It was just tea.
He closed his eyes, a mask concealing only his eyes and nose sitting atop his face. He felt silly wearing the costume, made up primarily of the shades of gold his mother had told him was proper for social gatherings. At the very least there was the mask. Fortunately, the bridge was largely deserted, most of the attendees having left hours before. All the same, he still had his pass, and therefore had the right to bring a guest to the tail end of the Masquerade being held by Knight Steffanie Saissore. He was waiting for Kat, checking his neocom constantly for a response. His mind wandered to the last couple nights, marveling at how close he had come to utter despair.
He had clung to her, reluctant to let go lest she evaporate into the void forever. Warm tears were running down his cheeks as he said the words, “I’m so sorry.” He felt her tense initially at the embrace, in some ways expecting her to push him away, slap his cheek, and hurl a tirade of castigations in his general direction. But within a moment she had relaxed, then returned the embrace.
“I understand why you did it.” She had sighed, ultimately laughing, alluding to the previous night where he had declared that they shouldn’t continue visiting one another. But she hadn’t pushed him away, smiling at his clumsy attempts to apologize.
And just like that she had forgiven him.
They had gone for a walk afterwards along the shore beneath Cerra Manor.
As they walked down the path, naked flame licking at the darkness, he broke the silence, “I’m sorry for taking so long to reach you. But I thought that maybe you didn’t want to see me again.”
She replied, “I didn’t, to be honest. But I’m glad you sent it.”
A pang of remorse shot through him–one that he could still feel now, standing in front of the imposing facade of Knight’s Mercy. He had been close to losing her. Of never seeing her again. It was unimaginable, unfathomable. He took a few deep breaths of the crisp, frosty air, hoping for clarity of mind. Balls, parties, gatherings, debuts, presentations–this was supposed to be what he had been bred for, though he was shaking with nervous anticipation. He hoped onlookers thought he was just shivering from the cold.
“Hey, I just got your message.” Kat said as she walked up to him, lacking a mask entirely.
Suddenly his nervousness vanished as she appeared from the mist. Despite the missing mask, she wore a simple yet elegant dress.
Unable to contain his laughter, he said, “I apologize for the short notice. But alas, I don’t have a second mask.”
He thought for a moment, then ultimately removed his own mask, hoping that his face was clear of his earnest delight at seeing her. Gentlemen were to be stoic, his mother had told him.
He offered her his arm, “Shall we, then.”
She smiled, “Love to.”
The chamber made no attempt at hiding its immense size. Three golden chandeliers hung overhead, providing dim lighting for the ballroom floor. To one side stood a table that ran the length of the wall, covered in silverware of frosted glass, a small army of waiters and servants at the beck and call of the guests. At the far end of the room were wall-sized mirrors, offering an even greater sense of vastness. And they were the only ones there.
“You should have seen it at 1800,” Reginald tilted his head towards Kat, admiring how she admired the decoration, “It was quite lively–an ocean of feathers, gowns, smiles, shapes, colors.”
Kat smiled back, “I’m sorry I missed it.”
He shook his head, “Don’t be. You were busy. I’m just glad that you’re here.”
Still smiling, she replied, “I wouldn’t miss it if I could help it.”
He kissed her hand softly with a graceful motion, “I know.” Leading her into the emptiness of the chamber–his voice may have echoed if it weren’t for the music that was still playing–he asked, “How do you like it?”
At that moment Lady Lunarisse Aspenstar walked into the ballroom. She wore a white linen dress, though she also carried signs of having only just freshly showered and changed. Surprisingly, she wore a man’s jacket on her shoulders. Reginald wondered at who it could have belonged to, but wished that he hadn’t as Tigerfish Torpedo emerged onto the floor.
Reginald nearly froze. Here, before him, stood his great nemesis. A self-confessed mass murderer and–as Reginald suspected–philanderer that continually sullied Lady Lianne’s reputation and by extension, that of the alliance. And seeing him with Lunarisse only reaffirmed the sense of righteousness welling within Reginald’s soul. He may be bearing false witness against Tiger for the murder of his guards, but it was a worthy cause–monsters belonged in cages. Reginald bit his lip, realizing that, as a suspect, Tiger should have at least been in custody. So why was he out and about traipsing around with Lady Aspenstar?
