She caught his eye that evening. It was a coincidence that hers was the first gaze he saw upon entering the ballroom, he had not even known that she would be attending, but at every hint of deep blue he turned his head in hope of it being her gown. They had not seen each other in years, and oh he missed her. He moved politely among the guests (the party was, after all, in his name and honor) but kept her in view. The longer he stayed the more he desired to be in her company.
Etiquette dictated he should have taken another to dance, but he did not wish anyone else on his arm. Instead, he spoke with fellow gentlemen about his studies whilst waiting for Lady Elizabeth Anne.
Conversation was spirited. Many among the noble houses were knowledgeable in the healing arts, which is after all what Clandestina was famed for. With the completion of his own medical degree—the reason for this party—there was much to discuss. He would have enjoyed the celebration more had other things not been on his mind.
“Hmm?” He turned from where her dark blonde curls had his attention, taking note of the title of address. A duc by birth, he had been fostered by Roi Edgard and some at court indulged him by calling him princeling.
“Yes, Margrave Bastoni?”
“Who shall be given the honor of your care?”
“Whoever is ill,” he replied. “I may not be able to open my own practice with the duties of my land taking precedent, but I will make the rounds at local hospitals and care for those of my household.”
“If that is the case, then you are always welcome to my mountains, with full privileges.”
“That is most kind, Bastoni.” Before he could say more her perfume caught his attention. Honeysuckles. Memories of summers spent at play filled his head. He turned again in search of her and found her smiling, aware of how they circled each other.
She hid behind the fan in her right hand—follow me. His heart fluttered, and his breath hitched. He took a step toward her to ask her to dance, but she was already being led away by another. Her dance card hung full from her wrist. It seemed the comte’s daughter was occupied for the evening, and it would not do to pursue her.
Yet, the duc excused himself and did just that, only paying enough attention to those around him to avoid suspicion of his intentions. He was near enough that when the dance set changed, he could ask for her.
Their eyes met again. She was ignoring her partner in his favor, keeping strict form and looking over her partner’s shoulder rather than into his eyes. Her fan was closed, but as she was turned away she dropped it open—ask me to dance.
He cut in at her request, and the other noble graciously let his duc have the young woman’s attention.
“Lady Elizabeth,” he said, wrapping an arm around her, “Do you fear we may not see each other again?” He was awash in the scent of summer though it was barely springtime.
She blushed, realizing the situation she had put herself in, but was unable to look away. To flirt with the principicule from a distance was entirely different than to be in his arms.
“Your Graceful Highness,” she replied. “It is a pleasure to catch your eye.”
“One as beautiful as yourself should be accustomed to catching the eyes of lords.” Her smile now accompanied the blush, which reddened further. He squeezed her hand and began to lead her away, going against the wave of dancers. His were not the only eyes on her; several were interested to know for whom the duc had been so impatient as to ignore decorum.
“You are not a lord, Your Grace.”
“Then am I merely someone to flirt with from afar?”
“No, monsieur. I have just never quite had your full attention.”
“Oh? And when you and I were younger, the times I plaited flowers in your hair—at your request?” he tucked a loose curl behind her ear as he spoke. She felt the once familiar touch of a stem and leaves as he left a bloom that seemed to come from thin air.
“I was a child then, monsieur,” she replied, reaching up to touch the flower and the tips of his fingers. “It was some time ago. And we were in a field, not your ballroom.”
“It is hardly my ballroom.”
“The gala is in your name, making it yours,” she pointed out, and when he could not dispute this, she felt more at ease.
They danced with freedom, the crowd blending as the music took people to their fancy. The waltz was a dance between only those two who were partners, and not a choreographed dance for everyone in the room. Pierre guided her across the dance-floor, one hand on her waist and the other holding her hand in the air. A few of his steps were imperfect.
“And what do you think of my formal attention thus far, Elizabeth?”
The young woman repositioned her form, blue eyes moving away from his grey. He tightened his grip.
“You are taller than I remember,” she said. “But you know your steps well enough for someone who has had all of their time taken up with studies.”
“The next time we dance will not be after such a time that height becomes an issue. And thank you, there are few ladies to partner with at a men’s university.”
“So have you forgotten ballroom etiquette as well, Your Grace? You took me to dance outside of turn.”
“You asked, My Lady.”
“After you had already begun pursuing me.”
“Ah, true,” he said, giving in to her. “Seeing you after all this time brought forth more feelings than I had expected. Your brother speaks of you often.”
“Only because he visited his lands between semesters. This is your first time home in years.”
“And suddenly I regret never taking up Piers’s offers to accompany him.”
