The Ashcliffe Party

(I couldn’t get this under the word limit by the deadline, so here I am for the YW Weekend Showcase! There were two prompts for #382: a character who is conceited, and answering the question, what if humans had no sight?)

The hall rang with laughter and the musical hum of guide suits. Hundreds of varieties of fine perfumes enveloped Mina and Tess as they entered one of London’s most talked-about social scenes. Mina felt her sister’s arm tremble under her gloved hand.

“What’s wrong?”

“Captain Wu is here,” Tess whispered. “I can hear his suit.”

“Well, stay calm – I’m sure Mrs. Ashcliffe can introduce you.”

A series of flute notes, increasing in pitch and frequency, announced the arrival of their brother, Felix. Mina felt her nose wrinkle.

“Felix, you’re wearing way too much cologne.”

“What? I want people to know I’m here.”

Tess’ voice was muffled; Mina guessed she was covering her nose with her hand. “There might be some people three floors away who missed your arrival.”

“Well, I had better go inform them,” he responded cheerfully.

Mina reached up to touch his face and felt him do the same to her. They both wore a mix of inherited and fashion jewelry: Mina wore three thin rings in each eyebrow, along with etched silver plates, formerly their mother’s, that adhered along her cheekbones. Felix’s cheekbones were accented with a lattice of brushed metal (borrowed from Father) and he’d decorated his beard with strings of tinny bells.

“Oh, Felix, not your eyebrows, too,” she sighed. His brow piercings, all ten of them, also jingled with bells.

“I’m told Watson Carr himself wears them!”

“Well, he’s a pop star – he can pull them off, can’t he?”

She felt him draw himself up in not-entirely-feigned indignation. “Just what are you trying to say?”

“Never mind. Did you hear Captain Wu is here?”

“That pilot? I thought he was off in the Gobi desert doing something insane like breaking land speed records.”

“He was, and he did, and now Tess is ready for her introduction.” Mina squeezed her sister’s arm; Tess tried to say “yes,” but it came out in a nervous whisper.

She felt Felix take her other arm. “Shall we, then?”

He set them on their way through the crowd of pinging guide suits and clouds of perfume. Mina picked up Mrs. Rosmund’s aggressively spiced scent and Mr. Theron’s notes of subdued leather. Mr. Theron was also arguing loudly with two others about the benefits of the latest echolocating gadgets, apparently intended to interface directly with the brain. Mr. Theron was opposed; his citrus- and tobacco-scented companions were in favor. Mina got the impression one of them was a neuroscientist of some sort before their argument was lost amid party conversations and chiming suits.

“You know, I could’ve been a pilot,” Felix said. “My hearing’s excellent and I ranked in the top percentile for reflexes.”

“Top what percentile?” Mina said with a laugh.

“Thirtieth,” he muttered. “Besides, with the all recent advancements in echolocating, those things practically fly themselves.”

“Do you think Alaric remembers me?” Tess interrupted, squeezing Mina’s hand. “We were in such different circles at school –”

“Regardless, he’s sure to be impressed by you now.”

“Wait, what do you mean, regardless?”

Felix hushed them. “We’re close.”

From a few feet ahead of them came a chorus of chimes and violin notes: they were approaching their hostess, Mrs. Ashcliffe, and her no doubt eminent friends. Mrs. Ashcliffe’s perfume greeted them, carrying notes of ambergris and sandalwood – all genuine, not artificial, of course. Mina heard Tess’ breath turn quick and shallow and gave her arm another reassuring squeeze.

Felix, as usual, was unfazed. “Mrs. Ashcliffe. Spectacular party, thank you so much for including us.”

“Felix.” Mrs. Ashcliffe’s age-worn baritone was warm. “And your sisters, I assume.”

Mina felt the old woman’s hands on her face and shyly returned the greeting: Mrs. Ashcliffe’s cheekbones were decorated with intricate cloisonné plates and her forehead was draped in a net of tiny bells. Their elegance made Mina self-conscious even of her own fine jewelry.

Their hostess soon pronounced them all “lovely” and stood back in a wave of silvery suit chimes. “Have you had a chance to meet Lizbet Freeman? She’s composing the most lovely soundscapes.”

“Actually, we were hoping to meet Captain Wu,” Felix said. “Tess went to school with him.”

“I don’t want to take up his time,” Tess added breathlessly. “I know he’s very busy–“

“Oh, I’d be delighted to introduce you. John, go and fetch Alaric, would you?”

Mrs. Ashcliffe plied Tess for anecdotes about the captain’s school days. Mina listened with pride as her sister’s posture relaxed and her voice grew more confident.  A new, woodsy scent soon arrived accompanied by proximity chimes.

“Tess, Mina, Felix,” Mrs. Ashcliffe announced, “may I introduce – or perhaps reintroduce – Captain Alaric Wu.”

The usual greetings were exchanged. Mina heard Tess gasp, and soon found out why: Wu was not wearing any jewelry, so her hands met his bare, and appealingly sculpted, face.

“Tess has been telling everyone what you were like at Gildeheath,” Mina said.

“Wait, Tess Sherborne?” Mina was relieved to hear delight in his voice. “From the Recitation Club?”

“You remember me?”

And just like that, the captain and Tess were chatting like old friends. Mrs. Ashcliffe excused herself; Mina felt Felix try to direct them towards Tess and the captain, but she held her ground.

“I want to meet him, too,” Felix hissed.

“Not now,” she hissed back.

“I’ve done some flying in my time, surely he’d be interested–”

“Later. Let them talk.”

“Oh. Oh.”

“God, you’re dense.”

And together they melted back into the swirl of chimes and perfume.

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