At Vasilver Manor on Saturday afternoon, Helen was arranging Wisteria’s hair for Ascension when Byron’s voice yelled through the door to her suite, “Teeri! Thought you said your lordling was broke?!”
Wisteria raised her voice to call in return, “Certainly, you may come in, Byron.” Whatever he wanted to talk about, she wasn’t going to holler it through closed doors.
Her brother stepped through the suite door and then into her dressing room, saying, “Told me…he…was…”
Wisteria stood fully dressed before the mirror stand as Helen tucked jewel-tipped hair pins into the elaborate coif she’d crafted. Wisteria couldn’t move without disturbing the work of her lady’s maid, but she did glance to the mirror to catch her brother’s reflection. His jaw hung open, as if he planned to say more, but no sound emerged. Wisteria took the silence for her cue. “First, if I may presume we are speaking of Lord Nikola: he is neither mine, nor a lordling. Second, I never said Lord Nikola was broke; I described his assets as largely illiquid. That you choose to interpret this statement imprecisely is not a factor within my control. Whatever is the matter, Byron?”
Byron closed his mouth at last, then opened it again, and closed it again. Wisteria had no idea what to make of this performance: Byron was rarely at a loss for words. Helen made a clucking noise Wisteria had learned to interpret as disapproval, and stepped back to make final adjustments to the gown. At length, her brother said, “That’s a beautiful dress.”
“Thank you, Byron, that’s very kind.” Wisteria was surprised; Byron seldom paid any attention to what she wore.
A chambermaid came into the room and stopped behind Byron with a quick curtsey. “Oh miss, sir, oh, you must see the carriage come for you, miss!”
“Of course I will. Lord Nikola is arrived, then?”
“Yes,” said the maid.
At the same time, Byron said, “No. I mean, yes, he’s here, but you have to see this carriage. Now.”
“Just…have a look, will you?”
Helen clucked again, but the older woman had stood back and no longer fussed at her attire, so Wisteria let her brother lead her to a window seat that overlooked the drive. “Oh my.”
“You said he was poor,” Byron repeated.
“Is that made of glass? Whatever keeps it from breaking?” Wisteria asked.
“Abandon me if I know.”
The carriage in Vasilver’s semi-circular drive sparkled in the winter sunlight, a gilt framework holding hundreds of large, faceted, clear panes in place to form the body. The interior appeared to have gilt seats padded in velvet, though the view was distorted by multi-colored refractions from the carriage walls. Even the axles and suspension were picked out in gold leaf. The whole was drawn by two pure white greatcats matched in height, length, and powerful builds. They looked regal and dignified in their gilt harness. Wisteria wasn’t sure she’d ever seen anything more ostentatious outside of a royal wedding, which was quite the statement given the gown she wore. The vehicle was wholly unlike Lord Nikola.
“Can’t tell me that’s a family heirloom. Or part of an entailment,” Byron said, leaning over her to study it with her.
“I don’t believe any of my sources mentioned it, no.” Wisteria rose from the window seat. “Excuse me, brother, but Lord Nikola is waiting on me.”
The first time he went to the Ascension Ball, six years ago now, Nik had been excited. Even the second and third times had held a certain magic. This was his seventh, and by now he was accustomed to the simple truth that the most prestigious gathering of the year was, underneath all the ceremony and pageantry, still only a party. A party for nearly two thousand people, titled or accompanied by an individual with a title: the Ascension Ball was one of the few remaining bastions of rank and every titled individual in Newlant, from royal family down to the poorest Blessed with a courtesy title, was invited. Most of them, Nikola barely knew. As a rule, the best thing about it was that Justin was always there, and the worst thing was that Justin was mobbed by admirers and friends.
