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It was a glittering and fantastic spectacle. The St. Charles Theater blazed with gaslight from the great Gothic chandeliers of wrought iron with their milk-glass globes. The wooden floor that had been laid over the parquet area had been waxed to a high gloss that reflected not only the warm pools of light, but also the white plastered pillars with their gilded decorations of acanthus leaves, the crimson velvet of the stage curtain, the urn-shaped balustrades of the boxes, and the lyre designs in the domed ceiling. Silken streamers of red and green and gold had been looped from the dome down to the upper tier of boxes. They swayed gently in the rising heat given off by the burning gaslights, as if moving in time to the measured lilt of the waltz being played by the orchestra.
Dancers whirled around the floor clad in silk and velvet and lace, and with their eyes gleaming with pleasure through the slits of the masks covering their faces. Here a girl garbed as Medieval Lady with pointed, veil-draped headpiece was partnered by a Bedouin in flowing robes. There a Monk with a cross swinging about his knees was paired with a lady in the guise of a Vestal Virgin. Promenading on the arm of one of Iberville's Dragoons was a lady with a powdered coiffure and a red ribbon about her neck denoting an aristocrat of the French Revolution. Cloth of gold shimmered. Feathers floated and drifted from headdresses. Stones of paste vied in sparkle with the restrained glint of real jewels. The air smelled of perfume, with also a faint hint of camphor in which many of the costumes had been packed away until this Mardi Gras season. There was the subdued roar of merriment and conversationin voices lifted to carry above the music. Over the gathering hung a faint air of daring, a sense of risqué pleasure, as discreet flirtations were conducted behind the anonymity of concealing disguises.
Anya Hamilton, watching the crowd from where she stood against one of the great columns that supported the dress circle boxes, smothered a yawn. She allowed her dark lashes with their auburn tips to close. The smoke and the smell of partially burned gas from the lights were giving her a headache, or perhaps it was the tightness of the tie of her ecru satin demi-mask. The music was too loud, though the hollow shuffle of feet on the temporary wood floor, combined with the chattering of voices, nearly drowned it out. It was still early in the evening, but there had been too many late nights for Anya in the past weeks. This was her fifth bal masqué since coming to New Orleans shortly after Christmas, and she did not care if it was her last, though she well knew there were nearly two weeks more of them to go before the blessed respite of Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras had once been a pagan festival celebrating fertility and the rites of spring. Named in those early days the Lupercalia for the cave where had been held the celebrations surrounding the worship of the god Pan, deity of the land of lovers called Arcadia, it had evolved into an escuse for debauchery and licentious conduct during the time of the Romans. The early Christian fathers had tried to stamp it out but, failing abysmally, had incorporated it into the rituals of the Resurrection. Mardi Gras then was decreed to be the last day of feasting before the arrival of Ash Wednesday, which heralded the forty days of Lenten fasting preceding Easter. The priests had called their festival in Latin carnelevare, a word that could be loosely translated to mean "farewell to the flesh."
It was the French who had named it Mardi Gras, literally Fat Tuesday, for their practice of parading a boeuf gras, or "enormous bull," through the streets as a symbol of the day. It was also the French, under Louis XV, who had popularized the weeks of opulent festivities in advance of the final holiday, and the tradition of the bal masqué.
Anya had a grudge against the Gallic race for the last. It wasn't that she disliked the masked balls, not at all. She always enjoyed the first one or two of the winter season, the saison des visites as it was known in New Orleans. But she saw no reason why Madame Rosa and Celestine had to go to every such affair to which they received an invitation. It must have been her Anglo-Saxon heritage that deplored such prolonged merriment; to her it was expensive, it was boring, but most of all, it was exhausting.
"Anya, wake up! People are staring!"
Anya lifted her lashes with irony behind the warmth in her eyes that were the ink blue of northern seas, turned her head to look at her half sister Celestine. "I thought they had already been staring all night at my ankles, at least according to you."
"So they have been and still are! How you can stand there with every man that passes ogling your lower limbs, I don't understand."
