Grief

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


Parties are about more than dealing with drunken idiots, but that's the part that stands out.

Submitted: September 25, 2017

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Submitted: September 25, 2017

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Callista the nymph had a hundred good reasons not to attend Duke Gallows’ party.  Topping that list was the fact the duke had likely invited her solely as a sign of his power.  After all, who but a mighty man could bring a magical being to his private estate?  Then there was the equally insulting possibility he’d invited her to be gawked at by his rich and powerful friends.  But his invitation mentioned that he’d requested an old friend of hers come, and there was a chance, be it ever so small, he wanted her presence for a legitimate reason.  It was risky, but she’d decided to attend.  In a few more minutes she’d learn whether or not that was a mistake.

The road to Duke Gallows’ private mansion was lined with the rich, the influential, and the dangerous.  They were exiting carriages or dismounting horses now that they had arrived at the party (Callista lived only a few miles away and had walked).  Mostly there were humans dressed in fashionable clothes and expensive jewelry.  A few elves had come from the Yelinid Banking Cartel, and they were staying far away from a pair of stout dwarfs representing Industrial Magic Corporation.

Those were the intended guests, while their bodyguards made for a more diverse crowd.  Most of the guards were humans wearing the wildest collection of armors and clothes, while their weapons were equally varied.  Callista also counted three minotaurs, two ogres, four adolescent trolls, a stone golem and a darkling, its shadowy form constantly shifting.  Guard animals were also common, with hounds, a griffin, a mimic, and some fool had brought a unicorn that was already straining at its reins to attack.

“Ah, Lady Callista,” an elf banker said as he approached.  He had blond hair and wore the yellow and white robes common to his cartel.  “I was unaware that such an august personality would be in attendance.”

Callista faked a smile and shook his hand.  “You’re generous with your praise, but I claim no title of Lady.  Just call me Callista.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”  The elf’s eyes roamed across her body, although thankfully his hands did not.  “Our host was vague as to the reason for this event, but I can tell from our companions on the road that there must be something great in the works.”

“I’m sure it will be quite an evening.”  She’d brought a sword in case it was too much of an evening.  That had happened too often in her three hundred years, and there had been four parties she’d had to fight her way out of.

The dwarfs walked over, and one of them stepped on the elf’s foot.  The banker howled and jumped up and down as the smirking dwarfs left.  “There’s a line for a reason, you stunted freaks, and you were at the end of it!”

“The duke asked to see us personally,” a dwarf said.  He glanced at Callista and nodded to her.  “I’ll do what I can to get you in early as well.  Leaving you with this lout is a form of torture.”

“The line is moving fast enough for me,” she told them.  The sun was only starting to set as guests entered the mansion, and they’d all be inside soon.  That was a pity.  She’d been enjoying the landscaping.  Duke Gallows had planted flowering trees along the road, and beyond that lay expertly manicured gardens and ponds teeming with brightly colored fish.

Someone yelled, “Look out!”

Callista rolled her eyes as the unicorn broke free and tried to impale the nearest guest.  Those animals had a well-deserved reputation for being psychotically aggressive, yet men with more money than brains kept thinking they could tame them.  The stone golem tackled it and dragged it to the ground, earning a smattering of applause.

The line kept moving until Callista was near the mansion’s entrance.  She found human guards armed with swords and two attack dogs waiting for her.  Smiling, she handed them her invitation.

“Hello Miss…ah,” he began, and the man’s jaw dropped.

It was a typical reaction.  Callista possessed the otherworldly beauty found only among nymphs, and she moved with superhuman grace.  Her figure was stunning.  Her hair was gleaming silver, as if purest silver coins had been melted down and spun into thread.  Her eyes were green.  Elves said they were the color of finest jade.  Men said they were like the deepest of forests.  The last goblin that looked into her eyes had said, “If you’re going to throw up, aim for someone else.”  It had made her laugh, a memory she drew upon in hard times.

Callista’s clothes were less impressive than her figure.  She wore a white dress that covered everything except her face and fingers, a garment she saved for the rare times she went to social events.  Her tailor had assured her that the dress allowed for a free range of motion, which had proven true in three fights.  Her shoes were white with silver thread.  She wore only one piece of jewelry, a fine silver chain necklace with two gold rings strung over it.

“Callista,” she prompted the guard.

“Yes, um, ma’am.  You honor us with your presence.”

