After the Ball

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Notes: (1) The main male character’s name is Caelum, intended to be pronounced “Ky-lum.” (2) This is the first time I have tried to write in quite this style, so I apologize in advance if any of it comes off sounding silly instead of sexy. (3) I do take a bit of time coming to the point, but I promise we do get there in the end.

*****

A sea of adolescent girls parted for the man striding down the hallway. Torches flickered in his wake and some of the girls looked curiously after him. He was a tall man, his shining black mane tied back discreetly and his beetle-black eyes glittering with thinly disguised malice. Neither his expression nor his outfit—an all-black combination of long-sleeved, high-necked buttoned tunic; trousers; leather boots; and unbuttoned overcoat—nor his apparent expectation that the girls would scurry out of his way were at all unusual, but some of them wondered at the obvious purpose with which he strode down the hall. One or two of the girls lingered to watch him, taking a tentative step after him as if they wished to follow him and locate the source of his agitation. But it was apparent that he would not have appreciated their intrusion, so in the end each went on her way.

The man, for his part, stormed down the halls toward the second floor lounge, where he knew he would find the person he sought. He flung the door open more carelessly than he usually would, startling the tall woman standing before the fireplace. The woman actually smirked when she saw him, softening her usually severe face before schooling it into a slight frown. The man took in her appearance—as tall as he, but with dark copper hair streaked here and there with steely silver, sharp green eyes, and a formal day dress of darkest green.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked in a low, silky tone, brandishing a square of folded parchment in her direction.

“Of what?” the woman replied, pretending innocence.

“This note you have sent me, Headmistress.”

“I should have thought the meaning would be quite clear, Caelum,” she said, her Northern accent coming through a bit more strongly now. “You are to escort Miss Blake to the Ball this weekend.”

“Why must it be me? You know how I detest these things.”

“In case it has escaped your notice, you are currently the only male on staff here at Hawthorne. You know as well as I that you were only spared the duty because Bishop had been willing to escort her in previous years. But he is…well, obviously he is no longer able to do so, even if we were able to locate him. So the task falls to you.”

“But Nora—”

“But nothing, Caelum. She must go. Unless you are suggesting taking on the duties of a guardian and arranging something for her…”

“Very well,” he grumbled, the fight leaving him at once. “I will go.”

“Very good. Now, be off with you. I have already notified Miss Blake of the change and she will be awaiting you in the hall tonight.”

“Tonight?” His voice came dangerously close to a whine at this.

“Certainly,” the Headmistress sniffed. “Bishop and Miss Blake always left Friday evening and returned Sunday evening. The Ball is all the way at Southumbridge and I understand it takes about four hours to get there by carriage. It would never do for Miss Blake to arrive at the Ball exhausted from the journey. You know as well as I that she must be at her very best, this year more than ever before.”

“This,” he replied acidly, “was the very reason for the invention of the motorcar, as I am sure that you are aware.”

“Nevertheless, tradition demands arrival by carriage.”

“Surely we could arrive in Southumbridge by car and rent a carriage in town.”

“There will be no further argument, Caelum. Be in the hall before nine o’clock to take your leave. Tomorrow you will be separated from her until the Ball itself begins, so perhaps you should endeavor to enjoy Southumbridge. It has been a long time since you travelled anywhere for leisure.”

“And let us not begin now,” he muttered, leaving the room.

*****

Sofia Blake arrived in the hall at precisely eight-thirty, clutching her leather satchel to her chest as she sat meekly in one of the creaky chairs in the hall. Her ball gown was in its wrappings hanging from the back of the chair and her overnight bag sat at her feet. Each time she heard footsteps nearby she jumped, glancing down the hall for any sight of Professor Elwyn. Sofia had her own reasons for wishing that Bishop was still at Hawthorne to take her to the Matching Ball, but when Headmistress Tierney makes a decision such as which staff member will escort a girl to the Ball, a girl just doesn’t argue. She gazed vaguely at the wall opposite her, brushing imaginary flecks of lint from her uniform skirt and wishing she didn’t need to go at all.

