Working Title: How Far
Characters: Natalia, Guy, etc etc
Part 11 (v2.0) of ?
The morning of her birthday, Natalia arrived in the dining room to find two beautifully wrapped presents waiting at her place. On the sideboard near the table were stacks of cards and greetings from those who could not attend her party later, as well as the regular collection of drawings and stories from the children of the city. The drawings were always her favorite gifts. She felt so honored that the children looked up to her, and she strove to be the best role model she could for them.
Guy was already in the dining room, and he stood when he saw her. “Good morning, Your Highness,” he said with a most proper bow, “and happy birthday.”
“Thank you.” He came around the table to pull her chair for her, and after she sat, he lowered his head and brushed his nose against her hair. It tickled, but in a way that made something in her flutter. His lips lightly touched the curve of her ear before he stood again.
Moments alone were few and brief. She hadn’t had a proper kiss in three days, and she was beginning to miss it, even more than she had during their weeks apart. There was a longing building up inside her, and the feel of his lips on her skin made her ache for more.
“Open your presents,” he said, still standing beside her rather than retaking his seat.
“Which one is yours?”
“Both. Do this one first.”
Inside the first, smaller box was a book of ghost stories. “Ooh, marvelous,” she said appreciatively. “Have you read these?”
“No, but they’re supposed to be true,” he answered.
“That’s even better. Thank you.” An image appeared in her mind, the two of them sitting in front of the fireplace as he read to her. She would jump and shudder and gasp at all the appropriate parts, and he would laugh at her and hold her closer. And then….
She banished any further thoughts for now and turned her attention to the second gift.
The larger box held something much more interesting. “Oh, my!” she said, not knowing what else to say. An intricately twisted handle protruded from a leather sheath, and when removed, revealed a gleaming narrow blade.
“I just thought that, in light of everything, it might be a good idea to have a little extra protection,” he explained. “I’ve got one, too.” He reached down and pulled his own stiletto from his boot. “See, a matching set.”
In a strange way, she found it to be a most romantic gesture. He was worried about her safety. It wouldn’t matter how skilled an archer she was if she didn’t have her bow with her. Should she need to defend herself, a small, concealed dagger would be quite handy indeed. “You’re right,” she said. “I should be prepared.”
“After breakfast, we’ll go to the gym, and I’ll show you how to use it.”
“Don’t I just…?” She made a series of stabbing motions, learning the weight of the knife in her hand.
He chuckled at her direct approach. “Yeah, that’s one way to do it.” His humor deflated the sense of danger she’d felt lately, though since the single arrow, nothing else had happened. Neither were they any closer to discovering the source of the threat. It would be too easy to pretend everything was all right, but if they lowered their guard and grew complacent, they’d be wide open for their attacker’s next move. “Though you’re lacking a certain finesse.”
“Well, yes, finesse is important, isn’t it?”
“And don’t forget this.” He leaned across her, his arm brushing hers, and removed the sheath from the box. “So you can wear it under your dress, like so.” As demonstration, he wrapped the leather sheath around his leg and held it in place.
She stood and prepared to follow his example, raising her skirt to her knees.
“You can just do it later,” he said quickly, and she dropped her skirt.
“That might be best.” Sometimes it was too tempting to tease him, but she should know better than to be showing him her knees at breakfast when anyone could walk in. “Thank you so much for thinking of me.”
“Always, Your Highness.”
While he was standing so close to her, it would be a shame not to take advantage of this rare moment of privacy. Her lips met his in a soft, fleeting touch, still not the proper kiss she’d been needing, but enough to get her through breakfast.
They returned to their seats just as one of the kitchen maids appeared to pour the tea. “Thank you, Rosalie,” Guy said, flashing his easy smile, and the girl blushed and curtsied before him.
“You are such a flirt,” Natalia said once Rosalie had gone.
“What?” He blinked, innocent as a newborn. “All I said was thank you.”
It wasn’t what he said but how he said it. He was incredibly gracious with the servants, perhaps because of the time he’d spent serving in her uncle’s house. But with the women, there was that added layer of charm and chivalry. Her maids had all developed mad crushes on him.
Not that she could blame them.
