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The atmosphere shook. Everywhere, there was a certain palpable hostility that made Tabitha quiver in her boots. It was a shame, too; her older brother had spent such a long time picking them out for her.
It was to be her first entrance into the world of adulthood, a celebration of the fact she was now at the respectable age of twenty. However, because Felix was still reluctant to see her as maculate, he’d dressed her entirely in white, as opposed to the traditional black. Her long-sleeved dress was lined with the finest lace, the collar almost appropriately obscuring her mouth with it. The cuffs were also lacy, and they were nearly the length of her slim hand, almost covering her recently manicured fingernails. The boots were knee-length, adorned in all sorts of intricate, curling designs that would never be seen because of the length of her gown.
The most important part of the ensemble, though, was the way her brother had had her hair styled. Her long, wavy black hair had been manipulated to rest atop her head in a still, stiff French twist, held together with an overly ostentatious jeweled hair band.
Felix had told her that the elaborate decoration was simply a way to bring out her pale blue eyes. She hated her pale blue eyes; they reminded her of winter, of death.
Tabitha now clung to her brother’s side, who was rather the contrast to her alabaster costume. His skin was not quite as fair as hers, as he had spent a great deal of time overseas. He wore a dark pantsuit, one that he had held in reserve for so long. The attire had been ironed multiple times and folded with the greatest care. A thread out of place and Felix would have gone mad. Underneath his coat he wore a white button-up shirt with an unnecessarily bloated collar. The tie was a dark red, to signify he was available for courtship; he’d absolutely refused to let her wear that same color, though she’d expressed a polite interest.
It was ironic. This was supposed to be for her, and yet Felix was much more involved in it than she was. Still, she wouldn’t have wanted it another way. If she had been in charge of managing this affair, she would have undoubtedly failed.
Now that she was here, she saw that she was not overdressed. All the women were dressed in similar outfits, though not similar colors. Many wore obsidian and vermilion and varying degrees of cobalt or chartreuse. Her cousin the Prince, who had been kind enough to attend, wore royal purple. No red had been placed at his neck, for at his side was his fiancée, a princess from across the sea. It was rumored that she was from America, which Tabitha found to be a silly thought. America held no royalty.
“Good evening, Your Highness,” Felix greeted the man with a proper bow. Tabitha gave him an awkward curtsey, too close to her brother for it to be more than flawed.
“Please, dear cousin, call me Destin,” the regal man corrected with a warm smile. “Henrietta and I are family, are we not? Surely we can be casual at this wonderful reception.”
The to-be princess diverted their attention to Tabitha, and something much, much more affable than Tabitha was used to receiving graced her warm eyes. “It is a momentous occasion,” she greeted, almost blithe. “When Felix determines you are of marriageable quality, I know of many who would adore your company.”
“Thank you,” Tabitha replied sincerely. “You are too kind, dear cousin Henrietta.”
Henrietta’s mirth seemed to grow larger as Tabitha named her ‘cousin,’ and the radiance of her expression was now enough to ward away the hostility that Tabitha had felt earlier. Prince Destin chuckled and echoed his lover’s sentiments, although they felt much more hollow.
Felix and Destin continued to exchange conversation, sometimes gossip and sometimes not. Henrietta hovered at Destin’s side, commenting in agreement with him where it was required but otherwise remained silent. Tabitha found that it was difficult to concentrate on the conversation, and so she curved her neck in order to explore her surroundings more thoroughly.
The ballroom was as it usually was, bright and decorated well enough for Tabitha to feel homesick. Ever since her father’s death, Felix had been named Duke, and her mother was always too sickly to ever leave the residence. This had given Tabitha a chance to redecorate the house so that it appeared less fanciful, less flamboyant and more homely and modest. Felix hadn’t been pleased with her design, but the servants adored it, and so he’d allowed it.
Her family was still somehow wealthy, but Tabitha despised appearing as if she was.
There were other various nuances that she caught; a woman who seemed somewhat familiar, the repainting of the ceiling; but nothing quite intrigued her as much as she wished.
Then, a sharp knife cut through her thoughts. As she had been looking around, the feeling of hostility had suddenly returned. She was sure of it now; someone was watching her, someone without pleasant intentions.
Henrietta had been soft, but her voice was enough. Tabitha would have gladly immersed herself in the conversation then, anything to be distracted from the suffocating sensation that was tearing at her. But instead of including her, Henrietta suggested politely, “Why don’t you fetch a drink? The wine is delectable. It is fruit-based, so I hope it is to your tastes.”
Henrietta... must have thought she appeared distracted. Disinterested. Tabitha felt terribly ashamed, but she did not attempt to correct her. She simply nodded and made her way to the banquet table, and the further she stepped, the more encased she became in the malevolence.
