Half a Step Away from Love - Part Two, Chapter Six
The sound of the harpsichord fills the Western Music Hall, squeezes my heart and is not planning to let it go anytime soon. The young prodigy, only twenty years old, passionately plays sonatas of his own composition, bent over the instrument and now and then silently moving his lips. What had happened in the life of this young man for his music to wrench the soul inside out, treating it as ruthlessly as a laundress treats freshly washed clothes while wringing them out?
I sit at the concert, clenching my teeth and feeling the tears welling up in my eyes, on the verge of rolling down my cheeks. I just hope that no one notices. Of course, there are more than enough weeping ladies here; some even sob quietly, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs, and probably would have wept loudly, if etiquette had allowed it. But I do not want to join their ranks. I am one of those people who almost never cry, and do not want to change my reputation because of one sentimental concert.
Perhaps the number of criers is not so great; however, it seems to be tenfold due to the mirrors hanging on the walls. It is a tricky design trend, used frequently in modern palaces. Mirrors are placed facing each other, making the room appear larger. At the same time they create the illusion of an entire mirror gallery. Of course, everything they reflect is also multiplied. The last note dies away, and the composer closes the harpsichord. Although I am cursing my tears to hell and back, I willingly and wholeheartedly join the thunderous applause. The boy certainly deserves a manifestation of gratitude on the part of the audience. He will most certainly greatly benefit from this performance. From this moment on, the doors of the noblest houses of the Duchy will be open to him. I have no doubt that we are witnessing the beginning of a dizzying career. I must hand it to Mireya: she knows how to discover talents and the best way to organize such events.
I blink, trying to get rid of the veil of tears covering my eyes, and move to the side, where I can keep out of everyone’s sight. I should wait until most of the listeners leave the room, and then, too, quietly leave. In the meantime, I can wipe those silly tears and clean up my face.
Damn! I knew it: I have forgotten my handkerchief again. I almost never need them, so I leave the chambers without one. I have to act cautiously, using the back of my hand. I have to admit, the effect is far from the best, and the risk of ruining my makeup is quite high.
“I never thought that you appreciated music so keenly.”
I cannot help myself, but flinch when I hear the mocking voice right behind me.
“It is really strange. I am usually a heartless beast,” I throw over my shoulder, making it clear in this impolite manner that the conversation is over.
“Take my handkerchief.”
Lord Cameron pretends that he did not get my hint. I turn to the Count, but I am in no hurry to take the white handkerchief embroidered with gold which he is currently holding out.
“Lord Cameron, you carry handkerchiefs with you!” Angry that I was caught not in the best shape, I want to taunt him. “Do you have a cold, or are you maybe going through a sentimental period?”
“No, it’s just being surrounded by flocks of romantically inclined young ladies, who might need one,” he immediately parries, not a bit hurt.
“Are you so altruistic then that you literally could not stay away?” I snap, while hinting that the line of action I mentioned was much preferred in this situation.
“What are you talking about? I am no altruist,” responds Estley. “My interest is purely mercantile: I don’t want you to start a flood.”
“Lord Cameron,” until this point I stood half-turned away from him, but now I turn to face him, “But what are you doing at a concert hosted by Lady Mireya? Surely not looking for some sort of spy in the crowd?”
“No. Everything is much more serious. Actually, it’s a secret, but I will tell you.” Estley conspiratorially lowered his voice. “I’m trying to catch a dangerous criminal. A maniacal serial killer. You see, for some reason he came up with this crazy idea, although not without a grain of rationality, that women are the root of all evil. So he kills them, trying to make the world a better place. He catches girls one by one when they are upset after the concert and disoriented, and strangles them. At the moment he is hiding behind the partition.”
I cannot resist and throw a glance at a nearby partition. Estley laughs. I angrily purse my lips.
“Lady Inessa, sometimes an oboe is just an oboe, as a friend of mine says. If I have attended the concert, it only means that I like to listen to music.”
“Well, the concert has ended,” I inform him, ostentatiously turning away.
“The handkerchief, heartless beast!” Lord Cameron mockingly reminds me.
Restraining a growl with difficulty — my eyes are still wet, and my nose probably red and swollen — I turn around again and take the handkerchief.
“Just remind me later to give it back. I’ll probably forget. I always forget such trivial matters.”
I pointedly bring up the handkerchief not to my eyes but to my nose.
