Belles, Balls and Bad Intentions
Here at last is the final preview for Thyre: City of Smoke and Shadow. Happy Victoria Day everyone!
Chapter 2: Marcus ha Romonte, Smoke and Fog
The ballroom of the ha Romonte estate was a lavish space. Columned with exquisite pillars carved from imported marble and inlaid with delicate twisting ivy, the room was renowned amongst the socialites of Thyre for both exquisite artistry and almost magickal acoustics. While the band remained hidden behind a half-screen of stained rosewood on the second floor, the sound of their instruments carried to the furthest reaches of the chamber as crisp as if they were but mere feet away.
The pleasant atmosphere nearly compensated for the vivid murals and sculptures adorning the borders. Horrific depictions of the nightmarish untamed appeared twisted and engaged in a brutal conflict with the divine aspects of the Lord. Anointed priests in stylish embellishments displaying the Lord’s favour stood shoulder to shoulder with the devout hosts at the feet of the avatars. Each of the legendary figures depicted one of the divine aspects of the Lord incarnate in all his collected radiance.
The Marchioness ha Romonte held a very public devotion to the great Church and felt it stylish to adorn the manor in all manner of religious iconography. However, in the minds of the most discerning tastes, such vivid representations were best saved for the dated grottoes and niches that had been far more popular nearly a hundred years ago.
It was this decorative reason alone that marred the splendour of the Marchioness’ parties. There was an unsettling way the statues appeared to stare down upon the guests, wavering within the dim gas lamps as if they were alive. The untamed seemed to eye each visitor with hungry eyes, prepared to whisper their lies and damnations to tempt even the most pious from the Lord’s graces. The faces of the priests and host in turn were heavy with suspicion as if they drew bare the sin held in every man’s breast.
Despite the unsettling décor, all who received an invitation from the ha Romontes always accepted. For beneath the foot of the gargoyles hung thick brocade curtains over expansive bay windows, crystal chandeliers glittered from the great cathedral ceiling and carved mahogany divans stretched alongside the balcony wall. Above all the modern gaslights hissed softly like sibilant caged snakes.
The ha Romontes were rich and they were powerful. For that reason, every family with a daughter in Thyre hoped to catch the favour of the brooding Marquis. Now that the dashing heir to the title and fortune had returned, marriage was was on every great family’s mind.
Like the ringing of a crystal wind chime, Vivian’s voice twinkled through the air between the notes of the live band in their hooded balcony.
“Did I not mention? I have a daughter who takes after me, if you catch my meaning.”
The lady addressed a crisply dressed military officer: an ageing man with great white whiskers and a number of military commendations pinned to his breast. He stood upright and proper, paying appropriate attention to the lady without presenting any interest for the direction the conversation steered. It seemed no coincidence that the one ornamentation he lacked was a wedding band upon his finger.
“And could you believe that she has still not posted the banns? I mean, a marvellous young woman, much as I was in my prime if I may, still unwed! Still unengaged! Such a travesty, is it not? General?”
The younger woman sighed at the sight of her mother’s poor attempts at subtlety.
“Forgive me, my lord,” Isabella said. “I would like to say mother is not always so forward, but my father told me I should never speak falsehoods.”
The lord looked upon her, unable to suppress his smile. His partner in this dance was the most exquisite creature he had ever seen. Even now, though a hooked expression of annoyance pulled at the soft contours of her face, it failed to mar her perfect complexion.
“That is your mother?”
“Not by choice, I can assure you.”
He had heard of House Riviera’s reputation. His parents, the Marquis and Marchioness, were more concerned with pedigree than character. The Riveria’s southern origins were not favourable despite that country holding the seat of the holy charters. But now, clutching the dainty hand of his partner, he couldn’t help but grow curious about this little noble house.
“This is absolutely marvellous stuff have you tried it, General?”
Once more, the lord’s attention was drawn back to the exchange of the senior Lady Riviera. Madame Vivian held the thin glass delicately in her fingers. The container was nearly drained, but the woman’s need to lean against the officer suggested where most of it had vanished.
“It’s Commissar, Madame. And that stuff would be wormwood.”
“That is not an answer,” Lady Riviera smiled, the glass shaking accusingly in his direction.
Isabella caught her partner’s curious gaze, drawing his attention back to the dance. She smiled as she directed – with the most discreet of touches – the pair back towards the centre of the room.
