The Fae Worlds

The Duke’s Ball

When Nate asked me for help the last thing I was expected was for the two of us to end up at a fancy ball. Normally when he asked for help I’d find myself covered in mud, blood, and a lot of nastiness I really don’t much like thinking about. As he made certain the mask he’d bought me was on tightly I studied him. He seemed more tightly wound than he ever had done before, which was worrying. Even at the goriest of jobs he was laid back about it all, often joking about whatever ended up in my hair, so his quiet perfectionism was something I didn’t much like. I could have asked him what the problem was. Maybe I should have done, but I didn’t want to make things harder for him than they already were. Instead I double checked that his tie was straight and his mask was comfortable.
“Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Nate took my hand and gently placed it in the crook of his arm. “Are you ready for this?”
“No, but let’s get it done anyway.”
He smiled. “What would I do without you?”
Before I could reply our names were called by the… okay, here’s the point where I admit that I’ve never been to something like that before, and I have no idea what the guy who stands at the top of the stairs introducing people would be called. Either way he did his job, so Nate and I made our way slowly down the stairs. I did my best not to notice the way far too many people were staring at me. Being the centre of attention has never been something I enjoy, but there I was, dealing with it all for Nate, because I’ve never been able to say no to him.
From the time the two of us met there was something between us. When we were younger I kept thinking there was a chance he might want to spend the rest of his life with me, but he wasn’t that sort of person. Instead we spent time together if he asked for my help with one of his jobs and didn’t see each other for months at a time between them. I didn’t much care. As I aged I realised I wasn’t that sort of person either. Tying myself to one person didn’t make sense, especially not when I was spending most of my time travelling, so having someone like Nate around made sense. Obviously having me around made sense to him too, because he kept coming back. Focusing on that helped me to get down the stairs without letting my face fall from it’s carefully sculpted neutral expression.
“I take it we’re going to need to mingle.”
“Unfortunately.” He snagged a couple of glasses off a tray, and handed one to me. “Don’t drink too much.”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” That didn’t stop me from taking a sip of the champagne. It was the expensive stuff. Whoever was throwing the party was either very rich or wanted to seem like he was. “Are you going to let me in on what we’re here for?”
“Honestly, Ade, you’re better off not knowing.”
“Nathan…”
“If things work out the way I want them to you won’t even be involved.”
All I could do was laugh. “When do things ever work out the way you want them to?”
“Please. I’m trying to protect you.”
“What, exactly, makes you think I need protecting? I’ve been to more dangerous places than this with you.”
“Have you?” Our eyes met, and there was something in his that made me pause. “If I have to tell you I will, but for now the plan is to keep you as safe as possible, because I wasn’t actually planning on getting your involved in this mess. Needing a plus one screwed that up.”
Nodding, I fell silent. At least I hadn’t listened to Nate when he tried to convince me to leave all my weapons behind. Had he given me a little more time I would have been able to do some research on where we were, which was probably why he hadn’t. If I knew what he’d got us into the middle of… it didn’t matter. No matter what he was doing I would still have been by his side if he needed me. Maybe he didn’t think that was the case. We made our way around the room, with Nate introducing me to people I didn’t think he’d know, until we reached someone I did recognise. The mask wasn’t enough to hide him from me, because I knew his eyes. I glanced at Nate. Shrugging, he drew me closer, and for the first time I wondered if I really would have gone with him if I knew where we were going in advance.
“Adriana!” Richard smiled, and kissed me on both cheeks before I could recoil away from him. “I was hoping that Nate would bring you as his plus one.”
“Exactly why would you hope that?” I stared at him. “Last time I saw you I believe I threatened to kill you.”
“Which is exactly why I told you to leave your weapons at home.” Nate’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Try to play nice.”
“The time has come for us to put that aside.” Richard held his hand out, and I didn’t need him to continue to know what he was going to ask of me. “Dance with me.”
Saying no would draw too much attention. After glaring at Nate I accepted Richard’s hand, doing my best not to shudder. In no time at all the two of us were in the middle of the dance floor. Richard didn’t seem to have any issues putting his hands in place, and I couldn’t ignore their warmth as I let him lead me in a dance I’d been taught at school, half wishing I didn’t know it. “Nate shouldn’t have brought you here.”
“Is there a reason he shouldn’t?”
“Well, apart from the fact you did threaten to kill me, he’s tossed you into the viper’s nest without preparing you. That is the last thing I imagined he’d do, considering how close the two of you are.”
