miera_c (miera_c) wrote in stargate_ren,
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Fic: The Birthday Ball (2/3)

Meta and Part 1



Once Lord George made his decision regarding the ball, the request was appealed to the regent, for the living allowance granted to Elizabeth was neither sufficient nor intended to support such an event. Daniel suspected Lord Robert would have liked to have refused to authorize the funds needed to hold the party, but public opinion in the court would have come down harshly on him if he denied the country the chance to celebrate the birthday of the heir to the throne, and Kinsey gave his approval. Unfortunately, this meant the ball itself became a state affair, and Daniel fully expected the regent to interfere with the proceedings as much as possible.

Lady Catherine remained in Atlantis for the next three weeks, supervising the preparations for the dance to be given in the princess' honor. Much of the nobility of Atalan had been invited, but the lateness of the invitation had thinned the guest list, which was, Daniel suspected, all according to Catherine's plans.

News of the ball had spread quickly, however, and word came of several ambassadors who suddenly announced plans to return to the capital, even though it was the middle of harvest season, and the regent added a number of names to the list without consulting anyone. Lord George had been in a foul mood about this turn of events, but the party had already been announced and Catherine was sanguine about the risks. However, even she was not foolish enough to obstruct Captain Sumner's extensive preparations to secure the safety of the castle and the ballroom.

The captain's patience had already been tested by the arrival of a young man named Peter Grodin. Catherine had sent for him (before she even arrived in Atlantis), to assist in teaching the princess and her ladies the intricacies of formal court dancing. Daniel pointed out that Elizabeth had been taught dance since childhood, as a way of promoting the physical grace necessary for a sovereign. His old friend waved a hand and said obliquely that there was more to a ball than the steps of a dance.

His curiosity roused, Daniel found himself lurking outside one of the halls in the family wing of the palace during a late afternoon. Within the hall, a musician was playing a lilting melody on a violin. Beyond him, standing against the far wall, was Sumner, who was watching dispassionately. Daniel observed from the doorway that Master Grodin was guiding Kate around the floor carefully, offering gentle reminders about her form.

"Do not fear to look your partner directly in the eye," the young man instructed. Kate obediently brought her eyes to his face. "However, remember that a lady does not stare at a man she does not know intimately for very long."

Kate flushed, and Daniel heard a chuckle from Laura, who was watching from the sidelines with Elizabeth. He folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe. While he trusted Catherine's judgment, he wanted to know just what this young man was teaching his cousin and her ladies.

"Where should she look, then?" Laura asked from the wall.

Without the slightest break of rhythm or movement, Master Grodin explained. "If your partner is taller than you, focus your gaze on his shoulder. And of course, it is always important to be aware of who is around you, so looking about the room and at the other dancers is always acceptable, so long as you do not distract yourself from the steps."

The song came to an end and he released Kate and bowed politely. He held her hand and gestured to the three young women. "A gentleman will expect to be directed at the conclusion of a dance. You should ask him to escort you to a particular person, and her Highness should always request to be returned to either her guardian or her cousin, as they stand in the place of her father." As he spoke, he walked Kate across the room to the other two girls.

No one looked in Daniel's direction, but he got the distinct sense that the young man knew he was standing in the doorway.

He also realized that the instructions Grodin was giving the girls were small subtleties of court behavior that were vitally important for ensuring not only that Elizabeth was able to navigate the complex social conventions of a ballroom, but also details that could protect her from unwanted conversations and attentions.

The instructor guided Laura out onto the improvised dance floor next and Elizabeth caught sight of Daniel and smiled.

They had been as thorough as possible in shielding her from overt threats to her safety for years, but Daniel realized he and Elizabeth's other guardians had been less attentive to preparing her for different dangers – the social miscues or even simple bad behavior that would undoubtedly confront her after she reached the throne. Not to mention the potential diplomatic or even romantic entanglements that could be produced by misunderstandings while conversing in a hot, noisy ballroom.

Elizabeth walked over to him and in a rare display of affection, looped an arm about his waist. Daniel draped his own arm over her shoulders. "You are excited about the party, aren't you?"

She looked slightly embarrassed. "I realize it is a rather trivial matter, but yes."

