“Certainly.” She rested her hand lightly against his forearm: even through the layers of dress jacket and cloth, the hard underlying muscle was evident, thick but with no trace of fat. “Elsewise you might see fit to end your ceasefire with yourself, and I would not wish to be responsible for that.”
“So you are defending me. Cleverly done. You ought to teach my sister that trick: she’s been trying to get me to stop for years. On second thought, don’t. I cannot allow it known that I am so easily thwarted – I shall have to master some way around your gambit.” Lord Comfrey steered her to the nearest door leading to the third-floor hallway, scarlet and gold coattails flaring behind him.
“I hope you do not; I have no better ploy in my mind if you defeat this one. Where are we walking to, my lord?” Wisteria resisted the temptation to caress his arm. It took a surprising amount of effort.
“I don’t know. If you were me, which way would you expect me to go?”
“Oh.” Wisteria was not very good at guessing what other people would do. “Right, towards the grand staircase and the petitioner’s hall? For refreshments.”
“Well enough.” He turned left, strides brisk but not so quick that she could not readily keep pace.
She tilted her head at him as they walked. “Would you have done the opposite of whatever I suggested?”
“Of course.” Lord Comfrey nodded to the liveried greatcat at the end of the hall. The servant pawed open the door with a bow, and they walked through.
“Oh. Are you thwarting my prediction in retaliation for my successful defense of your character?”
“Hmm? No, not at all. I am defending myself from a few overeager acquaintances.” He glanced about the exhibit hall, then drew her to a spot to one side of the doors, half behind the display of mannequins in Abandoned World dress. He leaned against the same wall that had the doors.
Wisteria blinked at him. “Are you hiding, my lord?”
“Me? Hide? No. Not at all. Never. What reason could I possibly have to hide? Inconceivable.” He gave a sidelong glance to the closed doors. “…all right, perhaps a little.”
“I thought I was the only one who did that at balls.” She fell silent as he touched a finger to his lips. The doors swung open inwards, several feet to their right. A group of two men and a woman spilled through. They chattered merrily as they gave a quick look about the room, but the door and the exhibit combined to screen Comfrey from their glance. “We’ll catch up to him,” one of the men said, and the three continued to the next hall.
As the newcomers left, Lord Comfrey took Wisteria’s hand and led her quietly back out the doors through which they had just entered. As the liveried greatcat closed the doors behind them, the lord set her hand back in the crook of his arm and they moved at a casual stroll. “Now, what possible reason would a beautiful gentlewoman such as yourself have for hiding during an evening of such splendid entertainments?”
“I am not good with people. What reason does a handsome lord such as yourself have?”
“Possibly I am too good with people. My dear, why would you say such a thing about yourself?”
“Because it is true? How can one be too good with people?”
He smiled, watching her sidelong as he said, “What sort of reason is that? Where would we be if everyone said things only because they happened to be true?”
“In a more perfect Paradise? I daresay I might even be better with people. Is there a disadvantage to being too good?” Wisteria remembered moments too late that she ought not repeat a question if it went unanswered.
“That depends on whether or not one minds hiding from them occasionally.”
She tilted her head at him as they paced down the long, wide hall, this one adorned with enormous portraits of past rulers encased in heavy gilt frames. Most of the guests were in one of the main rooms; only a few couples were promenading along it as they were.
He must have seen something in her expression – Wisteria had no idea what – because Lord Comfrey tossed back his long black hair and laughed. Sobering, he patted her hand and said, quietly, “Lord Micheldon – the particular individual whose notice we just escaped – is a perfectly harmless, amiable man with a great fondness for fencing, an interest I happen to share. He is also a voluble man who can speak at the sort of length that makes it nigh-impossible for almost anyone else to get a word in edgewise. Now, I am not the sort of man to be silenced easily – or at all, as you may have already learnt to your dismay – so if I wish to discuss fencing or sport or indeed anything else with Lord Micheldon, he is a fine companion. However, if I wish to talk with anyone else about any other topic, I have found it simplest to avoid his attention entirely.”
“Oh. So the downside is that people will seek you out whether you wish to be sought or not?”
“Precisely. I would apologize for bragging, but I gather you have an inexplicable fondness for honesty and I am not in fact remorseful.”