That evening was a perfect night for a ball. The weather was clear and temperate, the sky scattered with stars like diamonds on velvet. The doors to the ballroom were thrown wide to let the gentle breeze circulate and soothe the many guests who had come to celebrate the princess’s birthday and meet the young man who would soon be her prince.
When the party was initially planned, Natalia had wanted a masquerade ball. After the threat against her and Guy, however, security had been increased, and the king wanted to cancel the costume aspect altogether. Natalia managed to sweet talk her father into a compromise where costumes would be allowed, but not masks. As it was, no one should be entering the palace without an invitation, and all guests would thus be known and accounted for.
That did not mean, however, that their attacker would not be present.
Still, Natalia refused to dwell on that unpleasant topic and let it ruin her enjoyment in playing dress up. Louise had designed a wonderful mermaid-inspired gown for her, with a shimmery green skirt that flared below the knee to mimic a tail fin. The bodice was just a shade darker than her skin and adorned with scallop-shaped embellishments in the expected places. A string of pearls looped around her neck, and a matching bracelet adorned her left wrist. To finish the look, two glittering starfish barrettes held her hair away from her face.
She knew she’d chosen well when Guy could not stop looking at her. He, meanwhile, was indulging his childhood pirate obsession, wearing a ruffled open-necked shirt and dark breeches with his boots. A red sash was tied around his waist, and an eyepatch—once he realized how it interfered with his depth perception— was pushed up on his forehead. As no pirate costume would be complete without a sword, he’d brought along a toy cutlass. This pretend weapon was inspected and allowed. No one but Natalia knew about the very real dagger in his boot.
Most of her guests had gotten into the spirit of the evening as well. There were characters from fairy tales and folk legends, animals real and mythical, and even various fruits and vegetables. Some costumes were simple additions to existing formal wear, and some were impressive, elaborate creations. The ballroom had turned into a fantastic wonderland, and it was just what Natalia had wanted.
“Many happy returns, Your Highness.”
“Why, thank you,” she answered, returning Jade’s slightly sarcastic bow with a somewhat sarcastic curtsy of her own. “You look rather dashing this evening.” And it was true. Eschewing a traditional costume, he was dressed in an elegant black suit, including a crisp white cravat and ruby pin. Even his hair had been pulled back in a tidy queue. “Have you come disguised as a proper gentleman?”
“Ha ha, I don’t think anyone would believe that,” he replied with a deliberate adjusting of his spectacles. “Instead, let us say that I am the ghost of my former self, doomed to wander this world for eternity.” He waggled his fingers at them for good measure. “Boo.”
“Hmm,” Guy mused, a crooked finger to his chin. “I would have thought you were your own replica.”
“Oh, yes, that would have been much more clever,” Natalia added.
“Not to mention scarier.”
“I know I’d never sleep at night.”
The colonel sighed. “You children have no respect for your elders.”
“Thanks, we try,” Guy said, and Natalia giggled.
“By the by, Natalia, as birthday and wedding gift both, I have endeavored to teach our young Gailardia everything I know. However, should he prove to be an abject failure, feel free to blame the emperor.”
She looked to Guy for some clarification on this matter, but he had shut his eyes and was shaking his head. “Well, thank you for that, I suppose,” she replied.
With another adjustment of his glasses, Jade bid them a farewell for now and left in search of libations stronger than the champagne cocktails being served.
“You know, I’m convinced that this—” Guy mimed the glasses maneuver. “—is his way of flipping us off.”
She’d often wondered that herself. “What sort of knowledge was he talking about?”
Guy went completely pale. “I want you to promise me that you will never, ever ask what they tried to tell me.”
Whatever it was had clearly left him scarred. “Yes, I promise.”
He managed to pull himself back together as Count Doucet appeared to bestow his best wishes.
Between the preparations and other obligations of this wedding week, Natalia had been drilling Guy with the names and titles of the many people he’d be meeting. She’d worried that she was overwhelming him with trivial bits of information, and reassured him that he needn’t be too concerned if he blanked on someone’s position in the kingdom. Yet his memory proved to be a steel trap from which the slightest detail could not escape. With each introduction, he impressed the lords and ladies with his wealth of knowledge on almost any subject, and his ability to reflect the focus of the conversation back onto them was a brilliant way to gain their instant approval.
She was incredibly proud to have him by her side.