“Explain what you mean, quickly.”
“You and I will never be friends, Adriana, but I like you enough to help you out with this. Nate is about to do something incredibly stupid. Of course that’s what my brother’s been doing with his life since he left school, only this time…” Richard sighed. “I knew he was going to be here, which was why I accepted the damned invitation, even though I’d really rather not be here. Even though I’ve been trying I can’t find out the exact details of what’s been planned. Somehow he’s managed to hide everything from me, and that’s really not like him. All I can tell you is that it involves the Duke of West.”
“Please tell me that’s a very unfunny joke.”
“I wish I could.”
“Great.” I ran my tongue over my suddenly dry lips. “Maybe I threatened to kill the wrong brother.”
Richard laughed. “Maybe. If you can get away from here I suggest you do.”
“Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Dropping you into this was unfair of him, and he knows it.”
“May I cut in?”
The voice was enough to make my heart sink. When I looked at the speaker his eyes told me I was, sadly, right. Richard and I shared a look, both of us knowing he couldn’t say no. “Go right ahead.” He stepped away from me. “Adriana is a beautiful dancer.”
“I saw.” The Duke of West put his hands where Richard’s hand been, and I found myself trying not to shudder a second time. “I’ve heard interesting things about you, Adriana.”
“None of them good, I expect.”
“That depends on your point of view. Mine is very different to the average person.” Before I could stop it from happening he’d whirled me towards a door I hadn’t noticed before. “We should have this conversation somewhere more private.”
When he opened the door I saw the wards and knew once I stepped through it I wasn’t going to be able to get out again without his help. At the same time there was nothing I could do to change what had happened, so I did what I had to do. The moment the door was shut I knew I was trapped. “I hope you plan on letting me leave, Your Grace.”
“Should you make the right choice I will.” He studied me. “I know why Nathan is here, but I don’t know why he would have brought you when he was doing something so idiotic.” The Duke shrugged. “Surely there was someone less valuable he could have chosen.”
“Apparently I’m the only one who had no idea.” I shook my head. “You may be wrong about my value, as it appears Nate doesn’t value me at all.”
“Oh, he does, but I think he values you too much. The most important thing, it seems, is your protection. By not telling you anything he’s made it so that I can’t get any information from you. Had he realised I didn’t want information from you he probably would have made a very different decision.”
“Then why have you brought me here?”
“Like I said, I’ve heard interesting things about you.” The Duke took his mask off and put it on the table. One of the many things I’d heard about him was how attractive he was. He didn’t disappoint, although that was going to make me any less wary of him. “Having a chance to meet you, even at a time like this, is something I am grateful for. You’ve done you best to keep your distance from me.”
“Considering what I know of you it seemed like the logical thing to do.” I shrugged. “Had I known this would happen Nate wouldn’t have been able to convince me to come with him.”
“Which, of course, is the reason he didn’t mention me to you. Most sensible people keep their distance from me, and from my family, so it’s no surprise that you’ve been doing the same, especially as I know who you are. How Nathan doesn’t I will never know.”
“My family isn’t something I talk much about. He understands that, and he’s never pushed me to tell him. Now I wish he had done.”
“Yes, well, someone like him would never truly be able to accept you if he knew who you were.”
“I don’t believe that for a moment.”
“Maybe you don’t. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Should he learn exactly who you are, which is possible if he manages to get what he’s after, I believe your relationship will change in ways you could never have imagined.”
“What is he after?”
“An old book. One that he shouldn’t be going anywhere near, because he doesn’t have the skills to be able to use it. That, however, isn’t going to stop him.”
“Why aren’t you stopping him?”
The Duke laughed. “I don’t care if he takes it. I have no use for it now, and if he wants it then I see no reason to stop him. Warning you of what’s likely to happen after he’s read it seemed more important. It will, even if he isn’t bothered by learning who you are, change him.”
“Let me stop him.”
“Even if he hates you for it afterwards? He’s done his research. He knows exactly what he’s doing, even if he doesn’t understand what it means. That, as I’m sure you’ve realised, is the important thing. You can do what you wish, Adrianna, if you think it’s for the best, but maybe this time you should take a step back. Let him make his own mistakes.”
“Not this time.”
“Then go.” The Duke waved his arm and the door opened. “If you have need of me you know how to contact me.”
