The prompt for the February flash fiction was, unsurprisingly, related to Valentine’s Day. Instead of choosing the day itself, we decided on Valentine’s Cards. This piece, longer than the requirement of 500 words, was an idea I simply couldn’t compress enough and be happy with it. It’s a world that’s been stewing in my brain, an alternate history ruled from the shadows by a vampire caste called the Night Barons. Not steampunk, just…Regency with a bite. So I give to you, the Valentinus Ball, a combination of Valentine’s and Sadie Hawkins Day, where a young woman shows her interest in a suitor via a simple card in hopes of catching a monster of her own.
The Valentinus Ball
Lily felt for the card hidden in her small reticule. The stiff spine and rounded corners pressed against the embroidered silk, an impertinence barely contained. The card itself was unremarkable. She’d painted a field of snow-white lilies touched with a hint of blush beneath a warm, spring sun. Trees bordered the folded edge with ebony ravens nesting in their canopies. An elegant estate sat off to one side.
There were the usual decorations to suit the occasion. Along the bottom, a pair of crimson hearts anchored a flowing banner bearing the words “To My Valentine.” A swarm of tiny cherubs peeked from behind the lilies like mischievous fairies. Roses bloomed in front of the manor house.
No, the card wasn’t objectionable in the least. It was her choice of recipient.
“Are you truly certain, Lily?” Her mother asked.
“Yes, mama.” Lily was glad the carriage interior was dark enough to hide her expression. Five identical questions with five identical answers in less than fifteen minutes’ time. Lily had reached the end of her patience with this subject. “As the host, I’m sure Lord Blackmarch receives dozens of cards each year. Mine will simply be one of many, easily lost in the pile.”
“I just don’t understand why you won’t encourage that handsome Mr. Franklin.”
Lily shuddered. Handsome Mr. Franklin had buried three wives already, but he was wealthy and carried a lot of influence in the village. He was also at least twice Lily’s age, mostly bald, and with breath foul enough to make a draft mule win by a head at Newmarket. She had no interest in making him a widower for the fourth time.
She traced a rounded corner of the card with the tip of her finger. Perhaps she was as foolish as her mother believed. She didn’t want a suitable marriage where she barely tolerated her husband. Her parents had taught her that in various and sundry ways. She wanted him. Lord Damien Noctis, Earl of Blackmarch and one of the Night Barons.
Certain texts claim the Night Barons were instrumental in placing Normandy’s William on the English throne. Others hint they took advantage of the chaos to emerge from the shadows and rise to power. Neither may be entirely true, or both may be. The Night Barons weren’t keen on enlightening the humans around them, and even academics were too intimidated to pursue the subject once rebuffed. All anyone knew for certain was their support and counsel took a country of warring tribes and built it into an empire capable of defeating the Corsican at Waterloo. They were powerful, mysterious, and not entirely human.
And Lord Blackmarch was their First.
Lily had met him at the Valentinus Ball during her debut season, though she doubted he remembered her. Just another debutante lost in a sea of white lace and match-making mamas. His skin had been cool when he bowed over her hand, his voice deep and strong, but his eyes? His eyes held her spellbound. Darkest mahogany licked with crimson flames, they were the most fascinating, glorious eyes she’d ever seen.
They’d met several more times during that year. Once at a musicale where a beautiful, pale-skinned woman sang with such haunting purity it brought tears to her eyes. Again, at a performance of Don Giovanni where they spent the entire intermission discussing the many ways of exacting vengeance on the unrepentant and promiscuous Don. Later, at a ball where he finally, finally asked her to dance. It was that night she realized her growing infatuation had blossomed into true regard.
Her mother and her friends weren’t as enamored with the Night Baron. They whispered behind their fans at the Earl’s pale skin and raven-black hair. One young woman fainted when his eyes flashed crimson during a heated discussion, while another descended into hysterics at the sight of one of the Earl’s fangs. Lily found them all ridiculous. The Night Barons weren’t human, but they didn’t go around eating people! It wouldn’t be polite.
The slight jerk of the carriage coming to a halt pulled Lily from her memories. Nervously, she checked her hair to ensure her pins were secure, smoothed her skirts, and pinched her cheeks to give them some color. Time for the ball.
A liveried servant took their cloaks, another their cards. Lily ignored her mother’s frown and the servant’s arched brow when she withdrew the Earl’s card from her reticule. Maybe it wasn’t the done thing to give their host a card, but surely it wasn’t that notable.
Sir Martindale claimed the first dance, Mr. Warwick the second. On it went toward midnight with no sign of Lord Blackmarch. Lily sighed, sipping a glass of punch and scanning the crowd for the Earl. She was a foolish girl to place so much importance on such chance encounters.
“Looking for someone, Miss Alexander?”
Lily whirled around to find the Earl bathed in the shadows of a potted tree. He looked at home there with his crimson eyes reflecting the muted light and the tips of his fangs resting on his lips. He was… She dropped into a curtsy, hiding her reaction to his nearness. He was otherworldly. Predatory. Enchanting.
“Would it be too forward of me, my lord, to say I sought your face among your guests?”
“Perhaps.” He held out his hand. “Dance with me.”
She placed her hand in his and let him pull her into the dance. His palm was a warm weight at her back when the band struck the first notes of the waltz. She shivered when he pulled her closer. This was a bad, terrible, wonderful idea. If she could complete the dance without doing something unforgivable, she’d consider the night a success.
“You made me a card.”
She nodded, staring at the ruby eye of an ebony raven pin in his cravat. There was no use denying it. The lilies she’d painted with such care declared her identity as surely as the servant who’d taken the card from her could.
She did look up, then. “Whatever do you mean, my lord?”
“Why make me a card instead of one of your other beaus?”
“I…” Heat suffused her face, and she looked away. “I’d rather not…”
“Miss Alexander.” Lord Blackmarch danced them into the shadows and through a hidden door. The sounds of the ball quieted to a low murmur, mixed with the soft crackle of a warm fire. The Earl pulled her closer, his dark eyes full of ruby light. “Lily. Tell me. Please.”
Licking dry lips, she whispered, “I couldn’t offer my heart to another, my lord, when it’s been yours for so long. It wouldn’t be—”
He kissed her. Long and deep and gloriously right, he kissed her. Until her surprise turned to sighs, until her hands found their way around his neck, until his groans were joined by her soft moans, he kissed her. And when she tasted blood on her tongue, when the scrape of his fangs caused him to pull away and apologize, she held him close and kissed him instead.
“I know you, my lord.” She traced his lips with her fingers, not shying away from the points of his extended fangs. “I know you, I see you, and I am not afraid.”
“Damien,” he corrected. “I’ve thoroughly destroyed your reputation by carrying you off and half-ravishing you. The least you could do is address me by my given name.”
She grinned. “If you insist, my lord.” He growled and pulled her closer. She tried to capture his lips in a kiss, but he nuzzled at her neck, nibbled on her ear, and nipped at her kiss-swollen lips. Her smile turned into delighted laughter even as her blood ignited, and her bones melted into goo. “Damien, behave!”
A smile lingered at the corners of his mouth, but his eyes burned like hypnotic pools of molten flame. As pure as the richest ruby, as dark as the blood he needed to live. He brushed his finger over her lips and came away stained darkest red.
“I am a monster, you know.”
Lily tugged his head back to hers. “Yes. But you are my monster.”
They returned to the ball seconds before the midnight chimes sounded. Lily’s smile lit the room when there, among the cards addressed to her, lay one of deepest crimson. On its front, an ebony raven held a lily in its beak.