Callista looked at the dogs and smiled.  “Aren’t they beautiful!”

“Ma’am, those aren’t lap dogs.  They’re guard dogs trained to—”

The dogs lunged into her waiting arms and she hugged them.  Their ears perked up, and their tails wagged so hard that the animals might take off and fly away.  Both dogs rolled over to let her rub their stomachs.

The guard sighed.  “Trained to sniff out goblins and keep them out of the party.”

“That is so cute,” Callista told him.  She’d once spent a year living among goblins to avoid a king who considered kidnapping an acceptable form of courtship.  That time gave her a good appreciation of what goblins could do, and it amused her that the guards thought dogs could keep them out.

The guard glanced at the sword strapped to her back.  “Uh, ma’am, we’re under orders to collect weapons from the guests.  We’ll look after it and return it when you leave.”

That made Callista pause.  She didn’t like going unarmed.  It encouraged bad behavior by worse people.  Still, it was unlikely that someone would be so offensive that she’d need to cripple him when there were so many witnesses at hand.  She reluctantly unstrapped the sword and scabbard and handed them over.

“You’ve got a fine weapon,” the first guard said.  The sword wasn’t magical, but had been engraved with images of dragons and set with rubies and pearls.

“It dates to the Ancient Elf Empire and is a gift from my first husband,” she explained.  Callista then pressed a finger against the guard’s chest.  “I will be very upset if something should happen to it.”

“Uh, uh,” the man stammered.

“Your table is by the fountain,” a second guard said.

She smiled at them, causing the first guard to pass out (his fellow guard barely caught him in time), and then headed for her table.  The mansion’s great hall could comfortably sit three hundred and was nearly full.  She walked between tables seating men to be reckoned with, and every head turned to follow her.  She saw a woman with a baby pressed against her shoulder.  Callista smiled and stroked the baby’s cheek as she went by, making the little one laugh and wiggle.

Callista had to give Duke Gallows credit for the decorations.  There were huge marble urns planted with gorgeous flowers.  Tasteful paintings hung from the walls, and the statues of athletic men and women standing next to every column were masterfully carved.  Musicians were placed across the room and filled the air with pleasant melodies.  Maybe this night wouldn’t be a disaster.

Ahead of her was a young human couple that gave her pause.  They stood side by side, the man’s arm around his wife’s waist as she held onto his hand.  They laughed and exchanged loving glances.  It stopped Callista in her tracks, but only for a moment.  She continued on, whispering, “Be happy for them.”

She spotted a large fountain and a round table big enough to seat ten people.  That had to be the one the guard had referred to.  To her surprise, there was only one person sitting there, a girl of about fifteen with brown hair and wearing a red dress.

Smiling, Callista took her seat.  “Hello there, I’m Callista.”

“Hi.”  The girl’s shoulders slumped and she stared at her empty plate.

“Do I have to guess your name?”

“Oh, sorry.  I’m Gail Heartstone.”

Waiters walked between the tables and set down platters of food.  Callista smiled and thanked them when they brought roast pheasant garnished with potatoes, onions and shallots.  “Well, Gail, it seems we have this feast to ourselves for the moment, so let me serve you.  Breast or thigh?”

Gail didn’t answer right away.  Callista sliced off a generous portion for herself and kept smiling.  “You’re young to come to a party on your own.”

“I’m not alone, sort of not alone.  My dad is with the duke.  He’s trying to impress him with how important our family is so the duke will order one of his sons to marry me.  Thigh meat.”

“That’s depressing.  Here you go, one leg of pheasant.  And your mother?”

“Mother went to…oh God, not again.”  Callista followed Gail’s gaze, where a woman strongly resembling Gail sat at a bar.  Gail blushed and put her face into her hands.  “She promised she wouldn’t drink tonight!”

“And I thought I was going to have a rough time.”  Callista sat down next to Gail and put an arm around her shoulders.  “Don’t worry.  It will get better in time.”

“How?  My father is bartering my life like I’m a poker chip.  My mother is going to get drunk, again, and embarrass the whole family.  There’s nothing I do to stop either of them.  Nobody else can, either.  It’s been like this for two years.”

“Shh, it’s okay.”  Callista took Gail by the chin and made her look up.  “Your father isn’t going to marry you into the duke’s family tonight or ever.  I’ve heard of the Heartstones.  You’re prosperous and well thought of.  You are not, however, in the same league as the duke.  His sons are destined for arranged marriages with rich, well-connected women.  You’re safe for now.”