Before he could change his mind I walked away. The ballroom was full of people, which made it hard for me to find a way through to where I’d left Nate. I had no reason to believe he’d still be there waiting for me, not when he could use the distraction of the Duke to his advantage, and I knew the only option I’d have would be to follow him. Following him meant using magic I truly wasn’t comfortable with, but I had to stop him. If the book was the one I believed it was then it was the best thing I could do, for both of us. Of course I wouldn’t be able to tell him why. Being open with him would mean telling him things I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be ready for him to know… and if he had the chance to read the book he’d learn the truth without me having to say a word.
Richard was still standing where he had been before. Our eyes met for a moment. “Where’s Nate?”
“I have no idea.”
“We need to find him. The Duke kindly told me what Nate’s after, and it’s something he shouldn’t be going anywhere near.”
“Kindly? The Duke will want something in return for the information he gave you.”
“That’s something I’ll deal with after I’ve found Nate.”
“How worried do I need to be?”
“The book he’s going to try to steal is dangerous. I can’t tell you anything more than that, because I don’t know all that much about it.” Well, I did, but I wasn’t going to tell Richard that. If he found out the truth about me there was no doubt in my mind he’d tell Nate. “All I know is that if Nate takes it he’s going to become a very different person to the one we both love. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want to lose him. Not to a book.”
“Okay.” Richard studied me. “If we split up we’re more likely to find him. How, exactly, do you expect me to convince him to leave it behind?”
“Make something up. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Nodding, he walked away, giving me a chance to use my magic in a way I hadn’t done for a very long time. Finding Nate would be simple thanks to the connection the two of us had. I was just lucky he happened to be in the opposite direction to the one Richard was walked in, because I would have needed to explain why I wasn’t splitting up. Doing that, while using my magic and working out a way to convince Nate to leave the book behind, was too much for me right at that moment, especially as the fact I hadn’t used my magic for so long meant actually using it was giving me a headache. As I made my way up a set of stairs I was certain none of the guests were meant to go anywhere near I tried to work out what I was going to say to him. There was obviously a reason he was after that book, and not knowing what that reason was made everything much harder. Yet I knew I couldn’t take too much time, otherwise he would already have a connection to it, which would make it impossible for me to get him to leave it where it was.
When I walked through the door that led to what I guessed was one of the Duke’s many libraries I could feel the book. Feeling it told me I was right, even though I truly hadn’t wanted to be. As I made my way over to Nate, and the book, I let go of the magic I’d been using. Unfortunately that didn’t take the headache with it. I’d be stuck with that for the next couple of days, at least. He was, luckily for me, just staring at it, almost as though he couldn’t quite believe it really was there. If I hadn’t wanted him to know I was there he wouldn’t have done. I made enough noise to have him turn to look at me, and it was obvious he knew it was me from the way there was absolutely no worry in his eyes. For a long time the two of us just stared at each other. Waiting for him to break the silence was what I wanted to do.
Instead it ended up being me. “We need to go.”
“Not yet.”
“The Duke of West knows exactly why you’re here. I don’t know why he hasn’t sent someone to stop you, but I’m sure he will. You need to walk away from this.”
“This is my only chance to make this happen.”
“Sometimes things aren’t meant to be.”
“How do you know the Duke knows why I’m here?”
“Nate, it’s all part of his plan. He wanted me to come up here to try to stop you taking the book. Right now the best thing we can do is walk away.”
“You’re right about that, Adrianna.” Hearing the Duke’s voice wasn’t a surprise. “Walk away from the book, Nathan. It’s not something you’d want to use, even if you could, and I really doubt you could. You know it’s something only the strongest of us can use safely. The book would take you over. You wouldn’t be the person you are now.”
“Which is why I wasn’t planning on touching it.” Nate’s eyes met with mine. “I do, however, know someone who would be able to use it.”
“Nothing you say could convince me to do something that stupid.” I didn’t know how he knew about me, and I wasn’t going to ask. I wasn’t certain I wanted to know what the answer was. “Leave the book where it is, Nate.”
“Keeping this a secret from you wasn’t what I wanted to do. Richard convinced me it was for the best.”
“Richard?”
Nate’s older brother stepped out from behind one of the bookcases. “Who else do you think would have been able to find out who you were, Adrianna? Nate never cared. I did. I wanted to know everything about you.” He smiled. “I found out far more than I could ever have imagined was possible when I started asking the right people the right questions.”
