"After The Party"
Just before they reached the center of the room where the dancers turned and stepped gracefully, Henrik stopped short.
“Uh-oh,” he muttered, ushering Stella off to the side, deeper into the crowd of spectators. “Let’s go this way.”
Stella noticed the way his shoulders hunched, because it was the same stance she took when she didn’t want Jacintha to notice her. The moment of Nadia Stevens ended, and Old Stella took over, keenly and painfully aware of absolutely everyone they passed.
“What are we doing?” she whispered to Henrik. “I thought we were dancing.”
He kept her close, at least. “We will dance, I promise, Nadia,” he replied. “But just now, I happen to be avoiding a certain relentless lady—“
“Your Grace!” A footman approached them. He noted the expression on Henrik’s face, and glanced at the unfamiliar young lady at his side. “Is there a problem, sir?”
“No problem,” Henrik responded, straightening and keeping a wary eye out for the “relentless lady.” “I was just trying to avoid the attentions of one certain—“ he pointed until the footman could make out precisely whom he meant.
Stella followed his gaze, too, and her heart just about sank in her chest. Agatha! She was looking, the long neck craned, the pink dress flouncing all over the place as she ignored all the bachelors crossing her path in the pursuit of one only—if anyone would know who she was, in spite of the Ring, it would be her!
“Ah, I see,” said the footman. “Fear not, good sir. Miss Farfalle will be departing shortly, and then you may move about freely.”
Henrik relaxed, but Stella could not. If Agatha was leaving soon, that meant she would need to depart sooner. She slid her hand out of Henrik’s grasp.
He frowned with concern as he watched her. “What is it, Nadia? Are you all right?”
Stella gulped. “I…” What could she say? “I don’t feel well.”
Henrik’s face fell. “I’m sorry I haven’t done enough for you tonight. I promise I’ll try to do better—“
“No!” Stella reached out and seized his hand again. “Henrik, tonight has been more perfect than any other night of my life! Please do not think me dissatisfied!”
Hope returned to his eyes. “Well then, is there nothing I can do to induce you to stay? Anything I can give you? I would buy you anything you wanted.”
Stella smiled. “But you see, you’ve already given me the most precious of all gifts tonight: you gave me your time.” Her voice caught as her throat tightened, but Stella steadied herself and kept going. “No one has ever given me a second glance, much less a moment where I could be important, and you have done that. Thank you, Henrik; I’ll treasure this night forever.” She backed away a step, looking for a chance to disappear without his pursuit.
The footman leaned in. “Incoming, your grace,” he muttered, and Henrik whirled around to locate Agatha—and happened to catch her eye in the process.
“Yoohoo!” she sang out, waving to him.
Cursing at himself, Henrik ducked to continue running, and when he looked back to where Nadia had stood, she was gone.
Down below the Drakistos property, just beyond the gate, a shivering girl stood concealed in a thicket, feverishly trying to cram a glittering golden gown into the bottom of a basket, and slip her arms into the sleeves of a tattered shift. Pulling the twists and braids out of her hair, she slipped out, lugging the basket behind her. Last of all, she pulled the Ring off her finger, and immediately her features changed from smooth, unmarred skin into a twisted, scarred, and garish appearance. Stella rubbed her thumb over the ropy, flaky patches along her palm, remembering the feel of Henrik’s hand in hers.
Behind her, the gate slammed shut.
“Lazybones!” barked a harsh voice. “Get over here!”
Agatha had arrived, and she looked to be in a sour mood, in spite of the magnificent dress.
Stella knew it wasn’t her place to speak up, so she meekly hoisted the basket into the back of the wagon and joined the young woman in the chaise. Wistfully, she did glance up just once, to see the glowing castle at the top of the hill, and remember the young man who had done the simple thing of enjoying her company.
“What are you looking at?” Agatha growled.
Stella shrank back and directed her gaze to her scarred, itching hands. “Nothing,” she muttered.