She was silent a moment before saying, “You did not write this past year.”
“It was a very busy final year. I apologize for not being in contact.” He squeezed her hand to accentuate the apology, guiding her into a twirl with a press to her waist.
She had first written him in his second semester away, and for a while their correspondence had been frequent. Then, other matters became more important.
“The flower, monsieur,” she said after returning to his arms. She finally recognized it from its scent and touch. “Do I seem fickle in your eyes that you give me larkspur?”
“It is the royal flower,” he reminded her. “Deserving of a noble lady, to keep away things of dread. You have never been fickle, Lizzy. It was my fault entirely that our communication stopped. I do believe last summer you sent Piers to the dorms with so many baked goods solely to force him to share with me.”
She did not deny this, unable to hide a smile, though said, “Eglė helped as well,” referring to her brother’s wife. “Do things of dread follow me about?”
“Perhaps now they never shall.” Another spin and a change in posture brought them so close together it would be improper in any other context. They were to then step in unison, but he let her go entirely. He stepped back and stumbled as if about to fall.
“Forgive me,” he said, trying to regain his balance while not interrupting the dancers around him. A hand in the air stalled those that would have rushed to him. “I seem to have forgotten those steps,” he mumbled as an explanation, not meeting Elizabeth’s eyes. He was pale, the little color in his skin seeping away so that his cheeks matched his black-and-grey attire.
“Monsieur, Pierre, perhaps…” She reached out to him.
“Were you not born during Iovilios?” He caught her hand in the air. “The larkspur, if nothing else, is your flower, my lady.” Pulling her towards him, he whispered, “I have not forgotten about you.”
She broke their gaze. “If I may beg of you a drink.” If she was truthful this was more for her worry of the duc than her own wants.
“Of course, Elizabeth.” Their hands remained clasped, and he led her to the edges of the ballroom. Several tables around the perimeter had been laid out with food and drink.
“How long shall you be at court?” he asked, handing her a glass of watered wine. He took none for himself.
“My mother thinks it best we return home soon. Eglė’s time is near, and she wishes to meet her first grandchild.” Ah, yes, he had forgotten. No doubt this was why Elizabeth was here instead of her brother.
“And your thoughts, Lady Elizabeth?”
She took another sip. “Monsieur, it is rude to speak during a gala.”
He grinned. “Yet until this moment you forwent that rule yourself.”
“I do believe it would be even ruder to deny the guest of honor.”
“In that case—” He held out his hand to her, asking for another dance. She put the glass aside and placed her hand in his. They walked through the ballroom together as the orchestra changed sets.
They had not even returned to their previous spot when he tripped again, pulling her off balance. He caught her but landed hard on a knee. This time, he did not straighten and ignore what had happened. He held her as they recovered. “Forgive me, Lizzy.” His pale cheeks were now flushed. Others around them began to watch. A few whispered.
“I did return just this afternoon,” he said, half to the young woman in his arms and half to everyone around them. “I must still be tired from my journey. Perhaps I took ill along the way.” When he stood, everyone was occupied again.
Pierre squeezed her hand once more before letting go. She stepped back, curtsied, and bowed to him as a means of goodbye.
“Oh no, my dear.” He lifted up her chin. “We’ve danced tonight as partners. You may not bow to me.” His thumb rested at the corner of her lips. He was half-bent over her. Elizabeth felt the heat of his hand through his glove, and for a fleeting moment, she wished he would kiss her. Instead, he stroked her cheek and took back his hand.
She curtsied again and inclined her head, but did no more. He in turn bowed from the waist. “Good evening, Lady Elizabeth.” Without waiting for her reply, he slipped through the crowd and out of the ballroom.
It was only after he left that she pulled the flower down to see its color, and remembered the meaning of purple larkspur: first love.
He walked down the hall with purpose, waving a hand to send away the guards. His smile helped keep up appearances as long as eyes were on him, but when finally alone, Pierre leaned against the stone wall in pain.
He tried to take deep breaths despite his throat closing and only managed to wheeze. His heart beat almost painfully and every moment on his feet was uncertain. He held out his hands and saw that they shook.
Letting his head fall back against the wall, he grinned at the ceiling.
If he did not know better, he would have blamed much of this on Lizzy, and the rest on truly being tired. The burning in his mouth, the rash underneath his gloves, and the desire to vomit, however, made this far more than just his body’s reaction to infatuation.
“Pluta,” he called. He began to walk toward his room, one hand to the wall to keep him up, but his legs gave way. He fell to the floor, upsetting his body further, and retched upon the carpet.