Lady Aspenstar blinked with surprise, “I see I am not the only one with the idea of visiting some more.” Strangely defensive, she continued, “Knight Saissore did invite people to stay as long as they wanted!”
Tiger nodded his head at Katerina, “Evening, Katerina.”
Kat smiled back, “Hello, Tiger.”
Reginald responded with the stiff etiquette his family had drilled into him when approached by an enemy in a formal setting. There was only one answer, of course, tucked away in the dense volumes that dictated how a Holder’s son become Holder should demonstrate in polite company. It was a weapon practiced by the nobility for the singular purpose of allowing the festivities to continue undisturbed.
Reginald put on his cookie-cutter smile, well-practiced and refined before a mirror in his family’s estate, forced upon him by threat of switch and rewarded by occasional sweets. Wearing it magnificently, his eyes darting from Luna to Tiger, he offered a statement that could blend into conversation while maintaining the decorum of noble manners, “Good evening. A lovely surprise indeed.”
His ruse worked. Already forgotten, Luna turned to Kat, “Oh I am so sorry you didn’t make it earlier Katerina… it was grand! All those feathers and sparkles and masks.”
Tiger glanced at Reginald but said nothing, turning his attention to Luna, “We should find somewhere to talk.”
“Yes. ‘Talk’ or whatever it is you call it,” Reginald thought to himself, his smile still immaculate. Laughing at the right times, nodding at the right times, his eyes attentive but not lingering too long on any of the people holding conversation, his back straight but his posture not imposing, showing no sign of discomfort or lack of interest. Yes, he was a Holder.
“The observatory is lovely, Tiger. I wanted to show you!”
Kat replied to Luna, “I wish I was here! But don’t let me keep you two.”
Reginald pitied Lunarisse, juggling two conversations at once, though he was truly angrier at Tiger, who lacked manners entirely, clearly trying to pull Luna away to God only knew rather than allowing two ladies to converse at their leisure.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Tiger looked at Kat, following Luna soon after, not even bothering to bow.
Luna curtsied properly, “Enjoy yourselves you two.” All the same, she seemed rather flushed, giving the appearance of dragging Tiger away, a crack in her mask of etiquette. Oh well, it’s not like Reginald was keeping track.
Reginald, still smiling politely, watched them make their way off of the floor. He whispered to Kat, “Lovely couple they make, don’t they?”
Kat gave Reginald a look “I doubt they’re actually a couple, with with the Shalee of it all.”
Reginald nodded, “I was only musing, of course. I wonder what their business is, otherwise. Though, it’s impolite to gossip, isn’t it?”
Kat laughed, “Impolite, yes. But that’s never stopped anyone.”
Reginald glanced towards Kat, “I wonder if they’re saying anything about us?”
“I’d imagine so.”
“I hope at least they’re saying good things. Also, since when did you start referring to Shalee definitively. ‘The Shalee’?”
She laughed again, “It’s an expression.”
Reginald smiled, then noticed the melody playing. It was soft and sweet, the notes lingering momentarily in the air between variations in timbre, but the distinctive three-beats were calling to his Holder past as the aroma of freshly prepared long-limb Roes might evoke memories within the lower classes.
“Well, since we’re here.” He bowed to Kat formally, “My lady, may I have this dance?”
Blushing, Katerina extended her hand, “I’d be offended if you didn’t.”
He brought her to the middle of the floor, the gazes of all the servants and musicians upon them–the only two capsuleers in the entirety of the room and therefore the reason why they were all still working. But Reginald cared nothing for all of that. Looking into her eyes, he took one of her hands in his own, the other he placed on her waist, then led Kat into a waltz.
“You look lovely, tonight.”
“You’re too kind. I look like I just climbed out of pod.”
Reginald responded, not missing a beat, “You’re too modest. You look like a princess.” He added softly, “Though to say so would be a compliment to princesses and an insult to you, my dear.”
Katerina blushed fiercely, looking away for a second, “I’m afraid you might be blind, then.”
“Only because of your radiance.”
Kat blushed once more, “I yield, you’re too good at this, Lord Sakakibara.”
