Erik's POV

"Look, I was more than fair this time concerning this matter. I didn't play a single role in the selection of your attire and so I find it utterly unfair that I am the one blamed for your dislike of the latest fashions!" I didn't know why, but somehow it seemed that we couldn't go a single day without a conflict of some sort. Today that conflict involved Nadir's unfortunate gown selection. The yellow brocade was covered in a paisley pattern of forest green, and had a full-boned bodice with a green silk sash gathered over the bust line. The green sleeves were slashed with gold-tone beads scattered in a stitch-work pattern that surrounded the slits of yellow fabric peeking through. The accompanying headdress was a swath of green silk entwined with strands of gold and aqua beads, which brought out the blue in her eyes. Beautiful, you might say, and perfectly appropriate for a ball. However, upon seeing it the gir- Rhiannon, had looked ready to stuff the next person she got her hands on into the dress. Or at least something that could count as a equivalent level of disgrace and discomfort when placed upon a male form. I, for one, did not wish to be that person. But she had it in her head that it was in some way or another my fault.

"I already told you! I am not here to play aristocratic dress-up! I'm here to get Jacob. And going to a stupid party doesn't sound like it's going to accomplish that." Good lord she could be so annoying! Well it didn't matter now sitting in the carriage on the way to the ball. Nadir of course had accompanied us, though personally I think he was doing it more to keep us from being at each others throats too much.

"Look- Rhiannon. This isn't just any ball. It's the annual autumn ball hosted by Lord Montrell. Besides being one of the highlights of Spain's aristocratic social calendar, and the fact that we are OBLIGATED to go if we desire to retain any social status relating to having good business, there is the simple fact that a ball is the best place to catch up on the latest gossip."

She made a disgusted face and turned away with her arms crossed. Did I have to explain EVERYTHING to her?!

"Of course, gossip includes the latest news of things going on in the trade world, the social world, the political world, the scientific world, and the religious world. It includes things about Spain, France, Italy, England, India, Germany, Greece, Cuba, the Caribbean, and America. If it can be talked about you'll hear about it. So tell me: why should we NOT go to the ball? No tell me! I'm anxious to know what learned answer you in your infinite knowledge about the higher class have come up with."

Maybe I went too far. The glare I received said so, but while I may have agreed to align with her for the greater good, I had no intention of bowing to any of her childish impulsiveness and stubborn ignorance.

We sat uncomfortably in the carriage amidst the stifling silence for a while before Nadir spoke up. "So Rhiannon, is there anything you would like to know about the event we are attending?" Translation: I know you've probably never been to a ball before; would you like me to give you a quick guide-through on what to expect and do?

She fixed her cold glare on me for a moment longer before turning to Nadir and responding. "Just tell me which ones to kiss up to and I'll be fine. Working a party like this is chump change. Don't worry; I'll try not to embarrass you too much..." She turned to me and emphasized her next word, "...NADIR."

Was that a challenge? Oh who cared! I turned to the window as flippantly and carelessly as possible. If she tried anything funny, promise or not I would punish her for her offending crime.

The night air was pleasantly cool. Not cold, but whispering the promise of fall. The trees were just starting to shift their colors and looked as if drops of gold and orange had nestled themselves in the leafy branches. Which looked even more brilliant as the rays of the setting sun illuminated against the forest, which seemed as if it was starting to catch on fire with patches of the warm hues of autumn showing themselves boldly amongst the fading greenery.

We approached the grand home of Lord Montrell, which by the twirling lights in the window, you could tell the party was in full swing. Nadir got out of the carriage first and helped Rhiannon down, then I followed behind.

We followed the servant who lead us to the entrance of the ballroom. The doors opened, and we stepped into the splendid party. The room itself was very fine. The walls were covered with a fresh wallpaper the color of virgin olives, while the floors were made up with a pale colored tile no doubt from the quarries in Carrara. At that moment it was decorated with hues of dark green, wine red, warm orange, fiery yellow, and royal purple. Fabrics in these colors were hung on the walls and across the ceiling. While curtains of the same material were used to section off areas to be used as alcoves. Gold accents were used everywhere in many different forms; shapes representing boughs of grain and burning suns, tassels and fringes dancing with movement.

