Chapter 2: Dancing in the Ballroom
They had only just finished a very slow dance more than four hours later when a tall, silver haired Minotaur Joanna was acquainted with, bowed and requested the next dance, and Vlad had gravely bowed to her and gently handed her hand to the Minotaur who stood waiting for her to take his hand as the musicians began to pick up the tempo a bit from the waltz-like piece they had just finished.
And Joanna had smiled as she curtsied to him, thinking that it had to be something that Amelia had arranged that there were so many of her acquaintances and lovers—both past and present—present in the house for the party. But she knew too that she wanted to have more time with her husband tonight too, even though it might not be too likely to happen.
“Save me another dance for my return, my love, and I shall consider myself well paid for my patience,” Vlad said as he lifted her gently to her feet, then kissed her deeply again before they parted, knowing that he wouldn’t be gone long this time, at most only a few minutes.
“Yes, my love, but what of my patience? Is there to be no reward for that, my King?” Joanna replied softly as their lips parted once more, struggling to get her breathing back under control once more before she was spun away into the figures of the next dance.
◊After all, you promised the whole of my birthday and the night to me, and now I find that you have to leave again, almost as soon as you have returned?◊ Joanna added in his thoughts as she spun away on the arm of the Minotaur Vlad had handed her to for the span of the dance.
She was trying to keep the disappointment from her mind voice, but she knew that she had failed when he paused and looked back at her from where he stood at the edge of the dancefloor, expression unreadable.
◊Not only that, but you were gone this morning too. When do I get to find out where you went then?◊ she asked, hoping only for information, and trying not to sound waspish, though she knew that he had promised that he wouldn’t leave, today of all days, and now he was having to break that promise. And she fought off another attack of vertigo, knowing that she couldn’t afford to faint right now; not on the dancefloor with Vlad heading away, and Amelia on door duty.
Then she felt a surge of energy, and knew that Mason had finally gotten home from wherever it had been that he had gone after helping her in her office earlier this morning. He had apparently noticed her swaying and realized that she needed energy to keep herself conscious. And that made her wonder how many of her guests had noticed the problem.
The worst thing was that Vlad knew it too, Joanna thought as she studied as much of his face as she could through the figures of the dance. She met his eyes as he stood on the edge of the dancefloor, watching her dance, and she knew that it wasn’t by his choice that he had to leave, and given his choice, he would have stayed and escorted her to the wine cellar for a drink. And she knew too that he still might.
◊You have my most solemn Oath that I shall make it up to you in whatever way you think best, when I return to your side, my Queen. But you need to feed before you faint again, beloved. And you know this, my love.◊ he replied in her thoughts at his most formal and forbidding for an instant as he bowed to her once more.
Then, he relented and added, ◊Beloved, if I don’t go now and attend to this task, I cannot return to your side in triumph with your birthday gift from your Father and I, and I didn’t think you would want that. I won’t be any longer than I absolutely must be, my love, to see to the security for the night, and to guide those who are delivering your gift to the correct location for me to be able to present it to you properly.◊
And she knew that this dance had only been a brief respite—for either of them-- in the ongoing battle to make her completely safe from Iollio and his minions; Vlad had to run an errand, but he had promised to return as soon as he was done for the night. And this was the last time he would be absent for the next few days, he had promised her while they had danced, giving her his solemn Word on the subject.
Joanna knew that the errand he had mentioned could take the rest of the night, or it could only be a few minutes after he had left that it was complete and he would be able to return to her party. And she hoped that it would only be a few minutes at most before she saw him again, though she knew there was very little chance of that being the case.
But she wouldn’t know for certain until she saw him again. And that might take longer than she thought it should. Or even longer than he thought it should, though there was very little either of them could do about how long someone else took to do something, even when they had been paid for the effort.
◊All I can do, then, is try to remain patient until your return, my love.◊ Joanna said as she continued to dance with Henri, vanishing into a swirl of brightly colored gowns toward the center of the wide parquet dancefloor. And Vlad turned and slipped out of the ballroom once more, intent on completing his errand quickly so that he could return to his wife’s side.
And he hoped he would be back before she had passed out again, remembering the last time he had walked into her office, only to find her not there. A search had turned her up, unconscious in her bed, her eldest fledglings in attendance, but nothing they did would wake her, until he had returned.
However, she wouldn’t be alone, Joanna knew; after all, Henri was here to keep her company, along with more than two hundred of her friends and more than a dozen of her lovers, both past and present.
Though, now that she thought about it, as the music came to a halt, Joanna realized the only time she had actually been intimate with a member of his race had been in a dream when she was much younger. And that made her wonder if the dream was anything like the reality could be, though she knew that it might not be possible to find out at this party as she curtsied to him again as the last notes of the music faded away and he bowed in reply.
