This story available on Nov 07, 2020
Captain Bryce Richmond stumbled over the Oriental rug with his wooden leg as he backed up toward the bookcase. The ache in his leg became unbearable—or the ache where his leg should have been. He steadied himself with his ornate cane, saving himself from tripping into the marble bust of King George III. The stuffy little parlor pressed in on him as the gaggle of giggling ladies circled. It would have been troublesome enough if it was just three gossiping old maids and two matrons, but they’d brought their daughters. Four young ladies in all.
“Captain Richmond, is it true you’ve come to Bath for a wife?” Mrs. Benson asked, pushing a girl in a gauzy day dress forward. “You’ll have to meet my Lizzy.”
He tugged at his brown sideburns, not wanting to go into details about his need to take the waters in Bath for his condition. “Er, um, actually I came to see Aunt—”
“You’ve been away for so long in the war, you must have longed for England and her maidens,” said another one of his aunt’s friends.
Aunt Virginia nodded off on the settee, tendrils of snowy white hair hiding her weathered face. Bryce hated to wake her, but he wasn’t certain how to rescue himself from her society of acquaintances.
A young lady with rows of golden curls framing her face patted his arm to gain his attention. “Captain Richmond promised me the first dance at the ball. Isn’t that true?”
“No,” a brunette protested. “I told him he must dance with me all night long.”
Bryce loosened at his cravat, trying to remember the social etiquette for such situations. He hadn’t promised any young lady a dance for the reason that he never danced anymore. Not with his amputated leg. He was certain these ladies would look at him with disdain if they saw him hobble about. Especially with his former reputation as being the most graceful dancer.
“Darlings, let’s not fight over the captain,” one of the matronly women said. She led the two vexed girls to the corner where she whispered, he assumed, about his condition.
For the briefest of moments, the eyes of the women weren’t on him as they gossiped about the two arguing girls. Bryce backed out of his aunt’s bustling parlor and into the smoking room. Cane in hand, he dodged into the hall. He nearly collided with the old man servant carrying the tea tray. Bryce held his finger to his lips.
“Captain Richmond, where have you hidden yourself?” The shrill voice behind him filled his heart with greater panic than any battle on the high sea.
The old servant winked and nodded down the hall. “Take the servant’s door if you wish to escape.”
Bryce sighed in relief, retreating down the hall as best he could. His uneven gait and cane clicked over the tile floor, alerting any who listened to where he’d gone. He’d managed to hide the limp during the dinner party the evening before and the afternoon tea with his aunt’s society by staying seated. Dashing off at full speed like this would most assuredly give them fodder to speak about if they spotted him.
Only when he was outside and sunshine washed over his face did he feel some relief. He removed his red jacket decorated with its medals, flinging it over an arm to feel less confined. He stole past the gardens and the stable, looking about for refuge. The wind carried on it the distant music of pipes and he followed the melody. His stump throbbed where it ground against the cuff that held it in place but kept going.
The whisper of overgrown grass pattered against his breeches, and damp earth squished under his boots. As he slowed his gait, he admired the fields of wildflowers along the path towards the copse of trees. When he had been away at sea and longed for home, these balmy spring days were what he’d missed most. That, and Aunt Virginia. She’d raised him with her own children, never making him feel like a burden when his parents had died. He owed so much to her and his late uncle.
With his fortune made, he wanted to care for her now. She was so frail these days. He didn’t want her to fuss over his condition, nor over his bachelorhood. He’d never have agreed to lunch with her neighbors if she’d told him she was playing matchmaker.
Bryce found a shady spot on a fallen log and unrolled the stocking from his leg, exposing the leather straps that held the prosthetic in place. He unbuckled the straps below the knee and pulled his stump from the leather cuff. Relief washed over him.
The wet perfume of leaves and musky scent of earth calmed his frazzled nerves as he massaged the aching bone and muscles. Though the music of the pipes remained just as elusive and distant, he hummed along, trying to capture that mesmerizing tune. He would have continued sitting behind curtains of mossy limbs in restful silence had it not been for the woman’s voice. Her laugh was deep and throaty, an earnest expression that came from the heart. It was so unlike what he’d heard since his return home: ladies pretending to find amusement in his humor for the sake of gaining his favor.
