As he had promised, Kasimir started the dancing with Herta, who was surveyed by more than one young lady. The prince was now even more interested in spending time with her.
‘Tell me everything you know.’
‘I'm afraid I can't,’ Herta said, despite her awareness of the risk which being rude to him entailed. She had just met him. And his background should, if nothing else, keep her on her guard.
‘At least, tell me if Adalberht is with her.’ She didn't answer. ‘I'll take your silence as confirmation.’
‘I am not confirming anything,’ she replied angrily. ‘My silence is a mere indication that I'm not providing any information regarding that matter. Most probably, because I don't have any.’
Kasimir adopted a resigned expression.
They danced in silence for a while.
‘Did they run away together? My mother and the king forbade them to return?’
Herta was tempted to talk by his tone, which was worried and not at all threatening.
She asked him with her eyes to stop the questions.
‘Fine. Tell me something about yourself, then.’ Kasimir realized that, amongst so many mysteries, her relation to the Count of Silice could be a falsehood too. So, before she opened her mouth, he decided to spare her the need to lie. ‘Or forget it. Let's just enjoy the dance.’
But Herta felt that she owed the prince some kind of explanation. Even more so, since he had given her the option not to.
She was thinking about what would be safe to tell him without endangering herself or the others, when a couple danced towards them and stopped in a very unorthodox way.
‘Good evening, cousin Kasimir,’ Gloria said, totally breaking the protocol. ‘I see that you've met Herta.’
The prince stopped dancing too, and so did the music. Herta could feel every pair of eyes that had not yet paid attention to them doing it now. Not a very good way to go unnoticed...
Kasimir recognized his cousin, of course, but he could not remember having had any previous conversations with her or her sister. To address him like that, at that ball, was so very inappropriate.
Cecilia rushed to take her by the arm and apologize to the prince with a curtsy. The young man dancing with Gloria could not decide whether he was more amazed at the daughter's or the mother's behavior.
When both women were out of view, a resounding slap was heard, and then the musicians began to play again.
Kasimir looked at Herta raising his eyebrows and smiled.
‘Your aunt was supposed to delight us with a recital after dinner, but I'm not sure she will feel like it after that. I think grand occasions do not suit her very much.’
Herta wondered if, when she was far, far away from them, she could someday remember her stepmother and half sisters with any nostalgia. Maybe when she was really, really old... and experiencing senile dementia.
When the piece was finished, the Duchess announced that the acclaimed amateur soprano Cecilia De Notenough would sing a selection of the most beautiful traditional songs of the kingdom. The king looked pleased. He took it as a compliment. And Cecilia spoke with the musicians while the other guests sat on chairs the servants quickly began to arrange.
Kasimir left Herta and went to meet up with a group of people who were unknown to her. The fact that he left her alone so suddenly shocked her almost as much as the attention he had been paying to her until then.
A servant offered her a chair and she accepted.
Soon, Cecilia's voice flooded the room. Herta had heard her singing sometimes at the house. Her voice was not so much as acclaimed, but it could not be said that it was not powerful and tolerable; pleasant, even, on occasion.
Herta was sure she would not be receiving any unexpected visits from her mice friends now. Everyone was quiet, still and paying attention. If any of them ran through the room, they would be noticed.
At a distance, Regine was surreptitiously having a conversation with her table partner while, at times, she pretended to listen to her mother. Gloria was not there. At least, her cousin could not see her from where she was sitting. Nor could she see the man she had been dancing with (very blond, very tall... hard to miss).
It seemed that she would be able to be relaxed for a bit, with no incidents. But then a murmur began to be heard on her right; the side that was closer to the two thrones. The king, sitting next to his son Kasimir, had fainted. When Herta looked, the prince was sitting him up, because his body had fallen forwards.
She stood up, like everyone in the ballroom, and she soon saw the court doctor arrive. Almost immediately, another man arrived. The two guards that were flanking the thrones tried to stop him, until they realized who he was.