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The night was so clear and filled with stars that they seemed to blend, seamlessly, into the twinkling carnival lights that surrounded us. I took in the site, dedicating it to memory, rather than make contact with the eyes of man in front of me, knowing that even this would not distract me from the way he gripped my arm, not tight enough to bruise, enough so that only I would ever remember the impression made on my skin by his strong, broad fingers.
I studied the stars because otherwise, if I so much as glanced at the tiny, dark, endless eyes that tried to pierce mine, then the sickness which was rising in my gut would surely grow only stronger before exploding, surely spilling across his polished boots, likely staining the immaculate suit he wore and certainly doing what would scare him the most and drive him into a fit: making a scene.
Let me be clear, the Honorable Maurice Marrez enjoys making a public scene, hence why he is here. He does not, however, enjoy making a scene when it is clear he is playing the villain, so when he feels the need to remind me how the scales of our interactions balance, he does so away from crowds, quietly, and takes no chance that someone would believe me when I speak of his capacity for cruelty.
Tonight, if any were to observe this tableau, they would think he was threatening me. He is not. Instead, he is telling me about a party.
“It is a shame you missed the seance,” he says. “The spiritualist was truly gifted. I am thinking of offering her residency in our home.”
“It is not our home,” I manage to say, weakly.
“Well, it is and will always be my home, but I will consider it our home,” he says. “And it is more than large enough to accommodate the two of us and the spiritualist and her spirit…oh, you should see her spirit. I am shocked you have not. After all, her spirit has seen you.”
I choked a bit, biting back an outraged cry.
“Her spirit, the one in the gossamer gown, the one who wears a cloth across her blind eyes, she has seen you. She watches you each night, knows what it is you dream. She has seen into your heart of hearts and she has told me the truth.” He leans close to whisper in my ear.
“She has told me you will marry me.”
All I could will forth was simply “You had her spirit spy on me?”
“For love!” he cried. “For love, why can you not see it is love? Everyone else can. All of them!” he gestured in the direction of the laughter and the crowds.
With more resistance than I could normally muster, I continued. “And you are trusting what she has claimed her blind spirit has seen?”
He loosened his grip on my arm. “I do not question the mechanics, my dear. I have been given my answer and it is the one I knew was inevitable from the start. We will wed. It is inevitable that you will realize what is best for you.
“Until then, I suppose, we must continue this infuriating roundabout. For as long as you feel the need to keep up your charade.” He then trailed his fingers down until they were lightly touching the down-turned palm of my hand, and then he had the utter audacity to raise my hand to his lips and leave the slightest hint of a kiss on my skin.
Then, finally, he left me alone on the outskirts of the festivities, heading for those same lights I had anchored myself to for what felt like hours but had only been moments.
Steeling myself, I started towards the faint calliope music, still aware of the exact place Maurice has placed that kiss. Maybe he had hoped I would find it warm and assuring. But instead the area his too-plump lips had pressed against felt…sticky. There was the clear feeling of a film, not quite hardening but stiffening, the skin immobilized beneath the mark.
As I stepped into the ill-defined circle of light that marked the beginning of the alternate world only such a circus could provide, I heard a voice call out “Well, he seemed incredibly pleasant.”
I turned in astonishment, had someone seen? If they had, if word spread, it would be on me, I would endure the burden and the punishment for the ill-temper of my unwelcome suitor.
But the woman at the stand was not looking at me. Her head was turned to look down towards the midway, curling tendrils that had escaped from her carefully arranged coiffe hanging soft around a friendly face. Then, she did turn to face me, and I was caught in the site of her bright, almost golden eyes.
“Gentleman who just past me,” she said, for my apparent benefit. “Smug and uninviting.”
“I feel as if I already know who you are speaking of,” I said. “He is…not so bad. Once you know him.”
She placed her hands on her hips and curled her lip into a half-smirk. “I have a feeling that at that point he’s even worse.”
My response was meant to be a laugh. I cannot be blamed if, along with that, I finally let out a few scant tears as I walked towards her small stand, painted with golden letters reading “APPLES.”
“Oh no, please don’t cry,” she said. “It can’t be that bad, right?”
“I’m going to marry him,” I said, my voice breaking.
“Some kind of forced marriage of intrigue?” she asked, resting her elbow on the wall of the stand. A sweet smell emanated from inside. “Because those never end well.”
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “I mean, perhaps. But he said I would accept of my own free will…”
“Wait,” she said, sounding confused and righting herself. “You aren’t engaged, but you’re going to marry him?”
“He said,” I forced the words out, aware of how ridiculous they sounded, vaguely aware I was saying them to a complete stranger, “he said that he’d had our fortunes told and our marriage was inevitable.”