“How am I doing?” he asked when they had a moment to breathe.
“Like you were born to it,” she answered. He smiled at her as she slid her arm through his, then she clutched it tightly as she realized who was approaching them next.
“Happy birthday, Your Highness,” Lady Adele said. Her tone and expression were so polite that they lacked any sincerity. Rather than come in costume, she was dressed all in black as if she were in mourning.
Alfred accompanied his mother, saying nothing, shuffling his feet with obvious disinterest. He had attempted to dress for the evening as a coliseum gladiator, but he looked about as imposing as a lost puppy. Unlike Guy, he was not equipped with a plastic weapon, but Natalia didn’t know if he’d forgotten it or if the guards had taken it from him upon entering the palace.
“Thank you. It’s so good of you to join us this evening.” Natalia’s own words were equally stiff and formal. “Lady Adele, Alfred, I’d like to introduce my fiancé, Count Gardios. Guy, darling, this is the Duchess Adele Creemore and her son, Alfred.”
Guy’s blue eyes widened slightly at the casual endearment. She’d meant it as a territorial claim, but she felt as though she’d been waiting for an excuse to say it.
He greeted each of them in turn. “But surely one so youthful must be Alfred’s sister, Your Grace.”
Natalia watched carefully for the duchess’s reaction. Guy’s charm could melt glaciers, but Lady Adele’s ice was in no danger of thawing. “Such an old line,” the duchess clucked.
“I prefer to think of it as a classic,” he answered, smile still in place. Natalia had to admire that. She was practically in the dagger-eye stage herself.
“You look familiar, Count Gardios,” Lady Adele continued. “Have we met before?”
“I don’t believe so,” he answered. “Perhaps you knew my mother, Eugenie Cecille.” Even with his voice smooth as honey, Natalia heard the bitter note in it. He could play the political game just as she was forced to, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. Her arm was still in his, and she held him just a little closer. “Or maybe my cousin, the general.”
The duchess didn’t so much as blink. Instead, she seemed to enjoy Guy’s veiled bitterness. “Oh, yes, I remember now,” she said, her eyes dark and hard. “You were Susanne’s house boy, weren’t you? Such a young and scrawny thing then.”
“Yes, that was me. It was an honor to serve such a distinguished family.” His body was tense, and Natalia held his arm even closer to her breast to remind him that she was here.
“Well, well, from servant’s quarters to the palace. You’re the perfect match for our special princess, aren’t you?”
Natalia had almost bitten her tongue off at this point, but Guy remained calm. “The titles and palace would mean nothing without Natalia by my side. I would gladly live in a tent on the beach as long as we’re together.” He turned to her with the most adoring smile she had ever seen.
“That’s so sweet of you, darling,” she answered with a girlish giggle, and she returned his smile. “Isn’t he the sweetest thing?” she said to the duchess.
“Hmm, indeed.” Lady Adele refused to bristle, but Natalia took it as a point scored all the same. When was the last time the duke had flattered or expressed affection for his wife? Had he ever?
Alfred had grown quite bored of this entire exchange. He’d had nothing of his own to add and had stood by, rolling his eyes and yawning. “I’m supposed to ask you to dance, Your Highness.” He sounded as if it were a choice between dancing and mucking out the stables.
The duchess tried to laugh at her son’s clumsy parroting of whatever he’d been ordered to do. “Oh, Alfred, you won’t impress Her Highness with such a lukewarm invitation.” The laughter masked anger that would likely come out later. For two people who desperately wanted to expand their influence in this kingdom, they had produced a son who could barely keep his end of the bargain.
“Thank you, Alfred, I would like a dance,” Natalia lied. The sooner she got this over with, the better.
“And would you honor me with a dance as well, Your Grace?” Guy asked.
There was that forced laughter again. “Oh, dancing is for the young. I’ll excuse myself and search for company more befitting a woman my age.”
Natalia nearly gasped. The woman had just snubbed the future prince. All other things aside, that simply was not done. But rather than insulted, Guy looked relieved.
The duchess did then excuse herself, and when Natalia turned to Alfred for her obligated dance, she found that he’d wandered off as well. Without his mother present to ensure that he followed through, he apparently felt no need. “Oh, my. Have we both been snubbed?”
“I sure hope so,” Guy answered. “Dance with me?”