He smiled, “I mean every word.”
Kat broke away from the dance and tightened her arms into a hug, her face red, “You’re crazy then, if you think I can compete with royalty.”
He gently took one of her hands and pressed his lips to it lightly, “Crazy for you, perhaps.”
She laughed softly, “Well, you would know, My Lord.”
Reginald bowed as the music stopped, then offered his hand to Katerina, glancing towards the ornately adorned table, “Would you care for refreshment?”
Kat nodded, “I’d love some.”
Reginald was smug, finally getting Kat to blush with his shower of doting compliments. But a gentleman knows when enough is enough–compliments should never be construed as teasing. Leading her to the table, he began by ordering two glasses of wine, then remembering an event from earlier in the day, turned slyly towards Katerina.
“Apologies, my lady. Was there anything specific you wanted? I believe one of the earlier patrons asked for Quafe and cookies?”
A waiter rolled his eyes at the thought.
Kat looked speechless for a moment, blinking, then burst into laughter, “You’re kidding.”
Reginald smiled, thankful his jest had the desired effect, “Isn’t it fantastic?” He placed the order for Quafe and cookies, enjoying Kat’s demeanor.
The waiter flashed a look of disapproval.
“You scare me,” Kat laughed, ordering a glass of wine.
The Quafe arrived sitting atop a silver platter next to a frosted glass. The cookies were arranged meticulously in a complex presentation. He picked up a cookie from the platter as the waiter poured the Quafe into the glass, making a show of enjoying the treat, “Absolutely scrumptious.”
Kat rolled her eyes, then said in a martyred tone, “You’re incorrigible.”
Reginald wore a mock, hurt expression, providing a waiter a gracious tip, “Yes, my lady, I’ll behave.”
Kat laughed, “I doubt that, my lord.”
He ordered his own glass of wine, studying Kat’s expression, asking cheekily, “Quafe and cookies not to your liking?”
She shrugged, “Never actually tried it, to be honest.”
A mischievous look in his eye, Reginald picked up the platter and in a fluid motion, bent down on one knee, offering the untouched goblet of Quafe to Kat, “Would you care to try some, my lady?”
Kat giggled, “Well presented like that, do I have a choice?”
He confessed, “To tell you the truth, I haven’t tried it either.”
At that moment, Luna and Tiger returned from the Observatory, causing Reginald to shoot back up off of the ground, gracefully placing the platter on the edge of the table. There was grass stains on her white dress and she continued to wear a men’s jacket.
Tiger, following her towards the exit said, “It was good of you to see me, Luna.”
Unable to help eavesdropping, a bolt shot through Reginald’s spine. He knew that Alexa de’Crux was investigating the murder of his guards at the Manor, but surely Luna wouldn’t have revealed the details of the investigation? He watched them cautiously, searching for an indication, sign, or cue.
“Of course. Any time for you Tiger.” Luna glanced back to Kat and Reginald before exiting with a slight wave. Tiger looked back as well, allowed a smile on his face, then left behind Luna.
Smiles were dangerous. The perfectly crafted smiles of the elite were weapons designed to hide favorable terms, personal attacks, and daggers beneath tongues. Reginald didn’t know what to make of Tiger’s smile, and that bothered him.
“It’s not bad,” Kat laughed, breaking Reginald’s trance.
He asked to try some, almost absentmindedly, forcing his mind away from the usual dark corridors it took to solve problems. He wanted to be with Kat and he wouldn’t let Tiger ruin the evening, their evening together. She allowed him. He mumbled, his eyes still on the exit, “You’re right, it’s not bad at all. I wonder what they were up to.”
He forced off his look of concern, returning his full attention to Kat and the warmth she offered, “We’ve danced, tried Quafe, gossipped–I’ll leave what we do next up to you, my lady.”
She smiled, “Let’s explore some.”
He bowed, “After you my lady. Salon or observatory?”
She always made him choose, “You pick.”
Putting on his best Gallente accent and offering Kat his hand, he suggested, “L’observatoire?”
Giggling, Kat took his hand. Together they walked towards the observatory, away from Tiger and Lunarisse, away from the Manor and its intrigues, and away from Reginald’s desire to see a man imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.