Anya flicked a glance over the other girl, dressed as a deliciously voluptuous shepherdess with a great deal of her softly rounded bosom showing, then looked down at her form that was completely covered except for her bare ankles that were a scant two inches below the hem of the doeskin costume that turned her into an Indian Princess. She picked up one of her thick braids that had the rich golden russet brown hue and patina of polished rosewood. Flipping the end in a derisive gesture, she said, "Scandalous, isn't it?"
"It is indeed. I wonder Maman allows it."
"I am masked."
Celestine gave a ladylike sniff. "A demi-mask, scant disguise or protection."
"An Indian woman with her skirt down to the floor would be ridiculous, and well you know it. Since I had to wear a costume, I prefer it to be authentic. As for Madame Rosa, she is much too good-natured to try to constrain me."
"What you mean is you haven't the least regard for her wishes, or for those of anyone else!"
Anya smiled at her half sister, her manner coaxing. "Dear Celestine, I'm here, aren't I? Don't be cross, it will give you wrinkles."
Instantly the younger girl's frown smoothed. She went on, however. "I'm only concerned for what the old ladies will say about you."
"It's sweet of you, chère," Anya said, giving the other girl the endearment heard a thousand times a day among the Creoles, "but I fear it's too late. They have been exercising the ends of their tongues on me for so long, it would be a pity to deprive them of the diversion."
Celestine looked at her elder half sister, at the smooth oval of her face, the sparkle of her eyes through her mask, her straight nose, and the warmth of the smile that curved her perfectly molded mouth. With worry in her brown eyes, she looked away, glancing around the room. "So far they only call you eccentric. So far." Abruptly she stiffened. "There, that man. You see how he stares? That's what I mean!"
Anya turned her head to follow the direction of her half sister's narrow gaze. The man Celestine spoke of stood on the first balcony tier across the room, with one hand braced on a Corinthian column and the other on his hip. He was tall and broad, an impression heightened by his costume of black and silver representing the Black Knight, complete with floor-length cloak and visored helmet covering his head and shoulders. He was a powerful figure and a romantic one in a rather dangerous way. So complete was his disguise that there was no hint of his identity; still, the glinting silver crossbars of his helmet were turned in her direction.
It was unnerving, that steady, faceless appraisal, almost as if it held a threat. Anya felt a ripple of unease that was allied to an odd awareness of herself as a woman. Her pulse quickened and she felt a singing tension along her nerves. It grew until, with a swift indrawn breath, she tore her gaze away. "Is he staring? I can't tell," she said mendaciously.
"He has been watching you for the past half hour."
"Smitten, no doubt, by my dainty ankles?" Anya thrust out her foot, displaying an ankle that, though slender and well turned, had too much strength to give the proper appearance of fragility. "Oh, come, Celestine, you are imagining things. Or else, you like the looks of the knight, since you must have been watching him while he was watching me. Shocking! I should tell Murray."
"Don't you dare!"
"You know I wouldn't, though the timing is perfect. Here he is."
Beyond Celestine, Anya had caught sight of a fresh-faced young man. He was dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac, but had removed his long-nosed mask and left it dangling around his neck. Of medium height, he had thick and curly light brown hair, ingenuous hazel eyes, and a smile that creased his tanned cheeks into dimples of consummate charm. At the moment, he was making his way along the edge of the dance floor carrying, somewhat precariously, two cups of lemonade.
"Sorry to be so long," he said as he relinquished his burdens, one to each lady. "There was a crush you wouldn't believe around the lemonade bowl. It's this heat. I can tell you we never had anything like it in February in Illinois."
Anya tasted her lemonade. She refused to look toward the balcony where the Black Knight had stood, fastening her attention instead on the couple beside her.
Murray Nicholls was Celestine's fiancé. Their courtship had not been a long one, but the betrothal period had been protracted. For once Madame Rosa had risen above her natural indolence to put her foot down. She did not believe in marriage between strangers. Love was an emotion that took time to be recognized and firmly established. It was not a storm of feeling that came like the one of the hurricanes of autumn, leveling everything in its path. They must be patient.
