He led her to an open area of floor in the middle of the room, leaving her briefly to open the library doors wide.
“So we can hear the music, it’s a bit difficult to dance without it.”
“Where is the ballroom?”
“There’s a back entrance to it just across the passage.”
He returned just as the musicians called the opening bars for a fresh dance, he smiled, “Perfect timing.”
Anaria tensed as he moved into the dance hold, but his hands stayed in place and his fingers did not move. She relaxed enough to follow him into the dance and all too soon found herself smiling at the novelty and freedom of being whirled around a space by an expert and respectful dance partner.
He frowned at her, “Now what thought crossed your mind that just wiped all the happiness off your face?”
“Liam, I’m sure this isn’t the right thing to do.”
Her partner looked at her consideringly, “You’re quite honourable aren’t you. Most of your town girl friends would be figuratively tossing their beaus out of the window in the hope of catching the future Duke.”
“I’m more of a village girl these days Your Lordship.”
“You don’t find that rather restrictive?”
Anaria looked away, too loyal to disagree, too honest not to.
“Tell me village girl, does your Liam know what a treasure he has in you?”
“I’m no treasure. I can barely do the most basic chores to keep a home in the village running. And you’ve commented on my sharp tongue already. It’s no wonder he hasn’t been home in weeks.”
A twirl and a frown from her partner, “Are you sure? I heard he was desperate to get back to you but was being held by family issues.”
Anaria stared at the mask looking at her, wishing she could see more, “Does your family really know all the happenings in your lands?”
A smile, “Only the important ones.”
As the musicians in the other room started to play, the Duke’s son took careful hold of Anaria’s waist and hand, and began to dance.
A couple of minutes into the music, Anaria started to relax, and even enjoy herself, it was amazing how nice dancing was with an expert and respectful partner.
He smiled, “Am I convincing you that dancing is not so bad after all?”
“You’re convincing me that the boys of Gandry need lessons in both manners and dancing.”
That made him laugh, “I’ll have to see what can be arranged, it would be dreadful if word got out that Clearfall people were less than perfectly cultured.”
She looked up at him, “And just how would you go about it?”
“You know what, I might just set a few village girls on them. That girl Martha in your village, a couple of others from your Liam’s home. Warn them in advance of course, it’s only fair, then stand back and watch the fun.”
“You think it would be fun?”
“Absolutely! You know those girls, in fact you’re one of them now. They would either pinch and grab back in the most embarrassing ways and places they could find, or they’d make a huge scene, screaming, slapping faces, stomping on feet and more. I really do think we should arrange this.”
“It is a nice idea.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to start arranging things for Gandry’s next dance. Only you’ll have to promise to be my dance partner as I’m not sure I could cope with more insults from your friends.”
Anaria sobered, “It’s one thing to have a single dance with you here, especially since you rather pushed me into it. I am not comfortable parading around with someone who is not my betrothed in public.”
She looked down, “Besides, I’m not sure I should ever go back to Gandry, I’d rather not give them the chance to sneer at me and be rude about Liam.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Because they look down on people who work with their hands. I know Liam is worth fifty of any of the boys who would be at that dance and I would hate seeing him laughed at or shunned because he has rough hands and simple clothing.”
Something about the angle of her partner’s head suggested a frown, “You’re more worried about him than you?”
“Even though I now have rough hands?”, she sighed, “I know how to snap back. Liam’s a much kinder soul than me and I’d hate to see him hurt.”
The Duke’s son shook himself and turned them in three circles, “Enough seriousness, the dance is nearly over and you are supposed to be having fun.”
Anaria smiled and turned her attention back to the music as it approached a set of final flourishes.
Her partner spun her in another series of twirls that made her feel like she was flying. Until the contents of her apron, all the little treats the cook had tucked into her pockets, came flying out, soaring across the room and hitting her partner, and the audience she hadn’t realised was there.
She turned wide, accusing eyes on her dance partner, who shook his head, “I have no idea how these people came to be here, I swear.”
Oddly, she believed him, she looked back at the faces staring at her, and the scattered food. A few of them had started to snigger, some were whispering to each other, but there, right in the front were her parents, staring in horror. And next to them was that smirking toad Sebastian.
He started to laugh, vicious glee pouring out. The rest of the crowd started to join him, all the town people, castle people she’d never seen before. The only ones silent were the villagers she’d come with, who just looked sad.
The laughter swelled, louder and louder, it spun around her and all she could see was the jeering faces and all she could hear were the vicious remarks.
“That’s never Anaria, she’s so ragged.”
“Who does she think she is? Jumped up little piece of nothing.”
“Probably trying to get out of that marriage her Pa pushed her into with the beggar.”
“Bet he’s feeling so proud right now.”
“And where is that so-suitable husband anyway?”
“He’s probably turfed her out for being nasty and useless.”
And still the laughter built.
Anaria shook her head, the tears starting despite her most furious efforts. The Duke’s son moved to cup her elbow.
She ripped her arm away, “NO!”
And she broke.
Covered her ears and fled the room, sobbing as she pelted through the corridors, desperately trying to find a way out, a way back to the forest.