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A Winter's Ball

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The thing is, they probably should have said ‘no’.

“I didn’t go through all this adventuring shit just to get myself dragged back to high society,” Beau moans into a mouthful of crinoline. She slouches as deep as the narrow carriage seat will allow, eye-level with the first of Jester’s many layered skirts. Fjord grumbles as her new position presses him even farther into his own corner of the seat. His starched slacks and neat black coat hug his body without remorse for comfort, and he fiddles with his collar every few minutes, pulling at the button like he expects it to tighten into a noose at any moment.

On her other side, Jester is poised to tip out onto the thoroughfare. She leans over the side of the carriage, contorting her body to what must be a horribly uncomfortable angle to maintain her precarious grip on the wooden sideboards – too eager for the hours ahead to sit still, or to obey any of the carriage-master’s orders (which, until this point, have mainly consisted of variations on ‘stay in your gods-blessed seat or you’re walking the rest of the way’).

“Are we almost there?” she asks again, finally pulling herself back into the body of the carriage and facing the right way, giving Beau a moment of stress-free reprieve. Jester leans forward and sticks her head between the two women in the seat ahead of them. Sensing the disturbance, Allura turns back to face the rear of the carriage. She startles only a little to find herself nose to nose with Jester’s grinning face, before regaining her easy composure.

“Oh, trust me. You’ll know it when you see it,” she assures her. Jester is quickly forgotten as Allura places her arm around the carriage-master’s shoulder and pulls her in for a squeeze. “You’re excited, darling?”

“I was going to say no, but even a party’s better than dragging around this bunch of assholes.” Allura smiles fondly.

“That’s the spirit,” she says, and leans down to plant a kiss between two looped braids.

Oh yeah, the carriage-master? Also Allura’s wife, which, cool.

Beau pulls herself up out of her slump, turning around to look at the carriage that’s following theirs, and see if at least Caleb shares her misery at their current state. To her annoyance, he doesn’t look the least bit dejected. In fact, he’s hoisted himself out of the backseat of his own carriage at some point during their brief journey, and he and Yussa are sitting with heads bowed in the front bench, crowding out the poor driver as they converse and gesticulate, deep into a discussion that’s probably far better suited to a musty old library than a starlit, snowy night. She can’t really judge him for neglecting the scenery, though, considering how much of the ride she’s already wallowed away.

It’s not even that she doesn’t want to be here, really. It just… seems like she should be miserable. They don’t have time for this. Even with the Laughing Hand weakened, Obann is still out there, and Yasha…

Well, she’s not here, is she? And there’s nothing else to say there.

Nott and Caduceus make up the last passengers of their little entourage. With the backseat to themselves, Caduceus has his legs up on the bench, while Nott cranes her neck towards the cloud-swept sky and shows him how to catch snowflakes on his tongue. Beau almost grins at his bemused expression, before sinking back into a scowl.

They really don’t have time to just, to- to be happy. They don’t.

And yet, when Jester came bounding down the stairs into the kitchen with Allura’s invitation on her lips, with a time and a place and a chance to see Tal’Dorei holy shit… It was hard to muster a protest, at least not when she saw the way Jester shimmered with excitement at being asked. Besides, it’s rude to turn down a gift, as they say, and this trip was clearly meant as one. Better to stay in the good graces of the few honest wizards they know. At least, she’s adding that to the pile of bullshit reasons she’s giving herself for why she’s allowed to not feel guilty over this.

‘There is nothing quite so grand as a Winter’s Crest in Whitestone,’ Allura had promised as they stepped out of Yussa’s sitting room and into a blustery town square a continent away. ‘I think you’ll really enjoy it.’ And despite herself, Beau thinks she might be forced to. They could all use a break, any break, after so long on the move. And after so much shit that’s gone wrong, is it really so bad to just enjoy the sight of Jester doing figure eights in her poofy pink dress, lighting up the hallways of the Lavish Chateau as she dashed about to show off to anyone who would look, or to laugh as Fjord blustered his way through a fitting with a beefy Marquesian more suited to blacksmithing than a tailor’s shop, or to catch a glimpse of Nott through a cracked doorway, shining eyes so honest that Beau almost felt bad for peeking in, as she whispered to Caleb, ‘I’ve never been to a real ball before.’

Is it so bad, even if the world is ending, if they take one night off?

“There it is, Jester,” Allura says. She hardly needed to announce it. Even Fjord pulls himself out of his self-conscious fiddling, rapt with amazement as they crest the final hill and come upon the visage of Whitestone Castle. The entire length of the ramparts are lit with orbs of twinkling light - it’s too far off yet for Beau to tell if they’re magical, or just very well-fed lanterns. Rather than clear off the snow to make way for decorations, the groundskeepers have let it pile up high enough to shape, and each of the peaked towers holds an enormous sculpture of ice and snow, just visible through the fresh powder that still drifts down from the sky: one, the image of a rearing bear; the other, a bird in flight.

Jester lays her head on her arms, resting along the back of the front seat. “It’s beautiful,” she sighs, drawing out the word with a tremolo lilt. As she stares off dreamily at the castle, a strand of blue hair falls out from behind her ear, sticking to the parts of her chin still wet with melted snowflakes. “Yeah,” Beau says, too truthfully, too much with her eyes fixed on Jester, and not the castle. She coughs, trying to cover whatever wistful note had crept into her own voice, and the influx of cold air sears the back of her throat with an icy tickle. She spends the better part of the descent doubled over and gasping, Fjord thumping her back all the way.

Their carriages are the last in a line of many, most of which are now grouped in bundles against the outer walls, with their occupants already gone on ahead. They join a group and dismount, heading for the castle entrance.

Once they’re past the front gates, there’s a little courtyard to traverse, and courtiers waiting in the foyer to take their coats. Beau surrenders hers reluctantly. Left with nothing but a thin suit of lavender and grey linen, the chill bites straight through to her bones, and she hurries away from the still-open doors the moment she’s inside.

