Chapter One: Christmas Eve
It all seemed so frivolous. The country, along with several others, was about to be torn apart by a war that would span over the planet, and all the gentry could think about were Christmas parties?
The black-suited nobleman shook his head in disgust. Why was he even here? He should be back at his family manor, packing for the journey he was to take the next day.
"Baron, darling?" an elderly woman lisped at him. The tawny man turned to her, a gentle smile in place for the countess.
"Yes, Aunt Ruth?" he asked her.
"You really should find someone to dance with, dear. It may be quite some time until you'll be able to dance with a lovely young woman again, once you leave to enlist in the army."
"Yes, Aunt Ruth," Baron sighed tiredly as he began to search the overly large ball room. As always, it was duty he was thinking of.
It wasn't the dancing that he thought of as duty. On the contrary, he loved the activity. It was just the various partners he had endured over the years that tended to get under his skin.
The young (and some who were not so young) women in the ballroom were openly looking at him with hungry eyes, and this is what scared him. He slowly began to pace the outer ring of the swirling brocades.
"Hel-lo, Baron," one ravishing brunette called, giggling with her friends until he passed by them without so much as a glance.
They were all the same, Baron concluded dismally, looking back at all the noblewomen, many of whom he had grown up with.
Different names, different faces, and different clothes. But it didn't matter; they were all the same underneath. Shallow, vain, and possessive. He knew it was his duty to eventually marry one of them, and produce an heir to the von Gikkingen line… but he intended to delay that day for as long as possible. Or at least until he could find someone whose companionship didn't bore him to tears. As things stood, there was only one girl's companionship that he could stand that wasn't his dear old aunt.
Baron smiled amusedly, and made a beeline for the grand piano in a corner of the ballroom. She may be too young for him romantically, but one can never be too young to dance, and she was used to being a last resort for him at parties like this when he didn't feel like enduring idle chitchat.
One of his best friends was at the piano, his fat fingers playing a surprisingly graceful melody as the tiny girl in a dark green dress next to him on the bench played a minor accompaniment. A red beaded flower clip had her long, slightly bouncy hair pulled gracefully away from her fair face.
"Would you care to dance, Louise?" Baron asked with a smile, bowing for the ten-year-old girl with white blonde hair.
She looked up at him, her sky-blue eyes wide with surprise and excitement. "Of course," she exclaimed, hopping off of the bench and accepting his hand.
The fatter pianist growled angrily. "Come on, Baron. Go get your own partner. Chicky was helping me with my latest piece."
"I'll be right back, Uncle Renny," Louise assured him with a giggle as Baron led her to the dance floor.
Baron smiled as he turned the little girl around to sweep her into the grand waltz. "Shouldn't your father have shown up by now, Louise? It's getting close to ten, and the party should be ending soon."
"Papa's putting the last touches on the castle," she tried to whisper while giggling. "You know how stubborn he can get about the little details."
Baron fought down a few chuckles of his own. "He's always been that way. There are days I'm surprised that he remembers that he has you to think of."
"Don't be silly," Louise scoffed. "He's always thinking of me. He just thinks about his toys, too. I don't mind," she insisted softly, like she was trying to convince herself more than him. "Baron, do you really have to go join the army tomorrow?" she asked him yet again.
He sighed, twirling her around with ease. "No, I don't have to go. I just choose to. Besides, if I don't go of my own will, a platoon of soldiers will more than likely come with a royal invitation within a month. It's better this way," he concluded sadly, sweeping her off her feet and high over his head before setting her down again.
"You'll be careful, won't you, Baron?" Louise whispered fearfully, twirling around gracefully underneath his hand.
"I'll do my best," he promised her, touched by the blonde girl's concern. Not surprised, just touched.
Without warning, the entire ballroom's lights darkened from an unseen hand.
Louise giggled. "Looks like Papa's finally ready."
"Looks like it," Baron agreed, gently guiding the small girl away from the dance floor as green smoke began to pillar up into a tower in the middle of the room as everyone else also backed off in apprehension.
Grinning evilly, the ridiculously fat pianist began an ominous crescendo that slowly built as the smoke did.
Louise giggled as she walked back to the piano, and finished the crescendo with a lighthearted trill.
The smoke was immediately thrown back by a large cape that appeared from within its billows, to reveal a dark-haired man, as well as a breath-taking miniature castle with soaring towers on a dark table in front of him.
The structure only measured a few feet in any direction, but the white building had a kind of sheen reminiscent of mother-of-pearl. There were delicately detailed tiny bricks making up the castle, and large ornamental windows so that one could see the dancing figures within.
