Outside it was raining steadily, covering the city with a fine grey mist.
“It’s no good looking at me like that, Mmrr,” Danae told her rather bedraggled looking cat. “If you wanted to have your kittens somewhere warm and dry you should have stayed indoors instead of heading out to the stables. If Bevier hadn’t arrived when he did, you’d have had to spend the night there.”
“Uh, Princess?” Sir Bevier held his neck and shoulders stiffly as he tried to stop the kittens slipping off his armour. “Where did you want the kittens?”
“There’s a basket over there,” Danae gestured vaguely behind her, most of her attention focussed on rubbing a furious Mmrr down with a towel.
With some relief, Bevier spotted the basket next to the fire and gently deposited his quivering bundle, thankful that none of the five had managed to go down his neck. Mmrr promptly broke free of her mistress’s ministrations and launched herself at the basket, oblivious to her kittens’ squeals as the basket almost tipped into the fire. After establishing for herself that none of her babies were any the worse for their little trip upstairs, she curled her body protectively around them and stared steadily at the two humans, tail twitching behind her.
Ehlana, pretty as ever in a pale yellow dress just a shade darker than her own hair, walked into the room and smiled up at the dark haired knight. “How lovely to see you again! But I thought we weren’t expecting you until tomorrow?”
“Your Majesty,” Bevier dropped to one knee to greet his queen. “I had a message to deliver to Sparhawk so I decided to save the messenger and come myself.”
Ehlana laughed at him fondly and shook her head. “Do get up Bevier, after all these years you know you don’t need to kneel to me.”
“To look at you no one would think so much as a day had passed since we first met.”
Danae looked on with interest. “Can I train all the knights to do that when I’m queen do you think?”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Sparhawk said dryly, following behind his wife. “Bevier, it’s good to see you. The message isn’t too urgent I trust?”
“Nothing Earth-shattering but as I was coming anyway, I thought I may as well be the one to bring it. It can wait until the others get here anyway.”
Sparhawk nodded his agreement. “We’ll probably have a meeting tomorrow then, if that’s ok with you.”
“You have to get the boring stuff out of the way in the morning,” Danae told them firmly. “I’m expecting you all to be at my parties later.”
Bevier smiled gently. “Of course, Princess. We wouldn’t miss your first grown-up party, we’ll certainly be finished by then.”
Danae frowned. “You have to be at both my parties, not just the evening one.”
“Yes, my last party as a child and then my first as a young woman. You wouldn’t want to miss my last child’s party, would you Sir Bevier?” Danae smiled at him sweetly.
The following morning, once the important messages had been exchanged, the meeting swiftly turned into a general free-for-all as everyone tried to find out everything they’d missed from the past year.
Danae sat on the floor with her cats, her sharp ears keeping track of everything going on around her. At fourteen/ fifteen years old, the young princess was all too aware of her impending adulthood, and the resulting need to find new ways of getting people to do what she wanted, as apparently she couldn’t just jump on their laps and smother them with kisses. Although really, she had a feeling the knights and male courtiers at least wouldn’t complain if she carried on as she was. Humans and their ideas of courting were deeply confusing sometimes.
A knock at the door momentarily stilled the conversation as they all looked up to see the new arrivals.
“Sephrenia!” Danae squealed and flung herself on the older woman, covering her in kisses and forcing her into the nearest chair.
Alean looked at the young princess meaningfully. “Danae, do you remember what we discussed about appropriate behaviour for a young woman?”
Danae, comfortably secured on Sephrenia’s lap, stuck her tongue out in response. “I’m not officially fifteen until mother declares me an adult at my party this evening. So technically I’m still a child until the end of the afternoon. Isn’t that right, Father?”
Sparhawk shrugged. “If you say so. I’m not sure it makes much difference but if that’s how you want to think of it, feel free.”
Danae smiled smugly.
Reluctantly Danae had to concede that her cats’ tea party was not going particularly well. Mmrr had learnt over the years that doing as her mistress told her was by far the quickest route to peace, a spot by the fire and a comfortable lap to sit in and be stroked. Her kittens were too small still to cause any problems and Talen had promised to keep an eye on them when Danae was playing with her friends.
The problem was that apparently other fourteen and fifteen-year-old girls didn’t have nearly as much control over their cats as Danae did. Cat fights were loud, as it turned out, and knights’ surcoats and armour not nearly as kitten-proof as you’d think. Privately Danae had found the site of Bevier twisting around trying to stop one of the cats from climbing up his surcoat pretty funny but judging by the frozen expression on his face as he saw the tears in his previously pristine white cloak, he had been less amused. The armour was more resilient but the sound of claws scratching at a knight’s breastplate made all Danae’s nerves stand on end, and it looked as though she wasn’t the only one. Of course if she had had her way, the knights wouldn’t have been wearing armour in the first place and there would be fairies here to corral and distract the cats when necessary, but the Earl of Lenda had insisted on the formality for the adults and Sparhawk had put his foot down over the fairies. He really was quite irrational about them.