The woman served her a feasible amount, awkward given the size of the glass. Tabitha had begun to tremble, and though she accepted it gratefully, she could feel her grace beginning to fail her. Suddenly both her hands were full, one with the drink and the other with a fistful of tablecloth. It was becoming hard to stand, harder to breathe. She attracted a few glances, although she could no longer discern if they were of concern or of enmity.
Perhaps... s-she should just take a step outside. Yes, a breath of fresh air... that ought to do her some good. With what little strength she had left, Tabitha made her way from the table to the balcony, which to her immense relief was deserted. It was small, meager given the circumstances, but the railing was strong enough and tall enough to support her weight as she leaned against it, struggling to regain her composure.
What was wrong with her? Tabitha hadn’t had a bit to eat, so it wasn’t as if she’d been poisoned. It was just something in the atmosphere. If she had been at any party but her own, she’d go to Felix and ask to be shown the door. If only...
It was that feeling. Resting against the wood, her eyes closed, inhaling the crisp night air, Tabitha began to realize that it was not as much hostility as she had originally thought. It was more of an intensity... a potent ferocity. Someone with similar emotions had been fixated on her.
Now she absolutely had to leave. She absolutely had to. No more asking, waiting for permission. It was time to go, and not Felix, nor Princess-to-be Henrietta, nor His Royal Highness could keep her from it.
Carefully she picked herself up, with all the grace she could muster. The hand that held the glass was no longer shaking, and she stared at it a moment longer than necessary in order to ensure that this was the case. She would not show her fear to whoever it was that was intimidating her so. With renewed conviction, Tabitha took a step towards the door.
Suddenly, there was a man there, blocking the way out. She wasn’t sure when he’d arrived and how he’d done so so quietly, but the fact remained. He stood tall and proud, his black ensemble similar to Felix’s yet somehow different. The suit was a shade of ebony, yes, but there was something subtle; it was lined with dark gray, vertical stripes that were just barely there, enough to make him stand out. His coattails were longer than usual, but it had an odd effect: it made him appear more elegant, more refined. On his breast pocket, a recent russet rose was securely attached. His hair was shoulder-length, a vibrant red that embraced his neck and figure gently, and his eyes...
“Lady Tabitha, was it? Kin to the current Duke Lilifell and to the Royal Family?”
His eyes were the color of cognac. She could feel her tremble return, as once her eyes had met his, they were locked, trapped in his steady, unwavering velvet gaze.
This was him. This man was the source of that daunting panic, which was slowly beginning to tear at her core. Now that they were so close, his presence was... far more unnerving than she’d ever imagined.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” With a blatant but implied smirk, the man bowed lowly to her. “I am Earl Kierce of Ravenwood. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
His eyes never left hers. It was frightening, intoxicatingly so, in a way that Tabitha could never explain. She found her throat dry, and although the wine was now terribly tempting, she was petrified, unable to move. It was almost as if this earl had had this effect on her purposely.
“Is the wine not to your tastes?” he continued, almost oblivious to her condition, directly contradicting her previous observation. “Perhaps you should file a complaint, Lady Tabitha. This is your party, is it not?”
“J-just Tabitha, my lord,” she corrected despite herself. Somehow she’d summoned the courage to speak, although her voice was far softer and weaker than usual. “The wine is perfect, as is every other detail. I am quite content.” This was far from true, but if word got out that she’d said otherwise, Felix would berate her later.
“If I am to call you Tabitha, then please address me as Kierce.” A scowl took shape upon his lips, as if displeased with her answer. “You are unusually stubborn for one so demure. Tell me, is it customary for you to be so blindly compliant?”
His words and tone were harsh. They stunned her, for few had the gall to speak to her in this manner, and even fewer in Felix’s presence. But now Felix was not here to protect her from criticism, and she felt suddenly incredibly exposed. Kierce did not speak again, and Tabitha could not find an answer to his question that was neither self-depreciating nor irreverent, so she remained silent.
The feeling that she had forgotten was intensifying now, as his gaze was, and finally Tabitha felt herself yield. She averted her eyes, all too aware of the deep, dark hue that began to dance across her cheeks.
“So the answer is yes. How utterly disappointing.”
Kierce shook his head in a vexed manner, the scowl growing. “Do you honestly want to behave this way? Do you truly wish to remain a collectible doll for whatever man you will find yourself engaged to? Do you desire an entirely expendable existence for eternity?”
“I...” Tabitha was once again at a loss for words. She fumbled for a moment, before finally she managed out, “Why do you care?”
Kierce crossed his arms over his chest, the lined pattern matching almost too perfectly. “You will become Duchess, should your brother ever fall in combat,” he replied. “You will need to be strong to take his place. Although to be entirely honest, that concern is merely a formality.”
“A... formality?” Tabitha echoed, now perplexed. If that was the case, then what were his true motives?