“Don’t worry,” Estley says generously. “I have at least a dozen of these. See all these women around us? Almost half of them have the same handkerchief.”
Before I realize that I am being teased, he retires with a curt nod. I finally remain in splendid isolation. However, the need for a handkerchief disappears by itself: my eyes are now completely dry.
The following evening I go to Mireya’s room as soon as I return to the palace. I am in a good mood. On that day I visited David, who of course invited me. I met his mother. We sat at the table, drank some tea, and talked about life. The Baroness struck me as a smart woman, educated, with a strong personality and a pleasant manner. In short, I’ve had quite a nice day.
The complications begin as soon as I approach the chambers. In the hallway I run into Ilona. She firmly takes my hand and quickly leads me to a corner.
“Mireya has a guest,” she says in a low voice.
“The Duke?” I guess.
Who else’s appearance could cause a similar effect?
“Indeed. He has thrown everybody out, says he needs to talk to his sister alone.”
“Where are they?”
“In the small living room.”
We look at one another, nod to each other and head in the opposite direction to that in which I had previously been going. We circle around Mireya’s quarters and enter from the other side, through the servants’ door; then we sneak on tiptoe into a tiny room, from which you see everything going on in the living room.
We are in luck: Mireya did not immediately let in her brother, first cleaning up, preparing to meet him. So by the time we plaster ourselves to the narrow gap, the conversation has just begun.
“To what do I owe this honor, my dear brother?”
We cannot see Mireya from there, but her voice sounds very cold.
“I have come to speak with you, sister.” The Duke’s is even more frigid. “We have to discuss your dowry, among other things.”
I hold my breath, trying to catch every word. Our struggle for Mireya’s dowry had been a success: the King received the letter and unequivocally took the side of the girl. The Duke was left holding the bag. Has he devised a new way to get his hands on the money?
“The recent incident has shown that you cherish this money and firmly intend to use it for its designated purpose.” Conrad continues. “I have decided not to discourage you. Therefore, you shall be married in the near future.”
“What? Asks Mireya incredulously. “Married?”
“Yes, married,” the Duke confirms casually, sitting down. “I have found you the perfect groom. He has accepted my proposal with enthusiasm, so we can consider the matter settled.”
“He has accepted your proposal with enthusiasm?” Mireya repeats angrily. “Well, why don’t you marry him yourself then?”
I nod vigorously, thus expressing full solidarity with Lady Almikonte.
“Why are you so hostile to what I have to say?” the Duke shrugs. “You do not even yet know whom I have chosen you as a husband.”
“You have chosen.” Mireya repeats in a measured manner. “It’s enough.”
“That is just your stubbornness talking.” Conrad shakes his head. “It’s senseless, childish, and goes against your own interests. I’m not even talking about mine. Are you going to listen, or would you prefer the name of the groom to be a surprise at your wedding?”
“It won’t be,” Mireya cuts in. “Because there will be no wedding.”
“There will be,” says the Duke. “I’m tired of your antics, Mireya. God knows, I’ve endured them for a long time. Even in those cases when you have created obstacles for my work, without having the slightest good reason. But my patience is not endless. You’re twenty-six years old; it is the right age to be married. I would even say that in a little while it will be too late. Start an independent life, set up your own home and run it according to your own orders.”
“So that’s how it is,” hisses Mireya. “Well, whom have you picked to make me happy?”
“Now we’re getting down to business. Lord Gustave Dorion, a Marquis, has served for two years at the court of His Majesty, and comes highly recommended.”
“Is that the one who is allegedly coming to visit you tomorrow?” Mireya is outraged at such treachery.”
“Indeed,” confirms the Duke. “And why “allegedly”? He will in truth be my guest. And at the same time your fiancé. One does not negate the other.”
“Go to hell!”
“What is so unacceptable to you already?” Although Mireya’s nature is, perhaps, more explosive, her brother is also starting to become angry. “At least listen to what kind of person he is! You know nothing about him! I, by the way, am not a monster, and have picked a very good match for you.”
“I suppose that he’s a good match for you first and foremost!” Mireya snaps.
“Yes, for me too — so what?” The Duke also raises his voice. “You can have it both ways! So,” he tries to pull himself together and speaks quietly. “Lord Dorion is rich, noble, and relatively young.”
“How old is he?” asks Mireya.
