"Can you tell me what this is?"
Jasmine demonstratively took his time putting down the papers he was currently working on, before he finally bothered to look up at the uninvited guest standing in his doorway.
Legna could tell right away the strategist was slightly cross at being disturbed, but then again, that seemed to be the man's default state from what he had witnessed so far.
Knowing that, and how Jasmine always insisted on his time being precious, Legna had decided on getting straight to the point without needless preamble, laying the card he had brought with him on the table. Jasmine spared it a short glance.
"If I had to hazard a guess, I'd presume it's a formal letter of invitation. Usually, they are sent to people who are invited to things."
"I know what an invitation per se is," Legna said with a frown. Maybe he should have gone to Paruteen instead. He would maybe have answered his question without sarcasm. "I was wondering about this particular one, and why I of all people was sent it."
Jasmine now even let himself down to actually picking up the card, flipping it open to skim over the writing. He let out an appraising whistle at the name signed at the bottom.
"The summer ball, huh. Well, I suppose it was to be expected of His Majesty." Taking in Legna's confused reaction, he cleared his throat and began explaining. "This ball is a long-standing tradition, first held in His Majesty's grandfather's time. All the high-ranking court members are invited, and the council members are expected to attend."
"I've never been to it, and I don't remember my father going, either." Legna furrowed his brow in thought. Granted, he had never paid much attention to the festivities within the castle, but he was positive no-one had brought up this specific gathering to him before.
"That's because you oracles are special, living in that pretty little ivory tower of yours." Jasmine smirked, putting the card down in favour of relighting his pipe.
"We need to maintain distance to view things more clearly," Legna automatically justified himself, albeit with less conviction than just weeks before. Things had started to change ever since that faceless voice had appeared in his dreams, unexpectedly and irrevocably.
The strategist's only reply was blowing a cloud of smoke in Legna's direction. He was still smiling.
"So, could it have been mistakenly sent to me?"
"I doubt it. I believe it's due to His Highness' fondness of you. He wants you to attend just as any other council member."
That did ring true enough, keeping in mind King Aleutian's stubbornness. Legna tried to picture it - a room crowded with dancing people, none of which he knew in particular, chatting about topics he had no interest in.
"Can I decline the invitation?"
"You've been invited by His Majesty in person, it would be extremely bad form, Oracle."
Jasmine seemed to tremendously enjoy shutting him down.
"Will you attend as well?"
"Heavens, no. Do enjoy your time there, and feel free to inform me of how it went."
His words clearly carried the thinly veiled expectancy of catastrophe, and Legna took it as his prompt to leave the man's quarters.
"What are the guidelines for the summer ball?"
Paruteen blinked at Legna from behind his glasses, not unlike an owl.
"What exactly do you want to know?" he then asked, and Legna noticed how the librarian's fingers twitched. Doubtlessly, he already had compiled a mental catalogue on any and all books addressing official balls and was itching to dump them all on his guest.
"Any compilation of rules would be helpful. I've never been to one, so I'm at a loss," Legna admitted. "For example, is there any dress code, and am I required to participate in the dancing?"
"Seeing how you're in a special position, your normal dress should be fine. And despite of what most people associate with balls, you're not obligated to dance. You can just spend the evening making conversation."
Obviously, the total lack of relief at the prospect of having to conduct small talk showed clearly on Legna's face, because Paruteen wordlessly vanished among the shelves. He returned with fewer books than usual, surprisingly.
“It seems dancing is one of the skills that is mostly learned by practice and less by theory, but in case you want to look into it before the ball, here is a basic guide, as well as one on superficial conversation starters.” He handed the books over to Legna, and the latter thought there was a certain trace of sympathy on the other man’s face.
After trying to read an agonising few dozen pages of tips and recommendations that were utterly incomprehensible, Legna wordlessly brought the books back to Paruteen’s desk.
“Maybe try and find someone to accompany you who you can talk to,” the man advised.
This time, the pity in his tone was impossible to miss.
