Elaine watched as more and more people began to pair up and join in the dance. “This is ridiculous,” she noted to her table. She looked around at all the faces, looking for some sign of agreement. Not finding any, she decided to plunge ahead anyway. “I mean--dancing. Come on!”
Jean sighed. “You want someone to ask you to dance?”
“Wha--?” shouted Elaine. “No! Of course not!”
“So--that’s a yes,” said Jean.
Elaine looked away. “Don’t be ridiculous. Actually--this goes beyond ridiculous.” She glanced at Jean again. “Don’t be ludicrous.”
Jean rolled her eyes. “Yeah. That’s what I’m doing.” She leaned forward. “Look, there’s an easy way to get a dance partner. You just…”
Agri Khan approached Jean and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “I say, Jean--as none of my wives are here, I have a rare opportunity to dance with a woman I actually enjoy spending time with,” he explained. “Care to join me?”
Jean took his arm. “I’ll tell you when I get back.”
Elaine watched as the pair spiritedly danced away. “Hmph.” She glanced at Marfisa. “Fine weather friends, eh? Who needs them! Deserting you at the first dance offer!” She frowned forcefully and slapped her hand on the table. “It should be a crime! A crime!”
Marfisa coughed. “Well--actually… you see… it’s… it can be… some people… they…”
At that moment, Malachel Maganza approached the table. “Ahh. Lady Marfisa.” He bowed. “I believe a dance is in order.” He then looked away idly, preening somewhat, and smoothing out his fine velvet clothes.
Marfisa meekly took his hand as Elaine stared in astonishment. “I… he’s my… we’re engaged,” said Marfisa. She looked nervously at her feet as Malachel whisked her away.
Ruggier stood up. “I believe you must excuse me.” He glanced at Rodomonte, who nodded quietly. “Malachel bears watching. Sometimes he gets… overly familiar and poor ‘Fisa has hard time realizing she can fend him off.” He bowed. “I hope you realize--this is an obligation for her. She much prefers your company.” And with that he headed off, Rodomonte at his side.
“It a-appears we are a-alone,” noted Psyche Zenobia, leaning forward. “Y-you know, I b-believe I kn-know the secret Ma-Madame Crow wished to tell you.”
Elaine glared at the Dev. “Yeah, well, I don’t care.”
“S-sadly, I shall t-tell you a-any-anyway,” replied Zenobia, as she stood from the table. “Y-you ask them.” She walked towards a rather plump Erl walking determinedly on the floor. “P-pardon me, sir--m-may I have this d-dance?”
The Erl bowed. “The Duke of Chiaramonte never refuses the request of a lovely lady. It is, I’m afraid, a family fault.” He gently took her hand.
Zenobia’s eyes went wide. “My g-goodness! The D-Duke of Chiaramonte!” She laughed. “S-sir, you are quite t-taking my b-breath away!”
“My goodness!” declared Malagise. “To think that I have received such a treasured gift from you. I am astounded! You honor me! Your precious breath! I will cherish it, my dear, cherish it.” He took her arm, and with a surprising dexterity, lead her onto the dance floor.
“B-but d-dear m-me, Duke,” said Zenobia coyly. “I n-need my breath. Why, I can b-barely form s-sen-sentences with it! W-without it I shall be q-quite l-lost.”
“Well, then,” said Malagise with a nod, “at the first opportunity, I must give it back to you, Madame…?”
“Psyche Z-Zenobia at your s-service,” replied Zenobia. “But--you must call me ‘Suky Snobbs’!”
“Oh, must I?” asked Malagise with burning sincerity.
Elaine watched the pair move away with a sinking feeling that she couldn’t quite place. Was she--envious? Of Psyche Zenobia? A woman who looked as vaguely mangled as she talked? Who was dancing with a man who probably weighed as much as two of her--quite possibly weighed down by a case of ninepin balls each?
Well, yes. Because fat or not, he was dancing with her. And, ugly or not, ridiculous or not, Psyche Zenobia was enjoying it. Very much.
It occurred to Elaine that in the tales, this was a where a handsome prince always showed up and made everything better. And then she heard a sharp cough.
Elaine turned. Pinabel Maganza stood there, looking at her rather austerely with his one eye. “Would my lady care to dance?” he said in his wheeze of a voice.
Elaine made a mental note to find the graves of all the people who wrote all the tales and spit on them. “Ahh, yes,” she said nervously. “Look, I hope you don’t think…”
“I am a happily married man with two children,” stated Pinabel in a slightly tired voice. “This is done as a favor, as a young woman should not be left alone during the dance, on the Occasion of her Debut.”
Elaine blinked. “So that’s it, eh? Help the lonely girl out?”
