“Honey,” he muttered to himself. “Lavender. Lemon. Chocolate.”
If he remembered those four, he told himself, he should be all right. Mother would at least be satisfied. He took a deep breath and walked down the stairs into the ballroom.
The smell hit him like a solid wall. Fruit scents, floral ones, a hint here and there of salt and sour, an iron undertone – he almost gagged. It felt as if he could draw his sword and cut through the air itself, see it part like butter.
He swallowed hard and kept smiling, moving further into the room, hoping that he would adjust to the smell soon. A group of ladies turned at his approach, expectantly. One particularly bold lady stepped forward and held out her hand.
Blood rose to his cheeks. He felt hot, flustered, and suddenly unable to breath.
“Excuse me,” he muttered, and pushed his way through the women to reach the balcony doors.
The fresh, night air hit him almost as hard. It rushed to his head, and he felt dizzy, as if he had been swimming underwater too long and surfaced with a gasp. He put his hands on the stone balustrade and hung his head. He had failed.
He took a deep breath and frowned. There was a new scent on the air, one that hadn’t been there with that first dizzying breath. One that didn’t belong to the balcony. Fingers pressed lightly over his eyes from behind, before he could turn.
“Apple and cinnamon,” he said, recognition hitting home at last. “Arrenby.”
There was a giggle and the hands were removed.
“Well, at least you can identify your own family,” his sister said.
“Saints,” he muttered, turning to look at her. “In that getup I wouldn’t have a clue.”
She wore what all the unwed maidens wore; a blank, expressionless mask that hid even her eyes, a long black wig and a shapeless grey dress. Unless a lady was of a particularly noticeable stature – the gigantic Lady Amora Wonby, for example – there were no visual clues to tell them apart.
“That is the idea,” she said. “But your future bride is in there somewhere, and you’re not. Why’s that?”
He swallowed hard and looked away, ashamed to meet her eyes. “I couldn’t breathe in there,” he said. “Let alone identify and follow a single scent. What am I to do? I’ve failed already.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Nonsense, brother. You haven’t even begun to fail yet.”
He furrowed his fingers into his hair. “Even if I could go back in there without choking,” he said, “the only dance I could claim would be with Lady Amora, and Mother will have my hide if the best match I can make is a Wonby.”
“Good thing my nose is better than yours, then,” she said. “Wait here.”
He had no choice. From the balcony, it was a sheer drop into the rocky gardens below, with the only alternative being to face the olfactory assault of the ballroom. He leaned on the balustrade and stared miserably into the night.
“…but to appreciate the roses at their best you really have to see them at- oh!”
His sister’s voice. He turned to see two ladies standing together by the door. Their expressions were, of course, hidden but he supposed at least one was surprised to find him here.
The one on the left stepped forward first, holding her hand up at head height for him. Apple and cinnamon.
“Milady Arrenby,” he said with a bow. The other lady giggled, and almost pushed his sister aside to hold her hand out.
It was soft, that hand, pale skinned and delicate. He could imagine it matching blue eyes and cornfield hair. He bent over her hand and inhaled deeply.
It was sweet, rich and unmistakeable. The scent of honey. His mother’s first choice.
“Milady Berelle,” he said with a smile. “Would you care to dance?”
He didn’t need to see his sister’s face to know what she was thinking, but it was all right. He owed her enough favours by now that one more wouldn’t make much of a difference.
© Kari Fay