Month 10, Day 31, Saturday 6:00 p.m.
“You should ask me to dance before my card fills up. I still have a blank space for you.” The woman fluttered her fan at him, showing off the wooden handle with names written in most of the spaces. Each name represented a man who had asked her for a specific dance that evening.
Oliver turned to look at her fully, his eyebrows lifting. He was disappointed to see no mocking self-awareness in her eyes, and not even a hint of real audacity. No, she had opened the conversation with a trite one-liner, probably memorized and used on any man she found attractive—whether in appearance, wealth, or social standing.
She pursed glamoured lips at him in a way that was too unsubtle to be appealing.
A puzzle-banded ring glittered on her fourth finger. Married, too.
He reached for her fan without looking away from her eyes, letting his fingers slide across hers as he drew it from her grasp.
Her eyes widened, her lips losing the artificial pout.
He looked down at the fan, his eyes flicking across the names. He handed it back to her. “Perhaps another night, my lady. I dislike sharing.”
Her eyes widened again, her mouth falling open just a little.
He walked past her before she could speak, letting his fingers trail over the back of her hand as he released the fan. It was minor flirting, just enough to throw her off balance and allow him to escape without causing offense, but not so much as to be inappropriate. He had a careful reputation to maintain, after all.
His primary goal tonight was to speak with the host, Lord Gervin, but both he and his wife were still busy mingling and greeting other guests. Instead, Oliver slipped around to the edge of the ballroom, where it was less crowded, and walked up the stairs to look down from the gallery.
He watched the guests, cataloguing who spoke to whom, who smiled to someone else’s face and then sneered as soon as they turned away, and who stood at the edges of the room watching, like him. He would return to mingling soon, but even he sometimes needed a break from interacting with people he found unimpressive—or despicable—without letting on his genuine feelings.
Magic was everywhere.
It glittered from the spelled chandelier and wafted through the air in a subtle, pleasing scent meant to put people at ease. Tiny, butterfly-winged sprites fluttered around the creeping vines crawling up the walls. Magic was even in the carpet beneath his feet, an illusion spell mimicking new grass.
It was hard not to consider his own differences in a place like this.
Soft footsteps came from the carpet behind him, and Oliver turned enough to see Titus Westbay, the second Crown Family’s heir.
The man raised his liquor glass to Oliver, pale grey eyes flicking over the crowd below. “Judging by the extravagance of this party, the restrictions on magical imports haven’t affected the Gervins.”
“Lord Westbay.” Oliver greeted him with a nod of his own, then turned back to the ballroom. “Well, the Gervins would never let it show. But perhaps they will be more amenable to a business opportunity if they are feeling some hint of discomfort with the current situation.”
“Another charitable endeavor, Dryden?” Titus was one of those among the Crown Families who was smart enough to understand Oliver’s appeals to reform, but still he never deigned to support them.
“It’s not charity if you benefit from it as much as those you are helping. Resistance toward innovation and improvement is just a slower way to stagnate and die.” Someday, perhaps when Oliver had more power, he hoped he could sway Titus. He could dearly use the alliance of the Family in charge of domestic law enforcement, and from the hints he’d seen, Titus wasn’t entirely in support of the way the current regime did things.
“Well, a certain type of person will only look to change once the discomfort reaches their own doorway. We may see more of that in times to come,” he said in an ominous tone.
Oliver turned toward the man and raised an eyebrow. “Are the restrictions that bad?”
Titus Westbay grimaced, but turned to look at a group of young people who had just come in from outside.
They were standing below Oliver and Titus, but didn’t seem to have noticed them. “I made the top three hundred of the incoming applicants!” one boy murmured to the oldest Gervin daughter. “I told you what Titus promised, right?” He grinned at her with excitement, and Oliver recognized him as second in line to be the Westbay Family head. They shared the Westbay eyes, though the younger boy’s were less like an incoming stormfront, unburdened by concern.
“He’s off to the University tomorrow. Orientation. I feel myself compelled to say something cliche about how quickly children grow up,” Titus murmured.
Oliver wasn’t sure if Titus had purposefully changed the topic to avoid answering his question. “I’m sure he’ll make your Family proud.” He wondered if Sebastien and the boy would ever interact. It would probably be best if they didn’t.
The Gervin girl gave the younger Westbay a droll smile, seeming to humor his excitement. “Did he teach you the spell already?”
“Well, a variation that I’m able to cast.” He held his hands up to his ears to mimic a dog, grinning at her.
“I hope you’ve considered the danger of casting it in such a loud room?”
“We can go outside and I’ll try it there. You be the lookout, all right?”
“A stakeout mission, then? What is the goal?”
With amused disinterest, the other youths abandoned the duo to their planning, making their way deeper into the ballroom.