There was no shame in a girl of her age still attending the Ball. She had seen girls as old as twenty there, lively and vivacious and not at all ashamed. In fact it seemed that for some girls, attending the Ball after they had come of age and no longer needed an escort was actually çapa escort an advantage because the young men approached them with more confidence.

The Matching Ball was an event that all those young people who had lost their parents looked forward to. The population of Connaught still held to the old ways, when a young person’s family arranged their marriage. Since the Great War so many adolescents had been left without any family that the old tradition of the Matching Ball had been reinstated. No one was forced to go, but it was quite difficult to meet good prospects for marriage without attending, as parents rarely arranged marriages for their children with orphans. It just wasn’t done. Yet marriage was one of the values most strongly inculcated in Connaught schools.

So the Matching Ball, a quite old tradition with proud roots in Connaught was held each year in October. Young orphans who wished to join in marriage were sent, either escorted or sponsored by those who housed them, and they all socialized together in the hopes of meeting a match. If a match was made at the Ball, the young couple in question would have the opportunity to see each other during the following months to confirm that it was a good match before marrying.

Some orphans came as large groups from orphanages or workhouses, but Sofia knew she was one of the lucky ones. Most of the prestigious boarding schools in Connaught accepted several orphaned adolescents as wards, provided the child had the proper intellect and manners. Sofia’s parents had been planning to submit her to the Hawthorne Academy for Domestic and International Arts since her birth, and their death had not prevented their daughter from taking her place at the school. Hawthorne had among the strictest standards for acceptance and currently had only three orphans in residence—one was too young for the Ball yet, and the other had already made her match. This year, as last year, Sofia would be alone. Escorted by Professor Elwyn.

Hawthorne Academy was an all-girls school and historically had an all-female staff. After the death of their last chemistry professor, the Headmistress had had some difficulty finding another female professor currently qualified for the position. So she had called upon one of the professors from the Drew School, Hawthorne’s all-boys equivalent. Professor Elwyn, as a highly regarded young man with an impeccable family tradition, was considered a sufficient replacement by those in the community and had done so well with the Hawthorne girls that Headmistress Tierney had never attempted to replace him.

He was an unusual man, stoic and reserved. He was a harsh taskmaster in the classroom and never discussed anything about his personal life. Yet the girls all seemed to know that Professor Elwyn had no family left and had once been married, though his wife had apparently died at a very young age—presumably in childbirth. He was never seen in any color other than black, the only skin showing his face and his pale, delicate hands. He was a handsome man, Sofia thought, but she knew that not many of the other girls shared her opinion.

In any case she had been surprised to find out that he was to be her escort. Of course Bishop’s disappearance had meant that he could not take her anymore. Bishop had been the caretaker of the academy, and no one really knew why or where he had gone. Sofia had been fond of Bishop, a young man who laughed as often as he talked, and he had been an entertaining escort to the Ball. She had hoped that he would have contacted her after he left to tell her where he had gone, but no letter ever came. She supposed it made sense for Professor Elwyn to be her escort, as he was the only man left at Hawthorne. But with the Drew School up the road by several miles, she saw no reason why the Headmistress could not have recruited some other, more amenable, young man.

Sofia at last caught sight of Professor Elwyn striding down the hallway, resignation pouring off him in waves, and knew she was exactly right in her guess that he would hardly take to this duty with enthusiasm. He just didn’t seem the type to enjoy the frivolities of dances and parties. He stopped just in front of her, looking at her parcels with mild disgust.

“Well?”

Sofia scrambled up from her chair, taking up her ball gown and overnight bag and hoisting her satchel more securely over her shoulder. Professor Elwyn turned on his heel, his long coat swirling behind him as he marched toward the front door. Sofia blew out a breath and followed in his wake, mentally preparing herself for an awkward weekend.

*****

A carriage was already waiting in front of Hawthorne. Although Sofia struggled a bit to get all of her parcels into the carriage Professor Elwyn made no offer of help. He stood impassively at her side until she had climbed up into the carriage and then shut the door behind her before going around to the other side of the carriage and climbing in. It was a carriage intended to hold four or six people, with two facing benches on the interior. cihangir escort Sofia was facing forward on the right side of the carriage and noticed that Professor Elwyn had sat as far away from her as humanly possible. He did not look at her or attempt to converse, merely looked moodily out the window.