Today, Nik was if anything relieved by that last fact, as he still hadn’t figured out how to deal with Justin. “Do whatever he asks of me and hate myself” is not a long-term strategy, he thought wryly, and wondered at what point he would need the Savior to fix the addled mess of his head. Experimentally, he reached for the Savior’s aid. Golden warmth cascaded through him, with a sense of his god’s love, tinged by both sorrow and hope, as if to say Sorry I can’t do this for you, but I’m sure you can handle it on your own, beloved one. It did make him feel better, as long as he didn’t dwell on his angst.
No, the main thing he looked forward to tonight was speaking with Miss Vasilver. It had been over a week and Nik keenly anticipated seeing her again, so much so that he was impatient with the wait in Vasilver’s too-ornate parlor. Instead of sitting in one of the brocade chairs, he paced. He examined the room’s paintings and the curios in the display cabinets, the antemarkavian marble sculptures of elegant stylized figures, without attending to any of them. At least he was spared her parents’ company – the entire household would be readying for Ascension events of their own. When he recognized Miss Vasilver’s footsteps down the hall, he turned in relief to the parlor entranceway. “Good evening, Miss Vasilver,” was on his lips as she appeared, and he managed to get that much out before the rest of his greeting was wiped from his mind.
As Newlant’s foremost annual social event, Ascension Ball attire was an order of magnitude more elaborate than anything one wore in the ordinary course of life. Many of the poorer lords and ladies, those with courtesy titles or impoverished estates, declined the invitation because they could not afford the required standard of dress. Nik’s parents ordered new outfits for this occasion every year, despite the extravagant cost. Nik himself was wearing the same Ascension suit he had worn for the last four balls, because that was the last year he had let his parents bully him into buying a new one. It was in Fireholt’s colors of orange and black, which Nik seldom wore because if he was going to use holding colors he prefered Anverlee’s blue and silver. But in the ornate style of Ascension the former served well, with embroidered orange flames leaping and dancing against a midnight-velvet backdrop on the jacket, the flames accented by dozens of glittering faceted orange garnets. The jacket was cut high in front, revealing an orange waistcoat, but long in back, flaring down to mid-calf, with heavy epaulets dangling gold chains and studded by semi-precious stones. The gold chain of his Blessing, with its onyx pendant that marked him as a healer of minds, draped over one shoulder and across his chest – he never wore it unless required, but at this event it was. Black breeches laced up the sides with gold chain. Even the shoes were ostentatious, gleaming black leather with gold buckles and gemstone studs.
Dress at this event was spectacle, which Nikola knew well. He’d expected Miss Vasilver to be part of it – her taste in clothing had always been appropriate – but he was not prepared for the vision she presented.
Her gown fitted snugly from high collar to just above the knees, where it blossomed in a wide ruffled skirt. The body was white, with a ruffle of translucent orange-red that twined like a flame about the skirt and torso, then fell from one shoulder to trail behind her in a flowing cape. The shoulders were sheer at first, blending into solid sleeves that fell in a long graceful drape from elbow to wrist. The whole sparkled with hundreds if not thousands of tiny jewels, sending pinpricks of light dancing around the room as she moved. Her dark hair had been piled atop her head and pinned with fiery rubies, like sparks caught in her net. The effect was so magnificent it ought to have dwarfed the woman within, overwhelmed her. But Miss Vasilver did not recede: she wore this artwork as if it were any ordinary garment: an accessory serving a worthy purpose, nothing more. The white gown with its fiery accents complimented her pale brown complexion, long snug lines making the most of her tall slender build.
“My lord?” Miss Vasilver said, and Nik realized he’d been staring at her for half a minute, that she’d said something and he had no idea what, that she was ravishingly beautiful, that he was in imminent danger of embarrassing himself further.
He swept her a low bow. “Miss Vasilver. You are – beyond magnificent. Words fail me.” She accepted the compliment with a gracious thanks, betraying neither humility nor vanity. He kissed her hand and offered his arm. They paused to retrieve her wrap and his frock coat before he escorted her to the waiting carriage with a stupefied grin on his face.
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