Gail’s face practically lit up.  “You’re sure?”

“Positive.  This is one of those times where not being good enough is a good thing.  As for your mother, this isn’t the first time I’ve been to an event where someone overindulged.  You and I will see half the people here staggering like toddlers in an hour, and many are going to be too drunk to stand.  It’s a sad problem, but not a rare one.”

“It’s something.”  Gail cut up her food and started eating.  “I’ve heard of you, too.  Where’s the lucky guy who came with you?”

Waiters brought more platters, this time heaped with beef roasts garnished with carrots and tomatoes.  To their credit, the waiters didn’t stare at her too long.  Callista took a small portion and handed the platter to Gail.  “I came alone, and before you ask, I plan on leaving alone.”

“I wasn’t going there,” Gail promised.  Curious, she asked, “Seriously, you couldn’t get a date?  There’s got to be a thousand men who’d give anything to be seen with you.”

“The number is a good deal higher than that.”  Callista saw a waiter walk by with bowls of fresh peaches.  That was a favorite of hers.  She was going to ask if he could leave it at her table when a young man hurried over and brought her the bowl.

“Miss Callista, uh, ma’am, here, let me get that for you.”  He placed it on the table to her left and took a step back.

“Why Max, look how you’ve grown,” Callista said cheerfully.  “Gail, this is Max Dalstay.  He’s the son of a friend of mine.  Max, this is Gail Heartstone.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Max said.  At sixteen, Max was handsome but still growing into manhood.  He had a slender build and black hair, and dressed in dark clothes.  Quickly turning his attention back to Callista, he said, “I’d have come sooner, but my family is seated across the room and I only just saw you.  Can I get you anything?”

Gail stifled a laugh as Callista replied.  “That’s sweet of you, Max.  Gail and I are doing just fine.  Is your father about?  Oh, silly question, he’s behind you.  Bernard, hello!”

Bernard Dalstay put a hand on his son’s shoulder, and the youth yelped in surprise.  The family resemblance was striking, although Bernard was more muscular than his son.  The raven haired man had an animal magnetism that bordered on magic, and he drew admiring looks from nearby women (including Gail).

“Dad, I was just saying hi to Miss Callista.”

“That’s kind of you,” his father said.  He had a deep voice that commanded respect, and he gently turned his son around.  “Our dinner is fast turning into a negotiation with the duke, and he’ll expect to see you with us.  Come.”

“But we haven’t seen her in years!  It’s rude not to say hello!”

“The night’s young, boy, and you’ll have time to reacquaint yourself later.  Now join your mother.”

Bernard’s tone made it clear the matter was closed, and Max reluctantly left.  Bernard was about to go as well when Callista said, “He’s the splitting image of you, in every way.”

“What was that about?” Gail asked once they were gone.

“History repeating itself.  I first met Bernard at Imperial University when he was eighteen.  He came to me several times asking questions, most of which had nothing to do with his studies.  Two days later he asked me to marry him.”

Gail burst out laughing.  “No!”

“And he repeated the request at every opportunity for the next year and a half.”  Callista waved for a waiter to come over.

Gail watched Bernard work his way across the room  “He moves like a tiger.  You said no to that?”

“It wasn’t easy.  It’s never easy.  Waiter, could you please bring my friend and I something to drink with our meal?”

“Of course, ma’am.”

Once the waiter had left, Gail asked, “So what happened?”

“Bernard wasn’t giving up without a fight, metaphorically speaking.  It took some time, but I managed to introduce him to a young lady from a good family, who is today Mrs. Dalstay and mother to his children.  I’ve kept in contact with her over the years, and according to her letters life is very good.  You have simply got to admire the woman’s stamina.”

Gail’s expression was blank.  “I don’t get it.”

“You will when you’re older, dear.  I met Max three years ago.  As you can see, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”

“He’s trying to flirt with you when he’s so much younger than you are.”

The waiter came back with a decanter of wine and two glasses.  Callista accepted them and said, “I’m three hundred years old.  Everyone’s younger than I am.”

Callista felt something brush against her leg.  Casually as possible, she picked up a bone from the pheasant and slipped it under the table.  An unseen hand took it from her, and she heard a soft munching.  She smiled.  Goblin sniffing dogs indeed!