Patient they had certainly been. It was over eight months since Celestine had received her betrothal bracelet, and still there was no talk of a wedding date, though the trousseau, with its dozens of everything from sheets to nightgowns, was almost ready.
To Anya's eyes, the young pair were well suited. Celestine, like her mother, was dark haired and dark eyed, with a smooth white complexion improved at the moment with white pearl powder, a rounded form and face, and a gentle expression--when she was not concerned for Anya's good name. She was sweet and sentimental, and required in a husband a man who was soft-spoken and kind, one with a sense of humor to tease her out of her occasional crotchets and gloomy moods. Murray Nicholls appeared to have the proper qualifications, in addition to being the possessor of a good degree of intelligence and reasonable prospects as a clerk in a law office where he was preparing for his own entry into the profession. It was difficult to understand why Madame Rosa was so insistent on delay.
Anya recognized with wry self-knowledge that her own approval stemmed from the fact that Murray reminded her of Jean François Girod. Jean, her own fiancé until his death, had been just that open and fresh of countenance, just that charming and sunny of manner, and he would have been about the same age Murray was now, in his late twenties. Jean might have been a tiny bit slimmer, a bit shorter; he had been scarcely an inch taller than she was herself, though she could not be called petite as she towered nearly three good inches above Celestine, who was of average height. The eyes of the two men were different also; Jeans had been a deep, velvety brown. Still, the hair was the same, as well as the quick manner and the suppressed air of high spirits.
It has been those same high spirits that had killed Jean. His death had been so senseless; that was the one thing that Anya could not forgive. It had been in a duel, but not some grandiose meeting for the sake of honor. Instead, he had died because of a maudlin and drunken jest.
Jean and five of his friends had been returning from a card game out near Lake Pontchartrain late one night. They had spent long hours sitting around a gaming table in a smoke-filled room, wagering with bored abandon, drinking deep. It had been a night with a full moon and, as they passed by the field with the pair of live oak trees known as the dueling oaks, the moonlight had made such dancing patterns of light and shadow across the grass under the trees that they were entranced. Someone suggested that they match swords, since the stage was so beautifully set for a duel. They piled out of their carriage and drew their weapons in reckless gaity. When the fight was over, two of their number lay dead with their blood staining the grass. One of them had been Jean.
The waltz that was playing came to an end and a contredanse began. Celestine drank the last of her lemonade and glanced at Murray, one slippered toe tapping the floor. Anya reached out to lift the girls' cup from her hand. "I'll take care of that; you two enjoy yourselves."
"Will you be all right?" Murray asked.
"I'll probably go and doze with Madame Rosa and the rest of the chaperones."
"Such a waste," he said with a flashing grin.
"You're too kind," she mocked gently. "Go along with you."
A Negro waiter in uniform appeared with a tray to take the cups. Anya smiled her thanks and he moved silently away again. Still she stood where she was, watching her half sister and Murray Nicholls dancing among the other gaudily costumed couples. At twenty-five, she was only seven years older than Celestine, but sometimes she felt immeasurably more ancient. Sometimes she even felt older than Madame Rosa.
She glanced over her shoulder toward where her stepmother sat in her box that, with the raised floor, was nearly on a level with the dancers. Attending the older woman was her faithful cavalier servente Gaspard Freret. A dapper little man as thin as his chosen lady was stout; a writer of theater and opera reviews and fountainhead of the latest on-dits, Gaspard had been looked upon with tolerant amusement by Anya and Celestine for the past several years.
Anya had come to think, however, that he was something more than a nonentity. For one thing, he was a master swordsman and excellent shot, necessary skills for a gentleman in a city where the duello was an institution and a man might receive a challenge at any moment. For another, he seemed to have considerable standing among the city officials and business institutions, and had given Anya excellent counsel on a number of occasions concerning investments. Lately Anya had also begun to suspect that it was on Gaspard's advice and with his support that Madame Rosa had decreed the delay in the nuptials between her daughter and Murray.
