It was the night of the Melrin Ball, and as predicted it seemed the entire kingdom had materialized at Dargon Keep. Beautiful carriages, bearing equally beautiful people, had begun arriving just as the sun was departing, and they had been entering in a steady stream for almost two bells now; it was a wonder that the court marshal still had enough voice left to announce the last few stragglers.
Hidden away in the darkest possible corner she could find, Aaliyah sighed as couple by couple, the richest and most powerful citizens of Dargon and the surrounding areas arrived. Food, richly appointed and perfectly displayed, adorned the heavy wooden tables that ran down the center of the room, and smartly dressed page-boys lugged around large flagons of drink under the watchful eyes of more experienced servants. The rustling of brocade dresses, the clanking of ceremonial weaponry, and the clamor of voices all echoed around the hall, and the young figure hidden away in the corner was beginning to think that no more noise could fit.
Three sharp clangs abruptly drowned out the din, and from the upper reaches of the hall came the court marshal’s call.
“Announcing the Duke and Duchess of Dargon!”
The small creature that had heretofore been lurking in the shadows tiptoed forward, taking care to remain mostly hidden behind the voluminous skirts of several of the larger female guests. At the front of the hall stood Clifton Dargon II, the duchess by his side. He wore his family’s coat of arms proudly on his chest, and his lady’s dress had been emblazoned with dozens of miniature copies over the sleeves and bodice. The duke raised his arm in welcome.
“A fair Melrin to all! Let the ball begin!” A cry went up from the crowd, and a large troupe of minstrels began to set up in one corner, pulling instruments from bags and downing one last gulp of drink. In short order the food and tables were moved to the sides of the room, and the music began. Aaliyah sighed yet again and leaned against the nearest pillar, looking wistfully at the musicians.
“Show your hands, villain!” These words, accompanied by a sharp poke to the middle of her back, made her whirl around with a shriek. Upon seeing her assailant, however, her look of fear was quickly replaced by a withering glare.
“Kelrith Dunlevy, you louse. You’re not to wave that thing at a lady. Do you not have anything better to do than irritate me?”
The boy grinned mischievously as he sheathed his dagger.
“Nothing is more fun than bothering you, ‘liyah.”
The girl shoved him out of the way with a snort.
“You are to address me as Aaliyah or lady.” She sashayed off down the corridor that ran around the large center room. Kel matched her steps easily, and she resisted the urge to shove him into the nearest wall.
“And I am to be content with being called ‘louse’?”
“Indeed, for that is what you are. Now leave me be. Mother promised I could stay awake a few bells longer tonight, and I intend to enjoy the ball.”
“How can you enjoy it when no one will ask you to dance?”
Aaliyah stopped mid-step, and Kel turned to face her.
“I…I am not yet old enough to be asked.” It was a source of extreme annoyance to Aaliyah that children were not allowed to participate in the dancing; it was an even larger annoyance that those under thirteen were considered children by … whomever it was that made the rules. So many rules! The older Aaliyah got, the more rules she was expected to follow: speak when spoken to, curtsy to any and everyone; it seemed the list continued on forever. And the worst rules were the ones that prevented her from doing fun things, like dancing for example. It wasn’t that she didn’t know how — she had learned to dance several years before. But to not be able to use that knowledge! For another entire year! It was torture, and Kel knew it.
“Such a pity,” Kel said, poking out his lower lip and faking a look of condolence. Aaliyah glowered at him. Then a smirk crossed her face.
“But you are old enough to do the asking. Why are you not dancing, hmm?”
The young man looked away, suddenly embarrassed. Aaliyah just couldn’t help herself.
“I’d wager none of the ladies would have you.” With a grin she turned on her heel and headed back down the corridor the way she had come, pleased with having last word.
Or not. With a quick gust of air Kel was by her side again.
“In truth … none of them catch my eye.”
“Straight, because all their eyes look right over your head,” Aaliyah said with a laugh, patting Kel on the top of his head. He ducked out of her reach and grumbled, straightening his mussed hair. Aaliyah rolled her eyes.
The music and noise that had been bouncing around the hall suddenly quieted, and both children turned to see the duke leading his wife to the center of the room. The musicians began playing a soft, lilting tune, and the two began to dance.
“Oh, look …” Aaliyah whispered, wrapping her arms around the nearest column and staring wistfully at the rulers of Dargon. “It’s so romantic.” They danced together seamlessly, the duke’s injury doing nothing to detract them. Kel looked between Aaliyah’s face and the duke and duchess somewhat suspiciously.
“Have you taken a liking to the duke? He’s more than twice your age, ‘liyah,” he said, pulling the ends of Aaliyah’s hair.
“Really Kel, go play with the page-boys. Your tricks don’t amuse me.”
“They used to,” grumbled Kel, leaning back against the next pillar. “Before you turned strange.” Aaliyah gave him a once-over, trying to decide if she was being insulted. Knowing Kel, she very likely was.