“Wow,” concludes Caduceus, speaking for all of them as they step out into the center of the room. He turns in slow circles with his head tilted back, taking in the sights. It’s barely more than an entrance hall, but the vaulted ceilings and fine hangings of brocade and velvet speak of old money, the kind that demands unnecessary ostentatiousness bleed out even into the vestibules and hatrooms.

There’s a part of Beau that’s reminded of her grandfather’s house: a fine countryside manor, where she was welcome all of five short years. That was before her mother decided they were all best served by nothing more than cordial correspondence between the two generations, lest she be forced to listen to one more lecture about how very deeply her choice in husband had offended the man.

Beau never liked that place. It smelled like dust and vinegar, and not nearly enough like real people lived there. But it still stung, a little, that she wasn’t allowed to go back. Hard for a kid to understand.

It was all just hard, back then.

Shivering for more reason than one, Beau shakes her head and turns around to see if the rest of the party made it in from the cold.

Caleb, who forwent their shopping trip in Nicodranas, is still clad in his fine Xhorhasian garb, none of which he surrenders to the waiting attendants. His hair, pulled so neatly into a low ponytail by Jester before they left, has  begun to escape from its fastenings as surely as hers did. They’re all a bit of a lost cause after the amount of snow that hit them on the ride from town. One of his hands trails up to adjust what’s left of the styling, and for a moment Beau isn’t sure if he means to tuck the errant strands back into place, or to pull the whole mess out and commit to the dishevelled look, the kind of disarray she hasn’t seen him wear in months.

Caleb’s fingers hesitate, then fall back to his sides, curling into clenched fists as he stares at the grand staircase that leads to the sounds of music, and laughter, and people in fancy outfits with fancy titles exchanging fancy pleasantries. There’s a little bit of that old blankness there, in his eyes - a faraway edge to his gaze that has Beau… not worried, but not comfortable either.

“Not your scene?” she asks, sidling up beside Caleb and nudging his shoulder.

“Too much of it,” he replies softly, and by the time she’s worked out all the implications tucked into those four simple words, he’s already slunk away, hovering by Nott’s side as she twirls and admires the way the light catches the sequins stitched into the bodice of her yellow dress. On Allura’s reassurance, she hasn’t disguised herself, and her forest of hair lies loose over bare green shoulders. Beau’s heart gives a nervous pang.

They’re vulnerable here, all of them. Dressed down to nothing more than linen and lace, with no armor to protect them, and no exit strategy unless Caleb feels like whipping out a stick of chalk and drawing them a circle in the center of the dancefloor. No wonder he’s a bit on edge.

Shouldn’t she be too?

A swell of muffled violins rises from beyond the staircase. Face lit with a wicked grin, Nott stands on her tiptoes and pulls Caleb into her spin. Her hair fans out behind her, and a few more locks tumble from Caleb’s ponytail. He doesn’t reach up to tug them back, and when they stop his expression is closer to matching hers.

They both look happy.

So yeah. Maybe Beau should hate this. But some things are worth doing anyways.

Fjord is already halfway up the stairs, following close to Kima and Allura like an anxious puppy, afraid to be left behind. He throws Beau a pleading look, and she gives him a thumbs up before rounding up the others.

She makes sure to collect Caduceus first, before he can get too deep into conversation with the doorman about the day-to-days of castle maintenance, which are apparently deeply fascinating to someone who was only peripherally aware that castles even existed a week before. Not that she can judge - it’s not like Beau has ever been in one either, and as she ascends the staircase and comes out onto a wide balcony overlooking an enormous grand hall, she realizes that country manors really just… don’t even make the comparison.

The balcony spills out into two winding staircases, both leading down onto a vast ballroom floor, positively packed with people. The banisters are wreathed with sprigs of holly and thistle and fern, and Beau follows their winding path up the columns to the roof, where the decorations widen to form a canopy of green and brown and gold. Between the intertwined leaves dance flickers of sparkling light, winking like fireflies as they flit between the boughed latticework that supports the canopy. Caduceus smiles at Beau’s side.

“That’s really something, huh?” Fjord nods in agreement, mouth agape as he fails to find better words than Caduceus to describe the sight.

Jester darts to the edge of the balcony, Nott hot on her heels, and Beau joins them - half to make sure neither pitches over the edge, and half because even she can’t help but be caught up in the grandiosity of the whole affair.

From here, they can see the entire expanse of the party. Long tables ring the outside of the ballroom floor, their rich coverings laden with heaping platters of food and flagons of drink, but the center is left free for mingling. And there’s a whole bunch of mingling being done. Beau loses track of any individual she tries to track pretty much instantly. The sweep of bodies is too overwhelming, between the servants that drift with trays of fluted glasses and the hundreds of people in bright winter’s garb - some dancing, others content just to chat and observe the rest of the festivities. To one side, a bardic troupe is playing some elegant waltz, a tune too stilted for Beau’s tastes, but with Jester swaying at her side, eyes lit up as she hums along, only four bars in and already off-key… maybe it isn’t so bad after all.

The decorations, the scale, the grandeur of it all - her father would have sold his soul just to keep up a fraction of the wealth that must be pouring into this place every year. He very nearly did. And look where his daughter is now, without even having to marry into it. She can’t help but grin at that.

“Name?”

Beau startles as a courtier in a white and gold cloak steps up beside their trio. Another courtier already calling in a loud voice, “Yussa Errenis, of Nicodranas!” Yussa shuffles to the side, glaring at Allura and the speaker both.

“I don’t like this,” he hisses to Allura, then feigns a pained smile towards the courtier. “But I will descend and… socialize, I suppose.” He gives Allura a significant look. Beau quietly suspects that his stay will be a short one.

“It doesn’t hurt to make new friends, Yussa. After all, isn’t that part of what we’re celebrating tonight?” He grimaces, then nods stiffly.

“I’ll… try.”

“That’s all I ask,” she says, patting him on the shoulder before gently shoving him towards the righthand stairwell. The courtier continues on with the introductions. “Lady Allura Vysoren, of the Arcana Pansophical and the Council of Tal’Dorei, and the Lady Kima of Vord!”