“He’s thirty-six.” Conrad continues, carefully ignoring the snorting of his sister. “As I say, he has done good work at the court. He has an unblemished reputation. He doesn’t drink, is not fond of purple dust, does not squander money, and doesn’t organize orgies.”
“It would be better if he did,” Mireya blurts, earning an extremely disapproving look from her brother.
“In addition, the Marquis is very good-looking.” The Duke makes an effort and continues to speak as if he had not noticed his sister’s inappropriate sarcasm. “Because it matters to you, does it not? So, I have made sure of that too. Moreover — I believe, and it would be important for you to know — according to rumors, he is a very good lover.”
“I will not marry the person that you choose,” Mireya raps.
“Oh really? Is everything unacceptable to you again?” Conrad is furious.
“Believe it or not, yes!”
“In this case, no one is going to ask you!”
“In this case, you neither!”
“Keep in mind that tomorrow your fiancé arrives, and the wedding is in three weeks!”
“I hope the wedding veil will suit you!”
“And after the wedding you will go to your husband’s palace, and there you can get on his nerves!”
“Get out of my quarters!”
“With pleasure. I have already told you everything I was going to.”
And the Duke leaves the room, loudly slamming the door on his way out.
After waiting a few minutes to be sure, Ilona and I rush into the living room.
“Did you hear that?” Mireya cries indignantly.
A few red strands have escaped from her hairdo, giving the girl a disheveled, perhaps even slightly demonic look. In general, her hair is much easier to mess up than to style.
We nod affirmatively. Mireya knows very well about the adjoining room with the gap, and often specially arranges “face to face” meetings in here, so one of the ladies in waiting can overhear the conversation.
“This is tyranny! His… his insolence knows no bounds! Who does he think he is? And who does he take me for — his slave?”
“More likely a younger relative,” Ilona tries to smooth things over.
“And on this basis he thinks he has a right to control my life?”
Mireya’s eyes flash angrily. The attempt to smooth things out doesn’t work — on the contrary, things are noticeably sharp and sticking out like a pack of knives and barbed arrows.
“Perhaps you should wait until tomorrow,” Ilona offers. “You never know, maybe you’ll like the man!”
“There’s no way,” says Mireya with conviction.
“Just imagine,” insists the lady in waiting. “You enter the hall, and there he is, literally a prince on a white horse, riding on his horse right into the hall. And then the horse lifts its tail and … yes, romantic stories — not my forte.” Ilona throws up her hands. “But I still think you should first look at the groom, and then start to get angry.
“Not true,” Mireya disagrees. “You have described everything perfectly. I even began to smell something. It’s exactly how this whole story smells — it stinks!”
“He’s such a bastard!” I hiss, shaking my head.
“You see, you see?” Mireya immediately catches on. “I have always said that my brother is a total scumbag!”
“I’m not talking about your brother,” I wave. “No, he is also, of course, quite the saboteur. But I’m willing to bet that the brilliant idea of the wedding does not belong to him.”
“To whom, then?”
“Cameron Estley, of course.”
To me it seems obvious.
“Well, don’t go that far,” Ilona drawls dubiously. “You can’t know that for sure.”
“Of course I can. The Duke… with all due respect to your brother,” I glance at Mireya, “doesn’t think very fast. No, I am not calling him a fool; he’s smart in his own way. But his mind, how to phrase it … is more rigid. Fresh ideas, the ability to find an unexpected way out – it’s not his element. That’s what he has Estley for. It is likely that the Duke really did pick the groom himself, but Estley is the one who gave him the idea to get rid of you this way. And this,” I fix my steady gaze on Ilona, “I know for certain. I would scratch that bastard’s face in a heartbeat!”
“I would do the same to my brother,” Mireya supports me.
“Well, if we were to go the whole hog, we know two or three people in the palace whose faces I wouldn’t mind rearranging.”
Realizing that she will not be able to calm us down, Ilona changes tactics and decides to join our bloodthirsty attitude.
“Don’t worry, Lady Mireya.” I state belligerently. You will not get married because of this Marquis. I’ll kill myself if I have to, but this wedding will not take place!”
“Thank you, Nessa!” Mireya embraces me. “I know I can always count on you.”
The Duke’s intention to marry off Mireya without asking her consent renders me extremely nervous and angry. The reason for this emotional reaction lies not only in my concern and sincere sympathy for Mireya, but also in my more general attitude towards forced marriages. This attitude stems from personal experience.
