The Madness Project (The Madness Method) (49 page)

BOOK: The Madness Project (The Madness Method)
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I sucked in a pained breath as my senses constricted to my
old body, head pounding and eyes stinging.  I watched Shade’s rough and
bloody-knuckled hands become smooth and refined, and moved each finger, joint
by joint, like they were brand new.  It had been so long since I had felt with
Tarik’s hands, moved with Tarik’s legs.  I flexed my arms, drowning more than
ever in the broad sleeves of Zagger’s coat.   I felt like a stranger.

Zagger darted a glance over his shoulder and grinned a
little when he saw me—
me
—sitting there.

“It’s good to see you, Your Highness.”

“It’s good to be back,” I said, and added under my breath,
“I think.”

I buttoned the long coat closed down its length, to try to
hide as much of my rags as possible.  We were drawing close to the palace now,
and Zagger slowed the motorcar before we reached the gate.

“Shall I take you in around the front, or back through the
kitchens?”

I hesitated.  Under Zagger’s coat, only the bottoms of my
trousers and my boots would show, and they weren’t so manky that they couldn’t
pass as well-worn from bad weather travel.

“Take me to the front,” I said.  “I’m coming home.  I can’t
sneak inside without causing an uproar.”

He snorted.  “Believe me, Your Highness, you won’t be able
to avoid that, no matter how you walk in.”

But he complied, pulling up in front of the palace steps. 
Though it was pitch dark, evening had barely fallen on that shortest day of the
year, and the ball’s guests hadn’t even started to arrive.  Still, the
appearance of my motorcar caused a huge commotion, just as Zag had predicted. 
A score of footmen and even Pont came spilling out of the palace, standing all
at attention in the ghastly rain as the first footman ran to open my door.

“Your Royal Highness!” he exclaimed, too shocked to maintain
his silence.

“Evening, Crift,” I said as he escorted me under umbrella to
the palace doors.  “Send word to my mother, will you, and let her know I’ve
finally arrived?” 

He nodded, and I turned to Pont.

“Good evening, Your Highness,” he said.  “Forgive our
surprise.  We weren’t expecting you this evening.”

“Neither was I,” I said, enigmatic.

I handed him my hat, but as he reached for my coat, I
dismissed him with a wave and headed into the palace without a backward
glance.  That would puzzle him, of course, but it couldn’t be helped.

Liman was waiting for me when I opened the door to my
apartments, wringing his hands anxiously.  In the background I could hear water
running for my bath, and couldn’t restrain a little grin.  I tried not to think
about how long it had been since I’d bathed—
really
bathed.

“Liman,” I said.

“Oh, oh, Your Highness!” he exclaimed.  “You’re back!  I was
so dreadfully worried, you know, just…
dreadful!

I shot him a sidelong glance as I went to sit by the fire. 
“Why the worry, Liman?  I was traveling.”

“Oh, but you know what those awful chin-wagglers say…oh,
you’ve no idea, have you?  Oh dear, never mind.  You’re back now, and—gad, I’ve
left the water running.”

He bolted off into the bathroom, leaving me smiling.  I
didn’t realize how much I’d missed Liman’s fretting.  I wondered how he could
have been expecting me, until Zagger came out from his own apartment and sat
down in the chair opposite me.

“Once he’s done fussing over the bath, send him out,” I
said.  “Then you can take these rags and hide them somewhere.”  I sighed,
gazing around the old room.  “It’s Kalethelia, but I left not long after my
birthday.  Has it really not even been a full month?  It feels like a
lifetime.”

“I know,” Zagger said.

Liman ducked back into the room.  “Your Highness, your bath
is ready, whenever you’d like it.”

“Brilliant,” I said, but it took me a moment to drag myself
from the chair.

I waved Liman away as he started to follow me into the
bathroom, and shut the door behind me.  Outside I could hear Zagger telling him
to see to my ball attire, and Liman clucking as he gave up on me. 

I sank into the steaming bathtub, letting the heat sear me,
banishing a month’s worth of cold from my limbs.  At least unMasking meant I’d
lost all of Shade’s filth, so my clothes were  the only evidence of the life
I’d been living.  Zagger came in presently and swept them away, then Liman
popped in with my robe and kit asking if I wanted a shave.  I wondered if I
should have Masked the stubble of a beard to give Liman something to do, but it
was too late for that.

