Dawnfell Palace had a series of rooms devoted to every kind of indoor game, plus a few not usually played indoors. Justin brought Miss Vasilver to a chamber that was cosy by comparison with the vaulted ceilings and grand vistas of the ballroom or petitioner’s hall. This room was built on a more human scale, ceiling a mere nine feet high. It had ample space for a parquet-topped table with knotwork legs and matched chairs – chosen by Prince Edgar, a man with a passion for parlor games, and so they were comfortably padded with cushioned arms. Servants in royal livery patrolled the tapestry-carpeted floor, bearing trays of refreshments. Four men and three women were at the table when they arrived. Justin introduced Miss Vasilver after the current round – he knew each player already – and they took seats to join in. Justin covered Miss Vasilver’s stake as a matter of course, without comment, and it was gratifying to have her accept it likewise with a simple “thank you, my lord”: no profusion of gratitude or demur of need. I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of those fights with Nikola already. I don’t need any more, he thought, and smiled to himself at the recollection that the question with Nikola had been permanently settled.
Justin prefered more active games than cards; he spent plenty of time sitting still for business purposes and liked to be moving when at leisure. Even so, competition invigorated him as he rose to the challenge. Luck wasn’t with him but his play was good for what he had to work with, and he had a magnificent time observing his fellow players. Especially Miss Vasilver.
Miss Vasilver was as impenetrable at the poker table as Justin had suspected, and no fool either: not a woman who would chase a busted flush or draw to an inside straight, Justin concluded after an hour or so of play. Her success relied on a combination of skillful management of the odds and that no one could discern when she bluffed; she had limited skill in detecting a bluff by others.
Having spent some time with her now, Justin could appreciate why Nikola liked the girl. She was neither a gay nor lively companion to be sure, but her quiet composure in the face of all things made for a beguiling picture in contrast to, say, Lady Olivia’s pouting at her losses or unseemly triumph in her successes. Neither Mr. Burgess’s posturing nor the Duke of Junmont’s title could intimidate Miss Vasilver, and her dry wit charmed Justin. Justin suspected her apparent coolness was what had made Nikola remark her unsuitable for wife or lover, and indeed it was hard to imagine Miss Vasilver in the throes of passion. But the contrast between her cool expression and her bold touch when they’d been alone in her office made sense now. Does it matter if one cannot read desire in her face, as long as she feels it? Assuming she does feel it. Would it make any difference in the dark? Would she moan and tremble with pleasure, or would her impassivity extend to unresponsiveness in that as well?
This distracting if delightful train of thought contributed nothing to Justin’s play. That it was ungentlemanly did not trouble him; part of his mind was often occupied with such fancies regardless of his primary activity. That the current object was female still surprised him, however. He was unsure if or how to act upon it. Most of his experiences with women had been of the paid variety, with a couple of flings when he was still in school with forthright married women who would not take ‘no’ for answer. An affair with a single gentlewoman involved various potential complications that he’d never had to worry about before. Do I want that? Does she? There was one particular study in Dawnfell Palace whose interior door was locked during the ball, but the door from it to the balcony was left unlatched because certain of the staff used it to sneak in and out. Justin had discovered it some years ago and at one memorable ball he and Nikola had stolen away to make use of it. He was strongly tempted to show Miss Vasilver to the room and…see what resulted. You’d think by my age I’d’ve learnt more caution than that. He had no intention of acting on the impulse – if nothing else, it seemed rude to hide away with Nikola’s guest when Nikola was expected back soon.
And where is Nikola, in any case? The servants at the cloakroom had been instructed to tell Nikola when he arrived that Miss Vasilver was in the game room, so he oughtn’t have had any difficulty finding them. Surely he ought to be back by now, if he’s going to be back at all. What sort of emergency could it be, that he’d need to leave the Ascension Ball for it, much less take this long to resolve? And he wouldn’t avoid the game room just because he doesn’t wish to wager. He’s usually willing enough to kibbitz, if nothing else.
Meg tracked them down around half-past one. She was kinder to Miss Vasilver now, after learning that Nikola had been called away for an emergency. “You can’t expect anything else of him, dear. His blessing is the only thing he takes seriously,” Meg told the girl with a pat on her hand and a meaningful look which Justin suspected was wasted. Meg even surprised him by sitting to play instead of imploring him to return to dancing.
They spent another amiable half-hour at cards, until Lord Dunsang lost the remainder of his stake to a gloating Lady Olivia and implored Miss Vasilver to rescue him from buying in again by agreeing to dance. Miss Vasilver hesitated at first, but Lord Dunsang pressed her on it and she agreed in her usual calm manner.
There was no reason whatsoever to think Miss Vasilver might need rescuing herself or that Lord Dunsang, a stout round-faced married man of middle years, posed a threat of any sort. But Justin took advantage of the pause in play to invite Meg to dance anyway, and they returned with the other couple to the ballroom.
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