(Excerpt from a novel in progress. Please see comments for context*)
The minstrels’ lively tune wound to an end beyond the looming doors, and Anna’s thoughts flitted to Andre. She wished he could see her tonight, and imagined a look of unfettered love on his face if he beheld her dressed in her finery. It would be disheartening to feel lovely and be greeted only by the callous reserve of her betrothed. For one night only, she reminded herself, but nagging guilt accompanied the thought. She suddenly hoped Ungar would be as cold and stoic as usual; his disinterest would make her feel less villainous. Soon, a booming voice filled her ears. “Lady Anna, bride of Lord Ungar of Kaskani.” The introduction shot a shiver down her spine. She forced herself to breathe.
The doors opened, and vibrant sensations rushed to greet her. Savors of ham and goose made a heady cologne in the air, blending in a strange mélange with ladies’ perfume, wood smoke from the furious blaze in the fireplace, and the dewy sweetness of the roses adorning each corner. Women gowned in every rainbow hue lined the walls, accompanied by well-groomed gentlemen, all illuminated by the hundred candles of a shameless chandelier.
Two hundred eyes flew toward her. Anna’s stomach tied in knots, shrinking from the intense, curious stares. She did not know the faces; they were a massive jury of strangers, evaluating, intrigued, awed. She scanned the crowd, searching for any familiar glance…
Then she saw him.
He stood beside the fire, isolated from the hovering masses. The blaze cast shadows upon his face. She gasped: obscured by the darkness, it was as if his every scar and blemish and boil had been erased, and all she could see was the regal cut of his nose, the way his coat strained over broad shoulders. In an instant, Ungar’s eyes met hers. They were impossibly breathtaking, like ice reflecting an azure summer sky.
As he beheld her, his expression transformed. His eyes widened, and his chest rose as he drew a sharp breath. His taut lips parted, grown tremulous, and he gazed at her, unblinking. She did not recognize the emotion in his eyes, at once fraught with longing and pain. She felt her heart accelerate and offered a small, hesitant smile. For the first time in their acquaintance, neither broke their gaze.
She could tell he hesitated to leave his shadowed refuge, yet he emerged, and approached her quickly. In the full light of the ballroom the spell was broken; his features were ghastly once again. Yet Anna saw only his eyes as they arrested hers. Soon he was before her, in all his towering height.
“Lady Anna,” he murmured, his voice deep and rich. He bowed low before her.
“Ungar,” she greeted him cordially, and his eyes flashed to hers again, filled with admiration, as if to hear her speak his name was a treasured gift. She lowered her gaze shyly and curtseyed, willing her heart to stop its eager, fickle patter, lest he hear it.
He cleared his tense throat. “Shall we?” She obligingly took his offered, black-gloved hand. Slowly, he led her to the center of the ballroom, then drew her toward himself, placing his right hand at her waist. The minstrels launched into their piece, and the two were dancing. Anna hardly had to think about her movements – they came effortlessly with Ungar’s massive arms guiding her. The music bewitched her; despite Andre’s absence, the violins crafted a hypnotizing lament.
In response to Ungar’s closeness, Anna’s heart pounded against her ribs like a raging convict. Could he see her thoughts with those frigid, piercing eyes? His vast chest was inches from her tender breasts, and she wondered if, beneath that hardened muscle, his heart leapt in giddy panic as hers did.
She avoided his intent gaze, looking over his shoulder to witness the room sparkling and spinning around them. The peering faces were rouge blurs now. Tafettas and silks of persnickety waistcoats and haughty dresses swirled together in a glorious mess, the vibrant palette of an indecisive painter. As the room spun faster, the wash of color faded until all Anna knew was Ungar’s warmth. The sound of the minstrels’ serenade drowned her. She couldn’t think… All she longed for was to know his heartbeat…
Caught up in the strangeness of his proximity and rapture of the music, she did not notice that she tripped, until suddenly her body was pressed to his, the omnipresent space between them but a memory. His arms tensed around her and restored her to balance before she could fall. Her eyes flew to meet his, and her world stood entirely still.
She had never been held by him. The very thought of his close embrace had seemed so impossible and frightening. Yet here, clutched in his arms, she did not want to pull away. The tightness of his grip, his scent, his sharp intake of breath, the shimmering beauty of his eyes, filled her awareness. The song and artist’s palette were details of a forgotten dream. His heartbeat… where was his heartbeat? Surely he could feel the war drum in her breast. She yearned to lean closer, to rest her ear upon his chest, but fate did not permit it. The moment was past, as if it had never happened. The dance continued; he kept moving, making their momentary closeness part of the choreography as he re-established the space between them.
