Two cars park on the overpass, rocks hit the water like broken glass. I shoulda known right then it was too good to last, God, it’s such a drag to have to live in the past.
Seryl 10th, 1513 – Carico Estate, Lothianshire, Albion
“If you don’t mind my saying… you are an idiot, brother dear. I love you. But you’re an idiot.” A voice whispered in Josh’s ear, causing him to jump and almost slam the library door.
Being a year older certainly hadn’t softened his sister any. Well, with Bet, he supposed that was only to be expected. He was a thin cover of fragile marble laid over a marshmallow center, Elizabet was diamond from the core out, only her physical appearance usually granted her any softness at all.
Tonight, however, even the usual softness granted to her by her hair and the clothing she wore had been traded for something else. Her costume, that of Lady Morgan le Fay, added an extra physical hardness to her. She certainly was shades of a legend in it, but if there was something that the Lady Morgan of legend and Elizabet shared, it was a distinct lack of the appellation “soft”.
“How,” his voice cracked slightly. He coughed into his hand and tried again. “How do you mean?”
“This is just like you, Josh. Just go in and talk to him.” Elizabet shoved at his shoulder. “I promise nothing’s changed.”
“That’s what you think.” Josh muttered. Elizabet rolled her eyes.
“Okay, let me rephrase that, except what’s going on in here.” She paused to tap the side of Josh’s head with a long finger. “Nothing has changed with him. You’re a better host than that.” Josh was starting to feel like Benoit, that was to say lost, in what should be a simple conversation to follow. He’d been doing okay until that sharp left turn at the end there. “Darin came to my party because you asked, in fact I’m pretty sure, given how much he protested whenever the party came up in conversation, that you insisted that he come.”
She sighed. “So he came and his date is in the ballroom chatting up other people and he’s hiding in the library with Ri, only she at least is pretending that she is interested in that book of poetry she’s holding, and he’s staring at the Orkney crest on the wall.” Elizabet shook her head one of the flowers woven into the dark strands of her hair threatening to slide out. “It is your duty as host of this event–and as the person who invited him–to make sure that Darin has a good time. So.” She poked him hard through the sleeve of his doublet. “Oww.” She complained. “What do you keep under that thing, Josh? Rocks?” She wandered off still muttering about how nothing good could come from a birthday where she hurt her finger on her brother’s bicep.
“You have better manners than that, Joshua Piers!” She called from the dining room door, waggling a finger in his direction. She was right, of course, damn her. He did have better manners than that. But she didn’t understand.
It had all started in the reception line. He’d caught sight of Darin in his costume as Florian Carey, the later years steward of Earl Pellinore, a rather ironic choice, as Florian was said to have a very peculiar sense of humor and a distinct sense of whimsy. Darin, so far as Josh had ever seen, had no sense of humor and wouldn’t know whimsy if it bit him in the arse. He could never imagine Darin holding a record for being kicked out of the most taverns in his time in Albion, managing to even beat Captain Jessiah Andavri for the record!
The blonde wig didn’t suit him. Josh had decided as he nodded in response to whatever Lord Henry had just muttered to him, briefly losing sight of Darin to the huge puffed shoulders of Lady Henry’s costume. It made his face look sallow and drawn, contrasting badly with the dusky tone of his skin and reinforcing the hollow hopelessness that was almost always lurking in Darin’s blue eyes.
He needed–he needed… His mind was pulled back onto what he was supposed to be paying attention to, which was the receiving line, by the sound of Lady Henry simpering to his mother.
“Oh, Lady Marisol, I was so grieved to hear that Lord Jayson would be missing this. I know that Henry wouldn’t have missed our girls debuts for anything. I would half expect him to crawl out of the grave to be at Julia’s. Such a shame that he couldn’t make it back from Camelot in time.”
Josh’s mother was obviously trying to wrangle whatever sharp thing that had been building behind her teeth into something appropriate to say at a party when the tension was defused by an unlady-like snort from the woman behind Lady Henry in the receiving line.
“What?” Lady Henry turned, affronted.
“Oh, nothing, I am sure you are terribly grieved,” Madame Cox smiled as she gave Elizabet a hug. “I, unfortunately, have mixed feelings on the whole thing. It certainly is a shame that the baron will miss this.” She winked at Elizabet. “But it does mean that Masen is still in Camelot too, which kind of dries any tears I might have over the whole thing.” Elizabet covered her mouth with her hand, probably covering a giggle as well. Josh’s mother was too well schooled to smirk, but he thought he detected a hint of a smile at the corners of her lips too.
