My eyes scan the large hall. There are plastic Christmas trees with fake snow in front of the tall windows, golden festoons along the walls, glittering stars dangling from the ceiling between huge chandeliers and most of all: people. People standing in groups, talking to each other and laughing. People enjoying themselves, hugging in greeting and pointing at mistletoe hanging above them. Everyone seems to know everyone. Except for me of course.
As I cross the hall I start wondering how anyone can enjoy these kinds of events. My feet are already hurting from wearing high-heels and my cheeks feel strained from fake smiling. I hope dinner will begin soon or I’ll murder my roommate. Entrance to the castle and dinner for free for scholarship students, Charlie had said. The Christmas Banquet is the party of the semester, he had added with a telling wink. Well, if this is the best this town has to offer for the entire rest of the semester I better kill myself now.
I catch parts of conversations as I walk past people my age stuck in shimmering dresses and classy suits that probably cost more than five times what I earn in one month. Politics, economy, stock market. Ouch. Where is that rascal of a roommate of mine? “Uh… I’ll quickly say hello to someone,” he’d said. And vanished with a bunch of people who looked conspicuously inconspicuous.
I should have known that the party of the semester means drugs. As I watch the charming faces when I walk past I get a hint as to why. I would resort to drugs as well had I to pretend I’m actually interested in all that bullshit.
There’s a group of armchairs and couches in front of the large, empty fireplace at one long end of the hall and it’s where I’m headed right now. At least I’ll be able to keep weight off my feet that way. Only after I’ve let myself fall onto the couch do I realize that I’m not alone.
“Excuse me?” At first glance the guy sitting at the other end of the couch looks as spotless as most of the people here, with a white shirt, black suit and tie. He frowns somewhat bad-tempered at me and pushes his glasses back up his nose with the hand that is holding his mobile phone.
“Bored, too?” I ask, ignoring his scowl and reaching down to massage my ankles.
“I don’t know what you mean.” He tucks his mobile back into his pockets and quickly checks the position of his tie, not looking at me.
“I’m starving. Do you know if they will actually feed us tonight?”
The guy blinks at me and wrinkles his nose, apparently slightly offended. As I look him up and down I realize he’s in fact a little cute, even handsome. His hair is a dark brown, nearly black, and a bit long at the front. His dark eyes sparkle behind his glasses. “Well, as far as I’m informed there will be a chamber concert first.”
I groan. “Please tell me you’re kidding?”
The guy is staring at me now and, slowly, his morose expression shifts to mild amusement. “Not a fan of classical music, are you?”
I grunt and shrug. “More a fan of free food.”
“Well…” He scoots forward a bit, straightening his spine carefully. “Let’s see what we can do.” He waves to one of the waiters rushing past us. To my surprise the waiter stops in his track immediately and hurries toward us. “Sir?”
My new acquaintance keeps watching me with half a grin that is reflected in his eyes while the waiter hovers above him, looking expectant and flustered. “Something to eat for the lady, Peter, if you please.”
The waiter bows curtly without even taking a single glance at me. “Of course, Sir.” And is gone.
I blink and remind myself to close my mouth. “Okay… that was…” Damn. How did he do that? Before, most waiters sped past me as if I didn’t exist. I call myself lucky to have managed to get a hold on not only one but two glasses of champagne.
“I’m sorry, where are my manners,” the guy says with a warmer smile than before and turns a little toward me, offering his hand to shake. “Alexander Greenwood. Pleased to meet you.”
I take his hand, it’s soft and comforting. “The pleasure is… wait, the Greenwood?”
The guy, Alexander, cocks an eyebrow. “There’re only two male Greenwoods here. And I hope I don’t look like my old man?” He winks at me.
“I…” I frown at him. I’ve never met his father. “Oh, fuck you.”
Alexander grins, undoubtedly entertained now. “Please forgive me. I take you’re not from here?”
“You mean my ass is not painted in gold? Nah.”
Alexander chuckles. “Who would have thought?” His grin is boyish. “Scholarship?”
