"Allie! I can't believe it. After all those plans we had, you had to go an fall in love with a Prince?"

Allie had the grace to look bashful, but Elloise knew she was not. Allie had always been the more deceptive, the reason Elloise had been surprised at her choice of career. She'd always thought Allie would go into the same line of work as Elloise herself.

"Look, it's not really like I just decided to fall in love with him. It kind of struck me. Like lightening."

"Why, Alls-a-bell, that's almost poetic."

Allie laughed. Elloise drummed her fingers on the wooden table, wondering where the smell of rosemary was coming from.

"So, Ells-a-bell, why have you come back? Decided to settle down, after all?"

"No way. I actually have something to, well, retrieve from the castle. Yes, the very one where your Prince Charming lives."

"It's Charles, not charming. Although on of his many fine attributes could be counted as such."

"It could be Casisse right now, for all intents and purposes. I need a way to get in, with out attracting a lot of notice."

Allie shook her head. "Really, Ells, you are the luckiest girl I've ever met. A ball is being held tomorrow eve. And you, my dear, could certainly get in." Allie sat down in one of her chairs, and looked up at Elloise with a cheeky grin.

"I don't have a dress or anything though, nor an invitation."

"Well, let me introduce you to your fairy godmother, darling. I have got an invitation, which I've no intention to use, and also, a dress."

"Really? Oh, Alls, you really are the very, absolute best!"

"I know, I know. Now listen, this is what we're going to do."

"Okay, but are you sure you're not going to the ball?"

"Nope. I'm going to Siovale."

"What?" Elloise's mouth dropped open. "Are you joking?"

"I am not. I'll tell you everything, after we get you set up. I won't ask any questions as long as you do something for me." Allie got up and paced the small floor of her kitchen, back and forth past the open brick oven and the smoldering embers.

"Anything."

"Give a message to Charles. But whatever you do, don't let him come after me."

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"What?"

The entire staff of the de Byrnion household turned to the direction of Lady Cadis' study. The duchess normally steered clear of apoplexy until her third visitor at least, but it seemed she was having a bad day.

A very bad one, they thought, as a loud crash, followed by a resounding boom, came again from that location. As if making a following statement, a clock, followed by a letter opener, came smashing through the window and crashed into the walk below.

"They cannot command me!" the staff heard their lady scream, followed by more smashing, and a screech of, "they wouldn't dare!"

In the study, Cadis stared at the royal messenger with outright disbelief and fury etched into every delicate bone of her face. "De Byrnion is the wealthiest house in the entire kingdom. Even the royal family can't risk its wrath."

"De Byrnion is you, milady," the messenger said slowly, "and…" There he paused, gulping. The steward cut in, sorry for the boy. He doubted that the youth would have even said that much if the boy wasn't so smitten with his mistress.

"What he's trying to say, Cadis dear, is that one girl is easily killed. And since the death of your parents, you are the last de Brynion in the whole of Diarhe. If you died, the whole of your vast treasury would pass directly into the hands of the monarchy."

Cadis looked at her steward in disbelief.

"Cadis, you're just seventeen. How hard do you think it would be to get rid of you in an 'accident,' and take your land and wealth?"

"I don't see how my age…"

"Seventeen is young enough to be considered foolish. No one would risk accusing the royals of anything to do with the unfortunate demise of an impetuous, single, young female. If you were thirty and suddenly vanished, or were said to have a riding accident, questions might be asked and pursued. The idea alone is enough, or if you had a husband…"

Cadis threw her hands up in disgust.

"Don't start, Brem, don't start."

"Um, may I go?" She nodded at the messenger, and he fled. Cadis sighed; this messenger had always been respectful. She regretted upsetting him, but she didn't see why he was so flustered.

"But if you married, you-"

"Brem!"

Cadis wanted no husband to boss her around, or anything to distract her from her plans. Her plans against the new rule, against the magic ban. But she knew Bram would caution her about it, all he ever did was caution her. Careful about this, watch out for this. He said she had a hot temper, but Cadis wasn't sure. She'd heard her mother had the same, but she'd never known her, and so couldn't be sure.

She did know; however, that she wouldn't be careful about getting what she wanted. And going to the ball was the first step. The only difference was, she thought with a wry grin, I'm not going for dancing. I'm going to spy.

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Prince Ashanen was bored. Not just bored. Extremely bored. Where was Eiran? He thought maybe they could go riding, or hunting. Or something. Anything.

"Ashanen! Ashanen, where are you?"

The prince groaned, only his mother would be calling in that tone. And he thought he knew why. Just as he wondered if he would fit behind the curtain, his mother walked in. With her normally dark hair dyed blue to match the "sea" theme, she looked like a porpoise more than a mermaid. But he wasn't going to tell her that.

"Yes, mother?"

"Well, dearest, you haven't put down your accompaniment to the ball."

Ashanen groaned, and sat on the chair facing the window wishing he were anywhere but there.

"I told you! I'm not bringing Princess Morgan or Princess Lucindi, and I'm especially not bringing Princess Sheldian. She's positively reptilian."

"But Ashanen, you must think about image. A prince going alone to his own ball, then other kingdoms will think they've no competition and stop negotiating, hoping for a piece of Diarhe."

"Mother!"

"Ashanen!" She gave him the universal mother stare, one cool eyebrow raised, effect slightly diminished by the blue hair.

But just slightly.

"All right, all right. I'll find a date to the ball. But I'll find her myself."

His mother smiled.

"Fine. But if you don't get a suitable date to this ball, you'll be escorting Princess Sheldian to the next three. And I mean it."

