He didn’t know how to begin finding an answer. His thoughts were clear from afar, but when he tried to pick one to dwell on they all shifted around to confusion. The question was simple, a mere question of why he was standing in a ballroom. Many answers had been presented to him, but in those instances when his head was clear enough to peruse these answers he concluded they were not good answers. Both Mamma and Leanna had told him he was helping his country. Count Elor told him he was serving his king. His little sister Anne said, “I want to go with you. Court is only a dream to me.” Thinking of her night-blue eyes, Ashtor missed his sister now. He was glad he did not have to shatter her dream with tales of his nightmare in this place so unlike home. In the small border town of Wehla, the people were honest, friendly, helpful, and quick to give you advice when you needed guidance. Here at Court things were far from simple. The women at a glance, blushing behind their fans, offering frilly arms of guidance, hid the darker characters beneath where dwelt greedy hearts yearning for higher places in life. The men took care to offer honest tidbits and empathetic nods, but only to raise their status in the eyes of others. Ashtor watched the progress of the moon outside the large windows, each moment yearning more for the nightmare to end. It would not, however, end with the moon, nor with the moon after. It would only end once Ashtor completed his task and the Baroness Eboche was ripe for assassination. The very thought of his mission disgusted him more than the cool wine swirling inside the twisted wineglass rubbing his calloused hands. Hands that should be working the farm where his father needed him dearly. His father told the king’s men the farm would not suffer, a lie for simplicity as the old man knew they would take Ashtor on or behind a horse.
They would have done much better to coerce a courtier into this role the farmer’s boy now played, but he suspected they needed someone who would disappear without a trace. Dressed in a velvet suit, with a ring on every finger, the lad found the society equally overwhelming as distasteful. No one would think to look for him working a field, not with how he was dallied up now. His finely curved chin was neatly shaved, his bright golden hair clean, cut, and combed, his tanned back hidden behind layers of finery. The result was a shiningly handsome young man the Lady Eboche would surely fall for.
His head stopped spinning; finally he was getting somewhere. Ah, they had drugged him with angor, the effect of which was amplified by wine. He set the glass down on a table and looked to the musicians, seeking their surety and sweet tunes to calm him until he found the true question: Why did the king seek to dishonor Lady Eboche? Or, more to his puzzlement at the moment, if he was supposed to obey them as a drugged puppet, how was he supposed to charm the lady if she wasn’t there? The second question was easier, for he had been assured the lady would come to the party. He settled on the task at hand and moved about the room, his servant close behind. In order to earn her regard, and her trust, he needed first to find the young window. When he came across her, it was the servant, one who knew all the faces of those present, who would inform him.
“Lord Ashtor.” A man moved to his right as he greeted the lad. “All blessings under the White Sky. I am Knelson, Duke of Forshire.”
Ashtor inclined his head in respect for the Duke’s higher status. “Your acquaintance is a blessing, my Lord Duke.”
“I hear you own a collection of farms, and among this collection, the serfs have rebelled but once. I offer my congratulations, and show my amazement at the accomplishments of the young.”
“Thank you, Lord Duke,” Ashtor replied, readying himself for his character spiel. “I have only recently come into power, giving a narrow window for which the serfs to revolt.”
Ashtor lay his weakness straight on the table, which meant to the duke that the lad was either incredibly stupid, brave, or strong, and he wished to find out which.
But they can’t give him that chance.
“Excuse me, Lord Ashtor, a word?”
Ashtor followed General Prince Riley away from the duke.
“Baroness Eboche has yet to come,” the prince said through a gritted-teeth smile.
I noticed. Ashtor nodded. The prince seemed disgruntled. “I will send my spies to find out where she is. Meanwhile, try not to talk to anyone. Except myself or Lord Lent. Yes, go mingle with Lord Lent and his Lady.” Ashtor bowed himself away, and went to chat with the other plotter. There were surprisingly few for a plot that the king headed. Perhaps these few are the only ones he trusts.
It was another hour before the baroness appeared, and the servant made the signal. Ashtor immediately excused himself from Lord Lent’s daughters, who seemed to find him the most amusing thing in the room. Probably because they knew who he was. He headed towards the Lady, but was interrupted by another woman.
“Good evening, Lord Ashtor,” she simpered. “All stars shine fair tonight.”
“Good evening, Madam. The stars shine and you shine with them.”
She held out her hand, fingers sparkling. “Marquess Mulan.”
