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11 December 2006 @ 10:18 pm
They danced there till three o'clock in the morning when all the shoes were danced into holes...  
Several months after the events of LLP...



Thirteenth Princess

October

"My goodness, would you look at these shoes!" Maria held up a pair of dilapidated slippers. Once pale blue satin, they had turned a faded grey, with flaking creases at the toe and arch. Loose strands of seed beads trailed from frayed embroidery, and one of the pair looked as though it had been crushed by a carriage.

Aly sighed. "I did tell you they were old."

"Alissya, this is tragic." Maria brought them close to Aly's face and dangled them in front of her. "Tragic. Have you really no other blue slippers?"

"It was not I who insisted upon the blue fabric—it was you. I never wear blue," Aly said. Maria was beginning to look rather upset; her large blue eyes and pouted lips could not help but put Aly in mind of a distraught goldfish. A true tragedy this was not, but nonetheless, the lack of properly colored shoes was unfortunate—was she to go barefoot to this ball?

Maria shook her head and turned back to Aly's wardrobe. "Do you perhaps have a silver pair, then?" She flung the old blue shoes into the very back; Aly winced as they hit the wall, one right after the other.

"Do be careful," she said. "I did have those arranged how I like, you know."

"Terribly sorry, Aly dear, but I maintain that this is a crisis. An absolute emergency!—don't you move," she added, pointing a finger at Aly as she began to rise. "You are not bending down with that corset on."

Aly rolled her eyes, resumed her seat at the vanity, and watched Maria ransack her closet. At the start of the Season, she had once asked Maria to help her with her hair; Maria being Maria, that was not enough, and soon she found herself saddled with her very own fashion-conscious handmaiden. Most young women were paid for this sort of thing, but Maria assisted her at no cost, and any prices Aly offered were dismissed with a wave of a hand. All except one, that is—she was delighted that Aly commissioned her to make a dress.

Maria swept her formerly neat rows of shoes back and forth, the sound cascading like a waterfall as she pushed bunches aside in one go. It was almost soothing, really, if Aly ignored the wreck of her wardrobe—she felt her eyelids drifting closer and closer together, and a warm dizziness tugged at her eyes—no! This was the last night; surely she could endure just one more night?

"There we are, silver shoes!" Maria placed at Aly's feet a pair of silver slippers; they were plain, with no embroidery or beading, and the insoles were worn. They looked infinitely more comfortable than some other pairs she owned. "I swear, Alissya, you go through shoes like one of the twelve dancing princesses."

"That is hardly my fault." She pinched one of her eyelids and snapped it against her eye. This was ridiculous. But darkness called, that lovely shade of deep something she saw whenever she closed her eyes—

"I know, but—oh, your jewelry! Aly? Aly, do you mind?" Maria nudged her shoulder, and she snapped awake. "I will be careful. Very, very careful."

"More careful than with the shoes?" She waved a hand. "Fine. Nothing too gaudy, or silly—"

A knock at the door startled both of them. "Aly?" asked somebody from outside. "May I come in?"

"You may, Sparrow—or should I call you Mrs. Forester now?" Aly added as Sparrow entered the room. She was in full hunting garb, from blood-stained jacket to scuffed boots.

Sparrow grinned. "No, Sparrow will do. I wanted to ask, Aly: are you hunting with us tonight?"

Aly raised her eyebrows and gestured to the room. A pale blue gown hung near a full-length mirror; cases of ribbons and hairpins—mostly Maria's—bedecked the floor and bed; bouquets of silk flowers—mostly Aly's—dotted the vanity; and now Maria was pulling from the drawers various jewelry boxes and perfumes. "What do you think?"

"That would be a no, then." She sighed. "Miranda and I—we can't keep doing this alone, just the two of us. She's already angry that Linny's gone, and now with you—"

"I can't help it!" Aly said. She realized, as Sparrow's face fell, that it had been more of a snap.

"I know," Sparrow said softly. "I just—"

"Tell her it's the last one. Tell her that after this is over, I can go back to staying up three nights a week instead of all seven."

"I suppose…"

The last night—and no more of this mayhem until next Season! Beginning with her presentation at court, Aly had been swept into the whirligig world of the social elite. When she was not out zombie hunting, parties, balls, and galas that lasted until four o'clock in the morning occupied her nights; her days she spent poring over French verbs and calculating poison dosages. She tried sleeping in, but with all the noise at Headquarters, that was hopeless. Sleep had become nearly impossible. She was thinner, stretched, exhausted to the bone—like a consumptive that has not yet reached her rosy, brilliant final glory.

Aly risked a glance in the vanity mirror; she grimaced at the sight. Thanks to rags and a curling iron, her usually wild curls fell in tidy ringlets, but that was everything good that could be said for her appearance. Deep, shadowed circles had formed under her eyes, and her freckles stood out starkly against her translucent-pale skin. She ran a finger across the slight acne—drat!—dotting her hairline, and she felt her hand swatted away.