He squeezed her gently. "There is no need to be ashamed, cousin. I think perhaps we have been unfair to deny you some of the more simple pleasures of your position." Elizabeth glanced up and he could see the denial on her lips and shook his head. "You are under no illusions about the burden you will bear. And so you should not regret the small consolations that come with that burden."

"If you can call a ball in one's honor a small consolation," Jack said, appearing behind Daniel.

Elizabeth chuckled. "According to Lady Catherine and Master Grodin, this party is a small affair compared to the formal, state balls that will be expected in the future."

"Don't remind me," Jack grumbled, tugging on a curl of Elizabeth's hair, which was hanging loose over her shoulders.

Elizabeth grinned and the mischievous look, while a welcome change from her usual serious manner, made Daniel nervous. "It occurs to me, my lords, that we have but one instructor and three ladies attempting to learn." She grabbed Daniel's hand and Jack's arm and over Jack's complaints pulled them into the room.

So it was that a short while later, Lord George found the highest ranking nobleman of Atalan and the head of the military both being scolded for looking down at their feet as they counted steps.

"It's been some time since I did this," Jack protested as the girls mocked him.

Laura, who was dancing with him, smirked. "If my lord is in need of a lesson in not being able to look at his feet, I would suggest he try wearing a skirt."

Even Lord George laughed heartily at that.

*~*~*~*

The palace was in a frenzy of activity in the days leading up to Elizabeth's birthday. Various dignitaries arrived, along with more than a few surprises. The Jaffa had named Master Teal'c, an old friend of Daniel and Jack's, as their new ambassador. The enormous man seemed to intimidate Elizabeth slightly, but his effect on Lord Robert was nothing short of comical. The regent of Atalan did everything in his power to avoid being anywhere near the new ambassador.

The true shock came with a party of three visiting nobles whose arrival created an enormous crisis for everyone. The Goa'uld, who rarely stooped to such formalities as ambassadors and diplomatic relations, sent three of their most powerful warlords to Atalan: Cronus, Nirrti and Ba'al.

If Lord George and Daniel were worried, Jack was beside himself. "Send them away," he growled immediately when the news reached them.

"We can't do that," George answered. "Simply turning them out would risk a major incident, and I'm not convinced the regent will do it."

"If they stay, I'll wager we'll see far worse than an incident," Jack said bitterly. "No good can come of this. They can't be trusted, none of them."

"Jack," Daniel said softly. "You know that I agree with you completely, but we're not acting for ourselves here. We have to keep Elizabeth's interests foremost, and it is in her best interest not to begin her relations with the Goa'uld with a major crisis."

Jack continued to curse under his breath.

"What is it they want?" Daniel asked the room at large.

"Probably no more than the other guests, to get a look at the princess and evaluate her. The Goa'uld have begun making threats against the Jaffa and other nations. Their temporary unity against the Ori has broken down, and they return to their old ways," George answered.

"Some faster than others," Jack snapped. When George glared at him, he shook his head. "Their main goal may simply be to gather information, but we all know that there is no way to underestimate the damage they may aspire to cause. Everyone the princess holds dear is at risk as long as they remain in the castle."

Lord George sighed. "I will speak to Captain Sumner. They will be under escort at all times. I don't want any of them speaking to the princess without all of us present."

"That will do for today, but at the ball there will be no way of preventing them from speaking to her," Daniel pointed out.

"We must do our best." Lord George rubbed his forehead. "I hope Lady Catherine is happy with the results of her grand plan."

Daniel bristled, though he had to admit this entire enterprise of Catherine's seemed to be rapidly spinning out of control.

*~*~*~*

Despite some signs of neglect, the palace of Atlantis was a truly magnificent structure. The fading afternoon light highlighted the tall spires near the center, and the blue waters of the northern sea brought a crisp wind across the island utterly unlike the deserts of his homeland.

Ba'al had never been to the city before, and doubted he would see it again unless he was leading an army. It was due to the compliance of the regent that the Goa'uld party had been allowed to cross the border and traverse Atalan unchallenged. In a few short years, though, the regency would end, and Ba'al was certain the young princess, having been surrounded by men like Lord Daniel all her life, would not look so kindly on the lords of the Goa'uld.

The young guardsman following him already suggested as much.

