Herta was waiting in a solitary area of the garden. There were still guests to come —they were gradually arriving— and the duchess had left her alone for a moment to greet some people she was very interested in welcoming personally. It wasn't much of a problem, as Kasimir had not arrived yet anyway.
The truth was that nobody knew too well what the duchess's role was there. The king's friends saw her as a mistress to whom he had awarded certain privileges and liberties. They were polite to her, but also a little disdainful —not too much in case the monarch eventually decided to take her as his wife. The others were simply surprised. They thought she was a close relative or a person with a position of trust. But, basically, they ignored her, busy with their own affairs and interests. That was why she was more and more determined to consolidate her bonds with the Royal Household through her son, if this was the easiest way. Otherwise, the king might end up replacing her, as he had done before.
Herta took this opportunity by herself to put one of her stockings in place —the shoes were slightly too big for her.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a man walking slowly towards her.
‘You don't enjoy the racket and the fuss?’ he guessed as a greeting when he was standing near her.
‘Oh, no. It's got nothing to do with that. It's... Never mind. You're right. I'm not very keen on it. But it's no racket. It's just the guests arriving at the ball.’
‘It's a drag. No wonder we've both ended up here, looking for a quieter spot.’ Herta merely smiled. ‘I've never been to such an important ball before. Have you?’
‘No. Neither have I.’
‘It is a bit intimidating. The idea, I mean, of meeting so many people and trying to make a good impression on them all.’
‘Yes. That's true.’ The girl did not want to call any attention, so that her absence would be noticed by the lowest possible number of people and the duchess would not start a search for her right away. She decided that being too quiet could cause that undesired effect. ‘But, on the other hand, it's such a wonderful setting. I'm sure there will be a lot of enjoyable moments.’
‘Undoubtedly. Especially if you promise me the first dance. Unless you have a prior engagement.’
Herta did not know how to acquit herself well. Prince Kasimir was supposed to be opening the ball with her, if everything went as the duchess wanted. She was forbidden to do anything on her own; much less change the plan. Nevertheless, this stranger's proposal made her feel, for a little while, that nothing else mattered, apart from the beauty of the place, her marvelous dress and her pretty face —the duchess had done her hair and makeup herself, making the most of her features— reflected in his eyes.
Fortunately —fortunately?—, the duchess came for her, preventing her from being carried away by the warmth of the moment.
The lady's expression went from surprise to worry, and then almost to satisfaction, when she realized who her companion was.
‘I was looking for you,’ she said calmly, while she took the last steps towards them.
‘I've been here the whole time,’ the girl excused herself in a whisper, before she had time to see that it was not her who the Duchess had talked to.
The woman gave her a reproachful look and then went on talking to her son as if she had not heard her.
‘Allow me to introduce you to Herta. She is a distant cousin of Regine's and Gloria's... you know, Cecilia's daughters? She's visiting them at the moment. Her father is the Count of Silice. His mansion is in the northern lands.
‘Of Silice? Never heard of him.’ He owes me a couple of favors, his mother thought. And if this goes according to plan, he'll have the chance to return them. ‘Has he not come?’
‘No. Some business abroad made it impossible. But he has sent his daughter. I'm sure she will be an exemplary representative of her family.’
Kasimir smiled to his mother and then to Herta.
The calash brought her stepmother and sisters shortly before dinner was announced to be served.
Cecilia could not be more pleased. Wilhelmina had placed her two daughters at the table next to two excellent catches, and herself —although her very recent widowhood forced her to appear demure— next to a baron of wonderful presence and availability. This would compensate, Cecilia conceded, for a lot of the tensions that had built up over the years between them.
However, Herta was not as excited. Tradition made it obligatory for her to be sat near her family —even if she had, suddenly, become a “distant” member—, so she was placed between two elegant old ladies — conveniently far from any handsome young gentlemen who might engage in conversation with her and alter the duchess's plans in any ways—, but almost opposite Regine, who was furious when she saw her dress and general appearance. A very uncomfortable dinner was in the making for Herta. But she decided to see the bright side: Her half sisters were not close enough to be able to say anything to her (and, besides, despite their occasional deadly looks, flirting would take most of their time), the two ladies at her sides seemed harmless and the food looked spectacularly good. She should eat well to be strong for the journey she intended to start that evening.