The older pair were dressed as Anthony and Cleopatra, though Madame Rosa as the Egyptian Queen wore the deep black of mourning, doubtless, Anya thought with wry humor, for the death of Caesar. Madame Rosa had not left off her black for as long as Anya could remember, not since the deaths of her twin sons, Anya's half brothers, in infancy, certainly not since Anya's father had died seven years before.
Madame Rosa had been her fathers second wife. Nathan Hamilton's first, Anya's mother, had been a planters daughter from Virginia. He had met her while traveling from his home in Boston into the South, searching for land on which to establish himself as a businessman-planter. He had found Virginia a closed enclave of proud families living on depleted acreage, but he discovered there the woman he wanted to marry. After the wedding, he tried to make a go of managing a section of land given to the couple by the brides father. It had not been profitable. After several years of effort, he finally, against the wishes of his in-laws, sold out and moved on to New Orleans with his wife and five-year-old daughter.
The land along the Mississippi River and its tributaries was rich due to frequent flooding that left the topsoil of the nations heartland behind it, but the choicest plots had long ago been taken. While on a tour of the countryside by steamboat, however, Nathan chanced to sit in on a poker game. When he rose from the table, he was the owner of six hundred acres of prime delta land less than three hours' traveling time from New Orleans, along with 173 slaves and a house named Beau Refuge. His pleasure was short-lived. By the time he took possession of his land, his wife was ill with a fever, and died soon afterward.
Being a practical man and a sensual one, Anya's father had, when his period of mourning was over, looked about him for a woman who would make a home for him and be a mother to his young daughter. He settled on Marie-Rose Hautrive, whom he called Rosa, a young woman past the freshness of first youth at twenty-two and still unmarried. He courted her in the teeth of the opposition of her family: he had wealth, but to the French Creoles la famille was all-important, and what could one know of the family of a blue-eyed américain from so barbarous a place as Boston?
Plump and placid, too placid to attract suitors less determined, Madame Rosa had been a perfect stepmother. She gave Anya love and warmth and wrapped her in the luxurious comfort of her massive bosom and the home she made for Anya and her father. She sometimes complained gently of Anya's conduct as she was growing up, but never scolded, and certainly never attempted to discipline her. Her tactics stemmed from indolence in part, but also from an innate shrewdness. Anya's loss of her mother and doting grandparents at the same time that she was uprooted from her familiar home in Virginia had left her prey to violent nightmares. The indulgence she received because of them, combined with being treated like a small princess by the slaves who had come with the plantation her father had won, had make her willful and wild. Madame Rosa soothed her fears and gave her security. She did her best to make her a biddable young lady, and had succeeded well enough until the deaths of the two men closest to Anya, those of Jean and of her father.
Nathan Hamilton died of injuries after a fall from a horse just two months after the death of Anya's fiancé. The double tragedy propelled Anya into a fierce rebellion. She was only eighteen, and it seemed that her life was over. If living and loving could come to an end so soon and for so slight a reason, then it would be as well to use the hours allowed precisely as one pleased. If such terrible things could happen to people who followed all the stifling rules dictated by the church and society, while men like Ravel Duralde, who had killed her Jean, went blithely on their way flouting every canon of decency, then what good was conforming? She would do so no longer.
And so she had discarded her petticoats and sidesaddle to ride astride over her fathers plantation in a long divided skirt of soft leather worn with a man's shirt and broad-brimmed hat. She read books and periodicals on farming methods and, when she found her fathers overseer unwilling to listen to her ideas for improvements, fired him and took on the job of running the plantation herself. Sometimes she argued with the men who were her neighbors about the theories of breeding horses and swine, a subject a lady should know nothing of, much less speak about in mixed company. She learned to swim with the Negro children, braving the treacherous currents of the river, and could not understand why drowning was thought preferable for a female to engaging in such an activity. She tended the ills of the plantation slaves, male as well as female, helping the elderly woman who served as nurse to set limbs and sew up cuts, as well as deliver babies and aid the women who had attempted to rid themselves of unwanted children. And she listened to the hair-raising tales of the shifts of love and desire, hate and assault that took place in the slave quarters after dark. The female slaves taught her a number of interesting facts, in addition to several tricks of self-preservation.