“That’s our cue,” Kima mutters as what sounds like a few undignified whoops drift up amongst the ruckus below. “C’mon, Allie.”

Allura smiles at the rest of them. “Go on, enjoy yourselves. We’ll catch up to you in a bit. We’ve got a few friendly faces to greet.” For the first time that evening, Kima’s scowl dims to something almost relaxed as she takes Allura’s hand.

“Let’s go, then. Our friends aren’t exactly the patient types.”

The two of them follow in Yussa’s footsteps, leaving the Mighty Nein to stand awkwardly on the balcony.

“Name?”

“Like… as a group? Or just me in particular?” The courtier shrugs.

“Whatever you’d prefer.”

Beau looks between Jester, who’s already got her mouth pursed, the ‘f’ of Fancypants readied on her lips, and Caleb, who stares over the edge of the balcony at all the finery, distant once more.

“The Mighty Nein works.”

The courtier squints, but nods. “Alright, then. Presenting ‘The Mighty Nein’, of…” The courtier leans in, dropping her voice, and mutters, “Where are you from?”

“Everywhere, really,” Fjord shrugs.

“I see.” The squint intensies, but she raises her voice once more. “Presenting the Mighty Nein!” No accompanying whoops this time. Seems like nobody’s heard of them yet, here in Tal’Dorei - not that their reception in the Empire would be much warmer.

Maybe one day.

---

It ends up being a nice evening, all in all. Beau makes herself sick off canapes and sparkling wine, and mostly people-watches for the first hour or so. The conversations happening around her don’t seem quite as trite and superficial as the ones she’s come to expect from this kind of crowd. In fact, she gets the impression that most of the folks here aren’t even part of the local barony. There are too many strange and out of place discussions - crop cycles and weather patterns, the holes that need mending in the local tavern’s roof, the candles one woman hopes to give her sister as a wedding gift come spring. And once she gets a closer look, Beau realizes that their clothes aren’t nearly so fine as she presumed from on high. Most people are dressed nicely, but in a ‘this is my special occasion outfit’ sort of way, not on a ‘this is what I wear to make the little people feel small’ level of gaudiness.

By the end of the first hour, Beau is all but convinced that the attendees of this party are mostly just everyday Whitestone residents. Sure, she stumbles across a few stuffier conversations amongst wealthy merchants, but for the most part, it’s just common folk, apparently welcome to attend this enormously lavish party in the middle of their Lord’s castle.

Huh.

Bored at last, Beau scans the room to see what everyone else is up to. She spots Nott first. Or, more accurately, she sees the massive goliath she’s seated across from first, and then zeros in on Nott by virtue of scale. Stains already speckling her bodice of yellow satin, Nott furiously pounds back shots as Jester and Fjord cheer from the sidelines. She spots Caleb not too far off, nursing a half-full glass of cider. Nott sits back, grinning in triumph, as the last of the glasses comes down hard on the tablecloth. The goliath strokes a hand over his salt-and-pepper beard, then grins and calls the waiter over. Ten more shots are placed between the two and oh no, Beau is not letting this evening end in alcohol poisoning, at least, not without her. She elbows her way over to the little gathering.

“Who’s winning?” she murmurs in Fjord’s ear. He spooks, and she punches him lightly on the shoulder. Two for flinching.

“I’m not sure,” he replies once he’s finished glaring. “Easy money’s on the goliath, but I think Nott would kill me if I bet against her.”

“Good call.” Beau walks forward and throws down five gold onto the table. “On the goliath.”

“Wait, we’re not actually betting-” Fjord calls out as Nott shouts, “hey!” but the goliath only throws back his head and guffaws.

“Smart choice,” he says, looking at her with twinkling grey eyes. They widen as they fix on the shaved sides of her head, and the expositor’s belt looped around her waist. “Hey. You look like one of those monk types.”

Beau freezes as his eyes go from warm to appraising. “Cobalt Soul,” she offers, stretching out her hand. Nott whines impatiently, already fingering one of the shots. The goliath grins even harder, the smile hardening to a keen, dangerous edge, and before Beau can blink she’s staring up at the ceiling of flickering lights and a whole ring of concerned faces.

“Huh. Figured you’d be a bit more dodgy, being a monk and all.” The goliath’s giant fingers loom over her face, offering her a hand up.

Bullshit is she going to take that.

Beau launches herself to her feet with a punch ready to land between the goliath’s teeth. He stumbles backwards, avoiding her blow but knocking his hip into the table behind him in his haste. Nott lunges forward, managing to save four of the teetering shot glasses, which she gulps down in rapid succession. The goliath rights himself as Beau hunkers down into a defensive posture. The wolfish expression in his eyes isn’t cruel, or mean – she knows a fighter when she sees one, and she matches his eager grin.

This party was getting boring anyway.

“You wanna go, big guy?”

He laughs, somewhere between surprised and delighted. “Fuck yeah.” He swings again with no warning – no weapons on him, just fists, but Beau gets the feeling that one of those landing in her gut would still hurt like a motherfucker. She ducks under it, using her lesser height to her advantage as she swings around and plants the base of her hand between his ribs. He doubles over coughing, which gives her just enough time to launch a volley of punches down his spine. One more vertebra and she’ll hit that spot, the one that’ll have him frozen-

“No you don’t-” Something catches her by the hair and yanks, sending her tumbling back into the center of the makeshift ring of people, just in time to look down with dawning alarm at the fist about to connect with her chest-

“Grog!”

A high-pitched shout rings out over the crowd, and the fist freezes in mid-air, two inches from her breastbone. Beau stands there, stock still and tensed, still braced for the blow that never landed.

“What?” calls out the goliath, shifting from confident to something like a child whose toy was taken away. “I was just having a bit of fun, Pike.”

Beau turns, finally unfrozen as a middle-aged gnome with a shock of white hair steps out into the ring, wearing a pretty blue dress and a chiding expression.

“Grog, you can’t attack one of Percy’s guests in the middle of a party!”

