"I understand that it might be a difficult concept to grasp, but I already said no. Now, please leave me alone." The girl pushes past Wylan and disappears into the crowd.
He takes a moment to process what had just happened. He was just joking around. What is her problem? He knew that the people from Asosa were stuck up, but that girl takes the cake. He bites the inside of his cheek as he formulates another plan. He is not going to give up. Plus, he cannot lose another bet.
He walks over to Zehra and Kaz. They are stationed next to the buffet table. Wylan stands next to Kaz and purses his lips. He sees the smug smile on Kazs face from the corner of his eye. Kaz cannot keep his laugh in anymore.
"That was a definitive no," Kaz chuckles. "Looks like you lost the bet." Wylan rolls his eyes. He looks past Kaz at Zehra. She has been snacking nonstop since they arrived here.
"What is up with her?"
"She is stress eating. After each dance with a suitor, she comes back to the buffet to eat," he stops and looks at what she is eating, "mini pickle sandwiches." Wylan grimaces at her as she stuffs another mini sandwich in her mouth. He starts to walk toward Zehra, but Kaz pulls him back.
"Leave her alone. She doesn need your criticism. She is already in a fragile state of mind. Just don ." He knows Wylan and he knows that Zehra would not be able to handle his jokes.
Wylan puts his hands in the air. Zehra moves closer to them and she stuffs another sandwich in her mouth. Wylan stifles a laugh.
"You alright?" Kaz asks worriedly. She smiles with her mouth full and nods her head. She swallows and holds her hand out.
"No way, you are not going to use my handkerchief. I don want it to smell like pickles." Zehra rolls her eyes. She looks at Kaz.
"Please? I can feel the crumbs on my face."
"Maybe if you didn stuff your face with- " Wylan hisses as he feels Kazs elbow digging into his side. Kaz hands Zehra his handkerchief and glares at Wylan. Zehra pats her mouth and looks at Kaz.
"How do I look?" Before Kaz could answer, she is pulled away. Kaz frowns as he watches the suitor lead Zehra to the dance floor. Something is wrong. He did not ask Zehra to dance like the other suitors. Kaz starts to follow them, but Wylan pulls him back.
"Come on, let her have some fun. I saw how you chase some of the other suitors away. Relax."
"But that guy, something is off," Kaz tries to argue.
"He looks like a nice guy," Wylan says and looks at Kaz. He sees his jaw clenching. He quickly changes the subject. "Lets forget about them. You have yet to be seen on the dance floor, so lets go get you a girl." Wylan pulls Kaz away from the buffet table and they head downstairs to the dance floor.
Once they reach the bottom of the stairs, Kaz tries to spot Zehra and the suitor on the dance floor, but there are too many people. He follows Wylan as they walk next to the dance floor.
Kaz accidentally makes eye contact with a girl and she moves closer to him. He starts to panic as he realizes that she wants to dance. He pushes Wylan and forces him to walk faster. Kaz glances over his shoulder to see the offended look on the girls face.
He does not have the strength to deal with girls. Wylan spots that same girl from Asosa and he grins. He stops and Kaz bumps into him.
"What are you doing?" Wylan does not answer. He only points to the girl.
"You think I lost the bet?" Wylan straightens his shoulders. "I am not done yet. So if you would excuse me, I have a girl to sweep off her feet." Wylan walks with confidence and determination toward the girl, leaving Kaz alone.
Kaz stares in disbelief at Wylan. That poor girl. He glances at the dance floor. He should also probably try to sweep a girl off her feet. He might literally.
He walks through the crowd next to the floor, ensuring that he keeps his eyes on the floor. He stops and rests against the wall. The dance floor is filled with dancing couples. They all dance in unison as they imitate the moves they were taught when they were children.
He looks up at the ceiling. Chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. It adds to the romantic atmosphere. The walls are covered with different types of flowers along with candles that are placed between the flowers. That is an accident waiting to happen.
The first floor has fewer decorations than the second, but this is the dance floor. The second floor is where the tables are located and that is also where the parents spend the night.
