The Harvest Festival was always held during a full moon, and tonight, the Silver Lady was bright enough for Vera to find her way to the festivities without additional illumination. Soon, she was amongst the dancers; swirling, mingling, drawing close enough to feel one another’s breath before parting once again. The stringed instruments sang sweet serenades, while the big, wooden drums pounded with all the depth and need of a lover’s pulse. Vera’s breath rose and fell with her steps, and she was acutely aware of the cool night air on her skin and the beating of her own heart. She was dressed in her finest dress, made to rise and flutter with her every movement, and already she had caught the eye of more than one attractive young man.
In years past, this would have been more than enough. She would have lost herself in the dancing, partaken only lightly of the sweet food and bitter wine, applauded as the king and prince chose their evening partners, and then disappeared amongst the jubilant crowd. In years past, she would have come home exhausted but thrilled, too excited to sleep. But not this year. This year, she had come for a bigger prize.
While others danced for enjoyment, Vera danced to impress the prince; as she spun, her dress revealed an ample view of her thighs, and always she searched to make eye contact, to catch a smile, to give just the right glance. Several times she was sure that he noticed her, but as the night wore on, it became clear that she had more than one rival for his attentions.
Too soon, it seemed, the dancing was over and the king ascended his raised dias, surrounded as always by a small retinue of servants and armed guards. Vera struggled for a spot near the front, where she could be seen, and where she would be able to hear the announcements, but no one was willing to budge in any direction other than forward. Exasperated, she gave up on pushing her way through and moved towards the outer ring of the crowd.
A large man grabbed her by the arm, and instinctively she tried to wrench free of his grasp; doing so twisted her arm painfully but failed to pull it free. Panicked, she turned to face her attacker, and was stunned to see the livery of the palace guards. “Vera Rhineheart?” the guard asked. She nodded, and as she did, she heard her name once more, this time from further away. The king was announcing her name.
Vera felt dizzy as she was led towards the dias, and she stumbled, stepping on the hem of her beautiful dress and muddying it. The king had called her name. Not the prince, but the king. He had done the unthinkable and chosen Vera over his own notoriously jealous wife. The servant pulled her forward through the crowd, relentless, even when she stumbled. The mass of people parted, and now Vera could see the king stepping down from his dias, and the prince replacing him in order to make his own choice. Dimly, she saw the cold glare of the queen--a look that promised death, if not worse--and heard the shocked mutterings of the crowd. The air suddenly seemed much too cool, and the pace of the guard much too fast. She tried to pull her arm free, tried to protest, but the guard refused to look down at her, much less respond to her increasingly panicked pleas. She was pulled alongside the dias, past a line of guards, and to stand before the king. A heavy hand on her shoulder pushed her downward--trying, she realized later, to force her to curtsey--but in her stupor, Vera fell to her knees. The king eyed her much the way Achossebein had. "Clean her up," he said. "Get her ready for dinner." The guards closed in around her, blocking her view of the royal family. Once again, she was grabbed roughly by the arm and lead away by a man who refused to meet her eyes.
Vera tried to compose herself and come along with dignity, but a sickly sweet nausea was spreading inside her, causing her limbs to shake and threatening to make her vomit. She stared at the back of the guard in front of her and focused on placing one foot in front of the other, until she was unceremoniously deposited in the carriage that would deliver her to the palace.