Now there was an invitation. “Absolutely.”
It wasn’t the first time they’d danced together. Over the past few years, they’d attended some of the same balls and galas, when she’d make an official visit Grand Chokmah or when he’d come here. Because of his years of avoiding physical contact with women, she’d been the one to teach him the common steps and figures in preparation for such events.
This time he held her a little closer than those dances before, his arm almost possessive around her waist. Her hand was a little firmer on his shoulder, the space between them a little smaller than what was considered acceptable. This time she was acutely aware of the way her body aligned with his, the way they fit and moved together, the way she followed his lead.
This train of thought was in danger of leading somewhere inappropriate, so she focused her attention on their guests instead.
“Jozette looks beautiful, doesn’t she?”
The general, usually so severe and authoritative in uniform, was dressed as a dance hall girl, a picture of femininity. Layer upon layer of colorful ruffles made up her skirt, the corset-like bodice accentuated her graceful figure, and her blonde hair had been curled in a soft, tousled style. The choker around her neck was adorned with a blood red rose. Rouge was splashed across her cheeks and lips, enhancing rather than hiding the natural glow underneath.
“We Cecilles are nothing if not beautiful,” Guy answered, and Natalia rolled her eyes at him.
“So, who is he?”
“Who is what?”
“Whomever she’s dressed up for,” Natalia replied. Men were so obtuse sometimes. “I haven’t seen her smile like that in a long time.”
“Hmm.” Guy considered his cousin more carefully. “Yeah, she does look happy.”
“Happy? She’s positively sparkling. That’s the smile of a woman in love. Oh, I’m so thrilled for her. No one deserves happiness more than she does.” While they weren’t close, Natalia felt a certain kinship with Jozette, having both lost the ones they had dreamed of marrying. Perhaps that was why she felt so nosy now, or because they were soon to be in-laws, or because it was just in her nature to be curious about everyone else’s business.
“Maybe, but look,” he said. “Don’t pester her about it. If she wants us to know, she’ll tell us, okay?”
Us. She liked being part of an us. “But if you find anything out—“
“You’ll be the first to know, I promise.”
“That’s all I ask.”
As the song ended, they reluctantly separated for new partners, moving through the room to mingle and chat and dance with as many of their guests as they could, before meeting up again to rest. He was waiting for her with a glass of champagne, and she tried not to drink it too fast lest the bubbles go straight to her head.
Luke and Tear were also with him. She’d barely gotten to spend any time with them this evening. They’d come dressed as a matched pair, which she was sure was Tear’s idea. Luke wore a magician’s cape and top hat, a bright red carnation pinned to his lapel and colorful scarves peeking out of his sleeves, while Tear was his bunny-girl assistant, with floppy pink ears and a fluffy cotton-puff tail on the back of her rose-colored gown.
“Will someone finally tell me who Anise is supposed to be?” Luke asked, gesturing to the girl across the room.
Anise’s gown was a deep blue velvet over a hoop skirt that made her look as wide as she was tall. Her dark hair was braided and coiled at the base of her neck, wrapped with a string of pearls in an old-fashioned but regal style. She fanned herself idly, not from heat but to draw attention to her modest décolletage, and she was batting her heavily kohled eyes as if every word the emperor said was the most fascinating thing she had ever heard.
In return, the emperor seemed delighted to have found such a willing audience for his prattlings. He, of course, was dressed as a peacock, resplendent in blue and green, and his blond hair was shining like an ironic halo.
“I do believe—” Natalia looked to Guy for confirmation, and he nodded. “—that she is Empress Lillian the Second of Malkuth.”
“Yeah,” Guy said, chuckling. “Be more subtle, Anise.”
Luke scratched his nose. “I don’t get it.”
“Anise has set her sights on the emperor,” Tear explained, “although I’d hoped she was kidding.”
“Kidding about marrying someone with money and power?” Natalia said. “Have you met Anise?”
“Yeah, but isn’t he old?” Luke said.
“He’s the same age as Jade,” Guy reminded him.
“Don’t say that. You’ll summon him,” Natalia warned. She was kidding less about that than she was about Anise. The colonel had a way of popping up when others were talking about him.
“Nah, he’s in the card room with the other geezers, drinking all of Uncle’s good whiskey and taking everyone’s money.”
