Renata was as light on her feet when dancing as when swordfighting. That’s not very surprising, really. Most people don’t realize it, but a great deal of the true skill in a talented swordfighter is in how they move their feet. I gave her the promised first dance, then another, then politely excused myself to bestow my charms upon other women. It is the height of rudeness to monopolize one lovely woman at a ball, though exceptions are made for the young or the newly in love of course.
I was staunchly determined to do everything I could to keep people, especially myself, from thinking that the second applied to Renata and I.
After I asked her to dance, Brynja, another one of my fellow Daggers, looked incredulous. “You want to dance with me? What’s the matter? Did Renata finally come to her senses and dump you?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, confused. I was sure none of the Daggers had reason to think there was more between Renata and I than a very deep friendship. Sure, her family knew that there was . . . something . . . going on between us, but I couldn’t think of a single time in the past two korvare when on the Asylum or at Dagger HQ we’d given anyone reason to think anything had changed.
“Please. You think it’s not obvious you two are dating?”
“But we aren’t!”
“I saw you two at her husband’s bar the other night.”
Oh, I thought, that explains that. “Which other night?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t the one where she and I had both had a bit too much to imbibe and had begun behaving in not strictly appropriate ways.
“Last sulid, you two were bickering like an old married couple.”
So it hadn’t been that night. It had been the one before, the one where Renata had had the audacity to insinuate that I was miscalculating the odds in a kista game. Me, the man who’d made quite a nice living for a number of years gambling professionally! “We were not ‘bickering like an old married couple’, thank you! We were having a minor argument over odds.”
The large woman shrugged. “Whatever. So, if you two aren’t dating, why’d ya move in with her?”
“She had a spare room and I needed a place to sleep. If I’d moved in with Darrien instead, would you think he and I were dating?”
She snorted inelegantly. “Defensive, aren’t you? Okay, okay, keep up your pretense, though I don’t know why you’re bothering. Anyway, you actually know how to dance, right?”
“Madam!” I said in hurt shock. “I am a gentleman! Of course I know how to dance. I was schooled in the art of dance by one of the finest dancemasters on Ruvellia, in fact.” To suggest that a noble didn’t know how to dance was a terrible insult, as it implied that their family hadn’t cared about them enough to make sure they knew all the gentlemanly arts.
“So that fancy accent isn’t fake?”
“Of course not! I’m a Tormestrel, son of Tristán, descendant of Saviero Tormestrel. I have no reason to pretend to be someone else. I’m, frankly, offended that you’d even suggest such a thing.” I knew she hadn’t known me for long, but that was no excuse!
“Damn, you’re defensive about this sort of stuff. Sorry. Didn’t mean any insult. Anyway, you can dance, so, sure, let’s do this.”
I have no idea why she was so worried about whether or not I could dance since she wasn’t particularly good herself. I was happy — though of course I didn’t show it — when the song was over and I could seek a new partner.
I found one who definitely was more my calibre near one of the large arched windows lining one wall. She was attempting to wheedle her husband into dancing. “Anastasia!” I said brightly coming up to her.
We greeted each other with a fond kiss and hug, then I took her hand and said, “Fair lady, would you do me the honor of being my partner for the next dance?”
Martoz gave me a thankful look. Silly man hates dancing.
“Well, I was hoping to have a dance with my husband, but since he’s being even stubborner than usual, yes, I will dance with you.”
She was an even better dancer than Renata, better, even, than me, I admit. She’d danced professionally once upon a time and still performed sometimes in the theater she’d opened a few korvare before.
“Monopolizing the hot guys again, babe?” Lyndsey said as she passed us during our second dance, a complicated veristil.
“Hardly,” I said before Ana could respond to her wife. “This is only our second dance. If you wish to dance with me next, I’m sure I can work you in,” I said teasingly.
Her partner spun her just then, but when she was holding still again she said, equally teasingly, “I don’t know. You did just mess up that turn. I might want a better partner than that.”
I’d made the mistake because this particular dance was one I’d not quite perfected, having not seen it for the first time until two years ago, but, ever the gallant gentleman, I said, “I was too enraptured by the beauty of your wife to pay proper attention to my feet.”
Lyn rolled her eyes and laughed outright. Anastasia reacted in a more restrained manner, limiting herself to a soft laugh before saying to Lyndsey, in tones that I would’ve believed expressed real hurt had I not known her so well. She was, possibly, an even better actress than she was dancer. “Are you saying I’m not beautiful enough to be distracting?”
Lyndsey laughed and rolled her eyes again. “Babe, you’re the most gorgeous woman here, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. But Quinn wasn’t even looking at you when he fucked that turn up.”
Her partner, a man I didn’t know who, to judge from his attire, had apparently thought he was going to dance night at one of the local spacer bars instead of a ball, spoke for the first time. “And why were you looking at him instead of me? You make a guy feel damned good, geesh.”
Lyndsey drew herself up onto her tiptoes and pecked him on the lips. “I wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt my wife, that’s all. I swear I’m paying more attention to you than him.”
“Yeah, you didn’t say anything about me being a hot guy when you asked me to dance either, you know.” He wasn’t as good an actor as Anastasia, very far from it. It would’ve been obvious to all but the tiniest of children that he was faking being upset.
“I didn’t think I needed to after the other night,” Lyndsey replied with a wink.
He laughed and they moved away from us, deeper into the flow of dancers. After that song, I made my apologies to Anastasia and sought another partner. This one was a young woman I didn’t know, but she was graceful and charming, so I made sure we knew where to find each other in the future, should she wish to get to know me better.
I danced with a couple more people, a song or two each, and then needed a rest. I made my way over to the refreshment tables and was pleased to see my employer and friend there, favoring one arm, but not looking bad at all for a man his age who insists on being on the front lines.