Tables were laid out with bunches of grapes red, green and purple, both dark and light. They boasted of the juiciest apples, the roundest pears, the ripest berries and the sweetest melons. Vegetables were cooked and served every delicious way imaginable, and fresh breads both sweet and savory were plenty abundant.

And in the center, atop a pedestal surrounded by the fruits of harvest, stood a carved likeness of the goddess of the harvest, Demeter. Watching over the festivities as patroness of the feast.

It was almost impressive.

However it was still nothing more than an annual ball, an event which took place every year. To be too much amazed would be the mark of a simpleton indeed. Though to not be impressed upon at all would be that also. But really, did it matter?

I looked over to Rhiannon to try gauging her reaction, but the disinterested and passive look gave me no such hint. Either that or she really was not that impressed. Nadir had a pleased look about him and appeared to have a merry disposition at the moment. Lucky for him, because his companions were obviously not so. I hoped his joviality would make up for my lack, as we made our way forward to greet the master of the house, Lord Montrell.

Lord Montrell was a middle aged man of noble descent, a prominent figure despite his lower rank as a Lord. His abilities and reputation in Spanish and French trade made him the center and source of trade economics for that region. If your reputation with him was good, it was more reputable with other tradesmen and distributers. A good reputation is what makes a good merchant, and Lord Montrell knew this best of all.

My knowledge and opinion of him was that he was a very simple and honest man. He saw things one way and took them that way. He could smell a bad deal a mile away, and he could sense a bad character too. Of course, this was double sided for him. On one hand it meant he was a great business man to deal with since he was honest and helpful to those he trusted. On the other, all it would take would be a very little to deceive him.

I smiled and bowed civilly as we stood before him. "My Lord, I hope you are doing well this evening."

He bowed in response and replied. "Well I should hope so! Amongst such gaiety who could find it in themselves to be otherwise? It is good to see you my friend, and you as well Nadir! I hope you haven't been working your partner too hard."

Nadir also smiled and bowed as he responded: "With Erik, I hardly think there is such a thing, my lord. But we have been getting along fine, and finer now that we have the pleasure of your good company."

Lord Montrell laughed good-heartedly. "Splendid! Splendid indeed!" At this moment he seemed to notice that we were not alone. "And who might this fine young lady be? I do not believe I have had the pleasure of making her acquaintance."

Nadir stepped forward. "Indeed you have not. My Lord this is Lady Rhiannon. A good friend of ours who has agreed to travel with us for the season. She has not travelled much and we asked her if she would allow us to bring her along for the winter months. In fact this is her first time abroad and so she has no acquaintances other than ourselves."

Lord Montrell listened with an interested face, since we were her travelling companions he could assume her to be reputable, otherwise we never would have brought her to such an event. With social formalities out of the way it was time for him to test her character.

"Lady Rhiannon, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope you will find the festivities to your liking."

Rhiannon gently lowered herself into a perfect curtsy. "While my lowly opinion would hardly matter, I must say that the world you have created is thoroughly enchanted. It is beyond anything I have seen. However..." She looked up with innocent, imploring eyes. "...I hope my unannounced presence here has not offended my lord." Her voice seemed to tremble ever so delicately, the token of an angelic-like quality so highly prized in women.

In an instant his demeanor changed and he gently placed a hand on her shoulder and grasped her hand, lifting her from her humble position. "Not at all dear girl. I am always imploring Erik and Nadir to bring friends along. It pleases me quite well that they have finally heeded my suggestions! Please, come enjoy the party! We have dancers who will be coming out soon and it would be a shame if you missed them. If you would allow me to escort you, Erik and Nadir to the head table with me. I believe we have a few empty seats there that would suit you very well indeed..." And with that he took her arm in his and lead us to the table directly across from the grand statue of Demeter.

