After the last guest had said goodnight and left, Nanny tried to hustle the princess to bed. "You will have good dreams tonight, I think," she said, her plump cheeks flushed with excitement, her small dark eyes glowing. "So many handsome young men! I think there was at least one that you liked, yes?"
There was, Allura thought rather dreamily, but he hadn't been one of the invited guests.
"There were times," Nanny confessed, "when I did not think that I would live to see you married. But now… What did you think of the young Count of Alterra? Such good manners! And I am told…"
Allura was only half-aware of her old nurse's babbling. She was dizzy from the wine and from being twirled about the dance floor by so many partners. So many. And they'd all been rather handsome and well mannered. The Count of Alterra? She knew they'd shared a dance and probably a light-hearted conversation, but she couldn't recall his face.
At the ballroom's great double doors, she balked suddenly, nearly tripping Nanny.
"Oh, my dear – is everything all right? Are you well?"
"Perfectly," said Allura. "I'm just not ready for bed."
"But it is after midnight. And you must be so tired."
"You'd think. I probably am tired. But I don't feel it. I'll go to bed when I do, I promise, but for now… I'd like to stay here a little longer. But you should go to bed, Nanny dear."
Nanny opened her mouth to protest, but Allura pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows. It was a trick she'd learned from watching Corran, and it usually worked.
"Very well," Nanny said reluctantly, and reached up to pat her cheek with a big, callused hand. "But come to bed soon. You don't want bags under your pretty eyes."
Allura waited until Nanny had disappeared down the corridor. Then she turned back to the ballroom. To her surprise it seemed smaller now that it was empty. She wondered why that was. The candles had melted to fat stumps. In the flickering light of the few remaining flames, the abandoned goblets and gold serving platters looked like ancient relics. Allura ran her fingertip around the rim of one of the goblets, half-expecting dust.
Oh, she was tired. Her feet ached. Her jaws ached from smiling. She longed to kick off her shoes, to unpin her hair, and flop into bed. But she wasn't ready. Something was supposed to happen this evening. She didn't know what it was, only that it hadn't happened yet and she couldn't go to bed until it did. Earlier, when she'd first become aware of her unease, she'd told Lance because he'd been close by.
"What?" he'd laughed at her perplexity. "Zarkon's dead, Lotor's in prison. D'you think one of your guests is really a robeast? Relax, Princess. We won the war. It's okay to have fun. So, go. Have fun. Find your true love. Just remember," he added with a wink, "don't think that just because a guy doesn't have his own planet, he can't be the one. Pilots make good lovers – or so I'm told."
Having discovered some time ago that the Look was as effective with Lance as it was with Nanny, she'd pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows. With a shrug that told her there were no hard feelings, he'd pivoted on his heel and sauntered off – to make his case, perhaps, to one of her maids.
Maybe I'm being silly, Allura thought as she moved idly about the ballroom. Maybe it's all in my head.
A faint sound drew her attention to the floor. One of the lavender space mice was scurrying toward her, its paws gripping the sides of what appeared to be a tiny bowl. Allura knelt. "What, what's this? What have you brought me, little friend?"
The mouse stopped about a foot away, and held the bowl toward her. It was filled with an amber-colored liquid. "The last of the Baktrian mead? Why, how thoughtful. But are you sure you and your friends don't want it?"
The mouse shook its head.
"All right." The mead slid sweetly over her tongue, and burned as it went down. "Thank you."
The mouse gave a delighted squeal, then turned, and with a flick of its long tail, scampered off across the polished floor. Allura smiled after it, recalling the balls her parents had held in the days before Zarkon. She'd been too young to attend, but the mice had stolen sweets and even little cups of wine and brought them to her bedroom. How lovely that they'd remembered!
From the shadowed entrance, Keith said, "Should I offer congratulations?"
Allura was startled. "For – for what?" she stammered. Brightly, as she rose: "Surviving my first royal ball?"
He stepped into the dimly lit ballroom. He had obviously been out riding in the Black Lion; he wore his flight suit, and he had his helmet tucked under his arm. He was smiling, though not broadly, and his dark eyes were quite serious. "Have you chosen a suitor?"
