7 March; Soirée at Nottage Manor
Tonight, Mr. Wulfenite Nottage - the wealthiest man in Bythell Hollow - is throwing a big party at his manor to celebrate his 40th birthday, and everyone in the village is invited! It's sure to be an extravagant affair with live music and sumptuous food. They even say he's got two or three pet peacocks he lets freely roam his gardens. Mr. Nottage's dear, dear friend - the leader of the Hunters - is using this night as an opportunity for his men to discover who might be a Witch. The Hunters seem to be aware of the Marks every Witch of age has on their arms, and they are keeping a vigilant eye out for them. So, do be wary of overly-curious, unfamiliar men!
Finished! Nia @fleetingfanfan is an important plot point, and I also mentioned Akmer @semper-eadem. I would have liked to include more people, but Libba is pretty unhinged right now. Too unhinged to notice many people.
Libba knew she shouldn't have come. She knew it was only going to hurt her to watch Wulf playing the perfect host, as if nothing had happened. She had not, however, expected the physical pain that crept into her chest when she realized the menu was the exact one she had spent hours planning for the wedding. She thought about slapping a miniature crème brûlée out of a near-by man's hand, but managed to restrain herself. Her eyes now open, Libba realized that much of the decor was re-purposed wedding supplies. She touched the deep green table cloth with trembling fingers. The flowers too, the table linens, the music.
Her frugal millionaire. She wanted to kill him.
A man she recognized, with horror, as one of the hunters she had incapacitated in the woods snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her close to him. She was afraid for a moment that he had realized who she was before she remembered her disguise. He was not looking for revenge, he was simply a pig. Libba could smell the champagne on his breath. How dare he drink enough of her beautiful Krug Clos de Mesnil Blanc De Blancs to become as drunk as he was. Did he even know how much that had cost Wulf? How many different tastings Libba had gone to?
"How about a dance, then, gorgeous?" he asked, breathing remnants of priceless bubbly all over her face.
"Thank you, but no," she said, physically wrenching herself out of his grasp. Across the crowd, she saw Nia and Akmer watching the exchange. She wondered if they recognized her.
She had disguised herself with a simple charm, just a little dittany of Crete bathed in moonlight and the heart of a white rabbit sewn into a leather pouch hanging from her neck. It was an easy charm for anyone with the gift to see through, but it worked tolerably well on those who were unfamiliar. Libba wanted to see Wulf. She did not want him to see her. Or rather, she did, terribly, want him to see her, but she was afraid of his reaction. She wasn't sure which, of cool disinterest, murderous rage, or heartbreak, was the worst option. But like a child watching a scary scene through the spaces between her fingers, managed to slip away from the drunk hunter to search through the throngs of people for Wulf, equally dreading and hoping to come face-to-face with him.
Finally, she saw him and he looked so beautiful. He seemed to be happy and without pretense, and Libba felt ill. The lachrymatory around her neck was suddenly excessively heavy and so cold against her bare skin that it seemed as if it would sear her flesh. She watched him as he charmingly excused himself from the small group of women with whom he had been chatting, and without thought, she followed several paces behind him to a green and hidden plant-filled alcove of the hall. It was one of Libba's favorite places in Nottage Manor and one of the places Wulf went to take a moment of solitude. He had always been incredibly taxed by social events. It was something that Libba had always appreciated about her ex-fiance, something they had always had in common. Other people sapped their energy, yet they had given each other strength.
Wulf was facing away from her, his hands in the pockets of his well-tailored suit. (Was it the one he ha planned to wear to the reception? Libba was shocked to find that she couldn't remember.) He lolled his head back and forth, as if relieving tension from his neck and Libba felt her stomach go light. She did not want to kill him. She loved him.
Libba wrenched the charm off of her neck and shoved it into the pocket of her cloak. The sound of her rustling skirt caused Wulf to turn his head. Libba wondered how she looked, framed by the arched doorway to the private room. Did she look strong and vengeful, like the Belle Dame sans Merci, or desperate and a little mad around the eyes, like Ophelia? Her reflection in his perfectly shined shoes was no indicator.
"Hello," she said.
He looked startled, and a grain of satisfaction tool root in Libba's chest. "Sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you. Happy birthday."
