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The results from the poll I posted were pretty decisively in favor of shorter chapters more often -- which would have been my vote as well, since it seems like the easiest schedule for me to stick to in terms of updates.

Thanks to everyone who voted! I'm truly grateful for any feedback I get. *g*

Also, if anyone has any advice for getting LiveJournal to stop fucking up my formatting, it would be really appreciated. I have to go back and edit every entry several times after posting it because line breaks and periods get mysteriously deleted.

A bead of sweat ran down Robert's forehead. His arm and thighs trembled with fatigue, but he held the épée perfectly level. He moved through the exercise with the precision of an automaton, one gesture flowing seamlessly into the next. His shuffling footsteps echoed through the empty gymnasium. It was the dinner hour and the other fencers had taken the excuse to clear out—with some relief, Robert suspected. No doubt seeing scholarly Robert d'Argent with his teeth bared in a grim rictus of concentration as he attacked the practice dummy again and again had made them rather uncomfortable. Certainly nobody had offered to spar with him. It was probably for the best. In this mood, Robert rather feared he might have killed them.

Damn Boq! How dare he yank Robert around like this, as though he were a cur on a leash! It had only been a day since Robert had last seen Luca and already the absence was an ache, urgent, unbearable. He needed to press Luca to him, smell his hair, kiss his mouth. He needed to hear Luca laugh that soft, startled laugh, as though he'd forgotten he could laugh until Robert came and reminded him. He needed to give Luca books and feed him cake and tell him every little thought that passed through his mind, however insignificant, because it felt wrong somehow to have any part of himself that he didn't share. Robert needed Luca more than he had ever needed anything in his life—and damn Boq for knowing it!

Robert lunged, striking the practice dummy in the center of its chest. He imagined Boq's heart speared on the tip of his sword. Sadly, the image didn't make him feel any better than it had the last hundred times it had come to mind.

A light patter of applause broke out from the other side of the gymnasium. Robert turned so quickly he almost lost his balance. The light glinted off a pair of spectacles as round as silver coins

“Tolliver?” said Robert.

The butler bowed at the waist. “My lord has sent me to collect you, sir.”

“Collect...?” Robert's memory stirred

Of course. The King's Hunt Ball. Everyone at Court had been buzzing about it for months. Robert had been prepared to fight his way out of an invitation tooth and nail, but to his surprise Grandfather never raised the subject. Now Robert realized this was the old man's play all along: to wait for the evening of the Ball before ambushing Robert with a summons.

“What's his leverage?” Robert asked tiredly.

Tolliver's serene expression did not budge an inch. “Leverage, sir?”

“Surely my esteemed grandfather didn't send you all the way to College Square without a carrot to dangle in front of my nose,” Robert snapped. “Or, failing that, a stick.”

“I am afraid I don't quite catch sir's meaning,” said Tolliver politely.

It was then that Robert noticed the long, thin wooden box Tolliver carried. Robert was so accustomed to seeing Tolliver with a tray that he hadn't realized the man was holding anything out of the ordinary.

“Carrot or stick?” Robert said warily.

“I'm afraid it is neither, sir.” Tolliver unlatched the box. “It is, in fact, a new fencing épée. Lord d'Argent was quite distressed to think that sir might be seen in public with an inferior model.”

“No, that would never do,” said Robert. Still, he couldn't help noticing that the épée was quite dashingly made. The blade cut a perfect V, and the blued bell-guard was etched with Robert's initials

“I see that sir is displeased,” said Tolliver. “I shall convey sir's regrets to my lord.” He began to close the box.

“Hang on a minute!” Robert jumped forward. “I – ah, perhaps I'll just have a look, shall I?”

Tolliver lifted the lid once more. Carefully, Robert lifted the épée from its cushion. He tested the weight between his gloved hands. As expected, it was exquisitely balanced.

“Iberian steel,” Robert murmured. “Beautiful work."

He took his stance and made an experimental lunge. The sword cut the air like silk.

“That,” Robert admitted, “is a very nice carrot.”

Grandfather, shrewd bugger that he was, had sent a set of formal clothes for Robert to change into after his hasty shower in the gym's bathhouse. Tolliver and the bath attendant helped him into a black doublet with paned sleeves and a high, stiff collar that made Robert's ears itch. His breeches were replaced with hose, and his comfortable boots with heeled buckle-shoes that were almost as stiff as the collar. Robert drew the line at the hat Tolliver proffered. Nobody could wear anything that befeathered without their head being mistaken for a chicken.

