He can hear voices in Basch’s office, can hear Balthier and Fran, but the door isn’t closed, and he isn’t waiting. When he pushes into the room, no one looks surprised to see him. Vossler doesn’t bother to sit in the chair he’s offered. Instead, he stops right in front of Basch, looks him in the eye. “You can’t have guard duty again. You had it last time there was an occasion.” The last four times there was an occasion.
This is the case every time there is a formal event in the palace. Basch sticks him with being plain-clothes guard, and when these fetes are the occasion, “plain-clothes” means formal attire. And drifting through and beside every circle Her Majesty touches, because they must be far enough to at least allow Ashe some semblance of relaxation, of mobility, and yet close enough if something should happen. That Ashe technically needs as much protection as he or Basch does doesn’t change security. And he won’t even be allowed weaponry, as none of the other guests will. But Basch, Basch will be able to wear a sword and his dress uniform and have the freedom to walk away from anything under the guise of duty, while Vossler will be stuck hovering at the edge of thirty conversations he’d rather be deaf than hear, or being made to dance if Ashe should choose to. She won’t dance with him—bad form politically, and she does not follow his lead—and so he’ll have to find a partner in the guard who isn’t already scheduled for duty and who already knows how to dance.
Basch looks truly sorry, and the man has such a damnably earnest face. Vossler knows he can lie like a rug—he’s a terrible cheat at cards and everyone knows it and they all still play with him—but he thinks Basch might actually be sorry this time. He is wrong. After a minute, Basch can’t hold back the grin.
“House Margrace will be in attendance, which means fully half of the music will be Rozarrian, because Amir bribes the musicians, and you know all of those ridiculous—” Basch’s hand flicks at the floor, his fingers picking out some poor semblance of rhythm.
“—ly complicated steps.” Basch attempts a smile, and Vossler knows he’s stuck with it again, because that much is true. He grew up with Rozarrian music, has been dancing the farruca and the seguiriya forever, but he also knows the Margrace brothers. There will be a tango. And that one is his, but he cannot find a partner to suit. He has never found a partner to suit.
“Find me someone who can dance, then.” Vossler goes to the window, looks out. Porters are already bustling across the grounds, though the ball is not until tomorrow.
“Dina, maybe.” Basch shrugs. “She seems to be able to do everything else.”
“You might try Fran.” Balthier’s voice does not jest, though he sounds amused at all of this. He would be. “She’s been dancing, I’m certain, longer than you’ve been alive.”
Something clenches in Vossler’s stomach. Fran. Even after all of this time, she makes him nervous. Nervous, and warm. He wants her, and she knows that, must know that. He swallows, doesn’t think it’s obvious, but for certain she hears it. That he’d learned while traveling with them. “You dance?”
“Well enough. You can lead?” There is a challenge in it, but she speaks nothing of the past. She stands.
The beat of his blood marks off a tempo too fast, would strike up if there were other instruments. “Well enough.” This is a future he might look forward to.
* * *
He finds himself almost frustrated that his queen converses more than she dances. It was never something she’d taken well to, and the few dances that she joins are early in the evening—waltzes that let her carry on her conversation, and he and Fran do the same: watchful, but easy. There is no life in this music; it says nothing to his bones, but Fran is graceful and quick. Competent. He finds himself wishing for House Margrace to do what it always does—turn every place into some version of the Ambervale—but Al-Cid has been at Ashe’s elbow all night, Amir is actually speaking with the Paraminan ambassador, and Adiv has been on one of the balconies with some court flower since the introductions were over. He finds himself disappointed: the evening winds down, and he and Fran have had nothing but a companionable box-step between them.
It is a waste. She is breathtaking tonight, dressed in one-shouldered white, and the wrap of the skirt allows only barest modesty where it meets at the top of her right thigh. The fabric shines, and it ripples like water—it is a dress she could fight in. It is a dress she could dance in. And so he does something he has never done at one of these functions before. He asks the maestro for the song he wants.