While in New Orleans during those years, she had fallen in with a crowd consisting mainly of young married couples, many of them Americans. They were a fast lot who thought it splendid fun to go for moonlight sails on Lake Pontchartrain, visit the cemeteries at midnight where the ghostly mausoleums in plastered brick and white marble shone like cities of the dead, or else drive at a gallop down Gallatin Street on a Saturday night, watching for the ladies of the evening who adorned the balconies and open windows, or who plied their wares on the street. They dared not drive slow on such pilgrimages because of the danger; there was on average a murder every night of the year on that short thoroughfare, and that was counting only the corpses that were discovered. It was an accepted fact that there were many other men who wound up in the river, the only rule of the street being that a man must dispose of his own victims.
With this group of friends Anya had spent a great many nights eating in the finest restaurants of the city, partaking liberally of wine with each of the many courses. Sometimes they would go on to some soiree or ball, or if some other amusement did not appeal, entertain themselves by thinking up ludicrous dares and wagers. Once Anya was persuaded to steal an operatic tenor's nightcap.
It was the custom for opera companies to arrive in the city for runs lasting three to four weeks. The tenor of the company then in town was flamboyant and vain, with a high opinion of himself as a ladies' man. He was also known to be more than a little balding. The dare had begun as a joke about the kind of nightgear such a Lothario might wear to hide a tonsorial deficiency always covered while on stage by a wig.
The man was staying at the Pontalba apartments that were then newly finished, the first of their kind in the United States. They were constructed with ornate wrought-iron balconies overlooking Jackson Square, the old Place d'Armes of the French and Spanish regimes. To do the deed, Anya persuaded her coachman to drive under the tenors balcony late one night. Dressed in boys clothes, she swung to the top of the carriage, then pulled herself up onto the balcony that led to the man's rooms. It was a warm night, and she depended on his windows to be open. What she had not made allowance for was the possibility that he might not be asleep, or alone in his bed.
Nonplussed, but dauntless, Anya stole into the bedchamber and snatched the nightcap, a splendid affair of velvet and gold lace, from the tenors head while he labored in the throes of passion. Whirling with her prize, she ran for her life.
The tenor bellowed and gave chase. So magnificent was the capacity of the opera stars lungs that his shouts awakened the building. As Anya was driven away at breakneck speed, lying flat on the roof of her carriage, the Pontalba balcony was lined with spectators. She had not, by the grace of God, been recognized, but the story had spread so quickly of the stolen nightcap that at the next performance the poor tenor was laughed from the stage. Anya had felt such guilt for the man's public embarrassment that she had sharply curtailed such escapades, and finally dropped the company of the married crowd altogether.
Anya glanced back toward the dancers in the theater ballroom. They were growing noisier, the effect of the iced champagne punch being served up along with the lemonade in the refreshment room. This was a public ball for the benefit of one of the city's many orphanages, with entrance by subscription. As a result, the guest list was less than exclusive, including anyone who might have the price of a ticket. The air of license seemed to be growing as the night advanced. It was not surprising.
The contredanse came to an end, and after a moment or two, another waltz began. It appeared that Celestine and Murray were going to remain on the floor for it. Anya pushed away from the column, making her way toward Madame Rosa and Gaspard, trying to discover some way to frame a request that they go home.
There was a flicker of movement above her. A dark shadow spread, swooping, and from the balcony overhead a man in costume leaped, to land with springing lightness on his feet before her. His cloak settled around him, swinging in heavy folds about his heels.
With her nerves jangling, Anya drew herself up, staring at the Black Knight. The helmet he wore was real, as was the plate armor cuirass molded to the muscles of his chest, but for ease of movement the rest of his armor was constructed of black metallic cloth cut and stitched in a clever design that looked very like the real thing. His cloak was of black velvet lined with cloth of silver.
"May I have this waltz, Mademoiselle Sauvagesse?"