He bowed over her hand, lips brushing her glove. She chatted for minutes about various droll things, all the while emphasizing her wealth, and Ashtor was dismayed to see the Baroness’s attention taken over by another. When he finally escaped the marquess, he saw no way to intercede in the Baroness’ conversation.
“Sir, simply express a desire to meet the lady,” his servant murmured. “The man speaking with her is the Duke Knelson, whom you met earlier.”
Indeed he had. The faces all seemed to blend. Ashtor went to the duke, the great lights from the chandeliers beginning to swim in his vision. They steadied soon, but he felt worse for it. “Ah, Duke Knelson, who is your fair friend?” Ashtor asked smoothly as he made a quick assessment of the lady. When he had heard she was a widow he expected an older lady, but this was not the case. She was no older than Ashtor himself.
“Baroness Eboche; this is Lord Ashtor. Ashtor, may I present my cousin the Baroness Eboche?”
Using his name without a title... that either showed he wanted to be closer acquaintances, or that he had little regard for Ashtor. Considering the brief and cut-off conversation before, Ashtor suspected the latter.
“Baroness, meeting you has lightened my heart where only a candle once burned.” Holding her hand gently with his fingertips, he leaned over it, smelling a soft perfume on her wrists. She still dressed in black, in mourning these last three months; for the sake of her departed husband, she would dress thus darkly for seven more. A smile lit her face, shadowing the sadness in her eyes.
“And you, my Lord. My candle has gathered strength once more.”
Ashtor was almost struck dumb in appreciation at her graceful presence. Face drawn up into features finely sculpted as an angel, her voice — cool, calculating, polite, amused — was matured with a resonating deepness. The way she stood, the confidence in her every gesture, showed her power and her believe in herself. To cover his awe and admiration he quickly invited her to stroll with him around the room. With an inclination of her head she agree, and they left Duke Knelson staring curiously after them. In the light, Ashtor could see the grace and beauty of her face even without the smile. He was sure his romantic sister would describe Eboche’s skin like ice, or marble, but Ashtor — in a poetic voice that was quite unlike him — thought of it rather as ivory dust. He offered her wine, she took it. The light shone through the glass in a prism affect to glint on her glassy black hair. Despite the general impression that did not consider Eboche a beauty, he had a hard time thinking of her as anything else. It’s likely her coloring is not in ‘fashon,’ he thought wryly as he looked at all the red-haired beauties in the room, most if not all of which probably had dyed their hair.
“You are new to court,” the Baroness stated, taking his arm.
“As a pig from market,” he murmured, pretending to sip his wine.
She turned her head back to him. “What was that?”
“I have just come to age,” he said aloud, “and acquired land and a title of my own.” To steer conversation away from himself — and the precarious subject of his parents — he spoke again. “I am sorry for your loss. When did your...”
“Husband,” she supplied dryly.
She handed the empty glass to a servant. “I will wave the insult, but ask you not to continue with that game. Nobody keeps news hidden here.”
By gods — they hadn’t warned him she would be so blunt! “How did he die?” he blurted, regretting his rudeness instantly.
She raised an eyebrow. "Of his stomach cancer.”
“Forgive me for inquiring, I should not have—”
“No, no,” she waved a hand, “I had no love for my husband nor him for me. It was a marriage of state — to benefit the king’s treasury — and everyone knows it.”
“The — the king?” he asked, wondering if he would find the answer to his question so easily.
Her left eyebrow raised slightly, and she regarded him with a keen eye before explaining. “I had a huge dowry from my wealthy family. Baron Legar had been cajoling money from his brother for years; Edward was only getting tired of it.”
“Baron Legar was the king’s brother?” A cough saved him from his surprise. “I knew there was a relation, but I suspected second cousins or the sort.”
She nodded absently, looking up at him from under her half-closed lids. Soon they had finished their stroll. “Your acquaintance will be a boon to me, Lord Ashtor.”
“And you, Baroness, will be a star in my sky.”
She turned away and left without a glance back at him. Now, looking in a mirror at his sunken eyes and trembling hands, he sighed. Things were only becoming more complicated. Of course, he had accomplished more in one evening than he would have thought possible, but he wanted to know why the king wished to be rid of his own sister-in-law. He absently swatted away his servant’s hand and unbuttoned his jacket himself, staring at the clock on the mantlepiece without ever figuring out the time.
“It is almost midnight,” Don said.
“I can read the time,” Ashtor sighed, snapping out of his reverie. “Don, how often will I have to dress in this thing?”
“You will never appear twice in the same suit, sir!” Don said, scandalized.
Ashtor sighed again. “I hate that.”
“Your bath is ready, sir.”
