Nic had decided that he didn’t like parties.
Or at least not this party. So far as he understood the concept, parties were supposed to be fun. This party was not fun. This party was nothing but an endless parade of confusion, frustration, and good old-fashioned embarrassment.
For a while Nic had wandered the main hall, trying to figure out what he was supposed to be doing. Conversation was out the window as, of the two people he knew here, one apparently hated him, and the other had vanished without a trace. The rest were all strangers, Nic never having even heard of, let alone met, a single one of them.
Though the same could not be said of the reverse. No matter where Nic went he found people watching him. Some made the effort to be coy about it but most openly stared, muttering, and pointing as he passed. A few made a point of introducing themselves, but it would be a stretch to say they conversed. That would have required more than a handful of words being uttered, the lion’s share of them by the stranger half of the exchange. Mostly he would nod his way through whatever they said until being released back into the wild where everyone could continue to gawk at him.
The whole thing left Nic in a strange state, vaguely troubled as to why everyone was so interested in him. He couldn’t shake the feeling that a joke was being made at his expense, but he also could detect no malice in anyone’s words. Everyone seemed genuine in their words, perhaps even intrigued, they simply refused to explain why and at this point Nic was too afraid to ask. All he could do was continue wandering, giving the people what they wanted and suffering the bafflement.
It might not have been so bad if he wasn’t also starving. He hadn’t eaten since lunch; the invitation having given him the impression that food would be served. This did indeed turn out to be the case, a small legion of gaudy automatons patrolling the crowd with trays of drinks and succulents. Just the sight and smell of them was mouth-watering, infinitely better than anything Greytower’s drab autochef had ever expelled.
Not for him though it seemed. Every time Nic tried to approach one of the automatons, something would happen to thwart him. A sudden surge in the crowd, a convenient emptying of every tray in grabbing range, a loud drunken upset by an overeager guest, and once Nic swore an automaton had just flatly turned around and walked the other direction, not even pretending it was doing otherwise. Nic suspected an organized effort to deny him food. Though that could just be his hunger and annoyance talking.
After many attempts, Nic finally gave up and retreated to one of the less populated corners. It felt as if he’d been here for hours, his feet sore from standing and the constant game of appetizer keep away. Glancing at his chrono, Nic was dismayed to discover this to be a gross overestimation. Not even an hour had passed and that was only if he rounded up. Thinking about it, he didn’t even know how long Master Orlin was planning to keep them here. He’d seen neither hide nor hair of his teacher since the elder Worthington had led him away.
Looking back out on the crowds, Nic felt another bout of that overwhelming sensation he’d gotten at the front door. Worse this time, feeling like a enormous wave poised to come crashing down upon him. A few people continued their fascinated stares, seemingly finding no end of fascination in his distress.
Not even an hour. What a fun night he was having.
Noticing another pair of people making moves to approach him, Nic decided he’d had about enough of crowds. He turned away from the main floor, skirting around its edge until he found an open door and passed through. It opened into another large chamber, a lesser imitation of the main hall and no less packed for it. He felt the stares here as well and so carried on, passing again through the first door that presented itself.
He continued this tactic for many minutes, having not the slightest idea where he was going, simply following where the press of people was lightest. It carried him through a series of progressively smaller rooms, though that was a very relative term in this house. No single room seemed content to be anything less than cavernous, sprawling out over vast distances like a flood of polished marble and woodwork. Even the mere connecting spaces could easily fit his entire childhood apartment inside them with room to spare. Even the crowd failed to keep up with such vastness, its roar fading away steadily as Nic encountered fewer and fewer people.
Finally, blessedly, he found himself alone with naught but calm and quiet to accompany him. Nic was entirely fine with that, feeling some of the tension fade from his shoulders. He hadn’t realized just how wound up he’d been back there and was suddenly very glad this place was so massive. He was still ravenously hungry of course but he’d take whatever victories he could.
Lacking anything better to do, Nic pressed on. Passing into what he thought was another hallway, he instead found it to be a large sunroom, one wall entirely made up of glass doors. They lay open to the night air outside, letting in a heady aroma of earth and flowers and lingering hints of sunbaked stone. Curious, Nic changed course and followed the scent and discovered, to both his awe and complete lack of surprise, a small forest sitting beyond.