“Darrien, what an unexpected pleasure!” I said, bowing slightly when I was near him.
“Hi, Quinn,” he said. “You look like the past few korvare have been kind to you.”
“They have,” I said. He’d been on a mission for the better part of the past three korvare; I’d been on one of those periodic breaks from missions he insisted we take. They, I must admit, did wonders for our mental health. Few Daggers, despite the sort of situations we got into, ever suffered from severe mental trauma, and of those who did, it tended to be the ones like Viktor who’d suffered things too horrifying to think of.
“Good! There’s something building over near Sustis that you’ll be perfect for if it turns out they need our aid.”
“I look forward to it,” I said, meaning it. Spending my days charming lovely women, amusing Renata’s children, gambling, and dancing was undeniably fun, but actually doing my job, saving and protecting those who couldn’t save and protect themselves from tyrants and the like . . . there was a thrill to it that went far beyond the mere fun of the adventure itself.
“So, where’s Renata? I understand you to have been spending quite a bit of time together.”
I shrugged. “I’m living with her family right now, that’s all. The last I saw her, she was dancing with Tera.”
He gave me a shrewd look, probably guessing at the conflict raging in my heart and mind about Ren. He swears he’s not an empath or telepath, but I’d like to know how he knows and figures out half of what he does if that’s the truth. He swears he’s just good at reading people, but I’m good at reading people. What he is, is telepathic. I don’t care how strongly he argues that he’s not. It’s the only logical explanation.
I hurriedly changed the subject. “So, will you be entering the Sword Tournament?”
“I was planning on it, but it depends on how my arm feels by next sulid when sign ups end. I pulled something rather badly dodging a blast the other day.” He paused for a moment and when I said nothing, said, “And you’re the first person to hear that and not make a crack about my age. Thank you.”
I smiled slightly. “After the way I got injured doing the same thing on my last mission? What would that imply about me, hmm?”
“No one would ever think you were too old for something. You don’t look your age at all, Quinn.”
“Thank you,” I said with slight bow. When I looked in the mirror, I certainly saw a middle-aged man, so it was nice to know other people didn’t. Renata, and many of my other lovers, had of course insisted I still looked quite young, but one cannot trust a lover to tell the truth about things like that.
He and I conversed a bit more as we ate, then Lady Salyrissa herself insisted Darrien dance with her. I mingled some with other friends and acquaintances, flirted with beautiful women, helped Elizabeth reach some food she couldn’t so she wouldn’t climb on the table to get it — I swear, that child is entirely too much like Renata some times!, and then made my way back to the dance floor, dancing on my own at first, until my favorite short, tempermental, swordswoman put an arm around my waist.
“Care for another dance?” she asked, her eyes sparkling with merriment. She was, very clearly, enjoying herself quite a bit.
I made a show of looking around, pretending to be seeing if I had any other prospects, before putting an arm around her and saying, “I suppose I can settle for you.”
I probably deserved the kick to the shin she gave me.
That night I got more smug, knowing grins from Tera and Lance as I helped Renata tuck the smaller children in to bed and read them stories and such. I ignored them as well as I could, but at the back of my mind, I couldn’t deny that it probably was beginning to be obvious to everyone who saw us together at all that she and I were more than friends. It bothered me. I prided myself on being able to keep relationships casual. I’m not a cad, far from it. I have, truly, had feelings of a least friendship for every woman I’ve bedded. But, always before . . . save one time in my impetuous youth . . . I’d managed to keep it friendly. Both of us knew we were nothing more than, as Terrans crassly call it, “friends with benefits”, and both of us were fine with that. Always. I’d conducted my life that way for over thirty years.
Now though . . . this was something more, something less than she had with her spice to be sure, but something more than friendship nonetheless. I wasn’t sure I liked it, but I wasn’t sure I didn’t like it either. I was confused and conflicted, more than I’d been in years.
The conversation with Lance the other day hadn’t really helped matters any.
I resolved to talk to Renata about it soon as I pulled the ornate comforter up around my shoulders and drifted off to sleep.
Renata looked more lovely than ever, standing in a bower outside the local temple to Vestina, dressed, for once, in a dress; a light burgundy strapless thing that fit tightly across her ample breasts and at her waist, but had a skirt that looked like it was floating in the slight breeze. I looked rather nice myself, in a new blue and gold brocade doublet with slightly darker blue pants with gold trim. Our friends and family were all there, all watching. I was a bit apprehensive as I took her hands in mine and said those sacred words, promising to love her for all of eternity, promising to both Vestina and Kilij to never betray or harm her in any way. A part of my mind screamed, Stop! This is not what you want! but I ignored it, thinking of nothing except the woman who was about to become my wife. Renata said her oaths to me as well. The priest was just starting to speak her blessing when the momentous mistake I’d made suddenly hit me.
“Stop!” I cried. “This isn’t what I want! I’m sorry, Renata. I do love you, but this . . . no. Marriage isn’t for me. Fatherhood certainly isn’t. I can’t go through with this, cartima.”
She nodded with a savage look, pulled a sword from somewhere inside her dress — I was too shocked to notice the violation of physics happening right in front of me — and swung for my mid-section.
I woke up in a cold sweat. I was rather relieved to find I was still alive. I didn’t take the dream that seriously, certain that if I’d ever taken it into my head to marry Renata — an incredibly unlikely event! — I’d not have a sudden change of heart at the literal last moment. I was equally certain that she could not hide a sword in a dress like that. But just the fact that I’d had a dream like that bothered me. What was my subconscious trying to tell me? Did I want to hear whatever it was?
Bothered by these questions, I slept restlessly the remainder of the night.