<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> An hour before Azalea’s first ball began, she paced the <BR> ballroom floor, tracing her toes in a waltz. She had <BR> the opening dance with the King . . . who danced like a brick.<BR> But that was all right. She could add flourishes and turns <BR> that would mask the King’s stiff, flat steps. If there was <BR> anything she was good at, it was dancing. And this year, she <BR> was in charge of the ball, as Mother was too ill to host. Azalea <BR> was determined it would be perfect.<BR> Unlike the year before, when the Yuletide had ended in <BR> a fracas. Too young to attend the annual—and only—ball <BR> the royal family hosted, Azalea and her ten younger sisters <BR> gathered all the blankets and cloaks and shawls from the palace <BR> and hid outside the ballroom windows. Azalea remembered <BR> the frigid air, how the rosebushes scratched, and how they <BR> had to huddle together for warmth. The ballroom radiated <BR> gold through the frozen panes. The girls pressed their noses <BR> on the glass and oohed at the dancers, especially Mother, <BR> who danced like an angel.<BR> They had fallen asleep right there in the rosebushes, <BR> burrowing together like mice. When the girls were <BR> discovered missing, Mother had stopped the ball and <BR> made everyone—including the musicians—search for <BR> them. Prime Minister Fairweller had found them. Azalea <BR> had awoken in shivers to see him holding a lamp over <BR> them and frowning.<BR> The girls had pelted him with snowballs.<BR> They had lost two weeks of dance lessons over that <BR> Great Rosebush and Snowball Scandal. It had been worth <BR> it, they all agreed. Even so, Azalea hoped this year the <BR> Yuletide would end gracefully. Her toes curled in her <BR> dance slippers and her hands shook as she fluttered about <BR> the dessert table in the ballroom, rearranging the platters <BR> and directing the hired help as they brought in trays of <BR> lemon custards and cinnamon candies.<BR> Mr. Pudding found her just as snow started to swirl <BR> outside the tall arched windows and the musicians had <BR> arrived, tuning their violins in the ballroom corner. Azalea <BR> knelt on the marble floor in a poof of silks and crinolines, <BR> picking up strewn pine needles. Mr. Pudding was their <BR> Royal Steward. He was also the Royal Stableman, the <BR> Royal Boot-Blacker, and the Royal Things-on-the-High-<BR> Shelf-Getter. With difficulty, he knelt to the floor.<BR> “It’s all right, Mr. Pudding,” said Azalea. “I’ve got it.”<BR> “Right you are, miss, so you do,” he said, collecting <BR> the needles with gnarled hands. “It’s only . . . your mother <BR> wants to see you, miss.”<BR> Azalea paused, the needles pricking her palms.<BR> “She does?” she said. “The King is all right with it?”<BR> “’Course he would be, miss,” said Mr. Pudding, <BR> helping her up. “He couldn’t be averse if your mum <BR> wants it!”<BR> Mother hadn’t been taken with a quick, hard illness <BR> that swept a person up overnight. Her illness had come <BR> slowly and had lasted for years, robbing a bit of her each <BR> day. Some weeks she felt better, better enough to take tea <BR> in the gardens with Azalea and her sisters and give them <BR> dance lessons, and some weeks—more weeks, lately—the <BR> light in her eyes flickered with pain. Still, she always said <BR> she felt better, and she always gave a room-brightening <BR> smile. That was Mother.<BR> With the baby near due now, the King refused to allow <BR> Azalea or her sisters to spend tea up in Mother’s room, <BR> or even to visit longer than several minutes a day. Even <BR> so, when Azalea arrived at Mother’s room two staircases <BR> later, breathless and beaming, it had the mark of her sisters <BR> all over it. Mend-up cards with scrawled pictures graced <BR> the dresser, and vases of dried roses and pussy willows <BR> made the room smell of flowers. A warm fire glowed in <BR> the grate, casting yellows over the flowered furniture.<BR> Mother sat in the upright sofa, her auburn hair tussled <BR> as always. She wore her favorite blue dress, mended but <BR> clean, and rested a hand on her stomach.<BR> She was asleep. Azalea’s smile faded.<BR> Secretly hoping the rustle of her skirts would rouse <BR> Mother, Azalea arranged the mend-up cards on the <BR> dresser, then chastised herself for hoping such a thing. <BR> Sleep was the only peace Mother had of late. From the <BR> table next to the sofa, the old magic tea set clinked and <BR> clattered faintly, pouring a cup of tea in its pushy way.