Gail watched Bernard and Max from across the room.  “If he’d been older when you first met, would you have said yes?  I’m sorry to pry like this, but marriage has been coming up a lot around the dinner table at home, and I’m curious.”

“It’s a fair question, and since we don’t have an audience I don’t mind answering it.  Bernard is a good man, hard working, fair to the men under him and kind to his children.  If he’d been older when we first met, though, I would have still said no.”

“Why?”

Callista was tempted not to answer, but she could tell that Gail was scared for her future.  The nymph had been scared many times before and wished it on no one, so she reluctantly replied while she poured drinks for them both.

“Gail, how much do you know about me?”

“Not much.  People say you’re pretty, that you’ll never grow old, that animals love you even if they’re wild, and that you’re nice, but not much more than that.”

“The nice part might not be correct.”  Callista took a sip of wine and swirled it in her mouth.  “I have been married twice.  The first time was to a captain of a warship.  Martin Starlit.  You, you would have liked him, Gail.  He was a commoner who worked his way up through the ranks.  He never lost his connection to the people, not the way some men do when they gain power.”

She stopped to look at Gail.  “He was the one who taught me how to speak the human language.  I learned so much from him about the sea and ships, and about fighting.  You’ll never guess how many hours he spent showing me how to defend myself.  We were so happy together no matter how many men tried to come between us.”

This was difficult for Callista to talk about.  She went through her memories until she found a time when Martin had comforted her so long ago.  “This is hard.  I know.  It was hard for me when I went through it.  But I know you and I know what you’re capable of.  You can get through this.”  There, that stemmed the flow of tears.

“What happened?”

“Time happened, Gail.  We were married for thirty-one years.  Three thousand years together wouldn’t have satisfied me.  He grew old and I didn’t.  One day he died.  It wasn’t in battle or from his ship sinking.  Those would have never killed him.  He just passed away in his sleep.”

Callista felt something brush against her leg, but this time it was different.  Tiny hands grasped onto her.  Looking down, she saw a small boy of perhaps eighteen months holding her leg.  He wore simple white clothes and had an unruly mop of brown hair, brown eyes, and an infectious smile.

“Why Gail, we’ve got a visitor!  Hello there, little man!”

Callista scooped up the child and sat him down on the table.  Gail grinned and reached over to stroke his hair.  The boy laughed and grabbed her fingers.  “Hi there!  What’s your name?”

The boy didn’t answer.  Instead he smiled and steadied himself by grabbing Callista’s wrists.

“He’s too young to talk yet,” Callista said.  She felt a sudden impish urge, and tucked a napkin into the back of the boy’s shirt.  “There you go.  You’ve got a cape.  Important men like you should always wear a cape.”

“Ooh, let’s give him a spoon,” Gail said.  Once she’d armed him, the boy eagerly whacked the spoon against the table.  Bang, bang, bang.

“Do you have brothers, Gail?”

Gail handed the boy another spoon, and he banged both against the table before throwing them away.  “Two of them, and a sister.  They’re in almost as much trouble as me.  Father has plans for us that don’t involve letting us choose who we’re being married to.  I’m just the first one to get auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

“Dear, don’t joke about that.”

“Sorry.  It just feels that way sometimes.  Let me hold him!”

Callista tried to pass the boy off, but he was having none of it.  He grabbed onto the nymph again and pulled himself into her lap.  She gave up trying to move him and instead cuddled the child.  Memories flooded back of times she’d held her own children, fed them, consoled them, taught them.

“Children are so uncomplicated,” the nymph said.  “They want love and their basic needs met, nothing more.  If you gave this boy a gold necklace he’d try to eat it, and throw it away when he realized he couldn’t.”

A woman in a blue dress marched up to them and scowled.  Callista stood up and faked a smile.  “Is this young man with you?”

“Yes, he is,” she said tartly.

“Sorry,” Gail said sheepishly.  “We would have returned him, but we didn’t know who to give him back to.”

The woman took her son.  “I can’t turn my back for a second without Hank running off.  He doesn’t much care which woman is holding him.”  Her tone was pure acid when she added, “Rather like his father that way.”

They waited until the woman was a safe distance away before Gail said, “See, that’s why I worry about being married off.”

“I can’t help if you’re looking for advice on dealing with bad marriages.  Both of mine worked out.”

“About your other marriage.  I mean, I hope I’m not pushing.”