Waltzing out, the queen kept a smile on her face. Inwardly, Prince Ashanen groaned. He'd do anything to keep from escorting the snake. Anything. Including bringing a date.

Finding one shouldn't be too hard. For his mother, a suitable date meant she just had to be smart, beautiful, kind, quiet, royal, short, even-tempered, obedient, and a good dancer. That shouldn't be too hard at all, he decided. The he thought, it's hopeless.

"Eiran, who are you taking to the ball?" Eiran looked up at Shane with surprise and answered,

"My sister Cairi. Why?"

"I have to find a date, or else I'm stuck with Sheldian forever.

"Sheldian's…nice," Eiran snorted, and Ashanen proceeded to bombard him with pillows from the throne.

"Who can I take? Seriously!"

Eiran shrugged. "What about…" Then a look of pure mischief lit his face.

"What about me getting you a date? And if you don't like her" he thought a minute, "I'll give you my horse."

"Your horse!" Ashanen's eyebrows shot up. Eiran loved his horse. He must have some girl. And Ashanen really did like Eiran's horse.

"My horse," Eiran replied with a smug smile.

"You're on!" Ashanen cried, and they went back to discussing whose mother was the bossiest. Such a witty subject for men of eighteen to be discussing. But then again, Ashanen was the baby of the family, and as such, entitled to such trivial conversations.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Cadis sighed, for she hated the dressmaker's whims. Why green? She hated green, but according to her steward, it was a sea themed ball, and she had to go along with the themes. And her dress was exceedingly scandalous in her taste, a bit low in the neckline and a bit too fitted. But according to Madame Giget, it was the height of fashion. Cadis was just glad she didn't have need to deal with fashion too often. Madame Giget, on the other hand, was obsessed with it, and spoke about it at great lengths whenever she came to see Cadis.

And the ball was such a good opportunity to find out what was really going on with the royal family, she couldn't pass it up. Seeing as the ball was the next night, she knew she really should get going. But that encounter with one infuriating young man was on her mind. And she wished his face would leave her alone, no matter if it was a handsome one.

"Brem! Is the carriage outside?"

"Yes. Now, I wish you would take more things. What if you're asked to stay?"

"Are you kidding? In that den of serpents? No way."

Cadis went over to grab her small bag, and tripped on the edge of the carpet. She wasn't normally clumsy, but nerves and excitement were giving her jitters. She thought it might turn out to be an interesting ball indeed.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Islana sighed; she really was too tired to sew. That was the fifth time she'd pricked her finger in the last minute. But her skirt had ripped while she'd gone to get the water from the well, and the miller's wife had been very upset at having- what had she called it- ah yes, a "wanton upstart" in her household. Islana chuckled to herself, if only the miller's wife knew what she herself looked like in the morning.

"Islana, we need more wood!"

Islana rolled her eyes. Heaven help I should sit for more than five minutes. That would be a terrible crime.

"Islana!"

"I'm going!" she called back, and grabbed her cloak. She thought it lucky she wouldn't have to take much more of it, she was planning to move on to another town while everyone was at the ball. She thought she might set up a dress shop. A dress shop would start her off nicely, and perhaps she might even find a man who could accept her as she was, faults and all, though she thought it highly improbable. It didn't keep her from hoping.

While gathering wood, Islana heard hoof beats come up the pathway. "Eiran?" she whispered. This was a strange time for him to visit.

"Islana, I have come with a proposition for you."

She listened as he proceeded to tell her his preposterous idea. She laughed, and declined. But then he looked up at her with a heartfelt expression, and proceeded to beg.

"But why should I go to the ball with someone I don't even know?"

"Because I've bet my horse. Islana, please!"

Islana paused by the mirror and snorted. She was getting the last laugh after all, and wondered which poor sucker had been hooked into 'escorting' her to the ball, and shook her head. The dress she was wearing was dark blue, that velvety darkness of soft, thick clouds setting low in the dusky horizon. Her dark red hair was piled into dark veils, gauzy and mysterious. Eiran had pilfered all of the materials from his sister's sewing array, who, he assured Islana, would never even know they'd gone missing. According to him, his sister was a tad absent minded, but Islana couldn't hold it against her when she had such fabulous taste in fabrics. He'd also taken care of her identity problem. The mask she wore covered her eyes fairly well. No one would know whom their new, mysterious guest was, and she would make a fool of the entire town.

Lifting up the voluminous skirts, Islana stepped outside and smiled. Right on time, as always.

"Ready?"

"You know it." She smiled at Eiran, and they were off. Eiran chuckled to himself. Prince Ashanen's life would never be the same.

Meanwhile, at the castle, friend's of Millie's, the royal pain and also sister to the Princes, were flocking about in the courtyard. That included Princess Sheldian. Ashanen looked out the window in disgust. They were preening in their gowns like flamingos on parade. He willed Eiran to get there soon with his mysterious escort, his mother had already been in his rooms twice demanding to meet his date. Of course, she didn't put it so blatantly, but he thought the transparent attempt to locate her necklace and hair combs in her son's rooms might be taking it a bit too far.

Then, a knock. He sighed, and went to open it, hoping it would be Eiran. And he was rewarded.

"Prince Ashanen, I would like you to meet your lovely escort. The Princess Islandria of Isuvieal." Eiran moved aside, and all Ashanen could do was stare. A beauty in drapes of foreign lands and colors met him, a beauty in a mask.

"My fair lady," Ashanen bowed, "shall we go on to the ball?"