However, their passing caught the attention of the matron. Upon spotting her daughter and dance partner, her hand immediately relinquished the crystal. Fortunately, her escort was quick to snatch it before it clattered against the floor.
“Oh dear, now we’ve been discovered,” Isabella whispered. “Try and ignore her, else we’ll just make things worst.”
As one, the two dancers stepped gracefully amongst the sea of twirling pairs, two lone individuals gliding in a stream of rustling cloth and fabric. He looked resplendent in a swallow-tailed jacket, ruffled shirt and pressed cuffs. Gold buttons glimmered in the candle and gaslight while his polished shoes shone brighter than the beeswaxed floor they tread. A hale face emerged from the raised, embroidered collar. The clean shaved cheeks revealed a strong jaw punctuated by the famous ha Romonte chin. Two blue eyes, like tiny sapphires hidden beneath hooded lids, pierced the thick, manicured brows.
And while he looked remarkable, she was practically aglow. Her hair was bound up, and the unruly tanned curls had been straightened and gathered beneath a soft lace weave. A few strands had been strategically hung to frame her oval face, draping the immaculate skin. High cheekbones drew a soft line to thin, glistening lips. A small nose separated her eyes: a pair of soft emeralds that modestly followed just above her partner’s shoulder. She claimed heritage to the lavish Tuscien stock; a paragon of the race known for their bronzed skin and deep, captivating eyes. There was a reason she was known as the Gem of Tuscien.
At the strike of a chorus of horns, he released her hip and she followed his lead, stepping out as her dress flared in a whirl of cloth. Her free hand bent just slightly, touching the soft, exposed neckline that led to a modest amount of shimmering bosom.
Vivian Riviera looked up into the face of the man who held her. Taller and thinner, it was his green eyes that betrayed his relation to the stunning Isabella. Knowing well his wife, Lord Riviera produced a small fan with which the Madame immediately began to shake vigorously.
“Good sir, I do believe I may be full of the ether. Please tell me who that ravishing pair are?”
“You are being silly,” Lord Riviera said. He manoeuvred her glass upon a passing servant’s tray.
“I always thought only a military man would tolerate her…”
“They are only dancing.”
“… tell me, good sir, what she is doing with that nobleman!”
“And not just a nobleman but Marcianus ha Romonte?”
“Shall I prepare your mausoleum? Has your life reached full expectancy?”
“I do believe it has!” Madame Riviera gasped.
Isabella rolled her eyes and shook her head with resignation. Her parent’s exchange was loud enough to be heard by every ear in Thyre and least not that of the highborn man holding her.
“You are going to deliver me much hassle.”
As the song concluded, the dancers slowed. With the last note, they joined their hands in respectful applause.
“I suppose it would be too great a burden should I request a second?” Marcus smiled.
“Indeed, it would,” Isabella replied, giving the Lord a courteous bow before turning and slipping into the crowd. Marcus watched her go, paralysed with shock. He was not accustomed to flippant dismissals, especially not at a ball thrown in his honour.
Already, a mass of young girls filled the void spreading between him and the beautiful Isabella Riviera, each one more than willing to take his hand next. But he only had eyes for that strong back as it pushed its way into the throng of partiers, never once turning.
He smiled politely as the boldest approached, quickly stepping around new couples eager for their turn as the band started their next performance. He took a passing servant by the arm, gently requesting a glass of brandy before edging his way to a darkened corner of the hall.
A lone lady stood amongst the shadows, batting thick lashes and coyly bowing her head as if she had been caught in the last moments of preparing a nefarious trap.
“Lord Marcianus, it is a pleasure to meet you. You may not know me, but I am Rosemarie and it is truly an honour to be here.”
He gave her a short smile, his eyes rolling over her meticulously designed ensemble with its calculated amount of bosom. She watched him, noting where his eyes went and how long they strayed. It reminded him of the dark creatures that stalked the eastern jungles. Those were deadly beasts – monsters born from the nightmares of man. Marcus had stared into their caliginous eyes and seen the cold cunning of its gloomy mind.
He saw the same cunning here. But instead of claws and fangs, this beast offered a far worst death: the merciless promise of obligation and restriction. It was a promise of chains with only the single-minded purpose of enslaving his soul.
“Save your appreciation, Madame. It was not my invitation that you received but my parents.”
“The ha Romonte’s are truly a generous and gracious family.”
