It was the annual masquerade ball, hosted every year by the royal family. Mage lights bobbed around in orbs, forming a constant, shifting pattern with the golden light they caused. People milled around, both masked and unmasked.

In the center of the dance floor, a raised platform, illuminated with even more bobbing mage lights, couples whirled and danced. The girls and ladies walked-no, glided-with more grace than Daine could ever hope to possess. Their fine silk gowns, imported from Carthak, no doubt, rustled and glimmered in the lights. Daine looked down, fidgeting in her own garment.

Indeed, her gown was just as fine as any other, but she didn't wear it with that grace, or self assurance that the other ladies did. It was crimson silk, as light as a wildflower's petals. The top had intricate beadwork, while the bottom flared out.

It had been a gift from Thayet herself. She had insisted that Daine attend the ball, and when Daine had stammered out that she had no suitable clothes, Thayet immediately rushed off to get her not one, but an entire wardrobe of them.

Daine faintly smiled as she remembered Thayet's exact words. "A girl can never have enough dresses." She had said briskly as they fit gown upon gown on her, making adjustments.
Thayet had even gotten her a new brush, a box of cosmetics, and a small amount of jewelry. They jewelry Daine had refused, until Thayet said that they were some of her old things, that she decided to pass on.

She sighed, delicately holding the mask to her face with the stick, wishing that she had gotten one with fastenings. The mask was also a work of art, beaded just like the top part of her dress. Feathers flared from the end, managing to not look gaudy, but very attractive.

"What's the point?" She asked herself. Half of an hour, spent lining her eyes, applying powder to her cheeks, and gently putting on the crimson lipstick. All of it was covered by the mask.

Still, she had done it, and there was no point in standing there like a fool. She walked around, slightly wobbly in her red heels, even though they were quite low by noble standards.

She spotted a group of girls converging slightly beside an alcove, lined with plush cushions. She snatched a flute of juice from a nearby server, offering drinks on his tray. Quietly, careful not to rustle her gown, she sat down, sipping on the drink, listening to their idle gossip. One girl was particularly beautiful. Her long blond hair was piled atop her head in an intricate braided pattern, and her dress and jewelry were the finest she had seen.

She-the ringleader, Daine thought-was speaking softly. Her followers leaned in, eager to catch every word that fell from those pale lips. "...have my sources Emily." she said calmly.

"Then it's true?" A brunette girl inquired eagerly. "Count Emerik is considering marrying off his only daughter to a country noble?"

"Why?" Was heard echoing around the circle.

"Well," The girl drawled, "I have heard that she isn't exactly a looker, if you know what I mean." She glanced around significantly.

Giggles and titters were heard, as they moved onto other subjects, concerning the Duke Derik and his supposed lover.

Daine sighed, sitting back. Just more gossip. She had heard more than enough of that stuff during her short stay in the palace about her and Numair.

Speaking of Numair, where did he vanish off to? She looked around, but the shifting lights and excess of gentlemen, all wearing suits, it was near impossible to find him.

His name caught her attention, and she once more turned an ear onto the group.

"I heard that Mage Salmalin was with that Sarrasri girl." A rather witless looking redhead put forth.

"Seriously, Lessa?" The leader said with an exasperated sigh, tossing her hair back.

"What's wrong, Tiya?" Lessa asked. Tiya just sighed again.

"Sarrasri, Lessa." A girl said, looking at her as if she was an imbecile. "The girl's a bastard."

Lessa's mouth opened in an "o" of surprise. "Oh."

"Yes, oh." Tiya said in exasperation. "Immini is right. No respectable man is lovers with a bastard. What's more, I heard that she comes from this small nobody town in Galla...and she was mad."

Everyone leaned forward. "Tell us, tell us!" Someone demanded.

"Calm down, would you?" Tiya snapped. "Anyways, Daine Sarrasri was this nobody peasant girl in a small town in Galla. One day, she just snaps, and starts running around like some wild animal. I for one still think that she's still mad, she just hides it well. Anyways, no man would waste his time on her."

That was it. Daine stood, angrily putting the empty flute on a tray to be whisked off. She stalked over to the group, glaring.

The leader looked up in casual disinterest. "Hello, I'm Tiya of Messala. Who are you?" Her tone clearly stated I have better things to do than chat with you.

Daine took off the mask, gazing down at them with disapproval. The followers cringed slightly. They saw a girl that was dressed in a gorgeous gown of red. She looked to be around fifteen, but she held herself proudly, and her eyes blazed with fury.

"I am the girl who apparently no man would waste his time with, apparently." She said, voice steely.

A spark of surprise bloomed in Tiya's eyes, but she quickly recovered. "Well it's true, isn't it, you poor mad girl?" She smirked.

Daine felt furious at this prissy little noble girl who acted like she owned the world. "I am the girl who just saved you and Tortall from Immortals and pirates. You know how? By calling up a kraken. I am the girl who talked with and made peace with a mother dragon. And I am the girl who now has a baby dragon." A chirp sounded at her ankles, and all heads whipped around to spot the dragon at her feet.

"Why hello Skysong, greet these lovely ladies."

Kitten glared at them silently, spines along her back rustling.

"Now, am I mad?" She asked.

All the girls shook their heads quite rapidly, chastened. Then they hurried off, a rustle of silk and gowns.

"What was that, magelet?" She heard, as an arm casually rested on her shoulders.

Numair looked down at her, smiling, handsome in a sharp suit, mask discarded.

"Whatever are you talking about?" She asked, all wide-eyed and innocent.

They laughed, walking off to once more enjoy the ball.