The Matchmaker is also here somewhere, watching all the participants. A girl appears next to him. She smiles politely at him as she takes a spot next to him against the wall. He looks away and lets out a heavy sigh. He turns back to her and holds his hand out to her.
"Care to dance?" he asks with a forced smile. The girl pretends to be surprised. She giggles and turns her face away. He raises a brow. Does she really think that she is that smooth? She planned this. He will give her credit for her acting.
She curtsies and places her hand in his. He leads her to the dance floor and they fall in with the other couples.
Zehras eyes fall on the hand that grips her arm. Her eyes travel up from the hand to the shoulder and finally fall onto brown curls. The suitor leads her down the stairs and finally stops on the dance floor. He spins around to face her.
Her stomach drops when she recognizes his face. His free hand slithers around her middle and the other positions their hands in the air. Her heart races and she tries to wriggle herself out of his grip. He smirks and pulls her closer.
They start to sway along with the music. Why did it have to be a slower song? This means that they will not switch partners. She is stuck with him for a whole song. She has to find a way out.
"Lady Zehra. You look ravishing," his breath falls on her ear and she shudders with disgust.
"Lord Tybalt," she says with pursed lips, looking for an escape.
"I have been looking for you." Zehra tries to break loose, but he only pulls her closer, his hand pressing harder into her side. She tries to push him away, but he is stronger than she thought. "You know that we will end up together. It is inevitable," he twirls her.
She attempts another escape, but his grip on her hand is tight. He pulls her even closer than before "Our paths have been intertwined since the beginning. Combining our houses would make this whole kingdom, including our home, so much more powerful.
"You know that will never happen," Zehra says out of breath, panic clear in her voice. She has been avoiding him. Why did he have to be here? Her eyes dart around. If she could just find an opening.
"Do not doubt it, Zehra. I will have you," he kisses her on her cheek.
"Please, Tybalt. Just let me go," she pleads. He dismisses her and places his hand on her cheek. He leans closer and whispers in her ear.
"Stop pretending. I know you like me too. You don have to act anymore. We could be the first official couple." Zehra struggles to breathe. He moves in for a kiss. Zehra squirms backward, but he has her locked in.
Suddenly she is pulled back and before she could process what happened, a fist flies past her. Tybalt stumbles backward, holding his nose. Blood starts to drip from his hands.
Arms wrap around Zehras shoulders and lead her away from him. They walk up the stairs. Zehra looks to her side and sees Amara guiding her. Amara sits Zehra down at an empty table.
"Are you all right?" Amara asks quietly. Zehra is trying to catch her breath before she speaks, but no words come out of her mouth. She looks at Amara with tears in her eyes.
"I got you, don worry. He is gone." Amara hugs Zehra and Zehra tightens her arms around Amara. "Where is Kaz?" Amara asks as she looks around.
"I-I do not know," Zehra tries to pull herself together. She closes her eyes and focuses on her breaths. She hears Amara calling someone over. She opens her eyes and sees a tall figure hovering over her.
"Do you want to go to your cabin?" Amara rubs Zehras arm. Zehra does not want to return to her cabin, but Tybalt did throw her off of her game. Actually, it would not matter if she did return to her cabin. She had spent most of her night on the dance floor. Her mother will be proud of all the possible suitors that she acquired throughout the night. She nods her head.
"This is Lord Callian. He will take you back to your cabin if it is fine with you. I would, but the Queen is not going to allow me. I have been neglecting my duties on the dance floor, so she wants to see more of my," Amara does something funny with her feet, "impressive dance moves." Zehra cannot help the giggle that escapes her lips. "He is a friend, so you have nothing to worry about. He will take care of you."
The boy holds his hand out. Zehra smiles at Amara and takes his hand. He helps her up and they head toward the exit.
Amara watches them head to the exit from the second floor. When they reach the exit, Zehra waves to her, and Callian bows his head. Amara smiles and waves back. Amara disappears and the boy, Callian, gestures for them to keep going. Zehra makes a mental reminder to thank Amara when she sees her tomorrow.