It feels as though a long time has passed since then, even though in reality it happened only four years ago. My parents decided to marry me off. Not that they wanted to get rid of me. I was not a bother to them in general, and so they did not impose themselves on me too much. For as long as I can remember, they have been living their lives, and I mine. I was practically raised by my nanny and by some of the servants, as well as our castellan who practically replaced my family; they shared their emotional warmth generously with me. The castellan became for a while for me something akin to an uncle or an older brother; with him I could discuss abstract subjects and intellectual issues that the servants were not very interested in or books they had not read. My parents were always close by, but rather as some distant relatives who would appear, smile, say a couple of words and disappear again. They were involved in their own pursuits — card games, dances, horse racing, and who knows what else. Most important, we were all happy with this way of life, so I cannot complain.
But then came the moment when the Antego family suddenly ran out of money. As I now realize, it was not that sudden. Although my father was a Count, his estate had been quite modest to begin with. If managed rationally, however, it would have been possible to live quite well off it. The thing was that the rational use of money was not one of my parents’ virtues. My mother and father preferred to live in grand style, not bothering to think about the consequences. So at one point they arrived on the verge of bankruptcy.
But they were lucky. They had invested money in one profitable project. Namely, me. As is well known, a young daughter with a good education, an attractive appearance, who belongs to a count’s family line, is a great way to earn a tidy sum. If, of course, you manage to sell her off to your advantage. Here my parents showed an entrepreneurial streak, which before this point hadn’t manifested itself, and it worked marvelously. They found a groom very quickly. Baron Renoir Luzhe. Thirty-four years, rather more handsome than not, and although a little below us in title, he was extremely, staggeringly rich. Also, he was quite ready to invite a young flower such as myself into his home, and financially compensate my parents for this loss.
Not that I was delighted with the planned marriage, but I didn’t react with the same hostility as Mireya. Mostly I decided to find out as much as possible about my fiancé before our first meeting, which was planned to serve as the engagement . So I began to collect information.
But the information I gathered almost turned my hair gray at nineteen. The rumors about my fiancé ranged from very unpleasant to frankly frightening. Judging by those rumors, he was a real sadist. He flogged six servants to death. And maimed countless others. He raped maids. Other details I heard did not fit in with the worldview of the young daughter of a count such as myself.
Naturally, I did not hide this information. Instead, I went to my parents and asked them to cancel all arrangements with the Baron. I explained to them in detail the reason for my refusal. I did not have the slightest doubt that after that there would be no more talk about a wedding.
My surprise was all the greater when my parents brushed off my story like a troublesome fly. Really, shame on you, dear daughter, for listening to idle gossip. People always talk, it’s in their nature. Especially about rich and famous people, because everyone is envious of them. And the servants? Servants always think that they have been punished unjustly, even if in fact there was a good reason for the beating. A fatal outcome from such punishment? Simply an exaggeration. And even if all of these accusations were to have any basis in reality, what rich men allow themselves with their maids they would never allow themselves with their wives. So I have practically nothing to worry about.
I was definitely not happy about the prospect of seeing, on a daily basis, my husband beating and raping other women. Moreover, something made me strongly doubt that he would keep himself on his best behavior with his own wife. I had little life experience at that stage, but I had a head on my shoulders, and knew how to think logically. This logic brought me to conclusions I did not like in the least.
In defense of my parents I have to say that they sincerely believed what they said. They really believed that their daughter, who was alarmed by the upcoming wedding, was worried about nothing and inflated minor problems out of proportion due to the romantic nature of young girls. Not surprisingly, they never became aware of the fact that their daughter had never been given to excessive romanticism., To do so, after all, one needs to communicate with someone a bit more in depth than “Hello, darling! You look great! I have a new doll for you.”
I talked to my parents many times. First, trying to convince them with all kinds of logical arguments. This had absolutely no effect, so I tried raising my voice. I demanded, insisted, stamped my foot. To no avail. The only result was my mother’s migraines. Perhaps tears would have helped, but crying was already completely foreign to me even back then.
What could I do? It came to the point of the meeting and the engagement. The groom, a stocky man with a round face, hazel eyes and fat lips, was much older than I, but not old. In addition, he was in good physical shape. He didn’t appear to be such a terrible man. He was courteous, polite, educated, and smiled a lot. My parents were completely delighted. They even gave me encouraging looks. As if to say, you see, the devil is not as terrible as he is painted. Actually, all is well. We said so from the start!
