The sweetest romances are the ones that don't sweep you off your feet. (Alfeegi/Cernozura)
"Oh, Alfeegi! I wasn't expecting to see you at this hour." Cernozura scrambled out of her chair when Alfeegi entered the room, cursing her skirts as she tried to curtsy at the same time and almost upended herself.
"I could say the same for you," Alfeegi said. He never moved as she straightened herself; Alfeegi had never been known for his courtly manners or gentlemanly behaviour. "Is the coffee still hot?"
"Yes, of course, shall I pour you some?" He inclined his head in a small motion, so she assembled the necessary cups and spoons. "No sugar or milk, yes?"
"That's correct," he said, with the slightest undertone of surprise. He needn't have been. If there was one thing Cernozura was good at, it was her job.
"Working late?" she said with a smile as she pushed his cup towards him.
"As always," he said in disgust. "Kai-stern's latest report is an utter mess, and I've no idea where Lykouleon is at the moment." He took a sip of his coffee, and for a moment some of the stress melted away and he actually looked young and almost, well, handsome. She flushed internally. That was not really appropriate of her. "In other words, business as usual."
"I know the feeling," she said, with real sympathy. While she wouldn't trade her job for the world, it was occasionally messy, embarrassing -oh, the times she had inadvertently interrupted people engaged in, ahem, rather intimate activities-and rather thankless.
Alfeegi raised one eyebrow, as if that thought that never occurred to him."What are you doing at this hour?"
She indicated the stack of paper with a wave of her hand. "Requisition forms. We're running low on a number of spices which will need to be imported from Hyuray."
"Don't you have," Alfeegi took another sip of his coffee and sighed in pleasure (she couldn't help but smile), "people to do that sort of thing?"
"I have found," she said with a knowing look, "that the best way to make sure things get done is to do them yourself."
"Indeed," Alfeegi said, with raised eyebrows. "Thank you for the coffee, Cernozura."
Just when she thought her day couldn't get any worse, it somehow managed to.
"But what if he yells at me?" Mellie whimpered, her large blue eyes wobbling with fear of the most abject kind.
"He won't yell at you, Mellie," she soothed, even though it was very probably a lie."As long as you do your job properly, everything will be fine."
The maids had their own allotment system going. Cernozura had not exactly approved it herself, but it did seem to weed out the ones whose hearts weren't set on being at the castle. The newest and youngest maids were assigned to Alfeegi's office. It was Mellie's first day at the castle, and it seemed the rest of the maids had already been telling stories.
"But everyone says..."
"Everybody is just playing tricks on you," she said firmly, and took Mellie by the shoulders. "I am telling you now that Alfeegi is a perfectly-" well, perhaps she oughtn't say nice, "reasonable man, one I respect greatly. There is nothing to fear from him."
"Okay," Mellie whispered tremulously, and tried to smile, but as she hoisted her bucket and made her way up the stairs, Cernozura couldn't help but feel that she'd just sent a lamb to the slaughter.
She knew better than to hope that Alfeegi would go easy on her because it was her first day. He would be in his office, supervising, telling poor Mellie exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it done and making no allowances for beginner's mistakes. Alfeegi's last maid had lasted for three months. The one before that had only lasted three days. When they were in between maids again, she cleaned his rooms herself. She'd never had a problem with him, herself. Alfeegi was abrasive, yes, demanding, certainly, but she was no girl anymore, to be intimidated by his flashy displays of anger. He had never seemed to have a problem with her cleaning, either. That was satisfying. Alfeegi's approval was very hard to come by; knowing she'd earned it made it possible to keep her patience when he came by wanting to know where his maid had gone that morning,there was dust all over everything.
Still. She pulled down her account book, and wondered how Mellie was surviving her baptism of fire.
