Her feet ached miserably and the young man in front of her was talking at her about something so vapid, she could barely follow his words. The eyes of people she didn't know burned into her from all directions and she felt clunky and under attack, but there was no sword she could pull out to cut them down, nor a pistol she could shoot to upset the balance. The air was thick and hot around her, the movement of the dance barely stirring it and she wondered if she was going to pass out from the heat. Her dance partner had stopped talking and was looking at her strangely, had he asked a question? God, what was his name?
Everyone was looking at her, she could just tell, talking about the strange aviator girl who had no right to share this space of delicate dresses and perfumed bosoms. The steps of the dance moved them apart and she felt a flash of relief to be away from his sweaty hands and heavy stare, if only for an eight-step.
By the time they faced each other again, she was ready to smile blandly and make a half-informed comment on the music. If he noticed the change of conversation topic from whatever it was, he was too proper to mention it and she spent the rest of the dance nodding at likely intervals in his boring, pompous commentary.
As soon as the music stopped, she gave him a perfunctory curtsey and backed away, ducking into a corner where maybe she could hide for a few dances. The heat was oppressive and she could tell that her retreat had not gone unnoticed with people still looking at her like she were an exhibit. She looked around for a familiar face, but Mrs. Pemberton was nowhere to be seen and no doubt her mother was deep in conversation or something with Captain Laurence.
These were not her people. What she wouldn't she give for Baggy to show up behind her with a bottle of weak grog or even Harley waving a pistol around. But there was just her, alone, Midwingman Roland hiding on the outskirts of this world of wealth and indulgence.
She needed to get out. She'd seen the doors from the other side of the room and made her way over to them as surreptitiously as she could, skirting close to the walls to avoid drawing too much attention. The sharp frost of winter made it both a risky and desirable option, there was a chance it would be locked to prevent the cold from coming in, but if it wasn't, no one would be foolish enough to be out there.
She looked around nervously as she reached the edge of a curtain, checking to see how many people were watching her, but the dancing had started again and only those immediately around her were paying her any attention. She slipped behind the half drawn curtain and then reached out to turn the handle, thanking God as the door opened easily under her hand and let in a shocking sweep of cold air.
Her first thought on stepping outside was to maybe go back, the cold was sharp and stinging and any lingering warmth on her skin seeped away quickly, exposed as she was in her dress. But then again, she was an aviator, she could handle a bit of cold, she'd acclimatise, besides she wasn't planning to stay out here, she just needed a moment to gather herself, to breathe. She walked over to a flat stone bench on the terrace, illuminated by a shaft of broken light through a window.
She stared back at the ballroom, even from the safety of outside it seemed to spill over with brash laughter and she turned away from it and moved instead to sit on the other side of the bench facing away from the dancing, towards the grounds.
"You shouldn't really be out here alone, people will come to alarming conclusions."
"Obviously I'm not alone if you're here."
"A most alarming conclusion indeed."
She snorted a brief laugh, Tharkay was blessed with the ability to trivialise any impending doom. She turned, squinting into the darkness, and could barely make him out leaning against the wall next to the door, hidden from the beams of light spilling out through panes of glass.
She moved over on the bench, settling on the left hand side to leave a space next to her for him.
He moved soundlessly and it was only because he radiated heat that she realised he'd moved at all. He did not speak again and he sat so still it was almost as though she had imagined his presence to begin with. The lawn stretched endlessly empty before her and in the stillness and silence she was so terribly alone.
"Do you ever feel-" she cut herself off abruptly, embarrassed of the sentiment she was about to share. Of all the people in the world, Tharkay with his darker skin and clipped British accent would know a truer form of loneliness than she could ever claim to. He would always be other in a way that could never be hidden.
He hummed nonchalantly in response to her aborted question. "Cold?"
"Nothing," she muttered, fighting down the heat in her cheeks, but now also aware that while her face was terribly hot, the rest of her was probably going to freeze solid. He shifted marginally closer, the whole right side of her body pressed against a line of heat before he shifted back again, instead choosing to take off his lovely dress jacket and drape it over her shoulders. Warmth surrounded her and she thoughtlessly curled her whole body closer into the comforting, heavy fabric. Borrowed heat.
"Emily," she looked at him then, this was new, "Don't make the mistake of confusing loneliness with choosing to be alone."
He wasn't looking at her, she could see only his profile gazing off into the distance and her heart beat quicker in her chest, how had he known what she was going to say? How had she given herself away? She felt wretchedly embarrassed and shifted uncomfortably, the cold seeping up from the stone bench through her stupid thin gown.
"You chose to step out here, to step away. But you could easily step back in and find your mother or Laurence, neither would spurn your company. You could find your absent chaperone and linger near the dance floor until you are again asked to dance. I have it on good authority that you were taught by a most competent teacher."
