Chapter 24: A Night to Remember
Kwado donned a smart three-piece suit and tie that the baron had custom tailored for him after his first month living at the estate. At the time, Kwado thought it an overly grand gesture and told the baron there would hardly be a time when he needed it. However, the baron, who it seemed was wise in all things, had insisted that every man should have a decent suit at the ready. "For you never know when such occasion might strike that you need to look your absolute best.”
As Kwado entered the main parlor, where men and women from all around the duchy mingled, he thought wiser words had never been spoken. He had freshly sanded down the calloused bumps around his knuckles and shoulders and pulled his hair in a bun so that his wig might fit just right.
The room fell silent as he entered, and he stopped dead in his tracks, hovering by the doorway and nervously eyeing the intimidating gathering of northwestern Malakar aristocracy. He placed a folded arm at the base of his back and the other by his waist, offering the room a deep bow. As he lowered his head, there was the unmistakable sound of a woman gasping. Perhaps this had been a bad idea? He took a step back, ready to retreat down the hallway and into the safe confines of his room.
“Vincent!” Baron Frankel broke free from a group of men, all sporting varying versions of his own white beard. “My dear lad, it’s so good to see you up and about!” He threw an arm around Kwado, purposefully blocking his retreat and pulling him deeper into the room.
The silence that seemed to drag on for an eternity was suddenly broken, burst like a dam and replaced by conversation, leaving Kwado to wonder if he had just imagined the lengthy pause.
“I’ve been helping out in the kitchen,” Kwado said.
“You have?” Baron Frankel looked genuinely surprised. “That is excellent news, indeed. I believe you’ve set a new record for breaking Miss Hawfuk’s determination. You will have to tell me just how you satiated that woman’s ire. How are you feeling? Better, I hope.”
“Much better, sir, thank you,” Kwado said.
“Ah, so this is the famous Vincent we have all heard so much about,” said a plump man with a crown of black hair around his bald head. He held a drink in one hand and waved for them to approach.
“Come, Vincent, it is high time you met some of the local gentry,” the baron said, pulling him into the crowd.
Kwado was introduced to many new faces—Blaffet of Yargel; Erik of Stelm; Madame Tussat, heiress of a small fortune in cattle; and an extremely wealthy merchant named Holgin, who owned a whole fleet of shipping vessels that traveled back and forth between the Godash Isles.
From one group to the next, Kwado was dragged, always receiving the same greetings. They had heard so much about him. “The troll that was civilized”, “the kind monster”, “the tamed beast.” At first he liked the attention, the smiling faces and probing questions. But gradually he began to notice that the baron’s guests’ smiles never made it to their eyes. He began to understand that most of the nobles were only feigning courtesy, cowed by the baron’s presence, while their eyes told a different story. They looked at him as if he were a sideshow, secretly wondering when he might tear off his jacket and turn on the crowd of people, guessing at how many humans he had eaten before coming to the baron.
One of the women was even so bold as to ask him as much.
“Vincent is a vegetarian,” Baron Frankel interjected kindly.
“A what now?” the woman said, pressing a hand to her face and moving away from him.
“A vegetarian, ma’am,” Kwado said. “I only eat vegetables, no meat.”
“That sounds horrid,” her husband said with a rousing laugh that several people joined in. Kwado added his own voice to their amusement, playing along with the joke he had heard a hundred times before. All the while he searched the crowd for Margerite, but there was still no sign of her.
“I say, Baron, have you heard word of the situation with the southern isles?” Holgin asked.
“I don’t put much stock in rumors,” Baron Frankel said.
Holgin’s upper lip twitched. “As sure as sunshine in the afternoon, I can assure you they are more than that. The tuleri clans are being slapped with embargos left and right.”
Kwado could not remember a time when Baron Frankel looked more troubled. “But how can the king expect to receive southern resources to get to Malakar without the tuleri’s flying ships?”
Holgin looked either way then leaned close and spoke in a low voice. “Rasputin has told me the king is commissioning a fleet of his own flying ships.”
Baron Frankel looked aghast. “And cut out the tuleri entirely? But that’s preposterous. How can their clans survive without those trade agreements?”
“Indeed,” Holgin lamented.
