The Right Partner
Fortitude wasn’t as pretty as Methril. No sweet-smelling flowers in window sills, no ornate tapestries hanging over doors, no salt from the ocean lingering in the air. Vallerie sighed and let the carriage curtain drop back into place.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be so…big,” Samuel remarked.
Big was what Fortitude was. The outer wall seemed to touch the sky, and inside—inside were buildings that dwarfed Methril’s tallest towers. Even the housing district was enormous. Hundreds of multi-story tall homes clustered along the street’s edge like people at a parade, making Vallerie feel like an ant in the line of carriages.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t be,” Vallerie agreed, leaning back against her seat.
Samuel tipped his head to the side.
“It would require thousands to monitor the streets, and all these tall buildings would make it easy to get lost,” Vallerie elaborated.
Samuel nodded. “True. It is the capital of North Maridon so I always imagined it would be something spectacular.”
Vallerie smiled, even though spectacular wasn’t the word she would have used.
“You look wonderful,” Sam commented with a dreamy expression.
“Thank you.” Vallerie’s smile deepened as a flurry of emotions twirled in her stomach.
Of all their training exercises, this had to be her favorite. They were en route to the Fortitude castle, where they would practice diplomatic and social policy. Namely, attending a royal ball. Normally they wouldn’t have been allowed to attend until they turned seventeen, but Headmaster Ruben had the age requirement waived as this was a training routine. An act that Vallerie couldn’t be more grateful for. She missed the pretty dresses and rules of lady conduct. The last ten years of combat, survival, and leadership training had nearly stripped her of everything her dad had taught her. Somber coldness creeped into her chest. She wished he was here now. He would have loved to see her sixteen years old, auburn hair styled in the latest Methril up-do, and wearing a traditional navy blue Methril ball gown.
Vallerie glanced at Sam. What would her father have thought of him? He was handsome in a matching navy dress coat and polished boots. The dark outfit contrasted with his gold vest and blond hair. Vallerie bit her lip a little as he made eye contact with her. He had some of the warmest brown eyes she’d ever seen.
The carriage pulled to a halt.
“I guess we’re here,” Samuel said, moving to exit the cart.
Vallerie took a deep breath, setting the nerves buzzing in her chest as she waited for Sam to open the door on her side. Then the door opened.
“Ma’am,” Sam said, extending his hand to her.
“Thank you sir.” Vallerie laid her palm in his and exited the carriage.
Even knowing the size of the rest of the city, the sheer enormity of the castle before her made her pause. Facets of stone and pillars large enough to fit a barge inside stretched into the evening sky. Thick windows rose along the walls with the smallest panels standing triple her height.
“Shall we?” Sam asked.
His warm grin stole her attention for a moment. She allowed him to guide her to the massive gates with floods of other guests pouring inside.
Even before they’d entered the melody of the king’s orchestra reached her ears. She longed to be swaying to those prefect beats, but restrained herself. It wasn’t proper to dance outside the ballroom.
“Introductions?” A man at the gate asked Samuel.
“Sir Samuel Verdant and Lady Vallerie Davelos, guests of Headmaster Ruben Voldon,” Samuel stated.
The man nodded and gestured them inside the castle.
The ballroom ceiling stretched hundreds of feet above them with dozens of crystal chandeliers hanging from its upper reaches in well cultivated rows. But most importantly was the enormous gold ring inlay of the marble floor marking off the dance from the rest of the room. Vallerie stepped that direction the same time Sam stepped to their left.
“Sorry. Would you care to dance first?” Sam apologized.
Vallerie’s cheeks grew warm.
“You’re right we should mingle with the nobles first,” Vallerie said ignoring the cold pit in her stomach.
The next hour was unbearable. The novelty of curtsying and polite conversation lost its charm after meeting the third couple. More than that, one of Vallerie’s favorite arrangements was played, and she didn’t get to dance to a single note. Vallerie smiled politely as the most recent nobel they were speaking with excused himself.
“This is exciting,” Samuel whispered.
“Mmhm,” Vallerie agreed enviously, watching a woman in pink spin on her toes.
“I supposed we should finish the dance requirement before our feet get too tired,” he said.
Vallerie lifted her eyes to his. Cultural dances were not Samuel’s strong suit, so she understood his resistance to the idea, but after spending an hour engaging in the same bland conversations she tugged him towards the ring. The timing was perfect too. One song had just ended, and another was beginning. There were various rules with different countries when entering a ball, but in North Maridon couples formed into skill-set rings. The best dancers spun in the center of the dance floor with those of lesser skill surrounding them in tiers of dance quality. It was the male partner’s responsibility to observe each other and determine whether or not they out performed a couple in a higher skill ring. If both parties agreed they would trade places. In the center of the tier was a single couple whose movements were far more graceful than any others. Vallerie always dreamed of being in the center ring. For now she needed to focus on getting into the second ring. In this evening’s ball there were five rings. They could make it.
Samuel’s brow knit as he tried to keep pace with her. Reluctantly, she slowed. He just needed a little time to get the rhythm. Five minutes turned into ten, ten into twenty, twenty into thirty, and they still hadn’t advanced a single tier. Just relax, Vallerie reminded herself. It was foolish of her to think warriors like them would ever enter the third or fourth ring.