"None of that, now!" Maria scolded. "What about these?" She held up a pair of silver-and-pearl earrings, and Aly nodded.

"I'm not of much use to the Wolfpack, anyway, Sparrow," continued Aly. "You should be glad—"

"Aly!" Sparrow gave her a reproachful look. "We miss you. We do. Every person helps, and—are you quite all right?" She peered at Aly, who immediately stopped prodding the circles under her eyes. "You don't look well at all."

"I feel better than I look," she lied. "Maria's fussed over me enough, and while I appreciate the sentiment, I don't need you to start."

"Still, Aly…"

"She doesn't look so wretched—with some powder and just a touch of makeup she will be the loveliest girl there," Maria said, and she huffed and crossed her arms.

Sparrow and Aly exchanged glances. "I suppose I ought to be going now," said Sparrow. "Miranda—"

Maria caught Sparrow's arm as she turned to leave. "Oh no you don't," she said, "not without seeing the dress I made."

"Oh." Sparrow lingered, a smile twitching around her lips, as Maria unhooked the gown and began to help Aly into it.

"It's rather simple, but I didn't want to overwhelm her with frills and ribbons and the like—"

Aly's vision began to blur once more as Maria chattered about the design, from the cut to the sleeves to the train. She swayed on her feet; she caught the back of a chair before she fell. Oh no, if she was going to be like this for the whole night—

"—and I just fell in love with the fabric." After a few more adjustments to the bodice, a tweak of the sleeves and a smoothing of the skirt, Maria stepped back to admire her dress. "There!" she said, beaming. "What do you think of it?"

"Oh my goodness," Sparrow breathed. "Aly, she caught you perfectly."

"She did, did she?" Aly slowly turned to face the full-length mirror, so as not to catch the train on anything, and she gasped as she saw her reflection.

The gown's fabric was of pale blue silk the color of moonlight on water—no, of an iceberg's heart, with that barest hint of green. Aly would never have thought such a color would suit her, let alone flatter her, but it did. The cut lent grace to her small frame, and with the corset's help, the beginnings of an hourglass figure. And the sleeves! They hung in tiers of gauzy chiffon ruffles—other than that, and the silver embroidery that danced across the hem, there was no frippery whatsoever. Simple. Elegant. Perfect.

"Maria, you have outdone yourself," Aly said. Was that really her in the mirror? She straightened her posture, tossed her hair over her shoulder the better to see the neckline. "This dress is gorgeous. I feel like a princess in a fairytale, the one with the dress made of moonbeams." Or perhaps one of the aforementioned twelve dancing princesses.

"Didn't I tell you that was the perfect color?" Only Maria could manage to say such a thing without seeming smug.

Sparrow covered her mouth to stop a squeal. "You look amazing, Aly, truly you do. I might have to ask Maria to make me one!" Maria clapped her hands, and Sparrow glanced at the clock on the wall. She frowned. "Oh dear. I really am sorry, but I must go and break the news to Miranda. Have fun—and do be careful." She briefly hugged Aly, and she left the room at nearly a run.

"Goodbye, Sparrow!" Maria waved.

Aly twirled in front of the mirror; her balance seemed to have recovered decently, although there was that tingling behind her eyes again. "To sleep, perchance to dream," she murmured to herself.

Maria began fussing with the sleeves once more. "That's pretty. What is it?"

"It's from one of Hamlet's soliloquies. On suicide."

"Oh. That's not very pleasant." An awkward pause, during which Aly tried not to smile. Soon enough, Maria put a finger to her lip, and she began digging through one of the boxes. "Now, about that hair…"

~

Two hours later, the Birdwell carriage pulled up to Stillmore Row; thank goodness the Organization's Headquarters was in a semi-fashionable part of the City. Otherwise they would not have dared to come, and Aly would have had to walk to the Berkleys', or worse, take a cab.

Aly's worst fears were confirmed when she entered the carriage: it was dark. The temptation to simply collapse against one of the curtains and fall asleep would be nigh irresistible, and yet if one of her relatives caught her at it, she was sure to get a scolding.

She edged into the seat nearest the window, next to Aunt Ava and her husband. Elaine and Victor Jameson, the Lord and Lady Birdwell, sat across from them; Lady Birdwell was Aunt Ava's first cousin, and as she often mentioned, the uncontested beauty of their generation. Aly thought that even former belles ought not to use so much perfume.

They exchanged greetings; the Jamesons nodded their heads gracefully, and Aunt Ava barely glanced at her. Uncle George seemed to be dozing off, the lucky man. Aly felt the carriage lurch into motion, and with it a faint queasiness in her stomach.

"If you don't mind my asking, Alissya," said Lady Birdwell, attempting to sound nonchalant, "have any young men taken a fancy to you?"

Headquarters was still in sight and already the interrogation had begun.

"I have danced with a fair number," Aly said. Hopefully this would satisfy; she would not mention that most of them only did so out of deference to her aunt.

