This pattern continued for some time. Cinderella could scarcely understand her popularity among the men—masked and parading around with the fair skin of a Trieux lady as she was—but she rarely had a moment alone and did not have time to grab more than a few morsels from the refreshments before a new man would request her to dance with them.

After hours of dancing, Cinderella was hot and thirsty. She stole off to the refreshments, doing her best to dart behind ladies with large skirts and men of immense bulk. When she reached the tables of food, she greedily took several pieces of sausage—having discovered she had a fondness for it—and approached the table awash with drinks.

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She stood there, trying to decide between a wine or an odd, sweet-smelling juice, when she heard male voices strolling in her direction.

“—barely made it back in time for the ball. My valet was dumping water on my head to get the goblin slime out of my hair as we rode back.”

“How many goblins were there?”

“Three packs—which was an unexpected surprise. We thought there would only be one.”

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“Did you lose any men?”

“No. Several were badly wounded though. We left them at the Semonè fortification for medical attention.”

Cinderella chewed her snacks and considered the voices and the implications of their conversation. Goblins moved in packs, but typically the packs didn’t group up together due to the petty natures of the creatures. Furthermore, the last time goblins were seen in Trieux was over a century ago. The black mage hadn’t lied. Darkness was coming. Wondering who would discuss such a thing at a ball, Cinderella risked a glance over her shoulder and choked on her sausage.

Colonel Merrich and Lord Diederick—both mask-less and grim faced—strolled in her direction, heading for the drinks.

“That was smart of you.”

“Indeed. So, what have I missed? Have any fist-fights broken out?” Colonel Merrich asked.

“The hour is not nearly late enough, and no one has had enough to drink, yet,” Lord Diederick said.

Cinderella thumped herself on the chest as discreetly as possible to clear her throat before she snatched up a glass of the unidentifiable juice, glided—even when hiding, it was not good for a lady to scurry—behind a support pillar, and faced the entrance to the ballroom.

“Have the mothers of eligible daughters hounded you all night?” Colonel Merrich asked, selecting a brandy.

“Not so much. I suspect they were combing the crowds for you. An army officer is a better prize than a lord, after all,” Lord Diederick said.

Cinderella peeked around the pillar. She needed to get out of the room without drawing their notice (as they were quite possibly the only two beings in the room capable of recognizing her) and, more importantly, she needed to find out what hour it was. Balls could continue until the wee hours of the morning, but Cinderella only had until midnight, and she still hadn’t talked to Queen Freja.

“If you are so jealous of my status, you should have ditched the books in school and joined the Army with Friedrich and me.”

Content they were absorbed in their conversation, Cinderella started for the door.

At that moment, a young man Cinderella recognized because he had already danced with her three times that evening and complimented her loudly during every dance, entered the refreshments room. He looked back and forth through the room, searching for someone.

Cinderella slid behind a woman wearing an elaborate mask and headdress designed to look like a sun. She couldn’t catch the man’s eye, or he would loudly greet her, drawing attention to them.

She could still hear the men talking from her new position. “I pride myself that I will never sink so low as to be jealous of you.” Lord Diederick said. “I am not in my position for the glory, but the power. I have no use for social niceties, but having an entire financial administration at my beck and call? That is what I live for.”

“Mmm,” Colonel Merrich said, drinking his Brandy. “You always were stiff-necked.”

“I will remember your words the next time I approve your payroll.”

Cinderella gawked at the pair for the moment. Lord Diederick was in an administrative position? Why in the blazes was he her finance contact at the palace?

The young man/dancing enthusiast gave one last look around the room before he left. His exit was not a moment too soon, for Colonel Merrich and Lord Diederick started to turn their backs to the alcoholic drinks and face in Cinderella’s direction.

Still carrying her drink, Cinderella cut in front of a couple and minced out of the room. Once in the ballroom, she downed her juice to moisten her dry mouth. “I can’t believe I escaped that,” she said before setting her empty goblet on a tray.

A nearby bell tower started to ring, and Cinderella listened to the tolls as she moved to join the reception line.

Cinderella winced when the tolls stopped. It was eleven. Thankfully the line to see Queen Freja was shortening—it started at the base of the stairs where the princes stood rather than winding around behind them—but depending how long it took, she may not have time to speak to the queen before midnight came.

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