His voice echoed hollowly from inside his helmet as he made his request, giving her the title that went with her costume. The deep timbre had a familiar ring, though she did not think she knew it well. It seemed to vibrate through her, touching a resonant chord inside. She did not like the sensation, nor the feeling of being caught off guard. Her voice was cold with annoyance as she spoke. "Thank you, no. I was just leaving the floor."
As she stepped away from him, he put out a gauntleted hand to catch her arm, detaining her. "Don't refuse, I beg of you. Such opportunities as this come seldom, sometimes only once in an overlong life."
His touch, even through the heavy glove, make the skin of her arm tingle with the prickling rise of gooseflesh. She stared at him, trying to pierce his disguise, disturbed by a peculiar and unwilling awareness. "Who are you?"
"A man who desires a single dance, no more."
"That's no answer," she said sharply. She thought he had hesitated over his choice of words. It made them seem as if they held a meaning hidden from her. She tried to pierce the bars that made up the visor of his helmet, but could catch no more than a jet glitter where his eyes should be.
"But can't you see? I am a knight painted black, a dastard, the foe of good and master of evil; an outcast. Won't you take pity on me? Allow me to bask in the warmth of your favor; dance with me!"
His tone was light and his touch the same, not at all restraining, she discovered, though she would have sworn a moment before that the hold was unbreakable. For a breathless instant she was assailed by a sense of overwhelming, inescapable intimacy. So disturbing was it that she jerked her arm free, turning away once more. "I fear it would not be wise."
"But when have you been that, Anya?"
She swung back toward him so quickly that her long thick braids flew out to strike soft ringing blows against his metal cuirass. "You know me?"
"Is that so strange?"
"I find it more than odd that you can recognize me while I am masked, yet you still remain unknown to me."
"You knew me once."
It was an evasion. "If this is a guessing game, you must hold me excused; I don't care for such play."
She stepped quickly around him. This time his hand shot out to capture her wrist, and it was not a light clasp. She was whirled back against him so that her shoulder landed hard upon the metal that covered his chest. She stared up at him through the slits of her demi-mask, her eyes wide and startled as she recognized the superior strength he held in leash, and also the sheer radiating force of him as a man. Her pulse began to throb. A soft apricot flush rose to her cheekbones, and her eyes darkened slowly to deepest cobalt with rising anger and the strange distress that increased it a hundredfold.
The man in black stared down at her with a tight feeling in his chest. His gaze caught and held for a long instant on the delicate color of her face, the lovely and smooth contours of her mouth. He was a fool; if he had not known it before, he knew it now.
His voice rasped as he spoke. "It's such a small thing I ask; why could you not have the grace to grant it without getting into a ridiculous wrangle?"
"I'm glad to see that you realize it is ridiculous." Her rage was no less biting for being quiet. "It will be less so if you will let me go, at once."
Before he could comply, before he could answer, there was a stir behind them and the sound of quick footsteps. Murray Nicholls, his face flushed and his hands clenched, appeared beside them. His tones stiff, he asked, "Is this man troubling you, Anya?"
The Black Knight breathed a soft imprecation before he released Anya's wrist and stepped back. "My most sincere apologies," he said. Inclining his head in a bow, he turned away with a swirl of his cloak.
"Just a minute," Murray called, his tone harsh, imperative. "I saw you molesting Anya, and I believe there is an explanation due."
"To you?" The voice of the man in black was as hard as granite as he turned back.
"To me, as a man who will soon be as a brother to her. Shall we step outside where we may discuss it in private?"
Celestine, standing a short distance away, made a sound of dismay that she smothered by raising her hands to her lips. Anya glanced at her, aware as was the other girl of the implications of the words of the two men. Duels had been fought many times over much less than had just occurred.
"Really, Murray," she said, moving to put her hand on his arm, "there is no need. It was a simple misunderstanding."
"Please stay out of this, Anya." The face of Celestine's fiancé was pale and his voice unusually stern.
Anya's temper, held precariously until that moment, left her control. "Don't take that tone with me, if you please, Murray Nicholls! You and Celestine are not yet married, and you have no responsibility where I am concerned. I can fight my own battles."
