As everybody knows, all balls are delightful; and a ball held at no lesser accommodation than Meridell Castle must naturally be a thousand times as delightful as any other. That, dear reader, is mere common sense: and so I am sure you will not be astonished to hear that the current ball was absolutely enchanting in every way.
The ladies were most elegantly dressed, and the music very good; and no ball in the world was ever spoiled by such personages as His Majesty King Skarl and his champion Sir Jeran Borodere. It was, all in all, so very exquisite a ball that I am afraid Lady Lisha Borodere’s behavior, had anybody had the liberty or the inclination to scrutinize it, would have been found sadly shocking; for she was not nearly so interested in the dancing, or the society, or the dresses, as she was in the rational conversation of her companion.
And who was this lady so very captivating as to distract Lady Borodere’s attention from such critical details, though they had not been acquainted three weeks? She was Miss Nicole Colton, a rather pretty young pink Acara with engaging starry blue eyes, the sister of Lord Archer Colton; she was mild-mannered, amusing, and unaffected. Like all other ladies of faultless family, Miss Colton was extraordinarily accomplished. She drew, sang, and played upon the pianoforte. But Miss Colton was something more – she was clever. She had read books, and formed opinions on them; she judged the merit of others not by their dresses, but by their characters; - in short, she had that elegance of mind which is so rarely found and goes so generally unappreciated in a young lady of fashion.
She and Lisha stood some way apart from the crowd, sipping cool glasses of punch and chatting amiably. As a rule Lisha did not attend balls, for she considered them both uncomfortable and insipid; and so it was to her great surprise that she found herself enjoying this one to a tolerable extent.
“I am so very glad you are here, Miss Colton,” she told her companion frankly. “Remind me to thank Lockwood for introducing us. Really I hardly think I would have come without you, or at least I would only have lasted five minutes, Easter Ball or no Easter Ball!”
Miss Colton smiled. “I see that Sir Jeran is bearing up with similar fortitude. That is good of him – he has no such obliging consort as me, you see, to aid him in his struggles.”
There was no doubt at all that Sir Jeran regarded balls with nearly as much distaste as did his sister. He was, however, as Miss Colton had been kind enough to notice, steadfastly attempting to be amused.
Lord Colton, a dashing blue Lutari and a nobleman of some fortune, had been an instant success among the members of Meridell’s court, and anyone would have supposed that he was entirely pleased. He had danced for hours and met many rich and beautiful ladies. He had conversed with two earls, a duke, and countless viscounts and baronets. Indeed it seemed that he ought to have been quite elated; but as he rejoined his sister, he wore an expression of moderate irritation.
“I see you have been using your time wisely, Archer,” Miss Colton remarked. “Is there anybody here whom you have not talked to?”
“Oh! not a great many, I should imagine,” he replied unenthusiastically, serving himself a glass of punch. “But I see that I am only to be second best wherever I go.”
Miss Colton, who was quite well acquainted with her brother, did not appear overly perturbed by this announcement. “That is a great pity! How very trying!”
“Everybody is so amazingly important here that one is absolutely brushed aside – a mere no one, not worth five words. I had expected more from the Castle – it does not suit my tastes at all. I do not see what is so particularly wonderful about the Castle.”
His sister, realizing that he had sources of vexation which must remain for the present unstated, spared him only a sympathetic glance; she was being urged to entertain at the pianoforte. She protested most heartily that her playing was the worst in the world, and quite as enthusiastically her companions assured her that it was the most divine. The final result was that, without overmuch protest, Miss Colton was seated and began to play, having determined to leave it to the ears of her listeners whether it were appalling or exquisite.
“You play extremely well, Miss Colton,” remarked Sir Darrow, a kindly, middle-aged shadow Yurble who had until recently been a royal knight.
“I hope I play tolerably. I certainly ought to, for I have devoted enough time to it – practice, constant practice, is the key.”
“You make it look very easy!” said Lisha admiringly; she had no musical talent herself, but knew how to value it in those who did. After a moment, spying an old friend from Brightvale, the sorceress made her excuses and went to greet him.
“So you are acquainted with Mr. Lockwood, are you?” Sir Darrow inquired of Miss Colton.
“Oh, yes, certainly; we have been acquainted for some time, you know. Lord Colton’s seat in the country is very close to his.”
“We are all somewhat in awe of Mr. Lockwood,” said Lord Fenton with a laugh. “He is a very handsome fellow, is he not?”
“I suppose one might say so,” the Acara replied coolly.
