They stood up through two dances – a good three-quarters of an hour – after which Nik thought Wisteria looked winded. The measured pace of the dance was little more strenuous than walking, but it was still exertion and Nik didn’t mind a chance to sit down himself. Justin was, of course, tireless and Meg would not sit down for anything while musicians yet played, so Nik and Wisteria left them to form a set with new participants. With Wisteria on his arm, they ascended one of the spiral staircases to the balcony that ringed the ballroom and overlooked the dancers. Nik left her in a chair while he chased down one of the servers with drink trays, but when he returned she was resting a hand on the railing, looking down. “They look so wonderful from here,” she said, turning to glance at him. Her fingers brushed over his as she accepted his offered flute of champagne. “Not that dancing is unadmirable from the same level, but it’s far more impressive to take it all in at once like this, all those people moving in such remarkable synchronicity.”
“Doing credit to scores of dedicated dance tutors, no doubt.” Nikola stood beside her to watch as well. He judged less than half the attendees were still on the dance floor, many having taken breaks or gone to other rooms to converse or play cards. Even so, that left several dozen sets moving in unison to the music of the royal orchestra. They were by no means all exact in their timing, some half a beat ahead or behind, and the occasional dancer forgetting his place and hurrying to the correct next position without taking the requisite turns or appropriate steps. But taken as a whole, the proficiency of so many hundreds in executing the proper moves in correct time and sequence was striking.
“It’s quite an achievement, when you think of it. I’ve watched professional dance troupes that were not so well-choreographed.”
“Truly? Even considering the likes of…oh, Lord Cambrunt?”
“Who?” Miss Vasilver followed Nik’s gesture to a portly man in brown and yellow. As she watched, the figure missed a step, recovered badly and took two steps to one side, colliding with the adjacent man in his set. “Well…perhaps nothing quite on those lines, my lord. But I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a performance on this scale, either. Making allowance for the outliers and the sheer numbers, I remain amazed and enrapt. It’s even more enjoyable to watch than to be a part of it.”
“Do you not like dancing, Miss Vasilver?” He glanced to her profile: her calm tones were hard to read and her face impassive as always, but he could see hints of the pleasure she spoke of, in her eyelids slightly lowered and the lack of tension to her features.
“Oh, no, I love it, my lord. It’s so delightfully straightforward.”
“Lord Cambrunt might beg to differ.” Nikola half-smiled. “Straight and forward he might be able to manage.”
“A literally straight-forward dance would be more a march, would it not? But I meant metaphorically.” She looked to him, the stones in her dark hair glittering like embers with the movement. His eyes caught on hers, their light brown highlighted by gold in the gaslight, her flawless skin inviting his caress: would it be as warm and soft as it appeared? Guarded, he reminded himself, and looked back to the ballroom floor as she continued, “When one is dancing Andelrick’s or Through and Under, there’s no question of what the right thing to do is: step here, turn now, step back, all exact. One might misstep or forget a move, but there is only ever one right answer. It’s soothing in that respect, if that makes sense.”
“It does indeed.” At the moment, having one right answer struck Nik as extremely appealing
“What of you, my lord? What is your favorite part of this ball?”
“The Blessing of Newlant,” Nik said automatically.
“Oh, so the highlight is already passed? Might we as well go home, then?”
Nik started to shake his head, then glanced to her with a grin. She was deadpan, but something about the set of her eyes convinced him she was teasing. “Well, that would net me a nice quiet carriage ride with you. But I can wait a few more hours to collect on that, miss. I do not wish to deprive you of the full Ascension Ball experience.”
She tilted her head, watching him again. “Thus far I have arrived in a gilded glass carriage, admired a vast quantity and quality of couture, drank champagne from a fountain, felt the annual Blessing at its source, supped, danced, and admired the dancers. Do enlighten me, my lord: what else remains for the full experience?”
“Let’s see: there’s drinking too much champagne from the fountain, being violently ill in the restroom, having one’s outrageously expensive Ascension garb spoilt after slipping and falling in a muddy spot in the dark on the lawn, losing an unfortunate string of games at cards before realizing that one has inadvertently sat at a table with stakes, engaging in conversation with distant relations whom one sees far too often at twice a year…” Nikola paused, as if reflecting. “Some of these may be missable experiences, come to think of it.”
“Have you already had all of them?” Miss Vasilver started to take a sip from her champagne flute, then reconsidered and rested the stem against the railing instead.
“At least once,” he assured her. “…most of them exactly once.”
“I see.” She looked grave. “Are there remaining experiences you would recommend, my lord? I have enjoyed my time so far and would be perfectly content were I to continue to do so. Even at the cost of leaving my evening incomplete.”
“Understandable, miss. In that case, there’s – no. We could – wait, not in an even year. If one…no, that never has gone well either. Hmmm.” He raised a hand to his face, tapping his cheek thoughtfully. A couple promenading along the broad balcony stopped to greet them; an elderly lord whom Nikola had cured a few years ago of senility, and his wife. Nik introduced Miss Vasilver to them. As they were chatting, another small group came by and joined them, and it was several minutes of small talk before he was able to extricate himself and Miss Vasilver again.
As they strolled away, Miss Vasilver glanced upwards to him. Her fingers felt very comfortable against the crook of his arm. “Random brief conversations with whatever acquaintances stumble upon one?”
It took him a moment to realize she had returned to their earlier topic. “Ah! Yes, but we’ve already done that one. Several times. How’s this – hiding with a friend in a forgotten corner of the palace to converse upon dreadfully inappropriate topics?”
She tilted her head at him. “Oh, now that does sound promising. Has it gone well for you in the past?”
“Technically I have not engaged in it, personally.” Nikola gave her a mischievous grin. “But I do know a good hiding place or two.”
She nestled a little closer to him. “Then it is a part of the full Ascension Ball experience neither one of us has had?” The young lady gestured before them with the champagne flute in her free hand, long beaded sleeve swinging with the motion. “Please, do lead on, my lord, that we may rectify this oversight at once.”
Still grinning, Nik sketched the hint of a bow to her. “As my lady wills.”
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