I empty my glass of champagne and nod. “And I assume you’re the son of the owner of this humble hut, huh?”
Alexander lets his gaze wander around the grand room with the high ceiling, white frescoes and golden statues wearing silly Christmas hats, as if he sees it for the first time. He lifts his eyebrows. “I guess my family owns the castle, yes, even if no one lives in here anymore. If you ask me, old buildings go out of fashion, lately. The large distances between rooms… so annoying. You never get them heated properly and modifications in the architecture are just impossible.”
“Ah… of course.” I roll my eyes. I’m almost sure Alexander isn’t even joking.
I watch him closer. He holds himself ramrod straight, his right hand lightly resting on his knee, and when he lets his gaze wander around the room his nose crinkles a little as if something displeases him. He can say whatever he wants, he fits into this castle.
At this moment the waiter returns with a plate full of small morsels that look incredibly tasty. My stomach rumbles audibly.
“We’ll take that, Peter, thank you,” Alexander says and to my absolute delight the waiter places the entire tray on the low marble table in front of me. I guess I like to become friends with this Alexander, at least as long as he continues to produce food out of seemingly nowhere.
I pick up one of the small bread-things, baguette with interesting red bubbles towering on top, and put it in my mouth. In one piece entirely. And… oh… “That’s… That’s amazing,” I exclaim, my mouth still full. “Honestly… I’ve never tasted anything like that.”
“Fish eggs,” Alexander comments and I have to keep myself from gagging. “Salmon eggs, to be precise, known as ikura in Japanese cuisine if I’m informed right.”
Huh. “Well, whatever…” I try to get over the fact that I just ate fish eggs. Ugh. “Better than it sounds.”
Alexander watches with amusement as one small piece of delight after the other vanishes, filling my stomach with deliciousness. I offer him some when I realize my faux-pas already halfway through the platter and he declines first, but after some hesitation chooses a single small roll with cream cheese filling.
“I assume that was to your liking?” Alexander asks after I have plucked even the decoration from the silver plate and devoured it.
I fall back into the cushions behind me and adjust my seating, my formerly already quite tight dress starting to pinch in the hips. “Gosh... I wonder how you aren’t fat like me with that kind of food all day.”
Alexander looks up surprised but laughs when he sees me grinning. “Well… Now that you’re fully functioning again, may I learn your name?”
I jolt into a more upright position, feeling uncharacteristically ashamed for failing to introduce myself properly. “Oh… I’m sorry,” I apologize and furtively clean my hand on a tissue before offering it to Alexander. “Emma.”
“Nice to meet you, Emma.” I notice his fingers twitch slightly before he lets go of my hand. At that moment a bell chimes over our heads.
“My lady?” He offers me his right arm. “Would you allow me to escort you to the dining hall?”
I smirk at him. “If that was the amuse-bouche, I’m more than excited to see what else your cook can do,” I say and take his arm.
However, Alexander doesn’t get up right away. He looks at me with sudden hesitation in his eyes.
“Uh… stay like that…” he mumbles, pries his arm free and scoots his butt to the edge of the soft cushions of the sofa. He grabs the low table in front of him and pushes into standing, slowly. When he’s finally somewhat upright he turns to me, about to offer me his arm again.
And I… cannot help but stare.
His left arm that had been concealed by his body earlier is held at a slightly awkward angle with his elbow flexed and his fist turned in, and his right leg is still somewhat bent in the knee, his foot only partly touching the ground.
Alexander shuffles his feet, his body tilting to the right and back to center in the process. “Aren’t you hungry anymore?”
“Uh… I… well, I…” I stumble over my words while trying to remember what I was about to do just seconds ago. Geez, Emma, quit looking, for god’s sake.
Alexander quite obviously doesn’t feel comfortable. He clears his throat. “I heard something about the main course being lobster.” I can see he’s trying very hard not to fidget.
“Lobster?” I cry out before I can stop myself. A few people turn their heads passing us on the way to the dining hall. “Isn’t that the thing with the… eyes? And tail? And legs?” I hiss at Alexander, momentarily forgetting everything else. Which is good because I really didn’t intend to make his impairment a thing. It just surprised me.