“She’s a monk!” The goliath - Grog - shoots back. “I’m helping her with her training.” He enunciates slowly, like Pike is the one who’s acting like a small child. “’Sides, she’s the one who hit me!”

You started it!

Pike turns away from Grog to Beau instead. “So sorry about that. My friend,” she shoots Grog another glare, “should know better.”

“Hey,” says Beau, sticking out her hand again. Now she really does want to punch something, to get rid of the adrenaline coursing through her veins, but unfortunately, Pike just takes it and gives it a good shake. “Beau.”

“Pleased to meet you, Beau,” Pike says, the picture of politeness. “See, Grog? That’s how you greet people nicely.”

Grog only scoffs. “Fine. At least I’ve still got the other one- hey!”

But Nott is already gone, absconded into the crowd with the remainder of the drinks on the table. Grog shakes his head. “Fucking rogues,” he mutters, then follows Pike off into the sea of people, his head still visible all the way across the ballroom floor.

“Holy shit,” says Fjord.

“I know, right?” Beau says, rubbing at the raw part of her scalp. “One hell of a party, huh? Guess my face is punchable on every continent.”

“We should go find Percy,” Jester decides. As always, she’s two unspoken steps ahead of Beau when it comes to making plans, and she scrambles to catch up to whatever thought process led her to that conclusion.

“Who?”

“The person whose party this is! That pretty gnome lady said their name was Percy. We should go find them and thank them for inviting us!”

“I think technically Allura invited us,” Fjord tries to remind her, but Jester’s already off. Beau looks around for Caleb, hoping for a second voice of reason, and catches the tails of his coat as he slinks away towards the edge of the room, too quick for her to catch. Fine. They’re on their own then.

They do spend a bit of time searching around, the three of them, but find neither hide nor tail of this mysterious Percy figure. They do learn that he’s the Lord of Whitestone, and that his wife’s name is Vex’halia. Beau files away that information for later. You never know when it might come in handy. Apparently nobody’s seen either of them yet this evening, which sends Jester into a very brief pout.

They may not find the Lord and Lady of Whitestone, but they do find Allura again, a sight for sore eyes after so many unfamiliar faces. Jester bemoans the fact that they haven’t met their hosts, and Allura assures her that she’ll make sure to introduce them whenever they arrive, which Beau privately suspects is a brushoff but wouldn’t begrudge Allura for it, considering they’re lucky to be invited as it is.

Luckily, Jester spies a troupe of acrobats doing tricks on the other side of the room, and the pout ends as the new diversion captures her attention. Fascinated, she goes dancing across the room and leaps up to try and see over the heads over those already gathered around the performers. Beau watches her go, staring a bit too long after blue hair and the pink skirts that swirl around Jester’s ankles each time she lands.

“Sooo… you going to ask her to dance?”

“Goddamn, Nott-” Beau whirls to find a very flushed, very cheerful Nott on her heels. “Don’t sneak up on me.” She drops her voice. “And don’t… don’t say shit like that, ok?”

In the short time since she confessed her crush, Nott has somehow, miraculously, impossibly managed not to spill the beans to anyone in the group, but it hasn’t stopped her from dropping in on Beau and just… reminding her of it at the most inopportune moments.

“I’m just saying-” Nott says, taking Beau by the arm and pulling her down to eye-level, “A first dance can be very romantic. All that touching, and holding…” Nott winks, and Beau has a sudden vision of her and Yeza do-see-doing at a country dance. She snorts, embarrassment breaking into a bit of helpless affection. In the end, she’s glad she told Nott. They’re closer now for it, and even if Jester never… well, she made a better friend, at least. That counts for something.

“You know this from experience, I’m guessing?”

“Oh, yes.” Nott laughs, and Beau doesn’t pry further. “You should definitely ask. And besides, if she says no, no big deal! You were just joshing!”

“Yeah!” Beau agrees, latching onto the justification like a drowning man to a passing log. “I can just pretend I was like… asking platonically, right? Friends dance with each other. Right?”

“Sure,” says Nott, unconvincingly.

“Alright,” Beau replies, “In a bit. I’ll ask in a bit.”

She has no intention of asking Jester to dance, now or ever.

It’s a nice thought though, for the moment she has it.

Nott scampers off again in search of more food, or drink, or both, and Beau spies Caduceus and Fjord admiring the foliage with a pretty redhead in a cape that seems at first glance to be made of the same fluttering leaves as the canopy, though it must be a trick of the light. It seems like they’re doing alright, so she wanders off instead to search for Caleb. Undoubtedly he’s sulking the night away in a corner, the same as Yussa, and she’d rather see all her friends have at least a little fun tonight, even if it’s nothing but the two of them pointing out all the dumb hats in the room for twenty minutes.

He’s not hard to find – for all his reclusive tendencies, he doesn’t have Nott’s stealth, and there are only so many walls and alcoves to check. She discovers him in the farthest spot from the band, seemingly having commandeered a chair from one of the food tables and dragged it off to make his own little haven in the corner.

“You brought a book?” Beau asks incredulously. Caleb looks up, his nose still obscured by a hefty tome that Beau now recognizes as one of the romances they’d picked up from Chastity’s Nook in their last visit to Zadash.

There’s an illustration of a bull on the cover. Beau’s not going to ask.

“I always have my books with me, Beauregard.”

“This isn’t a spell book, Caleb, this is a novel. That you brought. To a party.” Beau pinches her nose with two fingers. “Are you at least trying to enjoy the festivities?”

He reaches down beside his chair and holds up a flagon, taking a very deliberate sip while looking Beau dead in the eye.

“Fine.” Beau huffs and plops down on the floor beside Caleb. He stares at her, and she gestures at the book. “Continue.”

“Beau…”

“What?” She shrugs. “I need a break.”

“You don’t have to keep me company. I’m perfectly fine on my own. I always am.”

“Yeah, you’ve told me that before. Doesn’t get any more true the more times you say it.”

Caleb rolls his eyes, but he does go back to reading, and Beau lays her head against the side of the chair, and steals swigs from Caleb’s flagon, and just… enjoys the music.