It was a shame, really. Ba'al had gotten a glimpse of the heir to Atalan's throne that afternoon. She was as lovely as rumors had reported. In fact, it was his own spy in the palace who had alerted him to the upcoming ball for the young woman's birthday. No official invitation had come to the Goa'uld, of course, but Ba'al had joined the party Cronos and Nirrti had arranged in exchange for the information he'd provided.

If he had come alone, Ba'al suspected Lord Jonathan would have slit his throat without hesitation before anyone could stop it. The leader of Atalan's army was quite tenacious in holding grudges. It amused him.

The palace was in an uproar with all the guests from various nations milling around. Only the Goa'uld lords had merited the special attention of personal guards, but the court did not appear to be prepared to entertain so many dignitaries at once. Stories about the power struggle between the regent and the princess – or rather, her guardians, since the young woman held little power of her own – had not been exaggerated. The next few years would be interesting indeed.

Ba'al made his way through the corridors. The Goa'uld were to dine with the regent that night. As he walked, he noticed a man standing with a group of what appeared to be Dorandan nobles. The man's face was familiar, but Ba'al had never been to Doranda. His expression did not waver as he nodded politely to the group, but that face bothered him long after he passed down the hallway.

*~*~*~*

The day before her birthday, Elizabeth was spending a quiet afternoon reading in her private study. Laura and Kate were discussing the ball and working on letting down the hem of Kate's best dress again so her ankles would be decently covered at the ball. The three were interrupted when Lord George, Daniel, Catherine and Teyla arrived in the room.

Elizabeth put her book aside. "Teyla, I trust your baggage is being sent to your room?" The young woman nodded, but her eyes were darting to Lord George and Elizabeth quickly noticed, as Teyla had, her guardian's agitation. "My lord?"

"Highness, a delegation from Iolan has arrived."

Elizabeth smiled. "Indeed? I shall be glad to see Lord Henry again. I had wondered he had not come earlier."

"Forgive me, my lady, but Lord Henry has not come alone. He accompanies Prince Radek."

There was a momentary silence as the significance of this news sank in. "Oh," Elizabeth said, faltering for a moment as she looked from face to face before composing herself. "Well, I suppose it would be terribly rude not to receive a member of the royal house of our oldest ally in person."

She stood and Laura and Kate immediately moved to check her gown and hair, that it was fit for such an interview. "He is more than visiting royalty, Elizabeth," Daniel reminded her. "The prince's great-grandmother was sister to King Phillip, so Radek is also your cousin."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes, for she was well aware of that fact, leading the way behind her guard down to the receiving room. "Yes, and having just last year been passed over for the crown of his own country–" She checked herself from finishing the thought aloud, knowing that all of them knew why the prince was likely attending the ball. Her cheeks flushed and she strove to appear calm.

She sat down the simple chair and settled herself. Captain Sumner stood just behind her, as usual. Kate and Laura were to the side, talking quietly, while Daniel and Lord George flanked her on her left. Very few people came before her who were her equal in rank and she realized suddenly she wasn't sure of the protocol. "Should I stand when we are introduced?" she whispered to Daniel.

"It is not strictly necessary," he replied after a moment. "It would be a courtesy for you to offer such a gesture of respect, especially to an ally and a relation, but only if you choose."

"Because he is no longer king-elect?"

Daniel nodded. Prince Radek's father had died the previous year, and his death had been quite the shock. There had been some confusion regarding the succession and Iolan's nobility had decided that Princess Natalya should rule as regent for her son rather than naming Radek king. It was a highly unorthodox move, given that like most of the other nations, Iolan gave primacy to the male heir unless none was available. Elizabeth was only in line for her throne because her three brothers had not survived past childhood. Meanwhile, it left Iolan with a prince whose duties to his nation were no longer clear, and because he would no longer rule, Elizabeth's rank was technically higher than his. However, calling attention to that distinction by remaining seated would be rather rude.

Elizabeth was still weighing the pros and cons of standing when the doors opened and a small party entered the room, including several green-clad guards who surrounded a younger man walking at the center of the group. Lord Henry usually did not require such pomp, so the uniformed men only served to remind Elizabeth that this was no ordinary meeting.

Lord Henry Hayes, Iolan's ambassador to Atalan, bowed to her when she greeted him, and then turned to introduce Prince Radek. It was hardly necessary; the prince had been staring at her from the moment he entered the room and only belatedly remembered his manners and bowed. "Princess Elizabeth, I am most honored to finally meet you."

