I’d like to share with you a short story I wrote recently for a competition. Though not a winner, it was well received, and I am very proud of my efforts to dive back into writing. Without further ado, I present to you:

Obliged

            In a cradle of moonlight, with two satin ribbons, Charlotte secured her anonymity. Anxious to cross the courtyard to the grand doors of Chagall Chateau, none of the arriving guests paid any mind to the ivy-covered corner where Charlotte tied on her mask. The interior of the palace cast a golden light on guests as they entered, giving the impression of a giant, hungry flame.

            Joining the trail of revelers, Charlotte stepped into the fire. She forgot about her sister and the fear churning in her stomach. Everything was beautiful, bathed in the flickering light of a thousand candelabras. A servant took her cloak, and her gown was alight. Gold and the crimson of her master’s court, the daring brocade drew envy from women and interest from men, which she ignored. She cared only for that of Lord Faudet.

            A lady alone would draw attention, so Charlotte sought her master’s friends. Catching a glimpse of the two young women through the swirl of dancing couples, Charlotte felt hope bubble inside her. She pushed through a group of elderly gossips and her path was clear. The women’s dresses were gorgeous and their jewelry fancier than Charlotte’s earrings and locket ring. The purple in their masks told Charlotte that they were of Chagall’s court. She forced a genial smile onto her face.

            “Pardon me,” she said, with a curtsey. “I seem to have lost my cousin to the untoward pursuit of a chambermaid. Could I bother you for company until he returns?”

            The ladies looked to each other, considering. “Of course,” the blonde one said as they curtsied. “I’m Emilie Chagall, and this is my sister, Celine.”

            “Margot Moreau,” Charlotte said.

            Celine looked at Charlotte’s exposed décolletage, and Charlotte felt a flush rise into her face. Lord Bornet had insisted upon the dress, promising it would bring the dog Faudet directly to her.

            “You wear the colors of Lord Bornet’s court, yet I have neither seen nor heard of you before,” Celine said.

            “My cousin’s husband is Lord Bornet’s head guard.”

            “And you stand idly while he chases a chambermaid?” The sisters exchanged a smirk. Charlotte smiled. They might have become friends under different circumstances.

            “That would be my cousin, their son, on the hunt.”

            The women chatted, dancing with the occasional besotted man. No matter the topic or her dance partner, Charlotte thought of Suzette. She knew her sister was scared, but they had no choice except to follow Lord Bornet’s orders. The night dragged on, and still Faudet did not appear amongst the sea of masks.  Charlotte feared the task she had given would fall out of her grasp, with it, her sister’s chance for freedom. She turned toward the grand clock, and found herself mask to mask with Faudet.

            “And who is this?” Lord Faudet asked as the women curtsied.

            “Margot Moreau,” Emilie said.

            He fixed his gaze on Charlotte and Celine rolled her eyes. Charlotte wanted Celine to know that this was not her doing. The Chagalls couldn’t understand, but Charlotte’s mother had always told them that they were not in the position to refuse men anything.

            Faudet bared his teeth in what might have been a smile, and bowed. “May I have this dance?”

            Faudet wrapped his sweaty hand around Charlotte’s wrist. She smiled and batted her lashes, wondering if her mother had felt the same revulsion toward this man. The orchestra struck up a waltz and they danced the familiar steps, Charlotte allowing Faudet to press against her.

            “How is it I have never seen you in Bornet’s court?”

            “I have only just arrived, my lord.”

            “And how has he won your allegiance and not me?”

            Charlotte laughed, eliciting his terrible grin. “My cousin’s husband is Lord Bornet’s head guard.”

            “And what did you do for Bornet that he would think to send you here?” He ran his hand down her side, and Charlotte’s mouth went dry. She concentrated on the waltz, afraid she might faint in his arms and be recognized.

            “Surely my lord owes a great deal of debt to his head guard.”

            Faudet studied her. “You remind me of someone I once met at Bornet’s court.”

            Charlotte stumbled, but Faudet caught her, holding her unbearably tight. “How flattering to be thought a courtier.”

            “I find you every bit as captivating as any courtier, but the woman was a maid.”

            Charlotte’s heart hammered. He spoke openly of her mother, the pet of Bornet until she died birthing Faudet’s child.

            “I’m sure she was lovely,” she said, though she wanted to scream, tell Faudet that he killed her. She wanted to rip his throat out as butchers did to wild game, and for one hot moment she had no concern for herself, or for freeing Suzette from Bornet’s dungeon.

            “She was.” Faudet’s eyebrow rose above the edge of his mask. “Are you well?”

            “My apologies, my lord. Perhaps a drink and some fresh air?”

            Faudet swept her to the edge of the crowded ballroom, and onto a balcony overlooking the sea. Servants appeared with wine, and faded amongst gossiping ladies and promenading lovers, masks keeping identities a mystery.

            Charlotte took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s delightfully intimate, isn’t it?”

            “So it is,” he said, moving closer to her. He drank, watching the moon’s reflection in the sea. The terror of what she had to do coursed through her, and she shivered, as if the thought itself was fleeing her body.

            “Are you cold, my dear?”

            “Yes.”

            She leaned toward him and he wrapped his arm around her, his face at the nape of her neck, buried in her curls. She angled her torso, hiding her arm from his sight.

            As she had practiced a thousand times, she brushed her ring against the lip of his cup, unlatching the hidden box. With a slight tip of her wrist, she dumped the poison into his wine and ran the back of her hand down the side of the glass to close the lid of the ring. It was done, and there was nothing more than the quiet clink of gold and crystal to give her away.

            “Perhaps some more wine,” she murmured, sure the shaking timbre of her voice would be attributed to their closeness. He grinned, raised his cup, and drank heartily. She drank too, though the acrid taste of the wine almost choked her, swallow after swallow.

            He stared toward the horizon with unfocused eyes. “I will never tire of the sea,” he said. Regret welled up inside of her, and Charlotte took his hands.

            “I’m sorry,” she said. She bit the inside of her cheek to counteract the sharpness of tears. “I have had a lovely evening, but I want to go home.”

            “Let me call your carriage,” Faudet said, taking her elbow.

            “No, please. Stay and enjoy the sea.”

            “I hope we’ll meet again, Margot,” he said, but he wasn’t looking at her. His speech slurred from wine or poison, or both. Charlotte ripped her arm away. She couldn’t bear one more minute with what she had done, or the hideous man she had done it to.

            Fancy dress concealed once more by her black cloak, Charlotte tore through the courtyard. With a sob, she ripped the mask from her face and shoved it into her pocket. Having avenged Bornet’s rage and her mother’s death, Charlotte fled Chagall Chateau. As hot tears fell down her face, Charlotte’s only hope was that Suzette might live freely, as Charlotte never could.

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