It looked not unlike the surrounding countryside, filled with lush full trees, expertly crafted flower gardens and long walking paths of stone tiles. Lights, statues, fountains, and benches lay dotted among them all, walking the perfect balance between utility and invisibility. Looking up, Nic saw the soaring arc of a glass dome, just visible against the night sky thanks to the slightest distortion of star and moonlight. A biosphere, he realized, handily explaining why the air still felt so warm despite ostensibly being outside. All the benefits of a garden stroll without having to deal with any of that pesky nature. It carried through in most every other regard as well. Everywhere he looked, Nic saw the fingerprints of intervention and alteration. Every leaf, every flower, every blade of grass in this place had been carefully and specifically arranged. Nothing here grew as it would have, certainly not as it wanted to.
A strange hush hung in the air as Nic stepped over the threshold, as unnatural as everything else. Even growing up in a city, Nic knew that nature was never this quiet. There were supposed to be birds, insects, shuffling leaves, wind whistling through the trees. Here there was nothing. Just the hum of machinery and the crunch of his own footsteps against the path. Once again, Nic found himself feeling out of place, standing in the middle of somewhere he didn’t belong.
At least that fit the theme for the evening. It was difficult for Nic to imagine that he’d ever been excited about coming here. In retrospect, it had been obvious from the start that this wasn’t the kind of place that people like him went. The highest society he’d ever reached before today was putting take out food on a plate before eating it. He knew nothing about how these people lived and even less about doing it himself. He was the outsider looking in, no matter how itchy a suit he squeezed into.
“The hells am I doing here?” Nic asked no one.
“How am I supposed to know?”
If there’s been a ceiling nearby, Nic had no doubt he’d have leapt up to it. He settled instead for leaping out of his skin, eyes darting from shadow to shadow as he tried to locate the speaker through a haze of flight or fight instinct. When no persons immediately presented themselves, Nic began to calm, though never fully dropped his guard as he continued scanning his surroundings for an explanation.
What he found instead was a statue. It depicted a tall knight, garbed in plate armor festooned with ribbons and heraldry. Though it possessed no face, the head covered by a helmet, the detail was so intricate that the figure almost looked too perfect to be carved. Almost as if a real person had been petrified in place and left to decorate this quiet corner of the house. But that would have been ridiculous. Surely not even a high techne could get away with something like that.
“Uh, hello?” Nic said to the statue. “Were you just talking to me?”
“Up here genius.”
This time Nic retained enough of his wits to realize that the voice was coming from above. Looking up, he spotted a stout tree rising from the earth to the left of the statue, its pruned branches thick with leaves. At first Nic couldn’t see anything else, briefly wondering if it was somehow the tree talking instead. Then a branch was suddenly pushed aside and Nic almost wished that were the case.
The Lady started back at him from within the leafy depths. She looked no less regal than she had on the main floor, somehow managing to make being perched on a tree branch look dignified. She considered him with a sharp expression, her eyes looking straight through Nic without betraying so much as a shred of her own thoughts. Intimidating didn’t even begin to describe it.
“Oh,” Nic said, his voice cracking. “Sorry, I just thought, uh…” He suddenly realized he didn’t want to finish this sentence.
“That the statue was actually a petrified man, calling out from his eternal prison?”
“Of course not,” She smirked, small and dagger-like.
A silence settled between them, disquieting on Nic’s part as the Lady continued to stare straight through him. Like everyone else she seemed to be assessing him, judging some unknown quality. The difference lay in the fact that rather than annoyance, Nic found himself feeling anxious. For some reason he found himself caring what this girl might think of him. The feeling distressed him, to say the least.
Before he could fully parse this thought, the silence was broken by his stomach. It groaned, low, long and cannon-like in the biosphere’s still air. There was no chance of pretending it hadn’t happened, the gastric note too strong to be ignored as it stretched on and on and on. When at last it passed with an encore gurgle, Nic was seriously considering how he might best burrow into the ground to escape.
“I uh, I didn’t have dinner,” Nic said, deciding the truth couldn’t possibly make things any worse.
The Lady said nothing, instead slipping forward off her perch and landing gracefully on her feet, every part of her seeming to land in perfect place. Nic was so stunned by the display that he didn’t even notice the Lady reach into a hidden fold of her dress and produce an object wrapped in shiny foil.
