Princess Lena liked celebrations. Her vibrant personality was one of the crown jewels of her kingdom, and any chance to be a hostess or an honored guest brought out the best in Lena. Her down-to-earth and extremely sociable nature made her popular with everyone, and commoners and nobles alike enjoyed being around her and looked forward to the day she would become the queen of Satera. She was also the natural choice as the wife of Prince Rhys Sa Riik, of neighboring Landen Kingdom, and therefore had every reason to revel in tonight's ball, held by the king and queen of Landen at their splendid Orakian palace.
That is, except the ball was for Maia, to officially introduce her to the rest of Orakian nobility. A month ago the young, enchanting woman washed ashore in Landen and was found by, of all people, Prince Rhys. Conveniently Maia was suffering from amnesia, keeping her origins a mystery. Most suspected she was royalty of a long-lost kingdom, based on her attire, jewelry and graceful air, though the word hoax had been mumbled more than once in confidentiality. The rest of the story read like an epic poem, complete with love at first sight, a broken betrothal and scandal between kingdoms. The princess did everything she could not to turn into the jealous villain amid all the controversy. Lena had played nice for over a month, but keeping herself together during an event specifically for her usurper was beginning to crack Lena's pleasant disposition.
It was now the sixth song of the night—Lena had been counting—and Rhys still hadn't asked her for a dance. He hadn't said anything to her beyond the initial welcome and an invitation to spend the evening in his company—and Maia's. Lena knew, though, that three was always a crowd. She would have been just as miserable spending time with Maia, the unintentional interloper, as she would standing in the corner, looking on, dance after dance, as Rhys and Maia gazed only at each other. None of the other young nobles had asked Princess Lena to dance with them, which was making her solitude at one corner of Landen Palace's ballroom even more awkward.
In fact, no one had stepped in to be a friend, had thought to escort Lena to the banquet area or take her outside for some fresh air and a stroll in the moonlit garden. Instead, she was left with her ladies-in-waiting, who didn't really know what to do or say for their princess, watching as she turned into a pathetic gawker. With the occasional swipe of a handkerchief at Lena's face to mop up the constant tears, her makeup was all but gone now. Her eyes were bloodshot, some of her short hair had fallen free from the tiara that was keeping it out of her face, and wisps of her light brown hair were sticking to her cheeks and forehead. The ladies did what they could to continually primp the distraught princess, but there was a noticeable lack of emotional comforting.
"We were supposed to be together," she bawled, staring ahead mournfully as Rhys and Maia waltzed by her once again, oblivious to everything but each other. "I spent my whole life loving him."
One of Lena's ladies tsked as she took away the hairpins holding Lena's tiara, gently pushed back the princess's messy hair and styled it as best she could before tucking it under the tiara and refastening the pins. She held Lena by the cheeks and forced the princess to look back at her. "Your Highness, any man would be lucky to have you on his arm right now..."
"Then why is she with Rhys instead of me?" interrupted Lena at the top of her lungs, flailing a hand towards her former betrothed and his graceful dancing partner. Thankfully the strings section of the orchestra happened to be in the middle of a lively set of arpeggios as Lena screamed, drowning out the princess and saving her and her attendants from further embarrassment. "In one month that... that... Maia took away my future!" she continued to wail.
Lena's maid gulped as she took a careful step back from the princess. Several of the other maids followed suit, watching in near horror as Lena began to sway to the music in a bizarre trance. The entire time her eyes were fixed on Rhys and Maia, but she was now waltzing, without a partner, as she slipped further into hysteria. Those in attendance at the ball began to take notice, mumbling rumors about Lena's meltdown. The ladies-in-waiting started doling out orders to one another: get her something to drink, fetch her a chair, call for her father, etc. Nothing was happening with proper expediency, though, and Lena's solo dancing became more and more obvious, more whispered about, and more pathetic with every passing moment.
Lena didn't care, or maybe she was too far gone to know what she was doing. All she could think about was how she was the opposite of Maia. Rhys's attraction to that woman seemed instant, immediate and worst of all, deep. What did Maia have that Lena didn't, that captured Rhys so suddenly and made him forget about his duties, his neighbors and his growing affection towards her? As Lena twirled around another time, her eyes going right back to Maia, she had but one word on her mind: opposite. Maia was tall and willowy, Lena was petite and she thought maybe she could lose a pound or two. Maia had long, shiny hair in striking ice-blue; it was straight and fell into place without effort. Lena cut her unruly, mousy brown hair short to keep it a practical length for her weapons training. She wouldn't have even bothered with combat training, except that she thought it would impress Rhys and make her a more suitable future queen of both Landen and Satera. Maia preferred music and art and probably didn't know her way around a basic hunting knife. It was suggested to Lena that she wear red tonight to bring out her warmer tones, but that, too, seemed to backfire on her. Maia was wearing blue. She always wore blue, which made Lena the Red, with her tomboyish, stocky physique, the opposite of Maia, the magical Blue Fairy, the woman stealing Lena's fiancé.