Having no children of her own -she wanted to, sometime, it was just that she was always so busy; there was no time to even meet somebody- it was easy to think of the maids as her own family, her 'daughters,' especially the younger ones, who still excited about their crisp new uniforms and living in the big city and hadn't yet realized that the castle was not the palace of their storybooks and they were not princesses. She knew that some of them liked to pretend to be, when they were taking care of Raseleane's rooms, but a little play wouldn't hurt them, they were still very young, as long as they remembered it was only a game. Many of them had come a long way from home in search of something better, and when homesickness started to bite, it was she they turned to. Lykouleon had offered her, when she'd taken up the position, rooms on the same floor as the Dragon Officers, but she'd declined; she'd felt, as she'd explained, that it was better to be closer, in the heart of things, and so she'd taken the apartment above the servant's quarters. Perhaps it was not quite so luxurious, but it was more convenient, more practical.
Making sure the domestic side of the castle ran smoothly didn't just mean making sure they didn't run out out of cheese or milk, or making sure everyone's mantel got dusted. She often found herself playing counsellor to the girls who came to her with all the problems that came along with growing into a woman, or mediating domestic disputes, or calming the sometimes-fractitious environment that was the servant's quarters: there were always rivalries, of course, and there was always someone accusing someone else of stealing their beau, and rumours flying like cat fur. Then there were the meetings - every week with Lykouleon, with Raseleane, and then with Alfeegi, and thosemeetings, those meetings were a challenge sometimes; trying to convince Alfeegi to allocate more money in the budget for this or that necessity was like trying to get blood out of a stone, even if he did see her logic in the end, and the occasional emergencies, both major and minor, that would crop up, like Rath accidentally setting his room, and almost himself, on fire.
All in all, she didn't have enough time to do anything more than snatch a handful of moments to herself every day - enough time to chat with a friend or read a few pages of the latest romance, but she went to bed every night tired yet satisfied, and that was good enough for her.
If she was perhaps lonely sometimes... well, that came with the job, and there would be time enough for those things in the future. Sometime. And in the meantime, she had many good friends, the best she'd ever dreamed of having, and a job that was both stimulating and gave her a sense of well-being, of having done something useful. To ask for anything more would be selfish.
Life at the castle was always the busiest during the summer court season when there were many balls, and Draqueen played host to many of Dusis's luminaries. Spare rooms had to be found and fitted out for the visitors, many who were of high rank. The maids always complained: about having to clean the chancellor's suite, which was usually only entered once a year, and was so thick with dust on every surface one might as well just empty the bucket over the table; about having to make sure not to assign two feuding diplomats adjoining rooms (if only the feuds would stay the same each year! Thankfully, she had Kai-stern to advise her in these affairs). The seating arrangements at the feasts that were usually held at this time of year required the same finesse, but Raseleane had a fine mind for these things, and as they were once again run off their feet trying to accommodate everyone, some of very particular tastes, Cernozura was glad to work under such a wonderful queen.
Today, she and Raseleane were going over the menu for the Emperor's Banquet, the biggest social event of the year. It had required meticulous planning, and interviewing many of the guests, to put together. Before she had come to Draqueen, how strange she would have found this! A dinner was a dinner - oh, but some people were allergic to this and to that, or were vegetarian, and they had to make sure dishes from each region were offered, so none felt slighted. Making the plans had been the work of her entire week.
"I think this will work very well, Cernozura," Raseleane said as they exchanged a smile. Raseleane understood the rigours of keeping such a large household running smoothly. "Now, I think we have more enjoyable matters to discuss."
"We do, my lady?"
"Who is your partner for the ball, Cernozura?" Raseleane said slyly with a little smile and a wink, and she could feel her cheeks growing warm.
"I won't have time for that, my lady," she said, "with taking care of the guests and the dinner and--"
"Nonsense," Raseleane said briskly. "Of course you should enjoy the ball, and I'm going to make sure you do." Raseleane could be impossible to argue with when she had her heart set on a course action, and she was very difficult to say no to. "Do you have a dress?"
"No, my lady," she stuttered. This was going down an uncomfortable path. She had to head Raseleane off. "I reassure you, it'sfine."
