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|Railplay, Pt 1
|Creators: Elva Birch (Writer)|
|Bai shows up at the theatre alone - to find that he's not the only one who has been stood up for the evening!|
|Posted: 09/29/11 [1 Comment]
~ 2415 words.|
Bai arrived at the theatre with a scowl on his face colder than the air outside, and walked into the lobby stomping snow off of his boots. If anyone wondered why he was arriving alone, they didn't dare to ask, and he didn't particularly care to share the fact that Olarali had stood him up for the event.Author's Notes
Her card, sent down to where he waited in the greatroom at the House of Scarlet Wings, had protested a cold, but when Bai had anxiously inquired about her illness - surely nothing less than some serious sickness would keep her from attending the opening event of the season! - the matron had looked at him quite blankly.
He could not figure any slight he'd caused her recently, and she had been so excited about attending the opening that Bai was puzzled. Puzzles made him grouchy, and he wrangled over the issue in his head the entire walk from Olarali's House to the theatre several blocks away. He would have hired a covered conveyance if Olarali had been with him, but felt the walk would clear his head, instead.
Far from it, he was in more of an ill mood for the snowy walk, and his outer coat was quite damp by the time he arrived at Kaleidoscope Theatre. He handed his coat over to an attendant who jumped to serve him, and was turning to make his way to his seat when a sight arrested him.
Ressa was standing by the inner doors, resplendent in embroidered gold velvet and cut amber. She was shaking her head dismissively at two patrons who were trying to give her cards, a slight, sympathetic smile on her mouth. Bai was struck by how different her look was than the professional dress she brought to work. Usually covered from neck to ankle, tonight she showed soft pale shoulders above the long golden sleeves, and an expanse of bosom usually masked by unflattering rank robes. The dress clung to the lines of her hips and waist, and the jewels at her neck and arms emphasized how tall and slim she was, flashing as she moved with a grace that had always seemed only utilitarian at the licensing office.
She caught sight of him, just as he recovered from the amazement of her, and her face lit up with relief, a genuine smile bowing her mouth. She nodded at him, and Bai found himself irresistibly moving through the crowd towards her.
"You look..." he tried to find an adjective that wasn't outrageously unprofessional, but did some justice to the glory of her appearance. "Lovely?" It seemed flat.
"You say that like it's a question," Ressa teased him, but she looked pleased. "You look quite fine yourself, License Master." She said it with just the right balance of friendly and polite, with no hint of awkwardness.
"You're here alone?" Bai frowned at another man who had noted the carnal guild pin at the top of Ressa's dress and was hopefully holding a card. The man thought better of approaching them, and disappeared into the crowd again. It was hard not to look at the guild pin without being distracted by the tantalizing cleavage so close to it. Ressa was taller than he was, so it was difficult to miss the show.
"Yeff is meeting me here," Ressa said lightly. "But his train may run late, so he said to go in without him, if he didn't get here in time."
"The dangers of a traveling profession," Bai said conversationally, envying the man who would have this woman on his arm. He couldn't very well leave her standing by the doorway on her own - another scowl drove off another aspirant suitor, and Ressa gave him a fleeting, grateful smile. "Are you looking forward to the Nuvimev break?"
The Empire calendar had five extra days at the beginning of the year, called the zero month, and all major government offices were closed - the longest closure of the year, culminating in a seven day break in total with the tenend before it.
Ressa chuckled. "I confess that I am," she said. "I intend to stay up late at night and take evening walks in the snow, eat my meals at all hours, and read a dozen trashy novels, without once thinking about how to index the new exotic property license paperwork."
Bai had to smile, at that. The very idea of Ressa reading trashy novels was so charming and unlike her serious self. "That certainly beats my plan to clean out several trunks worth of old paperwork and collections of books I haven't read since the forms, but my housekeeper has already let me know that she won't continue to dust them unless I thin them out by the time she comes back from her rail trip to visit with her parents. And I probably do not have the discipline that you do not to think about the pile of approval paperwork I will have to go through when we return to work."
They talked seriously for a time about the newest changes in policy at the office, and how hectic their first tendays back for the year would be. Bai found himself struggling to accept the odd combination that Ressa was tonight - the same sensible, clever, warm woman he respected so keenly in the office, and this shining, alluring figure that made his head spin with desire. He wanted to touch the skin of her shoulders, to see if it felt as soft as it looked, and bury his hands in her unexpectedly loose hair, thicker and silkier than he would have guessed from the conservative coils of braids she wore at work. He barely kept up with the conversation, guessing sometimes at what she'd just said when he got distracted by the tilt of her wrist and the trail of her small fan through the air.
"I saw that the personnel lift at the office had been shut down," Ressa said. "Did they ever find the problem?"
"No," Bai said, shaking his head in disapproval. "The maintenance team keeps insisting that it stopped because of the earthquake, no matter how many times I tell them the jam was at least a tentick before, and none of them can explain how the alarm flag got reset. I told them they can't operate it again until I've got satisfactory answers to both of those questions."
Ressa nodded approvingly. "I can't say I disagree with that choice."
The gas lights flickered in warning, and the crowd began to disperse to their seats.
"We got seats in the center balcony," Ressa said, looking at her tickets. She glanced to the outer doors and bit at her painted lower lip. "I don't think he's going to make it."
"I'm in the center, too," Bai said, fishing his out of a pocket on his license pouch. "7 - G and H."
Ressa startled. "How remarkable!" she laughed, the sound loud in the emptying room. "We have J and I in row 7!"
"Singular luck, that," Bai said in surprise. He had been half-hoping to escape the woman as the play started, and was dismayed by his conflicting desire to stay as near to her as possible.