Spare seats indeed. He lead us right to the head of the table and sat us next to him. I hoped that the seats had not previously been taken, or some folks among the company would be quite jaded towards us. Rhiannon kept up her remarkable transition to fresh and pretty maiden. And Montrell bought into it. As I said, a little perfect deception, and he had invited both a murderer and an assassin into his midst. He was a good source, but I never relied too heavily upon him or his "good opinion", and this only confirmed it.

The dancers came on, costumed to represent the handmaidens of Demeter. They leapt and twirled around the goddess, colored scarves waving above their heads. Then more came forward, holding cornucopias filled with red rose petals. They intermingled with the scarf dancers, lifting their baskets in the air. The music pulsed with a life of it's own, the dark tones of cello and drums creating a beautiful scene. (*) Finally as the dance came to a crescendo, the cornucopia dancers started to toss their petals upon the carving, into the air, and on the delighted audience. As the music came to a close, the room burst into applause. The dancers all took their bows, and gracefully skipped out of the room.

"Ah! Magnificent! The perfect thing to add to my ball. I hope you would agree, Señorita Rhiannon?" Rhiannon had a faraway, glassy look to her eyes, but quickly snapped out of it upon the Lord's question.

"Hmm? Oh, yes. Very fine dancers. However I thought possibly the cornucopia girls could have put down their props so they could add more to their routine. Maybe some floor movements to bring variety. But that's only me being picky. I truly thought it was wonderful."

Montrell looked confused for a moment, then burst into laughter. "Well aren't you the honest one! Most people would have just agreed and lavished praise whether it deserved it or not. But you my lady, have truly shown taste with your statement. I commend you for your willingness to display the truth. And in fact I agree! Next year I'll make sure they show more technique with the dance." He rose and offered Rhiannon his arm, which she accepted as he took her to be introduced to a few friends of his not too far off. I was a little shocked. She was taking big risks, and yet she seemed to be pulling him deeper and deeper into this character she had created for him. Truly masterful work. I had to give her credit for that.

"Nadir, what do you think of our little actress here?"

Nadir was clapping for the departing dancers. "Oh? I'm sorry Erik, did you say something?" I groaned inwardly.

"Nadir. Be serious. Have you noticed the remarkable change in our gypsy girl? Before she was as impudent and tart as a child, now she has transformed into an amiable, charming lady!"

Nadir looked at me seriously. "What do you mean Erik? Has she not alway been such? Just because you anger her and get on her bad side does not make her any less a lady."

I turned away annoyed from the Persian to face where Rhiannon and Montrell were standing, talking and laughing with a small group in the middle of the dance floor. They looked like they had been friends for years, acting oh-so friendly towards each other.

Nadir spoke to me as I observed this little scene. "Or could it be you are jealous of Mademoiselle's affections toward another man? Where with you she has barely gotten along."

I turned swiftly to the offending Dardoga. "Good Lord, where did such a ridiculous though come from? I have it in good mind to have you examined Nadir! All that time at sea has surely not done you good."

I glanced over at the ballroom floor again. "Speaking of which, I do believe it is time to stop this nonsense before that girl trips up herself and is revealed. The last thing we need is suspicion from that light-headed lord."

I left Nadir behind me chuckling like some deranged madman. He surely had too much to drink, and when we got back he would be hearing from me about it.

Just as I reached Rhiannon's side, the music changed and turned to a more seducing tempo, hinting with dark undertones and quick changes. Dancing music. Montrell turned to see me next to Rhiannon. "Erik! How fortunate you are here. Come! You must dance with this fine young lady. Don't worry I have a partner so you two just enjoy yourselves."

A slightly panicked look came on Rhiannon's face. "Oh no that's okay! I am not inclined to dance this evening."

Montrell looked slightly baffled. "Nonsense! Why go to a ball if you do not intend to dance? My dear if you are worried about offending me than I pray you would not be so! Erik brought you here, it would only be right that he be your partner. We may dance later if you like." And with a brilliant smile he turned to a blond woman whom he lead to a place on the floor. Assumably the partner he had mentioned.

I stood there stiff and annoyed. Wonderful! Now I had to dance with her. Rhiannon acted the same way; at least she wasn't pleased about this either, that was my one comfort. I turned and bowed. "May I have this dance, my lady?"