A footman marched through the room, lightly drumming a copper xylophone to announce the first round of food was being served, which was just as well, since the entire conversation was way over Kwado’s head. The room shifted all at once, a flurry of eager faces as swells of guests funneled out on either end. Kwado stood taller than most of the gathering and easily scanned their faces until only a few remained.
Baron Frankel patted his back. “Don’t worry, chap. I’ve already arranged with Pousin that there be a seat set aside for you at my table.”
Kwado bowed politely and followed the baron out of the main building and onto the lawn, where several wide orange tents were set up. Scores of guests already crowded the rows of long tables inside them, and he was surprised to find the floors of the tents covered in exquisite overlapping rugs of every color and pattern. The tables were covered in one long white tablecloth that looked as if it could fit straight over the estate and back around the other side. Chandeliers made from the antlers of selk hung from a long wooden beam set at the top of the tent, ivory cups beneath each candle to catch and cool the melting wax. True to his word, Pousin had done an excellent job reserving a seat for Kwado, even ensuring it was large enough that he did not have to rub shoulders with those around him.
Kwado scanned the seats at the baron’s table. “Where are your niece and nephew?” he asked quietly, trying to sound disinterested.
“Hmm?” the baron said, tucking in his chair. “Oh, it’s customary for the general of the feast to dine in his own tent with his men. A last supper, of sorts.”
The somber Madame Tussat broke into a capricious grin as she overheard their conversation. “I believe the tradition began so that none of the men would be embarrassed if they cried in front of their sponsors before heading out for war.”
Kwado gave the baron and Madame polite nods, but his mind was already elsewhere. He peered down the length of the table to his right, past the scores of guests settling into their seats, and out the far entrance of their tent. He thought he caught a glimpse, for only a second, of scarlet hair in the neighboring pavilion before the footmen closed the flap for dinner. He sighed, but the baron did not catch it.
Dinner proved to be just as tiresome as the preceding events, with his neighboring dinner guests feeling it was their duty to question Kwado extensively. What does a troll eat? What is it like living in a house for you? How did you learn to speak the common tongue? And on and on, until Kwado’s face hurt from wearing a false smile.
Before the main course, the baron gave a formal toast to his nephew and the kingdom’s victory in the upcoming skirmish. Glasses were raised and sentiments declared, though none of those in attendance would be anywhere near the field of battle. Kwado finally figured out the real reason to separate the men going to war from the rest of the guests. It was okay for one to march to battle in the name of the guests’ freedom and country, but in poor taste to be forced to stare at them, knowing many of the soldiers would not be returning. One could only wear false smiles for so long, after all.
By the time the long six-course meal ended, Kwado felt as if he had grown a second stomach. The last of the plates were taken away and the four sides of the tent rolled up, so that a welcome evening breeze worked through the pavilions. It gusted and took a section of tablecloth up and over some of the guests’ heads. Everyone was too deep in their drink to do anything other than laugh, though one lady was positively mortified.
“Looks like your little soiree might get rained out,” Blaffet said.
The baron agreed, but most of the younger folk had already moved to the dancing carpets, where the minstrels were playing and lines of guests were swaying back and forth, switching partners in an exotic formation that Kwado thought resembled a flock of peacocks strutting over snapping clamshells. He quickly slipped away from the nobles, to the back of a crowd of onlookers, watching the dancers and listening to the music. Here he could tap his feet and bob his head in time to the beat, as close as he wanted to get to the dancing. The idea of moving in those strange formations was more terrifying to Kwado than hand-to-hand combat with an ogre, but he delighted in watching the guests move like little marionettes all the same. His mind drifted to a memory of the village celebration, in the Barn with Bethany. He pictured her laughing face as they twirled around in circles, the villagers clapping their hands in celebration.
The lawn suddenly lurched up at him, and Kwado thought he might be sick, the image of a burning skull in the ruins of a chapel seared across his mind’s eye. Nobody noticed as he quietly slipped away, making a beeline for the main house with a fevered haste. His hands felt cold and clammy and his vision blackened around the edges. Am I having a panic attack? He wondered.
The sounds of merriment grew distant and muffled as he entered the house. He placed a hand on the wall to steady himself and climbed the stairs, worried he might he might black out. Deep breaths in through his nose, filling his belly, slow breaths out though his mouth—this was the routine he’d learned to apply when such bouts came over him. After several rounds his vision flattened around the edges, and the spinning subsided. Kwado grasped the rail at the top of the steps and pushed his wig back to scratch the hair around his scalp.