“Come, that is inadequate praise!” interjected Lady Hamilton. “There is nobody whom Mr. Lockwood’s countenance does not please.”
“And therein lies his fault,” said Miss Colton with a smile, as her fingers moved deftly over the instrument. “There must surely be something lacking in a look so universally pleasing as his, for as we all know nothing really valuable suits everybody.”
“Truly?” exclaimed Sir Darrow. “Upon my word, you uphold your own assertion – you are remarkably difficult to please! And what would you say is lacking?”
“I will not say that his face lacks character, but it is too classic – too flawless in feature for my taste. There is nothing passionate or exotic in Mr. Lockwood’s countenance, on the contrary there is a sort of pervading coldness and a certain sarcastic amusement which, though charming in their way, do not form my idea of perfect masculine beauty.”
“Well, Miss Colton, you baffle me. I protest you baffle me. Ah! Here is Lockwood now; we will see what he has to say for himself. Mr. Lockwood, your pretty friend has been abusing you soundly for the past quarter of an hour.”
Mr. Lockwood had indeed approached, and his countenance, cold and sarcastic as Miss Colton might find it, threatened very seriously to disprove her argument. There was no doubt that he was, in the conventional sense, an extremely handsome shadow Gelert, notwithstanding a rather unattractive scar on the side of his face. At the moment, flawlessly attired and elegantly amused, he provided a much more able defense for his looks than anything his supporters had yet offered. “Has she?” he answered amiably. “You had better tell me nothing about it, for I am far too vain to enjoy being found fault with. Direct your complaints to Lisha, Miss Colton, and if she has not made them already I will consider you quite original.”
“He is lying,” Miss Colton said sweetly. “He has never in the least minded being found fault with. You are far too conceited to care, Mr. Lockwood.”
“I am pleased to hear of an advantage in being conceited,” he replied, “for I do so love to be practical.”
“Another shameless falsehood! I know of nobody less so.”
“What’s this?” cried Sir Darrow, ending their brief repartee. “You declare yourself dissatisfied with Lockwood’s appearance, and now you attack his character?”
“Indeed, sir, if I can find fault with his appearance it must be no small wonder that I can challenge his character.”
Lisha, who had only just returned, heard this with no small degree of amusement; though she could not agree with Miss Colton’s assessment of his looks, she was quite as inclined herself to frequent criticism of his disposition.
Lockwood, for his part, smiled lazily and offered Miss Colton a glass of punch. “I am most heartily sorry you do not think me handsome, for I think you are uncommonly pretty.”
“You mistake me,” Miss Colton replied archly. “I think you very handsome. I only add that you are not my ideal, and that I have seen handsomer.”
There was something rather cool in her manner, which puzzled Lisha exceedingly; she had known Miss Colton for some weeks now and had never observed any but the most cordial relations between them. Feeling that this subject of conversation was now at an end, she inquired as to when Lockwood and Miss Colton had first met.
“Not five years ago,” was Miss Colton’s answer, “for my family lived in the capital until very lately. Upon arriving in Knightfield it was of course quite necessary to pay our respects to the Lockwoods, and so we met.”
“And you were immediately good friends, I suppose?” Lady Hamilton suggested with a sly, meaningful glance at the young lady.
“Oh no! I did not like Mr. Lockwood very much upon first acquaintance; but I am sorry to say that, so fickle was I, ten minutes’ conversation was sufficient to win me over.”
“Is that so?” Lady Hamilton exclaimed. “Your objections cannot have been anything very serious.”
“No,” Miss Colton agreed quite composedly, “I do not imagine they were. Self-importance is rendered inoffensive, you know, by a really good sense of humor; conceit is similarly ameliorated by good temper.”
Lisha could only imagine that Miss Colton was in a very peculiar mood, or that Lockwood had in some way contrived to offend her. The exchange appeared perfectly amiable, and Lockwood certainly was not perturbed, but nevertheless she felt somewhat discomposed by such relentless and unwarranted abuse. It was not like her friend to offend, even in jest. To add to her discomfort, she decided that Lockwood and Nicole Colton must know one another better than she had initially suspected; for all Lockwood’s charming witticisms and unfailingly good temper, there was something inherently repellent in his manner which prevented any appearance of familiarity in the absence of true acquaintance – Lisha did not think that she herself would have dared to address him so unapologetically, in public, without the aid of a passionate fit of rage.