Elizabeth rose from her seat without thinking. "Prince, we are most pleased to welcome our cousin to Atlantis." She held out her hand and Radek stepped forward, taking it and lifting it to his lips politely.

Up close, Elizabeth saw that he was a few years older than herself but not yet close to Daniel's age. He was neither exceptionally thin nor bulky, but his chin was quite defined and not unlike her own. His eyes, though, were a rather startling shade of blue as he looked up at her. She was struck by the intelligence and warmth in them immediately.

Fortunately he released her hand and she recalled her duties and introduced him to Daniel and the others. Once the pleasantries were over, she glanced at Lord George. "I am sure rooms are being prepared for you as we speak. I fear I am already engaged for supper this evening." Lord George nodded slightly and Elizabeth continued. "But perhaps you could join me for luncheon tomorrow? I am eager to hear the news from Iolan."

"I would be honored, my lady." The prince smiled and bowed and he and his party left the room.

"Have we anywhere suitable to put them?" Daniel asked, turning to Lord George.

"Some rooms in the tower where the royal apartments are will have to be used. They are being furiously cleaned as we speak. The suite is several levels below the princess' apartments," he added, directing his words at a grim-faced Sumner. "But there really was no other space that could be used for a dignitary of the prince's station."

"It is unfortunate they did not tell us of his visit in advance," Daniel said sourly.

"Lord Henry said a messenger was sent from Rainier before the ship set out, but it was debatable whether he could beat their time over sea to reach Atlantis."

Daniel turned to her. "It was kind of you to invite him to dine with you tomorrow."

His eyes were twinkling with amusement and Elizabeth held up a hand. "He is a prince and a relation, as you yourself said, Daniel. Protocol says he should be granted a private audience." To forestall any further teasing from her cousin, she beckoned Kate and Laura. "We have sewing to finish before supper."

"Actually, we are nearly done, my lady," Laura said innocently. Kate elbowed her in the ribs. Elizabeth rolled her eyes but made good her escape from the room before her guardians could overhear.

*~*~*~*

Even though Lord Jonathan had loaned some men to the guard to help with securing the palace before the party, Marcus was extremely tired as he bolted down some breakfast the morning of the princess' birthday. He had been assigned to guard one of the Goa'uld lords, Ba'al, and the man seemed intent on poking his nose into every corner of the palace he could get away with. To add insult to injury, Marcus was positive the lord was doing it solely to cause trouble. There was a knowing look on Ba'al's face that was unsettling.

Marcus would be thankful when this exercise was over, though perhaps not as thankful as Captain Sumner would be.

The worst of it was that he had not had time to see Felicia since the Goa'uld arrived. They had shared only passing words in the hallway in the days after he told her of his feelings. It was frustrating, and in the last few days, she had almost seemed to be avoiding him. He would need to find her some time soon, explain that his duty to the princess had to come first, and there would be times when he had to spend long hours working. Unlike the nobility, his time was not at his own command.

He tried to put the matter out of mind. He could address it when the party was over.

Bates sat down next to him. The lieutenant had been working feverishly with Sumner to prepare for the ball. "There will be another distraction tonight," he told them, rolling his eyes. "Lord Abelson's second son is betrothed and they wish to make a formal announcement during the ball. The regent has agreed, of course."

Marcus wondered to himself if Lord Robert was actively trying to undermine this event. It was supposed to be in Princess Elizabeth's honor, but the Goa'uld, former enemies of Atalan, had been allowed to attend, even though the man Marcus was guarding had nearly killed the head of Atalan's army not that many years ago. Now other nobles were being allowed to make speeches crowing over their own triumphs during Elizabeth's birthday party. Marcus didn't think himself much of a politician, but loyalty to the princess came with the uniform of the royal guard, and it was difficult to see her slighted and restricted in this manner. Marcus sighed as he rose from the table.

"Who is the lucky lady?" Stackhouse asked Bates.

"Lady Felicia, the daughter of the Viscount of Glaston."

Marcus nearly fell as his foot caught on the bench. His bowl and spoon went clattering to the floor. Bates shot out a hand and steadied him before Marcus landed on his backside.