"I hear you have spoken a great deal with the Marquis de Bridstane," said Lord Birdwell. He winked at her, and though she tried, Aly could not summon a grin in return.

Lady Birdwell snapped open her fan with a flourish, fluttering it in front of her face. "That poor, dear boy? How magnanimous of you, Alissya. But surely he has not attended many balls, what with his injury." Aly could almost see her thoughts clicking: a perfect match, those two, the invalid and the wallflower. They could marry and delight together in their social failure. "Is there, ah, anybody else?" she continued.

"This is only her first Season, Elaine. Do be reasonable," said Aunt Ava. She looked down at Aly through narrowed eyes. "Answer the question."

"Yes, madam." How should she phrase her answer? For of course she could not mention the letters, or the masquerade ball a year ago. "Not yet, Aunt Elaine." An outright lie would have to do.

"Pity. My Giovanna, were she your age—" And she continued to talk about her precious daughter; Aly felt a pressing need to concentrate on something else.

She put two fingers to her temples; the smell of three different perfumes in such a small space was giving her a headache, and her stomach was not growing any calmer. She fought the urge to rest her head against the window; instead she let the streetlamps drifting past hypnotize her into keeping her eyes open. She counted the hours until sleep: eight.

She could last that long. Couldn't she?

~

"Is it just me, Vladimir, or do we seem to have the plague?" They sat in a corner upon chairs that, once Vlad's condition was explained, had been graciously provided by Lady Berkely's servants. Though they were not far from the dancing, a space had formed around them; either people thought the Marquis de Bridstane needed air, or they did not want to catch whatever illness possessed these quiet, sickly young people.

"W-whatever it is," said Vlad, "I am r-rather grateful."

"At least your aunt has not taken your dance card captive. If she ever returns it, I'll be afraid to look, lest the entire thing be full." Aly straightened as she heard the music pause—another dance already?—but after the short ritenuto, it swelled again.

"S-she and my m-mother are speaking." He jerked his head toward the opposite side of the room. "And w-watching us like hawks."

"We do know what they're thinking. We ought to be grateful that it's not yet the talk of the City."

"It will be q-quite a shock when they're all p-proven wrong." His lower lip trembled, and he buried his face in his hands, knocking his glasses slightly askew. "I m-miss Dalia," he said in a muffled voice.

"And I miss sleep."

He raised his head, and a sad smile twitched about his mouth. "I admittedly enjoy n-not dancing—but what a p-price I paid for it. Months, I h-haven't seen her!" Vlad's mother had not allowed him to return to the Organization after the accident, and thanks also to the Widow Gently, Dalia could not visit him at his manor.

"I would have thought your foot to be more of a concern."

He shook his head. "But y-you know, Alissya—they said—it w-won't…"

"They gave you a new walking aid, I see," Aly said. She glanced down at the silver-topped cane he clutched in one hand.

"A sword-cane," he said. He looked slightly embarrassed. "My choice. M-much better than a c-crutch, or a wheelchair."

Aly covered her mouth to stop a smile at this incredible picture—Vladimir! With a sword! "Oh indeed," she said.

They watched the dancers whirl across the floor, the ladies' dresses flashing in arcs of gold and pink, silver and white. The music crescendoed—the ladies twirled—the gentlemen caught them in their arms. "I-I'll never dance with Dalia," Vlad said softly.

"Vladimir." Aly rolled her eyes. "Please. Spare me the dramatics."

"Well I w-won't."

"I thought you said you enjoyed not dancing?" asked Aly.

"Yes, b-but I would like a-a choice."

A pause; Aly listened to the music and tried to judge whether or not the dance would soon end. Perhaps she was simply too tired to think straight, but she swore she could feel when one was drawing to a close—there was something in the dancers' movements, in the music itself. And this, yes, this was one of those times. She stood, and she smoothed her skirts and patted her coiffure to ensure everything had remained in its place. "I'm terribly sorry, Vlad; I must find my aunt. By now she has probably found me more partners. Victims, more like," she added, almost under her breath.

"H-have fun. I'll—I'll be here." They nodded their goodbyes, and Aly started toward her aunt, drawing curious glances as she passed—it was only the dress, of course, and its unusual color.

In particular it caught the eye of Vladimir's cousin, Miss Alexandra Cadwell, who, after beckoning to Lady Birdwell, joined Aly in walking. "A rather disappointing turnout this evening, don't you think, Miss Stregaregale?" said Miss Alexandra.

If this crowded, suffocating party was her idea of disappointing, Aly shuddered to think of what she considered a good turnout. "Oh yes," said Aly.

"Why, there aren't even enough partners for all the young ladies," Miss Alexandra said, pink-cheeked and probably—yes, probably making excuses for why she had not been asked to dance this time.

Lady Birdwell patted her arm. "I suppose most of the men have gone back to the country for their hunting parties—this Season has gone quite late, I must say. It's rather peculiar."