All Lena could do was look on. When Rhys suddenly gave Maia a delicate peck on the cheek, Lena lost it. She let out a sound somewhere between a chortle and a cry, and spun crazily through the couples on the dance floor. Onlookers either chuckled or gasped, depending on their relationship with the princess.
It wasn't comical, nor should it have happened at all, that the Princess of Satera was making a fool of herself at this formal function. It was even less amusing to Idris de Meade, Duke of Bizen and a peer of the Sateran House of Lords in the southwestern section of Landen, that no one seemed to know what to do with her, and that even her maids were doing everything but pushing the princess away from the dance floor. It had taken him a while to notice the princess, since the duke had little interest in dancing and was spending his time conversing with other Sateran and Landener officers about the current uprising in the mountain range near Bizen. However, eventually the murmurs led his attention to Lena, which led to his disbelief over the lack of intervention. With a disgruntled exhale he broke away from his conversation and strode towards the princess, meanwhile eyeing several of her attendants as he crossed the cavernous room.
"She's not a jester, you know," he sternly lectured Lena's idle attendants, quickly hooking the princess around her waist and pulling her into a waltz. Lena gasped as she snapped out of her stupor, looking up in shock at the burly man who had just rescued her from total shame. "Your Highness," he addressed her, trying to keep the tone of his voice calm and unaccusing, "perhaps you would like it if I took you to one of the palace's fine courtyards after this dance. It's quite stuffy in here."
Lena barely knew what was happening. When did Idris start dancing with her? Courtyard? Was that even a question or was he dictating her evening to her? "But... there will be more songs! The night is young, Your Grace! Why would I want to leave when Rhys..."
Idris hated interrupting the princess, but someone had to put an end to her rhapsodizing over the moment when Rhys would finally, miraculously come to his senses and rekindle his affections for Lena, in what Idris could only imagine would be the usual dramatic teenage flair. "Just a song or two away from the ballroom, Your Highness. That's all," he implored with a sigh.
It was hard to argue with the duke, Lena thought, especially when someone was giving her some proper attention for a change. Lena felt herself gradually come out of the clouds with every new step Idris pushed her into taking. He was a rough lead, but she needed the firm handling to keep her in sync and pull her back into reality. She looked up at the titan of a man in front of her and suddenly felt terrible for what she had just done. Not only was Idris an important and recognizable noble among nobles, he was also a commander in her father's cavalry and nearly 10 years Lena's senior. Idris stood out in a crowd, to say the least, and his intervention was as notable as Lena's crackup. She would hear about this later from her parents, she was certain. She finally nodded her head back at the duke, agreeing to go elsewhere for a while. Disappearing seemed like a good idea, actually.
"I-I'm so sorry..." she stuttered, her voice thick with guilt.
"There's no need for apology, Princess," he reassured her, easing his rigid grip on her as she fell into step without so much of his own guidance. Thankfully for Lena, Idris didn't give the situation the same weight she did. To him, this was a minor incident, one sparked by something Lena wasn't entirely responsible for, anyway, and though people might remember the moment when the Princess of Satera lost it, they'd move on with their lives, as would Lena. Most every teenager went through heartache; unfortunately for royalty, it happened to be much more conspicuous. In fact, the duke had quite a bit of sympathy for Lena and her current troubles over a broken betrothal. His own relationships—or lack thereof—were surely gossiped about in his own land and probably around much of the rest of Landen, too.
After a handful of turns across the floor, the song was over and Duke and Princess performed their respectful bows and curtsies before Idris offered Lena his arm to escort her to the eastern courtyard. Lena let relief replace her embarrassment; she didn't even care how many eyes were on her as Idris led her away from the ballroom.
Stealing a glance at Idris, she amused herself at how different he was than Rhys, not unlike the way she was Maia's opposite. Rhys was a romantic. He was dashing, with more refined moments interrupted by exciting, passionate outbursts. No one told Rhys what to do, and Lena found herself smitten with his brazen approach to life. Idris was an old man before he was old. He had no qualms walking the straight and narrow path of life. His looks were ruggedly charming at best; he was a man who spent a great deal of time on the front line and cared little for fashion and appearances. Lena always thought she fit perfectly with Rhys; his passion and charisma combined with her diplomacy and love for her Orakian heritage gave her visions of the perfect alliance between their kingdoms. Now she was being taken away from Rhys on the arm of a stern, militaristic bore. She'd sooner marry a cousin than Idris! Before Lena could stop herself, she let out a laugh. Idris looked at her out of the corner of an eye; Lena wondered if it was out of annoyance or if he was still concerned over her ever-changing disposition.