The Summer Palace sprawled across the twilit horizon like calligraphy done in shades of gold and white smoke. The carriage rattled down an avenue bowered by lime trees before crossing the palace bridge. The way was banked with slaves at stiff attention, each holding up a colored lantern. The carriage passed under the raised portullis and entered an inner courtyard.

Robert realized then that he was rather past fashionably late. The other guests' coaches stood on blocks, their passengers long since disgorged into the palace. A collection of footmen in royal livery crouched over a covered barrel, throwing dice. When they saw Robert they leaped to their feet, hastily straightening their wigs. They bowed with exaggerated deference as they helped him from the carriage, no doubt in the hope he would not make complaint about their laziness. Peacocks milled shrieking underfoot; Robert narrowly avoided stepping in a chalky streak of excrement.

Inside, the ballroom was all color and noise and the whinny of the orchestra. Only Tolliver's hand on Robert's arm kept him from bolting. A servant offered a tray and Robert gladly took a glass of punch. The punch was entirely too sweet and there was entirely too little of it. He finished the glass in a gulp and took a second.

“If sir will accompany me,” said Tolliver, tone ever so slightly admonishing.

Robert followed the narrow black triangle of Tolliver's back, taking furtive sips of punch as they moved through the crowd. He saw Francis, who was, as always holding his own private party with the loveliest young men of Court. Francis made some witty remark and his admirers laughed like the King's hyenas. Robert recognized Adrian among their number, rakish in a green leather doublet. Robert ducked his head and hunkered down awkwardly behind Tolliver.

“My heir appears to be under the impression that he is stalking pheasant in the bush,” said Grandfather's dry voice.

Robert straightened guiltily. Grandfather was outfitted in a more festive version of his usual charcoal-colored suit, 'festive' in this case meaning that his garters were tied with red ribbon instead of black. The man who stood beside him was similarly attired, though his lace cuffs and broad-brimmed hat made a better show of gaiety.

“You remember Lord Fontaine, my son,” said Grandfather pointedly.

“Of course,” said Robert, who didn't. He sketched a bow. “An honor.”

“Better say a surprise,” said Lord Fontaine. His voice was as grave and joyless as a judge's. “It's well known that Robert d'Argent is the most elusive of all the young lords at Court. I daresay you're becoming rather famous for it.”

Robert was horrified at the thought of being famous for any reason, but kept his expression neutral

“I'm kept thoroughly occupied by my work at College,” he said. When Grandfather scowled, he added quickly, “Much to my disappointment. Alas.”

A woman materialized at Lord Fontaine's elbow. She was around Robert's age, petite and raven-haired, and from what little Robert knew of fashion he could tell that she was impeccably dressed. She swept her skirts in a curtsy.

“May I present my daughter Estelle,” said Lord Fontaine. He spoke with obvious pride, though the girl was far from beautiful. “Are you enjoying the ball, my dear?”

Estelle made a coy sigh and fluttered her fan. “A strange misfortune has befallen us, my lord,” she said. “There is quite an excess of ladies who wish to dance, and the gentlemen are hard pressed to keep up with the demand. I fear before the night is over the men will all be nursing blisters and the women will be forced to dance with each other.”

“That will never do,” said Grandfather. He turned to Robert. “My heir will, of course, be delighted to fulfill his duty to the ladies of Court.”

“I'm a terrible dancer,” Robert told Estelle. “Really. I'll step on your feet.”

Robert,” Grandfather ground out.

Estelle smiled beatifically. “I shall take it as an opportunity to improve my footwork.”

Robert hadn't been lying; he truly was hopeless on the dance floor. His ballroom master had despaired of him years ago. Estelle, in contrast, moved with grace and assurance, nimbly avoiding his clumsy footfalls. Robert was not used to holding a woman in his arms, and he couldn't help comparing her to Luca. Estelle's hair was coarse while Luca's was soft; her complexion rough while his was smooth. Her lips were colorless and thin in contrast to Luca's lush red mouth. The pressure of her hand on Robert's arm failed to excite anything in him except faint annoyance. And her body—

Well. She was nothing like Luca.

“Had you arrived an hour earlier, you might have enjoyed the most marvelous entertainment,” said Estelle conversationally. “A dwarf was armed with a butter knife and set against His Majesty's pet gladiator. The swarthy barbarian was no more bothered by the little thing than an ox by a gadfly, but he was an excellent sport and let it exhaust itself with feint after feint. What a howling show! Finally he cracked the dwarf's head between his hands as though it were an egg and spilled its brains upon the floor.”