The corners of Alexander’s lips twitch into a weak grin. “And shell. However if you ask nicely, they will serve it without all that.”
“When you’re called Alexander Greenwood, I assume they will,” he sighs. He clears his throat. “So, are you hungry now?” I sense his patience is running out.
I shake my head that feels a bit foggy, jump off the couch and link my arm with Alexander’s right. The one that looks like it works fine, in contrast to his left. “Do I have a choice?”
Seems like I got a pass for once. Only, now I have to dine with this Alexander who I barely know and whose family is giving this banquet. This clearly hasn’t been the plan for the evening, although it sounds exciting. Maybe too exciting for an easy night with free food, though.
We proceed toward the dining hall. I had hoped to sit somewhere in the back, with maximum distance to the more important people here but I hadn’t put Alexander into the equation.
“If I’m not mistaken our seats are at the front,” he says as I’m trying to pull us imperceptibly toward the first free table we pass after entering the hall.
“Ugh, well, you’re the one who will be busy explaining to me all evening with which fork I’m supposed to poke potatoes. Or...” I roll my eyes, “how to fold my napkin into an origami swan and stuff like that.” I’m not even sure this isn’t a real thing.
Alexander glances at me from the side and lets out a surprised chuckle. He messes up his next step, stumbles as his left foot catches on the ground and grabs my arm tighter to keep his balance. “I'm going to believe that you’re joking,” he says and frowns at himself as he regains control.
“You believe so now…” I say in a grave manner and hold my arm a bit steadier to support him.
In the back of the hall I can see my roommate waving at me. I wiggle my head at him, mouthing ‘Help me’ but Charlie only waves his arms some more. Dumbass. He’s probably high as a kite already.
We’re among the last stream of people entering the hall and because we have to move all the way to the front, we’re among the last standing up by the time we have made it halfway to our seats. Alexander’s gait is slow, and with slow I mean snail-speed slow. People have already overtaken us when we had still been outside. I suspect he could be faster but is attempting to hide the limp. His steps are halting, even mechanic, as if he’s walking on two stiff sticks instead of actual legs made of bone and flesh. The tip of his left foot drags a little and his right leg is still bent some, causing him to slightly tilt over to me with every other step. He clutches my arm to counteract the movement while doing his best to make it appear as if he’s offering his arm for me to hold.
Where we go, people fall silent. Some smile sickly-sweet at Alexander as we walk past them, others look pointedly somewhere else like they’re pretending not to notice him at all. Some outright stare.
“Enjoying the entrance, Emma?” Alexander asks, not keeping his voice down at all. A middle-aged woman with a large violet hat winces as we pass and quickly turns her eyes away. “How does it feel like, being right next to the center of attention?”
“Well, at least they aren’t staring at my ass,” I murmur, in a much lower voice than his.
Alexander stops walking for a few seconds and turns halfway to me. His chest is heaving a little. “Hmm… they’re missing out on something entirely” he says, his eyes sparkling with mischief but miraculously staying on my face.
I slap his arm and pull him along, glaring at him although I find to my own surprise that I’m not really angry.
“This one?” I point to a round table right in front of the slightly raised stage.
Alexander nods, eyes not on me.
A blond woman has risen from the table, her thin dress failing to conceal her bony hips and jutting collarbone, her eyes narrowed at us, spewing sparks.
“Sit down,” she hisses. “And stop making a fool of yourself, Alexander.”
“Always a pleasure to see you, sister,” Alexander says and lets go of my arm. He grabs Catherine’s hand and makes a show out of placing a kiss on the back of it. Then, with some effort, he pulls out a chair next to his huffing sister and gestures for me to sit.
I look from him to the woman who now watches me with poorly disguised mistrust, her upturned nose wrinkled in her pointed face. Everything about her seems sharp edges I notice.
“Emma. Catherine,” Alexander introduces us. “You’re going to love each other.”