He paid no attention, but made a curt gesture that indicated he expected the black-costumed man to follow as he pulled his arm from Anya's grasp and walked away. The Black Knight hesitated, then, with a movement of wide shoulders that might have been a shrug, moved after the younger man, overtaking him in a few long strides.
Celestine tottered toward Anya, clutching her hand. "Oh, what is going to happen? What are we going to do?"
Anya hardly heard her. "Damn men," she said with unaccustomed heat. "Damn them and their stupid pride and their idiotic pairing off like fighting cocks."
The girls were joined almost at once by Madame Rosa and Gaspard. The older couple had seen the contretemps from where they were sitting. Gaspard had thought the matter had a most serious appearance and feared his presence might be needed, but he had, it seemed, arrived too late. Neither by word nor tone did he indicate that Madame Rosa had delayed him, still Anya knew it must be so, and was sorry. There might have been something he could have done; Gaspard was not only well versed in such matters, he was, above all else, extremely diplomatic.
They stood in a close group as if for mutual comfort as they waited for Murray to return. As the time passed, a terrible coldness grew inside Anya. She could remember so well the morning she had been told Jean was dead. The man who had killed him, Ravel Duralde, had come to tell her. He had been dark and handsome, perhaps three years older than Jean and his closest friend, though not of the plantation aristocracy. On that occasion, his face had been gray and his eyes filled with pain as he tried to explain, to make her understand the reckless euphoria, the sheer joie de vivre, that had led to the moonlight duel. She had not understood at all. Looking at the man, sensing the vibrant life that flowed so strongly within him, knowing of his reputation as a superb swordsman while Jean had been merely competent, Anya had hated him. She could remember screaming at him in her shocked grief, though she could not recall the words. He had stood gazing at her, his face dazed and without defense; then he had gone away. From that moment, the mere thought of dueling had roused Anya to instant rage, a rage so great she could scarcely control it.
Suddenly Celestine gasped with her hand over her heart. "Thank God. Murray. There he is, and alive."
"Did you think they would fly at each other at once?" Gaspard asked in his precise tones, his distinguished features expressing shocked surprise. "That is not the way an affair such as this is conducted. There must be seconds chosen, weapons collected, arrangements made. It will be at least the dawn, and possibly twenty-four hours more, before the duel can commence." Catching the glance of asperity sent him by Madame Rosa, he added hastily, "Of course, we do not know that the matter will come to such a painful necessity."
Murray Nicholls's face was greenish, with a fine sheen of perspiration across his forehead and upper lip. His smile was less than a success, and there was false heartiness in his tone as he reached them. "Well, that's settled. Celestine, ma chérie, shall we dance?"
"But what happened?" the girl asked, her gaze searching his features.
"Men don't discuss these matters."
"Quite right," Gaspard said, nodding his approval.
"In any case," Murray went on, "it came to nothing. Let's speak of something else, if you please."
Anya stepped forward with a frown between her winged brows. "Don't act as if we were simpletons. We were here when it started; it's useless to pretend that we know nothing. Are you going to meet this man, or not?
"Perhaps it would be better if we took the ladies home," Murray said to Gaspard, ignoring Anya's question. "I believe they have been made a little overwrought by the incident."
Celestine, her gaze on the hand Murray held at his side, asked in a rush, "What is that you are holding? It's a card, isn't it?"
Murray glanced down at the strip of pasteboard in his hand, then with an abrupt gesture tried to stuff it into the pocket of the doublet of his costume. The card flipped from his fingers, fluttering to the floor.
It was a calling card of the sort one man gave to another in order that his opponent in a duel might know where to send his seconds to arrange the details of their meeting. Of heavy cream-colored stock, richly engraved, it was a damning piece of evidence. There would be a duel.
Anya knelt quickly to pick up the card before Murray could retrieve it. Rising slowly to her feet, she stared at it. The blood drained from her face as the name sprang out at her in strong black lettering, the name of the man in the costume of the Black Knight who had invited her to waltz, the man whom Celestine's finance would meet on the field of honor for her sake.
The man who had killed her fiancé with a thrust to the heart on a moonlit night seven years before.