Author: Ginn Hale
Characters: Belimai Sykes & William Harper
Miss Sophia Venet, Squire Marcy’s fiancé and the only child of the indulgent old Baronet of Lindmead, possessed the dark-haired and doe-eyed beauty that made her strongly resembled Harper’s sister Joan –at least in body, though certainly not in fiery temperament. I found Miss Venet pretty enough and quick witted, if in the naïve manner of a girl who’d never known any form of hardship or hunger. But after making conversation with her on the subject of the city fashion of lace conversation fans and then listening to her ponder deeply upon the plight of the poor Prodigals of Hells Below–who hadn’t the means to purchase such crucial fans—I felt that I’d rather spend a few hours batting myself about the head and face with a wine bottle than have to endure anymore of her deeply sincere and utterly ignorant opinions of how “my people” might be improved.
To her credit she had not been afraid to dance with me and she played a mean hand of loo. And Harper liked Miss Venet; he enjoyed the company of women in general and obviously missed light-hearted female conversation since he’d lost his sister. If he’d been another man I had no doubt that he might have married a woman much like Miss Venet.
The idea did nothing to endear her to me, of course.
“That doesn’t explain why I’m attending,” I pointed out.
Harper offered me one of his charming smiles.
“Because you are a delight even in the company of dullards,” Harper said. “And I will most certainly be in your debt afterward.”
“You will be.” I grinned thinking of our hours together after the ball up in Harper’s bed. “I’d best get changed into my best for the ball, then.”
Squire Marcy’s huge white country house sprawled across the rain-dark hills like a treasury of imported marble palaces dropped in a heap from the heavens.
Perhaps living so long in an austere fortress had skewed my senses but everything about the place struck me as so ostentatious as to border upon parody. From the rows upon rows of decorative columns nearly filling up the entry, to the imposing row of marble busts in the ballroom and the tangles of crystal chandeliers jostling for every inch of space on the ceiling, the grand displays of wealth left scant room for the crowds of guests meant to admire them all.
And the number of servants hired on for the evening seemed to nearly outnumber the guests. Half a dozen footmen jostled to take Harper’s greatcoat. I handed mine over to a fellow who looked miserable in his fancy dress of yellow stockings and satin breeches and yellow livery adorned with white embroidered M’s—for lack of any heraldry. The sight of my glossy black fingernails seemed to startle him out of his funk.
I hoped he wouldn’t burn my coat before I could retrieve it.
Harper and I were announced by another footman, Harper as William Harper, Lord Foster and me as Mr. Belimai Sykes. Harper marched like a proper soldier to greet our hostess and I followed him like a sullen youth, shoving my hands into my pockets to belatedly fish out my gloves. Even I knew better than to offer a lady my bare hand.
It was then that I noticed the small glass vial in the pocket of my waistcoat. I nearly drew it out, but then I took in the sidelong glances and stares of the formally dressed guests already gathered under the wax-dripping chandeliers. They were all much too interested in me, in a manner that seemed to harken back to the very first days that Harper had presented me—a Prodigal descended from devils—as his guest, favored artist, and friend.
But now these people had known me nearly five years. Generally my presence among them passed without response beyond a few sour looks. If anything, the gentry of the county tried their best to largely ignore my existence all together.
So, having several plump well dressed gentlemen and their silk gowned wives watch me pass them as if I were an exotic fruit did not put me at ease. Certainly I wasn’t about to draw out the vial—as I had just recollected what it was and why it was in my pocket.
Hugh Browning had given me a dram of our floating potion in case the occasion should arise for me to spike the squire’s punch. Hugh had felt that having the big blond squire float up into the fiery mass of his chandeliers would be a great laugh. And I agreed but once I’d sobered up I’d quickly realized that the potion would obviously be traced back to me.
So I’d pocketed it and forgotten about it.
Now all at once a dread gripped me that somehow word had gotten out about Hugh Browning’s and my drunken and highly illegal little dabble at brewing up devil potions. A conviction could get Hugh deported and me hanged. I wanted to hurl the vial from me but wasn’t such a fool as to think that would go unnoticed. Nothing for it but to put on a bored expression and trail Harper’s straight, broad back deeper into this den of blazing candlelight and judgmental gawkers.
The crowd parted before Harper, revealing Squire Marcy, encircled by his relations and most prestigious guests. I recognized Marcy’s mother, Eugenie, as the sallow face engulfed in a hurricane of black lace, ebony silk, polished jet, and black pearls. Her water-pale eyes wandered the room searching for a dose of poppy-tonic or patent medicine. What sympathy I had initially felt for her intense mourning had dissipated when Hugh Browning informed me that her husband hadn’t died in a tragic dairy accident twelve years ago but had simply run off to the colonies with happy, fat milk-maid.
While Harper accepted the would-be widow’s extended hand and thanked her for the courtesy of her lovely home, I took in the rest of Squire Marcy’s party. There was Charles Marcy himself—young, blond, soft around the middle and corseted so tightly into his brocade casings that he looked like a costly sausage on the verge of bursting. On his left, his wan, willowy sister Camilla chatted with the blithe abandon of a child, unused to being heard or understood. Though she so often struck a subject of subtle cruelty in her seemingly guileless babble that I had grown to suspect her of making a determined study of her stupidity. Even honing it to a weapon.
At the moment, the victim of her chirpy observations was none other than the lovely Miss Sophia Venet. She managed a pained smile as Camilla recounted her embarrassing childhood pre-occupation with Hugh Browning to the amusement of several very well dressed city gentlemen. Miss Venet colored to nearly the shade of her pink satin gown as Camilla described how she’d ruined her best Sunday dress and accidently bared her naked bottom while attempting to aid young Hugh in driving a flock of sheep out of a wheat field.
“She was ever so darling, really.” Miss Marcy giggled. “Dashing through the mud with no idea that she’d torn open the entire back of her dress! Oh the way she trailed the Foster groundskeeper was just like one of his puppies! I daresay, Sophia. You didn’t think you were a puppy did you?”
“Yes indeed, Miss Marcy.” Miss Venet smiled but I thought that if she could have gotten away with it she might have stuck a hatpin through Camilla Marcy’s throat. “If fate had been so capricious as to grant my childish aspirations I assure you, I would now be far away baying after game.”
Two of the gentlemen standing beside the women made noises assuring Miss Venet that she was far better suited to the life of a lady than a bitch—thought not in those words—while Miss Venet herself maintained her smile and stared hard at Harper’s handsome, tan profile. Camilla Marcy too seemed to notice the direction of Miss Venet’s attention. Being more practiced in deception, I maintained my studied expression of tedium while observing how both the young women’s feelings illuminated their faces.
Miss Venet gazed at Harper with a joy that I understood all too well and had grown used to seeing Harper inspire in others—both men and women. Miss Marcy regarded Miss Venet like a rat she wished to crush beneath her heel.
Then suddenly my observations were interrupted as a tall man darted forward and caught my gloved hand in his own.
Ginn Hale resides in the Pacific Northwest with her wife and two cats. She spends many of the rainy days tinkering with devices and words and can often be sighted herding other people’s dogs, bees and goats. Her novel Wicked Gentlemen won the Spectrum Award for Best Novel and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.