Richard glanced at his frayed sleeves with a frown. When did they become so shabby? He’d have to have another suit made up when he had the time—and the money. It was too late now, though. He reached for the pair of silver scissors by his dressing table and neatly snipped away the excess strings.
He shouldn’t have been surprised. His suit was like everything else he owned: faded elegance. His rooms were filled with elaborate pieces of furniture covered in nicks and cracks, ornate rugs that were slowly becoming threadbare, tarnished silver, soiled paintings, ragged curtains.
All of that would change if this night went well. Richard carefully attached his gold cuff links, looking into the dull mirror in front of him. Glossy black hair, blue eyes, clean skin; he flashed a dazzling smile at his reflection. Yes, tonight would go well. No one had been able to resist his charms so far. Why would they now?
There was a gentle knock at the door. Richard ran a black gloved hand through his hair one more time before turning toward the entrance to his chambers.
There was a slight pause, and then the door opened to reveal a young man. He was handsome: like everything else Richard owned. His brown hair was clean and swept back from his face, his uniform carefully pressed and mended. He bowed his head slightly before murmuring, “Forgive my intrusion, Mr. King, but your guests are anxious to see you.”
Of course they were anxious. He was the star of the event. Richard nodded and then waved one hand noncommittally, “Tell them I’ll be down soon, John. I’m just seeing to a few last minute preparations.” That was a lie, of course, but he wasn’t about to let himself be at the beck and call of his guests. No, he would make them wait a few more minutes.
“As you wish, Mr. King.” The young man bowed his head again and then quietly shut the door behind him.
It was ten minutes before Richard exited his chambers and walked down the narrow corridor toward the room where he held his more public affairs. Shadows danced along the faded portraits of his ancestors on the walls. The golden sconces flickered by the light of the few candles that lit his way.
He turned the corner and found himself in front of one of the many wooden doorways that lined the hall, cracked and crumbling with age. He could still make out the faint designs etched deep within the door’s surface: crosses and symbols that people had once thought would keep them safe. This was it. He took a deep breath, plastered a congenial smile on his face, and entered the room.
It looked magnificent, of course. The large hall had been festooned with wreathes and flowers, concealing the boarded windows and broken glass. Pillars and either side rose in stately elegance to the roof, recently patched with sheets of metal. Tables were set out, laden with every kind of delicacy—stuffed quail, roasted turkey, glazed dormouse. His employees bustled about in their uniforms, offering cups of punch and other beverages.
The background was no comparison to the people currently inhabiting it, though. They were an explosion of color. Midnight blue, emerald green, royal purple, deep scarlet and canary yellow all mixed together on the stone floor. Ladies wore floor length gowns that complimented their figures, gentlemen wore suits, accented with silk scarves or colored shirts.
As he entered, the room became silent. Painted faces turned toward him, one by one. They were probably wondering how far he had fallen with his latest gamble, or how he could even afford this event. They were circling vultures, ready to prey on the dead or dying; they were rats, scavengers, opportunists; they were pathetic. Richard waved at them all, smile still firmly in place. Slowly, the hum of conversation continued. No doubt there would be rumors after the party; but for now, he was in their good graces. Alcohol and entertainment did wonders for raising good opinions.
Richard glanced around the room, his eyes sliding over a pair of women who were giggling and whispering to one another while pointing at him. No doubt they hoped to coax him over. He shook his head briefly and continued to scan the room. It took him a few more moments before he spied the person he was looking for.
She wasn’t the prettiest girl in the room, or the most graceful. Her hair was braided and studded with gold embellishments, no doubt meant to disguise the mousey brown color of it. Her chin was weak, her eyes an unremarkable brown. Her figure was good, but not excellent, and she had the irritating habit of fanning her face with one hand.
Richard could look past all of that, though; because while she wasn’t beautiful or clever, she was possibly the richest marriage prospect in the room.
Richard walked toward her, nodding politely to his guests as he passed. One man tried to trap him in a conversation about defending the surrounding town, but he shook him off; he could always talk business later.
He could tell already that his target had noticed him. She was fanning her face frantically with one hand as she spoke with another woman. Richard guessed that she was probably trying to look coy, though all she managed was flustered.
Richard smiled and nodded to the two women, causing them to pause in their hushed conversation—no doubt one concerning him. “Good evening, ladies. I trust you’re enjoying yourselves?” He glanced toward his target, letting his eyes linger on her a moment or two longer than strictly necessary, “It’s wonderful to see you again, Victoria. I’m so glad you could come.”
He was pleased to see that she was blushing, “The pleasure it all mine, Mr. King. The party is lovely.”
“Not lovelier than the two of you, of course,” he flashed his most charming smile at the women, and Victoria blushed a deeper scarlet. This conquest was going to be easier than he expected. Now to get her alone.