There are worse places she could be. She’s almost forgotten that she’s supposed to feel guilty for this.

After about ten minutes, Caleb sighs and closes the book. “I can’t concentrate anymore.”

“Then you want to come meet some new people with me?”

“Never.”

“Fine,” Beau says again. Then, softer, “I’m not trying to force you, you know. Just want to make sure you know you don’t have to hide in a corner. You still don’t have to talk to people. We can just hang out.”

There’s a rustle of fabric as Caleb slips the book back into his coat. She realizes now why he didn’t give it up at the door – it’s covering the harnesses that must still be beneath his clothing. Those would have been pretty conspicuous. She wonders too if his pockets are still lined with spell components – wire and phosphorous and bat guano, all ready to go at the drop of a hat.

“I don’t like parties.”

Beau holds in her retort, yeah no shit, because it seems like Caleb’s gearing up to say something heavier by the way his hand grips the arm of the chair, once it’s done putting away the book.

“Me neither,” she says instead. “This one’s kind of nice though.”

Caleb sighs, something more like a relinquishing than an exhale. “I went to a lot of them, back when- back then. When I was with Trent.” Ah, Beau thinks. “I was a fifteen year old country boy from nothing, and he would have me attend these kinds of parties. All of us. And we had to try to fit in.” Caleb laughs. The sound catches in his throat. Beau puts a hand on his knee, not looking his direction. The band starts another song. “It was all part of the training. I had never… I was so lost, Beauregard. I never knew what to say. I had never felt so ashamed to be from where I was.” Another waltz. Gods, Beau hates those. “But, of course, I got better. And we learned different things. How to- to probe for information. How to bat our eyelashes and convince the highest and mightiest that we found them oh, so very interesting, and leave with whatever information Ikithon wanted. I was good at that,” Caleb says, more tired than bitter. “I was handsome, back then. People liked me. They wanted to trust me. I made sure of it.”

“You’re not that person anymore.”

Caleb laughs again. “I could be. I know how. I could charm this entire room if I wanted to.” He reaches up, finally dragging the ponytail down and pulling out the elastic, letting his hair fall loose over his shoulders. It’s grown long in the last few months, as long as Jester’s, and though it’s messy from moisture and rumpled from the hair tie, his auburn locks are clean and fine and catch the glow of the lights above with a hint of copper flecking beneath. Beau can see it, in an objective way. She could see a man like that playing a room. She could see him putting on airs, flirting and cajoling and manipulating his way into getting whatever he wanted.

But more clearly, she sees Caleb, her friend, with fear in his eyes, not of what could be done to him here, in this strange and new and vulnerable place, but of what he could do.

There are some things they’re never going to escape from, aren’t there?

“You need another drink,” Beau says. “Nobody’s allowed to start with this melancholy shit until they’re at least three deep.” But she gives his knee a squeeze, and after a moment, he puts his hand over hers, and squeezes back. Thanks.

Funny, her squeeze meant the same thing.

“C’mon, let’s go find the others.”

---

They don’t so much find the others, as the others find them. Or, more specifically, Jester does.

“The De Rolos are here!” she cries, disregarding the other party-goers who shrink back from her shout as she beelines their direction. “Allura sent me to fetch you guys.” Caleb tries to draw back, but Jester grabs them both around the wrist, and Caleb is just as helpless to her ministrations as Beau is.

They rejoin with Caduceus and Fjord and Nott at one corner of the ballroom. Allura is there waiting, tapping her foot. “I’ve been informed that the Lord and Lady have just arrived. I was meaning to say hello anyway, so please allow me to introduce you.”

She leads them off to a quieter spot, near the back of the room and farther from the music, where only a handful of people linger in conversation. Beau spies an inconspicuous door along the back wall, partially ajar, and wonders if that’s how the Lord and Lady entered. Weird. If guests are being announced properly, you’d expect the ruling class to have an even bigger fanfare, especially for a fashionably late entrance. The more dramatic, the better. But then again, if these are the type of rulers that let the townsfolk attend their galas, she probably shouldn’t be surprised that they like to keep their airs simple.

They eventually sidle up to a group of three individuals: a young woman, maybe a year or so younger than Beau, with a loose shift dress and black on her fingertips – ink or soot, it’s too difficult to tell; a man with white hair that’s beginning to silver at the tips, and a set of intricate spectacles framing his tired eyes; and the most beautiful woman Beau’s probably ever seen in her entire life – age has done nothing to dull a bright, vivacious smile and flashing eyes that rest between the beginnings of crow’s feet, her hair done up in an elegant braid down her back, and her dress of blue brocade, tight to the hip and low-cut in a way that isn’t immodest, but is certainly… confident.

Beau leans in to Fjord again. “You wanna take this one?” They should probably start their first connection on a new continent off on the right foot, and she doesn’t trust herself or Caleb right at this juncture to be the model of decorum. He nods.

“Sure. I can do that.”

He’s not fidgeting quite so much as he was on the ride over. Either his nerves have calmed down, or he’s just remembered how to hide them. Either way, Fjord looks cool and collected as he walks a few paces behind Allura, holding up a hand to the rest so that they don’t all arrive in a crowd on her heels.

“Allura! Vesper was just saying that she’d managed to track you down. How are you, darling?” The beautiful woman leans forward and gives Allura a peck on the cheek, holding her by the forearms with a warm smile.

“Good to see you, Vex’ahlia. And you, Percy? How are you this evening?”

“Oh, well enough,” Percy says, rubbing at a spot below his eye. “I do apologize for our lateness.”

“Maddie was just not having bedtime tonight,” Vex’ahlia explains. “She could hear the music from her room, poor thing.”

“Maybe next year, when she’s a little older, she’ll come down for a bit,” Percy says, laying a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “For right now, I’d rather we stuck with the routine. You know how Johanna was, when we didn’t keep a consistent bedtime schedule.”

“She was up at all hours,” Vex’ahlia says to Allura, “Impossible to keep down, and Maddie already copies her sister in everything else…”

“They sound like a handful,” Allura says sympathetically.