“Here,” she said, holding it out to him. “Hope you like almonds.”
Nic took the offering, hesitating only a moment before ripping it open to reveal a square bar of granola. The prospect of food overrode his anxiety and he bit into it, savoring the taste as he chewed, barely remembering to swallow between mouthfuls. He’d devoured half before remembering that he wasn’t alone, looking up to find the Lady watching him with a smirk. At least it seemed more amused than judging this time.
“Thank you,” Nic said.
“Food inside not to your taste?”
It was Nic’s turn to laugh, a single bark of darkest, bitterest mirth. “I’ll let you know soon as I manage to catch some. I swear those robots are playing keep away.”
The Lady chuckled. “What, the dolls? They couldn’t think their way out of a square room if you pointed them at the door.”
Nic blew out his lips before taking another bite of his bar. “Could’ve fooled me.”
“Clearly they did.”
That should have stung but Nic instead found himself chuckling right along with her amused smile. Silence returned between them, though he found it far less awkward than before. His question to break it was less out of desperation and more out of genuine curiosity.
“I uh, didn’t catch your name.”
“You didn’t ask,” the Lady replied, raising an eyebrow.Well, she had him there. Hoping against everything he wasn’t about to screw this up royally, he extended his hand towards her to offer a handshake.
“Hi, Nicholas Greytower, may I ask your name lady?”
By pity or otherwise, the Lady accepted the gesture, reaching out to grasp his hand. Her skin was cool against his own, with a grip that was surprisingly strong, the two together making it feel as if he were shaking hands with tempered steel.
“Isabella Hemlock,” she said. “A pleasure to meet you.”
“Same,” Nic said, reminding himself to let go before it became weird. “It’s nice to actually meet someone at this thing.”
“Party not to your taste either?” Isabella asked.
Nic made no effort to hide his annoyed grumble. “You could say that.”
“I wouldn’t. You’re quite the topic of conversation tonight.”
Nic cast her a confused look, trying to parse how serious she was being. “I can’t even begin to imagine why.”
“You’re interesting,” Isabella said cryptically.
“I’m not that interesting.”
“And that’s exactly why you are.”
Before Nic could ask just what the hells that meant, a new voice slithered its way in.
“Izzy, there you are. We’ve been looking for you.”
For a fraction of a second, Isabella’s composed mask cracked, showing just the slightest of grimaces before vanishing, replaced by a calm exterior as she turned to the newcomer. Nic did the same and his stomach dropped the second he caught sight of who it was. Arthur Worthington approached from one of the many paths, a smug smile hanging from his lips that Nic found himself instinctively despising. A gaggle of people followed close behind him, other teenagers about their age, dressed in all manner of wealth and privilege.
“Lord Worthington,” Isabella said, curt and polite, hands folded over her front. Nic said nothing, simply squaring his shoulders as he stood next to her.
“Izzy, how many times must I tell you to call me Arthur?”
“At least once more it seems.”
Arthur laughed, a forced imitation of his father’s. “Always ready with the wit, aren’t you my dear?”
“As you keep saying.”
It was a struggle for Nic to hold his tongue. The tone of everything here was not outwardly hostile but even he wasn’t dense enough to miss the low tension hanging in the air. Arthur either didn’t notice or didn’t care as he closed the distance between them with several quick strides. He stopped just short of pushing Nic aside, making his presence clear to all involved. His crew followed with him like so many shadows, forming a half ring behind them that cut off any easy escape.
“Unrelated,” Arthur continued. “But we’re having a bit of a gathering after the party clears out.” He gestured at his gang. “Just a few friends, something a bit closer, you could say. Was wondering if you might join us?”
Moving no more than needed, Isabella shook her head. “I appreciate the thought, but I’m afraid I must decline.”
Somehow the smugness on Arthur’s face only got stronger, looking at Isabella like she were a stubborn child. “You’re breaking my heart Izzy? It is my birthday, you know.”
“I am aware.”
“Surely, I can tempt you. It will be quite the soiree I can assure you.” He paused, glancing at Nic in the first acknowledgement he’d been given. “Better company as well.”
