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The Price of Mercy – Chapter 1
I am a fool
Jarrin sat in his rented coach, waiting in line to enter the gate. The emperor’s ballroom glowed softly in the night. Behind it, much farther off, was the palace proper. Nestled in the center of the city, the emperor’s domain was like a small kingdom itself. The ballroom was at the farthest edge, a mere drop of all that was there.
More than three-fourths of the funds the baroness gave him were already spent–his reward for services rendered before he was summarily dismissed. Between the coach and his elaborate costume, he was about to make his life very difficult if he didn’t succeed tonight.
The baroness’s second gift had been an invitation to the ball and, if he dared use it, the possibility of gaining other employment. The problem was, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to succeed but hadn’t been able to think of another course that didn’t involve shame, poverty, or starvation.
The coach crawled through the gate.
Jarrin could just make out some of the guests as they exited their vehicles at the ballroom’s entrance. Ladies and gentlemen wearing costumes of all colors, tall wigs, and hats, tiaras, necklaces, rings but, most of all, masks to hide their identities, weaving an air of mystery and daring.
When his turn came, he forced himself to wait until the coachman got down and opened the door for him before getting out. With feigned calm, he presented his invitation to the guards then sedately ascended the stairs to the entrance.
On this night, no introductions would be made, everyone seemingly oblivious to the identities of everyone else. A simple veneer, easy to see through in some cases, yet all would pretend to their fullest not to recognize anyone else. And somehow, here, he would have to make himself an opportunity.
A few couples swayed to the music in the cleared middle of the extensive room while others loitered about the heavily laden tables set up against two of the four walls. The steaming food and colorful drinks set out as delicious temptations but a few steps away of those attending.
The light fragrance of roses filled the air from hundreds of scented candles held aloft by a dozen giant chandeliers. Too soon, though, it would be joined by the cloying aromas of heavy perfumes and perspiration.
Jarrin caught a glimpse of himself in one of the tall standing mirrors as he slowly made his way to the floor. Scarlet floor-length cloak, a black embroidered skirted coat with heavy cuffs and matching vest, black knee breeches, tall leather boots, blood-red shirt and cravat, black gloves, and a wide black hat with red feathers-the well-known rendition of the Crimson Lover. His dark hair was tied with a large ribbon and reached a little past his shoulders in back. His dark-blue eyes seemed to leap from the black mask around them. He was sure there would be a few others posing as the Lover tonight, but none would be as dependent on the message the persona conveyed as he would.
As if he possessed all the time in the world, he strolled the periphery of the room. In truth, now that he was here, he had no idea how to go about his purpose. How did you woo yourself a patron? How did you even choose one? He should have come dressed as a buffoon.
He spotted two of those in short order, although they were the most expensively dressed fools he’d ever seen. Emperor Drusnian, the reunifier of the empire after the Age of Blight, had several representatives as well-his double chins and flaming red hair made him unmistakable. There were several other famous personages portrayed among the partygoers, as well as heroes and villains from pieces of literature–Dullain, Marquis Sablet, the Crooked Man.
The room filled quickly, the noise level rising over the music being woven by a group of twenty men and women on a slightly raised dais in a corner.
At one point, he paused at the sight of a new arrival. His old patron, the baroness, had finally arrived. Her stooped form and calculating eyes gave her identity away easily, especially to one who’d known her so intimately for so long. Still, it was the person at her side who drew most of his attention. It could be none other than his replacement-the baroness’s latest protege.
With a hard swallow, Jarrin realized he knew the popinjay. A year younger than him, Rillian was already a coveted performer, an exceptional violinist. They’d seen him perform less than two months ago at a lavish birthday party.
He’d lost track of the baroness during the festivities for a few moments when asked to render a reading. Now he wondered if that was when the wheels began to turn against him. Did Rillian approach her or she him?
He forced himself to turn away as they merged with the crowd. He had other business to attend to.
He’d circled the ballroom twice, the musicians starting in on the fifth or sixth long piece of the evening, when he spotted her. She stood by the end of one of the buffet tables, her back against the corner it made with the wall, as if to assure herself she couldn’t be approached without her knowledge–or perhaps to shield her back. She was short and plump, dressed in layers of lace and silk of the lightest pinks and whites. Her stance was stiff, as if she were nervous or excited, and she was looking about as if searching for something. Perhaps that something was him.
Jarrin rubbed his suddenly sweaty palms on his cloak, realizing his moment was here. Proceeding at a calculated leisurely pace, he grabbed a glass of wine from a passing waiter as he approached his possible salvation.
She wore a half-mask made of feathers that curled around her face and matched those pinned to her curled brown hair. Surrounded by white, her dark-brown eyes stood out, and he saw them widen as she noticed his approach and his costume. He didn’t let this deter him, knowing he had no choice.
“You seem thirsty, madam, would you care for a glass of wine?” He presented the glass to her with a flourish, as he’d seen the men do in the operettas the baroness liked so much. What he could see of her round face blushed, paled, then blushed again.
She reached to take the glass, and although she tried to avoid it, Jarrin made sure their fingers touched. The lady jerked the glass back, almost spilling the wine. Had he read her wrong after all? He felt uncertainty nibble at him, as it had the last several days, but pressed on. He tried to give her his brightest smile.
She blushed again, shielding her face with the glass as she took a large swallow. As she did, he noticed her finely cut earrings, bracelets, and necklace, half-hidden in feathers. From the baroness, he’d learned something of such things in the last year. Although not overtly large or showy, the cut of the stones and the settings spoke of extreme wealth.
“Is this your first ball?” He couldn’t tell her age, but thought it might be close to his own. She could have already been married for years and was here looking for fresher entertainment, or even just companionship.
“No…I have attended before.”