<BR> Azalea did not care for that old silver-mottled tea <BR> set. Several hundred years ago, before Eathesbury had <BR> streetlamps and paved roads, the palace had been magic. <BR> The reigning king, the High King D’Eathe, had gone <BR> mad with it. He magicked the drapery to twine around <BR> servants’ necks, made the lamps flicker to life as one <BR> passed, and trapped unfortunate guests in his mirrors, <BR> never to release them. Azalea’s ninth-great-grandfather, <BR> Harold the First, had overthrown him, but still pockets <BR> of magic remained in the palace. The old tea set was one <BR> of these. It even had a pair of sugar tongs that snapped at <BR> the girls’ fingers if they wanted more than one cube. The <BR> girls called them the sugar teeth, and Azalea guessed they <BR> were quite as evil as their creator had been.<BR> “If you wake her,” Azalea threatened in a low voice, <BR> picking up the full teacup and setting it on its platter, “I <BR> will have you melted down into napkin rings, I swear it.”<BR> The teacup hopped back onto the sofa arm and <BR> nudged and prodded at Mother’s hand. Azalea grabbed <BR> it and pinned it between the dented sugar bowl and <BR> teapot. The sugar teeth hopped out of the bowl and bit <BR> her fingers.<BR> “Ow!” Azalea snapped. “Why, you little—”<BR> Mother stirred.<BR> “Oh, goosey,” she said. She opened her eyes and <BR> pushed a smile. “Don’t be cross. They’re only trying to <BR> help, you know.”<BR> “They’re bullying you,” said Azalea, whose spirits <BR> rose in spite of seeing the pain in Mother’s eyes. Mother <BR> had a plucky way of smiling that deepened her dimples <BR> and brightened the room. “I’ll take them to the kitchen. <BR> How are you feeling?”<BR> “Mmm. Better. Where are the girls? I wanted to see <BR> them, too.”<BR> “Out and about. In the gardens, I think.” In the <BR> hustle and come-and-go of preparations, Azalea had lost <BR> track of them. They hadn’t even come to see her in her <BR> ball gown. Mrs. Graybe and one of the maids had had to <BR> help her dress in the kitchen, tightening her stays while <BR> she traced her toes on the wood floor, impatient.<BR> “Oh,” said Mother. “Well. If they are having a jolly <BR> Christmas Eve, then . . . I’m glad for it. Ah, but look <BR> at you! Princess Royale! You look a picture print! The <BR> green makes your eyes pop. I knew it would.”<BR> Azalea caught her reflection in the glowering tea set. <BR> Auburn ringlets framed her face and her tightly strung <BR> corset flushed her cheeks. From shoulder to waist she <BR> wore a silver sash. She looked regal, and nothing like <BR> herself.<BR> “Everyone says I look like you,” said Azalea shyly.<BR> “You lucky thing! Do a Schleswig curtsy.”<BR> Azalea’s feet took over and she dipped into a curtsy <BR> before her mind fully realized it. It flowed from the balls <BR> of her feet to her fingertips in one rippled movement <BR> and a rustle of skirts. She disappeared into a poof of <BR> crinolines.<BR> “Masterful!” Mother laughed. “You’re better than <BR> me! Up, up, up. Very good! Ladies’ cloaks, in the library, <BR> gentlemens hats—”<BR> “In the entrance hall. Yes, I remember.” Azalea stood <BR> and smoothed her skirts.<BR> “Brilliant. The gentlemen will be mad for you. Dance <BR> with every single one and find which one you like best. <BR> We can’t let parliament do all the choosing.”<BR> Azalea’s toes curled in her dance slippers.<BR> She hated the sick, milk-turning feeling that came <BR> when she thought of her future gentleman. She pictured <BR> it as a sort of ball, one that lasted a lifetime, in which <BR> parliament chose her dance partner. And she didn’t <BR> know if he would be a considerate dancer, one who led <BR> her through tight turns with ease, or if he would lurch <BR> through the steps. Or worse, if he was the sort of partner <BR> who would force her through the movements and scoff <BR> at her when she stumbled at his hand. Azalea tried to <BR> swallow the feeling away.<BR> “I wish you could come,” she said.<BR> “Your father will be there.”<BR> “That’s not the same.” Azalea leaned down and kissed <BR> Mother, inhaling the sweet smell of white cake and baby <BR> ointment. “I’ll miss you.”<BR> “Azalea,” said Mother, reaching out to place her hand <BR> on Azalea’s shoulder. “Before you go. Kneel down.”<BR> Azalea did, a little surprised. Her skirts poofed about <BR> her. Poof.<BR> From the end-table drawer, Mother produced her <BR> handkerchief, a folded square of silver. Silver was the <BR> color of the royal family. The embroidered letters K.E.W. <BR> glimmered in the soft light. Mother took Azalea’s hands <BR> and pressed them over it.