"Hmmm. I think purple would suit you," Raseleane said, getting up and opening her closet. "Yes, lavender, and some amethysts..." and Cernozura sighed helplessly.
The tension grew as the ball drew nearer. The first ball after the war with Nadil meant that everyone wanted to celebrate - and that much more pressure to make sure that everything went on without a hitch. Everyone was busy, and her schedule was full of meetings with Raseleane, Alfeegi, Lykouleon, Tetheus and Kai-stern as they co-ordinated their various areas of expertise.
Alfeegi in particular was critical - yes, he understood the diplomatic importance of the event and how it could be strategically used in Draqueen's favour, but did it have to so be expensive? He had to approve her budget before she could start making the orders, and that meant some fast talking. Luckily, she had some experience in dealing with men of his kind, and enough knowledge gleaned from years of working under him to know how to handle him.
"I'm afraid there's really no choice in the matter, Alfeegi," she said as gently as she could. He was especially volatile these days -so many visitors did create extra paperwork for him, and Rath was not helping matters, wherever he and the other Knights had gotten off to- so she had to be very careful not to set him off. Alfeegi was a valuable resource to the castle, too valuable to be wasted in petty shows of temper. It was easier not to argue with him. There were other ways to get around Alfeegi if one was clever -and subtle- enough. "The Hyurayians are traditionally vegan, I know it creates extra trouble and means cooking a separate meal, but we can't afford to risk the offense..."
"You're as bad as Kai-stern," Alfeegi grumbled, but signed off the paper anyway. He knew when she was right. He just didn't like to be forced into admitting it. He could be as stubborn as a donkey sometimes, Alfeegi.
"Thank you, Alfeegi," she said graciously with a little curtsey, and he waved her away irritably.
"I don't need you to stand on ceremony, Cernozura, I need you to get this bloody ball rolling." He rubbed at his forehead, where the telltale nerve was twitching. He was probably giving himself a headache with the way he was stressing. He never did know how to delegate, but insisted he was the only one who knew how to do things right. She knew how tempting that path was, but they were each only one person, and there were only so many hours in a day.
"Can I get you something, Alfeegi? Some tea, perhaps?" she prompted gently.
"Yes, god, please," he said, massaging his temples. "You would not believe the idiots I have to work with..."
She turned away to hide a smile at the familiar refrain of Alfeegi's ranting. Enough time spent with Alfeegi, and his complaints became part of the background, as part of the man himself as his terrier-like tenacity. She sensed that there was rarely any real heat behind his complaints, and that the relatively few who had earned the full face of Alfeegi's wrath had deserved it, such as the apprentice who had been found altering the books and pocketing the extra. Then, Alfeegi's anger had seemed turned at himself as much as anyone else, for choosing someone for the position personally only to have them be unworthy in the end, and an reflexive, wounded hurt at being betrayed.
His complaints, she suspected, were as much a way of letting off steam as they were a way of expressing emotion he wouldn't allow himself to elsewise.
"Here, Alfeegi," she said, serving his cup of tea, and he took a deep sip and sighed happily.
"You are a lifesaver, Cernozura," he said, with a rare smile, and her heart skipped abeat. It was nice to know she was appreciated. "Is there anything else we need to go over?"
"Let me see," she said, shuffling through the papers in her folder."No, I think that's all. We can finish early."
"Early?" Alfeegi snorted.
"Do you have plans, Alfeegi?" she asked. Not that she wanted to pry, but Alfeegi was infamously jealous of his privacy. Any mention was interesting.
"Not unless by plans you mean working all night to find out why we're so far over budget this season." His sigh seemed to shake his whole body. He did look tired and the dark circles under his eyes were threatening to eat up the rest of his face.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" she said impulsively. It wasn't like she'd plans any more exciting than a hot bath and a book herself, after all, and working with Alfeegi would undoubtedly be more interesting, if nothing else.