"And rather irksome—oh can you believe, there's Miss Ashcroft dancing with the Earl of Ellisfair! What an awkward match," Miss Alexandra said, shaking her head.

"My goodness, really?" Lady Birdwell craned her neck to see. "However did she manage to catch him?"

"Pardon me, Miss Alexandra, Lady Birdwell," Aly said, "but I really must speak with my aunt." She began to inch slowly away from the women.

"Oh, of course," said Miss Alexandra with a polite smile. She turned back to Lady Birdwell, and Aly heard her murmur, "Stunning gown, but she looks awfully ill, don't you think?—and she's so aloof! It's no wonder that—"

Aly picked her way through the throng, keeping in her sights her grey-clad aunt, trying desperately not to let herself collapse. Her head throbbed, and her shaking legs seemed about to give way any moment—no, she would not let them, that would be far too embarrassing, and the talk might last all the way until next Season.

"There you are, Alissya," Aunt Ava said, just as the music drew to a close. "I see you have been socializing with the Marquis de Bridstane. A nice boy—and some of the women are quite impressed with your charity." Charity? He was the only one present worth talking to. "I have your dance card; one man in particular seemed quite taken with you."

Aly raised her eyebrows, and she took the proffered card. She thought that odious Ivanovich Gently hadn't even been invited to this ball. And yet, when she looked, she saw no sign of his name. Odd—maybe the dress had fooled whoever he was into thinking she was someone else.

Her stomach twisted as she saw the name. Oh. But how—why—he never attended any Season functions before, so why should he bother now? On the very last night, when she was in no shape to see him! And of course, his dance was next.

"His name is Janus Silwyn," Aunt Ava continued. "He is very much worth your time; you will be on your best behavior. Do I make myself clear, Alissya?"

"Yes, madam." She stared at the card: three dances with him! And she was not sure she could even withstand one. Heavens, she felt ill. "What does he look like?" she asked, as though she had not stared at a photograph of him for months. Admittedly, she had not seen him in person for a year—

"Handsome, blond, and very tall," Ava said. "I do suggest you turn around, as he is heading your way."

Instead of running away, as she would have liked, she arched her neck over her shoulder, and the rest of her body followed. Oh no—he was more handsome than she recalled, and a very great deal taller. Probably he had already found a prettier, livelier girl—although certainly not more intelligent—and this was just a courtesy. But three dances? Surely that meant something more.

"Lord Harker," Aunt Ava said as he arrived and completed their small triangle. "My niece, Miss Alissya Stregaregale. Alissya, may I introduce Janus Silwyn, the Lord Harker." She was all business, all politeness and civility, for of course he was extremely wealthy.

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir," Aly said. How odd, saying such a thing to the man she addressed as Janus in her letters.

He kissed her gloved hand. "The pleasure is all mine." She curtsied, he bowed, and both of them gave a deep nod of the head.

This was bizarre.

"Have you been in the City long?" Aly asked, for her aunt stood too near for anything else but mundane small-talk.

"I am afraid not, else I would have met you sooner, I am sure." He smiled, and Aly's mind supplied a "with" after "met."

"You flatter me, sir."

"It is not undue," said he.

Out of the corner of her eye, Aly watched as her aunt at last moved away and faded into the shadows, as was her wont. Perhaps she was off to find Vlad's mother and tell her of the potential ruin of their plans. What a lovely thought. Still, she ought to be careful. "This is your first ball of the Season?"

"Indeed it is." They stood, and it seemed as though each was waiting for the other to speak—did he expect wittiness, then? Ought she to say something that she would normally write?

Oh to hell with it.

She said, with an upward tilt of her chin so that she might see his face, "Was that banal enough for you? Really, if you insist, I will talk about the weather instead."

"I would rather you not; already five women have commented on the present autumn chill, and, unless you have evidence of the contrary, it is not likely to change." Janus grinned, and Aly felt the beginnings of a smile twitch about her mouth. Perhaps this night would not be so bad, if she could stave off the heaviness in her eyelids and the weariness in her legs.

"You look absolutely lovely tonight," Janus said. "That dress—truly, it is spectacular."

"'Tis wrought of moonbeams," Aly said, heart fluttering. Janus raised his eyebrows. "It was sunshine last year, and next year it will be the color of the sky—I am in a fairy tale, you see."

"Indeed? And might this fairy tale involve dancing?" He offered her his arm. "I believe you owe me a waltz."

Oh dear; she had hoped that he'd forgotten. The weight pressed on her eyes, filled her lungs, numbed her feet and crushed her fingers, and still she slipped her arm through his and said, "That I do."

Janus and Aly proceeded to the floor, as did the other gentlemen and their partners; the moment they stepped onto the polished parquet floorboards, the whispers and glances began. Aly stood tall, straightened her shoulders and tried to ignore the critical eyes now cast upon her. She knew what they would be saying—"How did her aunt manage to find him?" or "What on earth possessed him to dance with her?"

Across the room Aly glimpsed the partnerless Miss Alexandra staring, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Perhaps this dance was worth it after all.