Rhiannon's POV

"You may." I didn't even look at him. This was all his fault! I was doing fine. Lord Montrell had introduced me to a few colleagues of his, and so far I had gathered that there had been a little trouble in the trader's world recently. A few land raids here and there. Presumably nothing to be worried about, probably just a few obscure incidents.

But I knew Jacob, and this had him written all over it. These people had no idea they were being moved in on, from both angles no less. I continued the sweet innocent girl act, but kept interested enough to keep the conversation flowing in that direction. Lord Montrell seemed quite intrigued by me, and that was all I needed. It was simple really. All you need to do is believe you own lie enough that others believe it too. And have an anchor. Something that reminds you who you really are, something to draw you back.

"Rhiannon" A soft woman's voice echoed. I knew that voice, it was hers. It reminded me that I wasn't an innocent girl travelling for the first time, dewy eyed and amazed by the world. I looked around; they were all so simple, yet in a way I envied them. Especially the younger ones. They didn't actually know how cruel the world was. They were something I could never hope to be.

"Erik! How fortunate you are here. Come! You must dance with this fine young lady. Don't worry I have a partner so you two just enjoy yourselves."

No! No, no, NO! I needed more time, more information. And of course, dancing with the ice-for-heart was not on my list of priorities. "Oh no that's okay! I am not inclined to dance this evening." Shoot! What a stupid thing to say! It's a annual ball for crying out loud! What else is there to do but dance?

And with that I was doomed. Of course I accepted. Refusing would not only be a social faux-pas-since I was neither engaged nor ill-but it would draw unnecessary attention. Sacrifice was the only option. I allowed him to take my hand and touch my lower back lightly. I could tell this would not be enjoyable for either of us, which, is a total understatement. I was ready to take measures the moment he did anything I saw as inappropriate. Though, honestly it was a stupid worry, considering our feelings for one another. Which was an almost utter and despicable loathing. Almost.

Then the room started to move. A quick, swirling pace that almost blurred out everything except you and your partner.

How wonderful for us. For the first few moments we just glared at each other. Before anything else we needed to establish that both of us were in just as much discomfort and disgust as the other. Once this was clearly apparent enough it became what everything between us was: a battle.

"So, you just couldn't wait to barge in and make a mess of things could you? At the very least you could have made sure to just bind my hands and feet while you were at it."

His hold became a bit firmer on my back. "If you don't behave I may just do that very thing. And I'll give you a good whipping while I'm at it too." I aggressively dug my nails deeper into his glove.

"I'm not a child! And I resent that you constantly treat me as if I am less of a person, less important than you!"

His eyes sparkled with mirth at my anger. He spun me away and then tugged me back. "But that is what you have lead everyone else to believe! The innocent little girl. Fresh young blood ready to join the ranks of the upper crust! And I will remind you..." Before I knew what what was happening he grabbed my arm and forced me backwards. I was defenceless in his arms with his face hovering over mine. "... You are." The cruel smirk was enough to drive me mad! But reacting was out of my ability. The dip was over and I was dragged back into the same swirling dance I was resenting so much.

"Well, it hardly matters. I know just who you are." An aloof smile seemed to mock me as he asked: "Oh? And what am I?"

I glazed at him blankly, before coldly answering him. "Heartless, wrapped up blindly in your own pride. Blinded by your social prejudice. You only care for your own personally warped world. You, are just like them." He obviously was quite barbed by that, and once again tried to abuse his role as the leader by twisting faster as to bend me to his power. But I'd had enough playing nice.

Unceremoniously I quickly with one smooth movement took over control of our dance. I wasn't weak. Strong as he was at this moment I simply turned his power against him. I drove him backward, faster and faster picking up the pace, complicating the steps as we went. In turn he had to put all his focus and strength into simply keeping on his feet. I was through being bullied at this ball. And finally I was actually starting to enjoy myself.

An icy air seemed to settle on me. I felt a chill go up my spine, like someone was walking on my grave. I slowed down slightly, allowing Erik to take over again. But I no longer cared. Something, someone, was watching me. It wasn't the friendly, or even the jealous looks coming from the normal guests attending the ball. It felt like a knife was running up and down my back, and it felt wrong. So extremely wrong.