“Someone insulting someone else behind their back?” Damien suggested
“That’s entirely too easy.”
“Well, Ana, what do you suggest?”
“Something of actual value. An off-the-record business deal or alliance, perhaps?”
“It needs to be something interesting, Ana.”
“That is interesting!”
He gave her a skeptical look. “What about some information on a crime? Or gossip about one of our professors?”
She pursed her lips thoughtfully, then nodded. “The latter.”
Titus shot Oliver an amused smile over the rim of his liquor glass. “I hardly remember what it was like to play such games,” he said with a hint of wistfulness.
“We still play games,” Oliver said. “It’s merely that the rewards have little to do with our own simple amusement, and the stakes are much higher.”
“Too true,” Titus muttered, his eyes narrowing.
Oliver followed his gaze to see that the Westbay Family head, second of the Thirteen Crowns, and Titus and Damien’s father, had intercepted the two children before they could leave for the gardens.
Tyron Westbay glowered down at them, and any trace of excitement had left Damien’s face. The boy bowed stiffly. “Good evening, Father.”
“Damien,” the man responded coldly. “Attempting to shirk your social duties?”
The boy seemed to shrink into himself, though his posture was impeccable and his face still expressionless. “No, Father. Ana and I were going to take a stroll through the gardens. Her mother made quite the effort to decorate them.”
Tyron was not appeased by that answer. “Clearly, you think I am a fool. I will not allow you to embarrass our Family, boy.”
The Gervin heiress had her head bowed demurely, and Oliver couldn’t see her face, but the set of her shoulders and the way her fingers twitched as if they wanted to fist in the fabric of her dress showed her feelings.
Beside Oliver, Titus had straightened, his fingers tightening around his glass. He didn’t glare, but the weight of his gaze was such that Oliver almost expected Tyron to stumble back from the children.
Damien’s voice was strained despite his attempt to sound calm. “I will not embarrass the Family, Father.” He hesitated. “I have been accepted to the University. I passed the entrance examinations with distinction.”
Tyron’s expression didn’t change. He looked at his son like one might look at a particularly unpleasant frog. “I am aware of your admission, and the distinction. Are you aware that Titus was the first place examinee in his year, and entered the University a year younger than you are now?”
Damien didn’t respond.
“If I were you, I would rethink any pride you might feel at your conduct. I find myself unsure if you are simply lazy, or if your mother only had enough strength to create one acceptable child in her lifetime.”
Titus sucked in a breath and started moving around to the stairwell to intervene between his father and brother.
A perfectly enunciated, clipped voice responded, bringing Titus to a sudden halt. “I assure you, Tyron, your younger son is quite acceptable.” Thaddeus Lacer stepped in from the garden, dark cloak fluttering behind him. “Perhaps not as much a prodigy as the elder, but three hundred out of the three thousand who made it is by no means mediocre. I expect he will do well in my class. Perhaps, with dedication, he will even become a passable free-caster—which, if I remember, was a feat which your late wife also accomplished.”
“Lacer.” Tyron turned toward the famous University professor with an instinctive movement that spoke to keeping a predator within his field of vision. “That would be…a pleasant surprise.” His tone indicated anything but.
“Indeed. Well, some people have a talent for the discipline, and others do not. Their minds are too rigid. Or too weak. You yourself never managed it, if I remember?”
Damien looked between his father and Lacer, his eyes wide.
Tyron ground his teeth, but bowed his head under the other man’s force of presence. “I have not had the satisfaction,” he admitted.
“Well, fear not,” Lacer said with a cold, humorless smile. “Your sons may yet reach the heights you failed to, and through them you can gain vicarious success.”
Oliver choked on a laugh at the audacity of Lacer’s insult.
Titus approached the group with some caution, though Oliver noted he kept any frustration or amusement from his face. “Good evening, Father, Professor Lacer.” He dipped his head in greeting to the two of them. “I’m pleased to see you could make it. Thoughtful of the Gervins to hold this gathering for the young men and women about to leave for the University, don’t you think?”
Tyron was still bristling from Lacer’s words, but he seemed to decide retaliating wasn’t worth it and turned toward Titus instead. “Very thoughtful,” he agreed, his words clipped.
“I hate to interrupt your conversation, Father, but I crossed paths with Lord Emberlin and thought you might be interested in connecting with him. If you would excuse us, Professor Lacer?”
The man nodded and waved an uncaring hand that made Tyron grit his teeth again. “Feel free. I suspect our conversation was already over.”
Titus pretended not to notice the tension with what Oliver thought was impressive boldness, drawing his father into the crowd. Oliver wondered if Tyron would take out his ire on Titus when they were out of earshot, or if he reserved his venom for his younger son.