Amara runs down the stairs and swiftly makes her way through the crowd. She cannot stay a minute longer. She is going to go mad. She passes Wylan, who is talking to a girl. He notices her and she gives him a thumbs-up when she sees who it is. It is the same girl that he has been pestering all night.
Amara tries to remember her name. Something like Ashley or Aylin. Something like that. Lady Ashlin of Asosa, she remembers. She was the girl in front of Zehra at the matchmaking ceremony.
Someone bumps into her and almost knocks her to the ground. She regains her balance and spins around.
"Amara, where have you been?" Marcus asks. He starts dragging her to the dance floor. "We are going to dance. The Queen is not happy." Amara twists out of his hold.
"I have to catch some fresh air," she says and steps out of reach. Marcus lets out a frustrated sigh as she runs off.
"Amara," he calls, but she is gone. He feels a tap on his shoulder and glares over his shoulder. The girl blushes and does not even realize Marcuss glare. He gives a wry smile as he is aware of what the girl wants.
"Do you want to dance?" he asks for the millionth time tonight. The girl curtsies and takes his hand. He starts to move along with the music. She steps on his foot and he winces. She mumbles an apology.
Marcus searches through the dancing pairs. His feet are aching. He danced with most of the girls here, except for one in particular. He has been searching for Zehra since the ball started.
When the girl steps on his foot for the third time, he excuses himself. He walks off, leaving the poor girl alone on the floor. She calls after him, but he does not hear her. Right now, the only thing he cares about is finding Zehra. He must dance with her before the end of the ball. He stalks around the dance floor, but he does not see her. She has to be here, somewhere.
Kaz exits the second floor onto the balcony. He is looking for a quiet and peaceful place to escape to. Quite a few people are chattering on the balcony. He focuses his eyes on the ground to avoid any small talk. He turns around a corner.
There is no one in sight and it is quiet. The wind blows softly as he walks to the edge of the balcony. He rests his elbows on the top of the railing as he looks down at the grass.
They are two stories up, but it does not look that high. Not high enough anyway. He inhales the fresh air. There are not many trees back home so the forest gives him a feeling of peace. It is not a feeling that he experiences often.
"What are you doing here?" a voice calls out from next to him. He nearly falls over the railing, but a hand plucks him back. "Sorry, I did not mean to scare you." He recognizes the voice. Amaras hand still rests on his arm when he turns to her. He shakes it off.
"I did not see you here. When did you arrive?" he straightens his jacket.
"Oh, I was over there," she gestures to a dark spot in the corner of the balcony.
"Well, you were here first, so I will leave," he bows his head and proceeds to walk back. He does not have the strength for her. Amara watches as he disappears around the corner. When he is out of sight, she tears off her shoes. She gets up onto the railing with the heels in her hand.
Kaz pivots back as he remembered that Marcus wants to know where Zehra is. When he rounds the corner, he freezes. Amara is gone. Where could she have gone? His heart starts to race. She wouldn , would she?
He hurries to the railing and peeks over. All blood races from his face. The black dress looks like a stain on the grass. He tries to call for help, but the wind blows his words away. He stares in shock. He thought it was not high enough. Why did she just jump? Here of all places. He tries to wrap his head around what had happened.
He is about to call for help again, but he hears a muffled sound. He listens carefully. It sounds like . . . Laughter. The dress turns around. The laughter is louder and more vibrant.
"Amara!" he yells. His heartbeat returns to normal when he sees her standing up. "Are you alive?" he asks foolishly, already knowing the answer. Amara laughs even louder when she sees Kazs face.
"I am fine," she answers out of breath. " I did not think it was that high." She dusts the grass from her dress. She starts to limp away.
"Where are you going?" Kaz asks as he knows that Marcus always worries about where Amara is. She keeps on limping further.
"Anywhere but here," she shrugs.
"What should I tell Marcus if he asks?"
