A Winter’s Ball

I don’t think I’ve seen Annalise this happy in ages. She’s thrilled that Aaron’s back, but even more her giddiness at Mastero Anselm sitting beside her is infectious.

He keeps looking at Raymond like he has six heads, the poor thing, but Raymond is chattering at him quite a bit, and as an oft victim of Raymond’s chattering, I can see it getting a bit off putting, especially given his similar natural aura to Brayton.

I was enjoying the fruits of my labor fairly immensely, mostly happy to see Papa sitting in a chair nodding to the music, not hiding in his study. Countess Olivia said it would pass, and it seems to have.

But I sighed quietly watching the door. He still wasn’t here. Perhaps he’d gone. But Prince Eric was still there. Then it was like the crowd had disappeared. I inhaled as he walked into the room and went to him.

“I thought perhaps you’d stay away,” I said softly.

“No,” he said quietly, taking my hand and kissing it. “No, my love.” I wanted to kiss him, to throw myself into his arms. But something stopped me.

“I thought about what you said,” I said softly. “I still want you.” He smiled at that. “I disagree that you’ll leave me.” He laughed. “I understand why you think you will, but I’ve been told I’m the most beautiful woman alive. A goddess insisted that a man trade his soul for me.”

“I see,” he nodded. “And your thought is that I will be unable to resist you, then?” I nodded.

“Yes,” I said softly and took his arm. We walked and I glanced around the room, “so tonight, you will see to Eric, and I will see to Annalise.” He nodded.

“They are royal and useless and require assistance,” he grinned, “and with Count Aaron returned and Raymond beside himself at getting to speak with an actual Mastero, that just leaves us,” I nodded.

“And then you’ll come to see me,” I said and we found our way to an alcove. He pressed me against the wall.

“I’ll make you mine, then,” he said softly. I smiled.

“I’m already yours,” I said. He nodded.

“And there won’t be any further,” he looked down, “I mean, is there anything you need?” I blinked at him. “Marina.”

“Oh!” I laughed. “Oh that! No I take a potion for that.” He blinked at me again. “It’s quite simple, you see, there’s a property in whip willow bark that when isolated syncs with the tides so does a woman’s cycle and it prevents pregnancy.” He grinned and laughed. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” he said, “you’re brilliant, is all, and if you weren’t already the second richest woman in Cammadan, I’d guess you’d be about to be with discovering a potion like that.”

“Oh I didn’t discover it,” I rolled my eyes. “Common women have been using whip willow for ages, I just found a way to make it easier to take than boiling bark tea and choking it down.”

“Still,” he said. “You’re brilliant.” I laughed and kissed him. “Goddess, do we have to wait until the end of the night?” I giggled and slipped away from him. I found a pillar and leaned against it and exhaled.

I’d thought about this a thousand times. Not with Lefty, certainly, but with Tristan and with William, and even with horror, Brayton.

But I’d never imagined being so in love with someone I wanted so badly. And he loved me too.

“Well, hello,” Athena slid up to me. I looked at her. “So, purely out of curiosity and caring for your well being, and not because Elodie, Mercy and I have a bet, are you still a virgin?”

“Who bet that I wasn’t?” I asked.

“Mercy,” we said at the same time.

“I bet that you were until this afternoon, and Elodie said you most certainly still were,” she shrugged. “So?”

“A lady doesn’t speak about such things,” I straightened my skirt. She laughed. “When’s your wedding?”

“Fall,” she said happily. I looked at her. “Enroute back from Brightcoast we’re going to stop in Pantona. We’re doing it then.” I smiled. I glanced over and noticed Lefty talking to my father. “You won’t change his mind you know. Unless they get married, he’s going to leave.”

“I know,” I said softly, “but I have to try.” She nodded and squeezed my hand. “I love him.” She smiled.

“I know,” she said quietly. “You just have a tendency to get run over by love, my friend, and I don’t want to see it happen again.”

“It won’t,” I said taking her hands. I saw Aaron walking towards us. “You Grace.”

“Duchess,” he smirked. “I heard a rumor that this was meant to emulate our evenings in Pantona.” I nodded. “Our first winter ball was your idea?”

“Your father asked me what I thought would be fun,” I explained, “I came up with this. Also ice skating, and new dresses.” He laughed.

“Lisette had a new dress,” he said, “and there was in fact ice skating.” He turned to Athena. “A dance, Captain?”

“An honor,” Athena said and took his hand. I glanced about the room and saw Tristan in a corner, his arms crossed over his chest while Annalise sat at her table, laughing at something Eric said. I don’t know what understanding they’d come to, but I could tell he wasn’t happy. I walked over to him.

“Lady Marina,” he whispered.

“Sir Tristan,” I said, “you’ll go soon?” He nodded.

“Tomorrow,” he whispered, “if the my grandfather’s party is ready to that is.”

“I thought he left ages ago,” I said softly. He nodded.

“He always has people in Dovetail,” he pointed out. “It would be bad for business not to.” I nodded. “Am I to congratulate you?” He asked. I looked at him. “I noticed Lieutenant Lestoff speaking to Duke Lestat.”

“No,” I said softly, “no it isn’t that.” He nodded. “Brayton is going to be executed, and you’re going to find a bride, and Athena and Aaron are marrying and Annalise,” I exhaled, “tonight is the last night that things will be even a little bit like they once were.”

“My parents, teaching Athena and I chess,” he whispered, “you leading prayers.” I nodded.

“Dance with me,” I said and held my hand out. He smiled and took it. “It’s better now, isn’t it?” I whispered.

“Yes,” he said softly. “In some ways, in others, I’m never sure.” I looked at him. “I knew you then.”

“You still do,” I said softly. He smiled. “You’ll write?” I whispered as the music stopped.

“Don’t I always?” He said softly. I nodded and he let go of me. I glanced over to where Annalise was sitting, laughing at something that Eric was saying to her. This was all for the best. For the good of everything.

What Anselm had said earlier was sticking with me. The gods had sent Eric, as a way for Annalise to fulfill her mandate.

“I should,” I whispered, glancing across the room and seeing Lefty smile at a blonde girl in a guard uniform, and take her hand for the next dance. I wasn’t jealous, exactly, but I did wish it was me, “I should see to Papa,” I managed and Tristan nodded. “You know how he hates this sort of thing.”

“Of course,” he said softly. “I should,” he exhaled, “Athena,” I nodded and walked away, catching a wink from Lefty as he waltzed with the pretty guard girl. I realized how soon, he’d be mine and I almost swooned.

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