Somehow I sincerely doubt that. I roll my eyes at him and sit without trying to shake hands with Catherine who sends me icy looks and doesn’t offer her hand either. I give a tight smile into the round. No one at the table seems to pay attention safe for Catherine.
“How much do you pay her?” she asks Alexander, leaning past me as if I don’t exist, her voice cold.
“Decidedly not enough” I answer on his behalf.
Alexander sits to my left, grabbing the edge of the table to let himself down in the seat slowly. “After these lovely introductions I’m sure the evening will just prove to be a major joy,” he says, grinning at me. “Wine?”
“Oh god, yes,” I murmur grimly, ignoring the exaggerated sigh Catherine gives at the exchange.
Alexander does his magic waving thing at the waiters again and one of the many glasses in front of me is filled with gold shimmering liquid, as are the glasses in front of Alexander and Catherine.
“Oh, it’s going to start,” Catherine announces and turns around to the stage.
“About time,” I mumble.
A short man with a graying mustache and a protruding belly that he tries to hide under a ridiculous red and black uniform has taken to the stage, the straining golden buttons and badges on his chest reflecting the light. He looks like an older, fatter and balding version of the nutcracker to me… Well, it’s Christmas time indeed.
“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” the man says and beams, his sweaty face glowing bright red. “It’s a pleasure to welcome you all here. I hope you found the banquet so far to your liking, especially the wine and the women.” He laughs a booming laughter that makes his stomach quiver and his mustache shiver. A few people titter politely while the rest stays uncomfortably quiet.
I lean to the side. “Who’s that?” I whisper into Alexander’s ears.
“That...” Alexander replies, smiling tortured. “…is my father.”
“Oh…” I stare at the round man on stage who is continuing to crack one slippery joke after the other and take a large swig from my wine glass. “Classic. I like him.”
Alexander raises an eyebrow at me and we turn our attention back to the stage. Alexander’s father has opened the stage for the musicians, a pianist and six string players. Silence falls over the hall and I notice the pianist’s subtle nod before they start playing.
“Bach,” Alexander hisses into my ear. “Did you know he got send to jail once because he wanted to quit his job playing for a duke?”
I blink at him. “No,” I say, truthfully.
“I believe that these gentleman and the lady play out of their own will, today. However, knowing my dear father and his pronounced obsession with classical music, I wouldn’t be so sure. I’m afraid he’s of the opinion that people should go to jail for refusing to play.”
During the course of the concert I start to grow hungry again and when finally the last chords have faded away I clap loudly, faking enthusiasm with the rest in the hall in the hopes to speed up the process.
The first course is served. Raspberry soup that to my utter disgust is icy cold, which is intended as Alexander assures me before I can grab the next-best waiter and demand the soup to be properly heated. While I wait for something more edible he gives me a crash-course in dinner-etiquette, thankfully in a low enough voice that only his sister can hear us.
I take the napkin that I have put down next to the plate to make room for the soup I won’t eat.
“Goes on your lap,” Alexander explains. “Folded once.” He demonstrates with his napkin, tucking at it with his right hand patiently until it lays smoothly.
“Uh huh…” I copy him. Well, that was easy.
“Now… Cutlery goes from outside to inside.” He points at the various forks and knifes to the left and right of my plate. “Knife and fork for each course.”
I nod. Got that.
“Then glasses.” He waves his hand. “Don’t worry about detail too much because the waiter will fill the right one for the right drink. However… which are yours and which is your neighbors? Same question goes for the bread.”
I look down at the bread and he’s right. There’s a small portion of bread on a small plate to the left and the right top of the main plate. “So?”
Alexander leans back, smiling at me. “Easy way to remember. Do this.” He forms a fist with his right hand, turns it so that the thumb is facing up and then sticks his forefinger out. “Right hand forms a lower case ‘d’, doesn’t it?”
“Uh… yup.” Indeed it does.
“That’s for drink. Drink to your right.”
“Oh, oh!” I shout and bob up and down in my seat like an excited child. “I got it! Bread to your left because left hand forms a--” I slam in the breaks but too late.