Waiters came with more platters of food.  This time they brought steaks with sharp knives to cut them, meat pies, loaves of bread drizzled with honey, and vegetable soup.  There wasn’t room left on the table for anything but their plates and the plates of their still missing fellow diners.

“There’s enough food here for twenty people,” Gail said.  “How much do they expect us to eat?”

“It’s considered good manners to overfeed guests at these kinds of parties,” Callista explained.  “You give them so much that they can pick and choose.  Leftovers go to the staff, and the bones and fruit peelings are eaten by goblins.”

Gail laughed.  “You won’t find a goblin within ten miles of this place!  The guards and dogs will keep them out.”

“Guards, dogs, magic wards, goblin confounding talismans, and I think I saw someone pouring piles of kitchen scraps outside to distract them.  It didn’t work.”

“Didn’t?  What do you mean didn’t?”

A voice under the table said, “Pass the mayo.”

Callista took a small dish of mayonnaise off the table and placed it on the floor, where a grubby, pale blue hand pulled it under the table.  She also dropped a handful of bones, which the goblin also took.  Gail opened her mouth to scream, but Callista pressed two fingers against the girl’s lips.

“The other guests are having such a good time.  Let’s not ruin it.”

Callista decided to continue answering Gail’s original question to distract the girl from causing a scene.  “My second husband was Anthony Bester.  He grew the best grapes and mixed the finest wines, and it took a lawsuit to get the elves to stop claiming otherwise.  I met him when I was still dealing with the loss of my first husband.  Specifically, he took the glass of wine I was drinking and poured it down a sewer.”

“He did what?”

“You had to have been there to understand.”

Memories flowed over her of the moment when Anthony had said, “Good God, woman, if you’re going to get falling down drunk again, at least drink decent wine.  Here, try this.”

“Anthony was a widower, so he knew what I was going through,” Callista continued.  “He taught me a lot about wine and grapes, and about dealing with loss.  We were married twelve years when he passed away.  There were thousands of men that plague could have taken and left the world a better place, and it had to take Anthony.”

Gail looked to be on the verge of tears.  “You lost both your husbands?”

“I’m ageless, Gail, ever young, ever beautiful, and ever losing those who matter to me.  I outlived my husbands and the children we had together.  They didn’t inherit my agelessness, and I watched them age and die, and then saw the same thing happen to our grandchildren.  That’s the reason I haven’t taken another husband.  It’s not because there’s no one worthy.  When Bernard Dalstay proposed to me he was young, strong, handsome, and more importantly I knew he was a good man.  I turned him down because I couldn’t go through that again.  I couldn’t watch him weaken and die like Martin and Anthony.  It’s too much.

“I have perfect memory.  I remember everything that happened during my marriages.  Every minute we spent together, every word we said, every touch is stored in my mind as if it happened yesterday.  If I could forget it somehow maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, but I can’t, and there are days it hurts so much.”

Callista looked at her meal.  Magnificent as it was, she found herself with no appetite.  “It’s made having friends hard, too.  I’ve had so many over the years and outlived them as well.  There were years I attended one funeral after another.  These days I try to stay as professional as I can with others and maintain my distance.  I’ve found a few beings that enjoy long lives, like gnomes and dwarfs, and one dragon, and we spend time together.  I don’t want to shut myself away from the world.  I know Martin and Anthony wouldn’t want that, but sometimes it’s so hard when I know that all I see is going to pass away and I won’t.”

It was strange.  The room was filling to capacity with revelers, many of them drunk and getting loud.  The musicians played louder to be heard over the clatter of silverware and people talking.  Somehow, in spite of all that noise, there was a profound quiet at Callista and Gail’s table.

“I’m sorry,” Callista said softly.  “It wasn’t fair of me to burden you with that.  I keep thinking I’ve dealt with these feelings, and then something comes up and dredges them back to the surface.”

“It’s okay,” Gail told her.  “Um, what do you do when men are…interested in you, and you’re not interested in them?”

“That’s become a specialty of mine.  The nice ones take no for an answer.  I redirect the persistent ones, like I did with Bernard.  It’s not easy, but I can do it.  I’m not gentle with the ones who aren’t nice.  I can give as well as I get, and I’ve got more experience dishing out abuse than nearly everyone on this world.  As for the really obnoxious ones, I’ve maimed more than a few.”