The door opened and closed behind him, sounds of the party slipping in for a moment. “Vincent!” Margerite said. She was breathing heavily, as if she had been running.
“Oh…hello, Margerite,” he said, quickly wiping the sweat from his forehead and pulling his wig back in place crookedly.
“I was calling you all the way across the lawn.” Her cheeks were flushed and she was still panting. “Why didn’t you stop?”
“I am sorry,” he said. “If you were calling me, I certainly did not hear it.”
Margerite pulled up the skirt of her dress with one hand and held the other out to him for assistance. “Good. I’d hate to think you were trying to avoid me.” He reached down and helped her up the remaining steps. “Where were you off to anyhow? You looked like you had seen a ghost.”
Kwado shook his head, letting go of her hand once she reached the top step. “It’s nothing really…just bad memories.”
Margerite hooked her arm through his. “Oh, is it about what happened to you? Uncle told me about your village. It’s so sad…all those people....”
“You were asking him about me?” Kwado said.
She smiled. “Yes, but he wasn’t too keen on discussing your personal details. He just said, ‘It’s Vincent’s story to share.’”
She made her voice sound like Baron Frankel, and Kwado chuckled. He felt more relaxed as they walked into the main parlor. He paused at the doorway. The room was empty. “Oh, I suppose everyone is outside enjoying the music.”
“That’s alright,” she said, pulling away from him and cupping his hands in her own. “We can make our own party inside.”
She leaned back, pulling him toward her and they spun in a circle to the dim sound of music creeping in through the half opened windows. He did his best to keep up with her and not crush her toes, but she moved so gracefully that he found it difficult. When he caught her foot, she just leaned her head all the way back in a throaty laugh that he found infectious. There was a pause in the music in which they stood alone in the parlor, laughing at each other. Then the band shifted, and a slow melody came through the window. It was a song meant for lovers.
The way Margerite looked at him made butterflies flutter in Kwado’s stomach. He quickly snapped his gaze to the carpet and started to shuffle away from her. He felt her hand enter his again and looked up just as Margerite pressed her head against his lower chest. They stood like that, rocking gently side to side, half hug, half slow dance. The scent of her hair was wildly intoxicating, like jasmine and honey beneath a full moon. Kwado’s blood pumped hot and his heart beat harder. He felt drunk as they slowly drew a circle on the carpet and worried she could hear how excited he was with her ear pressed against his chest.
As if in answer, halfway into the song she gazed up at him, her tiny chin resting in the crook of his chest. Their swaying stopped. Kwado’s breath caught in his throat—the look in her eyes was too much for him to handle.
She reached up on tiptoes and pressed her lips against his, and the whole world sang in brilliant colors and melodies.
Kwado broke free, staggering away from Margerite, who suddenly looked very much like a wounded deer. “We can’t,” he said breathlessly, holding up his hands. “The baron…your brother…”
Margerite held her chin high and strode forward, wrapping her arms around as much of him as she could manage. “Do not decide what I do. To hell with them! They don’t run my life.”
This time when she locked lips with him, Kwado did not try to deny his desires, losing himself instead in the delirium of the moment. They kissed passionately for long minutes. It was like the world had closed around them and they came to exist in their own little pocket of time, the sound of music and laughter only background noise. Hot blood coursed through Kwado’s body and conflicting emotions hammered away in his skull.
“Come with me,” Margerite whispered in his ear.
She spun around and pulled him by one hand down the hallway, turning to laugh over her shoulder as they ran together. Her eyes flashed sapphire through the unlit hall, and Kwado thought he could follow her anywhere.
But when Margerite opened the door to her bedchamber, he stopped short, reality hitting him like a hammer. He shook his head and moved back, or attempted to, but Margerite seized his arm with both hands and tugged at him. He knew it was foolish, that it was not proper, but Kwado went inside anyhow, pressing the door closed behind him.
Margerite had his jacket and vest off in no time and tore his shirt open so fast that some of the buttons popped right off. Kwado stood there, numbly watching her.
“Don’t just gape like that,” Margerite said lustily. “Take me.”
Kwado frowned at her.