“But a joy too,” Percy reassures her. At his side, the young woman – Vesper – scoffs, and he pokes her in the ribs. “At least this one never gave us any trouble.”

“That’s a lie and you know it,” Vesper teases back. “I’m going to go find something to eat, alright? And I’ll make sure Johanna’s not swinging from the rafters.”

“Alright, darling, have fun. And remind Julius to stay away from the dates if you see him. Winter’s Crest is a time for celebration, not stomacheaches.” Vex’ahlia sends Vesper off with a wave, then turns back to Allura.

“So, when are you and Kima…” She winks with only the smallest margin of subtlety.

“Oh, no,” Allura says quickly, a faint blush dusting her cheekbones. “We haven’t… it’s still a conversation, at this point.”

“Alright. Well, might want to decide sooner rather than later. You don’t realize how much energy kids take out of you until you try it. You almost don’t have much left over for… anything else.” Vex smirks, and Percy puts his arm around her shoulder again.

Almost,” he says, his smirk just as wicked as his wife’s. Allura clears her throat.

Anyways. I’m being very rude right now. I had people who were waiting to meet you.” She turns around to Fjord, who’s blushing even harder than Allura. Percy and Vex’ahlia look over the group, curious, as they all step forward. “Please allow me to introduce the Mighty Nein. They saved a friend of mine from a bit of a scrape back in Wildemount, and I thought they might enjoy an evening’s soiree, to take a break from all their adventuring.”

“Pleased to meet you, Lord De Rolo, Lady De Rolo,” Fjord says, stepping forward and bowing slightly to each of them. Percy’s face breaks into an easy grin.

“Friends with manners, Allura, I’m delighted!” He chuckles, glancing her direction. “An adventuring party, eh? You’ve made a collection of those, haven’t you?”

“I’m aiming for a three-piece set,” Allura retorts dryly. “Greet your guests, would you?”

“Right, right, sorry.” He bows to Fjord. “My name is Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski De Rolo the Third, Sophist of Native Ingenuity and Lord of Whitestone. And you are?”

“Umm. Fjord.” He shifts between his feet, the blush spreading all the way to the back of his neck. “Just Fjord.” Beau has the sudden urge to run up and rescue him from his predicament, and who is Beau to deny a sudden urge?

“Beauregard Lionett, Expositor of the Cobalt Soul,” she says, stepping to join Fjord. The rest of the party quickly follows suit, and Beau feels Caleb settle in by her side, his hands clasped tightly behind his back.

“Nice to meet you both.”

“That’s Jester,” Beau says, going down the line, “Caduceus, and Caleb, and Nott.” Percy and Vex’ahlia nod to each in turn, exchanging curious, but thankfully not suspicious glances when they get to Nott.

“Now where are my manners?” Percy says. “I almost forgot to introduce my wife-”

“Who is very capable of introducing herself, thank you. Vex’ahlia de Rolo, Baroness of the First House of Whitestone and Grand Mistress of the Grey Hunt.” She winks at Fjord. “But Vex is just fine. And you can call this one Percy.” She elbows her husband in the ribs.

“Thank you, Lord- Percy. Vex. We appreciate your hospitality. You have a beautiful home,” Fjord says, the blush not totally abated, but some of his charm regained. “Can I ask, who did your decorations? They’re lovely.” Beau would wretch a little in her mouth at the blatant flattery, if she didn’t also believe Fjord was being entirely genuine.

“Oh, I think you were actually chatting with her earlier,” Allura says. “If I’m not mistaken, it was Keyleth?”

“She always does a marvelous job. You can thank her for the snow as well. We were afraid it would be a rather brown and dreary Winter’s Crest without it. The children would have been so disappointed.”

Beau’s… not really sure what that means, that they should thank this woman for the snow, but whatever. Tales for another time.

“Ah, yes. We did meet a Keyleth, didn’t we, Caduceus?” Caduceus nods.

“I liked her. She knew her way about plants.”

“Keyleth was part of our own little adventuring party, back in the day,” Vex says. “So I guess you could say we all have a bit in common.”

“I’m afraid I’ve never been to Whitestone,” Caleb says quietly. Beau glances at him, surprised to hear him speak at all. She’d expected him to avoid any more small talk than was strictly necessary, considering their previous conversation. “But it seems like the city is flourishing. May I ask, what is your business here, Lord de Rolo?”

Beau doesn’t miss the way his fingers tighten at his back, and she stares at Caleb out of the corner of her eye, waiting to see where he’s going with this.

“Well, thank you… Caleb, was it?”

“Caleb Widogast.” Beau inches closer, trying to get a read on his face. He sounds… worried, more worried than he was before, though he’s doing an admirable job trying to hide it. He’s just not so good at hiding from her anymore.

“Our business is in the name, in fact. We primarily mine whitestone from the nearby mountains. We also handle most of the refinement process here, which allows us to export residuum that meets the highest quality standards in Exandria.”

“Sweetheart, this isn’t a business meeting, no need for a spiel,” Vex cautions Percy, while Beau watches Caleb’s face go white, remembrance mixing with dawning horror.

Shit, she’d forgotten about the residuum. By the confused looks on the rest of the Mighty Nein’s faces, they’d all forgotten too. Beau moves the last few inches, close enough that she can rest her hand on Caleb’s wrist without being seen by their hosts. As gingerly as she can, she starts drawing his nails away from the scars.

“Where do you export this residuum to?” Caleb asks. He moves his tight grip from his arm to Beau’s hand, clutching her fingers and holding on for dear life.

“Oh, all over. Mostly to the various schools of arcanum here in Tal’Dorei, but some to Marquet, and of course, to Wildemount.” Percy regards Caleb with all too discerning an eye. “Are you a wizard, Mr. Widogast? You seem quite fascinated.”

“We’re all just very interested in the supply chains between the two continents,” Beau bursts in. Caduceus, the first of the Nein to seemingly clue in to Caleb’s mounting distress, chimes in as well.