"Nothing. You didn see anything," she jokes and looks back. She sees that look on Kazs face and figures that he cannot lie to save his life. He is going to tell Marcus.
"Snitches end up in ditches," she says, trying to intimidate Kaz. He scoffs and looks at her unfazed.
"Fine, I am going home," she says annoyed. He is no fun at all. Amara limps further until she is out of Kazs sight. He shakes his head in disbelief. She is crazy. There is no other explanation. Completely mad. He is still in shock as he heads back to the ballroom.
Once he enters the ballroom, he heads downstairs to the dance floor. He leans against the wall once again. His eyes roam the floor. He laughs to himself when he sees Wylan still trying to convince the girl. The dance floor is starting to clear up. There are about seven couples left. Marcus walks past him but stops abruptly when Marcus sees Kaz.
"Where is- " Marcus begins, but Kaz interrupts him.
"Home," Kaz sees his mother going over to Wylan. His mothers head swings to the side and Kaz hides behind Marcus.
"When did she- "
"Just now," Kazs mother did not notice him. He comes out from behind Marcus. Marcus arches a brow. He did not see her exit the room.
"She jumped from the balcony," Kaz says as his eyes stay on his mother. Marcus mouth falls open. She has always been reckless, so this is no surprise. Marcus tilts his head as he realizes that it is too early for Amara to head home. She lied to Kaz.
He throws his head back in frustration. He heard that there is a feast tonight at the town square. She is either at the feast or her hideout. The ball is almost over, so he has to find her before his mother gets home. He cannot be in two places at once. He looks at Kaz.
"Kaz, can you help me? I have to find Amara before the ball is over." He looks at Kaz with pleading eyes.
"She went home," Kaz repeats. Did Marcus not hear him?
"She lied. Just please, will you help me find her?" Kaz looks at his mother. He knows that he should also be heading back to the cabin, like Wylan. That would be the responsible thing to do. He sighs loudly.
"Yes, no problem." Perhaps his mother will be asleep by the time he arrives home.
Kaz treads down the hill towards the town. As he gets closer, he can hear the hum of music. He and Marcus had decided to split up to cover more ground. When he reaches the town square, the scent of alcohol floats through the air. It is more lively than the ball.
The square is filled with the people of the town and a circle is formed in the middle. The square is brightly lit with lanterns that decorate the trees and ground around the square. He walks around the circle as he searches for Amara. He recognizes a black dress that flies past him.
He sees Amara, but she looks different. Her dress is torn at the bottom to make it shorter and one of the sleeves is ripped off. She dances along with the towns people as they go around in the circle. When she reaches Kaz, he pulls her out.
"Amara, what are you doing here?" As she stands in front of him, he can now properly see how bad she looks. Sweat drips from her forehead and the tips of her hair are wet.
"I can ask you the same," she says out of breath and blows a strand of hair out of her face.
"You have to come back. The ball is almost over and you have to get home before the Queen does." He looks down and sees that she is barefoot. People of their ranking are not allowed to be seen without shoes. Amara is breaking every rule and she does not appear to be bothered. "Come, we do not have a lot of time." He starts to head back, but she catches his arm.
"No way, Im not going back. Not yet, anyway." She looks back at the circle. More people have joined the circle. "No," she whispers again and Kaz can smell the alcohol on her breath.
"This is not how a princess should act!" he scolds and pulls his arm from her hand. How can she not worry about what people will say about her? What will the King and Queen think about her? How is she this calm? Maybe it is the alcohol.
"I am not a princess!" Kaz sees a spark of defiance in her eyes. Perhaps it is not the alcohol. He glances at the bottle in her hand. Her empty hand shoots out toward him.
"Do you want to dance?" He looks at her and shakes his head. She shrugs and places the bottle of alcohol in his hand. She falls back into the circle. He stares at the bottle. His mother would never approve. How will she react if he comes home drunk? He winces at the thought.