“If I were unmarried--and significantly younger--than it would be significantly different,” said Pinabel. “But I am what I am. And if this does not find favor in the lady’s eyes, than I am sincerely sorry.”
Well, now she felt guilty. Elaine decided to take him up on the offer before the whole thing took a turn for the worse and she wound up on her hands and knees, begging for forgiveness before the entire gathering. “I… I don‘t really know how to…,” she said, taking his hand.
“Follow my lead,” said Pinabel gently. “Right foot… left foot…”
Elaine did so, and was amazed to discover that dancing was far less difficult than she’d thought it would be. She coughed. “Umm--thanks,” she said. “I… I…” She bit her lip. “So, you’re married?”
“Happily so,” said Pinabel. “I realize that this may seem hard for a girl your age to realize, but many women want more from a man than a pretty face. Though my wife is a treasure beyond all counting.” He smiled gently for a moment, then grew serious again. “As for my scars--they mark the time I saved the life of my king. There is no shame in them.”
“Aside from the fact that the King was Asterot,” muttered Elaine. Then immediately wished she hadn’t.
To her surprise, Pinabel only gave a subtle sigh. “I… He was not always as he is now. During the Occupation--in the Woods--he was a braver, better man than you could imagine. I can recall him still, in Clove Pine. A young man. So much on his shoulders. But laughing, keeping our spirits up, reminding us what it was we were fighting for. It was an honor to serve him then. An honor and a joy. But, afterwards…” A tremble entered Pinabel’s voice. “It was if a fire at first gradually dwindled--and then went entirely out. Leaving only--ashes and dust, and the smallest portion of… blackened wood. He went through so much, suffered so much--and he--he cannot let go. Or will not.” He shook his head. “It makes… little difference. Lord Asterot survived the war--but now the peace is killing him. Or he is killing himself because of it. It amounts to the same thing. Those years still take their toll on him. And will until the day he dies.”
“He’s not alone in that. Everyone was touched, even the people who were too young to understand exactly what was going on. Lord Shaddad dragged us all through hell,” said Elaine.
Pinabel gave a bitter laugh. “I sometimes think, my lady, that we give Lord Shaddad entirely too much credit. Even without him it would have been a long bad season for us. He was only the spark to the tinder. And there was plenty of that. The Fangs had two of the most tyrannical Dark Lords they’d ever produced--the Royal Branch of Maganza was in the midst of an especially terrible dispute for the Throne--your own house had just had its little squabble, and…” He sighed. “I’m sorry. The fault of… old men is that there’s a part of us that’s always remembering what happened when we were young. The fault of foolish old men is supposing that life was better back then.”
Elaine glanced at him for a moment. “You--don’t look that old. Not really.”
“I am forty-eight,” said Pinabel. “Still in my prime, I suppose. But my generation… well, most of us followed our parents and older siblings into the war. And found ourselves left to sort out matters with our younger cousins afterwards.” He sighed. “It’s been disconcerting, I must admit. But that‘s how it stands. We are a lost generation. Old before our time. Worn out by overuse earlier than expected. And with years to go before we’re finally discarded.”
“Wow,” said Elaine. “You really do open up.” She looked at him sincerely. “I mean it. You didn’t say this much during the entry, and you were acting as herald then.”
Pinabel shrugged. “I don’t get many chances to not be the High Bailiff,” he replied. “I try to enjoy them when they come. And a lovely lady always brings out my sociable side.”
“You are really making me reconsider my stance on House Maganza,” she noted.
“Well, we are not all bad,” said Pinabel wryly. “Your stepfather’s mother was a Maganza--though of the now-extinct Southern Branch. And your grandfather…” He frowned. “No, wait, that was your aunt. Viviane’s father was the Count Ulfius.”
Elaine frowned quietly. Her mother didn’t talk very much about her relatives. Especially about Elaine’s aunt, Viviane’s sister, who she’d always gathered died young. That was just--part of what having Viviane as a mother was about. Not hearing things.
Even if you wanted to.
“I’m losing my thread,” declared Pinabel. “Sorry. I do tend to ramble. As I was saying--some of us are quite nice. And we all have our moments.” He gestured to Lord Asterot, seated quietly in the corner. “For example, His Imperial Munificence pointed you out to me and said you looked lonely. I suspect he trusted my sense of chivalry to take care of the rest. Which it did.” Pinabel shrugged. “As I said. Moments.”
She looked at Asterot again. He looked back at her, nodded, then shut his eyes. He looked tired, and sad. And so, so very, utterly alone, even amidst all these people. Perhaps even especially amidst all these people. As if being around others forced him further into himself, where he got lost in all the darkness, and the pain, and the memories…
Elaine sighed. Damn it. The bastard would go and ruin things by being human. Just her luck.