“I hope Mother won’t hear tomorrow of any trouble you caused tonight,” Agatha continued. “You were waiting for me the whole time, weren’t you?”
Stella could almost feel the tension building in that small place, but she remembered being Nadia, and the feeling dissipated. “Yes, I waited,” she answered softly. “Just as you asked.”
“Good.” Agatha smoothed her skirts and watched the scenery skate by outside. Altogether, it had not been the most satisfactory night, but there would be other opportunities, she was sure of it.
Henrik stood in one of the upper drawing rooms of the mansion. Guests still lingered below, but he wasn’t feeling very sociable just now. He stood at the window, watching the moon, and remembering the wonderful young lady he was able to share at least part of his evening with. Lost in thought, he raised his injured hand and picked at the edge of the dry patch with his thumbnail. My skin does the same thing, she had said. How was that even possible?
Someone coughed behind him. Henrik turned to face the other person, a young man not much older than himself, with the same fair locks, though the face was thinner, and the eyes dull with fatigue.
“Hello father,” said Henrik calmly. “Did you rest well?”
The pale, young version of Lord Sigmund rolled his eyes as he slouched in an armchair next to his son. “I’ll survive another cycle, at least,” he sighed, rubbing his face. He glanced wryly at Henrik. “Be grateful I used my immortality to find a way so that you would not have to suffer as I do, my son.” He nodded to the party clothes Henrik still wore. “How was the festival?”
Henrik wagged his head. “It was all right. I’m not sure about why you had to have it—“
“Henrik!” Sigmund frowned.
“What, Father? What else do you want me to say?” Henrik threw up his hands. “Why did you ask for it now, of all times? Could it not have waited until you revived? You know how much I dislike these parties—and to have one without you nearby, well…” Henrik faltered awkwardly and resumed itching his palm. He needed more of the medic’s balm that would help remove the scales. Thinking of the scales reminded him of Nadia, and he heaved a heavy sigh.
Sigmund’s lips tightened. To anyone else, it would be more than a little unnerving to see one’s parent appear so close in age to one’s child—but Henrik had grown up knowing that this was as much an effect of the “Drakistos Curse” as the appearance of scales on his skin. Sigmund would always emerge from isolation appearing as young and hearty as the day upon which he had inherited the curse, and after a while, he would age rapidly until he looked the part of Henrik’s father—but by then, it would be nearly time for him to isolate himself once again. Artists and stylists alike had done their best to produce paintings and alter Lord Sigmund’s appearance to match the expectations of his subjects, but recently they had found it easier to simply hide His Lordship from view, to let his reputation produce the desired effect.
He surveyed his son with a wise gleam in his eye. “I know that sigh,” he said. “You did meet someone, at last! Tell me of her!”
Henrik cringed at his father’s boyish interest. “Father—was that the whole reason for the festival? I was wondering why there were so many ladies flocking about! It was miserable!” Had it not been for Nadia, that is, added his psyche.
His father noticed, and the dark eyebrows danced. “Except…” Lord Sigmund prompted.
Henrik smirked. “Except for one girl I met—Nadia. I happened to be passing near the gate when she gave her name, so I vouched for her because her name sounded familiar. You once knew a woman named Nadia, didn’t you, Father?” Sigmund didn’t answer right away, so Henrik finally turned away from the window and looked at him. “Father?”
Sigmund sat as still as stone, an expression etched into his face that seemed halfway between elation and terror. “Nadia?” He gasped. “Did she say where she came from? Did she mention anything about the curse?”
Henrik felt unease at his father’s sudden urgency. “Well, she said she’d been living in Kadros her whole life, but as far as mentioning the curse… I don’t understand it, Father, but she seemed to know about it, and told me that her skin produced the hard, dry scales too.”
“She had… scales?” Lord Sigmund repeated hollowly. “You saw them?”
“No,” Henrik shook his head. “I didn’t see any; but she didn’t seem repulsed by my scales, either. It was strange. I’d never met anyone quite like her before.”