"No, don't let me keep you. I'm sure you have more important things to do yourself, Cernozura," he said, pulling his budget book to him.
"Not really," she said with a small, wry smile. He blinked in surprise.
"Well, in that case, could you doublecheck the numbers on these," he handed her a sheaf of papers, "for me?"
"Certainly," she said.
"I think that's everything," Alfeegi said around midnight.
She closed the last folder gently and placed it on the surprisingly tall stack. Her back ached from bending over the desk for so long, and her eyes were starting to swim, but she was feeling better than she had for a long time. She'd always been good at mathematics, but once she'd left childhood her parents had steered her into areas more appropriate for a female. Alfeegi's numbers had stimulated parts of her mind that had laid dormant for years, and although those muscles were stiff from being stagnant for so long, the intellectual pleasure at solving the puzzle was, well, thrilling.
She didn't really like to think of what it said about her that the most exciting thing that had happened to her recently was helping balance Alfeegi's books.
"Shall I make us some tea?" She could use some herself: her throat was awfully dry, after three hours of non-stop work and conversation and a few arguments. Alfeegi was very... direct, it was true, but there was no one better at what he did, and people would do well to remember that when he forgot a nicety or three.
"I believe it must be my turn to make the tea by now," Alfeegi said, with a stretch and a hint of a smile.
"And then he asked if I would like to go on a date sometime!" Alfeegi finished, haughty with remembered indignity, and Cernozura knew she really oughtn't laugh but she just couldn't help herself; she could just picture the look on Alfeegi's face when the regent of Chantel had, thinking he was a woman, propositioned him. Alfeegi looked at her askance for a moment when she collapsed into giggles, but then the kind of real, broad smile she'd rarely seen on him spread across his face, and they were laughing together.
It had been so long since she'd laughed like this, probably since her girlhood. When had been the last occasion for real mirth, not the helpless, nothing-else-to-do kind? Oh, it felt good getting it out, tickling her ribs and bringing tears to her eyes.
"I assure you I didn't find it quite so funny at the time," Alfeegi said when they could compose themselves, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, and that was almost enough to set her off again. He looked much healthier for the amusement, cheeks flushed pink and eyes almost twinkling. Perhaps it was the general feeling of fun in the room, or the late hour that inspired her to do something more daring than she'd ever thought she could.
"Have you apartner for the banquet, Alfeegi?" she asked.
"Me?" Alfeegi asked in surprise, flushing a darker shade. "I was, ah, not planning on attending, besides the obligatory appearance, of course. Undoubtedly, I'll have too much work to do..."
"Oh, don't give me that, Alfeegi," she said. "We work harder than anyone else in this castle. Surely we deserve the chance to kick up our heels every now and again?"
"Well, Isuppose..." Alfeegi trailed off, looking down at the table. Who would have expected Alfeegi to be shy? It looked like she'd have to take the initative.
"Shall we go together?" she proposed. "I mean, somebody has to be around to make sure Ruwalk doesn't dance on the dinner table again this year, and since we both have to go, we might as well--"
"Go together," Alfeegi finished.
"Well," Alfeegi said, and seemed to think about it for a long time before he made up his mind. "Why shouldn't we?"
"I mean," and he was beginning to gather up steam, "we work for months to make sure this ball runs perfectly but never get to enjoy it, while the likes of Ruwalk flirt with anything on two legs and drink themselves under the bar. Why shouldn't we enjoy ourselves every once and a while?"
"That's just what I was thinking--"
"Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever actually gotten to sit down at one of those things; I always have to chase someone or talk to whoever Lykouleon wants me to talk to."
"I know the feeling," Cernozura said. Between making sure the chaos in the kitchen didn't spill into the dining hall, mopping up the inevitable accidents and making sure to maintain a cheery atmosphere, there was barely enough time for breathing, let alone enjoying herself.
"In fact," Alfeegi sounded like he was building up a big realization,"it's always like that, isn't it? We do all the work behind the scenes, while everyone else gets to let down their hair."