That was enough to push Nic over the edge. He stepped forward, regaining some of the lost distance Arthur had taken, making sure everyone involved could see him.
“Hey, pretty boy, she said no. Go bother someone else.”
A pall of annoyance fell over Arthur’s face as he turned to look at Nic.
“Greytower. You just keep showing up where you’re not welcome, don’t you?”
“Last I checked, I was invited,” Nic said, bravado springing from nowhere.
Arthur laughed, his entourage parroting the sound automatically. He turned to the nearest of them, leaning in close but utterly failing to whisper his words.“Well, we all must suffer incompetents, yes?”
Nic fought to contain his anger as Arthur closed the distance between the two of them until he was well inside arms reach. Nic held his ground against the display, refusing to be intimidated.
“Run along little foundling. Izzy and I are talking.”
“Pretty sure that’s news to her.”
Arthur sighed, true anger finally showing through on his face.
“You have some nerve slum dog. Don’t think for a second that you stand among equals here. Why Master Orlin thought it a good idea to pluck you from whatever trash heap he found you on is beyond me. We can only hope that one day he’ll regain his senses and toss you back there.”
Arthur raised a single finger, pressing it into Nic’s chest.
“Now run along before-”
Thinking back on it later, Nic couldn’t say for sure what prompted him to throw the punch. Maybe it was the brazen insult, to himself and everyone else from his home. Maybe it was the more subtle one at Master Orlin. Maybe it was the physical contact and the implied threat. Or maybe it was the fact that Arthur just had such an extremely punch-able face and Nic had grown tired of looking at it.
The specific reason didn’t really matter as, in the end, the result was the same. Without thinking, Nic balled his hand into a fist, drew back and drove it into Arthur Worthington’s left cheek. It wasn’t a good punch, hitting bone at a bad angle, but the young Lord Worthington staggered back all the same. He would have lost his feet entirely had his entourage not been there to catch him.
“What was that?” Nic asked. “Didn’t quite catch it.”
For a moment Arthur stood stunned, gingerly poking at the tender flesh as a welt began forming, his expression shocked and bug-eyed. Then, something else slowly began to spread across his face, a wicked smile growing with all the power of an avalanche. Nic couldn’t identify what it was, but the look made his stomach drop and he suspected that he’d just made a terrible mistake.
It was Nic’s turn to be stunned, blinking several times as he tried to match words with meaning. He came up empty, having not the slightest idea what Arthur was talking about.
“…what?” Nic asked.
Arthur straightened up, arranging himself as best he could around the fist shaped imprint on his cheek.
“I accept your challenge Greytower.”
He turned around addressing the garden at large. Shifting his gaze to follow, Nic’s confusion turned to worry as he realized that a crowd had materialized around them since he’d last looked. Dozens of people lurked at the margins of awareness, all of them watching the exchange with rapt attention.
“Listen everyone!” Arthur called. “The apprentice of Greytower has issued a challenge of honorable duel! I accept his issue!”
An excited murmur shot through the crowd, prompting more stares and gestures. After taking a moment to bask in it, Arthur turned back to Nic with the smuggest smile he had yet donned.
“We will be in touch, Greytower. May the best man win.”
With that, he turned on his heel and walked off, dragging his gang with him. The crowd parted as he passed, many following in his wake. What remained dissolved into chattering and laughing amongst themselves at a new joke they seemed unwilling to share. Flailing about in confusion, Nic turned to Isabella, the closest thing he had to a friend right now.
“What just happened?”
“I believe you struck Worthington in the face,” she said, unhelpfully.
“You know what I mean!”
“I assumed you knew what you were doing.”
“Clearly not!” Nic snapped, louder than he’d intended.
Isabella’s gaze fell upon him, looking genuinely puzzled. A slow, dawning realization spread across her face in turn, both genuinely shocked and perhaps just a little amused.
“You seriously don’t know?”
“No,” Nic snapped, annoyance getting the better of him. “I’m just pretending for fun!”
Isabella chuckled, at what Nic dreaded might be at his expense. “It’s quite simple. You have challenged the young Worthington to a duel in defense of my honor.”
Nic opened his mouth to respond before realizing his brain had forgotten how words worked. He tried several times to get something out, coming up short again and again until finally he managed to string together enough syllables and speak.
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