“I’ve rung for some food,” he told me, hanging my robe. 
“I’m afraid it won’t be much, but you looked rather famished.”

I thanked him and sent him away so I could finish my bath in
peace.  When I heard the servants bring in my food, I got out and dressed in my
robe, and found a small feast left for me on my table.  Liman had disappeared,
but Zagger grinned when he saw my face.  I tucked in, savoring the tender lamb
and potatoes, and a bowl of cream soup that I ate entirely out of order.  I
managed to set aside my soup spoon as Liman returned, so he wouldn’t notice my
utter failure in etiquette.

“The guests are arriving,” he said.  “I’m afraid I didn’t
know you were to be here for the ball.  I haven’t got a new suit for you to wear.”

“Don’t mind about it,” I said, relishing a sip of red wine. 
“No one else will, I’m sure.  They’ll be too shocked that I’m even there to
notice what I’m wearing.”

“Well,” he sputtered, and I knew he wasn’t convinced.

When I finished my meal he helped me dress in the suit I’d
had made for my birthday—white tie and waistcoat, with black trousers and
fitted tailcoat that made me feel rather like a stuffed duck.  He insisted on
festooning me with a gold sash and all my ridiculous medals, I suppose to make
sure everyone would recognize me in case they’d forgotten what I looked like. 
As I buttoned on my white gloves, I caught a glimpse of myself in the armoire
mirror, starched and crisp and clean, and a strange distant look in my eyes
that I never remembered.  I sighed.

Liman hovered at my shoulder, looking agitated.

“Something troubling you, Liman?”

“No, no,” he said, and frowned at his hands.  “That is, I
hope I didn’t do anything to offend you, Your Highness.”

“Certainly not.  Though you do fuss a bit,” I said,
smiling.  “Why?”

“I just…I thought I should have gone with you on your
travels.  I don’t understand why you left without me.”

I hesitated.  I hadn’t just left without my valet, I’d left
without even saying goodbye.  The memory stabbed a bit of guilt into my heart. 
And for the first time I wondered what it had been like for him, to face his
fellow servants and their private gossip.  He had his own pride to worry about,
not just mine.

“It wasn’t anything you did,” I said, and tried a smile. 
“But you know how I am.”

And that was all I could give. 

I headed down to the ballroom, Zagger shadowing me from his accustomed
distance.  Apparently I timed my appearance perfectly—the majority of the
guests had arrived, and I came alone to the court herald who had already
announced the King and Queen.  He stood at the landing where the curving
staircase split to encircle the room, and caught a glimpse of me as I reached
the top of the steps.  I waited as he stared up at me, until he recovered his
composure and pounded his staff on the marble, silencing the room.

“His Royal Highness, Prince Tarik Trabinis,” he called.

And everyone stared.  I couldn’t quite decide if that was
the effect I’d wanted—slipping in through a side door being my preferred mode
of entry, but I couldn’t escape now.  The first face I saw was my mother’s, all
lit up with surprise and joy.  And then I noticed my father…not my father. 
Trabin.  Though he did a good job of hiding it for the world, I could see the
relief in his eyes.

I made my way down the purple-and-gold wreathed staircase
and through the parting sea of guests.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a
swarm of infernal boxies shouldering their way through the mass of humanity,
waving their huge cameras over their heads—to protect the people or the
devices, I don’t know.  I ignored them as I approached my mother, kissing her
on both cheeks before bowing to Trabin through the bulbs’ flashes.

“Your Royal Highness!” someone called from the crowd.

I turned so only my mother could see my mouth.  “You let the
newshawks come?”

“Can’t keep them away, darling,” she murmured.  “And off you
go.”

I smiled and turned around, trying not to blink as another
boxy got a shot of me for the Herald.

“When did you return?” the reporter asked, waving a pad of paper
at me as he tried to claw free of the crowd.

“Where have you been in your travels?” asked another, not to
be outdone.

And a third one popped up almost directly in front of me,
asking, “Did you return to answer the rumors about your disappearance?”

“Gentlemen,” I said, and gestured at the guests.  “This is a
ball, not an interview.  Please, enjoy yourselves.”

“But the people want to
know!
” the first reporter
said, puffing out his thin chest.