Then we were left in private for a while. The Baron was still smiling, but for some reason the look in his bright eyes made me very uncomfortable. He stepped up to me and forced me to retreat quickly to the wall. For a few moments he just stood close to me, looking at me like a cat at a mouse. Then he drew out a box from his pocket and took out a ring. It was gold, with large stones. My parents would certainly like it.
“Will you allow me?” He asked.
I hesitantly shrugged. What choice did I have?
He started to put it on my ring finger. But suddenly he stopped and instead brought the stone to my fingertip. The stone was rough, with sharp edges, and looked like several fragments joined together. One such fragment the Baron pressed into my finger. All the while, he was raptly and intently watching my reaction.
I loudly sucked in air when a drop of blood appeared on the pad of my finger. He did not stop and continued to apply pressure. Gritting my teeth, I looked up and challengingly met his gaze. He looked at me for a little while longer with narrowed eyes, then smiled and put the ring on my finger.
“We will have an interesting time together,” he said, and then, without uttering another word, opened the door and went out into the next room, solemnly telling everyone that the engagement had taken place.
I did not remove the ring. I left it on my finger as a reminder of what awaited me. So I would not even think of relaxing before I found a way out of this situation.
However, I couldn’t find a way out. Of course, I told my parents about the episode with the ring, and displayed my wounded finger as evidence, but they just chalked it up to a vivid imagination. So what if you got a scratch from the ring — what a beautiful stone! And so expensive, too!
My imagination meanwhile ran wild even more than before, after I managed to find one of the maids who had suffered from Baron Luzhe’s abuse back in the day. After hearing her story, I turned pale and fell into a stupor. My muscles turned into stone, and I felt my heart in my throat. In the end, I recollected myself, comforted the sobbing woman, and then, without hesitation, gave her money — a large sum for a person of her class – so she would have an opportunity to start a new life somewhere away from here.
I pondered the option of running away. The problem – or rather, my luck — was the fact that, in contrast to romantically inclined young ladies, I began to consider the consequences. The conclusions saddened me. Moreover, I knew of several similar stories. Girls either returned to their parents after some time, quite battered and pleading for forgiveness, or they didn’t return, but hit rock bottom. Young women of my class simply had no chance to lead an independent life with dignity, without having the support of their parents or other powerful patrons. Especially if they also didn’t have money. Not that I thought it beneath me to get a job, but, first, I did not know how to start looking for one. Second, I did not have any references. Without them, I could, of course, settle for a job in the field, working for peanuts, but I simply did not have the physical strength required for such a job. Nor did I have any relatives who could take me in; and a thoughtless decision in the spirit of “Just run away, and then somehow it will work out” just wasn’t for me. I knew perfectly well that it wouldn’t work out. The most likely outcome would be to end up in some brothel as an oddity with good manners. Not a better prospect than the upcoming marriage.
As the wedding day approached, I began to think more often about a different manner of escape. Among the books I read were all sorts of textbooks about poison. I began to gather information on various methods of suicide. I hated having to resort to this measure, but I was not going to become a plaything in the hands of my future husband, who was interested to see how long it would take to break me. So I approached the topic of suicide logically, and thoroughly examined it. I picked out a few techniques that seemed to me most easy and painless. Then I tried to postpone further thoughts on this subject until the moment when I had no other choice.
Then Mireya came around. Just a week before the wedding, she and a few ladies in waiting stayed in our castle on their way from the capital. She heard about the upcoming joyful event and wondered why the bride did not look very happy. It was against my principles to complain about life to complete strangers, but my deep despair and my parents’ absolute indifference made me ready to open up to the first person who was willing to listen and understand. Especially since in my heart there was a faint hope that the sister of the Duke would be able to do something to help me. To my great surprise, the help came immediately and was much more fundamental than I expected. Mireya, terribly outraged by my story, went somewhere; barely half an hour later she returned and told me that I could pack my things and go with her to the ducal palace. As it turned out, she practically bought me from my parents.
For that reason, I will never betray Mireya. And I am not going to allow anyone else to marry her against her will.
The longer I think about it, the stronger the blood boils in my veins. But it is too late now to be angry at my parents, and pointless. Meanwhile, there is a much more suitable target for my anger here in the palace. So all my resentment quickly concentrates on the person I consider to be the main culprit for the trouble that has befallen Mireya.