Richard turned toward the other woman. It seemed that she had decided that pink was an appropriate color to wear with her red hair; how wrong she was. Still, he supposed it wasn’t any worse than the lime green gems which studded her neck, “Lilianne, Mr. Monroe was asking about you earlier. I believe he wanted to speak with you about the town’s defenses?”
Lilianne’s eyes widened slightly as she looked across the room, presumably where Mr. Monroe stood, “Are you sure? I didn’t think he’d want my opinion…”
Richard leaned forward slightly, giving her his most earnest expression, “Oh yes. He seemed very adamant about it. In fact, he said he preferred your opinion over mine.”
Lilianne’s eyes widened further before she spoke, “I suppose I should go speak with him, then. If you’ll both excuse me?”
“Of course, Lilianne. We understand,” Mr. King waved her off with a smile as she bounded across the room, a pink and red blur amidst all the color. After he was sure she was out of earshot, he turned his attention back to Victoria. “Would you like to get a bit of fresh air? I have an attached greenhouse that has some rather lovely varieties of flowers. If I remember correctly, you’re a bit of a gardener yourself.”
The change in Victoria was instantaneous. Her face lit up as she nodded enthusiastically, “Oh yes! I’ve been experimenting with rose varieties in particular. They’re quite fascinating flowers, you know. I’ve even found a way to increase their defense mechanisms.”
He quickly interrupted her before she could continue. He didn’t have time to allow her to elaborate. “Fascinating! Shall we go, then?” Richard offered his arm which Victoria took with a shy smile, “You can tell me all about your experiments while we walk.” His prize in tow, he carefully threaded his way through the crowd and toward the double doors.
Richard was proud of the greenhouse. It overflowed with different strains of plants; corn that ripened more quickly, tomatoes that could resist frost, flowers that bloomed in colors that were so bright they hardly looked natural. He never bothered caring for the plants himself, of course; he paid people to do that. But it was something that his guests were usually interested in.
Victoria inhaled slightly as they entered, a faint gasp which Richard noted with satisfaction, “It’s beautiful. How many different strains do you have here?”
Richard waved expansively toward the rows of greenery, “Only about thirty or so. I try to use this area mainly for experimentation rather than large scale growth.”
“It’s marvelous. It truly is. I didn’t think we had this in common.”
Richard glanced toward his companion, smirking faintly, “Perhaps we have more in common than you first realized.”
He started to lead her down the different rows, stopping to comment every once in a while on a plant he was familiar with. He almost needn’t have bothered. Victoria constantly rattled off facts about each plant, how wonderful each specimen was, and how lucky he was to have such a facility at his disposal. It was, essentially, a boring, one-sided conversation.
As they wandered past a trellis covered with jasmine, Richard paused. He didn’t think he could keep a pleasant expression plastered on his face any longer, at least not with this kind of company. He might as well make his move. Victoria ceased her mindless chattering briefly to stop with him, “What is it?”
He smiled before speaking, “Victoria, we’ve been friends for quite a while, yes?”
She nodded, “Why yes, of course. You always make a point to invite me to your parties.”
“There’s a reason for that.”
“For being friends?”
By God, she could be dim. Richard kept himself from rolling his eyes and instead reminded himself of how rich she was. “Well yes, but also for inviting you.” He paused briefly, letting his eyes lock with hers, “You do realize that I don’t enjoy myself when you’re not here.”
Very corny. But corny lines were sometimes the best to use, especially when dealing with someone of little intellect. Besides, these had the desired effect. Even in the dim light, he could see that Victoria was blushing—again, “Oh…I see.” He had to give her credit for at least being consistent.
He reached over and took her hand in his, running his thumb over her knuckles, “I know that we perhaps don’t know each other as well as we might like, but I’d like to get to know you better, Victoria. In fact, I’d like to spend the rest of my life getting to know you. Would you do me the very great honor of marrying me?”
He felt her hand go rigid in his. Shock was to be expected, of course. He smiled at her again and continued, “Before you answer, I know that you’re probably apprehensive. After all, this is a bit sudden.” He paused for effect, letting his words sink in. “But you have to understand what times we live in. I can offer you protection, prestige. You may not love me yet, but I will do my best to change that. You would be your own person, unhindered by your family.”
There was silence as Richard waited for her response. For the first time, he was nervous. Had he judged her incorrectly? Was she a true romantic after all? If this didn’t go through, he was ruined; he would be cast out of the social circles he had constructed. He would become a pariah, a nobody, someone that should be pitied but not associated with. He felt sweat bead at his brow.
Then her hand slowly relaxed in his. Her lips softened and she turned toward him with a smile of her own.