“That sounds about right,” Guy said. As the music started again, he handed his empty glass to a passing servant. “Tear, may I have the honor of this next dance?”
The rouge in her cheeks didn’t quite cover her pleased blush. Throughout the evening, she’d had the same response to every request, as if it was somehow embarrassing to admit that she enjoyed dancing. “Oh! Of course.”
Natalia waved them away with a tinkly flutter of her fingers. Beside her, Luke was turning his hat around in his hands, never sure what to do with it. “You don’t have to ask me to dance, Luke,” she said when they were alone.
“Just because it’s my birthday, I mean.”
Even Luke could not miss such a hint. “Sorry. Did you want to dance?”
She clasped her hands together and gave him her best smile. “Why, Luke, that would be lovely. Thank you.”
They joined the others for the quadrille, then, surprisingly, he stayed with her for the next waltz. Despite his initial reluctance, there was no clumsiness or hesitation in his steps. “You’re quite good at this,” she said.
His shoulder shrugged beneath her hand. “All those lessons when we were kids, I guess.”
“You hated them, as I recall.”
“Well, they were stupid,” he answered. “I wasn’t allowed to leave the house. When was I going to dance at any parties?”
“We were learning for our wedding,” she said quietly, he nodded. “Now we’ll dance at each other’s weddings instead.”
When he turned her around, she saw Guy and Tear, also still together after the quadrille. She remembered how Guy would watch her lessons with Luke back then. And hadn’t she tried to cajole him into practicing with her whenever Luke got frustrated and escaped up a tree? But Guy had always resisted, unable to touch her, and unable to breach the social line between them.
“It’s funny how everything’s changed,” she mused, mostly to herself. “You know, Asch hated dance lessons, too.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Yes, he did. I was there.”
His hand gripped hers tightly. “No,” he said again. “He didn’t.”
And she saw it in his green eyes, that he knew. “Oh.”
“He couldn’t say he liked it because he thought it wasn’t manly to like dancing. But he got to hold you, and you were warm and soft, and you’d smile at him, and….” He shook his head and blinked away the memory that wasn’t his. “What little kid even thinks about stuff like that?” he said, letting out a choked laugh. “Man, he was weird.”
“Luke.” The music was still playing, but they had stopped, standing there at the periphery of the floor as everyone else continued spinning around them. He was looking down, and only when she laid her hand on his cheek did he meet her eyes again. “You know that you’ll always have a special place in my heart.”
He nodded, and the languid waltz tempo faded to introduce an energetic reel. Anise appeared out of nowhere and grabbed Natalia’s hand, pulling her away from Luke and into line with the other women.
Guy was in the line across from her, grinning at her like he’d missed her.
She hadn’t been gone that long, yet it felt like a lifetime.
And once again, she didn’t get to say goodbye.
Anise never was one for standing still, and all night she’d been flitting around like a butterfly, making sure she was introduced to everyone of possible importance.
Guy noticed that she always found her way back to the emperor. She was being so very obvious about the whole thing, but if there was one thing the emperor appreciated, it was constant, unabashed attention.
“What can you tell me about your enchanting little friend from Daath?” Peony had asked Guy earlier.
“I can tell you that she’s only nineteen, Your Majesty,” Guy had answered, his tone dry as dust.
“Good, that means she’ll be twenty soon, doesn’t it?”
The young woman in question was now bouncing in front of Guy, as excited as he’d ever seen her. “I saw you talking to him. What did he say about me?”
“Anise, I’m begging you, keep me out of this.” Evading the question might not be the best way to go, but Guy didn’t want to get involved. If the emperor was just looking for an ego-boosting flirtation, Guy wouldn’t be responsible for Anise expecting more.
On the other hand, Anise had proved time and again that she was more than capable of looking out for herself. Perhaps the emperor was the one who should beware.
“Ooh, wouldn’t we have the most gorgeous children?” Anise asked with a dreamy sigh.
Guy let out a sigh of his own. Maybe there was no harm in letting her have this fairy tale for now, he supposed. He knew she was cynical enough not to believe it.
Luke, who had been witnessing most of this dalliance with his usual mix of obliviousness and couldn’t-give-a-damn, suddenly had a contribution. “Hey, Natalia looks just like her mother Sylvia, right?”