I glanced at the sea of faces drifting around me, all
watching my every move, straining to hear my every word.  All waiting for me to
make a mistake, to betray myself, to be caught lying and scandalizing my house…

“My apologies,” I said, stiff.  “I will be happy to meet
with you all in the morning, and answer any questions you wish to ask.”  I shot
them a warning glare and added, “Within reason, of course.”

And I flashed them all a broad smile that I hoped didn’t
look as fake as it felt.  I could tell they were about to assault me with
another round of questions and protests, but a light voice behind me called out
my title, silencing them and saving me.

“Your Highness!”

I turned, already smiling.  Samyr stood there, all adorned
in cream lace and silk and emeralds, her chestnut hair pinned up high behind a
beaded fillet.  I stared at her, speechless, and—I don’t know why—I felt some
kind of idiotic warmth rushing to my face.  The last dance we’d been to
together, she’d still been in an ankle dress and stockings with her hair worn
down.

“Lady Von,” I said, and took her hand to kiss it.  The
cameras flashed.  I lowered my voice and said, “I believe I missed your
birthday.”

She smiled, looking rather self-conscious, and whispered,
“Honestly, I’d rather be hiding under the stairwell.”

I laughed and flicked a pointed glance at the musicians on
the stage behind me, then offered Samyr a bow as the music began. 

“May I have this dance?”  She took my hand and the crowd
gave way, and I said in her ear, “I suppose we have to start acting our age,
don’t we?”

Her cheeks turned rosy, her hand the lightest feather touch
on my arm as we moved into the dance. 

“Honestly, Tarik, if this is what acting our age means, then
I suppose it’s not so terribly dreadful.”

“Not terribly?  We could always hide under the champagne
display and make ghostly noises and cause a scandal, if you would like that
better.”

She smiled, eyes sparkling.  “That was fine when we were
ten.”

“We could switch off the electricity to the ballroom.”

“My father didn’t let me leave the house for a week after
that.”

I smiled.  “Well, I’m out of new ideas, so if this is too
dreadful, you’ll have to come up with something on your own.”

“I’m getting used to this,” she said, twirling under my
arm.  “But stars, Tarik, where’ve you been?  You should have heard the awful
things people started saying.”

“I’m getting a sense of that.  You didn’t believe them, did
you?”

“I didn’t know what to believe.  I’ve been frightfully
worried about you, though.  First with the attack on your father, then you
leaving so suddenly…”

“I needed some time away,” I said.  She caught my eye and I
bent toward her, murmuring, “You look stunning, by the way.”

She turned her head but couldn’t hide her blush.

“You seen Griff much lately?”

That was too low-street; I’d have to be careful.  Samyr
tipped her head back to frown at me, but I carried on with the dance as if I
hadn’t said anything wrong.

“What was that?”

“Have you seen much of Griff lately?” I asked, putting on a
puzzled face and pretending to repeat myself.

“Oh, no.  Not much.  He’s here somewhere, but I’ve not
spoken to him yet.”

“And what about you?  Did you get into any stunning mischief
while I was gone?”

“Hardly,” she said.  “You were always the one dragging me
into trouble.  But I got accepted into Crandly.”

I regarded her with surprise.  “Well!  My congratulations. 
That’s—” (
swell
, I almost said) “—fantastic.”

The slang was going to kill me.

“I start next term.  I don’t know what I’ll do.  Tarik, will
you go to university?  Griff won’t.  He’s only got one foot on the ground these
days.”

“I never figured Farro for a scholar,” I said, glad that the
dance was ending and I could avoid answering her question.  I had no idea what
I’d do with myself after all of this was over.

The music stopped and I sent Samyr into one final twirl.  We
gave our courtesies as the guests applauded, and I led her off the floor.

“I’m going to chase down Griff,” I said.

She tossed her head and gave me a prickly kind of look, but
then Vessa Bell appeared at her elbow and they both smiled pointedly at me,
dismissing me so they could gossip.  My heart turned a bit sick, thinking of
how Shade had met them on the palace steps with all their haughtiness…and all
his cruelty.

I bowed to them both and took my leave.  Part of me didn’t
expect to find Griff.  He was still young enough to have an excuse to leave
early, though with Samyr and I both obliged to stay, he probably had too much
pride to escape.  I circled around the floor once and came about to the
ballroom entry, where the Lord Chamberlain had been announcing the late-arrivers.

BOOK: The Madness Project (The Madness Method)
2.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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