Janus placed his right hand on her upper back, and he gently clasped Aly's hand in his left. She trembled, and she didn't know whether it was from excitement or nervousness or sheer exhaustion. Most likely all three. One-two-three, she told herself, one-two-three—this was a waltz, wasn't it?

With a delicate flute trill and a lively, rhythmic violin figure, the dance began. Thank goodness: she could still move her feet properly. They spun about the room, Aly counting the steps to herself. A swirl of skirts, a blur of green as they passed several potted plants, a rush of music and oh, the never-ending circles of this ridiculous dance—she closed her eyes to drive away the dizziness, but still there was a fog in her head and a ringing in her ears.

Her shoes were rubbing her toes and heels raw—every step hurt. She caught each breath in the tiniest of gasps, of course the corset did not help, and she felt a sudden liquid warmth in her eyes as Janus more firmly gripped her hand. Here she was, dancing with the richest, handsomest man in the room, and she was close to tears. Why could she not enjoy herself like any other girl?

"What is wrong, Alissya?" Janus asked in little more than a murmur. He held her closer, supported her back with his palm.

"Pardon? I am fine."

"I think not. In fact, I have a mind to withdraw you from the dance this instant."

"No," she said, "no, absolutely not. I will not give them,"—she nearly spat the word—"even more to talk about. Oh yes, the little Stregaregale girl, can't even get through one dance. And of course some would suspect I was—I was only putting on a show of weakness, just to get your attention—"

"I could even escort you home, if you so wished," Janus said calmly. "You are in no condition for a ball."

"Janus! Did you even listen to what I said?" It was becoming harder to breathe, and good heavens, any second she would fall over—no she would not.

"I did, and your analysis of the socialite mind is quite impressive, but I highly doubt that gossip is more important than your health."

"I will finish this dance," she said. Her voice was surprisingly steady. "I will."

They whirled past the orchestra, and Aly could barely hear Janus as he said, "I would really rather you didn't."

"Then I will simply continue arguing until it is over," Aly said. But perhaps, perhaps she should allow him to accompany her off the floor—oh how wonderful it would feel, to sit down, to breathe, to sleep—but really, what was a few more minutes of unhappiness compared to weeks of rumors? "I will not be a spectacle," she continued.

"And I will not have you becoming ill," Janus said.

A wry, absurd laugh welled in her throat, and she choked it back with something akin to a sob. "Too late."

Another round of protestations began, but Aly kept her word: she stopped arguing only when the music drew to a grand finish. It was with an irrational, contrary pride that she allowed Janus to lead her away, to take her arm and bear all of her slight weight upon himself. He guided her to two seats in a corner—the very same ones that she and Vlad had sat in earlier, although both were vacant now.

One elderly woman, noticing her return, turned around and said to her, "His mother took him for refreshments. He will be back shortly." Possibly she thought Aly cared more than she did, for right now all she saw were two lovely, lovely cushioned chairs.

She sank into one of them, with Janus's help, and she closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "Thank you, Janus."

She heard him kneel beside her. "Dear, stubborn lady," he said, "anything for you." He sighed, and he squeezed her hand. "Need I fetch a doctor?"

"Good heavens, no. I will be perfectly fine—unless I must endure another dance." Aly opened her eyes and shot Janus a pointed look.

"I can assure you that will not be happening." He studied her face, and Aly wished he wouldn't, as powder could only do so much.

"Not the girl you were expecting?" she asked.

"No, she is the selfsame, save that custom has done poorly for her health," Janus said. "You are only yet sixteen—what possessed them to—"

Aly put a hand to her forehead. "It gives me more chances before I officially become a spinster. My family may have high hopes, but that does not mean they cannot see reality. My aunt knows that balls are not my strong suit."

"And your mother?" Janus stood and placed his hand on the back of Aly's chair. "Surely she should be here as well."

"The Duke and Duchess of Hollings are in Vienna, pretending I don't exist. Not that I mind," she added. Actually, the Season would have been much, much worse had her mother been there. "Her Grace saw fit to leave before the Season began, and I cannot say that I blame her. It spares me from having to watch her become tipsy on one-too-many glasses of champagne."

"Ah." Janus glanced up, and his brow furrowed. "Who is that? The young man approaching with a somewhat troubled expression."

Aly had just closed her eyes; she could not bring herself to open them again. "Does he walk with a cane?"

"He does."

Oh dear—Aly was not quite ready to give up speaking with Janus alone quite yet, and of course Vlad would intrude and say something terribly awkward, and that would be the end of it. "He is the Marquis de Bridstane—you met him, last year. He is an old childhood friend of mine, and a member of the Organization as well."

"I see," Janus said. His voice had grown cold.

"He and Miss Dalia Wilewicz have nearly reached an agreement."

"Oh," he said, pleasant once more.

