Up close, she was even worse than at a distance, Nikola reflected. It was not so much her face or figure, which had little enough to recommend them: too tall, too thin, long chin and nose, high forehead only partly concealed by careful arrangement of thick black curls -- she did have lovely hair, and a clear light golden-brown complexion. No, it was her flat, severe expression that made her repugnant. The way her gaze flicked over her visitors and then away, the thin set line of her mouth that never altered, as if her face might crack if she smiled. The rigid formality of her posture. Everything about Miss Vasilver, from the way she held her teacup and saucer to the way she listened to the conversation, was exact, correct, unnatural. He'd seen marble statues with more life.
His mother commented on the appointments of the parlor, as formal and pristine as Miss Vasilver. "These sculptures are remarkable work, Mr. Vasilver," she said, indicating the marble carvings on display in a glass case.
"Thank you, my lady. They were a find of my mother's, in southern Savorift."
"How lucky for her. Did she have a Blessing for stone?"
"Ah, no." He paused before adding, "I am afraid Blessings do not run in my family line. Or my wife's." Mr. Vasilver spared a glance to his daughter. "It is one area in which we hope our grandchildren will be more gifted."
Then why don't you pay me a stud fee and call it done? Nikola thought with a flash of irrational anger. Although the idea of sleeping with that icicle of a woman even once was profoundly unappealing. At least this interminable conversation was inching to the purpose.
Lord Striker gave a fatuous nod. "My family has been most fortunate in that arena. Particularly my son."
So today it's fortunate, Father? Good to know.
"Indeed," Mr. Vasilver folded broad-fingered hands together. "My house's fortunes have been of a more ... monetary nature."
"Business interests such as yours must afford you many opportunities for travel," Lady Striker said.
"Oh, yes. Vasilver Trading does business across the globe. My children often accompany me -- Wisteria loves to travel."
"Do you, dear?" Nik's mother turned her attention to the icicle-woman.
"Certain parts of it." Miss Vasilver's voice was as formal and cool as her bearing. "Long sea voyages are tedious, but the variation of cultural norms across different societies is amazing, something I did not appreciate until I experienced it firsthand. And of course, I enjoy the opportunity to assist with my father's business."
Of course. "What sort of assistance do you provide, Miss Vasilver?" Nikola found himself asking.
Her father shifted uncomfortably in his chair, but Miss Vasilver looked to neither him nor Nik: her gaze was aimless, directed on the wall beyond him. "Accounting, you might call it. I evaluate business opportunities, assess the profitability and ensure that the mutual benefits of a proposed plan outweigh its costs, not only in resources but opportunity."
Nik raised a blond eyebrow. "Mutual benefits?"
"For all involved parties. Good business cannot be zero-sum, my lord. My grandfather founded Vasilver Trading seventy years ago; it would not have lasted five without providing a service of value to others as well as our family. To do well in the long-term, we must ensure that everyone -- our customers, our suppliers, our partners, ourselves -- profits from the relationship."
One corner of his mouth twitched up. "Are you sure that's not a Blessing, Miss Vasilver? It sounds like magic."
She did not answer his smile. "It isn't magic," she said. "It's a business skill. Anyone can learn it."
Oh, I doubt that. But he wondered if this little meeting had been a plan hatched in the minds of their parents after all. "And is that how you feel about marriage as well, miss?"
"Yes," she answered with equanimity. "At its heart, marriage is a business proposition: a relationship formed for the mutual benefit of not merely the marriage partners but their relatives and their heirs." She tilted her head to one side. "How do you see it, my lord?"
Nik blinked at her. He had expected to fluster her, to crack that impassive face with embarrassment at likening marriage to either a business or a skill. Not to receive this frank admission. How do I see marriage? A graveyard in which to bury individuals, for the protection of the society that buries them. He was aware of his mother's appalled expression from her seat on the other side of the couch, his father's nonplussed look, the nervous clasp of Mr. Vasilver's hands against the arms of his chair. But most of all he was conscious of Miss Vasilver's emotionless gaze, waiting for an answer. He struggled to formulate a polite one that was not wholly insincere. "I am ... less optimistic than you. That is a great many people to please at once."
Miss Vasilver nodded. "One cannot please everyone. Then again, one may be benefited even by things that are not perhaps as pleasant as one might hope."
He didn't know how to disagree with that, and desperately did not want to agree. At his side, his father murmured, "Very true." Nik shot him a glare.
Miss Vasilver took a folder from the small table beside her. "The mutual advantages of a match between our houses are obvious: the County of Anverlee has vast land holdings, many of which are not fully or optimally exploited. Vasilver Trading has extensive resources to invest in development. Fireholt's mineral rights are of particular interest to our business, as recent discoveries in smelting make utilizing them attractive. And there's the matter of heirs and bloodlines: in this area, the benefit is all on Vasilver's side: even in this age titled relations are of great value to a business empire, while a Blessing by convention has no price. But beyond my dowry, you'll find that the advantages Vasilver can offer as a partner -- marriage being a natural form of partnership -- are considerable.
"But as you say, there are a great many people to please, and it's important to be aware of all the possibilities, the expectations inherent in marriage. I've prepared this document for your perusal." She removed a sheaf of papers from the folder and, swallowing, offered them to him. Nik reacted before his father could, taking the thick sheaf in his gloved hand. "I used contractual language, but it's intended more as a launching point. For negotiation."