Chapter 15: Mister Popularity

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Rob remembered very little of his evening at the Dancing Shoes with Zev. There'd been singing. There'd been dancing. And there'd been altogether too much drinking.

He had, however, retained two souvenirs from the night before. One was a hangover, which was holding strong into the afternoon and showed very little sign of abating. He knew what he'd tell a patient suffering like this: Drink lots of fluids, get some food into your system, and next time try drinking in moderation.

Rob groaned as a headache roiled across the top of his skull. In his defense, they made big drinks here.

The other and more troubling souvenir was a pocketful of invitations to the Harvest Ball that patrons at the tavern had pressed upon him. He didn't understand why everyone was acting so ball-crazy, but he remembered the Godmother's warning. Could his unmarried status really be causing so many women (and a few well-groomed men) to lose their minds like this?

He wasn't that handsome. He wasn't that eligible. He wasn't that rich. It made no sense.

Unless. Unless it had something to do with that empty can of Red Bull. Hadn't the weirdness started around the time he and Zev had found it, floating in the frigid stream? Rob couldn't understand how the two things might be connected, but he didn't understand a lot of things about this world, so that didn't mean much. 

He had a sudden desire to lay hands on the can he'd hidden under a fresh pile of hay. Rob didn't think seeing it would give him any answers, but he wanted to make sure it was still there.

He'd just finished with his last patient of the day, a weaver who barely flinched when Rob removed a sizable splinter from his palm—the people here and their pain tolerances never ceased to impress—when he ran into Maggie, a full basket in each hand.

"You look," she said, "unsteady."

"Yeah," Rob said. "Zev and I had a boy's night out at the Dancing Shoes. It ended . . . hazily."

"Is this you trying to be less predictable?"

"I think it's just me being foolish. You'd think as a doctor I'd know better. Any chance you're done for the day?"

Maggie raised her twin baskets, full of bread and cheeses and jars stoppered with wax, as if she were doing bicep curls. "No, I've many more deliveries to make. But I'll walk you home. You look like you could use an escort."

As they strolled more-or-less steadily home through the city's narrow streets, Rob began to notice people watching him. Staring. Pointing. Laughing nervously. He hoped against hope it was simply due to his hangover-tinted pallor, but he feared it was more ball madness.

It didn't take long for Maggie to pick up on the strange vibe. She frowned, glancing up and down the street; it was crowded with shoppers and vendors and no clear escape. 

Stopping, she lowered her baskets to the cobblestone ground and laid her hand atop her axe. "Stand behind me. Something's happening."

At which point, a pack of young women with swaths of hair spilling provocatively from their head coverings excitedly approached.

"Will we see you at the ball, doctor?"

"You're looking very handsome today, doctor."

"I could bear you some very fine children, doctor!"

Maggie fixed Rob with a cold stare as they skittered away. "Robert. What the hell is going on?"

Rob massaged his temples as the headache came roaring back. "I have a theory. You're not going to like it."

* * *

"You can't be serious," Maggie said once they had reached the privacy of Rob's townhouse. "You want me to go with you to the Harvest Ball?"

Rob nodded gingerly, his head still pulsing. "And maybe dance a little, yeah."

Her face darkened like a summer storm. "You want me to dress up in frilly clothes that I wouldn't be caught dead in, to prance around for the amusement of the rich, to have myself judged by that slut-whore princess and her ilk? You can't be serious."

"Look, I tried to explain all the weird attention I've been getting since talking to the Godmother. She really wants me to get married—

"To Greta."

"Well, yes, but I'm not—"

"I don't understand. What do you even need me for?"

"I can't go alone. It's not done, apparently. And if I do go with someone, I'm hoping I can break whatever spell or thing is causing people to freak out and get the Godmother off my back, all in one swoop. So. The plan is, we go to the ball, do a little dance in front of everybody, maybe announce an engagement, and with a little luck everything settles back down to normal."

"I don't want to be your plan! Robert, I understand the Godmother can be a bully, but I'm not ready to marry you, and certainly not because of somebody's threat."

"I know the whole marriage thing makes you uncomfortable—

"This isn't about me," Maggie said.

"—but she seemed pretty serious about shutting me out of patients and food and stuff."

"Then we could go somewhere else. We could go back to wherever you're from. Robert, the last thing I want is to go to that stupid ball. I won't be their fool, not even for you."

"Fine," Robert said. "I get it. But I can't up and leave my patients, or the monks I'm teaching at the abbey. Look, if it's all right with you, I'll just take Greta to the ball. The Godmother kind of suggested I pick her anyway, so that should go a long way toward getting her off my back."

Maggie's face went slack. "You're taking Greta?"

"I'm running out of options here."

"To the Harvest Ball."

Rob nodded. "Don't worry, it's just for show. Boy, I'll be glad when this is over."

"Good-bye, Robert."

Rob grabbed Maggie's arm as she turned to leave. It was like grabbing a baseball bat, solid and unyielding. "Wait. Don't go."

Without looking back at him, she pulled her arm free and marched out the door. Rob stumbled, then moved to follow her out the door when he crashed headlong into his cousin, Zev, coming in.

"Dude, guess who landed a gig playing at the Harvest Ball! Cynda must have okayed it, which is kind of unexpected. Talk about mixed signals, know what I mean?"

"Zev—"

"Hey, I just saw Mags storming down the street, looking pretty pissed. You fuck things up with her?"

Rob gave up on his pursuit and sat down on the floor of his townhouse. The cool air wafting in through the open door was all that kept him from throwing up. "I don't know. Maybe. Maybe so."

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