Sofia made a face at him, but schooled her face into her usual blandly pleasant expression before he turned to glance at her suspiciously. When he turned back to the window Sofia opened her satchel and retrieved the book that she had set on top, an old English romance novel. She crossed her legs demurely, checking to be sure that her skirt was properly arranged over her thighs, and settled down to read in the dim light of the tiny torches in the carriage.

*****

Caelum Elwyn was not looking forward to the Matching Ball. He resisted the urge to manhandle his clothing, calming himself enough to properly press and fold each item before placing it in his bag. The truth was that he rarely attended parties or balls of any kind and particularly detested those intended to be enjoyed by adolescents. It wasn’t that he hated children or teenagers, really. After all he did work at an academy and he did so willingly. Of course he did so in order to fund his private research and have a well-equipped lab in which to perform said research. But he could admit that he took a certain enjoyment in knowing that he was preparing young minds to enter the field and make their own contributions.

But attending parties and functions specifically intended for adolescents to socialize was far down on his list of activities to enjoy. In fact he would rather have been strung up in the dining hall by his ankles—anything to avoid having to watch the preening and giggling and awkward interactions between boys and girls meeting for the first time. Even when he had been that age he certainly did not remember having acted in such a manner. At the gatherings he had attended he had comported himself with dignity and had encouraged the same in his schoolboy friends. They had engaged in the traditional dances of the time and he had certainly walked a girl or two across the room or outside onto the balcony for a brief chat. Long enough to get to know her, short enough to avoid any accusations of impropriety. Even as an adolescent he had been concerned with appearances.

Perhaps because his grandfather had been the vicar of a very prominent church in the south of Connaught, his parents had drilled into him the necessity of maintaining a carefully designed appearance of propriety. His parents had, most unfortunately, taken the view that what happened behind closed doors was exempt from the rules regarding propriety. They had both carried on numerous affairs, souring him on the concept of true love and marriage as a means of lifelong affectionate companionship. Yet the community at large had somehow never discovered these affairs, and so their son Caelum had never been disgraced.

His parents, too, had been casualties of the Great War, but he had come to adulthood before their demise. He had approached the Headmaster of his own academy to discuss an appointment after several years abroad apprenticing and had taught there for a few years before moving to Hawthorne. All in all teaching girls was little different from teaching boys. Old-fashioned though Connaught might have been, there were some quite old traditions that were now in vogue in the rest of the world. Both girls and boys were given the same basic education and were not only allowed but in fact encouraged to follow the career path that appealed to them.

Thus women had always been welcome in politics, math and sciences research, higher-level management work, essentially in all those arenas where women in the greater world have had to fight for acceptance. And in return men were as frequently found excelling in the domestic arts and keeping house or staying home to raise their own children. Girls in Caelum’s chemistry classes had run the gamut between total idiots and those immensely talented in the class. The girl currently sitting across from him, nose buried in a book, Miss Sofia Blake, was between these two extremes.

Frankly he’d never taken much notice of her, although he had taught her for six years now. He recalled, vaguely, that she had been a bit of a chatterer when he had first taken over the science classes. A bit flighty, with a tendency to talk to her fellow students rather than keeping her mind on each day’s lecture. Now that he thought about it he realized that she had matured quite a bit in six years. She was much more studious now, a lot quieter in class. He glanced over at her, reading the title of the book she was holding, and snorted. In fascination he watched the girl stiffen and then lift her head to stare at him over her book.

“Is something the matter, Professor Elwyn?” she asked evenly.

“Not a thing, Miss Blake. Only that I am not surprised to see you reading a work of such romantic nonsense.”

“If you must know,” she replied, esenyurt escort sounding a bit irritated, “I am reading this for my literature class. It was not my own choice.”

“Oh, indeed. In that case perhaps I shall have a word with the Headmistress about the syllabus.”

“I am sure that she will give all due value to your opinion on the matter, sir.”

Sofia turned back to her book and Caelum lifted his eyebrows slightly. Impertinent girl, he thought. He had certainly not missed her meaning, although she had said it politely enough that he could not challenge her about it. Crossing his arms, he sat back and leaned his head against the scant cushion behind him. The jostling of the carriage would not stop him from dozing on their way to Southumbridge.