Aly dragged open her eyelids and found herself facing Vladimir and his mother. The former carried in one hand a glass of lemonade, and in the other his cane; the latter was attempting to take the lemonade from him while supporting his arm. "M-mother, really, I can—"

"Vladimir, you will spill—"

"Good evening, Vladimir, Lady Gently," Aly said. Lady Antonina Gently and her son straightened at once, and a triumphant Vlad clung to his glass of lemonade. Their eyes slid from Aly to Janus—Vladimir's immediately widened.

"Miss Stregaregale, such a pleasure," said Lady Gently, and her eyes flicked from Janus back to Aly.

A proper society girl once more in Lady Gently's presence, it fell to Aly to make the introductions. "Lord Harker, may I introduce Lady Gently and her son Vladimir Gently, the Marquis de Bridstane. Lady Gently, Vladimir—Janus Silwyn, the Lord Harker."

All nodded, and Lady Gently began to help Vladimir into his chair. His lemonade threatened to spill as he sat, but he managed to catch it just in time. "I hope your evening has been well, Miss Stregaregale? Lord Harker?" said Lady Gently.

"Quite well, thank you."

"Indeed," said Janus.

Lady Gently smiled. "How very wonderful," she said. "Alas, I am afraid I must be off—oh Vladimir, do be careful with that. I will leave you young people to get acquainted." After fussing with Vlad's coat one last time, she trotted off, no doubt to confer with Aly's Aunt Ava. Probably she was, at this very moment, inventing the love triangle of the century.

"A p-pleasure to see you again, L-Lord Harker," Vlad said quietly. He gazed down into his lemonade as he added, "I am rather belated, I know, b-but thank you for saving Miss Wilewicz and me. Last year."

Janus acknowledged him with a slight nod. "You are quite welcome; a friend of Miss Stregaregale's is a friend of mine."

"Alissya," Vlad said, still staring with great fascination into his glass, "y-your aunt was l-looking for you. The next d-dance will begin s-soon."

Aly rose. "Then I suppose I should tell her—"

Janus set his hand on her shoulder and, almost too carefully, pressed her into her chair once more. "Allow me, Miss Stregaregale," he said. "I have a feeling she would better accept my explanation."

"E-explanation?" Vlad turned a questioning eye on Aly.

"I too seem to have escaped dancing for the night," she said, looking up at Janus and flashing him a small, grateful smile, "thanks to a certain gentleman." He bowed.

"Oh," said Vlad. "W-wonderful. But, of course, I assume your aunt w-will not be terribly p-pleased."

"Perhaps." Actually, she might not mind; Janus was, after all, one of the most eligible men present. A clever conquest, Aunt Ava would call it, a classic tactic to capture a man's interest. A frail girl ought to use her frailty, if she could—and hadn't Aly, however unwittingly, done just that? Probably the talk had already started; the only difference between her aunt and the other society women was that Aunt Ava would be proud. Aly suddenly felt very conniving. Did it count if she hadn't meant for it to happen this way?

A chorus of notes sounded, a clash of tuning pitches between woodwinds and strings: the musicians were preparing for the next number. "You ought to move quickly, Lord Harker," Aly said.

"Indeed I must, as some poor gentleman has been deprived of his partner. His loss," Janus said, sounding not at all sympathetic. "I will return." He bowed again, kissed her hand and set off to find her aunt.

She watched him leave; what a regal walk he had, confident and graceful, and yes, rather intimidating. Aly sighed. He was far too handsome for her. She wished she knew where a powder room was, someplace with a mirror; her dress was flawless, but she was worried about her face. She dabbed a finger underneath one eye—yes, there it was, a hollowness where she could feel the ridge of her eye-socket.

The music began; it was a mazurka this time, still a three-step beat, but faintly heavier than the waltz. Aly hummed along.

"A-Alissya," Vlad said. She turned to him and raised her eyebrows—what now? "D-do you intend to spend the e-entire evening with Lord Harker?"

"If he will have me. Why?" Aly narrowed her eyes. Could he possibly—? "You cannot be jealous, can you?"

Vlad recoiled. "What? No! I couldn't—no! I j-just have something to t-tell you."

"Then tell me. Now."

"Y-y-you remember at the dance? Last year? How h-he—you remember." He gulped down a few sips of lemonade. "H-he d-decapitated Amelia Morrigan."

Hadn't Vladimir already told her this? "Yes, and? Must I remind you of my job, of Dalia's? There is rather a lot of decapitating about Headquarters."

"N-not l-like this. Alissya," Vladimir said, "L-Lord Harker is a w—a w-w-w—" He thumped his cane against the floor in frustration. "Werewolf," he finished.

She stared at Vlad, her jaw tight and her lip curled, and her eyebrows arched just so. Slowly she shook her head. "I cannot believe you would do this to me."

"Do what? It's the truth! H-he—have you s-seen him? He could not p-possibly be human."

"I don't believe you. I don't believe this." The more she said it, the more confident she felt. Her heart pounded, and she couldn't breathe, but maybe, maybe if she continued acting utterly incredulous, her horror would vanish. Why had he chosen now of all times to leap to conclusions?

