively, and that unimportance should make her safe.
Besides, no-one would be hiding in the orange grove for her, for the simple reason that no-one should expect her to come.
Sure of that, Irene was careless, not even bothering to glance up into the trees that surrounded her. It was the music she had come out to listen to -- quieter out here, but sounding much more sweet without the interruption of stilted conversation, polite questions which she was obliged to respond to as though truly interested in the speaker. Out here, there was peace.
She listened for a few moments and then, with a quick glance to ensure she had not been followed, she lifted her skirts to dance. It was not stiffly, formally, as she had been taught but moving with the music -- enjoying the music. Careless, her teachers would have said, careless and clumsy and altogether unbecoming for a king's daughter, and she should be made to repeat the steps until all of the joy had been taken out of the music. Out here though, there was no-one to correct her, and Irene could move freely, laughing at her own misstep as she tripped.
In the trees, her watcher was silent, almost holding his breath as she danced with an invisible partner. Irene was not beautiful, not yet, but even a child could find beauty in the way she twirled and glided under the trees, moving with the delight and relief of an animal released from a trap.
All too soon it was over. 'Irene!' came from the palace, the call edged with alarm. Irene looked with some dismay at the edge of her dress, now splattered with mud, and fled back inside hastily. Perhaps she could tell them that she tripped when she came out for air.
She remained unaware of her silent observer, the small boy who slid from the tree when she had gone and stood staring after her. Perhaps there were girls at home as beautiful but they were cousins, rendered unattractive by their very familiarity. Besides, none of them had carried that same air -- like a bird flying as far and fast as she could, knowing that all too quickly she might be returned to the gilded cage.
Perhaps, if he asked, his grandfather should bring him again.
However, it was not to be. Fathers are not always over-exaggerating the dangers within their own gardens. Within two months, Irene's brother was dead, fallen from a horse -- and who was to say what spooked the horse? With two months, she was engaged to be married. Within two years, the child who had danced beneath the orange trees was Queen, Attolia herself, with a court who would only respect her as much as they feared her. Another dance had begun, this one more tiring and complex than she might ever have imagined before.
All things considered, it was a long time before Irene, Queen of Attolia, danced beneath orange trees again.