While that wasn't quite true -Tetheus and the Dragon Fighters had also been working around the clock to make sure everyone would be safe, and Kai-stern, well, Kai-stern had been working as well; he'd just mastered the art of mixing business with pleasure so it always looked like he was having fun- it would be unwise to disagree with Alfeegi at this point, and it did seem that their contributions went relatively unnoticed by most others.
"Is that ayes, Alfeegi?" she asked with an inward smile when he stopped ranting and took a great heave of air.
"I believe so."
"I will see you there, then," she said briskly, and gathered her things together.
"Yes. Of course." Now that the adrenaline had died down, Alfeegi seemed confused about what he had just agreed to. "At the ball."
She had to hide a smile. "Good night, Alfeegi."
"A little tighter, I think," Raseleane said, turning Cernozura this way and that in the mirror, and lacing her dress tigher. "Alfeegi's not going to know what's hit him."
"Your Majesty!" she said as reproachfully as she could. "I assure you, it's not like that."
"Are you sure?" Raseleane said, with a devilish smile that belied her angelic face. "I think the two of you would make a lovely couple."
"I am very sure! Alfeegi and I are good friends, nothing more."
"That would explain why you are blushing?"
"You're pulling the laces too tightly," she muttered under her breath, and Raseleane giggled.
"You, ah, look very nice, Cernozura," Alfeegi said, when she opened the door.
"As do you," she returned with a smile. He did look handsome, almost dapper, in his black suit; nothing at all like the Alfeegi she knew from the office."Shall we?"
"I... of course," he swallowed, and awkwardly offered her his arm.
If they had been any other two people in the castle, they would have taken their seats and chatted, or tested some of the hors d'oeuvres, or joined any of the groups of people milling around the large hall, some talking, some dancing. But once they entered the hall she was called away to the kitchens by a frantic maid, leaving Alfeegi to Ruwalk and Kai-stern's tender mercies, who latched on to him as soon as she was out of earshot. Still, she was determined not to let business ruin her evening. They would find each other again later.
"Oh, Cernozura," Mellie sighed as Cernozura hastily tied an apron over her ballgown, "it's been a disaster from start to finish. First the delivery was late, and the best chef is sick, and some of the silver is missing, we think someone's stolen it, and no one has the key to the storeroom where the wine jars are kept and they're running out out there..."
"Mellie. Calm down," she said when the girl paused for breath. She looked like she was on the brink of tears. "Where is Duza?"
"I don't know! She was arguing with one of the chefs when I last saw her; she's left me to do this all by myself and I don't know how to..." Mellie's face was turning red, and she sniffed. Her blue eyes watered.
"Listen to me, Mellie," she said, taking her by the shoulders like she had some months ago. "Duza will return soon. Until then, you can handle this."
"I can't!" Mellie sobbed, shaking her head hopelessly.
"Would Duza have left you in command if she didn't think you could do it?" she chided gently, and Mellie raised her head. "Now. The keys to the storeroom are on the hook inside the closet door in the scullery, as always, and that set of keys will also unlock the cabinet which has the extra silver. And you know the chefs are always fighting amongst themselves; they'll sort it out. All the guests are out there busy enjoying themselves drinking and dancing. No one will notice if dinner is two minutes late."
"Really?" Mellie said with a watery smile.
"Really." Cernozura smiled. "Now, I'm going to leave this up to you and Duza, Mellie. Remember, if you can survive Alfeegi..."
"This should be nothing," Mellie finished. "Oh, Cernozura..."
"Now, now," she said, and gave her a quick squeeze. "Get going, you've alot to do."
"Thank you!" she said over her shoulder as she rushed away with a team of maids in full uniform, and Cernozura watched her go with a smile on her face.
Had she ever doubted her team would pull through? They were stronger than anyone thought they were.
"Cernozura?" Duza bustled in. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be at the party?"