“Surely you wouldn’t stand for Master Masen missing your own daughter’s debut!” Lady Henry asked, planting her hands on her hips. Lord Henry was looking like he was praying for the ground to open up and swallow him whole.
“It would honestly depend on why he was missing it.” Madame Cox said, ignoring Lady Henry’s stance to lean in and kiss Marisol’s cheek. “After all, the universe is the Lord Wright’s to control and not ours. And certainly should it be fire, flood, or act of Wright that was preventing him from being there, he’d be excused in my eyes!” She fluttered her lashes in Lady Henry’s direction.
Lady Henry stormed off to where Lord Henry stood waiting looking like he still wanted to be swallowed by the paving stones, forgetting to say anything to Josh at all. “What?” She hissed at him.
“I told you not to get into that with Lady Marisol, Katherine. It’s not like she’d miss that it was a jab at her.” Lord Henry muttered before heading off toward the house, their murmured conversation fading as they went. Madame Cox, then the Captain and Mrs. Cox followed through without further incident when Josh caught sight of Darin and his date as well.
“You might as well come up, Darin, we’ve already spotted you.” Elizabet called to the pair at the bottom of the stairs. “And you’ll have to forgive me for asking who this lovely young lady you’re escorting is.”
“This is Eve Rose.” Darin said. Marisol’s eyebrow shot up as she looked over her shoulder at Josh who shrugged. Actually he had known that Darin was planning on inviting Eve, but there was no way to gently break that bit of information to his mother, so he would just pretend that he hadn’t known. Whether it worked was anyone’s guess.
“Rose–any relation to Reginald? Or to Guardsman Colby?” Elizabet asked curiously.
“Aye.” Eve said with a smile. It was Elizabet’s turn to look at Josh, only her expression was puzzled. He shrugged again. “They’re my brothers.”
“Oh–I didn’t know that Colby was related to Reginald.” Elizabet said faintly.
“We don’t make much of a deal of it. There are people,” Eve looked at the back of Miguel’s gaudy tunic as it was disappearing into the distance. “who would make it into something it isn’t. Call Colby’s loyalty to the guard into question when there’s no need for it. He wouldn’t do that.” Elizabet nodded in seeming understanding, probably actual understanding, if Josh could follow it, then Elizabet could more than likely follow it that much easier. Not for the first time he thought that River Sulis would have a much brighter future if there were some way that he could step aside and let his sister take the barony when their father died. The last thing this town needed was an idiot like him in a position of rank.
As Eve, Josh’s mother, and sister fell into easy discussion of the various costumes, Josh was pinned in place by Darin’s blue eyes. A wave of something that he had been trying–for months–to ignore or mislabel swept over him. And like a sharp slap to the face it was impossible to mistake it for anything else, that wave of lust, woven tight with softer things; hope, comfort, security, (love?) all wrapped up in a pulse of “want, want, want”. When that one single, perfect moment passed, between one heartbeat and the next, a second wave of much more familiar emotion rolled in: hopelessness, cowardice, panic on the verge of physical pain. Still, he had been trained from the cradle to keep up appearances, and so he murmured out some mechanical formula to Darin and then to Eve. They too turned down the path toward the house. All Josh wanted to do was run. But he couldn’t. It was Elizabet’s debut party and he, despite what he wanted, had a job to do. He was the host.
Still, that was what had lead to him standing out in the hallway lurking outside the library. Knowing that Darin was miserable and that it was his duty, his responsibility to make him happier or at least more comfortable–but–being a coward and as Bet so gently reminded him, an idiot. Oh, he didn’t want to mess up everything he’d built with Darin with him being stupid. Darin had forgiven him a lot, including everything that had happened that night, but he’d never forgive him for this. And Josh would never forgive himself if he ever let on.
But Darin saw right to the quick on so many things, how could he hide this from him?
He had hated himself lots and lots of times, but never more than in the stasis he found himself in standing outside the door to the library. The question “why” pounding in his head in time to the pounding of his heart. Why me? Why him? Why now? Why this? Why-why-why?
He took a step back as a group of his father’s contemporaries headed for the library–or maybe the balcony outside of it where they could smoke their pipes and talk about things that sometime in the next ten years society dictated would become the very most important things.
A moment later, the door to the library opened and Josh caught sight of a green sleeve, hurriedly he turned toward an arrangement of roses on a side table and began fiddling with the positioning.