He thanked her for the dance in a throaty voice and asked if there was anything he could get her to drink, and she said, “Yes, there should be some punch in the bowl nearest the ballroom door. That would be lovely. Thank you, Henri.” as he turned smartly, pivoting on one well-manicured hoof and quickly headed in the direction she had indicated.
But at the same time, she wondered how her sister had known about the Minotaur; that encounter had only been a dream Joanna had had while they had been at camp, when they had been... how old had they been on that camping trip, Joanna wondered abruptly.
Thinking about it as she swept around the dancefloor on the arm of her current escort, Joanna realized that it had to have been the one she had first when she was 16, and several times afterward.
At the same time, she didn’t think that she had told Amelia about that dream—though Joanna knew that Amelia knew about many of the others, because she had told her about them—and although Joanna knew that she might have and had simply forgotten that she had.
A few seconds later, the minotaur elder she had been dancing with was back with a small champagne flute of sparkling punch and had presented it to her with a short bow and a switch of his short tail as he said, “I have the punch you requested, dear lady.”
“Thank you, Henri,” she said as she accepted the slightly bubbling flute gracefully and sipped from it with a sigh, as she watched the swirling mix of dancers filling the floor in the ballroom as she rested after the vigorous dance they had shared, and noticed again the many new servants wearing her Father’s livery circulating around those seated between dances; they were being kept busy with requests for drinks and small plates of food.
And idly, Joanna wondered how many of the new faces she was seeing that night had been hired in for the run of this party, knowing that she might not find out for several days if she was to have asked. But, at the same time, she hoped that they had all cleared the security protocols before her father, her husband, or Jerrica had hired them; after all, it wouldn’t do to accidentally hire someone from the Brotherhood, she knew.
That way led only to more kinds of trouble that no one in the family or among the guests wanted to have during the party, Joanna knew. And she wondered if asking Jerrica about it would produce any further information about the situation, but she knew that right now, it wasn’t the best time to do it: Jerrica was finally taking a few minutes for herself on the dancefloor, and she looked like she was having fun for a change.
And Joanna didn’t want to interrupt if Jerrica was finally able to forget the dangers all around them and enjoy herself for a few minutes for a change.
In the crowds already assembled for the next dance on the parquet floor across the room, she thought she saw Bainil; a very handsome young centaur of her acquaintance. As soon as she saw him, Joanna suddenly recalled that she had needed to make the time to speak to him sometime over the course of the party, but not right now.
He and Jerrica looked like they would be able to keep each other busy for a while, Joanna thought indulgently as she watched them dance, and sipped at her champagne punch, though she knew that she was going to have to take Vlad’s advice soon.
The musicians were already beginning to play for the dance, so she knew that she would have to wait to call to him as she opened her amber and longleg feather fan and began to fan herself gently, thinking abstractedly that it was getting warm in the ballroom, even though almost all the doors that lead onto the balconies over the garden were wide open to help cool the room from the heat generated by those who were dancing.
She thought about stepping out onto one of the balconies to try to cool down somewhat, but that would require crossing the crowded dancefloor once more, and she didn’t fancy trying that right now as she watched Bai and Jerrica dancing slowly to the tune the band was playing.
And suddenly, Joanna recognized it as the same tune she had sung when she was nine that had so deeply affected Vlad, that he had later told her was from Mergoin as she found herself quietly singing along with the singer who had been crooning the words into the microphone she held cradled in her tiny hands.
“... my hearts belong only to you/ they have all for the lives we have passed through/ will you not return to me? Shadows dance and twine/ as your shade and mine/ dance in the deeps of our hearts/ my dearest protector. Return to me/ return to my arms, and my bed/ and you shall never be alone again!”
Then the tiny soprano singer shifted to a song designed to draw the attention of anyone who had let their minds wander for a bit, singing, “Come to me, my children/ and I’ll whisk you away/ into a land where all life is but play.” Finishing that song, she moved on to one that was popular at the minute from one of the most recent theatrical releases, and Joanna smiled when she realized that she knew this one too.
It looked as though Bai was having fun dancing at the minute as Joanna’s attention wandered back to the dancers, and she knew that Bainil didn’t dance often enough for her to willingly interrupt his enjoyment of the movements of the dance for what could be a triviality. Besides, she had Henri to keep her company for now, Joanna thought firmly. But that didn’t stop her from wondering what it would be like to sleep with one of Henri’s people.
Well, maybe I’ll find out later... she thought as she fanned herself as the song faded into silence once more.
