The Whole Idea Was Absurd (2/141)

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Wisteria Vasilver waited in the front parlor for her callers. In the good parlor, with her grandmother’s antemarkavian marbles arranged in the glass-fronted cabinet, with the granite-topped occasional tables and beveled bronze-framed mirror over the mantelpiece, with the couch and wingback chairs with their dust covers removed for once, green-and-gold velvet brocade on display. In the parlor they almost never used because it was too good even for company. Her father paced over the tapestry carpet of the Ascension that ran between the chairs and the couch, his hands clasped behind his back in the way that meant he was nervous and worried, not nervous and excited. Wisteria felt much the same, but she simply sat in the wingback chair nearest the door with her hands clasped in her lap. All her documents were in the leather folder on the end table beside her.

Mr. Brigsley rapped unnecessarily at the door before opening it at her father’s command. “Lord Striker, Count of Anverlee. Lady Striker, Countess of Anverlee. Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt,” the butler announced, with a calculated degree of formality. Wisteria rose as the door opened; her father abandoned his pacing to stand a little ahead of her and greet their guests. She had seen them before, but never in close proximity. The parents were what she had expected: Anverlee County was in the Havenset province of Newlant, and they had the round light-colored eyes, Haventure-pale skin, and narrow prominent noses common to that region. Lord Striker was a tall man, trim despite his years, with a full head of white hair streaked by a few strands of remaining light brown. His wife was short and plump, round face lined and grey hair wrapped in a coil around the crown of her head.

Lord Nikola was … not what she expected. Wisteria had known he was tall, slender, and handsome, with a long ponytail of wavy dark blond hair. But she was not prepared for the feline grace of his stride and bearing, or the way his presence seemed to fill the room, or the way her attention was drawn to him involuntarily, as if there were no one else in the parlor. Or for the intensity of his round blue eyes, gazing at her face as her father presented her. She curtseyed automatically, her mind churning in a useless attempt to interpret his expression. For a moment, she was struck by the fantasy that his focused gaze was for her — not for a prospective fiancee, or a potential mother, or a new acquaintance, or a wealthy heiress, but for herself, Wisteria Vasilver. As if his Blessing could reach out through his gaze alone and touch her soul. She couldn’t breathe.

He bowed in answer to her curtsey, and she forced the preposterous fantasy away. “Please, have a seat,” her father told their guests.

Wisteria lowered herself gratefully back to her chair, forcing her gaze to Lord Striker to avoid staring at his son. Him? Marry him? The whole idea was absurd. Of course it’s absurd, she told herself. Everyone does it anyway. So can I. So can he. We each must marry someone, there is no reason it cannot be one another. She stole another glance at Lord Nikola. He was seated on the couch to the right of his father, opposite Wisteria, with his mother on the other end of the couch. She could tell nothing from his expression, a slight smile that could signify anything — amused, bored, polite, sarcastic, who knew? Everyone in the room but me. His parents were equally undecipherable, naturally. Her father exchanged inconsequential pleasantries with his, while his mother scrutinized Wisteria. Wisteria didn’t bother to study her in return — she’d offend with her stare long before she learned anything useful. Instead, she considered what made Lord Nikola seem so … so present. It wasn’t his clothing, which was elegant but understated and not-quite-current. Eggshell-white cuffs peeked from the edges of a deep blue jacket cut long in back and short in front, spray of lace at the front from a jabot, tan breeches, pale stockings, dark shoes, and ivory gloves: in consideration of his Blessing, no skin was exposed apart from his face. All well-tailored, but the suit was of ivysilk and lacked the subtle gloss of the more expensive angoraflax suits their fathers wore, and it had no fashionable trim or ornate buttons. That would be a signal of some kind, perhaps that Lord Nikola didn’t think she merited dressing up. Or that he disliked ornamentation. Or didn’t want to pay for expensive extras. Or found current styles unappealing. Another signal like the smile, so fraught with possible meanings it might as well be meaningless. Wisteria abandoned the task of solving impossible enigmas on so little information, and waited for tea to be served and conversation to come to a point that might give her some data.