Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, shining in powder-blue silk, hears with satisfaction the graceful sound of her own laughter pealing through the ballroom like cool rain falling on crystal bells. If everything were falling to wrack and ruin around her she would nonetheless laugh in just this particular, melodious way, simply to keep up appearances, but in this case she is expressing what she genuinely feels. For Karleigh is not here.
The Duke of Karleigh has not come to the ball!
So light is her heart that, if she were a different sort of woman, she would execute a twirl.
A very different sort of woman.
Lord Valerian Lindley steps over to her, a splendid concoction of self-confidence and green brocade. He deposits his plate on the table beside a magnificent pile of bright silver spoons. The plate is heaped with the tiny curved necks and heads of pastry swans, which he proceeds to nibble one by one.
“Why, Valerian, can it be that my little swan pastries have found favor with your discerning tastes?”
He gives her a lazy smile. There is pastry cream in the corner of his mouth. “Yes, Madam Duchess. But how could they not? One does so enjoy disjointing swans, even the flour and cream ones.”
“Then keep eating, please, as many as you like. I’m sure dear Nicholas is too busy these days with Council matters for the possible results of your pastry consumption to bother him.” There. An instant too long to return her smile. She has struck home. He will think twice next time he wishes to comment on her gown in the manner he did at Lady Galing’s party earlier in the season.
Over his shoulder, she sees the Dragon Chancellor attempting to keep the corners of his mouth from rising, and she floats over to him. “Gregory!” She has forgotten how very handsome he is, with his deep green eyes and the dun hair falling over his brow. “Why have you not asked to lead me in the dance yet this evening?”
“Because,” says Lord Davenant with a short bow, “I’m quite certain your beauty would cause me to stumble from inattention and tread on your foot, at which point I would have to hurl myself into the river in despair.”
She places a hand on his arm. “I dare say I would be so distracted by the perfection of your features I would fail to notice.” She is not entirely dissembling. Her hand is still on his arm.
This ball, upon which so very much depends, is proving a stunning success. Very little holds the nobility’s attention like the glittering of jewels in candlelight as the women on whose necks and wrists they hang spin in the dance, the strains of the violins wafting above the crowd, adorning the air with exquisite melody, the heat and crush of the City’s finest aristocracy drinking and eating and dancing and fanning and, above all else, whispering about each other. The smoke and mirrors with which she has given the proceedings the appearance of a luxury she cannot afford have aroused none of the comment she has feared they might inspire.
And the Duke of Karleigh, thank the good gods, is at home with a head cold.
Meanwhile, another much-desired guest is making his presence known. The head of the Balam Trading family has come after all, along with many of his colorful compatriots. She wasn’t at all sure he’d accept her invitation; it wasn’t as though any of these foreigners ever socialized on the Hill. But he has accepted both the invitation and the challenge, and seems to be enjoying both equally.
“Duchess,” says Master Ahchuleb Balam, arriving at her side and bowing with exactly the correct degree of deference, “may I congratulate you on a spectacular evening?”
“Why, sir, if the evening is indeed a spectacular one—an assertion whose merit I am of course in no position to evaluate—then it is due entirely to your presence and that of your people.” And to the absence of the Duke of Karleigh.
Diane glows with pleasure in the light of the flames flickering around them as they exchange increasingly intricate flatteries. Finally come the words she has been so desperate to hear from him: “The manner in which I have heard my Kinwiinik colleagues remark upon your hospitality suggests to me that, when I broach the matter to them again, I will find them eager to accept your proposal.”
Diane smiles. “I leave the matter, sir, entirely in your hands. A letter from you would be a delight no matter what news it bore.”
She does not mention the fact that moments earlier she heard Lord Galing say that, having met and been thoroughly charmed by the Kinwiinik here—so picturesque!—he’s beginning to suspect the chocolate import tariffs might be the slightest bit excessive; by the end of the evening she will have no trouble persuading him to lower them. She feels as if a great weight, a dark mass of onyx that has lain heavy upon her for months, were disintegrating into so much dandelion seed and scattering on a refreshing breeze. She has dealt with the terrible threat posed by her disgusting, chiseling visitor of two weeks...