"Just providing some quick advice," she reassured Duza, and let her take her apron. "I trust everything is under control?"
"Of course. Just the usual infights," Duza said, a sour smile crossing her usually jovial face, and they shared an understanding look. "Now you, get out of here, and go show off that beautiful dress and leave the rest to me."
"Yes, ma'am," she joked, and let Duza push her out the door.
The party was in full swing now, as the maid team began setting out the first course. She searched for Alfeegi, but wherever he was he was well-hidden. She smiled. After the interrogation Kai-stern had undoubtedly given him, she couldn't blame him for wanting to keep a low profile. Hopefully if he spotted her, they could take their places for dinner together.
"And here is the lucky lady!" Ruwalk said out of nowhere, making her jump when he slung an arm around her shoulders. Ruwalk was inevitably tipsy at any given stage of a castle party, but he was so friendly and good-natured about it that it was impossible to be angry about it. Lykouleon and Raseleane gave her apologetic smiles.
"Where has your knight in shining armour gotten off to? He shouldn't be leaving such a dazzling woman by herself in case someone else swoops off with you!"
"It's not like that, I promise you," she said a little desperately. Ruwalk was making her slightly uncomfortable, and Raseleane was looking at her like she could see right through her.
"What are you talking about? Alfeegi hasn't shut up about you all night!" Ruwalk crooned, and she looked to Lykouleon for help, trying to suppress her blush.
Had Alfeegi really been... No, that wasn't like him at all. More like, Ruwalk had been interrogating Alfeegi about her all night. Yes, that was probably it. Alfeegi was far too practical a man to...
"I believe he was looking for you before," Lykouleon said with a kind smile. "The Teller of Chantel had gotten hold him last I saw, over by the West Balcony."
"Thank you, Your Majesty, I should go find him," she said, bobbing a curtsey and trying to gently extricate herself from Ruwalk's embrace.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" Ruwalk called as she made her escape, and she had to smile.
That gave her a lot of leeway, then.
Three seconds later she had to pinch herself. Really, what was she doing thinking such lewd thoughts about a man who had done nothing to provoke them? Ruwalk was a bad influence on her. Next thing she knew, she'd be dragging Alfeegi off into some dark corner...
She was glad nobody was looking at her to see her blushing.
She had never before been able to actually experience the dinner as a guest, although from the peeks she got from the kitchen, it looked marvellous. At the table, with Alfeegi on one side of her and all her friends around her, it was like something out of a fairy tale.
"Your team have done a spectacular job, Cernozura," Kai-stern said, raising his glass in a toast, and the rest of the table followed.
"Really, you don't need to..." and this time she knew she was not successful at holding back her flush.
"Come on, Cernozura," Alfeegi said unexpectedly, nudging her until she lifted her glass. "Don't you deserve some acknowledgement for your hard work?" he whispered, and it must have been the alcohol that was making her feel so hot and dizzy. She finished her drink rather too quickly; she had better be more cautious or the champagne would go to her head.
"I think dessert is over," Raseleane said. "I believe it is time for some dancing?" On cue, the orchestra struck up, and Lykouleon swept her off to the dance floor.
More and more people were taking to the floor. The orchestra's song was a beautiful one, one of her favourites from her girlhood, a soft, romantic strain, and although she should probably go check in on the kitchens and make sure they were dealing with the clean-up, in her heart she longed to join the dancing couples. Kitchel had managed to coerce even Tetheus into a dance; surely there couldn't be an odder couple than that? It had been such a lovely night already, would it be too much to ask for...
"Would you like to...that is... should we..." Alfeegi stuttered off into a cough which she suspected had nothing to do with a dry throat and more with the nerves that were turning his cheeks faintly pink. He visibly collected himself."Shall we dance, Cernozura?"