Gail dropped her silverware.  “What?”

“Martin taught me how to fight like my life depends on it.  I’ve taken lessons from others on combat over the centuries, always the best in their fields.  There aren’t many who can fight me and win.  It helps that the magistrates in my home city have been understanding when I have to send someone to a healer.”

There was a savage satisfaction when she replayed a memory in her mind of the last time that had happened.  “This is the fifth time as magistrate that I’ve had to discipline a man for trying to force his attention on Callista the nymph.  Admittedly this is the first time the defendant wasn’t able to stand, speak, or maintain bladder control after the beating she inflicted.  I’ll take that into consideration during your sentencing.”

“That’s got to make parties like this hard for you,” Gail replied.  “All the people drinking too much and acting dumber the more they drink.”

“You have no idea.  It used to be fun when I went to parties with Martin and Anthony.  Martin never liked celebrations and ended up spending his time with the staff.  He’d get them singing and laughing so much that they had a better time than the guests.  As for Anthony, if he was here he’d be complaining about the wine, and he wouldn’t be shy about it.”

“Really?”

Callista took a sip of wine and frowned.  “Oh yes.”

Memories of Anthony came back and made her smile again.  “This wine isn’t supposed to be served with roast pork.  It should have been served to the pig.”

There was a sudden crash from across the room where the bar was.  Gail slid down in her chair in a desperate bid to hide.  “That was my mother, wasn’t it?”

Callista stroked Gail’s hair.  “She’s okay.  Someone’s helping her up.”

With the conversation paused by Gail’s humiliation, Callista took a moment to study the room.  Many of the tables were only partly occupied since so many guests were milling about in large groups and gossiping.  The largest group was centered around Duke Gallows and included at least fifty people vying for his attention.  But to her surprise and delight, a white haired gnome in a tuxedo walked around the crowds to join her.

“Fiddler Plast, you rogue!” Callista called out as she rose to greet him.  “It’s been ages.  You look wonderful.”

Plast bowed at the waist and climbed into a chair next to her.  The duke’s servants had thoughtfully provided a footstool for the gnome, and he reached his place without difficulty.  “I’d say the same to you, but it would be redundant.  You look as you always do, Callista, the personification of beauty.  Ah, our host was kind enough to provide adequate sustenance for the evening.  If you would be so kind as to pass the rest of the pheasant?”

Gail did so, and watched in awe as Plast devoured every last scrap of meat on the bird.  He proceeded to crack open the bones and scoop out the marrow, then drained the decanter of wine to wash it down.  The gnome reached for the nearest full platter and said, “I’m pleased you could make it.  I have developed a mathematical formula that I hope will explain the movements of the constellation Erving the Marmoset.  As I doubt the duke will have anything of relevance to say tonight, I hope we can spend a few hours discussing the matter.”

“I’d love to, but Gail and I—”

“Are finished,” Gail said.  “You answered all my questions and more, and if this makes you happy then I don’t want to keep you from it.  I didn’t even know you were interested in the stars.”

Plast laughed so hard he nearly fell out of his chair.  Gail’s face shifted from embarrassment to anger and back again before she asked, “What’s so funny?”

“I’m a professor of astronomy at Imperial University,” Callista explained.

Gail’s jaw dropped.  “You’re an astronomer?”

“A girl’s got to do something to earn a living.” 

Putting two and two together, Gail said, “So when you said you met Bernard Dalstay at Imperial University, he was in one of your classes.”

“My lectures are always well attended, sometimes by people actually interested in Astronomy.  Fiddler Plast is a fellow astronomer who built the largest telescope in the kingdom, and kindly lets me use it.”  Callista was about to tell Gail about her job when a most unwelcome face appeared in the crowd.  “Dear God, it’s Lord Bryce.”

“What’s that idiot doing here?” Plast demanded as he continued serving himself.

A voice called out from under the table, “Quick, pretend you’re dead.”

Lord Bryce was a lesser nobleman but possessed wealth that few could rival.  Between his riches and high birth he was an absolute bore on a good day, and a pompous, lecherous malcontent the rest of the time.  He had good looks and dressed in fashionable clothes with a touch of jewelry.  Such a fine appearance fooled people meeting him for the first time.

Lord Bryce’s passing drew notice from the other guests, but not their approval.  No one invited him to join them or engaged him in conversation.  Most looked away when he neared them, a sign of unofficial disapproval among the rich.  It didn’t bother Lord Bryce in the slightest.  He noticed their snub, but instead of anger or embarrassment, he showed only smug certainty.

