Shortly before six p.m., Katherine nervously fiddled on her sky-blue evening dress. On her ears as well as around her slender neck and at the rim of her dress hang shimmering white pearls from the sentient sea. Her black hair was made in a classy updo with two thin braids extending from her temples and swirling around the high-set knot. Elegant white gloves covered her skin up to her elbow. Her sleeves began two fingers above them, letting her smooth skin blink out in between. "Hazel, do you really think I should put on a jacket? Wouldn't it ruin the whole outfit? Surely, they will heat up the dining room a bit, wouldn't they?"
"A jacket would be better, milady. Just a thin one. You aren't used to the cold yet and it's a big room. You might get cold even with a fire burning. Doesn't this white one look quite good together with the dress? And maybe a scarf, too?", Hazel suggested and held a pure white jacket on her lady.
Inspecting herself in the mirror, Katherine pulled up her tiny nose till small wrinkles appeared on the upper end. "It makes me look fat. Don't we have anything shorter? And I think a scarf would really be too much. I'm not a mummy."
"A what?", Hazel asked curiously. As a servant and former slave, she didn't know much outside the house.
With an excited glitter in her eyes, Katherine repeated: "A mummy. Human corpses completely rolled up in bandages. They say it's a tradition down in southern Falumor. Supposedly, it helps to keep the body of the deceased intact."
Hazel's face turned a pale green. "Mi-milady... don't say such scary things, please. You don't look like a dead person to me..."
Pearly laugher escaped Katherines mouth. "Of course not, my dear! But I would feel pretty much rolled up like a mummy if I put on a scarf when inside. Really, in Dragsa we only needed them in deep winter."
"Hm-hm." Too irritated, Hazel didn't try to convince Katherine any further. Her mind was fully occupied grasping the scary topic they'd just touched. "But isn't the magic there..."
"Right.", Katherine nodded as Hazel hesitated. "Though it was already a tradition before the magic area, I heard. The mummies just came in handy when it started."
Hazel's nearly invisible red brows furrowed. "Came in handy... sounds so wrong." Unconsciously, she put a hand in front of her mouth as if nauseous. Death always reminded her of her late mother, lying in sickbed for so long. The mother in her memory now got wrapped in sticky old bandages that still had some menacing blood stains on it. Through a slit between the fabric, skeleton teeth were grinning up at her.
Suddenly, she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. "Sorry, Hazel, I shouldn't have mentioned something so scary. I will remember that you're frightened easily next time."
Just when Hazel nodded in relieve, it knocked on the door to Katherine's chambers. Here, her chambers were even bigger than in the mansion, with two more rooms, one to receive visitors while the second, surprisingly, was a small study with a few rows of books. When they reached the door, Katherine's cheeks had turned a rosy red from excitement, making her even more beautiful.
To her disappointment, the man behind the door wasn't the earl. It was the old butler Sam. With a light bow, he said: "Milady, his lordship is awaiting you downstairs."
Downstairs. It's to reduce the time we spend alone even more, Katherine realized instantly. They would need to act even before entering the dining hall, as there were servants around. The blush subsided. Her first impulse was to tell Sam that the earl should pick her up himself like every good betrothed would, but she noticed how childish that sounded. The earl would only laugh at her this way. Maybe he'd even get angry. With a quiet sigh, she nodded and followed behind Sam.
While she didn't miss this annoying prince, she was very curious about the other residents of this building. She would have visited them already if not for them being out all day till now. As far as Katherine knew from the servants, there were three residents beside the earl and her. All of them together were also the only guests inside the palace. Everyone else was either a servant, an official or held some other position in the court, like blacksmith, king's adviser or food taster.
This building was kind of like a separate little palace just for honorable guests of the royal family. It was already commendable that some random earl was counted as such. However, Katherine knew that in the end it had nothing to do with the earl himself and everything with the powerful mage backing him.
As soon as Katherine saw the earl waiting in the entrance hall, a prickling nervousness expanded in her stomach. It would be their first time acting like a couple today. She wondered if they would manage or be exposed instantly. At least she would try her best. She didn't know about the earl though.
When she walked down the stairs, she felt the curious glances of a few servants on her, though they were well-hidden. Nathaniel didn't notice her yet, glancing at his pocket watch with slight impatience. Only when the sound of her shoes neared him, did he look up.
For a moment, time seemed to freeze. The earl's gaze paused on her, lost for words. Then, a slow smile lifted the corners of his mouth. Katherine's heart skipped a beat, her feet nearly missing the next step.
Seeing her wobble, two hands reached out and caught her own. Black and white gloves met, and she found her footing again. Nathaniel's deep voice landed on her ears. "Careful, dear."
It was just a simple reminder, but Katherine blushed up to the tip of her ears. Shyly, she looked up at him. The smile was gone from his eyes, replaced by a concerned gaze. Just a play, she reminded herself and exhaled slowly. "Thank you."
Nathaniel nodded, letting go of her hands. Before Katherine had the time to feel regret, however, he lightly pulled her right arm through his left, letting her hand rest on his forearm. It was a normal gesture for a gentleman escorting a lady, but still, Katherine's heart started to beat faster. Though they had dates already, Nathaniel always avoided to follow the etiquette in this aspect. Now he did it with natural ease.
As if he felt her nervousness, he patted her hand gently, before letting go. It was a reassuring gesture that she didn't expect from him and instantly calmed her down. Little did she know that Nathaniel's heart was beating as fast as hers just by her simple touch. The pat gave him a second to calm down, before they would enter the dining hall and scrutinizing gazes of the other residents.
His eyes wandering to the archway of their destination, he started walking. With Katherine on his arm, he matched his pace to hers.
Half-way there, he muttered without tuning his head: "You look splendid tonight."
Katherine, whose blush had just started to subside, felt the blood rising to her cheeks again. She didn't know anymore how she should survive the evening if a simple compliment from him nearly made her faint.