“We were all a bit curious, I think. Myself included – there was a ritual that my goddess asked of me that required residuum, so we’ve spent some time contemplating the substance.”

Caduceus and Vex start off on a lively discussion of the ritual in question, which leaves Beau to watch Caleb’s breathing continue to skyrocket, helpless to do anything but keep holding on. Percy is still looking at him, the bastard, and now Beau is worried too. They seem like a nice couple, which is great and all, but these two may also have very well exported the residuum that the Cerberus Assembly shoved into Caleb’s arms.

Maybe they’re guiltless, but is it possible the De Rolos knew what their product was being used for?

“Mr. Widogast, perhaps you’d like to take a stroll with me? I can’t show you to the refinery chambers, but I could at least give you a- a background tour of the castle?”

Beau glares at him, hard, because there is no way that he’s not aware that Caleb’s discomfort considering how closely the man’s been staring, and now he wants to give Caleb a private tour? Could he be any more creepy? Beau looks at Allura, but she doesn’t seem suspicious of the offer. Still, all Caleb has to do is say no-

Ja. Alright.” To Beau’s shock, Caleb takes a small step forward at Percy’s beckoning. Why the fuck would you-

“If the offers open, I’d like that tour too,” Beau says, continuing the glare. Percy pauses, watching her carefully, but then shrugs.

“You’re welcome to it. Keep them company, my love, we’ll be back shortly.” He plants a kiss on Vex’ahlia’s temple and gestures the two of them towards the door at the back of the hall.

Not able to shake the ingrained instinct that they’re walking themselves into a trap, Beau stays tightly at Caleb’s side as they ascend the steps. A mild-mannered merchant – that’s exactly the type of person she distrusts most of all.

As they emerge into a plainly decorated, and mostly empty corridor, Percy makes no indication he’s about to start any sort of tour. Instead, he ushers them through another room, what appears to be a music studio of some kind. Wooden flutes and various stringed instruments line the walls, and a grand piano is stuck into the corner where a many-paned window looks out into the gale of snow outside.

“What the hell-” Beau says. “What happened to the tour?” Caleb stays silent, unmoving at her side.

“I apologize for the false pretences, but I- I thought you might appreciate some air, Mr. Widogast. Please let me know if I misread the situation.” His expression softens. “But I know the signs of a panic attack when I see one.” Caleb shakes his head, still not speaking, and Percy gestures to a chair. “It’s a little quieter in here, and nobody will disturb you unless you want them to. I give you my word.” Caleb doesn’t sit down, staring instead towards the window as he gathers himself to speak.

“I don’t wish to offend you, Lord de Rolo.”

“Percy is fine,” Percy corrects gently. “And there’s spare little you could do that would offend me, unless you plan on attacking me in my own home, or, I don’t know, saying something cruel about my wife. I’m certainly not offended by someone suffering the same condition I myself spent years overcoming, with only partial success.”

Beau thinks for a moment that Caleb will ask outright – that he’ll lay the question out bare, and damn the consequences, just to know for sure. Did you know what your residuum is used for? Did you know when you sold it? If you did, would you still do business as you do now? Would you even care?

But he doesn’t ask Percy anything. Instead, he takes the offered seat and puts his elbows on his knees. Beau hovers between the two of them, unsure of the next step.

“Well,” says Percy, clearing his throat, “I’ll send one of the staff up with a water pitcher in a while. In the meantime, feel free to stay here as long as you like, and rejoin the party whenever you feel ready.” He claps Beau on the shoulder on the way out, leaning in to whisper, “We should all be lucky to have friends who look out for us like you.”

Beau nods curtly, and he leaves, shutting the door at his back. Caleb lets out a long, shuddering breath as soon as they’re alone.

“Hey,” Beau says, sitting down beside him. “That was a lot, huh?” He doesn’t answer, but he leans his head against her shoulder, which is close enough to a response. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think they seem that bad.”

“Most bad people don’t, at first.”

Well, she can’t argue with that.

Jester’s message floats into her a head a few minutes later. Hey, Beau! Just wanted to check that you were both ok and like, not kidnapped or anything. Let us know so we don’t have to-

“We’re good,” she responds. “Just taking a little breather. Don’t wait up for us.” Since she doesn’t get another message, she assumes she’s stopped a rescue party from being marshalled.

Eventually, a servant does come by with that pitcher of water. Beau drinks more greedily than Caleb, having drunk more liquor over the evening than him. By the time the pitcher is empty, some of the colour has returned to Caleb’s cheeks.

“Ready to get back out there?”

He nods, and they find the staircase back down together. Nott is waiting by the door when they arrive. She whisks Caleb off with a slew of worried mutterings, and he ruffles her hair. Things are alright in the world again, or as much as they ever are, or as good as they’re going to get.

The rest of the Nein have dispersed again in their absence. It seems like the evening is winding down in general – the crowd is thinning, and the once-lively jigs that the band was playing have tapered down into slower tunes. The couples that remain on the dancefloor spin in slow circles, and Beau finds a column to lean again, sipping a final nightcap as she waits for the party to be over, and for Allura to take them all home.

It’s the blue she spots first - not that she was looking. (Not that she ever stops looking.) Jester’s hair is fully down now, and her shoes abandoned as she sways lightly in Fjord’s arms. His face is screwed up in concentration, trying not to step on her bare toes, and Beau’s caught between a laugh and a grimace, to see how awkward they are together, and how sickeningly sweet.

They make a good picture, the two of them: blue and green, tall and short, slim and muscular. They’re the opposite in so many ways, and isn’t that what they always say, that that’s what attracts? So maybe it’s good, that Jester likes him and not her. They get along too well, Jester and Beau. They like too many of the same things, they laugh at too many of the same jokes, they read each other’s minds more often than not. What’s there to attract, besides everything, besides-

And besides, this is what you see on the romance covers: the suave sailor and the delicate princess swept off her feet by his rugged, barrel-chested manly physique. No books for the angry girl, without much to give. No reason to be sad about what was never a possibility to begin with.

