Wary of older pages coming out, the two dashed down the girls’ side, slipping into Vinnia’s room as quietly as mice. Her room was a lot like Rudi’s—empty, with no collected trinkets or furniture. The only piece of ‘decoration’ was a large piece of paper with an intricate, green transmutation that she’d tacked on the wall over her desk.
The rustling of stiff taffeta attracted Rudi’s attention, and he turned to Vinnia, who had her arms stuck all the way through a pastel blue gown.
“What?” she said, frowning, “I’m just turning it inside out. Stop looking at me like I’m some freak.” She wrestled with the skirts for a moment, and Rudi switched to his magic sight. As always, everything was covered by the pale pink of Vinnia’s magic.
As she pulled the dress inside out, Rudi watched as lines of magic twisted around inside. They straightened out, forming smooth lines where all the ruffles joined the sleeves, and where the skirt met the bodice.
“You’re looking with your magic sight, right?” Vinnia asked. Upon Rudi’s nod, she pointed at a seam along the front of the dress, where the sides met the front in an elegant square neckline. “Stop using it for a moment.”
Rudi obliged and looked where Vinnia pointed.
“See here? The seam is basted, and there’s a second seam next to it, with the magic in between and over the basting.”
It took some eye-straining, but Rudi eventually spotted the wide, white basting stitches, which were partially covered by a tiny roll of fabric.
“The tailor said that the magic reinforces the basting, but I have a hunch that it also minimizes the seam allowance. I’ll bet if we took the spell off, this dress would be big enough to fit Elizabeth or Bridget.”
Overwhelmed by the sewing jargon, Rudi asked what she meant.
“You dummy. I’m telling you that the clothes will be adjusted every year so no one has to pay for new ones. The spell just makes the process of altering much easier and efficient and more comfortable for us, since we won’t have to deal with itchy seams with all the allowance magically rolled up like this.”
“Oh,” said Rudi. Now that he thought about it, Vinnia’s theory on the magic clothes seemed very useful indeed. He wondered why he’d bothered with this sleuthing though, since the result was not all that interesting.
It was only a few hours before Rudi actually had to wear the magically reinforced clothes. Due to his mentor being the fifth prince, he and Simon had been assigned to welcome duty for the ball, and they stood by the grand, white double doors on the east side of the ballroom, smiling at everyone who entered.
During a lull between the early-birds and page arrival, Simon leaned over his charge and slid a card from under his sleeve.
“You got one, right?” he whispered, “Who’s on it?”
“We’re not supposed to open them yet,” Rudi said, focusing as hard as he could on the sparkling tile floors, and the buffet that snaked around the edges of the room.
“Oh, come on. No one actually follows that rule. I’ve already opened mine, see?” Simon deftly flicked his card open, revealing three names written in perfect, black cursive.
It took a few moments for Rudi to read the writing; his father never practiced cursive. “Petra, Inna, and Antja… wait, how many sisters do you have?”
Seven was the short answer, but Simon decided it was necessary to go on speaking at great lengths about how each and every one of them was annoying. Even the first princess, Zaelda, seemed to have some grudge against their ‘useless sixth prince’. Rudi noticed the vehement way Simon said ‘sixth’, like it was an enemy to be faced.
As Simon went on about a trick Petra had played on him a few years ago, Rudi stared at his own, unopened card. It was blank on both front and back, but Rudi could sense magic in it. It seemed to be an alarm, like a magnet on either side that would break off when opened, and tell everyone who cared to know that this card had been looked at prematurely.
After a few stragglers, Lady Naomi with her honey-colored hair and golden dress being one of them, rushed into the ballroom, Rudi heard the low rumble of a hundred feet pattering against the tiles. He glanced down the candle-lit, white-walled hallway to see two lines of pages advance towards him. Elizabeth headed one line, her head held high, and a green bow clipped to her short, blonde hair. Axel walked on her left, looking much older than twelve in his dark blue vest and black trousers. If anyone asked, Rudi would have to tell them that it was like a surreal dream to watch the two lines of pages during their slow promenade.
There was no clapping when the pages had finally entered. No announcement, no cheering. The pages dissipated into the crowd of knights and squires, catching up with old friends as the older pages kept an eye out for which knight they’d like to have as a teacher.
“That was the most boring thing I’ve ever had to do,” Vinnia said crossly. Rudi jumped; he hadn’t known she was standing behind him.
“Why was it boring?” he asked.
Sliding her fan open, Vinnia wrinkled her nose. “We did nothing except stand in line for an hour while the count talked at us. And Chem and Bridget were both snickering about something or other, but wouldn’t tell me, and so were the twins, and you weren’t there for me to make fun of. It was awful.” A peeved expression on her face, Vinnia waved her fan, blowing the wispy, loose hairs from her face. “And I hate this hair. Elizabeth insisted that I pin it up and curl it, since I have it long, and she even went so far as to put a holding spell on me to make sure I couldn’t get away. I hate her.”