"Libba," he said, finally. "What are you doing here?"
"I was under the impression that all of Bythell Hollow was invited," she said. She did not move from the doorway, even when Wulf made a motion to try and walk past her.
"Excuse me, I must go tend to my guests," he said. To anyone else he may have appeared perfectly calm, in control of the encounter, even. Libba could see fear flash in his eyes. She remembered him wearing the same expression earlier that year when the brakes of Wulf's car had failed and sent the two of them plummeting into a tree. They had been unhurt, but terrified.
Empowered by his fear, Libba smiled and shook her head. "No. No, I don't think you do. I think we need to talk."
"What is there to talk about?" He asked, trying to step by her again.
"Plenty." Libba used his proximity to wrap her arms around his neck. "I've missed you, darling, very much. Have you missed me?"
"Libba, I think you need to leave--"
"I said, 'Have. You. Missed. Me?'" Libba repeated, her voice becoming dangerously quiet. She gazed up at Wulf, but he would not make eye contact with her. That only incensed her more. She suddenly pushed him away from her and he stumbled backwards into the tiled walls of the alcove. "Fine," she said. "We'll skip the pleasantries if that's how things are going between us from now on."
Libba began to pace. Her hair was coming loose from its chignon and she was sure now that she looked more Ophelia than Belle Dame. She did not feel mad though. She felt more sane, more clear-headed than she had ever been. "How could you do this to me?" she asked.
Wulf straightened his tie. He looked desperate to regain his composure. "I could ask you the same question."
Libba stopped her pacing and rounded on him. "I'm sorry?"
"You lied to me, Libba," he said.
Libba's lip turned up in a sneer. "Yes, Wulf, because telling a little lie is the same as ordering the assasination of someone you supposedly love. I would have been slaughtered-- and who knows what else-- by those beasts you sent after me if I hadn't fought back. I had to kill one of them. That's your fault. His blood is on your hands. So, still think we are equal?"
"That was hardly a 'little white lie'. You lied about who you were at a fundemental level. You purposefully deceived me," he said.
"And what? I damaged your ego? I planned to tell you, darling, I did. But since people seem to react...poorly to this kind of news, it's something we don't usually like to announce to just anyone," Libba said. "It's fear and ignorance like yours that made this happen. Men can't stand to see women with a little power."
Wulf looked exasperated. "Please stop trying to paint yourself as some sort of victimized minority here," he said. "You're not oppressed, you're just..."
"Evil?" Libba volunteered. " Unholy? Spooky? Does it frighten you that I could cut you right in half as we speak, like I did that hunter? Yes. We're witches, and the biggest mistake you've ever made was crossing me. You have no idea how many women in your life are on my side. You have no idea how many women's lives you put in jeopardy by trying to have me killed. Good, innocent women and girls who use their talents to live decent lives."
Libba was becoming more and more upset as she spoke. She could feel her face burning as she continued her tirade. "You don't even know what we do, do you? Without Vesper, your daughter would have died at birth." She waited a moment for realization to dawn on his face. "Yes, that's right. Your daughter, whom I have been trying to help even after what you've done to me, is a witch too. What if the hunters kill her? If love means nothing to you," she gestured to herself, "then maybe your flesh and blood does. Cthonia is out there, right now, surrounded by men who would kill her in a heartbeat, because like you, they're stupid and afraid."
"I didn't know," Wulf said. Libba couldn't gauge his expression. Inscrutable to the last.
"But now you do, and now you must live with that," Libba said. She turned away from him to smooth her hair back into shape and stealthily catch a few budding tears before they had a chance to ruin her makeup. "Now. I'm going to go up to my room here, take the rest of my belongings with me, and return to my pathetic little cloistered life. You will not stop me, and you will make sure no one else stops me. Mark my words though, Wulfenite. This is a crossroads. I am either going to marry you or kill you. I haven't yet decided."
She kissed him and strode out of the alcove without her disguise on. She went up to the suites that had once been designated as hers and was pleased to see that they had not changed. She packed a suitcase full of dresses and shoes, but left several behind in a move that she would call equal parts cautious optimism and the desire not to ruin her dramatic exit.