Clara looked around the corner when she heard the mail slot clink. She gasped when she saw the brilliant white envelope, practically glowing against the backdrop of aging wood and faded drapes. Impossible.
She hurried forward and picked up the letter, hands shaking. The paper was elegant, slightly off white, thickly pressed, with gold trim and sweeping script down the middle.
YOUR INVITATION TO THE GRAND DUKE’S
AT DUSK – IN TWO SUNDAYS
THE CASTLE, MAIN HALL
An invitation? Already?
She’d only turned 18 earlier that year. Every citizen got an invitation to a ball eventually, but so soon?
Her mother emerged from the kitchen, then froze at the sight of the paper in Clara’s hands.
“Is that? No!”
“Yes!” Clara shouted, holding it high. “My invitation!”
Her mother’s face lit up with joy and she scrambled toward the bedroom. “Oh Lords Clara! Wonderful! Come on, I still have my mother’s gown. We have to see how it fits! Come!”
Her grandmother’s gown was beautiful and elegant, Clara had never worn anything like it. It flowed around her like water, never worn anything like it. It flowed around her like water, billowing out at the knees into layered frills and a small train that flared when she turned.
Clara rubbed her bare shoulders, feeling a bit naked. “I’m cold,” she said.
“That happens,” her mother said. “The castle will likely be cold too. Men are always too hot, and we just have to deal with it. You can wear a coat if it’s too much.”
Clara nodded, looking down at her gloved hands. The cloth shimmered as she turned it.
“Now listen,” continued her mother. “I know there are stories of young ladies going off to these balls, finding some prince or whatnot, and marrying into glory and station.” She put her hands on Clara’s shoulders and looked her dead in the eyes. “Those stories are mostly fairy tales. You just enjoy the ball, dance, have good food, and have fun. Don’t worry about meeting anyone.”
“I know,” said Clara. “But a girl can dream, right?”
“Well, of course,” her mother said, winking. “If you happen to meet someone, sure.”
Clara smiled to herself. Yes, a girl can dream.
I receiving the invitation had been a dream, the ball was divine. The ceiling vaulted toward the heavens, supported by massive columns that split again and again in ever more complex patterns. She marveled at the detail and craftsmanship, and that was only the ceiling. All around her, intricate carved patterns flowed over every surface, and every wall seemed to shift as she walked, each covered with reliefs etched into the stones. Towering windows of brilliantly colored glass depicted scenes of coronations, knights errant, or grand festivals.
Guests swirled around her. Every face was covered in feathers, gemstones, sequins, or bright paint. She stood transfixed, not knowing where to look next, until a sound broke the reverie.
“Ma’am?” a soft voice asked. “May I?”
An aging servant bowed his head as she looked toward him, then gestured to her coat.
“Oh!” she said. “Yes, thank you.”
He stood near a grand crystal punch bowl, facing the wall. After no-one spoke to him for several minutes, Clara approached out of curiosity, realizing he was admiring a wood carving of farmers tilling their fields. His crisp black suit captured the light as he turned, and a jolt ran through her when their eyes met. Though he stood a head taller than she, he didn’t seem to look down at her.
“It’s lovely,” she said, her voice cracking. “The carving, I mean.” Of course you mean the carving, don’t be an idiot!
“Not shy around strangers hmm? That’s good,” he said, eyes still on the relief. “I love agriculture, don’t you?”
Um, everyone likes farming, right?
“Uh, yes.” Heat rushed to her cheeks, why did that seem like such a stupid answer? That wasn’t stupid, was it?
He smiled, narrowing his eyes a touch, grinning as if he learned twenty things from her response. His eyes were as deep and dark as the night sky, and seemed to reflect light forever.
Mother said I might happen to meet someone, right? Well, perhaps I have.
“Are you here alone?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
Stupid! Lords! Why would you say that to a stranger?
“We could change that,” he said, raising his glass toward the dance floor. “Care to join me?”
“Oh!” she brought a hand to her chest. “I, um, I don’t really know how to dance. Maybe we could-”
“Let’s try anyway,” he said, staring across the room. “Nobody really knows how to dance.”
He knew how to dance, moving across the room as if every inch of it was a part of him. Where he went, the very air seemed to move with him, carrying her along. She stumbled or got her feet crossed, but he never faltered, bringing her through every motion, always ready to take her into the next sweep or spin. When Clara was exhausted, they retired to a balcony to rest and talk.
“Did you heat about that ocean liner sinking?” he asked.