Their little party, however, was beginning to break up quite naturally, and Lisha soon found herself alone once again with Miss Colton, who had by now exhausted her ardor for the pianoforte and dancing alike.
“I think after all you have the truth of it, Lisha,” the Acara declared; – “there is nothing in the world so tiresome as a ball. Now, do not laugh at me, for I know that three hours ago there was nothing more delightful; but you know nothing of inconsistency yourself, you cannot understand it!”
“I am always able to understand finding a ball tiresome,” Lisha replied with a grin.
“I am sure I should say something terribly witty to that, but I know not what; perhaps Mr. Lockwood could help... Oh!” she exclaimed. “All men are exactly the same – without them I believe everything would improve tenfold.”
Lisha could not understand her friend’s odd humor, nor follow her conversation; she did not know what Miss Colton meant, and suspected that she was not really intended to. Instead she attempted to divert their conversation with mention of music, then of books; but somehow nothing quite succeeded, though Miss Colton was so very agreeable that Lisha could not help wondering if the fault lay somehow with her.
“Ah, there is Archer!” Miss Colton exclaimed presently. “Just over there – he looks rather in need of a cheering word – you will not think I am deserting you, if I leave you for just a moment?”
“Oh! Of course not!”
Miss Colton gave Lisha a grateful smile, too composed to betray her distraction any more than she already had, and moved gracefully across the ballroom to her brother. The Lutari looked more irritated than ever, and he began to speak without ceremony as she approached. “I have been signaling to you this half hour at least – I really think you might have done me the courtesy of coming over here much sooner.”
“It has been a great deal closer to five minutes than half an hour, and now that I have done you the courtesy you will perhaps tell me what you want.”
“Well, how is it going?” he demanded.
Nicole turned her head briefly to ensure that they were not being overhead. “You know perfectly well that I cannot answer that question.”
“Judging by what I have heard, you have a singularly odd way of going about it.”
“What way I go about it is, I believe, for me to determine and you to accept.”
“Bad enough if you succeed!” escaped from Lord Colton. “Oh! Fyora! what am I meant to do?”
“For the present, keep your voice down,” his sister replied dispassionately. “I despise men who waver. Be honorable – or be comfortable – but for goodness’ sake, now that you have decided to sacrifice your pride, sacrifice it with a little conviction!”
Lord Colton’s eyes were fixed, however, on Mr. Lockwood, who was engaged in a game of cards on the other side of the room. “What a shame that such a worthless individual should be so disgustingly rich!” he breathed.
“For nine tenths of your acquaintance, you knew of nobody more charming,” Miss Colton said scathingly.
He hesitated for a moment. “This is for your benefit as well as mine, sister.”
“I know it is. Now, we had better separate. Nothing could be stranger or more shocking than spending time at a ball in intimate conversation with one’s sibling – and I have left Lisha quite hanging.”
As they parted ways, Miss Colton reflected, with a touch of silent satisfaction, that she perhaps might have other ways of achieving her aims, which did not include Archer at all, if she so chose; but this was not the time for these thoughts and she settled into a game of Cheat with Lisha. Lisha asked anxiously if she would not rather dance, and Miss Colton assured her that she infinitely preferred cards; and if her eyes strayed over to Mr. Lockwood’s table more often than was strictly necessary, nobody knew it but herself.
The charm of the ball had worn off quite some time ago, when Lockwood at last announced that he was retiring for the night. Miss Colton followed him gracefully out; he offered her his arm, and they walked in relative silence to his chambers.
“I suppose you have something to say to me?” he said rather wearily, upon their arrival.
She gave her consent, and was led in. Lockwood’s rooms were surprisingly untidy, particularly based on what his personal appearance might have led her to suspect, and also on her experience of his house – she could only suppose that becoming a sorcerer had altered his domestic habits. Mainly there were books (which she had not expected), coats and cravats (which she had), and an extremely large Snowbunny perched on a table, observing her through blank, staring eyes.
Miss Colton seated herself; Lockwood remained standing absently by the mantelpiece.
“How is your mother?” she asked.
“I am sure you know as well as I do,” he said rather discouragingly. “I have not seen her these two years.”
Miss Colton paused momentarily, and determined to move onto firmer ground. “I suppose I will have more luck inquiring after your dear sister,” she continued with a smile.
“My dear sister is exceedingly well, and sends her best wishes and a most heartfelt entreaty that you will consider an early return to Knightfield.”
