For Mariajose Lopez
I was late, as always.
Mary didn’t know this was going to save her life tonight.
Just for once I’d like to have everything go right when I go out, the young woman thought as she looked around the grand hall of King Robert in Hamfordshire. Huge silver tables piled high with food surrounded the dance floor. A dozen crystal chandeliers hung high above, shedding a glittering gold light on the room. The celebration was in full swing, the hall crowded with men in swallow tail jackets and women in tied and layered ball gowns in colors that had names like chartreuse, emerald, amaranth, and periwinkle.
So many people, Mary thought, trying to quell the nervous butterflies in her stomach, and hoped all the guests weren’t staring at her as King Robert’s majordomo announced her in a loud, imperious voice. “Mary of Isle, third daughter of the King James of Isle and his wife Lady Warrwood of Nearton.”
Mary made an awkward curtsy in her lavish gown which still could not compare with the others in the room. Isle was a small kingdom, nothing to compare with Hamfordshire, or the other kingdoms of the realm. The few guests who had turned to see who the newcomer was returned to their eating, dancing, and conversing as if she were no longer there. Mary made her way down the elegant stairway in a very inelegant manner due to the tight and awkward shoes required by the dress code, praying she didn’t trip and fall on her face. Her cheeks burned at the memory of the last party she had gone to. It had been a masquerade hosted by King Harry of Georgton, and the peacock mask Mary had been wearing obscured her vision. She hadn’t seen the servant with the tray of drinks come up behind her.
Nothing like that is going to happen this time, Mary promised herself. I’m a little late, but I can do this. She hated parties. There were too many people, too many social “niceties” to follow, and added to the uncomfortable clothes, horrible music, and tedious waiting around from someone to ask her to dance even though she didn’t like dancing and wasn’t very good at it made for something close to hell.
Stepping into the middle of the room, she grabbed a glass off a tray just to have something in her hand and went to examine the buffet. Truly, she far preferred the company of canapés to that of people; canapés didn’t expect banal witty banter from her, nor did they mock her when she didn’t know the latest gossip about so-and-so.
“The fried shrimp are much better,” a voice behind her whispered as though sharing a great political secret that could topple empires or kingdoms.
“Oh,” was all Mary could think to say.
The man behind her was average-looking, boyishly round cheeks making him look younger than he probably was. A bit of hair trying to be a goatee failed to make him look dashing or distinguished. His warm brown eyes made one feel absurdly safe, as though he wouldn’t know where to start in causing mischief or doing something dangerous. He might even have a mild panic attack if someone even mentioned the idea of such to him. In short, Mary concluded, he was a perfectly typical attendee of parties such as these.
“The fried shrimp are much better,” he repeated, and looked at her expectantly.
“Um, thanks,” Mary said. “I’ll be sure to try one.”
He looked disappointed. “You’re supposed to tell me you’re allergic to shrimp.”
“I’m allergic to shrimp,” Mary stated, though it sounded more like a question. Maybe this is some new party game, she thought.
His safe brown eyes lit up. “Then you must try the strawberry tarts,” he announced.
He grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the dessert table. On the way, Mary managed to put the drink down without spilling it.
“I’m really not that hungry, Mr. Uh…”
“I know, I know,” he said. “I was briefed too. No names.” He paused. “That’s going to make it difficult to talk. You can call me…” he thought for a long time, “Tobias.”
Mary would have bet a carton of jewels, which she could hardly afford, Tobias was his real name, as he most likely lacked the imagination to come up with a pseudonym on the fly. He was looking at her, his eyebrows raised too high. She glanced at the party going on around her. A band was playing something to dance to. The sound of chatter and laughter surrounded her and made her feel very alone. Her only other option for the evening a boring time spent wandering around until her feet hurt too much to continue and leaving without telling a soul.
So she replied, “Call me Anastasia.”
He looked impressed. “That’s a really good name.”
“Thanks.” She batted her eyelashes at him.
He grabbed a round pastry covered with bright pink jam and held it out to her. She reached to take it, but he jerked it back.
“Wait, what’s your favorite fruit, Anastasia?” he said.
“Um,” she thought hard. “I really like peaches, especially when they’re fresh-”
“Perfect!” he beamed, and stood there, grinning at her.
“So do you have it?” he asked and crammed the strawberry tart into his mouth.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mary said.
Tobias frowned, and waved his hand impatiently, sending crumbs everywhere. “I gave the password. Now you have to give me the package.”
Mary began to suspect this was not a party game at all. Suddenly, she wished she hadn’t come. She blinked, and left her eyes closed for longer than was necessary, hoping the darkness would comfort her.
“No, no,” a loud, slightly whiny voice insisted nearby. “You have to tell me I must try the strawberry tarts!”
Mary turned to see a thin, excitable looking woman standing in front of the canapés, lecturing a fellow with a tangle of gold curls and eyes desperately looking for any route to escape the hellish torture he had gotten himself into. He locked onto Mary’s gaze. Despite the desperation-edging-towards-panic, his eyes were very nice, on the blue side of green.