“Um, that was random,” Guy answered.
“No, wait. Natalia looks like Sylvia, but her father was Largo.”
“So what will your kids look like?”
Anise came out of her fantasy and pointed an accusing finger at Guy. “Oh, my gosh! You’re going to have scary little Largo babies!”
Luke was nodding. “Scary little Largo babies.”
“Oh, come on, you guys are being ridiculous.”
“They’re going to be all hairy and angry,” Anise continued, ignoring Guy completely.
“Yeah, they’ll look like this.” And then Luke scowled in a way that wasn’t much different from his usual face. “Even the girls.”
“Especially the girls,” Anise said.
Okay, now they were being completely ridiculous. The Cecille and Gardios families had always been pretty nice-looking, if he was allowed to say so, and Natalia was in a class of her own, so the chance of angry, hairy, scary babies was….
Damn. Why did they put this in his head?
They were still making goofy faces at each other, and Guy realized there was only one way to stop them. “Anise,” he said, “have I told you how lovely you look tonight?”
She snapped to attention and fluttered her fan in front of her. “No, you haven’t, so tell me twice to make up for it.”
“You’re absolutely stunning. Empress Lillian herself surely never looked so magnificent.” He dialed the charm up to eleven. “Men should be falling at your feet to pledge their eternal devotion. Bards will sing of your beauty for generations to come.”
Anise giggled like a practiced coquette and narrowed her eyes in a way that was probably supposed to be alluring. “Careful, Count Gailardia, or I’ll forget you’re engaged to one of my best friends.”
“Oh, please,” Luke muttered, “like you don’t have a history of trying to steal Natalia’s fiancés.”
“Don’t be jealous, Luke.” Anise turned her overly sweet smile to him. “Just because Natalia and I have upgraded doesn’t mean we don’t love you.”
“You’re so jealous your eyes are turning green.”
“My eyes are already green, dummy.”
Well, at least they’d stopped talking about scary little Largo babies. Now if only it were as easy to banish that image from his mind.
Natalia was sipping at another champagne cocktail, having lost count over the course of the evening, but she decided it didn’t matter. It had been a wonderful birthday, and it was nice to forget her worries for a while. The party was a grand success, and everyone seemed to be having fun.
Across the room, Guy was talking with Noelle, making animated gestures as he described something, and she was nodding and smiling back at him. Noelle was completely adorable as a gossamer-winged fairy with a tulip-shaped skirt and flowers woven in her blonde hair. When she began gesturing in return, her wings fluttered.
They must have been discussing machines. Natalia had seen the same enthusiastic gestures earlier when he’d been bragging to Ginji about his riding machine.
“Your count is very popular.”
Natalia refused to let the duchess sour her evening. “Yes, he is. It’s good to see so many people still appreciate honor and integrity.”
“I hope he knows to be discreet,” Lady Adele continued, undaunted. “You won’t want any little bastards coming along and trying to claim a piece of the royal pie.”
“No, it’s only fully grown bastards who do that, isn’t it,” Natalia replied, equally cool.
The duchess simply clucked at her. One might think it was the sympathetic sort of clucking if one didn’t know better. There was no kindness in the duchess’s eyes or her tight-lipped smile. “Such naïveté may be charming, but it will do you no favors, Your Highness.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you? We shall see.”
Jealousy, resentment, or pure, unadulterated hatred. The duchess had any number of motives for saying what she did, and not one of them was honest concern. Natalia could be naïve, but she wasn’t stupid enough to take anything the woman said to heart.
And she needed to stop taking the bait. Answering bitch with bitch might make her feel better in the short term, but it was no way to win a conversation, and no way to live her life.
Instead, Natalia flashed her most dazzling smile and said, “Thank you so much for coming. We’re just so happy to have you here.” Even that should have sounded bitchy, but she looked at Guy as she said it.
She was happy. Nothing would change that. Not snide remarks, not cowardly threats.
My two big problems:
1. I can't figure out how to end the scene with Natalia and Luke. I don't like what I've got, but can't come up with anything better.
2. I also don't like the way I've ended the last scene with Natalia and the duchess. Again, I just put something for the sake of wrapping it up.
Any suggestions on these two points in particular (and any other points as needed) will be so appreciated.