She watches, and lets herself have this – that she can look, as long as Jester isn’t looking back. That she can touch, as long as Beau doesn’t take the lead. She never wanted to force her feelings onto someone else. She never wanted to be that kind of person, and she’s not going to be. And maybe one day, if Jester decides-

If Jester decides-

But it’s only a nice thought, so no need to rush. And if it’s always this, with Beau on the sidelines, and Jester and Fjord staring into each other’s eyes, then that’s life. Nobody gets everything, and she’s already gotten to have so much more with Jester than she ever imagined.

“So… you like him?”

“Her,” she corrects hazily, then jerks out of her love-drunk stupor to realize the voice that spoke wasn’t in her own head. Beau turns, heart pounding, to face the questioner, to find out who she’s betrayed herself to. She comes nose to nose with a tall redhead – not much older than herself, maybe, but it’s pretty hard to tell with elves. She could be twenty-three, or a hundred, or more. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Keyleth.” The woman smiles, her cape fluttering around her shoulders – leaves, Beau thinks, they actually do look real…

“What, no title?” Beau jokes, then winces. Way to be rude off the bat.

“Not today, no. Today, I’m just Keyleth.” The woman’s eyes get a bit distant, and Beau swallows and turns back to the crowd. She hasn’t quite lost Fjord and Jester yet. She’s not sure why that prospect terrifies her.

“Any particular reason you’re spying on me?” Beau asks, trying hard to be annoyed at Keyleth, but ending up more annoyed at herself for being so transparent.

“I wasn’t… spying. Just observing. You were very focused.”

“What’s it to you?” Beau gives up on being polite, too intent on not missing the last few bars of the song, the last few moments of this evening. Even if it’s not with her, Jester looks so beautiful when she dances. She wants to drink it up, while she can, and who cares what this stranger thinks? She’s not going to see her again after tonight. There are worse people to admit a crush to.

“If you like her, you should tell her.” Keyleth says it plainly, like it’s obvious. Like it’s easy. Yeah, right. “You’re an adventurer, right?” Beau shrugs. “I was an adventurer too.”

“Ok,” Beau says. She knows this – Vex already told them. “Not sure what being an adventurer has to do with my love life.”

“If you died tomorrow, would you regret not telling her?”

Beau laughs. “I’m not going to die tomorrow.” It’s the last refrain – Jester dips under Fjord’s arm, he tilts her back. Her dress flutters around her bare feet.

“And if it was her, who died?”

“Kind of morbid small talk for a party, don’t you think?” It’s Keyleth’s turn to shrug.

“I’m only asking a question.”

“Nobody’s dying tomorrow.”

“You don’t know that. Nobody does.”

You don’t know that.

Molly and Beau had been building something, ever so tentatively. So close to something real, something honest, they even managed a heartfelt conversation by a fire, and then he was dead.

Caduceus stepped too close to a monster, and then he was dead.

Nott touched the wrong lock, and then she was dead.

You don’t know how long you have with her. You can’t possibly know.

Beau swallows again. “I’m not ready, to tell her.” Keyleth smiles, sympathetic.

“I wasn’t ready to hear it, when he told me. But I’m glad he did.”

Beau turns to her. “Who?”

“Someone who deserved more time than he got.” Suddenly, Beau is convinced she was wrong, that Keyleth is far older than what she’d supposed. She’s never seen a look like that on a young woman’s face. “We both deserved more time.”

Beau shakes her head. “I’m not going to tell her tonight. I can’t.” The impossibility of it all chokes her. It isn’t time, not for them. It might never be. She has to be ok with that. She has to be. She has to…

The band slows, and Fjord and Jester break apart, both smiling. Just above, the lights begin to dim, and Beau looks back to see Keyleth twirling her wrist in the air. “I think that’s the last song.” She prods Beau gently in the small of the back. “You will have so many regrets to carry in your life. Don’t make this love one of them.”

Beau stumbles out onto the dancefloor, feeling like she might throw up but drawn by an invisible thread forward. Jester catches her eye and waves as soon as she’s within earshot. “Hey,” Beau says. “A little birdie told me this is the last song of the night.” Jester’s smile dips into a disappointed frown.

“Oh,” she says. “I was having so much fun, though.”

“I could tell.” Beau clears her throat, then wordlessly sticks out her hand. Jester and Fjord just stare at her, so she shakes it a little, jerking her fingers. Jester isn’t doing anything. She’s going to have to use her words. Shit. “Do you wanna, I don’t know, dance with me or something?”

If she says no, be ok, be ok, be-

Jester’s face breaks into an exultant grin. “Yes! Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen you dance, Beau!” And with that, they’re off. Jester snatches her hand and pulls her along with an exuberance that doesn’t match the legato pace of the strings. Eventually, they find their rhythm, with Jester’s hands around Beau’s waist, and Beau’s hovering above two diamond-flecked shoulders, unable to close the distance.

“You’re allowed to touch, you know,” Jester says, reaching up with one of her own and forcing Beau’s hand down to her neck. “That’s how this kind of dance works.”

“Got it,” says Beau. “I’m still learning.”

“That’s ok,” Jester says, grinning as brightly as the stars above. “I’m a good teacher.” A little drop of water lands on Jester’s nose. She blinks, then looks up. “Oh!”

From the boughs above, little snowflakes begin to float down, dancing in time with the music. Beau looks back over her shoulder, searching for Keyleth, but she’s gone from the pillar, nowhere in sight. Jester pulls Beau back around before she can search any farther.

“This is kind of perfect, right?”

“Yeah,” says Beau. “It kind of is.”

From their spot in the rapidly dwindling dance floor, Beau could see it all, if she looked. Fjord, with his sword aloft, casting fairy lights in the snow above as a crowd of fascinated children look on. Caduceus, holding out his hand to catch the shimmering flakes, smiling in wonder. Nott and Caleb, curled into matching chairs, Caleb reading aloud from his book, the two of them oblivious to the rest of the world.

But all she sees is Jester.

And Jester.

And Jester.

And her and Jester-

Spinning round.