Eighteenth Century noblewoman Lara Basmajinik finds her vow to marry for love rather than for political advantage to her House impossible to keep.
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The Celery Tree
Lara Basmajinik cannot allow herself to fall in love with handsome Prince Kasavarion; her older sister is betrothed to the crown prince, and Kasavarion may not marry the sister of his brother’s wife. But when the crown prince suddenly dies, Kasavarion becomes heir to the throne and is free to marry Lara—until he is accused of murdering his brother. Because of an ability to overhear random thoughts, Lara knows he is innocent but cannot convince the king, who implores her to marry the sole remaining prince, the feeble-minded Jaederion. She agrees, believing that when Jaederion becomes king, she will have the power to free Kasavarion. But when she has the power, will she still have the desire?
The ball! Oh, the ball! How shall I describe it? Where shall I begin?
It was wondrous! A fairyland of beauty and joy!
What shall I speak of first? The decorations? How the servants must have labored to produce such an elaborate and delicate fantasy of ribbons, colored lanterns, tiny silver bells, and live flowers woven into chains of lace, so that every swing of those chains sent waves of the blossoms' sweet perfume around us all.
The music? The orchestra rivaled the king's own court musicians. The sound flowed like floodwaters through the huge ballroom, rising and falling in blissful harmonies like waves on a restive sea.
But all of that was no more than the gilded frame around the painting of a master artist.
Would that such an artist had been present to capture the swirl of colors as we whirled around the floor in lovely gowns, hair piled high on heads or arranged in long precise curls. Young men wore tight breeches and embroidered dress coats of colorful silk or soft velvet, their hair in single braids woven with satin ribbons. And everywhere the sparkle of jewels, gleaming on fingers, dancing from ears, spread on bare flesh above low-cut gowns.
But no painting could do justice to that swirl of motion, that blend of music, laughter, tinkling bells, rustling gowns, and prancing feet, that medley of floral scents and the aroma of fresh baked sweets and rare fruits that graced the refreshment tables.
And still I have not come to the best part.
Included among the eligible males of the Great and Lesser Houses were the sons of the Royal House itself. All three princes were in attendance!
I thought Lucinda would faint from joy when she saw Prince Irinoxion. And in truth, I was only a little less thrilled to see Prince Kasavarion stride into the ballroom with his brother.
The youngest prince, Jaederion, came with them, though throughout most of the dance he remained seated to one side, attended by a manservant. He smiled and nodded at us all most pleasantly, but his sadly limited intelligence was all too obvious in his expression and behavior. He had been invited as a courtesy with no expectation that he could socialize as did his brothers.
Lord Jarek Arondin and his Lady, Eva Arondin, put in a brief appearance, not to dance but merely to show his support for the occasion. But they soon left, perhaps disappointed that not they but the princes were the center of everyone's attention.
The dance began with a minuet, opened by Prince Irinoxion, who honored Madame Boranosk by making her his partner. I must confess that I used my fan to hide a smile at the sight of the handsome prince executing the intricate steps opposite our unattractive old directress. I'm certain I was not the only one who employed her fan in that manner. It was the contrast that was ludicrous, not the style and ability of the dancers. Madame Boranosk's stance and performance were beyond reproach, as, not surprisingly, were the prince's.
When that couple performed their final bows, Prince Kasavarion claimed as his partner for the following minuet Lady Helmhafer. Although they were almost as mismatched as Prince Irinoxion and Madame Boranosk, they danced equally well if not better. When Prince Kasavarion swept off his hat and bowed to Lady Helmhafer and she curtseyed in return, my heart beat faster as I imagined myself in her place.
Following those opening formalities, the men were free to select what partners they would. The next two dances were allemandes, but following those imports from the French court, the musicians shifted to our native Varonobsk dances, which I think we all prefer, particularly since they allow closer contact between partners and several couples dance at one time.
As they had at Leonilda's wedding dance, the older princes favored a different lady for each dance. Lucinda, though she danced with other young gentlemen, could not keep her eyes from Prince Irin, and maneuvered to be near him between dances in the hope of being selected his next partner.
As it chanced, I was approached by Prince Kaz at almost the same time that she was claimed by Irin and so missed witnessing the flush of joy I know must have spread over her face.
I felt my own face flush as I glided off on the arm of my prince.
"You are truly lovely tonight, Lady Basmajinik," I think he said.
Probably he said those same words to each girl with whom he danced, changing only the name, but they flustered me so I could scarcely stammer a thank you. All the lessons our instructresses had driven into our heads about courtly conversation and proper comportment in dealings with royalty evaporated like dew on a summer morn.
He was a marvelous dancer, and I grew more at ease as we weaved among the other dancers. Soon I gathered my wits enough to murmur, "You honor me with this dance, Prince Kasavarion."
"It is I who am honored. Please, don't be nervous, Lady Basmajinik. Forget that I am a prince."
"That is difficult," I said honestly.
"But you must try. After all, Irin is older than I and will be heir to the throne. I'm only his younger brother." He laughed, and the little lines that crinkled at the corners of his eyes showed that he laughed easily and often.
"You are overly modest, Prince Kasavarion," I said.
"Just call me Kaz, please."
"Then you must call me Lara."
"Ah, good. Then as Lara and Kaz we are friends, not members of the court carrying out a duty. It is so much more enjoyable that way."
I suspect he meant merely that the pretense of being friends made his duty more bearable, but the hope that he could truly consider me a friend put clouds under my feet until the dance ended—too soon. Kaz raised my hand to his lips as he thanked me again.
"You have made this evening memorable, Lara," he said, and left me speechless.
I danced with several other partners as the evening went on, but I cannot so much as recall their faces—or their names. My thoughts were wholly of Kaz.