Sigmund recovered himself, watching his son keenly. “Henrik, I want to ask something very important, and I want you to remember it to the best of your ability: was she wearing any particular piece of jewelry that stood out in your mind?”
Henrik only needed a moment to consider. “As a matter of fact,” he replied, “the only piece of jewelry she wore was a ring on her finger. Nothing else.”
Sigmund licked his lips eagerly. “And this ring,” he said, leaning closer to his son, “do you remember what it looked like? Did it, perhaps, feature a dragon?”
“I don’t quite…” A moment after he began speaking, Henrik recalled the sight of Nadia’s ring, as she twisted it nervously while they talked. “Yes! I believe it did,” he answered his father. “A dragon clutching a fire-red gem in its claws, almost in the same manner as our family crest. Say!” He snapped his fingers and stared at his father in astonishment. “Does this mean she is somehow connected with our family, after all?”
“Connected?” Lord Sigmund bounded to his feet. “Henrik, unless by some miracle there is another woman named Nadia with a ring just like the one you’ve described, this may be the very woman destined to lift our family’s curse!”
Itching palm forgotten, Henrik joined his father on his feet. “The Dragon-Marked one? I never knew!”
“Quickly,” Lord Sigmund beckoned his son as he walked out of the room and toward the stairs. The party would be ending by now, and they needed to find Sir Travis. “Tell me everything you know about her, Henrik. Did she tell you where in Kadros she lived?”
Henrik furiously tried to recall every bit of their conversation. “She said it was her first official function, and that I would not have seen her around the Piazza much—no!” He thumped a nearby table with his fist. “She didn’t tell me anything about where she lived!”
Sigmund paced to keep up with his whirling brain. “But if this was her first function, and she met someone she could relate to—the governor’s son, no less—then perhaps she might be enticed to show her face a second time…” He stopped and snapped his fingers. “That’s it!” The spry, young Sigmund raced down the hallway to his stately study. “Where’s Travis?” he muttered, half to himself as he gave no indication that he was still addressing his son. A passing servant caught the comment and its urgency, and immediately set off to carry the message. “We need more posters, and we need an official letter to go out to everyone who entered the grounds yesterday!”
Henrik caught up with his father in the doorway of his study. The sight of the young man racing around his father’s things—so different that the stately, mature magistrate that watched them from the painted portrait against the wall—never failed to send a shiver down his spine. What would he be without this curse? The young man shook his head.
“What are you thinking, father? Why do we need so many letters?”
Sigmund was already penning the first draft, which the scribes would copy. “A letter mentioning the Ring—of course no one would think of it until now! The Dragon is back—it could have been in someone’s possession this whole time, and this could have happened years ago, but we couldn’t be sure until the Dragon returned—the bastard!” Sigmund swore as in his haste, he let several large blots of ink drip onto the words he had already written.
Sir Travis approached the doorway. “You sent for me, sir?” He glanced briefly at Henrik, as if to remind himself that at least one of these youths experienced time appropriately.
“Come in!” Sigmund beckoned to him. “I need an announcement to go out to the visiting vendors and guests—the Festival has been extended for one more night.”
Henrik felt like a dog watching the doors of his kennel close. “But father! You promised it would be one night only!”
“That was before you went off and met the one person who could be our salvation!” Sigmund snapped. “Now, we’ll give them one day to produce the Ring, and if that fails, then we must hope that your good manners and charm will entice her to come out to the Festival again.” Sigmund grabbed his son by the shoulders, the gleam in his eye testifying his true age, in spite of the youthfulness of his face. “Henrik, this is the day we’ve been waiting for—don’t you want to be free of this curse?”
Henrik nodded emphatically. “I do, Father.” No more ointments, no more itchy, dry scales! “I’ll do what you ask.”
Sigmund smiled and gave him a light, genial cuff. “That’s my boy! Inform the servants that the house must be re-decorated—and get some rest! Your night has lasted long enough, and I’ve had enough rest for the both of us. We can’t afford to lose a moment—or this curse might remain for another century!”
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