"What? Has the cat finally lost her claws?" Oh with that again! I was done fighting with him for now.

I hissed through my clenched teeth. "Silence! That is no longer a concern of mine anymore." He looked puzzled by my statement. But then seemed to understand something important was happening. In a deep voice, audible enough only for me to hear, he said: "Where is the problem?" I didn't meet his gaze as he waited for my answer.

The icy daggers subsided, and for a moment I thought that the source had left. But then a new sensation came upon me. It was familiar, and I knew in an instant who it belonged to...

I turned, and saw through the crowd of dancers a masquerader. Such people could be found at almost any party. They would wander the streets and pass any place a celebration could be found. The servants would generally announce their presence to the master of the house, and he would allow them into the midst. Their purpose was usually just as another novelty to add to the festivities, and it certainly did not need to be a masque for their attire to be appropriate.

But I knew that gaze, which could pierce my soul and bare myself before them. They made me the slave and him the owner.

He appeared to be the same, yet something had changed about him. He looked, altered. As if for once he wasn't... Wasn't...

I broke the dance. I passed through the crowd like a ghost, leaving a baffled Erik behind me. They didn't slow me the slightest bit. Yet they didn't slow him either. I followed him as he weaved through the people, and as he quickly went up the small staircase off the side of the room, leading to a level overlooking the ballroom. I passed the couples leaning over the banister, ladies peering from behind the columns, men leaning against them. With my goal in mind, I had lost enough awareness that I had not seen the young man with whom I collided, sending me off my feet.

"Ah!" I started to fall, when his arms lashed out to wrap around my shoulders from the front, supporting me so I did not hit the ground. For a moment I simply didn't understand what had just happened; I was shocked. I felt myself lifted onto my feet correctly, still in the arms of my rescuer.

I still was dazed when I heard a distinctly smooth, accented voice speaking to me. "Señorita? Are you alright?" I looked up and lost what little breath I had managed to regain.

Dark, almost black eyes sparkled back at mine. Framed by long, shiny black locks. His face was finely chiseled and possessed aristocratic features. His skin was slightly darker than mine, and seemed to have a light, coppery glow to it. On his right ear, a little gold hoop hung. With a pointed ruby dangling like a charm from that.

His clothes were made up of a red and green paisley patterned doublet under a well fitted black leather over-vest, with golden buttons running up the left breast side. Finished off by black leather trousers and smart looking knee boots.

Indeed, I dare that any woman in my position would have reacted in much the same way. He was quite the Adonis! And as far as his well-shaped tall frame went, he wasn't hard on eyes either.

I regained my senses enough to relay my practicing character. "Yes, I believe so. Please forgive me for running into you. I almost knocked you over!" He laughed in an amused sort of way, then told me:

"No worries! No harm done. And I'm very glad that you are well. I would have been very distraught had you been hurt. Miss..." He looked at me expectantly, obviously looking for my name. I was reluctant to give it though. It was true that my name was no longer so much myself, so much as was now just an alibi. Since my only other self was now Black Blood, my name was just a label; a way to be identified by others. Revealing it was no longer like giving up my true identity. Or was it...

No. This was not the time to be weak about the past. I looked coquettishly at him and whispered just as mysteriously, "Rhiannon. That is my given name. If you desire my birth name you must first be properly introduced to me." He seemed to realize the game I was playing as a sly grin slid onto his face.

"But how may I accomplish such a feat? I do not believe you are here with your family, since I have never heard say of such beauty hailing from this area. In fact you are probably not even from this country! Spanish girls don't have your light looks. And French girls are too plain. You don't bear the look of a Grecian, and you appear too strong to be a weak Englishwoman. I declare you are not from this world at all! Only a goddess could be the possessor of the comeliness which graces itself before me now!"