“Generous enough to cut the allowance of their only son in order to force his return to a city he detests. All so they can try their hand at political arrangements.”
“I assure my Lord I do not know of what you speak,” the girl blushed, her hands suddenly searching her ruffles for a fan clearly forgotten.
“Then I shall speak it plainly. I have no interest in the holdings of your father nor the size of your dowry. No amount of prestige or power could persuade me to take an interest in a face so plain I would half-expect it no more on this floor than in the scullery.”
For a brief moment, confusion coloured the poor creature’s face as her mind reeled beneath the impropriety. Once she had recovered, and feeling the burn of the insult crawl slowly over her cheeks, the girl turned and ran for one of the powder rooms. With any luck she would spend the rest of the eve within, perhaps being consoled by a lady in waiting. For but a moment, Marcus felt for the poor creature.
But his sympathy was fleeting.
Marcus suddenly found the ball dreadfully dull and turned to excuse himself. This would no doubt earn him scorn from his father. But gone were the years when Marcus feared his wrath. He was a grown man now, and his parents’ expectations and punishments could be damned. He had no interest in these women here – these unremarkable girls whose only glowing qualities would be their connections to some ancient lineage or wealthy household.
Isabella had been the one bright moment of the entire drab evening.
Marcus stuck to the outside of the dance hall. No doubt this party would be a tremendous success for the Marchioness amongst the vultures of the elderly nobles. Women’s politics were so narrow-minded: focused more on public appearance and lavish dances than important matters. It was little wonder that men dominated the seats of the House of Parliament. Only the Queen herself appeared capable of rising above the weaknesses of her sex.
As Marcus approached the side exit, he caught a glimpse of a vaguely familiar dress. That young, brazen woman from the shadows looked quickly about her before slipping through the entrance to the west wing. Curiously, it should have been locked to prevent ladies mistaking it for an unoccupied powder room. Marcus moved to follow her when a hand fell upon his shoulder.
“Nature has not an inch of the savagery as that which resides in the heart of man.”
Marcus turned, a crooked smile breaking across his face at the sound of the deep voice.
“I knew my family had lowered their standards but not so much as to let in any riffraff.”
“It is the son to blame, I’m afraid. Without his disdain, they wouldn’t dare extend their charity below his own pedigree.”
“Kieler, it has been too long.”
“I’m sure, Marcus, that it has not been long enough.”
The two gentlemen embraced.
“What have you been up to, my friend? You’re not still attending the University are you?”
“I’m afraid my studies have… come to certain conclusions,” Kieler replied, shifting slightly. The man’s dark eyes darted uncomfortably about the busy hall, skittering over the flowered ladies and tapered gentlemen like twin flies unable to find peace enough to land.
Marcus’ serving lad arrived with his drink. The lordling took the glass, resting a steady hand on his friend’s shoulder and directing him to a small, private card room. He slid the connecting doors closed, shutting out the chatter and bustle of the party.
The dark gentleman seemed to relax slightly in the solitude, though he wandered the perimeter of the room with his finger slowly drawing over the rough backs of the thick volumes lining the walls. Marcus slipped into a large chair, crossing his legs and idly watching as his colleague completed his rounds until his nerves were brought to rein.
“I see you have not changed much over the last few years,” Marcus smiled, sipping his brandy.
“On the contrary, quite a bit has changed in your absence,” Kieler corrected. “It’s just the appearances that remain the same.”
Finally at rest, the gentleman slid into the chair opposite the lordling. He crossed his legs rather uncomfortably, revealing hemmed pants slightly too small for his tall frame and a shirt faded from extensive wash and reuse.
How he had managed to blend into the crowd gathered in the main room was more a testament to Kieler’s skill than to his appearance. He had the dark brooding look of the barbarian tribes of his ancestors. His hair was as dark as charcoal and poked unruly from beneath a slightly torn top hat. Matching dark eyes were half-concealed beneath equally dark and shaggy brows. His face showed the shadow of a beard that could never truly be shaved and a few nicks from an old razor’s edge suggesting the man tried, nevertheless.
“I am glad that my family had the presence of mind to invite someone I like to my ball.”
“Well, their disapproval has not changed,” Kieler confessed. “But your estate still proves to be far too simple to penetrate.”
“How delightfully intriguing. May I, perhaps, muse over the method?”
“As you desire, my Lord.”
“Was it forgery? A clever ploy that involved intercepting the delivery of an invitation and mimicking the seal through arcane measures?”