Vlad pursed his lips, and he glanced at the floor. "You d-d-don't have to. But—p-please—"

"My aunt met him. Do you—do you really think that I would have been allowed to see him, much less dance with him if she suspected anything? There are signs, Vladimir, identifying marks, and we know, she and I both. He has none." She straightened her posture, even further, and she lifted her chin. "I don't know what you're trying to accomplish, but unless you're trying to irk me, it's not working."

"I'm not t-t-trying to irk you, I just…I w-wanted to warn you."

"And now you have done so. Wonderful." Out of the corner of her eye, Aly caught Janus approaching. She stood, fixing her slightly-limp hair and plucking at her slightly-wrinkled gloves; maybe she was the only one who noticed, but she mustn't take chances. "Now, will you let me have a good time? For once?"

"I s-suppose," said Vlad.

"Good evening, Vladimir," she said, and she took Janus's arm as he offered it. Let Vlad comment if he dare. "I thought I saw two empty chairs on the other side of the room, Lord Harker, near the orchestra—shall we?"

Janus glanced at Vlad. "If you wish." They moved through the crowd, and people parted as they passed—word had apparently gotten around. Aly smirked as she saw Miss Alexandra, who was leaning against the wall in one of her usual nasty sulks.

"Well?" asked Aly. "How did it go?—not so badly, I take it, as you are still alive."

"I told your aunt that, as the last to dance with you, I felt it my duty to see that you made it safely through the rest of the night. She seemed quite pleased."

Aly scrutinized what she could see of his profile. It was classical, even perhaps aristocratic, but she saw nothing canine about it. "As she should be. Even Miss Alexandra Cadwell hasn't received this much attention from one man."

"I conversed with her briefly, earlier this evening. I must say, Miss Alissya Stregaregale is vastly more pleasant to be with."

They reached the chairs, and Aly was relieved to see that they had not been claimed. How wretched would it be, to leave Vladimir so dramatically and then be obliged to return because there were no other seats—and not only that. Her feet were beginning to ache again.

The music, no longer a faraway whisper, sang in their ears. Aly could even see some of the musicians' faces, and the movements of their fingers or the glide of their bows. She wondered if she would be able to hear Janus, but at least this way there was no danger of being eavesdropped upon.

"Are you feeling better?" Janus asked, once they were seated. Their view of the dancing was obstructed by a group in front of them; she did not know these people well, thank goodness, but they would satisfy as chaperones, should one of her relatives ask.

"Quite." Aly nodded, and she closed her eyes. Why, why had Vlad felt the need to tell her? Some other time she could have shrugged it off, could have given him a good scolding and then been done with it. But now, on the very last night, when Janus was here and she could not shake the thought from her mind—why? He probably thought he was being kind. The idiot.

Her breathing steadied—the music, was it changing?—and she sensed Janus beside her, saying close to her ear, "Perhaps you ought not to fall asleep so soon, lady, else I shall be obliged to wake you with a kiss."

She cracked open an eyelid. "Only after one hundred years have passed, my lord." Aly shifted, and she covered her mouth to hide a yawn. "It is your job to keep me from sleeping, Janus. Only the most engaging of conversations will do."

Janus grinned. "Then we shall see if I am up to the task."

He was.

~

The night dwindled on; every so often, Aly would glance out the nearest window, where she saw the full moon change from yellow to bright, brilliant white as it rose in the sky, and then move out of her sight completely. At first a few young women approached them, attempting subtlety as they tried to goad Janus into asking them for a dance. He demurred—he would feel a right cad, he said, if he left Miss Stregaregale like this, and Aly endeavored to look as pitiable as possible.

The girls could take a hint.

Soon Janus and Aly faded from the public eye—there were more interesting matters afoot, such as the argument between Miss Ashcroft and the Earl of Ellisfair, which may or may not have been instigated by something Miss Alexandra said.

"She reminds me of another woman I once knew," Janus said, "and I do not mean that as a compliment." Aly asked him, but he would not elaborate.

Sometimes they talked; sometimes they did not, instead choosing to listen to the music as it grew less and less vivacious—not even the best of musicians could play well for hours on end. Eventually their conversation turned to the Organization; Aly was reluctant to talk about it in too much detail, but she did entertain Janus with some of the more amusing zombie-hunting incidents.

"There was one we encountered—a very decrepit fellow—he kept asking about Napoleon, and we told him that Napoleon was long dead, but he simply would not believe us." Aly covered her mouth to hide a smile. "He tried to get us to bring him to the nearest military outpost, and when we refused, oh dear, his language would have shocked a sailor."

"And front of ladies? How terrible."

"Demsey certainly does not count as a lady—of course, it was she who crept up behind him and struck him in the head. 'Just to stop him talking,' she said, although I cannot repeat her words verbatim." She sighed, and she rolled her eyes. "Sparrow scolded her for her language, but that never does any good."