“I had a bath this morning! Do you want me to wrinkle like a prune? I want to go to bed.”
“And tell your master not to drug me with angor. Baroness Eboche won’t believe me if I don’t drink any wine while she downs five glasses. Goodnight.” Surprised at his boldness, but pleased nonetheless, Ashtor went to sleep, blissful sleep.
It was dreadfully warm. He did not know such heat existed. The smell he barely noticed was of his own sweat, mixed with something acrid. Though he longed to get out of it his eyes felt heavy and drowsiness weighed him down. He listened for sounds of life, but it was as if he was deaf. The silence chilled his heart, but took away no heat. He was so tired, he should sleep. But why sleep on his back? Why was he on his back anyway? Lace from his cuff tickled his skin as he gave a great sigh. His head hurt, he should sleep. But in this state? It was too warm. He must find somewhere cooler, or perhaps take off his velvets. To do that, he must open his eyes. Oddly reluctant to do so, he lingered on sleepiness. It’s too hot in here! After taking a deep, stifling breath, and un-stuck his eyes. They flew open... to reveal utter darkness. Blind. He was blind! His scream was loud and clear, echoing around him like a curse.
Ashtor flew up from the pillows, then threw off the blankets and fell out of bed. His eyes were wobbly as he went to the washstand, and he felt better only after splashing water on his face. He put his hands in the water, still hot. It was just a dream. Nevertheless, he lifted his shoulders in unease and went to the balcony, splashing water over his feet. The air was cool and refreshing after too long under those thick blankets. Dreams tended to be scenes of some reality, and being caught under those blankets probably brought on that horrible nightmare. Still, his dream-self waking up to blackness was disturbing, and he took comfort in the steady shining of the pre-dawn stars. It was just a dream. It seemed to send a weight off his chest as he yawned, breathing in the fresh air, and he went back to bed, the dream already being pushed to the back of his mind. He slept easily, untroubled by any dreams, on top of the covers.
Eboche watched out the window... letting the cool air fly over her bare skin.
The young lord offered a puzzle she had only half fit. When he interrogated her at the party, his emotions and questions had seemed genuine, but she could not think of anyone who had not come upon that knowledge whether they wanted to or not. He could be very naive — he must be very naive. A youngest son, perhaps, suddenly come to court because of family death? It might explain his lack of experience and knowledge, but it didn’t explain why he was so troubled at her answers. She had formulated another explanation that was, comparatively, without fault. She would think the king would warn Lord Lent to be more careful, he spoke with young Ashtor far too often. And the way his servant whispered to him! She was a little insulted at their presumption, that she, the Baroness Eboche, would be taken in by such a child. Passing a hand over her face, she undid the wrinkles solidifying around her eyes. Child indeed... and what was she? He could be no younger than 3 or 4 years her junior. Again she allowed regret to course through her, regret at how she had lived her life, at how things were now. Regret that, although he was probably no grand conspirator, she knew the only way to get rid of Ashtor was to manipulate circumstances to lead to his death.
He was walking through a garden. He could not remember how he got there, but the day was sunny and nice, the birds welcoming him to the trees wand the flowers. There were roses all over, and daffodils. How many flowers bloom in the blue? He glanced up at the trees, to his delight seeing them filled with beautiful apples. He was hungry, of course, for he had been riding all day. Saliva filling his mouth at the thought, he reached for an apple, only to whirl around at the sound of a voice.
“You should not eat those apples.”
He was slightly annoyed at the girl’s statement so assured, and looked haughtily down on her. “And why not?”
“My stepmother hates apples.” She lifted her chin. “And she dislikes those who eat them. They don’t belong to you.”
This annoyed him further. “There are plenty of apples. Your stepmother won’t notice if I take one.”
The girl couldn’t be much younger than himself, but she was not very pretty, and her eagle stare was disturbing. “Really, she likes to test people. Those who take what does not belong to them will find a sorry state.”
“A relief from hunger? Go away.”
She snorted, and her square jaw was set firm. “Go ahead then, eat one. I did warn you.”
After finally taking one, his frustration grew unexplainably and he threw it to the ground. “What is wrong with them then?”
“She poisons them. All who partake of even a single bite will find themselves in a deep sleep, for who knows how long. Forever, I think, but Stepmother always comes around eventually and makes a counter potion.”
He stared at her in horror. “Eventually?”
“The longest was only a month,” she said, and her pale-colored eyes glinted with a nasty amusement.
I don't really know what to do with this story. It's a dark Snow White fantasy involving vampires... I think. But it's going in the closet so to speak. It also has no title.