It wasn't possible, he thought. It wasn't possible Bates had just said Felicia was engaged.

"Lorne, are you all right?" Bates was frowning at him.

"I'm fine," he replied automatically, bending to pick up his things from the floor.

Bates wasn't deterred. "If you need to rest, you need to tell the captain now. We can't have you crashing around during the party and calling attention to yourself."

"I'm fine," he repeated more forcefully than he intended. Bates backed off. Marcus steadied himself, but he couldn't keep from asking, "So Lady Felicia is to be married?" It took all his willpower not to let his voice waver.

"I heard she was sent to court to find a husband among the nobility. I suppose the second son of a baron was the best she could do."

Marcus bit his tongue and turned from the table, afraid to say anything in reply. He heard the murmuring behind him but he headed for the door without looking back.

His stomach was churning. He wanted to race to Felicia's door and demand an explanation. How could she do this? After what he had told her? She had told him she loved him too.

What if it wasn't her choice, though? If her father had arranged the match, she might feel she had no choice but to obey. Marcus' own parents' marriage had been arranged, and though that union had turned out well, many women both in and out of court were auctioned off to the wealthiest suitor without any consideration of their feelings.

He felt ill. What could he do? Her father would never break a contract with a rich baron so that his daughter could marry a commoner even if he was her choice, which might mean they would have no alternative but to elope. That could cost him his position in the guard.

His heart sank at the thought. Marcus wasn't even sure Felicia would be willing to marry him. She would have to give up a great deal to be the wife of a lowly guard, and if he lost his position in Atlantis? Did she love him enough for what might come after that?

There was nothing he could do about it immediately. He was expected to relieve the other man guarding Lord Ba'al and he would not be released until after the party was over. Marcus scrubbed a hand across his face. This was going to be a very long day.

*~*~*~*

If Prince Radek was surprised that he was not entirely alone with Elizabeth, he gave no sign of it. Catherine spent the meal attempting to be unobtrusive, speaking only when directly spoken to. While Elizabeth might not be willing to say so aloud, Catherine knew she was only at this luncheon to serve as a chaperone.

It had taken some doing to convince Daniel and Lord George not to attend, and to suggest to the princess that her ladies-in-waiting should also be elsewhere. Elizabeth needed to get to know the prince, and Radek deserved a chance to speak with her without having to compete with a gaggle of familiar friends.

Catherine found herself vastly amused by the conversation, for Prince Radek seemed to be something of a bookworm. They talked of history, of both wars and diplomacy, nature and medicine, even astronomy. It was hardly the type of discussion one would expect from a suitor, though to be fair, if the man's goal was capturing Elizabeth's interest, this was probably a far better way to go about it than spouting words of poetry. As the meal progressed she lost the reserve drilled into her by her guardians and spoke far more freely than usual. But Radek was too genuine for it to be a calculated choice.

Watching them speak easily to each other, Catherine felt herself warming to the young man. He was well-educated, polite without being fawning, attentive without making Elizabeth uncomfortable. It was evident to Catherine from the way he watched Elizabeth that the prince was rather smitten, but whether from instinct or personality, he did not seem inclined to press the issue.

Not until the meal was nearly ended, at least. "Highness, if I may be so bold, I would like to present you with your birthday gift now."

Elizabeth smiled warmly at him. "You traveled so far to get here in time, Prince, I feel as though I should not accept."

Radek had nodded to one of his servants, who brought forth a gilded box. "Well, then accept on behalf of your neighbor and ally, rather than for my sake."

Elizabeth opened the box and carefully lifted out a small silver object. She turned it over and gasped. "A mirror! I have never seen one so smooth before." She tilted the gift and Catherine saw that the round reflective glass was indeed completely flat inside the setting. Elizabeth looked more closely, turning the mirror over in her hand. "These are beautiful etchings. I have not seen such detailed work, not even from the Asgard."

"One of the craftsman at the palace had the idea to use a diamond stone to create the markings in his metalwork," Radek explained. "I should confess this piece was begun some while ago, long before I had the notion to come here. Even we are not so skilled as to create this quickly."

Elizabeth looked up and flushed. "Thank you, Prince, for the gift. And please convey my thanks to your sister and nephew as well." She handed the mirror to Catherine, who took the opportunity to study the engravings on the handle and back of the mirror closely. The work was exquisite, and the piece was quite valuable. Definitely not the type of present a man brought for a distant relative.