Jarrin thought he saw her eyes sparkle, as if at a hidden joke. They were large and expressive, and made him curious about the face beneath the mask. If all went miraculously well, perhaps he’d get a chance to see it.
“Is it yours?” Her gaze lighted on him, keenly intent.
“I attended last year…as a companion to one of the baronesses.” There, he’d said it. With any luck she would understand the message beneath the words and things might prove easier. From the way she glanced at his costume and at his face, then blushed again and drank more of her wine, he was sure she understood quite clearly.
Much to his chagrin, however, he found his own face heating up as well. He hoped his mask hid from view most of the embarrassment he felt at being what he was.
“I see…” Her voice was tight. She drank the rest of her wine in one gulp but made no move to run off. He hoped it was a good sign.
She grabbed another glass when a waiter waltzed by and drank part of it down. Perhaps she was as nervous as he was. Unlike her, though, he couldn’t afford to imbibe, no matter how tempting or helpful he thought it might be. It was amazing how he could feel so totally alone in a room so filled with people.
“Would the lady care to dance?” He half-bowed and held out his hand.
She had opened her mouth to reply when trumpets sounded from across the room. Everyone grew abruptly silent, their attention turning to the golden doors on the far side. While all others could disguise themselves and perhaps for a time forget who they were beneath a thin veneer of anonymity, there would always be the one none would be allowed to forget.
“All hail the mighty Emperor Tremere the Fourth!”
The golden doors opened, and the emperor and his entourage swept into the room, a small dais and grand chair carried by servants behind them. Tremere was a short, stocky man dressed in tastefully cut rags of purple, gold, and silver. Jarrin was pretty sure his costume was meant to be that of the Wandering Beggar. Resteel had been a mighty monarch brought low, bereft of everything he held dear through his own foolishness. It was said he then wandered the world, seeking to atone for his unbecoming deeds and regain favor with Melak, the Crafter of All, by crying the virtues of the True Way to any who would listen. A rather interesting choice for a man in the emperor’s position. Especially since he was himself the living avatar of Melak.
The empire had seen better days in ages past but was still prosperous at this time, at peace. He caught a glimpse of the heir apparent, who wore a much more colorful and less reserved costume than his father’s. He also spotted the prince’s much younger brother and two sisters. He thought there was supposed to be a third daughter but couldn’t remember if she was currently at court or not, having been married off several years ago. One of those two, then, would be the one betrothed to Crevail, a duke in the far provinces. From the gossip around the baroness, the emperor heartily approved of the unusual match.
“Welcome, friends and patriots! Please indulge yourselves this evening. Leave all your cares behind. We of the imperial house will carry your burdens for you.” The emperor made a rolling gesture with his hand, and the musicians began playing again, the waiters once more making their rounds.
Jarrin turned to his prospective employer and found her staring intently at the emperor, her lips pressed into a thin line.
The young woman blinked and looked away, then brought the glass of wine to her lips and drank it all. When she turned to him, her gaze was veiled, and a not so very convincing smile was plastered on her lips.
“You offered me a dance. I would very much like to accept, but not here. It is getting uncomfortably warm, don’t you think?” She took his hand in a strong grip, her chest rising and falling rapidly. “It will be much cooler and more private in the gardens.”
She turned away, and not wanting to offend her, he had no choice but to follow as she set her empty glass on the table and hurried along the wall. She led him outside through the first of the open glass doors, out into the imperial gardens that surrounded the ballroom.
It was, indeed, cooler there, the night breeze caressing them as the darkness swallowed them whole. Jarrin worried about colliding with trees or bushes in their continued haste, but the lady led him without mishap. Finally, out of sight of the open doors, she slowed to a stop.
Melak’s Eye floated above them, giving a semblance of light as Jarrin’s gaze adjusted. She’d brought them to a small open area with a cozy gazebo in the middle. Still holding his hand a little too tightly, she drew him into the dark interior. The heavy scent of roses and violets perfumed the air, a whisper of the music being played indoors teasing their ears.
He stood quietly as the young woman turned around to face him, waiting to take his cue from her. He felt his nervousness rising, knowing his testing was almost upon him and still wishing there were some other way.
“We can dance here.”
Her voice was low, guarded, as if she expected an objection. Instead, Jarrin raised the hand she already held and slipped his other around her waist, leading her into a slow waltz.
She was stiff in his arms at first, but as they rocked gently to the barely heard music and he asked for nothing else, he felt her gradually begin to relax. After a time, she sighed, as if letting the rest of her tension go. A moment later, she stepped in closer and hesitantly placed her head against his shoulder.
He found he liked the sensation of her leaning against him, the smell of her scented hair close to his face. The baroness never danced, feeling it was something only for the young.
They stayed that way through several pieces, as if neither one were eager to go further. Jarrin felt a little puzzled at this but wouldn’t look at his own reasons for holding back. As for her, he knew naught of her and so possessed nothing on which to base her reluctance. Perhaps something as simple as being held was normally denied her. It might be something he would learn about with time.
Eventually, they migrated to one of the benches of the gazebo. He took off his hat as he sat and waited patiently. She wouldn’t look at him, but when he took her hand in his she didn’t resist. He caressed her fingers softly then worked his way up her arm, enjoying the feel of her skin. She shivered at his touch, but still she did or said nothing.
Although it shamed him, he was enjoying himself. For once, he was the instigator, not just reacting to a command, even if he possessed no more choice in the matter now than then. It was still different.
When he kissed her shoulder, tasting her, she gave a little gasp, yet she didn’t resist when he gently turned her face toward him. Hesitating only a moment, he leaned forward and touched her warm lips with his own. A moment later, he felt them soften as she surrendered to him. It seemed the baroness had taught him well after all.