A smile was spread wide across my face, he certainly knew how to charm them! He knelt on one knee and took my hand in his. "Allow me to give honor unto this goddess by showing my respect for her." He then gently lay a kiss onto my palm. I was a great master of my emotions. Throughout this whole exchange though I felt only within myself. I no longer could control my world, I was just as every other person. And... I liked it. I was normal. Just a girl enchanted by a handsome man.

"Indeed it is not so! I am simply a girl, and certainly no divinity." His playful eyes looked into mine again as he rose to his feet, still clasping my hand.

"Then you must be Italian! For sure a descendant of fair Juno, of lovely Venus herself!" Here he winked at me, as to give me a hint. I smiled triumphantly.

"While it is a good guess you are once more wrong. But I may make a fair guess that you yourself are from Italy?" He looked up and place a hand over his heart, along with my own hand. While his other arm flourished dramatically in the air.

"The gods must favor me! Such a lady of splendid beauty, and of a sharpened whit! Fortuna has smiled upon me again!" He lowered his arms and bent himself into a light bow. "It helps though when you are a child of Fortuna herself." What did he mean? Now I was curious. Who was he?

He seemed to guess my thoughts, "If it is your will I shall serve your will and not ask your name, and neither shall I encumber you with mine until we can be properly introduced." Ah, he was crafty! It wouldn't work on me though.

"Sir, then it shall be so. Find my friends and you may ask an introduction for me." I almost laughed and almost cried at the sad, puppy eyed look he gave me.

"My Lady is truly cruel. How shall I know these friends among this vast crowd? I beg of thee a hint, so I may at least make my search with a more directed mind."

For a moment I considered telling him of Erik and Nadir, but then I remembered. Erik, Nadir, the pact, and the masquerader. This was no time for fooling around. How had I let this happen?! I needed to go. Things like this were not meant for me.

I looked at him one last time. It would be a nice memory to look back on one day. At least I could have this moment when I thought about how fate had not granted me a "normal life". I quickly curtsied and hastily said, "The only thing I may grant is my best wishes for you. My time has fled, please enjoy the rest of your evening. It was a pleasure not making your acquaintance." I gave him one last smile before dashing in the direction I had last seen the masquerader go.

Once more I couldn't tell if the man I was leaving was saying or doing anything. My focus returned to me and I began tracking down my prey. It wasn't hard to do. The upper level was basically a big loop leading to a stair on the other side, and I could see he wasn't in the crowd below. He was still on this level, otherwise he'd left. But that theory was impossible, since Masqueraders would stay until a party ended. And if my hunch was correct, this would remain the case.

That left one last place. One the second level, in the very center stood a double door. What it lead to I didn't know, but at this point it didn't even matter. That was where I went.

I swiftly entered, careful that no one saw me trespassing. I wouldn't be missed very easily. It was a large ball, thus it would be a while before anyone I knew figured out I was gone. But I had wasted time with that man, and Erik had known something was wrong. Not that I cared. He could very well stay in the dark for as long as I cared for him to. I looked around the dark room. It looked like a parlour. It had a fireplace to the right, a wall-length bookcase to the left, and a large ebony clock at the back. Which was flanked by two windows overlooking a tiered garden. For some odd reason the fireplace was lit, and the shadows cast by the flames hid the corners in almost a complete darkness. I felt it almost immediately, but beyond being aware of it there was nothing I could do but wait.

The moments passed. And next I saw a movement in the shadows. The masquerader came forward. He was a black and white domino (**) with what appeared to be a sword on his side. He didn't attempt to come any closer, he simply watched me from he place by the clock, and I watched him from in front of the doors.

Then he lifted his head a bit, and I saw a flash of silver, and a glint of brown. He pulled away the mask and hat, and the final facade between us was removed. "Rhiannon." He said.

I stared him down. "...Jacob."

That's it!

(*) The music used here is "The First of Autumn" by Enya. A link to the video is on my page. My little sister made a video with horses using that song. :) She's been working on it for days and the song just popped into my head while writing this. She is such a smart girl, the video is definitely worth a look. (Hint, hint. Watch the video. Now.)

(**) A domino was a traditional costume from the 17th century, and consisted of a hat and a mask connected to a cape. I've included a link to one on my profile if you would like a better idea of what it is. :)