"Because it's Sparrow."

"Because it's Sparrow and Demsey. She's married, by the way, as of a month ago," Aly added.

Janus looked mildly horrified. "This Demsey woman?"

"Oh good heavens, no. I meant Sparrow—she and Mr. Forester are quite happy together. If Demsey ever married…" Aly shuddered. "At least I would never hear about it. I wrote you about what happened, didn't I?"

"You did indeed, and it is quite relieving to know that you need not suffer that wretch's presence any longer. But what of your team?" Janus asked. "There are only three of you now, are there not?"

"Two, really, as I've been occupied with the Season. It's only Miranda and Sparrow—not much of a team, considering. Sparrow's been very understanding, but Miranda is less inclined to think balls are more important than killing zombies."

"Obviously she has not met many in high society. Try telling any one of them that the Season is a waste of time—actually, it's amusing to see their expressions," Janus said.

Aly raised her eyebrows. "You tried it? And you weren't torn to shreds?"

"I'm too rich and handsome," he said. "They wouldn't dare."

"Of course not."

They fell silent; Aly resisted the urge to lean her head on Janus's shoulder, for how unseemly would that be? She listened: the music was growing less lovely by the minute. One violinist dropped his bow, and Aly felt a strange, fey desire to giggle—and to dance, in spite of her feet and this horrible waltz, to spin, to pirouette in her moonlight skirts and not stop until her shoes fell in tatters about her feet.

"What do you know," Janus said, and he gestured to the dancers; in between the group in front of them, Aly could see a flash of pink-striped skirts and a head of dark chestnut hair—so Miss Alexandra had finally gotten somebody to dance with her. It looked like the Earl of Ellisfair.

"Poor man," said Aly.

"The last dance, and she finally caught somebody."

Aly's brow knit. "Last dance?"

"I would assume so, Alissya, as it's nearing four o' clock," Janus said, tucking his pocket watch back into his coat.

"Oh." Actually hearing the time reminded her that she ought to be tired. It was probably this tiredness that made her want to cry—how childish of her. She hadn't even wanted to be here, and now she never wanted to leave.

She watched a troupe of partygoers wave their goodbyes and file out of the ballroom. The place had become emptier, she realized—why had she not seen it before now? Oh yes. Being seated next to such a handsome man rather refocused one's powers of observation. "You will still write me, Janus? If it is to be another year—"

"My letters will continue, but I think a year is too long a wait." He clasped her hand in his and kissed it. "Perhaps another ball? But likely that would not be until Christmas."

"Likely not." Aly paused. "However, if I should decide to take a walk with Mrs. Forester next Thursday—"

"At, perhaps, ten o' clock in the morning?" asked Janus, catching on. Aly nodded. "Where will we meet?"

She looked up at him through her eyelashes and said, with an impish smile, "East of the sun and west of the moon." He laughed, and she continued, "What about the park on Lang Street?"

"Perfect."

Lady Birdwell swept past, arm in arm with her husband; she looked twenty years younger, pretty and fresh-faced and laughing—she stopped when she saw Aly, and though she looked down her nose with narrowed eyes, Aly still spotted the remnants of a smile about her mouth. "We will be leaving shortly, Alissya. Do not dally," she said, looking Janus up and down.

"Well," said Aly. She rose, as did Janus.

"I'll escort you to the cloakroom." He did so, both of them walking as slowly as possible. Aly tried to memorize his every facial expression, the way he held her arm—more than that, how, even among society, he treated her as nothing less than a person. That—that, Vladimir—ought to be the mark of true humanity.

Sparkling peals of laughter sounded from the narrow room, and as Aly entered she saw the group that had earlier left the ballroom, and she smelled the champagne on their breath. The servants were occupied with them; Aly pointed out her coat to Janus, who fetched it for her from one of the higher hangers.

He held it as she shrugged into it, and she felt his fingers on her chin, tilting it upward. Amid the laughter and the servants' mutterings and Lady Birdwell's disdainful remarks, nobody saw him kiss Aly's cheek. She flushed, and she turned to the side and raised a hand to cover her wide grin.

Aunt Ava stood at the cloakroom door, and she raised her eyebrows as she caught Aly's gaze. "Come along," her expression said. Uncle George appeared behind her, and Aly sighed.

Janus noticed, and he too sighed. "Farewell until next Thursday, Alissya?"

"Farewell." She curtsied, and he bowed.

And as she made her way toward her family, she bit her lip to stop another smile, and she touched her cheek where he had kissed her. After one last glance over her shoulder, Aly faced her aunt and uncle and the inevitable inquisition on the way home.

It was worth it.

~

Fine.
 
 
Music: Belle ~ Beauty and the Beast
 
 
 
Ashley: Bushido Brownorinara on December 12th, 2006 06:13 am (UTC)
Admittedly I have a very short attention span, esp when the tv is on, so I'll have to reread this. But it is very good. Miranda is rather a pill, isn't she? Hee.