"I'd love to," she replied, and Alfeegi looked like he was struggling very hard to keep a relieved smile off his face, and he took his hand in hers. She could feel the warmth of his skin even through her glove as she led him towards the dance floor, and she was sure she must have the silliest smile on her face.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Ruwalk giving her the thumbs-up and a cheeky grin. She couldn't make up her mind whether to laugh or sigh, so she turned so Alfeegi's back would be to Ruwalk. They'd had such a nice night already; she didn't need hangers-on to spoil it.
"I should warn you, I'm not very good at dancing," Alfeegi said, eyeing the dance floor with some trepidation.
"Don't worry, I'll teach you," she reassured him. "Here." She placed his hand on her hip, and drew him in closer. "See, it's easy." She dared alittle more, and stepped in closer so her head was almost resting on his chest.
Alfeegi wasn't much taller than her, but it was nice not to get a crick in her neck from looking up all the time, and his arms were strong and warm. It was easy to let herself drift away into some romantic scenario, like the one in the latest romance she'd read, where the hero and heroine had danced the night away before declaring their love on the balcony, under a black velvet sky of stars like diamonds... and then Alfeegi cleared his throat.
"I'm not very good at this sort of thing, Cernozura, but..." and at that precise moment, Mellie came running into the hall, tears staining her cheeks.
"Oh, Cernozura, it's terrible, Duza is-- she's bleeding all over everything, and--"
She and Alfeegi exchanged understanding looks, and reluctantly she disentangled herself from his hold.
"Calm down, Mellie, and start from the beginning," she said, steering Mellie into towards the scullery door, although she couldn't resist taking a peek back. Alfeegi was watching her, with a strange look on his face.
"I don't know what happened, maybe she dropped a knife or something, but she's bleeding very badly and nobody knows what to do!"
"Don't panic, Mellie, we've been over first aid drills many times," she said as they went through the big double doors. "Get a thick cloth and hold it against the wound until the bleeding slows, and then we'll get Duza up to the infirmary. She'll be fine, I promise."
"Okay," Mellie whispered.
"Cernozura!" Duza said. "Oh, it's only a small cut, I'm sorry the silly girl had to go bother you over it." However, Duza looked a little pale under her healthy tan, and she wavered slightly in the chair one of the maids had brought for her. Her apron was spotted with blood, quite thickly in some places.
"Nonsense," she smiled. "I had to come and make sure you weren't badly hurt, Duza. Now, let me see it."
The cut, crossing the entire width of Duza's palm, was narrow, but quite deep. Cernozura grabbed up a clean washcloth and pressed it against the wound. The cloth was immediately soaked through with red.
"I think you'll need to go up to the infirmary, Duza, this will probably need stitches."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Cernozura," Duza said wretchedly. "I'm spoiling your night, and you look so lovely..."
"It's nothing, don't worry yourself about it," Cernozura said immediately. "Now, can you walk? Come on, lean against me..."
"I'll stain your beautiful dress!" Duza protested.
"A dress is just a dress, but if we don't get you some help soon you might not be able to use that hand," she responded, and bustled Duza out of the scullery as quickly as her portly frame would allow.
Duza had a row of stitches put in her hand, and the matron insisted she go straight to bed. Duza had protested that she still had so much work to do, but with a stern glance from matron and a warning that trying to use her hand would pull out the stitches and spoil all her hard work, she allowed herself to be escorted to her room, somewhat cowed.
That left Cernozura on clean-up duty. Mellie had managed to work matters into a semblance of organization by the time she returned to the kitchens. Someone had mopped up the blood, and maids with high stacks of dishes were flooding in. It was the picture of intense but ordered activity.
"Oh, Cernozura! Is Duza all right?" Mellie rushed over to her, wringing her apron with her hands.
"She's going to be absolutely fine," she reassured her. "They've just sent her up to her room to get some rest and get over the shock, she did lose a bit of blood."
"Oh, that's good, then." Mellie heaved a big sigh of relief. "I think things are mostly fine down here now, we're just bringing all the dishes in."
"You're doing a great job, Mellie," Cernozura said, surveying the kitchens.
