When the third night of the ball began, Detlef was the first to claim a dance. Ilona swirled through the sea of dancers, her rich wine-red gown contrasting with the paler colors around her.
“Congratulations are in order, Prince Detlef.” She nodded politely to a passing couple before continuing her conversation. “The servants tell me that, on closer inspection, your arrow was a hair’s breadth more centered than your brother’s.”
“All three of us brother are well-trained in archery. I fear I may not fair so well tomorrow in fencing.” Detlef tipped his head and guided Ilona through a spin. “Although my brother, Matthias, might.”
“Tell me about the time we were childhood friends and about the swing in the garden.”
He smiled – a little half-smile that look almost wistful. “I spent some of my happiest times here. As you may imagine, I was too little to be useful in my older brothers’ games. So I was enamored with the tiny blonde-haired princess who would play with me. We spent a lot of time in that swing. It was a ship one day, a woodland hideout the next, and a mighty throne on the third.”
Ilona laughed. “What fun we must have had!”
“You were my best friend in the whole world, and I was distraught at the news that I was returning to the North Country without you.” He cocked his head. “But I always knew I would come back someday.”
Ilona smiled softly. “It sounds lovely. I’m sorry I don’t remember it.”
The dance ended then, and out of the corner of her eye, Ilona saw Emil coming to claim her. She was beginning to feel a bit like a shuttlecock, tossed back and forth between the two battledores.
“May I dance with you again later?” Detlef still held her hand.
“Yes, I shall look forward to it.” She pulled her hand free and held it out to Emil. “Greetings, young lord.”
Emil scooped her hand up and kissed it. “So my queen has not banished me from her presence for my failure at archery?”
“You made it into the final round. I’d hardly call that a failure.”
“Your kindness fills me with a warmth that surpasses the sun.” He grasped her other hand and led her into the next dance.
Ilona glanced over her shoulder to see Detlef watching them. Her heart felt torn. How would she ever decide who to marry? Perhaps her papa was wrong to let her choose - perhaps it would be easier to let the council choose for her.
(by Esther Brooksmith)