“Callista, how good to see you again,” Lord Bryce began as he approached their table.  He could be charming for short periods of time, but it never lasted.  “The time since our last meeting has been far too long, and I hungered for the chance to see you again.”

“The last time we met, you were ejected from university grounds and then banned from them entirely,” Callista replied.  She had learned thousands of insults over the last three hundred years and was sorely tempted to use them.  Instead she kept her voice calm and tried to end the conversation without stirring up trouble.

“You do have the most odious men running that establishment.  They have no sense of humor or knowledge of their rightful place.”  Lord Bryce put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a predatory smile.  “Thankfully this time we can spend time together without interruption by lesser minds.”

Keep calm, she repeated to herself.  She’d dealt with many men like Lord Bryce.  Keep calm.  “Duke Gallows invited us both for a reason I’m sure he intends to share, and that allows no opportunity for private affairs.”

“Gallows is busy and will remain so for hours,” Lord Bryce replied with a smirk.  “That leaves time enough for us and an estate large enough to spend it alone.”

Keeping calm, very calm.  She could smell alcohol on his breath, and he would be even less reasonable drunk than normal.  “I fear I must remind you that while these are private grounds rather than public, the behavior that cost you your place at Imperial University would be no more appreciated here than it was there.  Your hand, remove it.”

Fiddler Plast didn’t look up from his plate, now filled with food.  “You’re not among commoners this time, Bryce.  Make a fool of yourself among your peers and the consequences are going to be massive.”

“It’s Lord Bryce,” he corrected the gnome through clenched teeth, “and my words aren’t directed to someone beneath me in every possible way.”

Plast chuckled.  “Racial slurs.  I didn’t see that coming.  Oh, wait, yes I did, because you talk like that to everyone all the time.”

Callista took Lord Bryce’s hand resting on her shoulder.  For a second he smiled, but that disappeared when she slid his hand back to his side.  “There are limits to my patience, and you reached them.  Kindly return to your table and I’ll make no mention of this to our host.”

Lord Bryce’s face turned red.  “I will not be talked to this way.  I will not be treated like a servant.  You may no more dismiss me than you can stop the tide!”

Nearby guests turned in surprise as Lord Bryce grew louder.  Gail sunk into her chair, trying to avoid notice.  Plast stopped eating and gripped his fork and knife like weapons.  The goblin under the table ran, but only far enough to retrieve two more goblins hiding beneath another table.

Lord Bryce grabbed Callista by the shoulders and turned her around so she had to look at him.  “You conniving vixen!  The others here may be fooled into thinking you are a lady of class, a woman of distinction, but I know your history!  You gave yourself to a penniless bilge rat pretending to be a captain, and then a drunk while your first husband’s body was still warm!  You let wretched men of no breeding have you and turn down your betters?  The nerve!”

Memories of her husbands crashed into Callista like an avalanche.  She remembered how they’d fought for her, defended her from monsters like Lord Bryce, protected her in court when she’d had to defend herself.  She remembered their deaths, the agony of it fresh like a knife wound, the pain of knowing she’d go on living, not for decades but for centuries or even millennia, every day of it without them.

The pain mixed with her loathing of Lord Bryce and hundreds of men like him she’d met over the centuries.  This, this dog!  This drunken, inbred, idiotic blight on humanity!  Martin and Anthony were a hundred times the man Lord Bryce was, and to have this cretin smear their good names in front of everyone!

“How dare you!” Callista screamed.  She slapped him.  Hard.  Then she kneed him in the crotch.  Lord Bryce staggered back, which saved him from the worst of the kick she aimed at his head.  The blow could have broken his jaw but instead only split his lip.

The three goblins attacked him, kicking him in the shins and stomping on his feet.  At three feet tall the dirty little creatures couldn’t reach much higher and hadn’t come armed for a fight.  Lord Bryce howled in outrage and knocked them aside before balling his hands into fists and charging Callista.  Plast jumped from his chair and moved to help her.  Poor dear Plast, he didn’t realize who really needed protection.

The guards at the mansion’s entrance may have confiscated Callista’s sword, but her first husband had taught her to improvise.  The steak knives at the table were five inches long and looked freshly sharpened.  That would do nicely.  She snatched the nearest knife and threw it at Lord Bryce’s throat.

