For many years Felwilmina Bloodweaver had taken pleasure in outlining to her only son, Grull, the structure of the social ladder and the means whereby to descend it; and tonight, having labored mightily to secure them invitations to the Marquis’s ball, she was hardly going to allow the opportunity to pass with Grull loitering by the refreshments and trying to fade into the wall.
“If I have to stand behind you and move your feet with my own talons, you’re going to dance with these young ladies,” she hissed.
A sour expression on his face, Grull consoled himself by popping another candied eyeball into his mouth. “I’m no good at waltzes.”
“Nonsense! I’ve seen you dance a hundred times. A thousand.”
“I don’t dance, I caper. I cavort. Sometimes I even frolic. I certainly don’t waltz.”
“Then what have I been paying that damn instructor for this last year?”
“I think you’re paying him to get drunk and berate me.”
She sniffed. “That really is a waste. I can berate you myself.”
Around them, the lesser nobility of Seven Circles swirled and spun around the elongated hexagon of the Marquis de Malcerveau’s Blacksward Hall. The Marquis, Pitoheizuhr Ziubon, had recently had the hall built by the Null Gods of the Outer Void, which meant it was carved from a single massive black crystal, the interior all glittering facets and physically impossible angles. If you looked straight up, into the gyre of the distant ceiling, you would eventually begin to see the gaping maw of the space between galaxies, which might drive one mad, if indeed demons could be said to go mad. In any case Grull kept looking up, which was giving him something of a headache.
There were, in fairness, many beautiful young demonesses present, dressed in the latest bewildering fashions (belts of mummified hands seemed popular), none of whom, Grull was certain, wanted anything to do with a short, red, pimply-faced imp with a tendency to disappear when he got nervous. Just thinking about approaching one, he began to fade out, until his mother twisted a pointed ear sharply. “None of that!” His body jerked back to solidity. “There, Sir Grimfoil’s daughter, Lydia! You’ve met her before. Go ask her.”
He regarded the target apprehensively. Atop a seven-foot-tall body with long preying-mantis limbs, Lydia’s head was half bloody fangs and jaw, half exposed skull. Not bad looking, but… “Too tall,” he carped.
“Come on.” Felwimina seized Grull’s upper arm between her claws and forcibly directed him toward the demoness. Probably it would have drawn blood were it not for the formal coat he wore, which was made from some kind of black alligator skin.
Like him, Grull’s mother was an imp, which was rather looked down upon in this crowd, though there were at least a few others present who, like her, had clawed their way down from the upper circles to reach their present low station. Felwimina had done it by ensorceling his father, Skwatwa Bloodweaver, a fat, avaricious ball of a purple demon who had made a fortune off a new use for tendons. When Grull was two, Skwatwa had suffered an accident at the tendon factory, getting pulled into one of the new machines and ending as crate of rubber bands. Unfortunate for Skwatwa, unfortunate perhaps for Grull, but hardly a cause for tears for Felwimina, who inherited the factory and proved better at running it than her husband ever had.
Sometimes Grull wondered how she had captured his father’s attention. He knew, for instance, that when she got very angry or flustered, she would emit clouds of thick, noxious black mist from her pores, which would then begin to rain an inky substance like oil. Had she cornered Skwatwa somehow, blinded him with the gas, then performed the marriage spell in the darkness?
“Lydia, you remember my son Grull,” this maternal monster declared, directing him forward with a painful wrist lock.
Lydia looked down at him disdainfully. “Do I?”
“You met at the Eyelesses’ soiree last year. Grull talked a great deal about you afterward.”
Lydia had no brows to raise, her forehead a dome of bloody bone, but still one got a sense of it. “Did he?”
“Good question,” Grull muttered, causing his mother to twist his wrist still further around.
“He wanted to ask you something. Didn’t you, Grull?”
Would she actually break his arm right here, to prove a point? It certainly felt like it. “Dance?” he managed, choking with pain.
Lydia rolled her eyes and made a disgusted scoff, already turning away. “I’m afraid I have to freshen up.”
A powerful swat from his mother rocked Grull’s head forward. “That was awful,” she hissed, spinning him to face her again. “I can’t believe you’d embarrass me like that.”
She pointed a long finger at him, gleaming claw not a hair’s breadth from his vulnerable nose. “You are going to ask one these girls to dance. If you don’t, I will take your guttar and throw it into a grinder at the factory.”