“Quite a party,” A smug voice commented behind her.
Vallerie couldn’t stop herself from pursing her lips in irritation as she turned around.
Cassidy stood with a hand in his pocket, wavy hair barely slicked back, and a drink in his other hand. He wasn’t as tall as Samuel or as decent, but Vallerie couldn’t deny that while she was infuriated by him, she was also…attracted to him.
“Cassidy,” Samuel said curtly.
“Sammy boy,” Cassidy greeted without looking his way.
His playful hazel eyes were locked on Vallerie.
“I didn’t expect it to get any more interesting until I noticed a few hooded men behind the orchestra. Wonder what circus talents they will be displaying tonight,” Cassidy continued.
“There wasn’t any entertainment scheduled,” Samuel replied.
Cassidy raised an eyebrow as he took a sip from his glass. “Well, not like it's our problem. We were expressly ordered to have a good time.”
“That’s not our objective and you know it,” Samuel reprimanded.
“Could have fooled me,” Cassidy shrugged.
He tossed a wink Vallerie’s way and meandered back into the crowds.
Samuel shook his head. “He gives all of us a bad name.”
Vallerie opened her mouth, but stopped herself. What was she supposed to say? Cassidy was a troublemaker, but he was also the most vibrant man she’d ever met.
“What do you think he meant about the hooded figures?” Sam asked.
“No idea,” Vallerie sighed.
For a few moments Samuel eyed the orchestra stands, then shook his head. “Shall we return to our dance?”
Vallerie grinned and curtsied.
Even though Samuel wasn’t the best dancer she still found herself having a good time. So when he abruptly stopped, she was caught off guard.
“I think I see someone,” he said urgently.
Vallerie turned to where he was looking. Scanning the crowds she tried to identify what had set him on edge.
“I don’t see anything,” Vallerie admitted.
“Wait here.” He started off into the waves of people, leaving her dumbfounded on the edge of the dancing ring.
What was she supposed to do? She couldn’t keep dancing without a partner, and mingling with the other ladies of the court was equally unfavorable.
“You’re welcome,” Cassidy said.
Vallerie turned to her right, about to scold him for making Samuel paranoid and for ruining her dance, but stopped. His hair was properly slicked back, his previously lackluster appearance was sharper somehow, but she couldn’t quite place it.
“May I?” Cassidy bowed and extended his hand toward her.
That’s what his plan was? A furious part of her wanted to slap his hand away, but the intrigued part of her won.
“One dance,” She agreed.
“That’s all I need.”
The next arrangement started. Vallerie suppressed a grin. This song in particular allowed for exceptionally complex movements, and from what she’d seen during their classes, Cassidy would fail miserably. The next thing she knew, they were spinning together. She dared him into a hand over hand twirl, and he matched her. Surprised she pushed further. Every challenge she threw at him, he met with incredible precision. She tossed him back, and he performed one of the most beautiful pirouettes she’d ever seen before seamlessly returning to her arms.
“How?” Vallerie asked in frustration.
Cassidy gained a wicked grin. “Being an ex-prince has its benefits.”
Of course! Before coming to the orphanage Cassidy was the son of king Archnamos in Brackenwood. It was only fitting that he’d had the best teachers available.
“He’s not right for you, you know,” Cassidy whispered in her ear.
“And you are?” Vallerie huffed back.
Vallerie hesitated. The pure certainty in his voice was alarming.
“Careful, we’ve almost caught the center,” Cassidy warned.
She hadn’t realized it yet, but they had advanced to the fourth ring.
“You know how to fly?” Cassidy asked.
“Of course I do.”
Cassidy grinned at her. His dimpled cheeks made her heart race. Before she could catch her breath Cassidy spun her out. Like a bird taking flight, she returned to him and sprung into the air with an extra spin. Cassidy caught her by the waist. For a moment she truly felt like she was flying, Cassidy spun with her above his head so flawlessly she barely noticed him pivoting beneath her.
She glanced at the innermost couple. A man and a woman in their forties. The man nodded respectfully to Cassidy and stepped back into the fourth circle with his partner. Suddenly, she was the center dancer. She couldn’t believe it. She studied the faces of the members of the fourth ring. Each one wore disbelief like porcelain masks. Vallerie met Cassidy’s eyes. For the first time since they’d met he didn’t have even the slightest hint of sarcasm in his eyes. He looked into her eyes as if he were looking into her heart, and begging her to do the same. She felt vulnerable and invasive…and somehow like they’d done this before. Like she knew the depth of his soul. Like she was…home. Cassidy dipped her, but didn’t come back up with the next beat.
“I would never have left you,” He said.
It was a statement, a condemnation, and a promise all at the same time. And Vallerie knew each was true. He righted her and the song ended. He bowed to her before retreating back into the crowds.
Vallerie stood frozen the entire time. Her heart throbbed in a way she’d never known before, in a way she never wanted to stop. When Samuel returned to her side she knew she’d never feel that with him. She caught a glimpse of Cassidy standing with Warren and Emron in the back of the room. For a moment he didn’t look any different than he normally did. Goofy and roguish as ever, but when he glanced her way, she knew it had been real, and it was only the beginning.