Kieler sighed, his gaze drifting once more to the room’s interior. His eyes were piercingly cold but had a habit of wandering away from things which failed to stimulate his interest.
“Nothing so extravagant.”
“Perhaps, then, some wickedly deceitful glamour to bypass the wards? It would be quite the feat to surpass the skills of old Fraust but something I am sure lays within your calibre.”
“Sorcerers and their spells. Too many think their magicks are infallible and rely too greatly on their esoteric knowledge when vandals more often resort to simpler, mundane means.”
Kieler tapped impatiently against the chair as his eyes settled once more upon his host. There they lingered about his frame before returning to his face. A passing smile haunted his lips.
“I suppose I should ask about your travels. That would be the polite discourse?”
“I would hate to bore you with the details,” Marcus dismissed. Truth be told, he had received little interest in his wanderings. Once ascertaining his health, his family completely neglected his journey insisting on prattling about their own concerns.
“It would be polite,” Kieler said. “While you may wear the familiar clothes, you are not quite the man I once knew. Your journeys have changed you, for that I can plainly see. There is strength to your character and yet certain trepidation to re-enter the world which you once knew. More remarkable is that your eyes seem brighter.”
“The spark of life has been ignited within yourself. I dare say your very nature has been altered by your experiences. It is quite transparent for those trained in how to look.”
“You do say the most peculiar things.”
“Also, I see that the trip has done your anatomy some good.”
“I know not how I could possibly relate the experiences I have gained,” the lordling said looking wistfully into his glass. Within the soft red spirit floated vision of the distant mystical lands.
But faced with actually speaking of his trip, he was at a sudden loss of words.
“I have felt the very measure of my worth tested beneath the harrowing breath of terrible storms. I have climbed mountains that seemed to anchor the very sky. I have stared in the eye creatures so alien as to be rendered from a madman’s ravings. I have touched the clouds, kissed the ocean and slept within the very bosom of the earth herself!”
“And you have returned.”
“And I have returned.” He made no effort to hide his resignation. The sorcerers say that the purview of the mystical experience lies in the few blessed souls born with the talent. However, Marcus swore that he had touched the power Kieler held in his own travels. There was a very special magick he experienced that could never be replicated in this city of smoke and steel.
“Tell me, old friend, how has the city treated you in my absence? Has any excitement occurred since my departure?”
“You have not missed much,” Kieler sighed. “The city continues to breathe its black breath. I am not good with gossip, you’d be better talking to one of those prettied ladies you so despise.”
“That life is my parent’s desire,” Marcus said. “Tonight, I am Lord Marcianus Pallero ha Romonte. But I know not how my family can expect me to return to that when I have been Marcus for over two years.”
“The trappings of the noble are easily re-adorned,” Kieler said. “Much like putting on an old housecoat, I imagine.”
“Exactly. It is a trap. If I had my heart’s desire, I would still be out in those wilds.”
“Might as well try catching lightning with your hands,” Kieler quoted. “But do you not fear the dangers of the wilderness? It is said that once man is freed from responsibility he descends to the level of his darker urges.”
“I feel that the darker urges are here in the city,” Marcus said. “I felt I belonged more out there in those strange lands than I do in the comfort of my own home.”
“That is just Marcus speaking. I’ve already seen the old Lord Marcianus tonight.”
“If only we could trade places. You could be the lavished lordling and I the mysterious gentleman.”
“You would not wish to trade,” Kieler smiled. “Then you would have to forsake Isabella.”
Marcus’ smile was sheepish. Of course his friend had seen him with her. It was always his way to know his most intimate thoughts. It was what endeared Marcus to the young man.
“Well, there must be something you can tell me about what has transpired. What keeps you busy these days?”
“Nothing. Thyre persists, much as it had when you left. You can see for yourself the idle fancies one must partake to avoid the constant weight of the city. The poor busy themselves with the rich and the rich busy themselves with the poor.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Crime. It is all that ever seems to amuse the aristocracy – the savage heart of man and all that.”
“And what about the rich’s interest catches yours?”
“Their interests often become mine,” Kieler said, uncomfortably straightening his jacket.
“Recently? Burglary. There has been a string of silver thefts from estates all across town. All wonder the identity of the daring rogue and what is being done with their cutlery.”
“Theft seems rather petty,” Marcus frowned. “Such a pedestrian occurrence hardly seems worthy of attention.”
