Chapter 2 Part 5 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book One
He led his sisters onto the emptied floor, they saluted the crowd, and the orchestra began a tripla. Dancers took the floor in threes behind them--a woman with two men, a man with two women, and so on down the rows. Tonight, the eyes on him gave him paradoxical strength; they cleared his head, and made his feet sure.
He turned to the buxom young woman behind him and took her hand; their eyes met, and her heated glance brought him up short. No girl had ever given him a look like that before, ever, and his pleased smile made her blush and simper. If being the Heir came with this, he would enjoy it a great deal indeed, he decided. Every girl he danced with presented some variation on the same theme, some shy and admiring, some sly and inviting, and one girl who pressed herself close to him every chance she got.
Dance after dance, and Temmin began to tire of it despite endless beautiful women fawning over him. When the dancing paused he'd have to socialize, and that would never do. Near the end of the first set, Temmin escaped from the floor to find somewhere quiet and something to drink more quenching than sparkling wine. "Does no one drink beer in this place?" he muttered to himself.
Poking around the ballroom's edges, he peered into the many attached salons, small and large, excusing himself from one--"Terribly sorry, didn't know anyone was here," he said to the fumbling couple in the corner--until he came into a long, deserted corner; a swaying curtain hid an oddly angled spot. Two little black boot toes peeped from its hem, moving in time. Temmin watched, curious, until a curly head in a maid's cap peeked out, spotted Temmin, gave a tiny squeak, and retreated behind the curtain. Temmin followed into a wide, hidden service hall, and caught the retreating maid by the arm.
"I thought it was you," he smiled. "You're the maid I danced with, Dannikson, yes?" Gods, what a beautiful girl, as lovely as any he'd danced with that night--lovelier, her little form trim and straight in the severe black and white household livery, her lace cap crisp and its red ribbons dangling down to her waist. Her uncooperative hair looked ready to burst from the cap again. He wondered if she still smelled as good as she had the last time they met.
"I'm so very sorry, Your Highness," the girl said. She blushed, and her voice shook. "It's just I love dancing and they didn' need me at the moment, I just wanted to look--oh!" She put her hands over her mouth, and her wide hazel eyes filled with tears. "I shouldn' even be speakin to you! Oh, Mr Affton will send me packin!"
"Now, now, don't worry about that!" said Temmin. "Why does everyone seem to think I'll tell on them!" He dropped her arm, and pondered her for a moment. He wondered if he would ever get used to the staff quailing at the sight of him; he didn't care for it at all. "What's your name?" he coaxed.
"Dannikson, sir," she said, blinking hard.
"No, your first name."
"Arta?" she quavered.
"Arta? Are you not sure?"
"Of course I'm sure, sir," she laughed, flicking away a tear. "My name is Arta."
Caution was called for, thought Temmin. How might he set her at ease, at least a little? "Well, then, Miss Arta," he said aloud, "let's not waste the music." He held out his hands. "Shall we?"
"...Shall we what, sir?" she said, turning white.
"Dance! Shall we dance! You like to dance, and I'm discovering I like to dance, and you won't get to dance tonight otherwise. So dance with me!"
Arta glanced around. "Well--this hall really isn' in use tonight--but if someone were to catch me..."
"I will make sure nothing happens to you. I'm trying my best to dance with the prettiest girls in the room, and if I don't dance with you, I shall miss the prettiest of them all."
Arta turned a bright crimson, and hesitantly took his hands; before long they were looping up and down the hallway. Temmin found himself eager to make her comfortable. He'd never thought about it before; he behaved how he behaved and didn't wonder about the comfort of others. Why would he think about that in the stables? Everyone was comfortable there already. No one on the Estate treated him differently--respectfully, but no differently, not really. If they were comfortable together, he and Arta, perhaps something more might come of it? Something pleasant? It seemed possible, especially after the girl in the hedge.
He watched with increasing relish as the little maid relaxed, her trusting, mischievous face with its pointed chin losing its pinched anxiety with each turn. She forgot herself and danced in earnest, her smile enough light for the dim corridor. "Truth be known, sir, I hear music and I must look! I had to hear the music proper, and see the girls in all their dresses, and wish I was one of 'em."
"Oh, you don't want to be one of them," said Temmin. "You're much prettier, and a better dancer in the bargain." She tittered and withdrew into herself, until the music coaxed her back out again.
Arta was far better company than any of the simpering misses thrown at Temmin in the ballroom. He slipped his hand to her waist and pulled her close; it would have been splendid were she in a ballgown like the ladies after all, to see her shoulders, and perhaps the tops of her breasts. Did she have freckles on her shoulders? He knew women considered freckles a fault, but he found them charming, especially the faint gold dust on Arta's cheeks where the sun had last kissed her. The dance came to an end. Temmin spun her around until her skirts flared out in a bell, and then bowed to her. She curtsied low, and he kissed her little work-roughened hand as he brought her to her feet. Should he kiss her now? No, that hadn't worked well the last time. Best not to frighten her. "Now, Miss Arta, do you know where I might find something proper to drink? Not sparkling wine? I'm positively parched!"
"Oh!" she said. She shook herself, as if waking up from a pleasant nap, folded her hands, and dipped a servile curtsey. "Yes, sir, there's punch and lemonade in the Grand Salon."
"No beer? Or cider?"
"At a ball in the Keep? No, sir!" she said, scandalized.
"Water? You'd drink water? Well, sir, we have a tap here for the servants," she said, and watched astonished as he drank five ladles from the basin, for lack of a glass.
"Much, much better! Thank you, Miss Arta, we have had a fair exchange! Now, off with you before someone catches you!" He watched her scamper back down the hall and disappear into the realm of the servants.
Being with Arta felt easy; she was more like the people he'd grown up with at Whithorse, uncomplicated and honest. He would watch for her, especially now that they shared a secret. He turned and slipped back to the dance, missing a figure hidden in the drapes--a dapper little man whose eyes appeared to take in everything, and who wrote down every detail somewhere inside his skull. The little man tilted his head to one side, bounced once on his toes, and strolled down the hall after the maid.