“Lords yes! How awful, I can’t believe people would do such a thing.”
He nodded. “Shameful, more than anything. Desperate men pushed to terrible actions.” He sat back and let out a long breath, “makes you wonder what forces are out there trying to make a mess of the world.”
“Right?” Clara said, crossing her arms. “Sometimes I wonder who’s trying to make the world better? Everything seems to be bad news, all the time. It’s frustrating.”
At this, he sat up and smiled. “It is. Then again, perhaps many small wonderful things can offset a few big terrible ones. Maybe anyone, or everyone, can make the world better?”
Clara sat back and watched the stars as a chill ran down her back. “Maybe.”
As they left the castle, he looked into her eyes, bowed deeply, then asked if he could see her again.
She shook with excitement, this could be it, this could change everything. “I’d like that,” she said.
“I’m Marquis van Aster,” he said, smiling.
“Clara,” she replied, with a stupid grin.
When he sent for her, a carriage arrived to pick her up. It stood, gleaming in the sun, a deep, luminous cherry, just shy of black. The interior was plush with blue velvet and gold cord trim. Clara and her mother marveled at it.
“My god, who did you meet?” her mother asked.
“I’m … not sure,” said Clara.
The driver, a silver-haired man with oval spectacles, stepped down and offered to assist Clara to her seat. “We should be going, miss,” he said with a smile and a bow. “We don’t want to be late.” He helped her into the carriage, climbed to his seat, and they were off.
Clara and Aster walked along the river, watching paddle- boats and steamers drift along, and listening to women and children laugh, sitting on colorful quilts under lace parasols by the water. He carried a cane, a sleek black walking stick with a silver pommel was crafted after a budding seed, the stem and leaves forming grips for his fingers. It was carved, or cast, or, however it was made, with the finest detail. Each tiny vein and crease in the leaves was there; it almost looked ready to grow into a towering oak.
They walked until they came upon a bench near an iron bridge. An old man sat there, gazing out over the water. Feet hurting, Clara decided they should stop. The old man didn’t speak as the couple sat beside him, remaining transfixed by something far away.
Clara looked to Aster and he met her eye, winked, then shifted his gaze. He cocked his head slightly and his eyes twinkled as he looked over the old man.
Clara turned to the river for a moment. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
The old man jolted, as if surprised to hear her speak. He looked up and focused on her.
“Oh,” he said, looking back at the river. “Yes. I love it here.”
“I haven’t been here often,” she said. “Have you?”
He paused, considering. “I have. I’ve been coming here for many years. Not always alone.”
When she asked him about this, he opened like a book. He relayed one story, then another. First about his family, then about distant nations and more distant wars. He talked about how the river changed, or how the park changed. He talked about how people never did.
They sat, like two children transfixed by a storyteller, until the sun floated upon the water and ignited the river a brilliant crimson. As the sky darkened, the old man stood.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t believe I’ve kept you this late.”
“No,” she said. “You have wonderful stores.” She looked up at him and smiled. “Thank you for sharing.”
He took her hand in his, then kissed her fingers. “No, thank you,” he said, a single tear rolling down his cheek. He turned and walked away then, shaking his head as he left.
Clara looked back to Aster, who sat, silent as the clouds, watching the old man go. When he turned back to her, he too, was watching the old man go. When he turned back to her, he too, was smiling.
“I’m sorry if that’s not how you wanted to spend the evening,” she said, laughing. “Once he got started, I couldn’t bear to stop him. What a fascinating life!”
He nodded his head and spoke in gentle baritone. “It was perfect.”
On the way out of the park they passed fountain, shaped like a swan and showering water down in gentle drops all around. Two children played in the water on the far side, and a couple sat, leaning against one another just in front. Aster paused, then checked his pocket-watch.
“You should make a wish,” he said, gesturing to the fountain.
“Oh, I don’t have any pennies.”
Aster reached into his coat pocket and produced a small, silver coin that resembled a nickel.
Clara regarded it with curiosity, “What’s this?”
He shrugged. “Just something from my travels. Go ahead.”
With a smile, Clara cast it into the fountain.
“What did you wish for?” Aster asked.
Clara grinned, looking at him from the side of her eyes. “It’s a secret.”
Moments later the cherry carriage rumbled around a corner and clattered to a stop not far from where they stood.
The carriage driver stepped down, then opened the door for them. “Sorry sir,” he said, “got delayed on Millhouse Road.”
“You’re right on time” Aster replied. “As always.”