Catching sight of Sephrenia standing in the corner of the room, Danae quickly went over to join her.
“Aphrael,” Sephrenia said, a look that wasn’t quite a frown hovering around her eyes, “Why are we at a cats’ tea party?”
Danae pouted at her sister. “This is the kind of thing Elene children do, isn’t it? It’s the logical extension of playing with cats, dressing them up, treating them as dolls. It’s supposed to be fun. Childish fun.”
Sephrenia shuddered delicately. “Don’t use logic that way, dear one. It makes me queasy.”
“I wanted a child’s birthday party before the big formal thing this evening. I’m growing up, Sephrenia. I won’t be allowed to do this next year.”
“Do you really want to do it this year? Surely there were other ways to have a child’s birthday party that didn’t involve quite so much in the way of screeching animals.”
“Sparhawk still won’t let me have a pet whale.”
Sephrenia raised her eyebrows. “So you thought a roomful of cats would persuade him a whale was less trouble?”
“Be nice,” Danae chided. “I’m not going to be a child for a while now, so before I stopped I wanted to throw a party that nobody had done before.” She made a face. “Apparently there’s a reason for that.”
Sephrenia laughed. “People don’t just suddenly stop being children, Aphrael. Growing up is a gradual process.”
“It’s easier to manage if I work it into stages. Elenes pay more attention to these things than Styrics do. They might notice if I decide to just stop growing or act like a 6-year-old for a few months.”
“I’m sure you’ll manage. You know enough about court behaviour to make sure you never stray too far out of line anyway.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Danae grumbled.
“No, but as the official birthday girl, you do have to mingle with the guests at your own party. Come on, dear one, let Talen look after your cats for a bit and let’s go find Vanion.”
Linking arms, the two women set off again across the room.
“... and so, while I cherish her and hold her dear to me in the echoing chambers of my heart, I say tonight that Danae of Elenia is not to be celebrated because she is my daughter, my heir or my confidante, but because from this moment there will be no one more special or more worthy of being your future queen!”
As cheers rang out and people raised their glasses all over the hall, Kalten leant across to Sparhawk. “She likes to make speeches your wife, doesn’t she?”
Sparhawk grunted. “It saves me doing it.”
Bevier smiled. It had been a stirring speech, certainly; Ehlana was a good speaker. Looking out across the hall, he considered that the whole evening was going incredibly smoothly. The hall looked beautiful, decorated sparingly in silver and white, with bunting hung symmetrically across the walls, and the silver and white candles placed at regular intervals on the tables and window ledges bathed everything in a gentle, golden light. Ehlana herself was resplendent in a floor-length silver gown which contrasted pleasingly with her hair and eyes, making her look almost ethereal in the candlelight. Danae wore a slightly shorter and simpler version of her mother’s dress in plain white, and if the gown looked closer to the Styric gowns that Sephrenia often wore than it did to the gowns the most fashionable ladies at court customarily flaunted, then nobody seemed to notice and it at least looked suitable for a young girl at her first ball. There had been a few grumbles that the main meat course was lamb instead of pork but these were soon quieted when people actually started eating.
Sat between her mother and father, just close enough to Sephrenia to be able to catch her eye now and again, Danae found herself to be surprisingly at ease. Growing up might not be all fun, but humans managed it all the time so it couldn’t be that hard. Besides, there were compensations: she’d always wondered what an Elene court ball was like for one thing and she could start involving herself properly in politics now without being told she was too young to understand. Maybe she ought to start dropping hints about marrying Talen as well, although perhaps that could wait a bit while she tried out this flirting thing she’d heard about. According to Baroness Melidere, a girl could get all sorts of things done by flirting in the right way with boys. Maybe she could persuade someone to teach her flirting instead of sewing now she was apparently an adult; getting her own way was surely more important than darning.
As the meal drew to a close and the music started up, Danae watched as people began to pair off around the room. So intent was she on watching Berit across the other side of the room (there was something romantic going on with him, she was sure of it, but she couldn’t quite work out who he had his eye on) that she almost didn’t notice the young man approaching her.
“Princess Danae,” the young man said formally. “May I have the honour of your first dance?” Then he grinned. “I promise I’ll try not to step on your toes- Stragen’s been teaching me.”
Talen never really changed.