Time seemed to freeze.  The knife sailed through the air.  Lord Bryce didn’t see it coming and so didn’t try to dodge.  It would have killed him except a blur of black slammed into him.  It was Max Dalstay, lighter than his enemy but running so fast he knocked them both to the floor.  Max rolled off as Lord Bryce screamed and staggered to his feet.

Men ran in and got between Lord Bryce and Callista.  Two guards grabbed him and shoved him against a wall.  Bernard Dalstay ran over only seconds behind his son, just in time to see Lord Bryce burst free and come after Callista again.

“Get out of my way!”  Lord Bryce’s voice was hateful, animalistic.

Bernard Dalstay stood his ground, with Callista and his son behind him.  His voice was soft yet still commanded respect when he answered.  “Walk away while you still can.”

The guard came back with reinforcements and seized Lord Bryce.  They held him while a crowd gathered and Duke Gallows came.  The Duke was an older man in formal wear, and the look on his face would have terrified a lion.

“Bryce, you idiot!  I knew your reputation for womanizing and placed you as far from Professor Callista as humanly possible.  I thought you’d have the common sense to not make a fool of yourself yet again.”

“How can you place the blame on me when Dalstay’s brat struck me?” Lord Bryce demanded.

“He was saving your miserable life.”  Duke Gallows marched over to the wall behind Lord Bryce and pulled out the knife embedded in it.  Marching back to Lord Bryce, the duke tossed the knife to the floor at the man’s feet.  “Had he been a second slower you’d be dead.”

No one in the room believed the story, and they politely agreed that was exactly what had happened.  It was a convenient lie that let Max Dalstay avoid the repercussions of attacking a man his equal and the potential blood feud that would entail.  But that didn’t end the matter.  All eyes remained on the duke, for he was their host and the highest-ranking man in the room.  Enough of them had seen and heard Lord Bryce that his actions couldn’t be easily swept under the rug or explained away.

“Callista, may I offer my most profound apologies,” Duke Gallows said.  “Your attendance was a gift, and your generosity in coming was poorly repaid.  I understand if you wish to leave after such an incident, but I would consider it a personal favor if you would remain.  As for you, Bryce, guards, take him outside.  I’ll deal with this myself.”

“You can’t do this!” Lord Bryce yelled as he was dragged off.  Clearly the duke could, especially in his own home.  It was actually a kindness since they’d be able to settle things without witnesses.

Callista sank back into her chair, physically and emotionally exhausted.  Why did social events keep turning into battlefields?  The other guests drifted off and learned that scores of goblins who’d snuck into the party had taken the opportunity to rifle through their purses, coats, wallets and anything else they’d left at their tables when they ran to watch the commotion.  Plast patted Callista on the arm and then sat down himself.

Not far away, Bernard Dalstay told his son, “You could have been killed just now.”

Looking miserable, Max asked, “What else could I do?”

“Nothing, son, nothing.  Go back and tell your mother that you’re okay.”

Bernard Dalstay was about to leave when Callista said, “He’s your son, all right.”

Bernard smiled and his chest puffed out in fatherly pride.  “That he is.”

Watching them leave, it occurred to Callista just how much trouble she was in.  Not for hitting and nearly killing Lord Bryce.  That idiot was reaching the limits of how much trouble his money and family connections could buy him out of.  His peers had not ignored his behavior up to this point, but they’d been quiet in their disapproval.  Causing such a scene publicly made that impossible, and Lord Bryce would soon find himself a pariah.

The problem was going to be Max Dalstay.  He’d been seated at the other end of the room and still came running to the rescue, even if he hadn’t saved the person he’d intended to.  She’d hoped his interest in her was a passing thing, but what he’d done tonight bordered on the heroic.  Clearly he wasn’t going to just let his infatuation go.  It could take years to dissuade the boy, and he might never give up on her.  What was she to do?

“Did you see that?” Gail asked.  She was looking at Max as he left.  “He took on a man twice as big as himself.”

Callista was about to correct Gail on the difference in size (Max being more like two thirds Lord Bryce’s weight) when she smiled instead.  Maybe this time it wouldn’t be hard to redirect a man’s attention, and do Gail a good turn at the same time.

“Wasn’t that brave of him?” Callista asked.  “You’ll never guess what his family does for a living.”


© Copyright 2018 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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