<BR> Azalea gasped. Mother’s hands were ice.<BR> “It’s your sisters,” said Mother. “You’ve done so well <BR> to watch out for them, these months I’ve been ill. You’ll <BR> always take care of them, won’t you?”<BR> “Is something wrong?”<BR> “Promise me.”<BR> “Of . . . course,” said Azalea. “You know I will.”<BR> The moment the words escaped her lips, a wave of cold <BR> prickles washed over her. They tingled down her back, <BR> through her veins to her fingertips and toes, flooding her <BR> with a cold rain shower of goose prickles. The unfamiliar <BR> sensation made Azalea draw a sharp breath.<BR> “Mother—”<BR> “I want you to keep the handkerchief,” said Mother. <BR> “It’s yours now. A lady always needs a handkerchief.”<BR> Azalea kept Mother’s cold hands between her own, <BR> trying to warm them. Mother laughed, a tired, worn <BR> laugh that bubbled nonetheless, and she leaned forward <BR> and kissed Azalea’s fingers.<BR> Her lips, white from pressing against Azalea, slowly <BR> turned to red again.<BR> “Good luck,” she said.<BR> The King did not look up from his paperwork when Azalea <BR> rushed into the library. Two flights of stairs in massive <BR> silk skirts had left her breathless, and she swallowed the <BR> air in tiny gasps.<BR> “Miss Azalea,” he said, dipping his pen into the <BR> inkwell. “We have rules in this household, do we not?”<BR> “Rule number eight, section one, Miss Azalea.”<BR> “Sir—”<BR> The King looked up. He had a way of frowning that <BR> froze the air and made it crack like ice.<BR> Azalea clenched her fists and bit back a sharp retort. <BR> Two years! Nearly two years she had run the household <BR> while Mother was ill, and he still made her knock! She <BR> strode out of the library, slid the door shut with a snap, <BR> counted to two, and knocked smartly.<BR> “Yes, you may come in,” came the King’s voice.<BR> Azalea gritted her teeth.<BR> The King was already dressed for the ball, fine <BR> in formal reds and silvers. His military uniform had <BR> meticulously straight rows of buttons and medals, and <BR> he wore a silver sash across his chest to his waist, like <BR> Azalea. As he sorted through papers, Azalea caught <BR> words like “treaty” and “regiments” and “skirmish.” <BR> As Captain General, he would be leaving, along with the <BR> cavalry regiments, to help a neighboring country’s war <BR> in just a few short weeks. Azalea did not like to think <BR> about it.<BR> “That is well enough,” he said when Azalea stood <BR> before his desk. “One cannot run the country without <BR> laws; one cannot manage a household without rules. It <BR> is so.”<BR> “Sir,” said Azalea. “It’s Mother.”<BR> <BR> <BR> The King set his papers down at this.<BR> “I think we need to send for Sir John,” said Azalea. <BR> “I know he was here this morning, but . . . something’s <BR> not right.”<BR> The image of Mother’s lips, white, then slowly, slowly <BR> turning to red, passed through Azalea’s mind, and she <BR> rubbed her fingers. The King stood.<BR> “Very well,” he said. “I will fetch him myself <BR> straightaway.” He took his hat and overcoat from the <BR> stand near the fireplace. “Tend to the guests. They will be <BR> arriving soon. And—” The King’s brow furrowed. “Take <BR> care that your sisters remain in their room. I’ve made <BR> them promise to stay inside, but—it is them.”<BR> “You made them promise to stay inside?” said Azalea, <BR> indignant. “Even Bramble?”<BR> “Especially Bramble.”<BR> “But it’s tradition to peek at the Yuletide! Even <BR> Mother—”<BR> “Tradition be hanged, Miss Azalea. I will not allow it, <BR> not after the complete debacle last year.”<BR> Azalea pursed her lips. She didn’t want the ball to end <BR> like it had last year, naturally, but caging them up in the <BR> room was unfair.<BR> “That will do, Miss Azalea,” said the King. “I’ve sent <BR> goodies to your room, and a dissected picture for them to <BR> piece together. They shan’t be desolate.”<BR> The King turned to go, and Azalea spoke after him.<BR> “You’ll be back within the hour?” she said. “For the <BR> opening dance?”<BR> “Really, Azalea,” said the King, putting on his stiff <BR> hat. “Is everything about dancing to you?”<BR> It was, actually, but Azalea decided now wasn’t the <BR> best time to point that out.<BR> “You will be back in time?” she said.<BR> The King waved his hand in dismissal. “As you say,” <BR> he said, and he left.<BR> <p> <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Entwined</b> by <b>Heather Dixon</b> Copyright © 2011 by Heather Dixon. Excerpted by permission of Greenwillow Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.