“Strange? What does *that* mean?”
The boy shrugged, pretending to be interested in watching the duke and duchess dance.
“I don’t know. You just … seem different.”
Aaliyah smiled, which only served to perplex Kel further.
“Mother says I’m growing up,” the girl said rather proudly, pleased with herself. So much had changed within the last sennight, and she was feeling all the joys and agonies that come with getting older. For his part, Kel was going through his own changes, but found it impossible to believe that a female could experience them as well. The opposite sex was not something he knew much about, but he was unwilling to ask, so he chose instead to react to Aaliyah the way he always had: with a sharp tongue and nagging fingers.
“Certainly, if you think fluttering your eyelashes at royalty makes you grown.” The dance ended with applause, and the discussion was halted as several people walked between the two children.
“I do not ‘flutter my eyelashes’ at anyone, Kel,” Aaliyah said angrily, as soon as she was able. “You always see what you wish to see.” She pushed away from her pillar and took off down the hall, hoping he would get the hint.
“You do it all the time,” Kel said as he caught up with her again. “Honestly, it’s the silliest sight in the world. Flouncing around, pretending to be a lady –” He was cut off as Aaliyah blocked his path. Her hands were balled into fists at her sides, and she was shaking.
“Make fun of me all you choose to, Kel. What could you know about growing up? Frightening me like that with that ridiculous dagger? Your father will not yet let you carry a real weapon, will he? There I was, expecting to see a guard, or at the very least a common highwayman, and all I saw was a child with his toy.”
“I’m not a child, Aaliyah.” His chest swelled with indignation. “I’m nearly fourteen.”
“And such childish behavior, sneaking around the Melrin Ball, irritating me and frightening decent women out of their wits.”
“I didn’t scare any *woman*. You’d have to fill your corset properly before I could do that.”
With a shriek of rage and embarrassment that made several nearby heads turn around, Aaliyah raised her hand and struck Kel smartly against his left cheek. The skin began to redden instantly, and Aaliyah was momentarily satisfied with the look of horror and shame that crossed Kel’s face.
The girl whirled around to see her father, Baron Everard, stepping toward her. Just a few steps behind stood her mother, with Kel’s parents. Aaliyah stammered, nearly crying with embarrassment. She bobbed a quick curtsy to her father.
“I’m sorry Father, but Kelrith is no gentleman.” She turned and dashed from the hall, her hand over her mouth. Her father turned on Kel, but Baroness Everard pulled on his arm.
“I believe it was a misunderstanding, dear.”
“That it was,” stated Baron Dunlevy sternly, frowning at his son. “Kelrith, what has happened here?” The boy was speechless with anger, and after a moment his father began to take notice of the looks being passed up and down the hall. “Come, my son,” he said with a sigh. “I believe it is time we had a talk.” The graying man draped his arm across Kel’s shoulders and led him off into one of the empty side rooms.
“Father, I –” but the man held his hand up.
“Now is not the time for excuses. I have known Aaliyah since her birth — she has always been a patient little woman. It takes much to upset her.” He fixed his son with a hard stare. “So for whatever reason she chose to strike you … it must have been well deserved.” Kel opened his mouth to speak, and then shut it, nodding his head.
“Such an action on her part brings question to your honor, Kelrith,” the man continued, sitting on a windowsill.
“I didn’t mean –”
“It does not matter what you intended, son. What matters is that, were you a noble with full responsibilities, there would be people out there questioning your ability to respect others. You are becoming much too old to engage in physical disagreements.”
“But a knight does, Father, and they are full grown men.”
Kel’s father smiled.
“Aye son, that may be true, but those disagreements are carried out within a very specific set of rules, the main one being honor. And they also generally do not end with a knight having one reddened cheek.” Kel’s lip twisted into a slight grimace as he pressed his fingers gently on his sore cheek. The elder man hid another smile.
“And just as a knight has honor, as a duke or baron or other nobleman has honor, women have their own as well.”
“Certainly. And while some of them protect that honor with a sword and shield atop a horse, others are certainly encouraged to protect it with modesty, their words … and the occasional use of their hand to remind an impertinent speaker of how valuable their honor is.”
“So … by insulting Aaliyah, I have not only impugned my own honor, but … hers as well?” Kel asked hesitantly, somewhat confused by the lesson.
“I believe so, son. And of course you know the way to repair such damage?”
Kel nodded with a sigh.
“I do. I must find Aaliyah and apologize to her.”
“Straight,” responded the baron kindly, ruffling Kel’s hair. “You’re growing into a man before my very eyes, boy. I shall have to place a brick on your head soon.”
“That did not work with you, and it certainly shall not work with your son,” came a laughing voice from the entry. Both men looked up to see Baroness Dunlevy. The baron smiled at her, and Kel looked back and forth between his parents’ faces. His eyebrows scrunched together for a moment, and then he smiled.