*****

When Caelum awoke the carriage had stopped. All but one of the torches inside the carriage had gone out. In the dim flickering light of the one left aflame he saw Sofia curled up on the bench across from him, fast asleep. The softness of sleep imbued her face with the radiance of youth. Caelum felt a strange and unexpected sensation in his chest, but he could not identify it and did not think about it further. They must have arrived at the State Building in Southumbridge that hosted all of the attendees and escorts of the Matching Ball. Caelum touched Sofia’s shoulder lightly and she jerked awake, staring wide-eyed at him.

“We have arrived,” he said quietly. Sofia nodded, a bit too quickly, and sat up in her seat, pressing her palms to her knees.

The carriage door opened and Caelum saw a whirlwind of activity taking place just outside the State Building. Adolescent arrivals were chatting and giggling despite the late hour, although some were staggering up the steps half-asleep. Attendees could be as young as eleven years old, though most that age would surely have arrived and be upstairs asleep in their beds by now. Adult escorts and those who worked for the State chaperoning and planning the Ball were standing around watching indulgently as adolescent attendees eyed each other shyly or greeted old acquaintances.

A fresh-faced young woman approached their carriage with a smile. “Sofia, isn’t it, from Hawthorne? I don’t know if you’ll remember me…”

“Caryn, right? I remember you from last year,” Sofia said, smiling for the first time that night. “It’s good to see you again.”

“It’s wonderful to see you, too, Sofia. Will this be your last ball, do you think?”

“One way or the other,” she answered cryptically.

“Let me just help you out and I’ll show you up to your room.” The woman leaned into the carriage to take Sofia’s overnight bag and started at the sight of Caelum. “Oh, hello,” she said, her voice dropping a bit lower. “I was…expecting Bishop.”

“Bishop was…indisposed this year,” Caelum said.

“Yes, we don’t really know what happened to him. Anyway, Professor Elwyn was gracious enough to escort me this year,” said Sofia. She seemed slightly annoyed, and Caelum couldn’t understand why she would be. He supposed she disliked the reminder that she should have been escorted by the younger, more attractive, and entirely too gregarious caretaker. Caryn was still staring at him, and didn’t look away until Sofia had pushed past her to exit the carriage. Caryn trotted after her and Caelum shouldered his bag and followed them both.

Sofia was striding up the front steps of the State Building, obviously ignoring the questions Caryn was directing at her. Caelum looked about, a bit lost, surprised that Sofia had walked away without even a word to him. He would have to have a discussion with her about manners later. Just then a young man approached him, a bit cautiously.

“Pardon me, sir, but are you perhaps an escort to the Matching Ball?”

“I am certainly not an attendee,” he said dryly.

“Of course not, sir. Is this your first year escorting?”

“It is.”

“We are honored to have you here with us, sir. My name is Trent, and I’m a chaperone here. Let me take you inside to check you in and I will explain our schedule.” Trent led Caelum inside the State Building and up to the front reception desk. “Hi, Margarethe,” he grinned flirtatiously at one receptionist.

“Oh, Trent,” she smiled. “Who have you got with you?”

“Hmm, forgot to ask his name. Oops.” He smiled winningly before turning to Caelum. His smile wilted a bit around the edges faced with Caelum’s stony visage. “Ahem. May I get your name and institution, sir?”

“Professor Caelum Elwyn, Hawthorne Academy.”

“Thank you.” Margarethe scanned the list. “You are escorting a Miss Sofia Blake, is that right?”

“It is.”

“It looks like she checked in a few moments ago.” Caelum inclined his head. “All right, you’re in Escort Block B, Room 1221.”

“Thank you.”

Trent led Caelum toward the lift. “The Ball, as you know, is tomorrow evening. Saturday festivities our groups are separated. Attendees will take meals together, all the girls in one group and all the boys in another. Escorts may take meals with the other escorts or may explore Southumbridge on their own. You will need to return at seven o’clock to meet your charge. You may meet at the base of the stairs on the third floor, and then you may escort your charge to the ballroom. At the Ball you do not need to be beside your charge at all times but you do need to be aware of where she is.

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