He hears a laugh and sees Amara doing a funny move, which earns more laughter. They are not supposed to mix with peasants. Amara is truly breaking all the rules. He watches her dance on his way to the benches.
He sits on one of the empty benches, the bottle still in his hand. He knows that he is not going to be able to convince her to go back. And she is not going home soon, so he might as well just return home.
He looks at Amara. She did not dance like that at the ball. She seems . . . free. He wonders what that must feel like. The bottle is heavy in his hand and he lets his head fall back. He cannot let his mother down. He cannot go home drunk. But then again, it does not matter what he does. He is already a disappointment, so he might as well start acting like one.
He closes his eyes. Tears burn in his eyes. He lifts the bottle to his lips.
Without giving it a second thought, he takes a swig from the bottle. He feels the familiar burn down his throat. A tear rolls down his cheek. What will his mother say?
* * *
"Kaz! Kaz! Wake up!" A voice rings through his ears. He groans and forces his eyes open. He winces as he sits up.
"Kaz, come on man!" He sees two blurry figures standing in front of him. He blinks a few times. Marcus shakes him and calls his name again.
"Come on. We have to get back," Marcus urges him. Kaz looks around and notices that they are the only ones left in the square. He gasps loudly.
"Where is everyone?" he asks. He stands up but plummets back on the chair. Marcus sighs in frustration and helps Kaz onto his feet.
"Everyone went home." Amara stifles a laugh when she sees his condition. He looks good, considering how much he drank. He can take his alcohol.
Kaz cannot believe he fell asleep. He darts over the square towards the hill. His mother is going to kill him. His chest tightens and he struggles to breathe. Marcus and Amara catch up to him.
"Easy buddy, you were out for a good while," Marcus throws his arm under Kaz and steadies him. They trudge up the hill and when they reach Kazs cabin, they hear voices. They duck behind a tree and Kaz slides down the tree. It is his mother and father.
"I told you that he was not ready," his father argues.
"Nonsense, he is 17. It is because you always baby him. He is a grown man. Stop making excuses for him." The anger is clear in her voice.
"We need to sneak you in," Amara whispers. Kaz looks at her, despair in his eyes.
"They already know that I am not here. They will know that I snuck in." He prepares himself for the wrath he is about to face.
"Just throw some cold water in the bath and pretend to be asleep. Trust me. And as for the distraction . . . I got that covered. Just wait for my signal," she winks and starts to crawl away. Marcus smiles encouragingly at her and then he looks back at Kaz.
"Ready?" Marcus takes Kazs arm and they wait for Amara.
"What signal?" Kaz asks and Marcus smirks. For a moment, there is complete silence.
Suddenly loud thump followed by a shriek can be heard. Kaz cannot believe his eyes. Amara has flung herself down the small hill in front of their cabin. Kazs parents run down the hill. Amara screams again.
"That is the signal." Kaz and Marcus hurry towards the cabin.
"Oh dear, what happened?" Kazs mother tries to help Amara up, but Amara sobs when the Duchess tries to touch Amaras leg.
"I will get some bandages," Kazs father stands up, but Amara grabs his hand. She shakes her head.
"I will be fine. I just need to get to the castle." She pretends to wince as she stands up. "It is not that far. Just over there," she points to where the castle is, behind a few trees.
"The Duke will take you," the Duchess says and starts to walk back. Amara panics. She needs to think fast. She places all her weight on the Duke, which leads to the Duke falling over. The Duchess looks back and sees Amara and the Duke struggling on the ground. Amara holds onto the Dukes leg, wailing in pain.
She can only imagine how this must look. Marcus is never going to let her live this down. The Duchess runs back to help her up along with the Duke. Amara limps with her arms over the shoulders of the Duke and Duchess.
She looks over her shoulder and sees Marcus and Kaz racing inside. She suppresses a giggle and fakes another cry of pain. This has to work.
"She is crazy," Kaz chuckles. Marcus opens the door and ushers Kaz inside. They shuffle to the bathing room.