“Mo-o-om,” he whined, but she was serious, he could see. He’d saved for months to buy the guttar, one of the few things that really gave him satisfaction. Nothing like the staid instruments playing now, the orchestra moaning away on their organ organs, bone triangles and soulstrings. “Fine. One dance.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Then I choose who.”
Oh, Beelzebub. “Fine.”
She nodded immediately to a young demoness across the hall, standing and talking in a little cluster of friends and suitors. “Simene Ruzele.”
His eyes widened. He knew who Simene was, of course – daughter of Sir Kruciger Ruzele, ambassador to Cehennem, who was also around here somewhere. Technically he and Simene went to school together, but she had literally never spoken to him. “She’s out of my league, Mom,” he squeaked.
“You might think so,” Felwimina replied. “But I happen to know that her father is deeply in debt. Simene may not think much of you, but she’s just one of a brood, and I suspect Kruciger would welcome our support – our financial support. He’s got a palace in the Sixth Circle, did you know that?” She smiled triumphantly, sharp little teeth gleaming.
Well, maybe she was right. Maybe this was just a hump he needed to get over. With one last glare at his mother, Grull squared his shoulders, inhaled deeply, and set off around the edge of the hall.
Halfway there, he saw Kruciger himself appear from the south patio. The ambassador was even taller than Lydia, eight feet at least, and with the glowing green stag horns that protruded from his temples, hard to miss in a crowd. Kruciger surveyed the room, taking particular note of his daughter, it seemed, and coming to rest, somehow, right on Grull.
Grull wilted beneath that gaze, turning invisible involuntarily. Kruciger frowned. But damn it, hadn’t his mother said Kruciger might support him? Think of that, him courting Simene!
Anyway, being invisible was useful in making his way through the crowd. Otherwise he had no idea how he would even get close to her, surrounded as she was. He recognized many of those with her, of course – the upper crust of Agony Academy. Eldra Shedtooth, Phinuus Cludahru, and that cock, Zar Zaebbahl, who had once put a nest of stinging hellrays in Grull’s locker.
Be bold. Be mischievous. Be an imp, damn it.
Slipping unseen and agile between the partygoers, Grull reached into his pocket and withdrew a little bit of tendon-string. He always had a little on hand for just this kind of thing. He reached his target, quickly knelt, and then backed away, circling around to slip between Zar and Eldra until he stood right in front of them. They looked a bit puzzled at the shoving, but it was a crowded area, after all.
Grull flashed into visibility directly in front of Zar, uncomfortably close, while saying in a loud voice, “Simene! Hey!”
Zar raised his arms, perhaps to give Grull a shove, but also, inevitably, he took a step back – and found his hooves unexpectedly conjoined by the string. His fall, and the look on his face, was quite gratifying. Grull looked back in mock surprise. “Zar! Drunk already?” Then, speaking before he lost his nerve, he turned back to Simene and said quickly, “Do you want to dance?”
A mix of emotions played across her pretty face – surprise, dismay, embarrassment, amusement, and dismay again. Involuntarily, it seemed, she glanced toward her father, who was watching the hubbub. Kruciger made a minute nod – dance with him. It seemed his mother had been right. “Fine,” Simene said, and proffered her hand.
Of course, with Zar’s fall, now half the ballroom was watching them. Don’t disappear don’t disappear don’t disappear, Grull repeated to himself as they stepped out. “You’re sweating,” Simene observed.
“Am I?” He wiped his forehead nervously. “It is pretty warm in here.”
“I thought imps liked heat.”
“Depends on the imp, I guess.” Hesitantly, he put an arm around Simene’s waist. Like her father, Simene was covered in fine white scales that glimmered in the green light from the balefire chandelier. From her mother, she had inherited a fine head of serpents, tonight styled up and held with a glimmering band of silver and rubies, clearly cursed. While still taller than Grull – most were – she wasn’t that much taller, and he could nearly meet her eye to eye.
Not that she was meeting his eye. She was more staring at some indefinite point above him. “Don’t stare too much,” he said suddenly. She looked at him in puzzlement. “At the ceiling. It’s supposed to drive you mad.”
She rolled her eyes. “That, and the next five minutes.”
Ouch. But the waltz was starting, and rather than responding, Grull put his attention on actually following the steps.
He really did hate waltzes. They were stately, considered, measured… all things he was not. But hey, he was doing it! He was dancing a waltz with Simene Ruzele, while Zar looked on fuming from the sidelines. Suddenly exhilarated, he made a foray into conversation. “So I guess our parents know each other?”
She sighed. “If by that you mean my father has a gambling problem and is desperate for someone to bail him out, then yes, I suppose they do.”