His words were perfectly polite, and his earlier behavior had been nothing short of charming; he was certainly as amused and collected as ever; but she now thought or at least imagined that she could detect a hint of cruel sarcasm in his humor. She was, at the very least, quite sure that he knew her purpose and was not particularly disillusioned by it. Even when entirely at his leisure, there was something intimidating about Lockwood; at times like this he struck her as positively threatening, though there was nothing of irritation in his manner. Miss Colton, however, was not without spirit, and prepared to rally hers now.
“I know why you are here,” said Lockwood, not troubling himself to turn around. “I quite admired your display earlier – would you care for a drink?”
“No, thank you. I will not,” she continued, “inquire as to what you mean by my ‘display,’ but you must give me leave to quarrel with your choice of words. I was asked for my honest opinion, and gave it. I am most excessively sorry if it has displeased you.”
“By no means! But I am sorry to hear that you were so provoked. Nothing in the world is more dangerous than an honest opinion – I would not know yours of me for anything.”
“And pray, Mr. Lockwood, why should you fear my honest opinion?”
“That is for you to tell me; or not, as you choose. However, on one point I own myself curious – do you really believe I will give you what you ask? What is your honest opinion of that?”
Miss Colton hesitated for an instant, calculating what answer might serve her best. “No,” she replied slowly. “No; you do not care enough for people in general, to be generous for your own sake – and you do not care enough for me, to be generous for mine.”
Lockwood abandoned his post by the fireplace to sit across from her, and it was all she could do to avoid looking away. She had not been wrong in her criticisms of his countenance, but for all his coldness, his arrogance, and his satire, he was unignorably, breathtakingly handsome. She cursed herself for her weakness – resolved not to succumb to it – but, however inaccurate a reflection of his personality, his appearance was difficult to overlook.
“Your opinion of my generosity is reassuring,” he said with cruel amusement, “for I take it you will not be disappointed by a refusal.”
“On the contrary, I could not be more so. I depend upon you absolutely, Mr. Lockwood. I throw myself on your mercy as a last resort; and, frankly, I am not sure what I will do if you refuse.”
“How much is it this time?” he inquired unpleasantly, pouring himself a glass of water.
“Archer’s debts are – at least sixty thousand,” Miss Colton replied a little falteringly.
“Ah! Then I see Lord Colton has outdone himself. How clever of him; I was certain he would manage to break fifty thousand sooner or later.”
“You must understand, Mr. Lockwood, that I cannot stop Archer from living beyond his means; and it is my bad fortune that they are my means as well. What can I do?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “What would you do, if you had no conveniently wealthy friend to supply you whenever you ran out?”
“I will tell you; - I would do nothing, and I would talk to nobody, for I am sure nobody would talk to me. The reduction in our style of living would be beyond imagination. The disgrace – I will not tax your imagination, you who have known nothing of disappointment or dependence, but I will request your compassion.”
“A rather useless appeal, by your reckoning,” Lockwood said dryly.
“Nevertheless.” She lowered her voice, staring into the crackling fire. “Please, Lockwood – for me.”
He swirled his water thoughtfully in his glass. “Sixty thousand is a significant sum, even according to my standards.”
“Well,” Miss Colton said with a weak smile, “you are a sorcerer. Surely you can conjure up as much money as you wish?”
“Certainly – if I wish to pay in heaps of gold, wherever I go! I am afraid your solution is not very practical; you display a typical lack of magical understanding. I would have expected better from you.”
“And pray tell me, Mr. Lockwood, what is magic like?”
“Totally unexplainable,” he replied. Quite suddenly his mood seemed to change; he stood, removing his coat. “Now, give me the bill of exchange and I will sign it, on the condition that we may write another also, in your name only.”
Miss Colton hesitated for a moment; and, upon reflection, could find nothing undesirable about acquiring a modest independence for herself, beyond what her parents had given her. She held her breath slightly at seeing the amount he had allotted her, but had the sense to keep silent, and therefore the business was done.
“I had better go,” she said after a moment’s silence. “I will not intrude upon you any longer, and we leave early tomorrow; I will be tired enough as it is.”
“There is never anything quite so supremely pleasing as a visit from Miss Colton,” he replied, opening the door for her exit.
She did not altogether like his tone, and determined to say no more; so, with a brief promise to write, the Acara hurried away down the empty corridors.
Mr. Lockwood, for his part, collapsed into an armchair and arched an eyebrow at Bunny, who only stared back innocently. Lockwood shrugged, yawned, and loosened his cravat. “Leaving tomorrow!” he exclaimed drowsily. “Thank goodness...”