"Yes, she is." Marcus grins. He gathers a few buckets and goes to the kitchen. While Marcus is out, Kaz steadies himself against the wall. This plan must work. What was he even thinking? He can normally drink a lot of alcohol before he passes out, so what happened? Maybe it was stronger alcohol.
He slams his hand against the wall. He did not eat all today, that is why. He hears footsteps and he crouches. It cannot be his parents. The castle is not that close to the cabin. He holds his breath.
"Kaz? I got the water," Marcus throws the water into the bath.
"Thank you. You did not have to do this. I owe you," he sighs. The water looks freezing, but if he does not want to get into any trouble, he has to do this. Marcus pats him on the shoulder.
"Get in and pretend to be asleep. I will do the rest." Kaz smiles at Marcus.
"Where did you learn to do all this?" Kaz asks.
"Amara used to come home drunk regularly. She always came up with a plan to avoid getting into trouble. Eventually, she ran out of ideas and got caught." Marcus smiles at the memory.
Marcus bows his head and hurries to the door. Kaz undresses and shivers when the cold air touches his bare skin. He places his foot into the water and groans. It is freezing. He forces himself into the bath and his breath catches in his throat. He closes his eyes, but the cold water prevents him from dozing off.
"I cannot believe that she is drunk! She is a princess and that is not how a princess should act." Kazs mother scoffs when they return to the cabin. The Duke agrees. Before they could open the door, Marcus interrupts the Duchess ramble.
"Good evening, Your grace," he addresses them.
"Your highness," they both say in unison as they bow.
"Have you seen Kaz?" Marcus asks and they both shake their heads.
"He did not come home after the ball." There is bitterness in the Duchess voice.
"That is strange because he did not feel well and said that he was going home." Marcus bows his head. "Sorry to have disturbed you," he apologizes. He leaves and heads to the castle. The Duke looks at the Duchess and she shrugs.
Once they are inside, Kazs mother still has a scornful look on her face. Where could he possibly be? He cannot get sick now. She flounces toward Kazs room, but he is not there.
When she walks by Wylans room, she stops and listens. She hears a soft snore. Even Wylan, who is the most irresponsible person that she knows, is in bed, but Kaz is not.
If she could have her way, Wylan would become the next Duke of Broadburg. She does not even have to question if Zehra is in her room. She smiles proudly when she passes Zehras room. The fairest maiden. She would be a better princess than that drunk bastard.
She still cannot believe that Amara would get drunk on an evening like tonight. Now she understands why Queen Maeve hates Amara because she would too. She has no pride or honor.
When Kazs mother passes the bathing room, she pauses. She hears the faint whooshing of water. Could it be? She presses against the door. Kaz is fast asleep. She creeps closer and places her hand in the water. It is freezing. How long has he been here?
"Kaz?" she whispers. He does not stir. "Kaz," she says louder and he slowly opens his eyes.
"Have you been here all this time?" Kaz pretends to be confused. He frowns as he notices that she looks worried. Is it possible that she was really worried? She hands him a towel and he climbs out. "I thought you were . . . " She shakes her head. "I am just glad that you are fine." She helps him to his room.
Kaz hates this. He hates this feeling. He is lying to her. She was anxious about where he was and now he is betraying her. He hangs his head. When he opens the door to his room, she lifts her hand to his forehead.
"I am fine, Mother. I felt sick at the ball. I did not want to bother you so I just came back home. I must have fallen asleep," he mumbles. He hates lying to his mother. He looks into her eyes. She pulls him into a hug.
"I am sorry about today. You know how much pressure there is on us, as parents. I just want you to succeed."
"I understand." She turns her back to him.
"I love you," she says as she leaves his room, closing the door behind her. Kaz drops onto the bed. He feels terrible. How could he lie to his mother like that? She does care about him, but he has let her down. She only wants the best for him.
He has to be better. He must try to do better for her. He cannot let her down again. She did not say anything about the ball or how he failed to get the attention of any of the girls. She must know that he did his best. She just wants him to succeed and be the best. From tomorrow on he will do better.