"The summer ball on Saturday," Legna started apropos nothing as he trailed his hand along the dried herbs hanging from the low ceiling, "are you attending it?"
A beat of silence followed. Then, Moeran intensified his grinding of calendula seeds as if in response. As usual, he had not exactly been enthralled about Legna visiting him without official business, even though Legna liked to believe the other had warmed up to him, somewhat, despite his position as the oracle.
Out of all the other council members, Legna thought Moeran seemed the closest to him in terms of attitude and lack of compatibility with grand events such as a ball - Dante Filik withstanding, of course. Him coming despite everything would be no consolation whatsoever to Legna, however. In fact, he would not mind the leader of the Black Knights staying away.
But if Moeran was there, maybe they could keep to themselves, avoiding the agonising socialising part of the festivity.
"I can't, ever so unfortunately." Moeran's voice was devoid of any and all regret as he moved on to add another plant to the mortar, which Legna did not know by name. It smelled sickeningly sweet. "I have to attend to this tincture regularly every hour for a week, or else it will be a lot of work and rare ingredients wasted."
Even if he had repeatedly been told he was inept at reading people, Legna did notice the obvious cop-out. He peered into the mortar hopefully.
"Do you need any help with that?"
"No. If you need an excuse, go find one yourself, Oracle."
It had been worth trying.
Legna was not sure what was more awkward - the overall situation, or the company he had ended up in.
The ballroom was crowded, and if he was being honest, Legna was surprised the court even had such a large number of people, given he had never seen that many in one place. The chattering and laughter mingled with the music, carried all the way up to the high ceiling and into the half-hidden alcoves, and just watching the constant movement and spinning of those occupying the dance floor felt as if he was watching the surface of a pond on a windy day.
Consulting the guidelines on etiquette had informed him that it was not terribly rude to leave early, so Legna had decided to bide his time until he would have opportunity to thank His Majesty for the invitation and then leave without causing a stir.
In an attempt to not be in the way of those who actually seemed to enjoy themselves, he had retreated to the corner of the room, and now there he was, standing at the side of the buffet, trying to ignore the gloomy presence of the leader of the Black Knights next to him.
Dante Filik seemed intent on drowning his distaste for the event in wine, reigning in his desire to stab everyone attending apparently by simply glaring at the people passing them by. Legna had known better than to try and strike up a conversation, merely nodding at the other in greeting, inwardly relieved that even the King’s Guard’s black sheep had adhered to the regulation of not bringing weapons to the ball.
He was just considering whether he should make an active attempt at finding King Aleutian, when a voice called out to him.
“No, what a surprise! If it isn’t Angel!”
Legna turned his head to see a very energetic Lante Filik drag a very exhausted and uncharacteristically flushed Rita towards the buffet, parting with her with a bow as she went on to get herself something to drink. Legna had the suspicion that her condition had less to do with the physical exertion of a dance, and more with her partner.
Different from his twin brother, the order of leaving his sword behind was redundant when it came to the martially useless Leader of the White Knights, but Legna noted that the man had taken off the usual chainmail parts of his uniform along with the almost train-length cloak, and if he was not entirely mistaken, Lante had even more flowers than usual braided into his long, wavy hair.
“His Majesty told me he was going to invite you, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure if you’d come,” Legna went on, walking over to his brother and snatching the glass of wine from him without so much as asking first, emptying it in one go and handing it back.
“I would never disobey a direct invitation by His Majesty,” Legna clarified, watching as Dante moved to get himself a refill without any complaints. “It’s definitely a novel experience.”
Lante laughed at the diplomatic phrasing.
“Well, if you’re just going to stand here, it can’t be much of an experience, can it? You should try dancing as well,” he suggested, and Legna frowned.
“I’ve never learned to dance.”
He realised his grave tactical mistake a moment too late.
“Then it’s definitely about time you learn,” Lante declared, snatching his wrist and pulling him into the crowd.
He really should have followed Moeran’s example, was Legna’s last coherent thought before he found himself pulled flush against the other at a quieter spot by one of the larger windows. The orchestra just began playing an Andatino piece, and Lante gave him an encouraging smile.