He glanced about, seeing a woman dodging through the trees with a butterfly net. Her plain brown dress caught on twigs, but she paid no heed and tore through brambles of blackberries. She wore her raven hair down and straight, uncovered unlike other sensible ladies her age. Then again, perhaps she wished to be as free of confinements as he did. He supposed the lower classes could afford such things.
He could not. People would talk.
The haunting melody of pipes grew louder. Another reason to put himself back together. He fumbled to fit the straps of his prosthetic leg back into place lest she or anyone else see. He hadn’t managed to buckle the first one when she burst through the foliage, nearly tripping into him.
“Pardon me,” she said, her vivid blue eyes meeting his for a moment before returning to the zig-zag flight of the butterfly she chased. Her face was older than he’d first thought, in her thirties. Though still younger than he, she would be considered an old maid.
A glitter of something diving about her head caught his eye. Was that a shimmer of drifting powder in the air?
She lifted the hem of her skirts and bounded over the log past him. Bryce caught a glimpse of a slender ankle as pale as her white petticoats. He wondered if her calves were also the same fair hue. Heat flushed to his face. He momentarily forgot about his wooden leg as he watched her swat the net into the air and fall into a lacy patch of ferns with her prey. She reached into the net, carefully drawing out cupped hands and holding them to her face.
“Forgive my curiosity, but are you not a little old to be catching butterflies?” he called out.
“It’s not a butterfly.” Her eyes shone with pure joy. “It’s Coccinellidae Oberonus.
A love bug.”
He shook his head, thinking she jested.
The young lady tried to rise, tripped on the hem of her dress and crawled on her knees to where he sat. She opened her hands in front of him. Within lay a red beetle, not so different from a lady bug in shape, though it was nearly thrice the size. Instead of polka-dots on the wing cases were . . . could it truly be? He leaned in closer. Yes, there were distinct black hearts.
He laughed. “You’ve painted those hearts there, have you?”
She shook her head.
“Where did such a creature come from then?”
She shrugged. “The peddler said they’re from fairyland. He said if you release it, it will take you to your true love. But they’re difficult to catch.” She laughed again and leaned on his arm to pull herself up to sit beside him on the log. From the glow of her cheeks, she looked as though she were in love. The intense manner she stared into his eyes was quite different from the haughty and shrewd gazes of the room he’d just left.
He wasn’t certain he believed in such nonsense. Yet, Bryce’s chest ached in an oddly pleasant manner and he felt slightly lightheaded. Was that love? The insect flitted from her palm, a golden sparkle of dust trailing after it as it circled him.
He held out his hand and the beetle landed on his finger. “I daresay, not that difficult to catch. I think you ladies have the wrong idea chasing after love. Why can’t you just let it come to you?”
“No, no,” she said with a mischievous smile. “It’s not the insect that’s difficult to catch.”
“It’s the man,” he finished for her. They both laughed at that. Yes, he supposed the parlor of ladies could attest to that.
Her gaze drifted down to the wooden leg in his hand and the limp hem of fabric hanging from his knee. Though her wide grin faded a little, her lovely features showed neither pity nor disgust.
Bryce refitted the leather cuff around his stump and fastened the leather straps. Under normal circumstances he would have rather died a thousand deaths than face such scrutiny. Yet, he felt oddly bold, filled with a euphoric high like that of sailing on the sea.
Another love bug flitted over and landed on his companion’s nose. She smiled. The melody of the pipes drifted in and out of earshot. His phantom foot didn’t throb as it had been wont to do of late, but it itched as it once had when he heard a tune than fancied him. He longed to flex that foot, to dance to the haunting melody.
A laugh bubbled up inside him. “I think the love bug has caught me, despite my attempts to flee from it today. I don’t suppose you enjoy dancing, do you?” He had a feeling he could dance with her without feeling like a fool.
He extended his hand. She took it, helping him to his feet without a trace of repulsion. Staring into her brilliant blue eyes, he placed a hand on her back as she positioned a hand on his shoulder.
Society and class be damned, he intended to dance with this woman . . . for the rest of his life.
Sarina Dorie has sold over 150 stories to markets like Analog, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and Abyss and Apex.
Interview available on Nov 15, 2020