Many things got the hair on the back of her neck up, but nothing more so than her birthday.
She wanted to scream, but the etiquette that had been drilled into her dictated that she smile politely and accept the gift of new shoes from her dear Aunt Cynthia. There was nothing wrong with the shoes. They were handmade from the finest and softest leather. They were dyed a vivid pink-orange like a summer sunset. They had flowers, crysanthemums to be exact, painstakingly embroidered upon them in waxed golden thread. There was nothing wrong with the shoes; they were a masterpiece.
They were just wrong for Sasha Suter.
Sasha dipped her head and glanced up demurely at her aunt. She murmured her thanks.
"They are simply delightful," Aunt Cynthia gushed, "and the moment I saw them, I thought, 'my poor Sasha is always so sullen looking, running around in those awfully drab flats. You'll hardly want to jostle and fight with the men of the family now that you have these shoes to awaken your beautiful woman-senses! Why, I bet that with a bit of work, you could even be fit for marriage and I know just the boy who would-"
Aunt Cynthia continued to talk, but Sasha lost track of her words after that. She dipped her head further so that her relatives would not see the fire burning in her eyes. To others, the flush in her cheeks could have been the sign of a maiden's shyness.
Sasha's brother, Orion, knew better. However, he was in no position to rescue Sasha that evening; his mother was introducing him to Dinicola Stibling, the middle daughter of some parliament minister. Sasha wondered if Orion was genuinely interested in Dinicola's company, or feigning it. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Orion. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched her brother lead Dinicola to the part of the hall set aside for dancing where a host of violinists played a rousing melody.
"-simply must try them on, my dear," Aunty Cynthia was saying.
"Mmmm?" Sasha dragged her mind back to the present moment.
"I was saying that you simply must put them on," her aunt pressed.
Sasha suppressed a depressed sigh. There was no way out of it. Maybe she could roll her ankle in the shoes and be allowed to retire for the evening.
"Yes, of course, dear aunt," Sasha said with a smile that did not quite meet her eyes. She allowed herself to be led across the hall to a sitting area where ladies gossiped. Three young women occupied one couch, and Sasha sat down with her aunt on the opposite couch.
Aunt Cynthia summoned one of the wait staff. They had hired extra hands tonight for the event. Sasha did not recognise the man who knelt before her and removed her sensible shoes. She pointed her feet to aid in the man's job of confining them in the cheery abominations.
"Those shoes are just divine Sasha! They fill me with such jealousy," exclaimed Keldary, one of the young court ladies. She and Sasha were similar enough in age that they were expected to be friends, or fond acquaintances. At least, that was the reasoning Sasha's mother had given for inviting the girls.
"Thank you, Keldary," Sasha said without looking at the young lady. She watched the manservant carry her shoes away like a marooned sailor watching a ship sail off.
With Sasha's feet safely ensconced within the new shoes, Aunt Cynthia rose with a look of satisfaction and dusted off her hands.
"I would say that my job tonight is done," she announced, gathering a swath of giggles from the young women nearby.
Sasha caught the gleam of a calculated look in her aunt's eye as the older woman drifted off to mingle with others. Sasha looked around and realized that she was surrounded by young women. Too late did she realize that she truly was a marooned sailor. A marooned sailor on a tidal island with sharks in the water.
She shuddered involuntarily.
"How are your studies, Sasha?" asked Stephanie, an impossibly tall and slender brunette seated beside Keldary.
"Just swell," Sasha said. She tried to push aside the alarm bells going off within her, telling her to run away. She would not give them the satisfaction of knowing how uncomfortable it was for her to sit in this sort of company. She took a deep breath, and felt something on her corset snap as her ribs expanded.
"You're not still fighting all those boys, are you Sasha?" Keldary pressed. Despite her apparent concern, it was obvious to Sasha that Keldary was merely inquiring in order to undermine her.
"When you specialize as a Sword in the Academy of Applied Flight Sciences, that's about all you do," Sasha announced proudly. "But even without that, the Suters are prized for their combat ability. It is an honour to be able to hone my skills against the best."
Monica, the lady that sat on the other side of Keldary remarked, "I can't imagine any woman wanting to put her body through that. Our family gives charitably to a battered women's shelter. Why would anyone want to be beaten by choice?"
Sasha weighed up the pros and cons of throwing the first punch. It was not fair that the women sitting across from her could sling as many shots as they liked with words, but if she were to retaliate in her own fighting form, she would be the one to blame.
Monica was about to say something that would have guaranteed a black eye when Keldary gasped.