The pair talked a few more minutes and then Daniel appeared at the door to summon Elizabeth away. She curtsied to the prince and he took her hand and kissed it, bringing another light blush to her cheeks. "I trust, my lady, I may look forward to the first dance with you tonight?"

As the highest ranking guest, protocol dictated Prince Radek be the first to escort the princess, but Catherine suspected that had no bearing on why Elizabeth smiled shyly. "You may, my lord."

*~*~*~*

Daniel stood to the side of the ballroom, watching as Elizabeth opened the dancing on the arm of the Prince of Iolan. Rumors were spreading like wildfire through the court already. Daniel would have discounted them, but Catherine reported that the luncheon today had been a success and the prince seemed quite taken with Elizabeth.

At least for once the gossip surrounding his cousin was favorable. Many of the guests seemed to be looking on in approval at the possibility of a royal suitor from Iolan for the heir to the throne of Atalan. The countries were close allies and the royal families already connected via past marriages. Such a suitable match for the princess was causing a great deal of excitement, the more so at the attentive way the prince was looking at her.

Daniel did not see any evidence of Elizabeth feeling a particular warmth towards Radek at the moment. However, Daniel had spent the last eight years teaching her how to maintain her composure in public at all costs, so he knew better than to make assumptions. And he firmly intended not to interfere with Elizabeth's decisions regarding marriage again, if at all possible.

The three Goa'uld lords were hovering in the far end of the room. Sumner and Lord George had argued for days about whether the royal guard should group themselves around Elizabeth or remain guarding the individual Goa'uld during the ball. Though Lord George usually did not interfere with the Captain's decisions regarding her personal safety, he pointed out repeatedly that walling Elizabeth behind a group of guards would undermine the purpose of this entire enterprise. So only Sumner and Bates were shadowing Elizabeth directly, while the rest of the guard was scattered throughout the room.

Jack came up beside him, looking less than happy. Of course, Jack hated formal occasions with a passion so there was no telling the particular source of his mood.

The first dance ended and Elizabeth moved on to her next partner. "I never thought I would be so grateful for protocol," Daniel observed to Jack. "There are a number of men here who outrank the Goa'uld, so it will take some time before they can even try to approach her."

Jack nodded. "At least there are only two of them."

Daniel's lips twitched in spite of himself at the idea of Lady Nirrti dancing with Elizabeth. Jack grinned at him.

Catherine and Teyla approached them. Catherine had a determined look in her eye, and Jack quickly turned to speak to Teal'c, who was watching the festivities with his usual impassive expression. Daniel sighed and resigned himself to the fact that he was not going to escape dancing tonight.

*~*~*~*

Despite the tension in the preparations, the ball seemed to be going smoothly as far as Lord George could tell. The Goa'uld and Kinsey were all keeping their distance from Elizabeth so far, and none of the minor verbal skirmishes had erupted into a full-scale argument yet. Jack had even been inveigled to dance once.

Elizabeth was sitting out this set to speak to Lord Benjamin Hurst and his son. Hurst was the oldest member of the college of lords and his days of dancing were long behind him. He had been a good friend of Queen Margaret and had always been fond of Elizabeth, but because she was not allowed to attend meetings of the college and spent most of her time in her private rooms away from the court, they did not often get a chance to speak.

Though George probably would never admit it to her, Lady Catherine had been right. Elizabeth needed to interact with her court and the nobility of the country more. She couldn't come to the throne a virtual stranger to them all. Somehow they would need to find a way to allow her to get to know the people she would rule without risking her safety.

Hurst and his son moved on and Elizabeth turned to whisper something to Kate. She grinned at whatever Kate told her in response and George had to smile himself. Elizabeth seemed like nothing more than a young girl enjoying herself at a party. It was a pleasant change.

Lady Beatrice and Lord William Abelson paused next to him. They had just announced the engagement of their younger son during a pause in the dancing, and Lady Beatrice in particular looked quite pleased with herself. After the pleasantries were exchanged, though, she leaned slightly closer. "My lord, I do not mean to be rude, but have I not seen the princess in that same gown before?"