"Oh." Allura flushed. Abruptly she couldn't think, never mind speak.
Several moments passed. He kept looking at her, his manner perfectly detached. She, on the other hand, was fidgeting. Her fingers moved over imaginary creases in her skirts and her feet would not be still. A bead of sweat rolled down her cheek and neck to land between her breasts. She felt trapped suddenly inside the tight bodice of her dress, under the tangle of skirts, the sculpted hair. Help me, Keith. Help me out of this. It's crushing me.
At length, seemingly unaware of her distress, he said, "Though I suppose if you had chosen a suitor, Nanny would be here waving flags and ringing bells."
She sucked air into her lungs and let it out slowly. Had she really ever thought this dress was pretty? The bodice was a cage for her heart, a fist squeezing the breath out of her. Another drop of sweat slid down her body, tickling her belly as it went. Another followed it, then another. They all pooled in the same place, between her legs, where it was suddenly so hot, where it throbbed. She had to get out of these clothes.
"Allura?" Now he sounded concerned. Now he set his helmet down and hurried toward her, his thick black eyebrows pinched together over the high bridge of his nose. "Allura, you're trembling. Are you ill? Shall I call Nanny?" He reached for her.
She grasped his hands and all but threw herself into his arms. His flight suit was cool, hard. But his hair was so soft. She plunged her hands into it, grabbed fistfuls and pulled, forcing his mouth down to hers.
His arms hung uselessly at his sides, but at least he didn't try to pull away. He simply stood there, his jaw clenched, his heart hammering.
"What?" she demanded, kissing his chin, his neck, the smooth skin behind his ears. "Kiss me back, Keith. Please."
"Allura – Princess – this is wrong. You're – you're overtired. You're ill. Too much sugar, too much wine. Maybe you think I'm someone else."
"I know who you are. Keith." She stepped back ever so slightly, and gave him the Look.
He sighed. "Princess."
"What? You don't think that I know what I want by now? I'm not a child. I'm a fighter, same as you. You trust my judgment when we're fighting robeasts. Why not now?" She went on before he could answer. "I've seen what the galaxy has to offer in the way of suitable matches. And. I'm not interested. In them, I mean. I don't know what's come over me, what's making me say this. Do this. But…" She lowered her lashes, unaccountably shy. "I've wanted to do this for so long. Almost since I first met you. Definitely since you and the other pilots drew cards to see who would get to kiss me at the bridge ceremony. Do you rememb—" She stopped, frowned. The cage bars clanged around her heart. "Oh, wait. You didn't draw a card. You opted out. You acted like you didn't want me. Don't you want me, Keith?"
He closed his eyes as though in pain. She held her breath.
His lips quirked in a half-smile. "D'you really think I'm immune? D'you really think I'm the only unattached heterosexual male in this galaxy who isn't madly in love with you? Don't be a dummy." He opened his eyes. In the dying candlelight, they were only just a few shades darker than the mead had been. "Come on. Why do you think I opted out that day? It wasn't because I didn't care."
"You wanted to be on your guard in case Lotor or Zarkon attacked."
"Well…yes. But, also… You were the Princess of Arus. Half your subjects were there to watch the bridge ceremony. I'm not…bold. Not like Lance."
"Lance is brazen," said Allura. "There's a difference."
"Fine. I'm not – good at public displays. I didn't think I could kiss the Princess of Arus in front of her half her subjects. Not the way I wanted to kiss her."
"How would you kiss her? Me. Show me now. Please. No one's watching."
"How? Like this."
Taking her by the waist, Keith pulled her close. Her head fell back and his mouth covered hers, eagerly, hungrily, as if she were water and he'd just stumbled out of a desert.
She did go to bed shortly thereafter, but she didn't go alone, and neither of them slept – not for a good long while, at least.
Allura had been wrong. Someone had been watching. Rella, the lavender mouse who'd brought the drugged mead saw everything. After the princess took the pilot's hand and led him out of the ballroom, she scurried off to her nest behind the castle walls, where the other mice were gathered.
They chittered anxiously when she entered, but she allayed their concerns with a triumphant thumbs-up.
The mice squealed with glee, turned cartwheels, and gave one another fist-bumps.