She laughed, a high, crystalline sound that made Robert wince

“I suppose you share Lord d'Argent's distaste for the Games?” said Estelle, tilting her head.

“I don't share his moral disapproval,” Robert said. “I – well, I'm a swordsman. Gladiatorial combat is...messy. There's no art to it. No style.”

“The young men of Court often stage fencing bouts to display their skills for His Majesty,” Estelle pointed out. “Why don't you join them?”

“I'm very busy,” said Robert shortly.

Estelle smiled—a reflex, Robert realized; her dark eyes were cold. He noticed that her teeth were very small and sharp, like a cat's. A blast of trumpets sounded through the ballroom. The orchestra began to play the King's March, every note as bombastic as Robert remembered. The ballroom doors were flung open, and King Eustace made his entrance.

He rode a chariot wrought of gold, winged like a god's foot and drawn by a brace of slaves. The slaves were painted like horses, dappled and chestnut and roan. They strained against traces of iron chain braided with silk. King Eustace himself was costumed as Chernon the Hunter. He wore an antlered helm, the prongs woven with living ivy and oak leaves; his armor was buckskin, and a false beard hung in a plait to his waist. He held a spear in one hand and a whip in the other

King Eustace flexed his wrist and the whip cracked about the ears of the horse-slaves. They leaned into their traces, bearing the carriage forward. The crowd parted, a line of noble heads ducking as King Eustace passed them. Robert bowed deeply, brow almost knocking his knees. Beside him Estelle curtsied to the floor.

The chariot bore King Eustace to a curtained dais in the center of the ballroom. The curtains were drawn back to reveal a floating chamber. The throne sat on a carved block of marble; there was a monkey leashed to the it by a velvet collar. It ran gibbering over the throne, black eyes as bright as buttons. Its uncomfortably human hands made obscene gestures at its audience.

The horse-slaves prostrated themselves and King Eustace, spear aloft, marched over their bent backs and up the dais steps. He turned with a flourish and held up his hand. The doors through which he had made his entrance were flung open once again and a parade of servants entered, each bearing a hunting trophy. The assembly ooh'd and ahh'd appreciatively as whole stuffed game and mounted heads were carried to the dais and placed at the King's feet, like offerings at a shrine.

At last the final trophy was brought in: a living lion, led by a fool in motley. Robert recoiled with a hiss. His mind flashed to his father, gored by a rhinoceros in the King's menagerie. Death by exotic pet was hardly something he wanted to make a family tradition.

Fortunately the lion seemed tame. It padded sedately behind the fool, long pink tongue lolling from the corner of its mouth. When the fool passed by, Robert was struck to see tear tracks through his thick white makeup. Had he been friends with the dwarf felled by the gladiator, perhaps? Robert very much hoped that there would not be more blood shed tonight.

The lion was tethered to the dais, where it promptly flopped down on a rug and fell asleep. King Eustace struck a fine pose, one fist on his hip, the other extended in a gesture of triumph. His voice rang through the silent ballroom.

“I have conquered the beasts of the forest! I have defeated the beasts of the ocean! I have slain the beasts of the desert! I have laid low the beasts of the sky! Look upon my works and know that the right true king of Lyonesse is a mighty protector indeed!”

Applause broke like thunder through the crowd. If Robert had been on speaking terms with Adrian he might have murmured in his lover's ear that the elk's head was moth-eaten and the stuffed ostrich at least a decade old, judging by the dust on its feathers. But Adrian was giggling with Francis, and Robert, red-faced, kept his mouth shut and clapped until his palms were sore.

Robert recognized his opportunity to escape only after it had passed. Estelle seized his hands and they were off again, tripping across the floor like a two-headed blind man with three left feet. Robert was acutely aware of eyes on him. He imagined ladies sniggering behind their fans and gentlemen muffling laughter into monogrammed handkerchiefs. Somewhere among them was Grandfather, no doubt sighing with disappointment as he watched Robert make an ass of himself yet again. Robert swallowed humiliation and wished desperately for another glass of punch.

He was rescued from Estelle's vice grip by a tap on the shoulder. Tolliver stood with his hands folded officiously behind his back, flanked by two of the King's servants.

“I beg apology for interrupting sir and madame,” said Tolliver blandly. “It is my great honor to inform sir that he has been summoned to appear before His Majesty.”

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