Somehow, Rudi didn’t think that feeling would last very long. “Let’s look at the buffet,” he suggested, “Simon told me there’d be lots of cheese.”
“Simon likes to lie,” Vinnia said, but she followed him across the ballroom anyway, her pastel blue skirt whispering with every step.
Rudi and Vinnia didn’t even make it to the cheese platters though. Axel and Simon caught and dragged them to the huge windows on the west wall, their eyes gleaming with excitement.
“There’s someone you two have to meet,” Axel said, before scowling at someone. It was probably Elizabeth, but Rudi couldn’t see through the crowd. “My old mentor, Jens, is back from the summer camp, and he’s been wanting to meet the both of you.”
As they swerved around people, Vinnia nearly tripping on her skirts once or twice, Simon explained that after this, he was going to introduce everyone to his rather extensive family.
It wasn’t long before Axel and Simon pulled to a stop in front of a tall boy with very short, platinum blonde hair. His brown eyes twinkled as he laid eyes on the group.
“Axel! Simon!” he exclaimed, “It’s wonderful to see you both. How has everything been?”
Simon laughed, elbowing Axel. “Tell him about your contest with Elizabeth. I bet Jens will have a strategy to help you win.”
“I’m not going to accept help,” Axel said, sounding very serious, “I’m the one competing, so I’ll come up with the strategy.”
Shaking with chuckles, Jens tousled Simon’s black hair, loosening it from the slicked-back style he’d worn earlier. “So,” he started, “where are your charges? I assume you brought them.”
“Right here,” Axel said, pulling Vinnia in front of him. She puffed her cheeks and stared blankly at the buffet, the red tassel of her fan standing out against her pastel blue bodice as she crossed her arms. At the same time, Simon had pushed Rudi forward, so he stood awkwardly before Axel’s mentor.
A few moments passed as Jens inspected the two youngest pages. His mouth seemed to be pulled in an everlasting smile. Then, he chortled and patted both of them on the head.
“You two are lucky,” he said softly, bending down so Axel and Simon could hear, “I would have killed to have a mentor like Axel. Don’t tell Simon I said it, but he probably doesn’t count much as a mentor, does he?”
Rudi shook his head, feeling a grin spread across his face. He liked Jens. The older boy stood up again, his full height seeming way too tall for a page, even if Axel was only a few inches behind.
“I think I know who I’ll be looking for when I become a knight,” he said jovially, “These two would make good squires.” He turned around to look out the window, hands on his hips, before speaking again. “I hope your challenge goes well, Axel,” he said, “and make sure Simon doesn’t get into too much trouble, alright?”
Though it looked like he was about to give a good-natured response, Axel’s attention suddenly drew away. People had begun gathering in the center of the room, the fuming Elizabeth being one of them. In the faraway corner of the ballroom, Rudi could see a small group of people in black trousers and vests putting glossy wooden ovals against their shoulders.
“I have to go,” Axel said, watching as one of the orchestra members began tuning, “I’ll catch up with you later, Jens!” Then, buckled shoes clicking on the tile, he made his way to Elizabeth.
For a moment, Jens looked quite puzzled. “I thought… I thought he and Elizabeth hated each other.”
“They do,” Vinnia said, fanning herself, “but the third part of their contest is to see who can last the most dances. They didn’t get dance cards, in case you had hadn’t looked.” Vinnia smirked. “Lady Naomi came up with it.”
As the violins faded away, a woman’s voice echoed through the hallway. “Welcome, friends,” she said, “to the Autumnal Equinox Ball! It’s a pleasure to see all of you here, and I hope that even for our friends who were incapable of joining us this day, that the rest of your year will be blessed with luck and fortune. Let us celebrate this night with dancing and food, and please, enjoy yourselves. You may open your dance cards.”
Murmuring washed through the room as cards flicked open. Even some of the knights had cards of their own.
Rudi carefully flipped his card, straining to read the curlicue lettering. “Vinnia,” he read, “and then Mari, and… Inna?” Wasn’t she one of Simon’s sisters? He looked up at Vinnia, who was scowling at her card. “Do you have to dance with any members of the royal family?” he asked.
“Who knows?” she grunted, before hiking up her skirts and dashing to the buffet. Rudi followed after, not wanting to be left alone with Jens and Simon.
But Vinnia didn’t stop at the buffet. She swept past the last table and stood angrily in a corner of the room, arms crossed over her chest. “Come here already,” she demanded, “I have to tell you something.”
Rudi obliged, feeling very stupid in his orange vest. He looked at her in concern, wondering what she needed.
“Okay, don’t ask how I know, I just do. Anyways, there’s someone tailing Simon around tonight. He’s been here since before the rest of us pages got in; did you notice anything weird when you were watching the door?”
Shaking his head, Rudi assured her Simon had named every single person who came in.
Frustrated, Vinnia stamped a heel on the floor. “Drat. That makes things more complicated.”