(Three years ago...)
The gallery is unlit, and the darkness soothes like cool fingers across the eyelids.
The music is muffled, four stone walls away, but still the occasional shriek of violins reaches him through the masonry. A strident laugh, the ring of champagne glasses kissing a toast. Outside in a dimly lit hallway, the wheels squeak on the caterer?s trolley and the staff talk in urgent whispers like unsettled ghosts.
He?s sure there are plenty of ghosts in the home of Sidonie Dagenais.
The Governor of the Dacian province, Theodore Gruzinsky, is visiting for the first time in three centuries, and the coffers have been raided to fund a gathering of such lavish extravagance that half the city of Quel?sin might have been fed for a year on the expense. Instead the gluttonous feed.
The maraska and the rakia flow, famed vintage wines from the Caucasus Mountains have been brought out from the dusty cellars, and the guests pluck dainty appetisers embellished with gold leaf and white truffle from the trays of dignified staff under strict instructions to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.
The entirety of the High Council in-situ in the capital have turned up for the event, and there is nowhere to look without being dazzled. Refracted light catches brilliantly on flawless diamonds draped artfully over collar bones, it winks on the colossal chandeliers, and the mirror-gleam of the floors reflects it all faithfully until the lambency of it burns itself into the retinas.
Kasimir has weathered it with impeccable savoir-faire, as polished in manners as appearance, and he is not unaware of the effect his finely honed charisma has where he chooses to wield it, as sure a weapon as any.
His pocket is stiff with the embossed cards surreptitious fingers have slipped there.
Of course, he is on assignment, which might severely inconvenience his chances of any sexual engagements this evening if it hadn?t been considered an acceptable means of accomplishing his goals. It?s distinctly seedy, and he is not unaware of the implications, what he is for plying the crafts of seduction, but it is rarely a part of the job he doesn?t enjoy, and there are so many things far worse to weigh him down in guilt that he dismisses it entirely.
He has excused himself from the elite to catch his breath, to consider his strategy, but instead he finds himself staring up at the vast oil painting situated opposite his bench.
Malide Dhavernas stares down at him from eight feet up. She has the soft, down-tilted eyes and the small solemn mouth of a Toreli masterpiece, the lustrous, dark hair parted in a saintly fashion, her brows thick and straight. She is a blank he cannot read. She is the matriarch of the bloodline he means to topple.
The artist has captured her faithfully, strong boned but not beautiful, regal in the way that only five centuries of sitting the throne can instil. It is hard to imagine the young woman portrayed as being responsible for The Purge, the mass execution of her opposition, and of anyone suspected of harbouring those involved (proven or otherwise). But he remembers the grainy footage from fifty years prior, the public declaration condemning the would-be usurpers, criminalising so much as a murmur of dissent.
Were Kasimir found out, he would face the same grisly execution. He can imagine Sidonie taking a front row seat to watch him burn.
His thoughts are interrupted by the gallery door opening, spilling a shaft of amber light towards his feet. The roar of the orchestra clarifies for a heartbeat before it clicks closed again.
It?s unusual for his quarry to come looking for him, but he?s an accomplished enough liar to gloss over his surprise with a smile. He has his excuse in one hand, the cell phone he?ll claim he was handling business on. He is never unprepared.
?Mr. Aslanov,? she begins, settling beside him on the bench.
?Kasimir,? he corrects her, and adapts his body language, invites her attention without adopting any louche impropriety.
Theodore Gruzinsky?s daughter is no simpering child he can seduce with flattery and unchaste glances. She is Methuselah, and can boast the better part of one hundred years. This evening she is twenty, flesh tight and supple, her gown a boldly risqu? cut in the red of crushed pomegranates.
He doesn?t prevent her from taking his phone, from setting it on the bench beside her where he cannot reclaim it without having to reach across, indecently close. His emptied palm she fills with her own hand.
?You?ve been so attentive all evening, and now I find you sitting in the dark. What would Ms. Dagenais think, to find you avoiding her guests??
?Or to find her guests drifting about unescorted off-limits,? he counters, skimming a touch across her knuckles with his thumb.
He suspects he?s being approached with a proposition. She has lived long enough not to be coy about her desires, the chase is nothing novel. Still, he needs her in his confidence, not burning out her curiosity for him in a single, sweat-slick evening. Internal affairs wants the Gruzinsky family probing, and the revolutionaries want them courting for the same reasons.
The Dacian Governor is under suspicion of being sympathetic to the opposition. His ?visit? to the capital is not of his own devising, but a command from Malide Dhavernas herself.
?I?d think she?d be more concerned about the venality of staff willing to whisper the location of stray Aspirants,? Ms. Gruzinsky ? no Mariam, he reminds himself ? tells him.
?Perhaps she should consider raising their income,? he suggests, laying the bait.
To imply that his sponsor was staffing her home with underpaid workers was entirely unprofessional, even if he did say it in jest. The Methuselah regime and all those they sought to elevate should not interest themselves in the well-being of the mundane flock. It was worse than military officers dining with the grunts. Still, should she chastise him for it he has the excuse of too much broskvovice in his system. He?ll make light of it.
Her hesitation is, he thinks, almost as measured as his own behaviour. No condemnation, only a painted smile.
?My father and I will be staying until the end of the month, Kasimir, and I have not visited Quel?sin since I was a child. He will be occupied with diplomatic matters while the rest of us entertain the parade of wives and grasping underlings hoping to stretch their reach to Dacia.?
?Charming people,? he deadpans, and takes pleasure in noting the clench of her perfect teeth as she smiles. ?But it would be a wasted opportunity not to see the sights and enjoy the city.?
?Precisely my thoughts, though it would be so much more enlightening to do so in the company of someone who knows all the best places to visit. Someone, perhaps, who was once an outsider too for the sake of perspective??
He realises then that he isn?t the only one who?s done their research.
There is entirely no reason for a Governor?s daughter to know the particulars of each Aspirant, and his provenance would have been a natural deterrent to most.
Bastard born son of a run-away Methuselah.
His mother?s whereabouts, still unknown after twenty-six years, were one of a great many mysteries he hoped to unearth if the rebellion ever gained enough momentum. It is his onus, they tell him.
It seems judicious for the moment to tread lightly.
?I believe I may know someone who meets your requirements,? he tells her, masking all traces of unease behind a veneer of faux-conceit.
Mariam hums a pleased sound and releases his hand with a long-fingered squeeze. Her eyes light upon the image of Malide looming over them. ?How benign she looks.?
How benign, this young woman whose hands are bloodier than those of all the world?s armies.
?You don?t hold an empire by being benign,? he remarks blandly, and slides his phone back into his pocket as she rises to drift away across the darkened gallery.
?They have you well trained,? she tells him as she slips out.
And whether the lingering look is an intimation that she knows, or that she truly believes him a model Aspirant, he still isn?t sure.