“I’m not quite sure how to explain it,” Kierce continued, his smooth, dark voice enticing her to listen. “And the last thing I want to do is frighten you. But from the moment I saw you enter this room, I knew exactly who you were. There is something about you that draws me in, a force I cannot resist, and so I do not attempt to. In my heart of hearts, I wish for you to become a strong woman, independent of your brother and the gossip of others. While being aware of opinions is a valuable and necessary trait for a ruler of any sort, gossip is an invention of women to tear down anyone they deem an opponent. You must make yourself invincible to this.”
His monologue was enlightening, but at the same time, it was not. Tabitha felt as though she was being told what she already knew, and to an extent she was annoyed. But another part of her was afraid. Now that he had presented the information to her so bluntly, she could no longer play the fool. She could no longer cower behind her brother’s back.
Kierce’s gloved hand met her chin and tilted her head up, their eyes meeting once more. The smell of cognac mixed with the cold of ice.
“Your eyes are a beautiful shade of frost,” he murmured, almost to himself. “The next time we meet, Tabitha, I hope they will be a much deeper shade. A much... happier one.”
Something struck her then. They stayed in this position for a moment more, and when he made to move Tabitha grabbed his outstretched arm, unwilling to let go. “M-my eyes are the shade of frost,” she repeated hesitantly. “Tell me, do they remind you of death?”
If he was startled by her strange inquiry, Kierce did not show it. Instead, Kierce allowed his snowy, gentle hand to retake its place, and he analyzed her iris for a moment longer. Finally, he answered:
“They are telling me that you are not yet living. Yes, death seems to fit them quite well.”
This was both relieving and disheartening. No one had once agreed with her, should she ever have the courage to bring it up. She had always been assured that her eyes wore the promise of spring, that that was the definition of winter. To have someone on her side, just this once, was a miracle in and of itself.
Simultaneously, it caused her stomach to lurch. She was dead inside. Someone other than her had realized that the soul within was not alive. Perhaps it was more true than she had previously given the thought credit for.
These fervent emotions conquered her before she could react, and without her consent, a single tear slid down her cheek, carrying with it layers of make-up.
Kierce’s gaze followed it, from the very moment it left her eye until it passed her lips. His eyes remained there, and for a full moment Tabitha wondered what he was pondering, resisting the urge to turn away from his intense expression; she was far too embarrassed to continue looking at him head-on.
And quite unexpectedly, in the subsequent instant, Tabitha saw his lips meet hers.
It was startling at first, and slightly frightening. His will was powerful, stronger than she’d expected. In a way it was overwhelming, and yet... Tabitha felt a spark within her. He was challenging her; and so she responded, with as much fervor as she could muster, although admittedly it was not nearly as great as his.
When he pulled away, she could feel her cheeks dust with a shade of amaranth. She felt ashamed, wishing that she could have been able to meet his level of ardor. If only...
“There is a spirit of rebellion in you,” Kierce observed, and something about him shone much more than it had mere seconds before. “I trust that we will meet once more, Tabitha. Perhaps more frequently than that. But so you don’t forget what I’ve said...”
As his arm moved, Tabitha’s eyes did not leave his. This time, the connection was strong; the connection was indestructible, and not even Felix could break it. And for the first time, Tabitha realized that this was one thing she did not want Felix to interfere in. That fact filled her with inexplicable ecstasy.
Kierce’s slender fingers carefully plucked the rose from his breast pocket, and he bent toward her, nearly as close as he had been during the kiss. His lips brushed against her cheek, tenderly and so cautiously, as if he was afraid that too much would break her, a fragile, porcelain doll.
When he withdrew, Tabitha could see clearly out of the very corner of her eye that his rose was now settled behind her ear.
“It is a gift,” Kierce whispered to her. “Do not misplace it, until we meet again.”
And, as if it pained him to do so, Kierce reluctantly tore from her and returned to the festivities inside.
Tabitha could only stare at the open door, as Kierce’s riveting presence had not yet left her. Her breath had, unbeknownst to her, become short, and it took her longer than she’d have liked for her to recover. The door refused to close with the wind, as if calling or begging for her to make another appearance.
Fine. If Felix wanted her to enjoy herself, then she would. For reasons she would never have the skill to explain, she knew that she would not encounter Kierce again for the remainder of the night. But this, instead of discouraging her, only helped a potent smile to form upon her lips.
The time had come to remind Felix that he was not her father, nor her master, but her brother.
With no thought to the consequences, with not even a consideration of the potential reactions, Tabitha strode gallantly into the ball, her head held higher than ever before.
She was her own person, not a puppet with strings so easily pulled. She was an individual, and Felix would do well to remember that.
Just outside of the edges of her vision, obscured from her view, there stood a man in the shadows with vibrant red hair. He watched her bold movements, her sudden determination...
...and a potent smile formed upon his lips.