She smiled at that, he had been a skilled and patient teacher.
"No doubt the gentlemen within would be very attentive. Alternatively, you could give this whole dance the slip and head over to the dragons, I know Temeraire would be pleased to see you, he talks of you frequently. You could run away with Arkady to the continent and track down the deepest desires of your heart."
She scowled at the reminder of Demane's continued absence, another reason for the itching discomfort under her skin. She didn't miss him, that was stupid, she just regretted the loss of companionship, of someone her age who understood. It wasn't like she was keeping tabs on where Kulingile was or listening harder for any word on his captain. Tharkay peered at her face in the muted light, and then laughed, the noise a bright disruptive spark in the dark.
"I don't know why it should surprise me so, but you really do take after him. Given your extended exposure from such a young age, it is no wonder you should have acquired some of his mannerisms."
She frowned in annoyance, "You know he's not my father."
He didn't respond, but she could imagine his raised brow mocking her and she huffed irritably. They had barely settled back into a comfortable silence when he broke it again.
"You're taking this too personally. All of this is just a game you have no choice but to play. You're lucky that you don't have to play it all the time. Think of all of those girls in there, how many of them will ever get so much as a hint of the chance to do the things you've already done, see the things you've seen? Will they ever have the opportunity to aspire to anything more than an advantageous marriage? You're not even two decades and you've lived so much more than almost anyone else here. Once this is over," he gestures vaguely, she doesn't know if he means this party in particular or something else entirely, "you will always have Excidium, your path may well wander through parties and ballrooms but you will always end up in the harness of a dragon who loves you."
"And these gentlemen, they are predominately foolish fops, of no value to anyone, let alone to someone like you. You should probably avoid getting... involved with any of them. They don't understand anything, they're so caught up in their own nonsense and foolish ideals, it's not worth the hardship it will inevitably cause. Your newfound inheritance makes you appealing and your aviation history will strike them as exciting at first, but mark my words, over time the exotic sheen will become undesirable."
She looked at him in amazement, "Does the Captain know you're telling me this?"
"He would be quite horrified by the impropriety of this tableau, let alone the contents of our conversation. I would not like to do him a disservice, but I fear he is another who doesn't fully comprehend some of the nuances of your life."
She fully agreed, remembering poor Harcourt's marriage and her own Mrs. Pemberton. "He is..." she faltered, uncertain of what she wanted to say. He was a diligent captain, steadfast and thorough, he had treated her always kindly and in his own way, fairly, "He is well-meaning."
Tharkay curled forward resting his elbows on his knees and steepling his fingers under his chin and smiled, "That he is." As he moved, the light through the windows behind them caught on the hard line of his jaw, the steep slope of his nose, the upturn of his lips. She stared at him, surprised at her own delayed realisation. He really was quite lovely.
She jumped and turned to look over her right shoulder feeling Tharkay mirror her movements, both turning on the bench, knees touching as they shifted. Her mother stood with Captain Laurence in the doorway from the ballroom out onto the terrace. Her mother's face cycled from surprised to alarmed to suspicious in quick succession, eyes narrowed on Tharkay with confused distrust.
More interesting was the look on the Captain's face, looking at her as if she were the one who had lured his friend into a scandalous assignment. She smiled at the idea and turned back to Tharkay who was looking back at her, possibly a bit too close to be appropriate in the circumstances. A glint of mischief danced across his features, or perhaps it was only the lights of the ballroom reflected in his eyes, he favoured her with a sweetly honest smile, a secret, a solidarity shared. She chanced a quick glance at her mother and the Captain, framed in the doorway, both now sharing expressions of disapproval and she beamed back at him, unexpectedly full of a bubbling laughter.
"I have most enjoyed our chat Lady Emily Roland," he murmured to her, all of a sudden very sincere and proper as she stood from the bench to make her way to her mother.
"As have I, Mr. Tharkay, most illuminating," she replied feigning the simpering debutante with a nonsense response and passing his jacket back to him. He smiled absently at her before straightening again and looking out over the frosty lawn. She made her way back to the ballroom, pausing a moment to meet the Captain's piercing gaze as they passed on the terrace. A well of affection for him opened up as she looked into his familiar solemn features and she smiled at him, reaching out to touch the arm of his jacket, squeezing quickly.
He cleared his throat uncomfortably and frowned at her, "Roland, is everything...well?" his gaze turned to the still line of Tharkay's back before meeting hers again.
"Of course," she smiled and dropped into a curtsey that his mother had forced her to perfect before leaving him to replace her spot on the bench.
"Emily, what mischief are you up to now?" her mother scolded as soon as she stepped in beside her.
"All sorts," she replied easily, linking their arms together as she had seen others do and walking back into the bright, warm ballroom.