"Pardon me," Lena giggled. "It's just that my life seems to be so full of deviations lately that I just realized I've ended up going in the exact opposite direction I had intended."
Lena wasn't sure, but she thought Idris cracked a smile. "Life doesn't like rules, Your Highness," he offered.
Lena sighed, "Yes, I'm finding this out the hard way."
Idris stopped and turned to face Lena, taking his arm away from her. While she wondered what he was doing, her eyes wandered to a nearby marble statue of Orakio, then back to Idris. She hadn't noticed before that the two men were fairly similar in appearance, not so much based on the statue in front of her, but on the pictures she'd seen of Orakio Sa Riik in her history books and from the many paintings adorning the walls of most Orakian palaces and other prefectures. At the very least, Idris had the same dark green hair and wore a similar slate blue dress uniform as Orakio, anyway.
She tilted her head as she gazed at Idris. "Has anyone ever told you how much you look like our Lord Or..."
Idris cleared his throat as an interjection and motioned with his right hand for Lena to cross the threshold into the courtyard. She hadn't realized they were so close to the doorway.
"Oh." Lena blushed. "Thank you." She took his arm again as they stepped outside. Being escorted by Idris was like being escorted by a fence; she couldn't always see what was going on around her, due to being eye-level with the thickest part of the duke's midsection. As they made their way away from the ballroom, several servants chased after the pair, but Idris shooed them, making sure no one bothered them while Lena got a much needed break. The lights and sounds of the palace grew dimmer and more muffled as they made a turn down a path lined with rare moon blossoms. Eventually the cobblestone walkway ended at a gazebo in the middle of the courtyard. Idris helped Lena up the steps, bowed respectfully to her as she took a seat on one of the benches, then stepped down to the path and stood guard near the gazebo. He took a few more steps down the walkway to put some distance between himself and the princess in order not to bother her while he smoked.
"Wait! Where are you going?" Lena asked, slightly frantic, as she stood up and tried to make out the duke's figure under the ornate iron gaslight next to the path. The duke pulled himself closer to the streetlight to help Lena see him and waved the pipe he had retrieved from his pocket.
"I didn't want to bother you. I thought you could use some space," he replied, stuffing tobacco into the pipe and striking a match across the lamp pole. "Plus," he continued, lighting the end of his pipe and then snuffing out the match between his boot and the stone path, "I'm taking advantage of being outside, as you can see."
Lena found it a bit uncouth for the duke to smoke around a lady, but she kept herself from protesting. She felt a little too young and still a bit guilty that the duke was forced to babysit her in the first place. With a sigh, Lena sat down again and smoothed her skirt, staring into the dark, away from the palace. It felt lonely looking into the nothingness of night, and she wasn't sure it was helping her by being alone at this moment. Eventually the aroma of Idris's tobacco wafted over to Lena. It wasn't as unpleasant as she thought it would be; it was sweet and seemed to burn with a hint of vanilla. She wavered a few seconds more, then decided company was what she wanted most.
"I don't mind the pipe," she said, her voice small and shy. She was glad the darkness hid her bashful expression while asking for company. "If you'd like to sit for a while..." Lena was too embarrassed to finish, but Idris had already worked out the princess's unsubtle hints and made his way into the gazebo again, sitting across from her and crossing his legs casually. Idris said nothing for a few more puffs of his pipe before dumping its contents over the side of the gazebo's railing and stowing the pipe away.
Lena was somewhat shocked at how Idris was using Landen's grounds as his personal ashtray, though on the other hand, she couldn't help but gather some immature enjoyment out of seeing Rhys's home soiled just a bit. She smiled curiously at Idris; she always assumed he was someone who played by the rules at all times. The princess liked this new version of the duke and wondered what else she'd been missing by spending much of her time back and forth between the cities of Satera and Landen and ignoring the rest of the kingdoms.
"You wish to talk, Your Highness?" the duke eventually asked, reclining into one of the shelter's beams.
"I... guess?" Lena gulped. She cast her eyes to the top of her hands, which were balled up in her lap tightly. She quickly thought of a pleasant subject. "It's a lovely night, isn't it?"
Idris coolly and slowly raised his eyebrows, but Lena couldn't tell in the low lighting. "Indeed," he answered simply, hesitating a few more seconds before continuing. "Do you really want to talk about the night?"
