Chapter 2 Part 6 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book One
Temmin, meanwhile, had rejoined the party just in time for the break he'd hoped to avoid. His thirst slaked, he took up a glass of sparkling wine. He had nothing against it, but a thirsty man wanted something more substantial. He'd worried about making small talk with strangers, but found he had to say little as a steady stream of well-wishers were presented to him one by one, just long enough for a "So pleased to meet you" before being pushed out of the way by the next one in line.
When the music began again, he'd had three glasses of sparkling wine without even noticing, and sparkled himself as he took up a plump, lively girl--the Earl of Something's daughter, he hadn't caught it--and started the second set of dances. Near its end, he found himself with a familiar blonde: his sister. He gave Ellika an extra twirl, and she giggled. "Doesn't Seddy ever dance?" he asked her.
"Not if she can sit in a corner with her nose in the air," said Ellika. "But tell me, are you having fun? You look as if you are!"
"The girls here are much prettier than they are at home, Elly!" he said, thinking still of blushing Arta more than the sly daughters of the nobility.
"That's because the prettiest girls are sent to the City, silly, in hopes of snaring someone like you. Especially you."
"I can only marry one of 'em!"
"Oh, Temmy," said Ellika, shaking her curls. They twirled apart, and he found himself face to face with his last partner for this dance.
He met eyes green as leaves, in the face of a woman so stunning Temmin lost his place in the dance and stumbled. When he recovered his feet, all he could manage to get out of his disobedient throat was, "Hullo."
"Hello, Your Highness," she answered in a low, honeyed voice like nothing he'd ever heard. Nor was she like any woman he'd ever seen, so much a classical Tremontine beauty that she might have stepped out of a painting of Neya the Beloved.
Temmin said nothing more and danced automatically, paying no attention to anything but the woman on his arm. When the dance ended, he demanded the next one, the last in the set. "Happily," she said, and he took her up in his arms again, oblivious to the presence at the floor's edge of an outraged man in a blue honor sash who'd sworn he'd already asked the lady for that dance.
Among the onlookers, another young lady peered through her magnifying glass. "Oh dear me," she said. "It seems Neya's Embodiment has made another conquest."
Sedra took a sip of lemonade and laughed. "That's not even worth remarking on, Despie."
"This time it is," said the lady, nodding over Sedra's shoulder. Sedra followed the nod, and choked; Temmin was dancing with Allis Obby, looking for all the world like a gasping fish on the beach, hook still in mouth.
Oh, Weeping Amma! thought Sedra. "The last I knew, he never showed an interest in any female who didn't have four hooves and a tail, but that was three years ago. He would have to start at the top, wouldn't he."
"Don't worry over him so, Seddy, you're not his mother," said her friend.
"I'm not worried," Sedra lied. "He's a grown man. Temmy just doesn't have much experience with girls, if I know Mama. I've learned Elly can manage herself--mostly. I'm not so sure about him yet. Where is Ellika?"
As it happened, Ellika twirled in the arms of Percet, Lord Fennows. "I shall be spending a great deal of time with your brother soon," he said as they looped round and round. "I am hoping that means I might have the pleasure of your company more often."
"How charming your sister looks this evening, Fennows!" said Ellika, looking over his shoulder. "Rose is such a flattering color on one of her complexion. I must ask after her dressmaker!"
"To be sure, Despilla looks very well tonight," said Fennows. "What I mean to say is, I should very much like to spend more time with you--"
"And how lovely Allis Obby is tonight, but then, there isn't anything unusual about that! Have you danced with her yet tonight, sir?"
"Yes, but--" The music ended and the assembly applauded, cutting Fennows off.
"Thank you for a lovely dance!" said Ellika. "Oh, yes, of course you may walk me in to dinner, I would never break with tradition! I'm so terribly sorry to be up on the dais when all of you are on the floor, but these silly state occasions!"
"Of course, but--"
"Here, take me over to Miss Obby and my brother please, Fennows, dear, I need to make introductions." The unhappy Fennows offered his arm and did as he was told, Ellika chattering all the while to friends they passed along the way.
Meanwhile, Allis curtsied to the floor, and as Temmin lifted her up by the hand, he couldn't help staring into her bodice. The familiar low twitch began; he swore to himself, and tried to think of everything other than her breasts--Jenks in his underwear, that usually did it. He started at the sound of Ellika's voice. "Prince Temmin, Heir of Tremont, may I make known to you the Embodiment of Neya, Miss Allis Obby of the Lovers' Temple."
The Embodiment of Neya? How was he supposed to make small talk with the personification of a Goddess? He took Allis's hand and bowed low over it to hide his astonishment. His shock must have made it past his moustache, for Miss Obby came to his rescue and so deftly steered the conversation that by the time they'd made it in to dinner he'd invited her to go riding with him. "I should love to, Your Highness!" she exclaimed, as if Temmin had given her a longed-for gift. "I will await your invitation."
"May we dance after dinner?"
"Oh," she said, dropping her eyes. "I'm afraid my card is filled."
"Oh," said Temmin, drooping. "I would imagine so."
"But I promise I shall save a dance for you at the next ball. Will you be attending the Duke of Litta's ball on Nerrday next?"
"Yes, of course!" said Temmin, with no idea if he'd even received an invitation. "Please, Miss Obby, I would be very grateful if you'd save me an entire set!" She laughed; he pulled out her chair, seated her, and walked down the rows of tables in a haze of green eyes, black hair and sweet, pink breasts. Blessed Mother, help me, he thought. Miss Allis Obby.
He took his place next to Harsin, Ellika on his right. "Oh dear," she said. "You do realize who Allis is."
"You told me!" snapped Temmin. "Ah, I'm sorry, Elly, but it was completely unexpected. I didn't even show proper respect--I should have called her Holy One! I had no idea an Embodiment would look like her."
"Don't be a goose. The Lovers' Embodiments are always beautiful, Temmy, and as much like twins as possible," said Ellika. "The two before the Obbys--they're here somewhere, just in from Kellen for a week--stunning. Blondes, unrelated but very well matched, could easily pass for twins. Of course, Allis really is a twin. Her brother, Issak, embodies Nerr. There he is, just down the right-hand side at the table with that annoying Lord Fennows. Gods, what a bore, I couldn't shut him up the whole time we were dancing!"
Ellika kept chattering, her voice a soft chirp as she pointed out various luminaries. Temmin paid little attention. He sorted through the bobbing heads, people nodding and making small talk around the tables, until he saw a man with the same silken black hair as Allis. He had to be Issak Obby.
As Allis represented the unattainable Tremontine ideal for women, so did Issak for men: tall, broad but not barrel-shaped, slim of waist and hip, all his gestures great and small as perfect as his form. The smooth incline of his back as he kissed his dinner partner's hand; the light touch of his long fingers as he held his wine glass; the summoning of a footman, called over without so much as a word or a nod--
He looked up at Temmin. Issak's eyes were the same deep green as his sister's, but while her gaze invited, his gaze commanded. The Embodiment smiled up at him, unblinking, until Temmin colored and averted his gaze. He realized the air beside his right ear had stilled. Ellika no longer prattled but studied his face, amused and sympathetic. "Gently, Tem, gently," she murmured, putting her hand over his. "Go gently, little brother."
End of Chapter Two