Alexander blinks at me. “Yes... For the sake of completion, left hand forms a lower case ‘b’, of course.” He clears his throat. “But if you have figured out where the drinks are then the bread is simply on the opposite site.”
Alexander's left hand remains under the table out of sight and he has apparently lost interest in teaching me more for the time being.
As the second course is served, field salad and scallops with an undefined but delicious topping, Catherine leans over to me. “How did you like the music, Emma?” she asks, her tone bittersweet. “I noticed you seemed rather taken by it.”
“Oh… mmmh… was nice,” I mumble between bread and salad.
Catherine grimaces slightly in disgust and chooses to turn her attention back to her own plate. “I thought the violins sounded quite peculiar. What do you say?” She bats her eyelids at me with faked innocence.
“I think the Adagio ma non tanto was heading to be Adagio ma non troppo,” I reply, stuffing a scallop in my mouth. “And the violins were in fact viole da braccio, that’s why.”
When I look up again the two siblings are staring at me. I dab at my mouth with the napkin. “What? Music major.” I shrug.
“Oh, is that so?” Alexander says, his grin widening.
Catherine looks like her eyes might pop out.
“Father would sure love to get to know you.”
“What instrument?” Alexander asks, but then stops me by waving with his right hand that currently holds the fork. “No, wait, let me guess. Hmm…”
Despite the etiquette for holding knife and fork that he just taught to me, he’s only using his right hand for eating, his left hand in his lap. Well, I guess he has a good enough excuse. I’m pretty sure by now that he couldn’t form a ‘b’ with his left hand if his life depended on it.
I watch him, amused.
“Uh…” he places his fork down and taps one finger against his nose, eyes narrowed. “Gamba?”
“Nice,” I retort. “But nope, zero points. Catherine?”
“Drums,” Catherine says drily. I have to give her that, she’s funny.
“Flute,” I say, grinning.
Alexander groans. “Ah, I should have known!”
I had expected some nasty joke comparing my not so delicate body and the tiny flute and how it’s impossible that the two can fit together. I hear that often and let me tell you, it gets old. So I’m happily surprised in a way. “How so?”
“No calluses on your left hand.”
I inspect my own left hand. Well, he’s right. It’s peculiar that he noticed such detail. “I could be left-handed?”
Alexander shakes his head as if I’ve offended his intelligence. “But you aren’t.”
We turn back to the food. “I’d love to hear you play,” Alexander says. “Seriously.”
I’m not sure why the prospect of him listening to me playing makes me slightly anxious but also happily excited. “Uh… I think you can in a few weeks. I have an invitation to play here at some kind of concert or something.”
Catherine lets her fork fall, which lands with a clatter on her plate and then on the floor. The people at our table turn their heads to look at us and a waiter hurries to retrieve the fork from under the table and vanishes to replace it with a new one. Catherine’s cheeks are tinted red. “You're Emma Weaver!”
“That’s my name,” I confirm drily.
Alexander chuckles and lifts his glass of wine. “Well, this evening gets more and more interesting, Miss Weaver,” he says. “Nice to make your acquaintance. I’m a truly great fan of yours.”
I frown and chuckle. “You haven’t even heard me play.”
“I’m already a fan, so don’t judge me. Especially so since you’re going to play together with my sweet little sister.”
I whirl around to Catherine. “What?!”
“Cello,” Catherine says, her voice dark.
“Excellent,” I sigh heavily and slump back against the chair. So Catherine is the mysterious, oh-so-talented cellist I’m going to perform with. Really excellent.
“I’ll be there, definitely” Alexander says and winks at me over his wine.
“Hmmm… great,” I mumble, ignoring the sudden swirl of joy and nerves in my stomach upon hearing those words. Then I grin. “The viola-“
Catherine clicks her tongue. “I knew these were no violins,” she snaps.
The second course is followed by a third which is a vanishingly small portion of something that looks like plain grounded and especially uncooked meat and that I sniff at suspiciously before loading it over onto Alexander's plate. Catherine clucks her tongue in response to my gagging-face.