"Oh my dear stars, don't stare at the door, but look at who just walked in!" She exclaimed, before promptly disregarding her own advice and staring fixedly at the new arrival.
Sasha would have had to turn in her seat to see the entrance. Her training had taught her to never take her eyes off dangerous opponents. So instead of following their gaze, she studied their surprised and delighted looks and counted all the ways in which she could disable them.
Stephanie tore her eyes away from the figure in the background and fixed them upon Sasha.
"You didn't say that you'd invited Emron Krampft," Stephanie said, with genuine delight.
Sasha's eyebrows snapped together in a frown at the mention of the young man's name. Then, her mood brightened when she realized what Emron's arrival meant. She shot up out of her seat and searched the hall. She saw Emron immediately. It was impossible not to notice him. Tonight he looked striking in a tailored white shirt, blue vest and matching pants that brought out the hues of his laughing eyes.
Had Sasha not been looking out for someone else that night, she might have busied her mind for a moment by playing out a possible sequence of blows that would knock the confident smile off the young man's face. But once she saw Emron, her eyes moved to search the faces around him.
Where was Tessa? After the moment's reconnaissance did not turn up her friend, Sasha's heart sank. The one person she had wanted to see tonight was not here. Tessa Cerbi was a girl a year below Sasha at the Academy. Unlike the prima donnas gathered tonight, Tessa was like Sasha; heady and astute with the ability to best some of the court's finest in armed and unarmed combat. There were more than a few gentlemen here Sasha would have liked to fight, but none of them would fight a girl. A shame really.
As she stewed in her disappointment, she dimly acknowledged that Emron had seen her and was making a beeline towards her. He reached Sasha's couch and spread his hands to grip the frame of the backrest.
"Sasha, is that you?" Emron oozed with a teasing sort of charm. "With your hair in ribbons and your beautiful form swathed in miles of silk, I had mistaken you for a court lady." He looked passed Sasha to deliver a winning smile to the three real court ladies sitting on the opposite couch. Then, his eyes were on her again. He grinned, knowing just how much all this irked her.
"Where's Tessa?" Sasha snapped. She was in no mood for his antics tonight.
A look of worry stole the mischievous gleam in Emron's eyes for a moment. "Avian flu, nothing too serious," he said solemnly. "She asked me to deliver her apologies."
Sasha sighed. She dropped back down heavily on the couch.
"She also asked me to deliver this," Emron continued. He procured an envelope and traced a corner of it on her shoulder. Sasha snatched it from him.
Emron walked around the couch and perched beside Sasha. "Evening Monica, Keldary, Stephanie. You three make a lovely picture."
Sasha did not listen to their vapid replies. She ripped open the envelope and found a card inside.
The card was from Tessa. It decorated with a birthday cake silhouette cut from burgundy bookbinding fabric. Inside, it read:
I couldn't round up ten thugs for you to beat senseless tonight, so please accept this card as consolation.
Sasha grinned at the words. She wished Tessa was here, but the card was the next best thing. She would show Orion later for a laugh.
Emron was reading over her shoulder. When she felt his breath at her neck, she laid a palm to his face and pushed him aside.
"Read the back of the card! There's more on the back," Emron encouraged eagerly.
With her other hand, she flipped the card over. Sure enough, there was more of Tessa's handwriting on the back.
I'm sorry, but it is important that you be seen with Emron tonight. Dance with the idiot. Please.
Sasha knew that Tessa would never ask her to do something so disdainful without a good reason. Still, she glared at Emron when he offered his hand.
"So that's a 'yes' to the dance, my lady?" Emron asked when Sasha reluctantly took the offered hand.
When he stood with her she leant a bit more heavily on his arm than she would have liked as she was unsteady in her new shoes. Sasha practiced her polite mask as Emron led her to the violins.
"Uh oh," Emron said.
"What is it?" Sasha asked.
"Do you even know how to dance?" Emron asked, grinning.
Sasha huffed. She held her skirts with her right hand and adjusted her left hand on his. She fought the urge to throw Emron as the young man snaked his free hand around her waist and pulled her in closer than was polite.
"Better than you do," she said. When the next song began, she pulled him along to show him that she did in fact know how to dance. As they moved gracefully across the dance floor, she began to feel an ache formed in the balls of her feet.
Emron allowed himself to be led along, laughing in an infectious way that had Sasha fighting a smile threatening to form upon her face, despite the pain inflicted upon her by her new cheerily patterned implements of torture.
He took advantage of a twirl to pull her close and whisper, "you look beautiful tonight."
