"Giselle . . ."
Giselle Balaco's eyes swept along the elegant ballroom. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Polished marble stairs and floors gleamed from all around. Endless amounts of flowers decorated the hall. Hundreds of people, all dressed up in tailor made suits and stylish dresses, stood with their sparkling glasses in hand. Each eye was turned towards the Prince of Palanadia speaking on the little stage set up. Her cousin, Princess Rosaline of Cashadin, was standing next to him, her eyes not entirely focused on the crowd she was smiling at. Giselle studied her cousin intently, noticing things only someone who grew up with Rose would notice. Her smile was forced, her shoulders were too high to be relaxed, and when she met Giselle's eye, they gave away everything for one split second - she was devastated.
Giselle felt a lump rise in her throat. This isn't right. No one should be forced into marriage. She looked at the crowd again, all of them seemed so relaxed about this. How could they not feel the loneliness and feigned happiness that hung in the atmosphere? It was sickening.
Giselle looked over into the green-blue eyes of her sister, Marie, who gave her a solemn expression. "I know it sucks, but you need to try to keep a brave face. It doesn't take familiarity to figure out what your facial expressions mean." Giselle dropped her eyes, closed them and took a deep breath through her nose.
"You're right. I should try -."
"The wedding's off."
Her eyes shot open and towards the prince. The entire room seemed to take in a collective gasp.
"What?" Rose asked loudly as she stared, wide-eyed, at the prince. He smiled calmly at her, as if she were a child asking an innocent and easy question. As if he didn't just give her the freedom of deciding her own future.
A hum of voices lifted from the baffled crowd.
The prince leaned over, covered the mike and said something to Rose that was obviously not to be heard by the rest of the crowd, then gave her a nod. He removed his hand and brought his face back to the mike.
"I know you all came here tonight to celebrate our engagement, but as we were flying here I realized that there was nothing to celebrate. Why celebrate a marriage that is based on the wrong reasons?"
Giselle felt her shoulders relax as she listened to the prince speak.
"Uniting our kingdoms would mean a great deal to both parties, but if that's at the expense of a good friend's life then it's not worth it." He looked over at a still stunned Rose. "And that's what Rosaline is; a good friend. I want her to be happy and have the freedom to fall in love and marry whomever she wants. I can't and will not take that away from her. I want to become a fair king and this, this marriage, it's not fair to her."
He covered the mike again when Rose said something to him. They had a short conversation before a wide grin split her face and she lunged at him, hugging the prince tightly. Someone gave a clap and that clap grew until most of the room was applauding. When Giselle noticed tears streaming down her cousin's cheeks, she realized she was misty eyed as well.
Eric walked leisurely along the ballroom on his way to the refreshment table, surprised and impressed at his calm over the situation. He had been brought up to keep a level head at all times, he never realized he had acquired that quality until now. His brother, Shane was out somewhere, probably confessing his love to the girl Eric just broke off his engagement to. He smiled to himself at the humor in it all. Of course, Shane would fall for a girl like Rosaline. Clever, strong-minded, assertive, and breathtakingly beautiful - all things Shane would not have been able to ignore much less resist.
When Eric reached the table, he lifted one of the filled wine glasses as he contemplated. So what now? The search would probably go on for a princess or heiress that would be able to rule at his side. How long would it take to find one? Rosaline seemed to be the perfect candidate for queen. Her twin sister Rosemarie was a bit too passive to take on such a role now, maybe in a few years. But he knew his mother was struggling to rule without his father. Eric took on as many kingly duties as he could but there was only so much he could do without the actual title and the stress was starting to age the queen.
Of course, his mother was doing an excellent job, but he knew she hated it. It's been over a year and he knew she needed closure. She needed a break. She hadn't had a chance to properly mourn yet.
He hadn't planned on marrying at twenty-one but what difference would it make if he married now or in the next decade other than him taking the weight from his mother's shoulders sooner. He was more than prepared to fill his father's shoes and it didn't really matter who he married if his kingdom could benefit from the marriage.
Eric shook the thought from his mind. He tried to think of more urgent things. They would return home in the morning and he would have to announce the end of the engagement to his kingdom. People got over things like this quickly. There was always another scandal to focus on. There would be a week of gossip then they could fall back into their regular routine.
From his peripheral vision he saw someone signal for him. Prince Mark, Rosaline's eldest brother of two. Eric hesitated before lowering the full glass back to the table. What was this about? Mark seemed too pleased with himself.
"Gentlemen," Mark said when Eric reached him. He put one hand behind Eric's back and the other behind another gentleman whom Eric didn't recognize. Mark didn't bother to introduce them either.
"Tonight, I am going to make you two the happiest men alive."