He nodded in surprise. "It is possible, my lady. I know the gown was altered for the occasion but it is not new."

Lady Beatrice looked scandalized and turned to her husband. "William, this is quite unacceptable. How can the heir to the throne be going to formal balls in made-over gowns? It is most inappropriate!"

Abelson frowned. "Why did the princess not have a new gown made?"

George hesitated. "My lord, you know that the princess' living allowance is determined by the regent," he said as calmly as he could manage. Elizabeth had already gone through one set of dresses this year, and there simply wasn't money for a new set until the winter was over. Kate and Laura had been given but one new gown all year, and both were rapidly outgrowing their clothes despite the best efforts of the girls to alter them to fit, though none of them ever complained.

Abelson's face darkened. "Of course. Well, perhaps it is time the college looked into this matter. Things were different when she was but a girl. We cannot have the princess greeting foreign dignitaries in rags."

"It would not do at all," Lady Beatrice agreed with a shake of her head. The dress Elizabeth was wearing hardly qualified for the epithet, but George had never pretended to understand the rules that governed ladies' attire.

The two of them moved off shortly thereafter, leaving George feeling slightly unsettled, like a man riding a horse that suddenly began to race out from under him. In just a few weeks, so many things had changed. Two years between now and Elizabeth's ascension abruptly felt almost too short.

*~*~*~*

Marcus had been struggling to focus all day, and his stomach had started churning as Felicia and her family arrived in the ballroom and the announcement of her engagement was made. She was smiling to the assembled nobles, but from where he stood on the far side of the room, her expression seemed strained.

In the course of following Ba'al, Marcus saw Felicia and her betrothed with their respective families, saw her receiving the congratulations of other women of the court, and dancing with her future husband. Though he tried not to notice, it was nearly impossible not to think of her. What kind of hell must she be enduring, forced into a match by her father and having to appear in public like this?

Fate decided to smile upon Marcus about half an hour later, for Ba'al left the room along with Cronos. Stackhouse followed them and Marcus paused near the door. Strictly speaking he should have gone with Stackhouse, but Felicia was standing just a few feet away, and the temptation to speak to her, even just for a moment, was too overwhelming.

He sidled towards her, hoping the chaos of the room would mask their conversation sufficiently. She saw him coming and stiffened.

He spoke as she was opening her mouth to do the same. "I'm sorry, Felicia."

That seemed to surprise her. She stammered. "For... for what?"

"I have been so busy, I was not there to help you with this. If you could have told me of this earlier, perhaps..." He rubbed his chin. "I don't know. We could have gone to your father together before this was public, dissuaded him from agreeing to this arrangement."

Felicia stared at him for a long moment in silence. "Marcus, I..." She trailed off, evidently unsure what to say.

He did not dare reach for her hand in full view of everyone, but he leaned slightly closer. "We could still speak to your father. Surely if he knew that you cared for me, he would not force you into marrying this man. Perhaps together we could persuade him to sanction our marriage. I know Captain Sumner will vouch for my character, for what that will be worth."

"I cannot marry you!" she blurted out. Her voice was louder than she apparently wanted, for she covered her lips with her fingers for a moment, looking around nervously to be sure no one was listening. "Marcus, you are sweet, but I could never marry a man of your station. It's ridiculous."

He wondered for a moment how his body was still upright. It felt as though his heart had just been ripped out of him. He had spent most of the day imagining Felicia suffering, bound against her will to some stranger. It had not occurred to him to think otherwise, not until now. He remembered just in time not to yell, so his voice came out in a harsh whisper. "But you said you loved me."

Felicia sighed. She patted his arm, and voice became almost condescending. "Marcus, you are very naïve about many things. My duty is to make a good match, to marry a suitable man with money and rank. A commoner with no money would never be appropriate." She paused and her tone softened slightly. "You were lovely, Marcus, but you must have known it was only in fun."

He hadn't known any such thing. Marcus had no idea what to say, wasn't even sure he could speak. Someone stepped forward and Felicia calmly nodded to him. "Thank you for your congratulations, Master Lorne." She turned and took the arm of the man who had approached and walked away from Marcus without another glance.

He didn't know how long he stood there, staring at nothing, before Stackhouse tapped his shoulder and reminded him of his duty. Ba'al and Cronos had returned to the ballroom. Marcus followed the Goa'uld lord, locking the ache in his chest away as much as he was able. He had to, for Ba'al approached the princess a few minutes later.