Death filled the corridor; she pressed upon him like a heavy sleep.
“Pluta!” he called again. It hurt to speak, but he could not move without great pain, and dared not call anyone else.
A meowing from down the hall announced that his Familiar had heard him. He sighed, and then inhaled deeply, desperately, as if there was not enough air in the realm for him.
The black cat rounded the corner, and seeing him on the ground, she ran to him. She looked him over and to where he had come from and nudged his hand. “Did someone do this to you?”
“Find Uncle,” he said. “This is my own doing, I need to get to my quarters—” His hand clamped to his mouth, his body jerking with the cough, but he did not vomit a second time.
The cat sprinted off to the ballroom.
Pierre rested his head against the wall. This was to have been done discreetly, but his time had been occupied, and he had left later than planned. That he had gone at all had been a risk, but for that dance, it had been worth the trouble.
Death cupped his cheek with her hand, and for the moment, the form of a woman knelt beside him. Her skin and attire were like mist with a blue larkspur tucked behind her ear.
“Mora,” he whispered. The Lady of Death kissed him and laid her head on his chest.
“Pierre! What have you done?” Between one blink of the eye and the next she vanished.
He looked up to his uncle and wondered if several minutes had already passed.
“I need help to get to my room.” He began to stand, and Ophion moved to aid him. Pluta meowed and paced around their feet.
“What have you done, Pierre?”
“That is not your business. Now help me to my—” Another fit of coughing took him.
The lord physician hoisted up the duc, taking most of his weight, and the two stumbled to his rooms. The heavy doors were not locked, and after repositioning Pierre, Ophion opened them and brought his nephew inside. Pluta ran in as he closed the door.
He placed Pierre on the edge of the bed, and he fell back onto the large mattress gasping. The physician leaned over him, but Pierre nodded the way they had come. “The door.”
“First you.” He lifted his nephew’s legs and moved him into bed. Only then, after checking to see if there were medical supplies in the room, did he pick up the key to lock them in.
“Pierre, what happened?” Ophion spoke again, softer now, lighting lamps around the room. When his eyes were not on Pierre, Death—Mora—hung over him, clothes so transparent that she was all but nude.
“Larkspur,” Pierre said, brushing back Mora’s hair. A glance around the lighter room showed the royal flower decorating desks and bookshelves. A row of pots near a window had sprouts. “I have taken enough to end my life.”
Ophion left the lamp on the desk, striding to the bed and taking out his knife. He rolled up his sleeves, exposing a large number of scars.
“No!” Pierre struggled to sit up. Ophion did not see Mora as she stayed lay on the duc, intimate and yet a hindrance. “I am doing this for a purpose.”
The physician glared at him. He sat on the edge of the bed, not letting go of the blade or removing it from where it rested against his forearm. “How long do you intend to suffer?”
“For a few more moments. I will die soon and—”
“Her last test,” the duc snapped.
“How dare you?” his uncle said. “You ingest a fatal dose and go dancing!”
“I wished to celebrate with death as my escort,” Pierre replied then grinned. “And I dare because I am her most favored, Ophion. Observe if you must, but do not save me.”
Mora’s appearance flickered, and Ophion saw her on his nephew’s heart.
“One generally has a tether,” he said.
She smiled and disappeared.
Pierre did not reply, settling back into the bed while looking away. Ophion took this as permission to continue. He positioned his arm over a cup beside the bed and cut deeply. Blood, darkening the longer it flowed, filled what had before held the poison. Ophion wrapped his wound, and gave Pierre the blood to drink.
The young man coughed and choked. Ophion brought him up to a sitting position so he could catch the little breaths he still took, and held him.
Pierre pulled away, motioning to the knife. “Hand,” he said. He wiped his lips with his kerchief, folded it, and kept it out to use as a bandage. “Give everything to Pluta after.” He pulled off his gloves, a bright red rash burning as it touched cool air.
Ophion cut into the other’s palm, near other scars made in the same manner as his own. Pierre’s blood was darker than his, turning almost black after the first few moments of red. Smearing it would still reveal a muted color, but after this, even that would be grey.
Pierre drank his own blood from the source and lay back in bed to let Ophion tend the wound. Their blood should not be seen by others; it gave away too much of their cræft.
He coughed again but shook his head when Ophion moved to help him sit. The duc grew silent, his body trying to take in air but unable to. An entire minute passed while he choked and refused aid with all of his remaining energy. Then he fell still.
Ophion took a shuddering breath of his own. He pressed a finger to Pierre’s pulse, waited, and let go of the corpse