Unlike a real castle, though, the castle only had one room, in which several delicate mechanical dolls moved around in set tracks to waltz in circles before switching off with the partner next to them in time with the melody that originated from the very back of the castle, the only hint being the tiny gold key that slowly turned around. To help disguise the tracks, the man had lined all of them with a pale blue to make a symmetric design on the white dance floor. There were even trumpeters in the balconies, as well as a king and queen on the throne, both young and beautiful.
Everyone gathered around the intricately detailed music box, some even gasping in wonder.
Aunt Ruth was nearly breathless with appreciation. "Dear, dear Toto," she crooned to the man, who had stepped back from his creation. "This must be your best piece yet. I've never seen such detail."
The dark man bowed low for her, his roguish grin piercing his gentlemanly manner. "Thank you, Countess. I live but to serve."
The fat pianist snorted indelicately from his bench. "Yeah, but to serve what?"
"Not now, Uncle Renny," Louise shushed him, waving her finger in a 'no no' gesture to her father before he could make his usual comeback. "Don't ruin Ruth's party with another fight."
The fat brunette pouted, and began playing in a soft minor key. "Oh, all right Chicky. Take all the fun out of the holidays."
Baron bit back a chuckle, noting the exchange from the sidelines. Louise was the only person, besides him, that could ever force the two men who were, incidentally, brothers-in-law to forsake yet another argument. He sighed, looking at Toto's latest creation.
Although his magic was very different from his darker best friend's, he couldn't help but admire just how much Toto could do in front of people without raising any suspicions.
Of course, the toymaker had the power to create. Baron only had the power to change. And even then, he had his limits.
"Isn't the castle beautiful?" Lady Jennifer sighed, lingeringly grabbing his arm so that he couldn't escape again, her brown hair intentionally falling over his shoulder like a dark cape.
He fought back another groan of frustration as he nodded stiffly.
"So exquisite," Lady Harriet crooned while grabbing his other arm, giving a not-too-subtle glare at the rival on his other side.
Baron sighed softly, casting his gaze up to the ceiling. It wouldn't be so bad if the girls he was forced to keep a polite acquaintance with, would just be honest about who they really were. More than one of his old friends from college had married a girl that seemed to be perfect, only for her to change into a monster after the honeymoon.
And they had all acted precisely like the girls that were trying so hard to ensnare him. If he only could, he would make them act the way they did when they didn't think anyone was watching. He had a nagging suspicion that many of them wouldn't be half as attractive.
Only Louise was honest with him. He suspected that she felt more for him than merely a good family friend, but with time, that feeling would fade, and she'd marry someone a little closer to her own age. That would be proper, after all.
Maybe… someday… Baron himself would be able to find a girl that didn't hide who she really was. He inwardly laughed at himself for still hoping as he tried to detangle his limbs from the two girls holding him captive.
To meet such a woman would take a miracle.
Renaldo was listening attentively as his tiny niece perfected his latest piece, which had a slightly melancholy air. Out of the three, the fat brunette was the only one whose talent was completely ordinary.
"Beautiful, Chicky," he murmured when she was done, sharply restraining himself from patting her head and messing her hairstyle.
Louise, however, was biting her lip in concentration. "It needs something," she mused. "Maybe some lyrics?"
Renaldo laughed ruefully. "You know I can't write that kind of music to save my life. How about this; if you come up with some good lyrics, I'll take you with me on my next tour so you can sing them on stage."
Louise squealed with delight and jumped up on the bench so she could hug his fat neck. "Really?! I'll do it, Uncle Renny!"
"Now what are you promising my daughter?!" Toto demanded, storming over to the piano as the blonde girl took another look at the title of the song, to start prodding her brain.
"Nothing much," Renaldo said smugly. "I'm just going to take her with me on my next tour while you stay home and paint swan wings."
"You're not supposed to talk about the swan wings in public, you fatso," Toto hissed angrily, lunging for his brother in law angrily. The toys he came up with were always a big secret until the unveiling, and Renaldo had already promised not to talk about them.
Louise dodged her father almost absently, her face thoughtful as the musician and toymaker started rolling across the tiled floor, pounding on each other like tavern brawlers while shouting ridiculous insults.
"At least I don't have a bird brain!" Renaldo shouted, since nearly all of Toto's creations had birds of some sort in them. Even the castle had tiny swans on the delicate buttresses bracing the inside of the small ballroom.
"At least I can dance!" Toto shouted back, kicking the fat man's stomach.
"I can dance!"
"Yeah, just like a drunken bear!"
"BEAR?!" Renaldo howled angrily, throwing yet another punch.
"Dancing bears," Louise whispered, staring at her uncle's music. "Dancing bears… and painted wings," she whispered thoughtfully.
Baron had escaped from the women holding him captive, and looked at the music while hugging the little girl from behind.
"Once upon a December," he sang in a low soft voice, imagining how the title of the song would fit into the girl's future lyrics.