“So the two of you planned this together?” I raised an eyebrow as I looked between the two of them. “I should have known better than to think you were telling me what Nate was planning out of the goodness of your heart.”
“Yeah, well, I did what I had to do in order to make this happen. You are the one person I know who could use the book. If you were to take it now the Duke wouldn’t be able to stop us from leaving.”
“I never planned on stopping you from leaving in the first place. That book is more trouble than it’s worth. Had it just been the book nothing would have changed. However I can’t let you do that to Adrianna.” I glanced over my shoulder at him, and there was a second when I thought I could see worry in his eyes. It faded so quickly it could easily have been my imagination. “She isn’t someone you can use for your plans, Richard, so the best thing you can do is walk away before I have to do something to stop you.”
“Do it for me, Ade.” Hearing those words leave Nate’s mouth broke my heart. I believed he cared about me enough not to say something quite that stupid. “You and I can change the world together.”
Taking a step towards the Duke wasn’t something I could ever have imagined doing, but that’s exactly what I did. Keeping my closest friend, and the man I loved, at a distance was the best thing I could do. I had no idea what he might be willing to do in order to get me to do what he wanted me to. After everything Nate and I had been through together it hurt to know he was working with Richard to do something that would end up changing me into someone I didn’t want to be. Hadn’t it once crossed his mind that there was a reason I’d walked away from the life I could have had? The pain in his eyes hurt. I never wanted to hurt him, but he was hurting me more than I thought he possibly could.
“No. I’m not going to do it for you. The best choice I can possibly make in this situation is to look after myself.”
“You’re truly going to be that selfish.” Richard stepped closer to Nate, and put a hand on his shoulder. “You know what that book is capable of.”
“Better than you could, which is exactly why I know better than to do something so incredibly stupid. The two of you have done your research. I know you wouldn’t have done this if you hadn’t, so you know that those who aren’t strong enough will be taken over, and I have no reason to believe I am strong enough. Not now. Not after it’s been so long since I last used my magic for more than something small. You might think you know who I am, but you don’t. You know who I could have been, if I was willing to walk a certain path, but I wasn’t, and that hasn’t changed.”
“In the end it’s Adrianna’s choice to make.” I felt the Duke moving, so he was standing behind me in the same way Richard was standing behind Nate, and I was grateful he didn’t touch me. That would have been bad. Fortunately he seemed to understand all the things neither of the brothers did. “You can’t force her to take the book when she doesn’t want to.”
Richard surprised me once again by pulling on a pair of gloves. I studied Nate and realised he was wearing a pair too, obviously ready to take the book. “No, I can’t, but I can find someone else who’ll understand how important it is. The world needs to change.”
“Surely you know there are only three people who would be able to touch that book without it taking them over, and two of us are standing in front of you. The other… well, you can try to find her if you really want to, but I don’t think you’d get very far.”
“You’d be surprised what I could do, Your Grace.” Richard smiled. “I’m certain I can find her.”
“Do you really think other people haven’t done tried the same thing? Those who have managed to find her have regretted it. You will be the same.”
Shrugging, Richard picked up the book. “At least then I’ll have tried.”
“You will have tried, and failed. The book will end up back with me, the way it has done before, until someone else makes the decision to try this all over again. It’s actually all quite boring, really.”
“I take it you won’t try to stop us leaving.”
“Of course not.”
Richard, with Nate by his side, made his way to the door. Unlike Nate Richard didn’t stop to look at me. I couldn’t help wondering what Nate could see when our eyes met. Did he see how much he’d hurt me by lying? Our relationship was dead. There was no chance of it being fixed. Did he see that? Did he care? Finally, after what felt like hours, he walked away, and I hoped I’d never see him again. Unfortunately I had a feeling I would. He’d try to fix things, because he wouldn’t want to lose me. He should know he’d already lost me, but I truly doubted he did. When they were gone I couldn’t help breathing a sigh of relief, even though the Duke was still in the room.
“The two of us have a lot to talk about, Adrianna, but that can wait. I have a room ready for you if you want to stay.”
Slowly I turned to look at him. “Why would I want to stay?”
“Do you truly trust the two of them to walk away? I don’t. Not when they know who you are, and what they believe you are capable of. Right now I don’t think it’s safe for you to go home.”
“Why do you even care?”
“A promise was made long ago, and I plan on keeping it. You can walk away if you want to. I’m not going to force you to stay.”

Talking to Adrianna