To her horror, Sasha found herself blushing. "Say that again, and I will end you," she hissed when the subsequent twirl brought her in close enough for the exchange.
"You know, women say a lot of saucy things to me. But I have to say, your words really get my blood pumping," he replied, unperturbed.
Sasha said nothing for she was unwilling to encourage him further. As she directed her efforts instead on her footwork, she wondered why Tessa would ask her to dance with him.
When the music faded, Sasha realised with some satisfaction that she had somehow survived the dance without murdering Emron. But then, he did something unexpected.
Instead of letting her go, he pulled her closer, and kissed her deeply. It was only for a moment before Sasha pushed him away.
At first, when a furious roar ripped through the hall, Sasha thought it was the sound of her releasing her inner rage. Then, she realized that it was one of the guests that had cried out. She recognised the man. He was Hector, the twenty-something year old son of a popular wrestler and pegged as a rising star of the sport himself. Beside Hector stood a young woman of family resemblance, sobbing into her sleeve. Poor Harriet.
As Sasha watched, Hector barrelled towards them, not caring who he shoved aside.
"Emron! How dare you shame my sister by being with another!" Hector thundered.
Emron gave a whimper and sidestepped to stand behind Sasha. She studied Hector's approach with a Suter's eye, predicting what would happen next given the man's body language. What she saw worried her. Emron was not a strong fighter. Though the womanizer probably deserved what was about to happen to him, she knew that Hector could seriously hurt the young man in his rage, possibly even kill him.
"Stop!" Sasha announced. Nothing in his bearing indicated that he would. She felt her own body respond to the threat.
Hector's meaty fist clipped Sasha's cheek as he grabbed behind her at Emron. It was the excuse she needed. She grabbed Hector's arm, needing both hands to close around the trunk of it. Instead of pushing against the brute force, she pulled it forward, then down, and stepped aside, sending Hector crashing to the floor. Even on the floor, Hector's eyes still searched wildly for Emron.
Not good, Sasha thought. I need to divert his attention to a target that won't die.
She inhaled sharply, regretting her words even before she said them.
"Is that your sister, Hector? I thought you'd brought your dog," Sasha called with classic brawling etiquette.
There was a stunned silence before Hector gave another roar and launched himself at Sasha. The wrestler barrelled into the birthday girl, lifting her clean off the ground. She retaliated by twisting and wrapping her legs around Hector's neck, ripping her skirts in the process, and leaned back to topple him. Both struggled to get back to their feet, but Sasha stumbled on the hem of her torn stress and keeled face first into Hector's fist. She laughed at the shock of the blow; the pain ignited a fire inside her that made her feel as though her body glowed with energy.
She blocked his next blow easily and used the momentum to throw Hector over her shoulder. The sight of a large man sailing over a teenage girl was almost comical. Before he had the chance to get up, she climbed on him and delivered a blow with just enough force to the back of his head to knock him out. Unlike Hector, Sasha was disciplined enough to pull her punches
Someone kicked her head hard enough to render her blind for a moment. Sasha turned and held her arms up to guard against another kick. Blurry vision returned just in time to see, but not avoid, a punch to the face. Sasha kicked out as she fell back, catching her new attacker awkwardly in the stomach. She sprang from a backspring onto her wobbly shoes. One of the heels chose that precise moment to snap on her. She kicked both shoes off.
Harriet came at her in a furious scream.
"Harriet, I didn't mean what I said," Sasha tried to say, but her words were lost against the young woman's howl. She could see that Harriet was also beyond reasoning now. Just as well, Sasha was enjoying the fight.
Harriet lunged at her; all weight and no technique. They grappled, and Sasha threw the other girl easily. She bent over Harriet and executed the same manoeuvre that had knocked her brother out.
Sasha straightened triumphantly and wiped the blood from her mouth. A host of horrified looks greeted her. She saw Orion standing at the back, shaking his head and smiling despite himself. Sasha grinned wildly.
Realisation dawned upon her.
She turned to see Emron backed against the wall, standing in the cluster of violinists. She searched his face to confirm her theory.
Emron grinned and flashed her two thumbs up.
Happy Birthday, he mouthed.
Sasha threw her head back and laughed. Happy Birthday, indeed.
A note from Augie
This was written for the August Contest on FyloeFox's Labyrinth forum. It's a side adventure involving a couple of characters I've been working on for another story. I'm not a big romance writer. Writing Sasha was a blast.
Revisions on 5/9/13 and 7/9/13. Big thank yous to the army of people who gave CC and helped make this readable (DJ, Solemn, Will). :)