Eric couldn't stop a frown from covering his brow. What was Mark up to? In the short time Eric had known the Prince of Cashadin, he quickly learned that Prince Mark was far from predictable. As a king in training, he was well-disciplined, respectful, and had good instinct. Privately, however, he was a bit of a loose cannon. He had a spontaneity that could be his downfall in the long run if he didn't keep those two parts of himself separate. His twin brother, Prince Matthew, seemed like a more agreeable option for the throne but that was possibly just due to Eric's own bias.
"Eric, since you're out of a bride, I would like you to meet one of my cousins."
Mark raised his hand and gestured to someone on the other side of the hall to come closer. When Eric looked over, he felt his chest tighten in response to the girl who stood up from one of the tables. Big energetic green eyes met him briefly as she walked towards them with all the poise and grace of a royal. Her long legs could be seen through, the slit in the side of her floor length, thin strapped, black dress. Slim curves were hugged gently by the fine material. Her hair was straight and ran down to her mid-back with a side path, a brown that was one shade away from being black.
Green eyes and brown hair. It seemed to be a family trait.
"Giselle, this is Prince Eric, as you already know. Eric, this is my cousin, Giselle Balaco," Mark introduced when she was near enough.
The name suited her. Stunning and graceful, just like the famous ballet.
She met his gaze with a controlled friendly smile. Giselle curtseyed, and Eric bowed automatically. "Giselle is the daughter of my father's sister, Princess Andrea, and the famous composer, Edwin Balaco. Giselle is top of her class and is studying music at a university that goes down far in her family name, the -."
"Balaco University of the Arts," Eric finished in awe. Throughout his life he had been taught never to interrupt someone while they were speaking, but in this case, he dismissed it instantly. Possibly because it was Mark and he was sure the man had his fair share of breaking propriety laws. That and the fact that this woman in front of him held a personal connection to a university he had always felt the desire to visit made him eager to hear what she had to say.
"That is unbelievable. I've always wanted to see that university. I hear it has incredible beauty."
Her smile brightened, reaching her eyes. Clearly, she was very fond of the institution.
"Well, if you ever come for a visit I would be happy to show you around, your highness."
Eric couldn't begin to describe how appealing that sounded. But circumstances had always kept him from going. There was always something else that needed to be done, somewhere else he needed to be.
"I know the place like the back of my hand," she added proudly. Eric smiled at the character in her voice.
"That would be great." Eric bit his tongue in self-discontent. Great? Just great? He usually had a better way with words than this. "What instrument do you play, Miss Balaco?" He asked, wanting to cover up his poor choice of words.
"I play . . . many instruments, your highness, but my preference lies in the violin, bass, and piano," she answered. "Giselle can play about every instrument ever made in the history of the world," Mark said as he placed a hand on Giselle's shoulder. Eric looked back at Giselle as she rolled her eyes and smiled fondly at her cousin. "Mark exaggerates. I've never even seen all the instruments in the history of the world," she said. "We both know you'd pick up any foreign thing that can make a sound and use it to create a masterpiece," Mark insisted. "You flatter me too much, cousin. Now when our royal guest hears me play he'll be severely underwhelmed."
"I'd love to prove you wrong. Why don't you go play Eric one of your symphonies," Mark suggested while placing a hand on her back and urging her towards Eric. Her perfume hit him, and he automatically breathed in deeper. Sweet and exotic, like a beautiful hybrid of rose and dianthus.
"I'm sure the musicians won't mind one single performance from you," Mark added.
Giselle looked at Eric. "If his highness doesn't mind," she said, her hands coming together hesitantly. Eric smiled and held out his elbow in invitation. "Please," he said. Giselle's hands came to it and they walked towards the musicians near the wall on the other side of the hall.
Eric almost shook his head. If Mark were attempting a love match, he was severely misguided. Sure, his cousin was lovely, but more important factors than beauty weighed in when selecting a bride.
Still, Eric thought as he looked over at Giselle, she wasn't difficult to look at and he was now in a situation where he would have to make small talk with her.
"You and your cousin seem very fond of each other."
Giselle took a deep breath through her nose as she lifted her pretentious walls. She relaxed her expression even though she had gone tense with frustration inside. Oh, she was fond of her cousin, definitely, but Mark owed her for this. He probably wanted her to entertain his royal guest to prove there would be no hard feelings between the kingdoms. Alright enough, but he could have warned her beforehand. Now she was stuck with another stiff-necked high-roller when all she wanted was to get home, crawl into bed, put on some Mozart and go to sleep.
The night had been long enough. Giselle had realized long ago what events like these did to her. Being surrounded by elitists in power, like the ones in the room, tore at her energy and patience. The more she attended these things, the more repulsive she found them. Royal Balls sounded glamorous, but they were peppered with insincerity. It was a gathering of the wealthy and powerful, where they could subtly flaunt said wealth and power. Every conversation she had with one of these people had a pattern. Small talk that involved them dropping hints of their positions, their recent visits to wherever in the world, recommendations of places they went to at that part of the world, what they thought of the refreshments served, and Giselle and Marie Balaco smiling, laughing, and replying like trained monkeys. They knew by now what to say and how to say it, after a while it became annoying.