The next time he sent for her, Aster requested Clara join him at a cafe downtown. She happily obliged, and the carriage rumbled slowly through the historic section of the city. She looked for him at the cafe, but he wasn’t there. Instead, she took up a seat in the corner and waited.
After a few moments, a stooped man in a crumpled grey hat and green apron approached. “Are you Clara?” he asked.
She looked up, puzzled. “I am.”
He pulled a folded newspaper from his apron, setting it on the table in front of her.
“I think this is yours,” he said. He started to walk away, then paused and turned. “Oh, did you want any breakfast? Your meal was paid for in advance.”
After ordering, Clara opened the newspaper and scanned the front page. She couldn’t fathom why anyone would think she owned one, she’d read maybe one, in her life.
She almost discarded it when a photo in a lower corner caught her eye. Looking closely, she jumped when she recognized the old man from the park bench. Searching for the article, she read.
Railroad Heiress Lost at Sea
Railroad Heiress Rochell Laroche and her husband Samuel confirmed among the casualties of last month’s fatal sinking of the world’s largest steam liner. Survived by her father, Baron Laroche, and one-year-old son, discovered at their chateau by French authorities last weekend. Details within.
Further into the paper, Clara found an interview with “Baron” Laroche:
“When my daughter disowned me and moved to France last year, I had thought my life could get no worse. When I found out her cruise liner sank, I knew I had nothing left to live for. I sat at riverside park days ago contemplating jumping from the bridge only feet from where I sat. As fate would have it, a young lady, strolling through the park alone, took the time to sit with me and discuss the pleasures of daily life. I decided to give up my suicide attempt. Now, holding my grandson, I realize that young woman didn’t save a life, she saved two.”
Clara’s hands shook. She shuddered, clearing her throat to keep it from closing up as she held back tears. She flipped through the paper looking for more information, but there was nothing further.
What about Aster? He hadn’t said much, did the old man forget he was there? As she turned the papers around, an envelope fell from one of the center folds. Lifting it, she found her name printed across the front in elegant gold lettering.
Inside waited a formal document, pressed with seals and embellished with winding blue filigree along the edges. Across the top it read “Treasury Bond.” Along the bottom, “Waste Not Thy Time.” She stared at it, utterly perplexed, until breakfast arrived.
Clara never saw Aster again, never heard from him at all. Months went by, then years.
She kept the newspaper. Over time she noticed other interesting stories. One, about a runaway bank robber arrested when he encountered a traffic jam, caused by a stopped carriage in the middle of Millhouse Road, always made her smile.
But her favorite, by far, was a small piece on the last page.
Rags to Riches!
Homeless veteran Miles Bennet strikes gold after skimming coins from the Riverside Park fountain. In among his haul was a rare silver florin, over two-hundred years old, one of only thirty released to circulation with the monarch’s head struck upside-down. In mint condition, the coin sold at auction for more than one-hundred-thousand crowns. Bennet revealed plans to fund a shelter for the city’s struggling veterans.
From time to time, when it was cold outside or holidays left her with free time, she volunteered at that shelter, cooking meals or washing linens.
When she decided to start a family, she took the treasury bond to a bank. They discovered it was ancient, but authentic. Worth a fortune, she used the money to buy a modest home and a new, motorized carriage. As the years became decades, her children moved out to start their own families, and she retired to her home.
In all that time, she never forgot the day at the boardwalk, or the mysterious Aster and his beautiful cane.
One afternoon, she emerged from the department store with an armful of Christmas gifts for her grandchildren. She stopped by the curb to hail a cab, then froze when she spotted a cherry red carriage across the street.
Silly woman, there are still carriages around. That could be anyone’s.
She almost convinced herself to move on when a man stepped out of the carriage, in a perfectly fitted vest and coat, a crisp top hat, and a glimmering cane. Aster was as beautiful as he had ever been, not having aged a day. He nodded to Clara, then helped a young woman down out of the carriage. As the two of them approached, he bowed, smiling in his knowing way.
“It’s good to see you again, Clara,” he said, then moved on down the street.
The carriage driver approached, with the same silver hair and oval spectacles. “May I help you get home with those, ma’am?”
Kenneth Lineberger is a criminal lawyer for the State of Florida. As an alumnus of Florida State University, he enjoys college football, role-playing games, or any sci-fi, fantasy, or adventure story with compelling characters. He writes in his free time, and credits Brooks, Rowling, and Sanderson for teaching him to do magic.