“It was mostly unremarkable until the ha Valrontes lost most of their family heirlooms one night. It has been quite the scandal since. The constabulary has been unable to track down even a single missing earring.”
“Likely it is being smuggled through the slums,” Marcus mused. “Guards rarely go through there and would it not be too troubling to stow it through the storm sewers to the docks?”
“That’s what I first imagined too,” Kieler laughed.
“Then the police should place a few constables by the grates. Surely even the gangs would leave them alone if they were there in large enough force.”
“They did. Canvassed the entire area with three patrols and found not even the slightest indication that anyone had passed.”
“Did they consult a sorcerer?”
“Dorsche Gereau. He could find no trace of the missing silver. Considering the ridiculous legend of that element’s association with certain forbidden practices, the University was quite eager to work with the constabulary. There was not even a mote of an incantation to be found.”
“So, either the culprits are very good or the docks are not their route of transportation.”
“And therein lies the mystery,” Kieler said. “No one knows where the silver is going. It’s become quite the obsession. Many speculate but more are concerned about their own property. If the ha Valrontes could be victims…”
“Then anyone can,” Marcus finished. “Well, the ha Romontes have not been struck. I doubt mother would hold this lavish gathering if she were concerned about her pearls. And even the pickpockets of Kulkattu could not get a single coin from me. There is no method by which our household could be penetrated by these burglars.”
“If only confidence itself could be used as a ward,” Kieler laughed.
“You think our defences could be breached?”
“I broke into your ball.”
“But you did not steal our jewels. Besides, a sorcerer of your skill would hardly pass beneath the constables’ attention. Even if Fraust failed to catch you, certainly someone else would notice your passing.”
“So, the best burglar is one that knows his victims?”
“To a point,” Marcus said. “Be too familiar and you are likely to be a suspect. Should something be reported missing, surely your… upbringing would be noted by the authorities.”
“You think it impossible for me to go unnoticed?”
“Well, you are familiar with our staff. Certainly that grants you some favour once you breach the grounds. In fact, you could possibly walk in as simple a guise as a servant until you passed the guards and gain entry through any number of the below-stairs entrances without being stopped.”
Marcus shook his head.
“That is it then, your mysterious method?”
“I said it was nothing too extravagant,” Kieler smiled. “However, if we take this lesson to heart, one must appear familiar without actually being intimate in order to gain entry.”
“Precisely. It is only of the serving men one needs to be wary. They have eyes and ears like the rest of us, and while their employers typically pay them no mind, the constabulary turns to them first. Most of my staff know you as a friend and would be unlikely to stop you. Failure to garner their attention, though, and you would have free reign to pilfer whatever riches you wanted.”
“Then you have the matter of procuring the objects and getting them to a seller, for what is a heist if not a means to greater wealth?”
“Except the more people you involve, the greater the chance of apprehension,” Marcus said, leaning back in his chair. “Theft is such a lowly form of crime with base desires behind it. Were there no element of mystery to these heists, they would not attract the attention they do.”
“It is the want of idle minds to light upon the current enigmas of the collective consciousness.”
“But the only appeal of the mystery is the unknown. Once the method is discovered, the allure vanishes like so much smoke and fog. Do you not feel the same?”
“I find theft rather uninteresting,” Kieler said. He stood and moved towards the door.
“And what is it that grabs the great mind of Kieler Dietrich? What perfect crime would impress upon his immeasurable skill?”
And with that, the gentleman slipped from the study and vanished. Marcus looked at his glass, the red liquid seeming thicker than before.
A rap at the door drew his attention and he turned to find the wizened face of Fraust.
“At last, young master, I have found you.”
Drastian Fraust had served the ha Romonte family for as long as Marcus could remember. He had dressed for the evening, the formal suit looking quite stiff and out of character on the man.
“Is there with something I can assist you?”
“I’m afraid that there’s been some meddling with the manse’s wards. I have not been able to find your father to inform him. If I may, I must borrow you for a moment to bolster the incantation.”
“No need to fret, I have just spoken with Kieler. I am sure it was his doing.”
Fraust frowned at the younger sorcerer’s name but he merely shook his head.
“It… interests me to know that your friend is here tonight. Though, this is unlikely his doing. The tampering was rather crudely performed, something that even your friend is not apt to do.”
“Very well,” Marcus said, standing. “I am certain there is nothing wrong.”
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