Giselle craved something different. This was why she enjoyed chatting with the staff. They had far more interesting and less superficial things to say.
She tried to smile sincerely as she turned back to the prince. "Mark is the older brother I've never had. He always knows how to make me laugh," she said and looked at him.
Giselle stifled a gasp when she looked into the clearest silver-grey eyes she had ever seen in her life.
They weren't stone cold as she expected. There was something soft about them that caught her off guard. The moment she had first heard of the prince, she had believed that he was uptight and too refined for his own good. Meeting him personally only confirmed this. When Mark had introduced them, she searched to find a hint of personality in him. It seemed everything he did and said was a result of what he had been taught throughout his life. His manner, his way of speaking, it was all polished to reflect that of the prefect prince. Mark became like that when he was out in public, but he still showed signs of himself every now and then. Prince Eric did nothing of the sort. He was handsome enough with his black hair and gray eyes, strong jaw, and lean build. She might have found him attractive, if he weren't so defined. He carried an unapproachable air. Nothing about him was out of place. He seemed too flawless, like he would break if he bumped into anything.
But there was something about his eyes that seemed to hold so much compassion.
And patience, she realized.
Most people she spoke to at these royal balls seemed more eager to be heard than to listen. Prince Eric didn't seem to carry that desire. Maybe she was wrong about him.
At that split second, she remembered what he had just done and almost smacked herself against the head for being so prejudice.
"That was a wonderful thing you did tonight, Prince Eric," she said sincerely. "My cousins are very dear to me and Rose is a free spirit with a strong will. I know she wouldn't have been happy in an arranged marriage, but she would have tried for her kingdom," she said. He smiled. "I have no doubt she would make a fine queen, but as you said, she would not have been happy." His lip gave a little tug. There was more to this story, but she knew better than to ask.
Giselle looked ahead as they neared the group of musicians. Some of them acknowledged her and the prince with slight nods, but none of them stopped playing. Giselle gave the new pianist, Ethan, a little wave and smiled at him. He smiled at her and tipped his head as he played. The man was brilliant. A twenty-something former palace guard that had gotten very close to her youngest royal cousin.
Rose had sent her a video of him playing and Giselle knew instantly that he would be perfect for the Balaco band. Convincing her father to give the guy a chance turned out to be easier than she expected and three weeks later Ethan was offered a position.
"Giselle, to what do we owe the honor?" Someone asked when the piece ended.
Giselle looked up to the middle-aged man standing behind the cello on the podium.
"Arthur, hello." She gave him a smile. "I don't suppose you'd mind if I joined you for a piece? Mark insisted I play for our royal guest here," she said, half gesturing towards the prince. "We'd be delighted. We were just about to play one of your pieces actually," he answered, stretching out his hand to help her up onto the podium. Another man, Justin, stepped closer and handed her a violin. She smiled and thanked him then tucked it under her chin comfortably.
She took a breath and felt the world still as she began playing.
Giselle kept her eyes closed as she played. She was joined only by the pianist and the drummer, but the violin took center stage. Her fingers were skilled and perfect as they moved with the instrument. Delicate notes filled the atmosphere. The longer the music continued, the more complex it became but Giselle remained serene.
Eric felt his mouth dry out as he watched her, unable to avert his gaze. An emotion pushed up his chest as the music surrounded him.
Perfection, absolute perfection. And then something more... that he couldn't place. She had a way of making everything he had heard before in his life sound mediocre, and she did it effortlessly.
The piece ended slowly. Giselle kept her eyes closed for a few seconds after, the smile on her lips betraying the love she had for her art.
The musicians all applauded at once.
"Are you referring to the music or the girl?"
"Does it matter?"
Giselle laughed at the musicians' comments and handed the violin back to its owner. She bowed. "Thank you, everyone. It's always a joy playing with you," she said and allowed one of the men to help her off the low stage. "Once you finish studying, we'll do this all the time," someone said.
"I look forward to it," Giselle said with a final smile at them before joining Eric where he stood.
"I hope you enjoyed that as well, your highness," she said.
Eric wanted to shake his head to dissipate the awe he felt, but couldn't stop looking at her. "I am definitely not underwhelmed. That was incredible - spectacular. You -" He caught himself when he saw her smile slowly melt into surprise. He cleared his throat and put himself back in check. "You are exceptionally talented, miss Balaco," he said, not able to hide his smile.
A second ticked by before her surprise became a bright smile. She gave a laugh and shook her head.
"You can call me Giselle, your highness," she said with amusement laced in her voice.