“Ah, my darling Beatrice!” he cried out, disentangling himself from the woman waiting to be told to try the strawberry tarts, and sprinted over. He grabbed Mary and planted an enthusiastic kiss that would have landed on her lips had she not turned her head. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”
His eyes begged her to play along. This has really gone too far already, she thought, but his eyes wouldn’t let her leave him stranded. She beamed at him.
“I’m sorry, my love, I’ve – I’ve just been talking to my new friend Tobias here.”
The man bowed to Tobias, who returned the theatrical yet expected gesture. The woman who had yet to be told to try the strawberry tarts wandered over. She gave Mary a disapproving look and fanned herself with an elaborate white lace fan studded with pearls. It matched her dress.
“Who’s this?” she demanded of the blond man, nodding at Mary.
“My sun, my moon, and my stars,” the man declared proudly. “This is Beatrice.”
Mary curtsied, and almost fell over. The man caught her and righted her so smoothly, Mary hardly noticed. The others noticed not at all.
“Yes, well, she’s very lovely, if a bit plain, but we have more important things to be seeing to,” the woman sniffed at him. “The fate of the realm is in our hands!”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man said, a hint of pleading leaking into his voice. “I’ve never seen you before in my life. I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know anything about the fate of the realm being in my hands. If it was, I’m sure I would know about it! And I don’t know anything about the strawberry tarts!”
After his impassioned speech, he fell silent, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he caught his breath. Mary wondered why everyone was so enamored with the strawberry tarts, then something occurred to her. She toyed with the idea, playing with it in her mind, turning it over and around again. Yes, I think I’m right, she decided.
“Excuse me,” Mary said to the other woman. “Have you tried the canapés?”
The woman blinked at her sharply. “Yes. I have eaten so many canapés tonight, I never want to see another one. I was waiting for…”
She stopped suddenly, and looked as if she wished she hadn’t said anything. Mary kicked the man called Tobias in the ankle, and smiled sweetly into the air when he yelped.
“And which did you like best?” Mary prompted the woman.
“The salmon wasn’t bad,” she said. “Though, I confess, the ham and avocado was my favorite.”
“The fried shrimp are better,” Tobias muttered. “Much better.”
“I’m allergic to shrimp,” the woman said automatically.
His eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. They locked gazes.
“Then you must try the strawberry tarts,” Tobias said, very nervously, his hands moving to his waist, then under chin, then straight at his side.
The woman brightened up. She almost looked beautiful. She reached into the bodice of her dress and pulled out a small velvet sack tied with gold string and handed it to Tobias.
“My favorite fruit is peaches,” she said.
“I’m afraid there’s only strawberry,” he replied, looking down at the package he had been hoping Mary would give him.
The two went off, arm in arm, walking on clouds. Mary pulled away from the strange man.
“My name is actually Mary,” she told him.
“And my name is Henry,” he said. “I do profusely apologize for my unforgivably forward behavior.”
“No need,” Mary smiled. “I think you did me a favor as much as I did you.”
He smiled back, and his whole face lit up. They stood there awkwardly for a moment. The band stopped playing and in the silence, she groped for words, something sensible to say. Then music started up again, a lively waltz that moved one’s feet without consent.
“Would you care to dance?” Henry asked, holding out his hand.
Habit made Mary smile and nod, then she frowned and stepped back. “No, actually. I hate dancing. It seems quite pointless, and I’m not any good at it.”
She thought he was going to be put off. Instead he laughed. “I thought I was the only one.”
He looked at her, genuinely interested. “Would you like to see the gardens then? I’ve heard King Robert has the most fantastic collection of nymphs in his pool.”
“I’d like that,” Mary smiled.
She took the arm he offered her and they made their way through the crowd of happy, overly dressed, and slightly drunk people. The pair ascended the stairs and passed under the huge arching doorway into the crisp night air.
Mary turned and looked back for a brief second. She found Tobias and his mystery contact easily. They were standing by the champagne fountain, engrossed in the little velvet pouch. Mary wondered what was in it, then decided she didn’t need to know. It was probably some stupid party favor, like a silly hat or a top that wouldn’t spin properly.
“Something the matter?” Henry inquired.
“No,” Mary said, then laughed. “I’m very pleased to have an excuse to go.”
“Me too,” Henry agreed. “I think the pool is this way.”
They headed down the brick path into the darkness. They were just about to step onto the grass when an explosion made them spin and gape. The stream of purple and sliver sparks that shot out of the windows lit up the night, and then the place began to crumble, the stone falling in silent waves and disappearing in a hazy shimmer. In a moment, nothing was left to show King Robert of Hamfordshire had ever had a home here.
“What just happened?” Mary said, her voice eerie in the still and empty night.
“Maybe it was the strawberry tarts?” Henry suggested.