"Really?" Mellie's big eyes widened. "Oh, thank you!" and before she had time to think she had an armful of be-aproned maid wet with soap bubbles.
"You do so much for us," Mellie whispered as she hugged her. "You should get back out to the party while you can still enjoy it."
"Well, if you're sure..." and Mellie let her go and gave her a stern look.
"I am very sure, so give me that apron," she commanded, and Cernozura laughed. Her job was in safe hands. Mellie would make an excellent administrator when she had grown up a bit.
The hall had emptied out considerably when she stepped back out. The orchestra had switched to sad, slow folk songs, and most of the people remaining were gravitating towards the big, open fires as the night chill set in, and coffee and biscuits were brought out.
She didn't see her partner anywhere. Maybe he had left early... he would beentired from all the work he'd done in the lead-in to the ball...
"If you are looking for Alfeegi," Lykouleon said gravely, appearing mysteriously for the second time that night and nearly making her jump out of her heels, "I think he has retreated to the balcony for the moment. Ruwalk is, as you can imagine, quite tipsy and I believe may have been giving him a hard time." Lykouleon's mouth twitched as he suppressed the natural urge to smile.
"Understandably," she responded in kind.
"If you have a moment, though, Cernozura," he said quietly, and took her by the elbow to draw her aside from a group of milling dancers.
"Your Majesty, I understand what you're about to say," she said, too quickly, but nerves overran her tongue, "but it's nothing like that... strictly professional, I assure you..."
"I'm not about to admonish you, Cernozura," said Lykouleon, eyes dancing with laughter, and her heart eased slightly. "On the contrary, I think the two of you would make a lovely couple."
She knew she was blushing. It was one thing to protest when it was Ruwalk's drunken insistences, but Lykouleon was another matter. "I'm sorry, then, that it's not the case, Alfeegi isn't--"
"I believe you will find that he is," Lykouleon said thoughtfully, and then gave her a wicked smile. "Of course, he was extremely reluctant to admit it, but I have," a vague hand gesture, "my ways." Lykouleon indicated the balcony doors. "I believe he's waiting for you."
"I--" One look from Lykouleon, and she shut her mouth. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
"I will ensure that you are not disturbed," he said with a twinkle of his eye, and slipped away before she could protest.
She sighed, and turned towards the door that led out onto the balcony. She made herself step forward and open the door. Maybe he wasn't there after all. She pushed on the door tenatively, and it swung open fully to reveal a night sky that took her breath away, studded with pinpricks of light and a gracefully curved moon.
And Alfeegi, leaning over the balcony in a mood she could almost describe as pensive.
"Oh, Cernozura. How did you get on?"
He never seemed to notice that her silk dress was bloodstained, or that her hair was falling out of its fancy coil.
"Everything's sorted out now, thank goodness," she smiled. "And what about you?"
Alfeegi's face instantly turned sour, as if he'd choked on a lemon drop. "My night improved immensely once someone put Ruwalk to bed."
"You, as well? He is very... friendly when he's intoxicated, I must admit."
"One could say that." He seemed to cheer up. "I saved this for you, before they ran out," he said, producing two champagne flutes.
"Thank you, Alfeegi," she said gravely, accepting the glass he proffered. "What shall we toast to?"
"Well, Ithought..." He hesitated, looking down at his glass nervously."Cernozura, I'm not good at romantic matters. Ruwalk is really much better at this than me; I'm too practical to..."
The gentle thudding of her heart sounded very loud in her ears. "Neither am I, Alfeegi, so Ithink we can bypass it this once." She smiled at him, and raised her glass. "I'm not interested in Ruwalk, after all. He can keep his romances."
Alfeegi's smile was like the sun coming up, the first tentative blush of dawn gradually lighting up the sky. "Then." He raised his glass.
"To us," she said, and touched her glass to his.
DISCLAIMER: Dragon Knights belongs to Ohkami Mineko. I claim no ownership and make no profit.