She stopped and studied his eyes, then her own widened and a wicked smile splayed across her face. “No? Are you—?”
His silence was response enough.
Margerite grasped both of his hands and placed them gently on her hips. “That’s okay, I’m sure you’ll figure out what goes where.”
He worked his hands over her sides and they began kissing again, followed by her nibbling his ear lobe on tiptoes and running her tongue down his bare chest.
Rain pattered the window, tiny drops at first then whole sheets of it. In the back of his mind, Kwado thought that must be a good thing, as any guests that might come by would not hear them. Margerite had her legs wrapped around his waist, and he held her up, wildly kissing every inch of her arched neck, his fingers running through her hair. Her skin tasted like caramel. Margerite ran her nails sharply across his back, breaking the skin, and though it stung, the feel of it exhilarated him.
Kwado growled, and she squealed. “Oh yes, you animal.”
He grunted and tossed her on the bed, bending over her with lust in his eyes. He scarcely heard the door open behind them.
“Margerite?” someone said casually. Her name turned to a sharp hiss in Todrick’s throat, followed by a snarl. “What is this?”
Kwado quickly hopped off the bed and held up his hands. Todrick stood in the door frame, his hand already moving to the polished saber at his belt.
“It’s not what it looks like,” Kwado said. “We can explain. We were just…talking.”
“You depraved little cow,” Todrick snapped at Margerite, his face screwed up in disgust. She clutched the bedspread to her breasts and looked positively mortified. “With a troll?”
Margerite’s eyes filled with tears, and she looked back and forth between them like a cornered rabbit. Her brother glared at her with the utmost revulsion, like her body was smeared in shat and maggots. She suddenly thrust a finger toward Kwado. “He threw himself on me!”
Kwado’s mouth dropped open, the room spinning.
“You cur,” Todrick screamed, turning back to him. The saber whistled out of its sheath in a flash of steel, and he rushed Kwado.
“No, please, it’s not like that,” Kwado yelled.
But it was too late, Todrick was upon him. The blade cut deep into Kwado’s thigh, and his howl filled the room. The sound of it was deeply primal, the rage of a beast. Kwado’s hand moved of its own accord, backhanding Todrick across the face, the force of the blow powerful enough to send him hurling into the armoire. The sound of his head cracking into the splintered wood was loud, like a broken stone. Todrick’s shaky glare tightened on Kwado, that bloodlust alive and screaming for the troll’s head. Then his eyes rolled back and he slumped to the floor.
Kwado stared at his unmoving body in shock.
Margerite threw herself off the bed and lifted her brother’s head in her arms. “Todrick! Oh no, my brother, my poor brother!” She was hysterical, a steady stream of tears pouring out of her. She looked up at Kwado with terror and hatred. “What did you do? Oh, you despicable monster!”
Kwado held up his hands and backed away.
A soldier ran down the hall, throwing his shoulder against the door. It swung open the rest of the way and more footsteps rushed in behind him. The soldier quickly took in the scene—Margerite looking ravished and half naked, her brother bleeding from the head and lying on the floor at the troll’s feet. His eyes centered on Kwado and grew dark. There was murder there. This man was not like Todrick. He had killed before, many times in many battles. His weapon came out and more soldiers came into view behind him.
“No, I…,” Kwado pleaded.
He heard the baron’s voice coming down the hall. He sounded deeply distressed, commanding the soldiers to get out of his way. Kwado looked from the soldier to Margerite sobbing over her brother, her shirt pulled halfway down.
The soldier lunged forward, but Kwado was already jumping backward, straight into the glass window. His immense girth tore the wooden frame to pieces, and glass shattered all around him. Somehow he managed to turn and hit the ground on hands and knees, two stories down, driving the saber deeper into his thigh.
Kwado howled again, this time loud enough for the band in the pavilion to stop playing. He could not see them through the heavy rain, and none of the patrons who were drunk enough to stay outside under the enclosed tent could see him either, but he heard a hysteria run through them. Wrenching the saber from his thigh, he tossed it into the bushes and fled into the apple orchard.
Margerite was wailing from above, inside the house, and Kwado dared to look back only once. He thought he saw the baron looking out the window after him, but the sound of men rallying and dogs braying drove him onward. He had killed Todrick, become the murderer they always believed him to be. A monster. He could never face the baron again.