The first step in Zain’s master plan for the evening was to open a window.
It was a large window, set just to the left of the musicians, and he knew there was no way to do it without gathering attention. He paused to talk to the girl on the violin in between songs, chatted until the moment she had to put bow to string again, then walked straight to the window as if he were doing her a favor. The hall was warm from the dancing, but not uncomfortably so, and the drifting breeze from the window cooled almost nothing. Still, she flashed him a smile after he swung the window open, probably just pleasantly surprised to realize he was still lingering nearby, but from a distance, he thought it might be mistaken for gratitude.
It didn’t stop one of the servers from narrowing his eyes as he passed, or Selwyn from going suddenly still at the other end of the hall.
Shoving his hands in his pocket, Zain smiled back at the violinist and wandered back into the center of the hall. Because, for once, step two was not climbing out the window.
He caught Ainslie on the far side of the dance floor – literally caught her by the hand and spun her back toward him as she passed. Her heavy blue skirts spun elegantly and he let go instantly, before his grip could turn intrusive. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he looked at her boyishly, in just that way he knew made her laugh at him. She rolled her eyes, hiding her grin behind a delicate glance over her shoulder.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Good evening,” she returned, still laughing, as if the greeting were part of a joke as well.
“Are you having a good time?” Zain asked.
She paused, considering the ballroom, the dancers, the music, the lights, and the gently humming crowd. “Yes,” she said, turning back to him. “I am.” Her smile was beautifully honest and he liked her for it.
“Too much to risk ruining it all on a dance with me?” Zain asked.
She shook her head a little. “Your invitations get worse, and worse, every day,” she told him, tone light, but slow enough to almost be serious.
He dropped his head, chastised, but pleased about it. Looking back up, he asked, “May I have this dance?”
“You may,” she said.
They danced through three long songs. They talked and joked, laughed a little too loudly for the echo of the ballroom. Zain twirled her under his arm, a little too quickly, and caught her gently, glancing over his shoulder as if he wanted to make sure no one had seen his mistake. Generally, he did everything he could to make Selwyn believe he had distracted himself from his own mischief. The master of the hall eventually stopped turning his way.
Then he started looking for Terius every time he spun Ainslie under his arm.
It didn’t take him long to spot his cousin. He was on the dance floor as well, steadily moving through the steps with Lorelle. They were talking about something, and both of them looked absolutely content. Zain pressed his lips together. He needed a polite way to drag Terius away. If it wasn’t polite, Terius wouldn’t play along.
“Are you having a good time?” Ainslie asked quietly.
Blinking, Zain looked back at her. It was a change of topic from what they had been talking about a moment before, and she didn’t actually sound curious. “Yes,” he said.
Ainslie smiled knowingly. “Too much to risk ruining it all on whatever you’re planning?”
Zain laughed, then shook his head. “Absolutely not.”
“What do you need?” she asked, happily resigned.
He explained quickly.
“Oh, that’s easy,” she told him. “I haven’t seen Lorelle all week. I’ve been wanting to find her tonight. Just dance us closer, I’ll take care of everything.”
When the song ended, she did just that, turning and smiling brightly at Lorelle, as if surprised to find them so close together. “There you are!” she said.
“There you are,” Lorelle said. “Have you been here all night? I couldn’t find you earlier.”
“Oh, I was hiding in the curtains.”
Lorelle looked at her in mock reproach. “Again?”
“You know me,” Ainslie said.
“Did you at least wear shoes to match them tonight?”
Ainslie poked the toe of one slipper out from under her skirts. Absurdly, they were red under her blue gown, which did actually match the curtains. Terius and Zain cocked their heads, curiously. Lorelle clapped a hand over her mouth, surprised, and clearly on the verge of laughing too loud.
“I’m a little tired,” Ainslie said. “Want to sit and talk with me while I catch my breath?” She winked at the end of her sentence, and Lorelle straightened a little too quickly to keep the secrecy of it, but Terius didn’t seem to notice. Glancing between the boys, she let Ainslie lead her away, and Zain stepped in shoulder-to-shoulder with Terius to watch them leave.
“I’m going to need you to follow me,” Zain whispered without looking at his cousin.
Terius said nothing long enough for Zain to glance sideways at him.
“Where?” Terius asked, resigned.
“For the success of this mission, I’m going to need you not to ask questions,” Zain told him.
“Who’s going to be mad at us in the morning?” Terius asked.
“No one,” Zain said.
“No one?” Terius repeated.
Zain nodded, glancing around the dance floor. “No one.”
In one sharp motion, Terius turned toward him. Zain met his eye, and couldn’t help but think it felt like being pressed firmly toward the ground. And he was taller than Terius by at least an inch.
“No one?” Terius asked again.
Trying not to grin under the pressure, Zain nodded. “No one,” he promised.
Terius didn’t release his gaze for a count of ten. Then he turned toward the rest of the room again and Zain suddenly felt as he might float on his next step.
“Lead the way,” Terius said.