Darin hesitated for a moment, but apparently the ruse worked, for he turned and wandered off in the direction of the bulk of the party. Still caught up in self-loathing, still hating himself for doing it, Josh followed along silent as a shadow and just as insignificant.
Darin seated himself on one of the gold settes in the corner of the room. Josh’s mother had been threatening for years to recover them, firmly of the opinion that the gold didn’t go–but she hadn’t found a fabric that she liked in their place, so there they stayed.
“There’s a seat open, Darin.” Dell said jerking his chin at the empty seat at one of the card tables. “Oww. What was that for?” He reached down to rub his right shin.
“For being stupid.” Severus said. Josh sighed to himself. Being stupid indeed.
“Are you sure?” Jules asked, looking over his shoulder.
“Nah, I’m not much of a poker player.” Liar, Josh thought, Darin was a helluva card sharp, Josh knew he played a lot with his own friends. He just didn’t play with Josh’s friends. It was just a lot of tutoring sessions to put into stakes. They thought nothing of tossing in a few silvers to a “friendly” game. Darin had to think of it, he didn’t have the luxury of thinking that money was unimportant.
“Besides, I’m more fascinated by the schoolteacher hustling the nun at billiards.” Darin joked, jerking his head toward where the Mrs. Coxes were playing an absolutely cutthroat game. Madame Cox laughed before turning toward Josh, who was still lurking in the doorway, eyebrow arched. Josh hurried into the room, trying not to look like he was hurrying. Somehow he didn’t think it worked to fool her. He dropped, hopefully casually, into the seat next to Darin.
“I meant to ask, Madame Cox, who are you supposed to be?” Charlie asked, turning in his chair to look over his shoulder.
“See, that’s the trouble with attempting to be clever,” she said to the room at large. “You never know if you’re succeeding in being clever or if you’re missing the mark. Heloise.”
“Heloise–the elder daughter of the first branch of Wesleyans in Albion. She’s a distant ancestor of mine or so the family legend goes.”
“The one who published all those scandalous treatises?”
“Aye.” Madame Cox said. “We both share a talent for saying things that are–mildly–scandalous.” Mrs. Cox choked. “Oh, c’mon, those books weren’t so bad.” She nudged the woman dressed in the nun’s habit with her elbow.
“Yes, Annette, they were!”
“They’re educational at the very least.” Madame Cox said blandly.
“I could have gone my whole life without that kind of education.” Mrs. Cox said primly. “It’s your turn.”
“So,” Josh said almost freezing again when Darin turned those heart-of-the-ocean blue eyes on him. “How you are doing?” Darin’s brow rose sharply, though it was half obscured by the blonde strands falling in his face.
“Words fail me.” Darin said. Aye, I was afraid of that. Josh thought.
“Hmmm. Well would you say it’s on par with the historical epic–or is it more like that Reman poetry recital?” Josh asked.
“More like that one time I walked into the hall by the salle and saw Brother Loki with his tongue in Brother Dustin’s mouth.” Darin told him blandly.
“Yeesh.” Josh said.
“Wait, you saw Loki kissing Dustin–and you didn’t tell us?” Edouard asked, slurring just slightly. His head was going to kill him in the morning. It was a good thing that they had the week off of courses. Of course it was no real surprise that he’d hit the bottle at any occasion. Josh didn’t know what he was drinking to forget, but he’d lay a month’s pocket money that whatever it was… it was something serious.
“…Aye.” Darin said after a long moment.
“I guess cause they–um–like each other? Why do most people kiss?” Josh couldn’t see Darin’s expression, but could hear his eyes rolling in his voice.
“No, I mean why didn’t you tell us?”
“Because I know what you’d likely do with the knowledge.” Darin asked. “C’mon, I’m the orphaned street rat, you’re the gentlemen. If I have the manners not to gossip and make fun of them, you should know better yourselves, but that’s never stopped you before. What business is it of any of ours if Loki and Dustin are–um–fond of each other?”
“Father Remi says that it’s a mortal sin.” Jules said rubbing the back of his neck.
Josh heard Darin’s sharp intake of breath and nudged him slightly. “Well, if Father Remi said that the sky was blue, I would probably go stick my head outside and check that it hadn’t turned green with violet spots before I believed it.” Darin said folding his arms over his chest and slumping back into the settee.
Josh leaned toward him and murmured “Nicely said.” by his ear. Darin glanced and him and shrugged again. Josh nodded and stared at his boots for a long moment, trying to pull his heart back out of his throat and into his chest where it belonged, feeling the hammering of his pulse to the soles of his feet. What am I going to do?