Anna’s head swam. “Thank you,” she whispered breathlessly. She sought his gaze, but he would not meet hers. His jaw was set firmly; his cheek paled. They danced on in silence. It amazed her how sensational his hand felt upon her, even through his leather glove, her stays and layers of sapphire silk. Fleeting thoughts entered her mind before she could check them… ponderings of how his skin would feel, that skin he always concealed, and how she might like it if his warm, bare hand were to rest… wander… upon her own delicate flesh…
A blush scorched her cheeks. At once, the fog lifted. What strange spell had captivated her, she could not be sure, but awareness now sharpened in her like a knife. She was dancing with a tyrant, a hideous creature, who had bought her for himself and then abandoned her to loneliness.
The spectators were clear now. She could see her mother following her with a predator’s gaze. It no longer felt like the room spun; she knew it was just she and Ungar who circled in their silly, half-hearted dance. Two marionettes appeasing their audience. Music-box figurines inseparably bound in a ludicrous embrace.
She knew, too, that outside in the gardens, someone was thinking of her, someone whose touch she craved, the man she loved. She wanted to draw away from Ungar. She needed air…space... time to think. She needed to make her escape, to run to her lover, to taste forbidden fruit. Her body tensed and she increased the distance between them.
“Are you alright?” Ungar murmured with concern, softly so that the brightly-plumed birds of prey surrounding them would not overhear.
She managed a faint, “I am tired.” From the way he slackened his grip on her, expanding the void between them as much as possible while continuing the dance, she knew he sensed that fatigue was hardly what troubled her.
“The dance is nearly finished,” he muttered solemnly. She felt a nag of guilt that perhaps she had hurt him, but she could not bear to search his face for proof. She concentrated on her movements; without his closeness, the dance grew more difficult.
A familiar, uncomfortable silence hung between them. Anna was grateful for the swells of the violin to fill the emptiness.
“Do you enjoy the music?” he asked quietly.
“Very much,” she answered over his shoulder.
“Really?” He sounded surprised, and moved ever-so-slightly nearer. “I suppose a song has much the same magic no matter who plays it… but I worried the violin would not sound so sweet to you in different hands.” His tone was nonchalant, but she knew the weight of his words. Indignation stirred inside her, but she stifled it.
“How the song is played matters more than by whom.”
His eyes flicked to hers, surprised, and she met them steadily. “And how should it be played?” he prodded.
“A true minstrel knows that of his own intuition. The song itself will tell him, if he allows it.”
“Tell me,” he uttered earnestly.
She felt her resolve falter. She hated him, did she not? Something in those topaz eyes…
“The song is almost over,” she softly replied. “You should listen to it while you can. If you cannot learn its secrets now, you never shall.” He could not know what she meant, yet there was a tormented look in his eyes that made her wonder if perhaps he understood.
“If only the song could last longer, perhaps I could learn to do it justice.” His tone was pleading. His eyes begged her for something – could it be forgiveness?
“If you had paid better attention, you could have known it in its opening phrase,” she whispered wistfully. The space between them halved and she felt his strength again, his unexpectedly tender touch on the curve of her spine.
He bowed his head and replied in a murmur so soft she could barely distinguish the words. “I have never had an ear for music; no one ever taught me. But should you impart its secrets, I would honor them. I swear it.” With this sincere entreaty he met her gaze, and the unwonted vulnerability in his eyes struck her to her core.
Where was this coming from? Why, in these last moments together, did she understand him better than ever? Why, before she would abandon him forever, did she feel for the first time that perhaps she could be… happy with him? That perhaps, the man whom she had thought an emotionless tyrant could… love her?
The song crescendoed, nearing its finale. Ungar drew her closer. “Please,” he breathed. She felt the warmth of the word upon her cheek. Then, in time with the rhythm, he led her through the traditional choreography. The room whirled as he guided her in turns and spins and finally lifted her off her feet, his great hands spanning her waist as she clutched his shoulders. He spun her around in the air, her long curls tumbling down to meet him with their sweet perfume. And then she was being lowered, slowly and with great support from her partner’s powerful arms. Her body slid down against his, their eyes locked all the while. As she looked upon his tortured flesh, she felt no longer fear, but grief, and, somehow, longing. Longing that this night had happened long ago, before everything became so irrevocably complicated. Before her heart pledged itself to another.
Soon, too soon, her feet were firm against the ground. He still held her wrapped in his arms, and she did not pull away. She felt a curious urge to weep. At last, at last, she felt his heartbeat, and it gave her bittersweet satisfaction: it pounded with such force it could have burst from his chest. She wondered that it did not hurt him.
Then, she realized that perhaps it did.
With a mournful minor tone, the minstrels struck their closing chord. “You see? It is too late,” she whispered to his eyes.
His brow furrowed and Anna felt certain he could read her thoughts, could sense her plan to flee. “I will remember it. I will learn as best I can. Won’t you help me?” he implored.
But the dance was over. She stepped away from him with a sorry smile and, remembering himself, he backed away and finished the dance with a low bow.
The colorful blurs were humans again, smiling and applauding in their fragile-china way for the alleged lovers.