With a last glance and regretful sigh, Ressa turned from the outer doors to join the last stragglers at the inner theatre doors, taking the elbow Bai automatically offered her. He started at her touch, and was capable of no meaningful conversation as they made their way onto the balcony to their seats. He could not politely leave an empty seat between them, so they sat together, strangely insulated within the packed audience by the empty seats on either side. He could not escape the idea that they were being stared at... and that didn't in the least dampen the incredibly inappropriate lust that roiled inside.
The curtain lifted at last, and Bai spent an increasingly uncomfortable act trying to stop his mind from thinking about the slope of Ressa's shoulders, or the fall of her hair over them. He daydreamed irresistibly about what it would be like to kiss her, in lurid detail.
Intermission could not come soon enough. Bai frowned and tugged at the collar of his ornate rank robes, sweating in the warm room as they left their seats for the lobby. Ressa, by comparison, looked utterly composed, the barest curve of a smile on her lips. Her hand rested on his elbow with no more pressure than was absolutely required to maintain contact, and she kept herself at exactly the polite distance as they trailed out of the theatre.
It was still too close, and Bai wrestled with her proximity. As much as he had longed for the intermission, it was worse than the performance, where at least he had the excuse of the entertainment to draw his attention. He searched the crowd for a familiar face to provide distraction; they spotted Lalya in the main lobby briefly, but he was the center of a knot of attentive people and after only a moment of trying to catch roi eye, Ressa chuckled - a rich, low sound - and suggested near his ear that their properties manager was more popular than roi new husband, the star of the show. Another stiff turn of the room, and Bai's search was rewarded.
"Rai," he exclaimed, in some relief. "Let me introduce you!"
Rai was between two lovely figures wearing carnal guild pins, each clearly vying for his attention. He looked around with a rakish smile and a characteristic squint. He wouldn't be able to pick Bai out of the colorful crowd, so Bai spoke as he approached. "This is Ressa, Head of Files at the Licensing Office."
He wondered if he imagined the slight squeeze at his elbow, or the tiny pause before Ressa said sweetly, "You must be Rai. I've heard so much about you."
Rai's face furrowed as he reached out his hand for the polite touch of fingertips, and Ressa moved hers to meet it. "Ressa," he said thoughtfully, lingering over the name. "Yes, I've heard a great deal about you, as well."
Bai was too distracted to try to unravel the odd undertone to Rai's voice, and was only too happy to touch fingertips with the elegant women escorting his twin brother, though he forgot their names immediately. They exchanged warm greetings with Ressa, and when Rai suggested they get their ladies some refreshment, Bai was only too happy to abandon her with her fellow guildmates and guide his blind brother away.
He debated leaving the entire show at that moment, making half-aware conversation with his brother until Rai trod on his foot with an ingenuous, "Sorry, must not have been paying attention."
Bai sighed. "Sorry," he said more honestly. "I know I haven't been."
"You couldn't tell me one thing about the first hour of the play," Rai observed. "She must be powerfully distracting."
"Too distracting," Bai agreed, then snapped his mouth shut. These were thoughts he wasn't ready to admit, even to Rai.
Rai could tell they were in a lull in the crowd, by the noise, Bai guessed, and asked quietly, intensely, "What have you been up to with her, Bai?"
"Nothing," Bai insisted, understanding his pointed question. "Not one toe out of line, and she wouldn't invite anything more, I promise you. We both know the fraternization rules too well, even if she could ever think of a lunk like me in any way other than friendship."
Rai frowned. "But you've given her Olarali's perfume."
"What? Of course not. That would be beyond inappropriate." Perfume was the kind of gift you gave a lover, not an office assistant.
"I should know," Rai insisted. "I get you that scent by special order, and it's damned hard to license; one of the strongest flowers in that mix is extinct outside one small area of the Rainbow Rainforest."
"So you say when you quote me the price," Bai said, frowning. "I thought you said Olarali would be the only one in Affamarg with that scent!" His feisty prostitute was unlikely to be pleased if there was a second source of it in the town.
"You see my point," Rai said dryly.
Bai blinked at him a moment. "I didn't give Ressa any perfume," he insisted. "I wouldn't do that."
"Then Olarali did?" Rai said thoughtfully.
"Why would Olarali give a clerk with the licensing office her most prized perfume? I don't think they even know each other."
"Why did you say she wasn't here with you tonight?" Rai countered.
Bai opened his mouth, then closed it again. It seemed a remarkable coincidence that he and Ressa had randomly obtained adjacent seats at the program, and both been abandoned at the very last moment. He couldn't wrap his head around the idea of why anyone would go to such lengths, or what possible purpose it might serve. The idea of her wearing Olarali's perfume was at once a puzzle, and an unexpected relief; now that Rai had mentioned it, the smell was so obvious, and he remembered the strength of it, trapped in the elevator with her, and the betrayal of his mind and body to its lure. It had been everything he could manage not to maul her with kisses on the spot, as irresistibly attracted to her as if he were a second form boy with his first joygirl.
Rai had once told him that the sense of smell was more powerful than any of the other senses, and for the first time, Bai was inclined to agree with him. A tangled knot of people approaching dispersed further conversation, and they walked back to where they had left Ressa and the guildladies with their drinks as the lights flickered to call them back from the first intermission.
The women took their refreshments with polite conversation and parted for their seats with Rai; Bai made himself not shudder when Ressa took his arm again. The subtle swim of her perfume was unmistakable now, and Bai wondered how he could have missed it earlier, or failed to identify the affect it was having on him. He was still struck by how badly he wanted to touch her skin and put his fingers in her loose hair, but it helped to have a reason for it. A reason that didn't involve wildly inappropriate feelings he didn't want to have.