The fourth course is the dreaded lobster.
“It's... fascinating...?” I say, eying the bright red animal on Catherine's plate. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it started moving, with its head and everything still attached and the shell glistening. Catherine glowers at me, fastens the plastic napkin behind her neck and picks up a metallic nutcracker-thing from next to her plate. In her hand it looks more like a deadly weapon. Poor lobster, it won’t stand a chance.
Only five minutes and a hall full of very cleaned-up adults has transformed into a bustling room of toddlers with napkins and pieces of lobster flying around.
Alexander's and my plate have some chunks of rose colored meat on it, along with some potatoes. His pieces are cut into smaller portions that he spears up with his fork. “No special potato fork,” he says, winking at me.
“Enormously disappointing,” I retort, grinning broadly. Although I’ve dreaded sitting with the Greenwood siblings at first, I have to admit that it has grown into something decidedly enjoyable.
The dessert is a very delicious tri-colored chocolate mousse and orange bubbles on a spoon that look a bit like the caviar I had before but that turn out to have something sparkling inside of them that kind of explodes with sourness in my mouth before I spit it out on my plate.
“Gross,” Catherine comments.
“You say it.” I exclaim and try to get rid of the taste by drinking some more wine and dabbing my tongue with the napkin. “Disgusting.”
As I look up a few heads of the people sitting across from us turn hurriedly down again and Alexander is grinning madly at my side. “I'm so glad I met you,” he murmurs.
After dinner Mr. Greenwood (does he have a title now? Lord? Duke? Baron?) announces that now is a short break followed by a very exciting game and then the dance.
Yeah, definitely time to go for a walk I decide and leave the table.
I’m almost at the restrooms when Charlie stumbles into my way, his slim arms opened wide. “Emma! Where have you been all this time?”
I playfully punch his narrow chest. “Rather where have you been? You left me alone in the lion's pit right after we came here!”
Charlie grins. “Ah... well. Emma...” He doesn’t resume and bats his puppy eyes up at me. With my high heels the height difference between us becomes even more pronounced.
“Don’t give me that. And better not tell me at all. But god save me if you puke on the carpet tonight. Or worse.”
Charlie looks at me as if I’ve deeply insulted him. “Have I ever?”
“No. Not yet.” He managed to find the toilet. Or a bucket. Or a plant pot, for our room is short of buckets. “But I believe you will, somewhere in the future and I'm already now mad at you for that.”
Charlie whines. “You’ve got no faith in me.”
“That I lost right after the first night, when you mistook my bed for yours.”
“Awww... Emma, I needed some bodily warmth!”
“Nope, Charlie. Just nope.”
I want to detach myself from him but he has wrapped his arms loosely around my waist. I should go before he goes full on cuddly on me. He does that when he’s high. Or drunk. Or not any of that. Because he’s just Charlie and saying he’s a physical person would be the understatement of the century.
“I heard you were seen with the Greenwood boy.”
“And straight.” How do I know that?
Charlie ponders on that. “Hm... he's also...” he pushes back from me and mimics Alexander's limp. “Do you know why?”
“Charlie!” I punch his arm. “It's nothing you just ask! Besides I don't care!”
Charlie snickers and grins. I manage to extricate myself from him and walk toward the restrooms.
“You should ask…” Charlie shouts at my back. “For a kiss!”
I flip him off.
In the restroom I think about what Charlie has said as I dab at my face with a paper towel. I pinch my cheeks, the flesh stark white with red blotches in the bright artificial light. I’m not sure I’m ready to expose myself again to someone, not after what happened last time. Fuck all men. That’s what I said to Charlie and he totally agreed with me. But of course that’s Charlie. He sleeps with a guy, breaks up with him, cries one night over it and swears he’ll never look at a man ever again, and then gets drunk and sleeps with the next one.
But I’m not like that.
It isn’t as if I don’t like Alexander, though. He isn’t like anyone I know. He’s kind of good-looking. We have a connection. But it isn’t in that way.
--> Chapter 2
--> Chapter 2