Then she turned to her dancing partner with a smile and asked, “So, I haven’t seen you for quite a while... what has been going on in your life lately, Henri?”
It occurred to her then that she hadn’t had the pleasure of his company since just before her wedding, and she knew he was likely going to ask her about the ceremony, so she swallowed the sigh she felt growing in her lungs and got ready to tell him about it as he began describing what his life had been like since they had parted last.
However, the next few minutes were taken up with him describing what had been going on in his life since the last time they had spent any time together, and Joanna found herself laughing at the described antics of his children and shaking her head over the confusion of many of the other members of his family. Then he asked, “So, how have things been going for you, my Shadow Queen? Is all quiet in the hearts of your realm?” And she smiled at his phrasing as she knew he’d intended she do.
His use of her title brought memories of her coronation into the Shadow Court at her legal marriage to King Vlad Dracoriescue, and she found herself hoping that her husband would be back before dinner was to be served later tonight, but she knew that he wouldn’t be able get back home until later, if he was going to be home tonight at all, she thought pessimistically.
And, as she considered how best to answer Henri, she wondered where Vlad was; he had implied that he would only be away for a few minutes. Well, it had been that, and more, Joanna thought, hoping that Vlad would be back soon. She didn’t know that there had been a minor... hiccough with the delivery of her gift, but he was handling it, and soon he would be back at her side.
Then she sighed and said, “You know I can’t reveal court business if it doesn’t affect your people, Henri. And so far as I know, the most recent meeting doesn’t, particularly,” she added apologetically as she sipped at her drink again.
And she knew that Vlad was trying to get back, but he wouldn’t be as soon as he had wished to have been. But she thought she had been able to reassure him that she was not about to faint anytime soon, regardless of what he had seen as he was heading off the dance floor earlier.
Joanna didn’t want to think about the most recent meeting of the Council that she had been allowed to attend; preferring to bring to mind waking early the day before her wedding had been originally planned to take place, only to discover that they couldn’t have the ceremony that day; her Father had had a severe heart attack, and he was being treated by Jayne for the condition.
But at the time, Joanna had been grateful that the planner—her name was Brenda-- had allowed for a wide window of opportunity for the spot they had chosen to hold the ceremony in front of the house on the island in the pond—and for the availability of the priestess to conduct the ceremony-- so it hadn’t been as much bother as it could have been to get the day re-arranged.
It had been more bother to get her Father to stay still long enough to heal from the procedure Jayne had performed. It hadn’t been invasive, but it had been draining, for both of them, and for Amelia, who had been helping her Mother with the procedure, learning to repair this sort of injury as she was assisting in the healing, and trying to get her delayed plans back on track.
After all, Amelia knew that if Joanna’s Father had this condition then it was possible that Joanna would too. And she wanted to know how to correct it, if it cropped up.
And the wedding had been set back by three weeks; the outside of the timeframe that Brenda had set as their window of opportunity for the ceremony before she would have to reschedule everything from the flowers to the caterers, from the seat rentals to the pilot who was going to fly the newlyweds to their honeymoon. But this time, the ceremony had gone off without a hitch, save for Drew falling into the pond.
But Joanna knew she didn’t want to think about such things today; it was her birthday, after all, and she knew she was supposed to be being happy, not dwelling on things long past. So, resolutely, she pushed aside memories of what had gone just before her wedding ceremony, instead focusing her attention on what Henri was saying, knowing that it was important to listen not only to what people didn’t say, but what they did say as well.
At the same time, she knew that the memories would ambush her again; the weeks before their wedding had been troubled by attack after attack by agents of the Brotherhood and a new threat that was beginning to make itself known—agents of someone calling themselves the Puppet Master-- but the beauty of the ceremony had made it all worth it for her. Once more, her memory swirled with images of her wedding ball, followed swiftly by images of the glittering pageantry of her unexpected coronation and the huge party that had followed it.
And she wondered in that instant what Vlad was going to bring her as a birthday gift this year, but she knew too that Vlad simply being there and still safe was the best gift she could receive.
“I know you can’t, J. But that wasn’t what I asked you about. I asked if life had been quiet enough since the coronation.” Henri replied with a throaty chuckle as he patted her hand where it rested on the arm of the chair she had taken on the edge of the ballroom as they had paused between dances.
“Though, I suppose I really should apologize for not being able to attend your wedding... ” he added wistfully a few seconds later. And she knew he was hoping that she would tell him about it, or at least about her impressions of how the day had gone.
At the same time, she knew that she would oblige him with the story of that day; after all, it would be something to keep her thoughts busy until Vlad returned.