“I am afraid you have the wrong of me, my lord. My fondness for honesty is entirely explicable.”
“Is it?” Lord Comfrey tapped one tan finger against his slightly crooked nose. “It does not seem a passion that brings you any pleasure. Have you considered cultivating a taste for a more conventional interest?”
“What makes you think it brings me no pleasure?”
“Why, because it does not make you smile.” A crease formed between his narrow eyebrows as he drew them together. “…or perhaps it is I who do not make you smile.”
Wisteria shook her head. “I am afraid that nothing makes me smile, Lord Comfrey.”
“Nothing?” he asked. “Not jesters? Roses? Fluffy bunnies? Chocolate?” She shook her head in turn to each item. “I truly have no hope of seeing you smile, Miss Vasilver?”
“You truly do not want to see me smile, Lord Comfrey.”
“But I do, I assure you. I have been curious to see your smile since the first time I saw you, and having it cruelly withheld from me thus has made my interest keener still.”
“You only say that because you have never seen my attempt at a smile.”
“Undeniably I would not yearn to see for the first time your smile had I already done so.” He was smiling at her now. She liked the way he looked smiling, the lively animation it gave his features. “You have the most remarkable control over your expression, Miss Vasilver. I shall not see you smile even a little?”
“You mistake me entirely. I exercise very little control over my expression at all. That is the problem,” Wisteria said. Lord Comfrey did not respond to that, and she knew that he did not understand. “Oh, very well.” After glancing about to make sure no one was paying attention to them, she drew him to one side of the hall, near the far end from where they had begun, stood to face him, and turned the corners of her mouth up.
He burst into laughter, and covered his mouth with one hand, trying to turn the laugh to a cough. “That’s – er – that’s the most impressively fake smile I have ever seen. You may stop now.”
“Do I not have it right? Let me try again.” She let her mouth relax, then tried harder, turning the corners up and exposing her teeth. Lord Comfrey choked on laughter. “No? How is this?”
He shielded his face with one hand from the others in the hall, still struggling to control his laughter. “All right, now you’re not even trying. Enough, I beg you.”
Wisteria let her expression return to its usual default. “I did warn you.”
“So you did. Consider me schooled.” Lord Comfrey offered his arm again, and she took it. He smoothed his features into composure and they resumed their stroll. “I am impressed you can pull such faces and not be the least diverted by it.”
He doesn’t understand. He is not going to understand. It took your parents years to grasp it at all and they live with you. Let it go, Wisteria thought. “But I am diverted by it. I find it deeply amusing, especially your reaction. It just doesn’t show. There’s something wrong with my body; it doesn’t reflect my moods the way people expect it to.”
Lord Comfrey stopped and looked at her for a long moment. “Truly?”
“Truly. Even when I was an infant. I so seldom cried that I am told I suffered – silently – a host of simple childhood ailments – dehydration, ear infections, the like – because no one could tell when I was hungry or thirsty or otherwise in need of attention. Healers treated those ailments, but none could discern the underlying cause. I have conscious control of my body, obviously, but those things others do automatically in mirror of their mood – laughing, smiling, crying – my body does not do naturally. I can try to fake it, but, well, you saw the result of that. It’s better if I don’t.”
“I…see. That certainly explains a great deal.” The dark-haired man resumed their walk. He turned them when they reached the far end of the hall. “You must be a brilliant poker player.”
“My brothers will no longer permit me to sit down with them at it.”
“Hah! A grave injustice. I observe that there is always at least one table in the gaming room at this event, if m’lady wishes to indulge.”
“I should be very happy too, if my lord would join me? Or – have I kept you from your sister too long?” Wisteria belatedly realized she was monopolizing someone else’s companion, and she was not at all sure of the etiquette involved in this case.
But Lord Comfrey smiled at her. “She knows where to find me, if she runs short of dance partners.” He steered her to the grand descending staircase at the center of the wide hall. “So, do you mean that ‘very happy’, then, and it is not mere politeness?”
“Oh, I mean it, my lord. I do not say things I do not mean for the sake of courtesy; I find interaction complicated enough without adding well-meant falsehoods to the mix. That’s why I prefer truthfulness. I am no better at reading the moods of others than I am at expressing my own.”
He covered her hand on his arm with his own. “I shall endeavor to bear that in mind, my dear.”
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