“Oh,” she said. “He said that?”
“Look, let me tell you something about ‘fortune telling’ or whatever it is he claims,” she said. “Hopefully it’ll comfort you.”
“That it’s not real?” I asked. “Because I’ve been told that but…”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Sometimes it isn’t, but sometimes it is and that’s not really a chance you can take. But it fails to take into account one very important factor.”
I raised my head. “Free will?”
She busied herself with the apples within her stand, many of them impaled on sticks as if to be roasted, but the sticks were far too small for that intent. “Chaos.”
She let the word hang in the soft glow before continuing. “You see, what was foretold for him, true or not, is assuming everything follows a very exact path, nothing gets in the way, it all works out in the end exactly as planned. Not true.” She let the apples be, once again looking at me with her taunting near-smile. “Chaos has a way of showing up at the best or worst moments and wrecking everything.”
She reached out for my hand, the one he had kissed, and I raised it, enthralled by her words and her manner and those bright, mischievous eyes. After inspecting it, she seemed satisfied. “Do you know when chaos does its best work?”
“When you least expect it?” I said, already knowing my answer was wrong.
She grinned. “When it can have the most fun.” She released my hand. “Anyway, you seem like you could use a free apple.”
“I couldn’t,” I said. “I’ve inconvenienced you and…”
“Stop that,” she said. “Put away the society woman words and take it. Anyway, I want people to try them. It’s this idea I had…hasn’t caught on yet, but eventually.”
She picked up one of the apples on a stick and then turned to the steaming pot in the booth with her. Deftly, she dipped the apple into the pot and when she removed it, it was coated in something shiny and liquid and golden.
“Caramel,” she said, holding the prize out to me. “You have to let it cool a bit before you bite it. You’ll know when.”
I accepted, feeling the heat from the candy shell radiate onto my hand, seeming to obliterate not just the phantom remains but the very memory of the kiss. “Thank you,” I said.
“No need,” she said. “Go on, now.”
It only fully occurred to me a bit later, as I made my way through the crowd that only began when I was well-away from the apple stand, exactly how odd that entire exchange had been. As if my head was clearing, I began to question the words spoken and thoughts shared between strangers, and the whisper in the back of my mind suggesting that she had not felt like a stranger at all, really.
I was interrupted when he came into view. Maurice, laughing with a crowd of acquaintances, as if earlier he had not gripped me, had not sentenced me to becoming his unwilling wife. Then, I saw him, saw his eyes seek me out though I could still not meet them, saw his knowing smile, saw him for what he really was from across the way when those right beside him could not.
I raised the apple to my mouth and, wishing him only the worst, took a deep, theatrical bite.
His smile did not fade, in fact it seemed to grow into something more carnal, as if he thought I was tempting him, as if he thought I was tasting the apple of Eden and planning to offer the next bite to him. But there are many kinds of apples, and despite the sweet taste I knew this one had little part in paradise.
One of the women grabbed his hand, playfully, then pulled her own back in distaste. She looked down at her glove which now had some kind of glistening substance dirtying it. Searching for the source, she looked down to his hand and gasped.
Both of his hands were covered in a substance, flowing from some unseen source, dripping and then pouring from his fingers onto the dirt path beneath him. He held them up to examine them, the others around him gasping and even screaming in surprise, though I assume he did not hear them, for the same liquid was now pouring from his ears.
Then he cried out, in fear, blinking his eyes rapidly, and I could see the trail of his tears in the soft lights, though those were quickly followed by the fluid, and the next time he blinked his eyes did not open as quickly.
“Help!” he called. “Help!” He coughed, as if something were caught in his gullet. “Please, someone, help me!” He continued these please, punctuated by deep, rumbling coughs, becoming more and more frequent.
Until finally, one cough brought up a great glob of what I knew, now, to be caramel.
He coughed again, more gushing from between his lips, and again, this cough so great that it brought him to his hands and knees in the mess of dirt and sugar sweetness beneath him. One more cough until the stream became steady, as no one rushed to help him, though they all stood and stared, some horrified, all entranced. The sideshow held nothing so fascinating at this man’s own claims to sweetness erupting from him, steaming with heat. He was coated in sugar, the imaginary armor become manifest, but no one was willing to rush forward and taste.
Finally, he managed to part his eyelids, he looked up to me with a pleading in them, a weakness I had never witnessed before and I wondered how many hours he had spent learning to hide them with bravado. The eyes that showed me a fear that something about him had been discovered, something that before only I had been able to admit to seeing.
I was able to meet those eyes, now, as I smiled from behind my apple.
Then, I parted my lips, slowly, sunk in my teeth and took another bite.
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