“Alright, then, first-”
“Lante,” Legna interrupted him, frowning at where Lante had interlaced his right hand with Legna’s left, “You do realise we’re both men, right?”
“Believe it or no, Angel, I did notice.” Lante was laughing, more to himself, took hold of Legna’s right hand to place it on his own back, and put his other hand on Legna’s shoulder, effectively pulling him into a dancing stance. “Seeing how Angel is a guy, it will be easier if you learn from one, since it's the same steps. I might not be the best teacher, but I’m confident I can at least introduce you to the basics.”
“I see what you mean, but right now, you would have to change to women’s steps, or am I mistaken?”
Legna remembered the incredibly convoluted diagrams in Paruteen’s guide, looking more complex than any old almanac on divination he had ever worked with, and from what he had seen, women had it even worse than men.
“A good dancer has memorised both,” Lante explained cheerfully. “I’ll of course take over the leading role from you, but everyone needs to start somewhere, right? So, let me just lead you on for a bit.”
He stepped back, not relinquishing his grip, and Legna followed automatically, trying his best not to trip. He automatically looked down, hoping not to literally step on the other man’s toes. Immediately, Lante squeezed his shoulder lightly.
“Don’t look down, that’s a beginner’s mistake. The more you do, the more you’ll mess up. And I’m not a fragile lady, so don’t fret too much.” Lante’s eyes had a clearly mischievous gleam to them as the suddenly made a turn on the spot, and Legna had to hurry to follow. He probably looked none too elegant, and he was glad they were still on the sidelines of the other dancers with more room to themselves, or else he would definitely have run into someone. “Not that I’m saying Angel is a heavy and ungraceful person in the first place, of course.”
Legna frowned, too busy trying not to mess up the movements he found himself orchestrated to follow to pay much mind to anything else. Somehow, even without any proper verbal instruction, Lante managed to manoeuvre them just fine with seemingly no effort.
“I wasn’t aware that you’re such a talented dancer, Lante.”
“Thank you very much. You know, some say dancing and fighting are very similar, as both is a sequence of movements that is inseparably tied to observing your partner carefully.” Lante winked. “Though for me, there’s of course a vast difference between the two, as I’m no good at fighting. My talents seem to be imbalanced in that regard.”
Legna wondered if inversely, that would mean Dante, being the prodigy fighter that he was, was a horrible dance partner. He decided he probably did not want to find out.
“I really do enjoy it, though. It’s a dialogue you don’t need words for, and without the grim implications of a duel.”
“A dialogue without words?” Not as if Lante probably could stay silent for long, Legna thought.
“That should be your thing, Angel, right?” Lante leaned in a little closer with a teasing melody to his words. “Given you obviously aren’t cut out for conversational pleasantries. You do have some talent for dancing, clearly.”
Up to this point, at least he had not stepped on Lante’s foot.
“I can’t take any credit for that, it’s all your work, after all,” Legna disagreed. He had not remembered a single step he had taken, entirely relying on Lante knowing what he was doing. He always did what he pleased, anyway.
“Well, the choice of a good partner is paramount.".
Legna grew vaguely aware that the music was in the final tacts, and he expected this lesson to be over. Lante made no move whatsoever to release him, instead perking up at the opening notes of the next piece.
“Aah, that Allegro is a favourite of mine!”
“It sounds fast,” Legna said miserably, already resigned to the fact he was not going to get away just yet.
“You’ll manage,” Lante declared with conviction, pulling him closer. “Just watch.”
By the time Lante finally released him from his impromptu lesson - not before teaching Legna the right fashion of bowing at the end of a dance - half of Legna’s hair had become undone from the collar, his left arm was aching, and he was thoroughly exhausted.
Lante’s parting words of This was fun, we should to it sometime again rang more like a threat in his ears as he walked down the quiet hallways towards his quarters, grateful for the complete absence of people.
It was only when he was already half asleep that he realised he had entirely forgotten to pay his respects to His Majesty.