The violins sweep the song open, and the bandoneones curl the dancers into the song. Fran’s back is to his chest, her hand covering his on her hip. Their left legs slide out as one, circle in and out, and her stride is the first that has been long enough that he does not have to curtail anything. She spins forward, her fingers firm in his, and when she snaps back to his chest, her chin even higher than his, there is something fierce, something heated, in her uncanny wine-colored eyes, something that had not been there before. Her foot finds his instep as though magnetized, her push direct to his pull, opening his body, and she steps spiked into the space before him. Her feet’s flourish sends the split skirt to fluttering, and she sinks, fans one perfect leg across the floor, rises to meet his eyes, and he has never wanted this so much.
Their arms hold like foils; their feet spar choreographed, the open toe of her shoe sliding first up his calf and then touching the thin leather covering his own. She anticipates his lead in ways no one has ever done, and perhaps she hears the tension in his muscle, the uncoiling of each tendon, because she turns her body out to meet his chest again. The fullness of her is like the swell of the violins, sawed keen with the bow, and he spins her in another tight circle. Her feet make him dizzy, dizzy but sharp, and the tap of her heels counterpoints the beat of his breath.
This is backward ocho, forward, backward again, and he does not pull—she pursues—and her back is hot under his palm. All bared skin, and there is combat in her adornos, in the flare of each foot, but not in her hands. She holds his shoulder and hand as a comrade, and she holds his eyes like a lover. He cannot look away, but he must see the floor, and so he fits his hands on her waist, circles behind her, and the dance floor is empty. Ashe stands beside Balthier and Al-Cid, flanked by dignitaries, one of Basch’s guard three steps behind her. Basch himself stands on the opposite side of the room, so he faces his queen. Arcing between them is the color-and-glint wash of court finery, the mixed pale and brown faces turned toward him. Everyone is watching. His blood surges, Fran surges, forward and reverse, and she tips back in his arms so far the tips of her ears nearly brush the floor. Her leg comes up to his hip, not for balance, but to show the tilt of them until she straightens, leans into the slowing breath of the bandoneones. The curve of her breasts presses close, here where the violins take over and hold them together in the crook of his elbow, but there is still the fraught space between their hips, where she is ever before him. Even when he slides backward, her thigh but a half inch separated from his, she is before him, and when the music pushes them forward, she compels him, draws him with the touch of her toe on the outside of his calf, with lustradas and the undrawn bow of her spine. She presses her cheek to his, but she does not drape, does not expect him to hold her up, as partners before have, and he can make cruzada and zarandeo, can know she follows.
When his leg moves between hers, she matches him, steps over clean and clean and then with the same swirling drag of the musicians. She is outside and inside and beneath his skin with every silent step. Her left thigh lifts to his left hip, her body oblique but the slide of her bare skin against the fabric of his trousers lasts to the back of his knee, and he must spin her away, must have her press close again, must feel her body and the music and the gaze. The watching is like a second skin, nerves they both share, and it fuses their palms and even the space between them.
When the bandoneones fill in again, pull them out of the violins’ sway and dip, Fran’s feet are like her arrows, pointed and sharp and everywhere. They dart between his golpecitos, curveting around the steadfastness of the beat and the strength of his thighs. The almost-touch of her is maddening, is perfect, and at the thought, she bends with him, matches the stretch of his back with the arch of her spine, and he thinks that if he looks up, he will see some face he knows, but he cannot look up from the column of Fran’s throat or the perfect tension in her muscles. She can make this look effortless, springs back with the suppleness of saplings, and the piano’s slowing brings the song’s end, but not before she sweeps low to the floor, before he lifts her to feel the full weight of her body, muscle and bone and blood and power, arced at his side. They come to rest with his mouth above hers, her left leg stretched long and near-flat to the floor, but gravity is reversed in her eyes. He draws her up, she rises level, and there is applause. There is an exchange. There is promise.