The Gervin girl glared at Tyron’s back, any demureness gone from her posture.
Lacer dismissed the awkwardness, turning to Damien. “I will see you in my class on Monday, will I not?”
Looking up, his inner self seeming to unfurl to fill his body again, the boy grinned. “Of course.”
The girl nodded as well. “I look forward to it.”
“Good. Your mother would be proud.” Lacer gave the young man’s shoulder a squeeze, ignoring the glassy eyes and blinking this brought on.
“My father…what you said…you’re not worried about him?” Damien asked.
“On the contrary. I may not be from a Crown Family, but that does not leave me without power or influence of my own. Besides, any inconvenience Tyron can cause me is temporary. Titus would feel no need for vengeance, and he is quickly becoming the true force of your Family. I don’t suppose you will feel the need to revenge yourself on me over this little episode?”
Damien laughed thickly. “I would never be so stupid.”
Lacer smirked. His eyes flicked up to Oliver, who took that as his cue to stop eavesdropping.
On the other side of the ballroom, Oliver fortuitously ran into Margaret Gervin, the wife of the Gervin Family head.
Ever the consummate socialite, she smiled brightly and smoothly tucked her hand into his arm, leading him back toward the trio he was trying to leave behind. “Oh Oliver, have you met my Anastasia? She’s off to the University tomorrow,” she said proudly.
“I have not had the pleasure,” he replied. “Though, to be truthful, I was hoping to speak to you or your husband this evening. I don’t wish to intrude on your last hours with your child, but perhaps we could set up a meeting sometime soon? There is a business opportunity I would like to discuss. I have a new shipment of erythrean horses in, and I know Edward has some interest in riding. Perhaps he could join me for an afternoon and see if any suit his tastes.” He found bribery distasteful, more because it spoke to an inherent failing of the system than because of any moral qualms, but if he could get a sub-contract in the textile industry from the Gervin Family, an exorbitantly expensive erythrean horse would be more than worth it.
“Oh, an erythrean? Edward mentioned you breed those. Yes, I’m sure he’d be interested in meeting, even if only for the chance to ride one. He’s been so jealous of Moncrieffe since last year, you know. It’s too bad Anastasia won’t be available to join you. I have never quite understood it, but that girl does enjoy equestrianism. Refuses to even wear a skirt while riding, though I don’t suppose that would bother you overmuch?” she asked, gazing at him slyly out of the corner of her eye. “You are a man with many avant-garde ideas, I mean.”
“That is true,” he agreed, wondering what she was getting at.
“She has an interest in business as well, though I keep telling her it’s not appropriate for a well-born woman to concern herself with work or money. It’s our fault, I suppose. Edward does love to spoil her, and she is the firstborn, with no boys. I’m of the opinion that, once she’s married, she might settle a bit and see the sense in turning her efforts toward something more appropriate, like a charity foundation. If her husband were agreeable to something like that.”
Oliver cleared his throat to cover his shock at the boldness of the woman’s proposal and give himself time to gather his thoughts. Was Margaret Gervin matchmaking? Between him and her own daughter, no less… “I find it quite natural for some women to be interested in more demanding pursuits. Not all people, man or woman, are suited to domesticity.” It was as neutral an answer as he could give, with no direct indication of interest in her daughter.
He was surprised that they would consider him a viable match for a young girl from such a prestigious background, as a non-Crown Family member, and a foreigner to boot. He was wealthy, true, but marrying into the Gervin Family would be a huge boost to his social standing.
An inappropriately large boost, in the eyes of many.
Margaret was probably only sounding out his feelings on the matter. It seemed ludicrous that the Gervins would consider him a serious candidate.
That thought was reassuring. The other students entering the University were even younger than Siobhan, and no matter how advantageous it might be, the thought of tying himself to someone he didn’t respect, for life, was enough to make his clothes feel too tight and his skin prickle.
“Many would try to crush her spirit,” the woman said, her voice a little softer. A few seconds passed in silence as they arrived at the edge of the ballroom where he’d left Lacer and the two young people. It was empty. “Oh, I thought I saw them here earlier! Wherever have they slipped away to?” she complained.
Oliver caught the edge of a dark cloak fluttering in the dimly lit garden, but said nothing. “Well, I’m sure they’ll turn up later. In the meantime, perhaps I could settle on a meeting time with Edward?”
As they headed back into the crowd, Oliver turned to look for Lacer again in the gardens, but saw no hint of him. He had understood, today, part of why the man was so famous, not just for his grasp on magic, but for the force of his personality. Tyron had been afraid of him.
Oliver wondered how many of the rumors about Thaddeus Lacer were based in truth.
Author Note: I’d like to give a sincere thank you to my Patrons. I appreciate you helping to make this story possible.