The Fall Festival, signaling the start of the season in Castellan, was also one of the great celebration days. Their own Princess Keara celebrated her adulthood, and that lent a special air to the laughter and the shouts of the children as they played in the streets. Riva prepared for her entrance into the hall, trying not to look as nervous as she felt. She was probably lucky. Keara’s cousins to the North had sent gifts only, not a representative. The last thing she wanted was for war to break out on Keara’s special day.
Bastion entered the room where she was preparing and smiled at her. “Are you ready?”
She blew a shaky breath. “I don’t even know why I’m so nervous. It isn’t like I haven’t done this sort of thing before.” But then, she hadn’t performed alongside the man she had come to love as intensely as she had. Oh, she’d done more frightening things, like facing down a dragon and the madman who commanded it to save the land which had become her home and using magic in the process that she hadn’t even realized that she’d had or understood in the least, like killing a man to keep him from harming her sister, like killing a brother she adored to keep him from destroying a whole world in his madness, like walking away from the man she loved, a man she knew was going to turn and walk to his death once she was gone. Dancing with the man of her dreams should be easy. “Should be” wasn’t always.
“It’ll be perfect. Don’t worry.”
She made herself grin at him. “Nothing in life is ever perfect. But we should do well enough that we’re the only ones who know how we flub up.”
There was a knock at the door and Bastion answered it to see Princess Keara waiting for them. “It’s time.”
They nodded to her and then hurried out to make their entrance.
— — —
Kodran and his fellow dwarves had outdone themselves in creating the techno-magical device that produced the music for them. Not only was it functional, with interchangeable crystals that stored memories, in this case the memory of music, but it was a beautiful creation to look at. And being the first of its kind in all of Castellan, it was being given to the Princess Keara for her celebration.
Riva had to give Kodran credit for excellent marketing sense.
In point of fact, even the tune for the dance was created especially for them. One of Kodran’s contacts knew a songster who was a touch more adaptable than the rest, and he had leapt at the chance for a true challenge in composition. Riva had gone to him with samples of all the styles of music that she knew and he had lit in fevered inspiration, and created a song for them that had the rhythm and the beat they needed and yet sounded native to this medieval fantasy world.
The performance itself went off without a problem. Noblemen and their ladies sat up and took notice, and no few eyebrows rose curiously at the new style of dance, at the energy of it, and at the fact that both Riva and Bastion were genuinely having fun on the dance floor.
No, there wasn’t a problem with the performance. The problem came in once the performance was over and the two of them were bowing to their audience with gratitude for a thunderous response.
From the back of the room, a young nobleman came forward, his clapping more measured and somehow insulting. As the room quieted he approached, his manner mocking. Riva recognized his face; he was the ringleader of the squires who had attacked Alban.
She started forward to challenge him when Bastion grabbed her arm and pulled her back around him, putting himself between the two of them. He faced the squire fearlessly, though he didn’t like the possibilities if matters got ugly.
The squire looked at them, folding his arms over his chest. “I have to give you credit, Captain Bastion.” He made the title an insult. “When you show your true colors, you really show them. Not only is she street trash, she’s young street trash.” He shrugged. “But then, so are you. Street trash, that is.”
From the back of the room, Prince Kian started forward, to be held back by his father. Keara’s hands shook, balling into fists. Several other nobles stood in sudden anger at the slur against the man who was widely called the best that the Order had to offer. Bastion simply stood firm, only his eyes lighting with fire.
“Are you implying something, young Squire?” He kept his voice as bland as possible.
“I certainly hope so. But then I suppose someone of your common background wouldn’t be capable of understanding subtlety. I’m calling you a cradle-robber, Captain. Your ‘dance’ partner,” his tone indicated doubt that dance was all that they did, “isn’t even of age yet. Does her mother know where she is?”
Riva couldn’t remain silent any longer. She even managed to keep her voice steady. “Yes. My mother knows precisely where I am.” She could feel where the bracelet she wore was hidden beneath her sleeve. It would be nothing to shake it loose so that it dropped below her cuff and then raise her arm to show all of them. She so wanted to make him eat his words.
But she didn’t want to have to tell Bastion that she was his Princess in front of a crowd of this size. She knew that if she had to be the one to tell him, if he didn’t figure it out for himself, then she wanted to tell him privately, where no one else could see them.
A large woman stood, then, and approached them. Bastion saw her and took a step back, bowing to Lady Olwyn. She nodded to him before turning to face the squire. “You misjudge the Captain, youngling.” She didn’t even dignify him by calling him by name. There were no few giggles hidden behind fans. “Probably because your own skills on the dance floor are decidedly lacking.” The giggles grew more pronounced and the squire’s face mottled in anger. “He has done nothing improper here, any more than you did at last season’s Festival when you left her Highness’ feet so bruised from stepping on them that she had to sit out three sets. He merely seems to be good at what he does.”
The squire glared at Riva, somehow he blamed her specifically for this humiliation, and then stalked out of the room, to an almost audible exhale of relief. Lady Olwyn turned to Bastion and Riva. “May I congratulate you on a remarkable demonstration?”
Bastion bowed again to her. “Thank you, Lady Olwyn, both for the compliment and for the timely intervention.”
She smiled. “As entertaining as a duel would have been, this is not the time or the place for such.” She paused. “Though matters are quickly reaching the point where such might become necessary. Those ruffians are an annoyance and a danger.” She nodded to each of them and returned to her seat as dancers formed up for one of the latest sets.
Bastion led Riva over to the side so that she could watch while he walked up to Princess Keara to offer his arm and a chance to dance at her own celebration. The musicians started up the music and Riva remembered all the celebrations that she and Illian had shared, even the one that had led to Jules’ death. She felt a presence at her side and looked up at Kian. For a moment she was scared. She started to back away from him and he held up a hand to stop her.
“Wait, please, it’s alright. I just wanted to talk with you…” he paused for a moment before lowering his voice, “Cousin.”
She leaned against the wall. “I’m not going back to Pallantia.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t. I just wanted to know why you didn’t stand up to that… that churl.” Riva was surprised at the genuine heat in Kian’s voice. “You could have declared yourself.”
She shook her head slightly. “And place Castellan at risk? No, my brother must not hear that I am here. He probably knows well enough where I have gone, and why I am here. As long as he does not receive confirmation then he is likely to leave Castellan alone for the time being.”
“You will have to declare yourself eventually. Not even your brother would allow you to remain absent from his court forever.”
“I know, but I’m hoping he figures out who I am on his own before I have to tell him.”
Kian was briefly confused, until he followed her gaze over to Captain Bastion, dancing beside Keara. “He doesn’t know yet?”
“He is decidedly clueless. I’m trying to drop hints as strongly as I dare, but he seems to keep missing them. Maybe he’s like I was, afraid to admit that dreams could come true.” She paused for a moment. “I will remain a streetling of Castellan for the rest of my life if that is what it takes to stay near him.”
“And eventually your brother will send agents to either steal you back again or to cause the war you fear so that he may ride here at the head of an army and take you back himself. You cannot hide forever.”
She sighed. “I know. Believe me, I know.”
— — —
Out of the corner of his eye, Bastion saw Kian speaking with Riva and his heart sank. It wouldn’t be an improbable romance, such things had happened before. After all, Lord Gryphon had been a streetling before he won the heart of the Ruling Princess of Castellan. And what girl didn’t grow up dreaming of a handsome prince to sweep her off her feet?
Especially one who had gained the ability to travel to worlds where such things truly could happen?
Bastion came to a decision on that dance floor. If his Prince sought the hand of a streetling maid then he would not come between them and he would wish them all the joy in the world. So why did the thought hurt him so much?