“It would take a whole mountain of bricks to stunt my growth, Mother — I intend to be as tall as the duke tomorrow.” He turned back to his father. “Thank you, sir. I must return honor to its rightful place.” Baron Dunlevy nodded, and after kissing his mother’s cheek Kel took off in search of Aaliyah.
He found her out on one of the balconies that led off from the great hall. The stars were out in all their glory, sparkling like diamonds, their beauty made all the sharper by the sudden cold bite in the air. The ball was still in full swing inside, and the warm glow from the fires spilled out the windows and onto Aaliyah’s dress, which Kel had only just now noticed fit her figure well.
As Aaliyah turned to face him, Kel pulled his arm into his sleeve and waved the excess like a flag.
“I come under peaceable terms. Cease fire,” he said.
“I shan’t hit you again, Kel,” Aaliyah finally said, becoming completely fascinated with the stones that created the balcony’s rail. “My sincerest apologies. It was uncalled for.” Kel shoved his arm back into his sleeve and rushed toward Aaliyah, grabbing onto her arm.
“No, don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your fault. I … antagonized you, and my punishment was deserved. I’m so sorry, ‘liyah.” Aaliyah pulled her arm from his grasp and scooted further away. Kel leaned over the railing, also contemplating the stones.
“It’s just that … you grew up overnight. Today you called me a child and told me to go play with the pageboys, but yesterday you would have been down in the kitchens with me. I don’t like when you act a lady,” he said, suddenly sullen. “You act like an idiot, tossing your hair and always checking your skirts for dirt. I liked you before.”
Aaliyah inspected her fingernails, then sighed and looked up at Kel.
“I liked me before too. And I wish that I could wake up tomorrow and be how I was before, but I don’t think I can. Mother said … she said that I’m … becoming a woman now …” She blushed, but continued on, “and in truth I believe her. It’s all so confusing!” she said with a feminine growl, and Kel smiled at her.
“No more confusing than the talk my father just gave me.”
“Oh no, he didn’t –”
“No, he just gave me a … lesson of sorts. An important one, I think. Feel free to hit me whenever you think I am not being respectful.”
Aaliyah stepped forward, hugging him before she quite knew what she was doing.
“Oh, but I didn’t want to hit you! I was just so mad, and you were bothering me, and I was trying to enjoy the ball! I didn’t hurt you, did I?” She grabbed his chin in her hand and tilted his face so that the light from the windows landed on his cheek. Kel smirked, even though in truth his cheek was a bit sore. It might even have a bruise by morning.
“‘Liyah,” he said indulgently, “You couldn’t hurt me even if you tried.”
Her hand, which had been sliding across his cheek checking for a bump, stilled. Their eyes locked for several moments.
“I … um … I’ll remember that. For next time,” she finally stuttered out, moving her hand from Kel’s face and scooting away.
“Please do,” Kel muttered quietly, resisting the urge to press his hand to his cheek.
There was suddenly a flurry of activity within the hall as the last few songs of the evening were announced. After shuffling from foot to foot for a moment, Kel cleared his throat.
“Would you do me the honor of this dance … lady?” He held out his hand to Aaliyah, who was momentarily dumbstruck.
“I … I cannot, I am not …”
Kel grabbed her hand and pulled until she stood in front of him.
“We are not in the great hall, therefore we are not actually a part of the celebration. I say we dance, and never mind the rules.” He held out his hand. After a few moments of hesitation she slipped her hand into his, and the dance began. Fortunately many of the halls’ windows were open, and the music filtered out clearly onto the balcony. The final tunes were always lively ones, and the pair enjoyed it to the fullest, performing the turns with grace and laughing at each other’s missed steps.
What they did not see, however, was the small group of four that stood just inside, watching them dance.
“I just don’t know, my friends,” Baroness Everard said, biting her thumbnail. “Perhaps they are too young.”
“My darling, they are not even aware of the arrangement,” smiled her husband, taking her hand in his.
“She is not patient enough yet,” continued the baroness.
“On the contrary,” Baron Dunlevy said, “she has the patience of a saint. It is our boy who still has some growing yet to do.”
“In a few years’ time it will be all we can do to keep them apart,” laughed Baroness Dunlevy, hugging her friend’s waist while simultaneously making sure that neither of their dresses was wrinkled.
“Right now it is merely a challenge to keep them from knocking each other senseless!” chuckled Aaliyah’s father. A fanfare sounded from the hall behind them.
“It would appear that dessert is served,” said Kel’s father, a hungry look in his eye. His wife patted his somewhat generous stomach.
“To it, then, friends!” she cried, as the musicians once again struck up.
“Let them be, love,” Baron Everard whispered into his wife’s ear. “There is time aplenty for such things.” Gently he led his wife back into the celebration. Outside on the balcony the two young people continued to dance.