Marcus saw Lady Katherine flash a worried look at him. She was far too sharp-eyed for her own good. He did his best to ignore her as Ba'al began to speak to Elizabeth.

*~*~*~*

Once he had confirmed the Dorandan party were all in attendance, Ba'al walked boldly up to Princess Elizabeth and bowed. He was curious how this would play out. "Highness, it is an honor to meet you at last."

The captain of the guard bristled behind the girl, but she looked at him with some amusement in her bright green eyes. "Thank you, my lord." She offered no platitudes about the honor being hers, which amused him as well. Instead of retreating at the silent insult, he stepped closer. She drew back slightly, and he knew other people were looking at them curiously. He lowered his voice.

"My lady, I have information which you and your guard should be aware of. I believe one of the men with the Dorandan delegation is not who he claims to be."

Alarm swept across Elizabeth's face. "Which man?"

"The man in the green tunic, standing near the window to your left, Highness."

Sumner glowered, shifting so that the princess was more behind him. "Who is he, then?"

Ba'al allowed some of his affront to show on his face as he looked at the man coldly. "I have seen him before, when he was in the service of Apophis."

Elizabeth gasped quietly at that, but she wiped her expression clear quickly. "Captain." There was much urgency in the single word. The history between Atalan and Apophis was long and brutal. Not even Kinsey would countenance a representative of Apophis to be in the palace.

It did not surprise him that Sumner put a hand on the shoulder of the young guard who'd been following Ba'al for days. "Lorne, you keep your eyes on the princess as though your life depended on it." Then he departed, slipping calmly through the crowd. Ba'al saw Sumner catch the eye of one of the lords who he thought was the Earl of Athos, before he turned his attention back to the princess.

She was fidgeting slightly, the only outward sign of nervousness at the absence of the intimidating captain. He suppressed a smile. "Highness, may I be bold and ask for the next dance?"

She visibly startled at that. Even Cronos had not had the audacity to present himself to her this way. Lorne looked on the point of objecting, but Elizabeth fixed Ba'al with a shrewd look for a long moment and then accepted the outstretched hand.

There were some surprised noises from the onlookers. Ba'al found himself somewhat distracted by the grace with which the princess danced. For a girl who had not spent much time attending public festivities, she was remarkably beautiful as she moved through the steps flawlessly.

He forced himself to focus. "I confess I am surprised I have been allowed to even be in your Highness' presence. I would have expected to be barred from the city once my identity was learned."

"I think my lord may have overestimated his own importance," Elizabeth shot back. He had not expected the sarcasm and he blinked. Before he could formulate a reply, she added tartly, "If you desired to speak to me, Lord Ba'al, you could have done the expedient thing and simply asked for an audience. I hope your report of this man is not some theatrical trick merely so you could speak to me alone."

It was his turn to bristle in annoyance. "I assure you, my lady, my antipathy toward Apophis and his servants is genuine."

There was a triumphant gleam in her eye and Ba'al realized with a shock that he'd just been outmaneuvered. He'd admitted something he'd not planned on saying, before he even had time to consider his words. It was a rare thing for him to be tripped up like that. A Goa'uld lord did not survive long without being careful.

The song ended before they could say much else. He suspected the musicians had been told to cut the dance off prematurely. Both the duke and Lord George were there to steer Elizabeth away from him before the last note had even ended, but Elizabeth curtsied to him and he bowed automatically before she allowed her guardian to lead her away.

Ba'al spent much of the rest of the evening watching the princess from a discreet distance. The stories of this girl being simple-minded had clearly been outlandish falsehoods, probably spread by the regent to try and discredit the heir to the throne. But any man who underestimated the intelligence in that pretty head did so at his own peril.

Kinsey had spent supper the other night fawning over the Goa'uld, while striving to conceal his fear of the people at his table. Ba'al felt nothing but contempt for the regent of Atalan. He was small-minded and weak, driven by greed and lacking the cunning to keep what he had taken.

But Elizabeth... she would make a formidable monarch. A worthy opponent to anyone who dared match wits or anything else with her. Ba'al felt a pleasurable warmth at the prospect.
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