Whoops, missed a step. Their graceful flow jerked, then resumed. “Everyone’s got faults,” he said generously.
“Some more than others.” Another misstep.
“I think my mom may have murdered my dad, for instance.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, how else could she have made it here?” He actually stepped on her right foot that time, looking down nervously at the three-toed leather shoes she wore, making her hiss. “Can you please just focus on the dance?”
“I’m trying.” He really was, but the more he concentrated, the more out of step he became. “What about you, then? If we were at a job interview, and I asked, ‘What’s your biggest fault?,’ what would you say?”
“I’m impatient with idiots.” One-two, and each time, somehow, Grull’s foot came down on top of hers, left and right. She cursed. “Lucifer! Are you trying to embarrass me?”
“No, I just –” But without quite meaning to, his foot stepped just so, causing Simene to actually trip. Off-balance, Grull tried to catch her, ending with both of them performing a sudden swinging motion, and their feet becoming entangled again, resulting in another.
“Stop it!” she said, and suddenly Grull saw how hilarious the whole thing was, how absurd they must look, and it seemed his body was moving of its own accord, cleverly tripping his partner and then catching her, adding little kicking steps, wild swings and little hand flares. He was grinning, and doing exactly what, after all, it is that imps do: cavorting and capering, suddenly back in his element.
Finally, Simene gave him a big one-handed shove, and he went flying right across the ballroom floor. Even as he fell, he became aware that the whole ballroom seemed to be staring at them both, and he flashed into invisibility before he even hit the ground.
Simene stood there looking simply furious, yellow snake eyes wide with rage, and then she stomped off, right out of the hall.
In fact, however, he could only manage a few seconds’ worth of invisibility, and when he appeared again, trying to slink out the back hall, his mother somehow was right there, hiding behind a pillar. Seeing her he tried to vanish again, but she grabbed him by the back of the neck and shook him like a pup. “Unbelievable! You are just… infuriating! What a waste!”
“She was insulting me the whole time, you know,” he protested.
“What does that have to do with anything? You deserve the insults.”
“Well, I’m an imp!” he cried. “What do you expect? If it’s so easy, why don’t you do it?”
Her eyes narrowed and her lips pinched. “Fine! And maybe I can even repair some of the damage you’ve done. Come on.”
They went back into the ballroom, Grull trying his best to hug the wall, hiding behind a display of carnivorous dahlias. Felwimina’s eyes scanned the crowd for just a moment, finding Kruciger’s horns without difficulty, near the blood punch, and she swept toward him determinedly, tail twitching behind her.
Kruciger turned to her, and they spoke for some time, first about the quality of the ball, the other guests present, and then moving on to the difficulty of raising children, and paying for their very expensive needs. Felwimina mentioned how well her business ventures had been doing – they were opening a new venture, to make use of kneecaps, which she expected to be very profitable.
Periodically she would look out at the dancers wistfully, and exclaim at how much fun it looked. Finally Kruciger took the hint. “Would you like to take a turn, then, my dear?”
She gave him a satisfied smile. “Why, certainly, sir!”
Out they stepped, and Felwimina’s satisfaction grew. Why had that damned useless boy thought this was so hard? “I’m sorry for that scene with Grull and Simene earlier. I try and try with him, but…”
“It was unfortunate. Not much of a dancer, is he?”
“In a different style, perhaps. And he doesn’t know her well. It seems she positively ignores him at school.”
“She may be accustomed to a different quality of companion.”
Felwimina frowned. “What, like that Zar fellow? He’d crush his mother’s skull for a dollar, that one.”
“As a demon should!” Well, she couldn’t argue with that, but then he had to go on, “A demon should have gravity. Weight. He should instill fear in human and hellspawn alike.”
“Surely there are other qualities…”
“Pah! Like comedy, you mean? All that scampering and joking business? Hellhound droppings! But maybe the boy can learn to change,” he added generously, if a bit doubtfully.
Insult her son, would he! “And maybe you can rot in debtors’ prison, you classless turd!” she spat, shoving him away.
He balled his fists, fury glowing from his eyes, but then he blinked, the room looking suddenly darker, filling with the black mist pouring from Felwimina’s very pores in her rage. After a few moments, amid the disgusted exclamations of the whole hall, it began to condense, coating them in oily droplets and positively ruining cartloads of finest evening wear.
Meanwhile, Felwimina strode quickly and decisively toward the exit, Grull following in her wake. “So that went well,” he observed.
She turned to him and smiled suddenly. “Well,” she said, “at least it was a bit of fun.”