Lena was bothered by his tone. "Well, I didn't think you'd want to hear about Rhys or Maia or the way I can't make sense of any of it. I didn't think you brought me here so I could seek your counsel on romance or affairs or scandal, or confide in you about any of the other ridiculous, senseless," her voice rose as her fists clenched, "completely obnoxious things those two sick lovebirds are doing to ruin my life!" The outburst only felt embarrassing after it left Lena's lips, and the resulting downpour of tears and sobbing made Lena want to run away. Run far, far away, maybe to wherever Maia was from so she could claim amnesia and steal that kingdom's prince. She wished she could claim amnesia for all of tonight, at least. She bolted from her seat and rushed to the closest exit, but Idris was too quick. Or a fence. Either way, he blocked Lena from leaving and pulled her close to him, removing her hands from covering her face.
"Lena!" It was the first time he had ever called her by her given name. Stunned, Lena stiffened in his hold as her eyes grew wide. "Listen to me! I have no clue why no one has told you this, but for God's sake, you're a princess! Let Rhys fall for Maia, and stop watching them so closely! I know Maia's sudden appearance is a disaster waiting to happen; that's partially why I'm here, even. You know what, though? You'll get over that boy. You'll move on, Lena. You're better than all of this!"
Lena didn't know what to say. It was taking her long enough to process Idris's words, but she was unsure whether to be upset with what the duke had told her, shrug it off as the ramblings of an impatient, hardened man, or try and take it to heart, though she believed none of it. What was more important than the marriage of the two kingdoms? Shouldn't that be important to the duke, too? Suddenly, something about what Idris had said stuck out among everything else.
"Wait, you're here because of Maia?" she asked curiously, blinking away tears.
Idris groaned, "I shouldn't have said that, now that I think about it, but yes. The whole thing smells of a coup."
"There's been movement since Maia appeared?" Lena gasped.
"Not yet, but..." Idris stopped and shook his head. "No, never mind. It's not important right now to talk about..."
"Not important!" Lena blurted out in indignation. "I'm the Princess of Satera! I have the right to know if my kingdom is about to fall under siege!"
Even though this wasn't the conversation he had intended to carry on with Lena, Idris liked her sudden fiery passion for Satera and felt it was moving her in the right direction. "If that were about to happen, believe me, Your Highness, you would know by now. I'm only operating on a hunch at the moment."
Lena bit her bottom lip as she feverishly calculated all the ways the two kingdoms might be exploited with Maia as an intruder, an agent. The princess was frantic. "Shouldn't you say something to King Saiki? If Landen is overthrown..."
"Princess," Idris laughed. "It's only my instinct, which has been wrong before. At this point, it's best to keep a watchful eye on what may unfold. Look at me," he paused to put a hand under her chin and direct her gaze at him. "For as long as I am alive, I will never let Satera fall prey to ruin. You have my word."
It was a little uncomfortable being forced to look at Idris, but his eyes were full of sincerity and loyalty. Lena somehow forgot in her foggy, first love stupor that there were people there for her, an entire kingdom, actually. She wasn't alone at all, even if her maids were a bit clueless and there was no dashing, stately lord waiting in the wings to immediately mend her broken heart. There was, however, the duke, who was always guarding her and would continue to guard her, even if it meant rescuing her from her own manic interludes.
"I thank you," she took in a deep breath, worried about breaking formalities as she exhaled, "Idris." She offered the duke a grateful smile rather than a polite nod. Formalities weren't appropriate right now, Lena decided, as they couldn't express gratitude with any proper amount of honesty.
Idris smiled in return, moving his hand away from her face and bowing slightly. "I am honored to..."
"Please," Lena implored, "for a little while could you... maybe..." She couldn't complete her request and let out a nervous cough.
Idris continued to smile, perhaps a bit more wryly, at Lena's humble modesty. It reminded him of all the needless fumbling he went through while being set up with every nobleman's daughter, cousin, niece and even "young aunt" when he was younger. Thankfully he was able to retreat into the military, but Lena would not be so lucky. He spoke up, "Would you like me to continue to escort you this evening, Your Highness?"
Lena fidgeted slightly. "Well, yes, but what I meant was," she cleared her throat, "could you call me Lena? I liked that. I don't hear my name very often."
"Only if you call me Idris in return. You know, to keep things even." He let out a chuckle as he offered an arm to the princess. Lena pivoted on her foot and let Idris lead them away from the gazebo. The steps down the stairs and across the pathway felt lighter and easier, the music seemed livelier, and best of all, Lena felt like she could take on the world. For now, however, it was time to show Landen Palace which kingdom had the better half of the Orakian quadrille.