That’s it. I’ll go to him right now and I’ll tell this smug bastard, this base scoundrel, this intriguer, to his face, what I think of him. And I’ll get him to cancel the entire plan of marrying Mireya off. He can explain that to the Duke in whatever way he wants.
It is evening, so I decide that I am most likely to find Estley in his chambers. There’s where I head. However, I do not find him in the drawing room, nor in the next room, and then there is a valet guarding the door, who for some reason refuses to let me in. But I, enraged and thirsty for retribution, pay him no attention. Just wave my hand sharply in the air — and, frankly, I’m not even quite sure what happens next. Whether the valet simply retreats, frightened, or whether I actually strike him I don’t know. If it is the latter case, I’m not sure whether I hit him with my hand or he runs into the door when I throw it open… Not really giving any thought to the fate of the poor man, I burst into the room, which turns out to be a bedroom.
No, nothing really terrible happens. After all, it’s not like there is anything new to be seen. Everything is quite trivial. He is on top, she is on the bottom. They could have come up with something more original. They both have more than enough experience, thank the gods. However, they say the classic prevails over any variations…
I nevertheless become flustered, albeit briefly. I stand at the door and look away from the bed, giving Lady Lastly the opportunity to wrap herself in a sheet. Estley too covers himself up, even though rather carelessly.
“Lady Inessa, you were so eager to rush into my bedroom, you swept poor Robert off his feet?” he asks. I guess that Robert is probably the valet. “I hope he didn’t get hurt too badly? I hope at least he wasn’t carried away to the far north? Truly the next hurricane will have to be named ‘Inessa'”.
“I need to speak with you alone.” I hiss, having no intention of listening to his taunts any longer.
At this point, the stumbling valet emerges behind me with an impressive shiner starting to show. I turn around, and the guy instinctively recoils.
“Lady Inessa.” Estley does not leave my words without a response. “Get in line, as the traders in the market say. Lady Lastly was here first. So right now my focus is entirely on her. You can wait in the next room. Just be so kind as to not kill Robert on the way.”
“Very well.” His vile hints anger me so much that my voice is virtually dripping with poison. “I’ll just go and tell Baron Lastly that his wife will be available in …about half an hour?”
I look at the Baroness. She curses under her breath; some extremely unpleasant expressions are addressed to me personally, but I do not bother listening to her. I turn away, allowing her to duck behind the partition; she gets dressed and calls me a whore as she is running out of the room. Funny — after all of this I am the one who is supposedly worthy of that moniker?! In my opinion, given the circumstances, it is not exactly logical.
Estley himself is in much less of a hurry than the Baroness, but he manages to pull on his pants.
“I’m all ears.” He says sarcastically after the unfaithful wife slams the door. “So, what did you need so urgently in my bedroom?”
“I wanted to put a pea under your mattress.” I snap. “Would you get dressed?”
“Oh really?” Estley feigns surprise. “A strange request from a woman who bursts into a single man’s room in the middle of the night. Anyway. The lady’s wish is my command.”
He picks up his shirt from the back of the chair, slips his arms into the sleeves and begins to fasten the buttons in a tantalizingly slow manner. That makes concentrating on the reason for my visit quite difficult. But I still do my best.
“Leave Lady Almikonte alone!” I demand. “I know that it was your idea — to marry her off against their will. Go to the Duke and revoke this venture of his!”
The shirt is finally buttoned. Estley doesn’t bother with such nonsense as a vest or waistcoat; thus, he looks homey and slightly disheveled, but still relatively decent. He even deigns to offer me a seat.
I, however, refuse the offer, feeling that if I relax, my fervor may fade away. Therefore, I stay standing, but for convenience I rest both my hands on the back of the chair.
“So,” at least the sneer disappeared from the bastard’s gaze. “In other words, as I understand it, the Duke’s sister again hastened to show her character.”
“Do not try to shift the responsibility for what happened to Lady Mireya!”
Estley shrugs wearily.
“The Duke himself is organizing the wedding. He chose the groom, and he is in charge in all the arrangements. I did suggest to him the idea that marriage for Lady Mireya would be the best solution for all involved. The rest is beyond my competence. What do you find so unacceptable?”
“What do I find unacceptable?” This insolence is almost enough to render me speechless. But not quite — that would be too much of a gift for him! “Yes, what right has the Duke to interfere with her life so unceremoniously?!”
“Lady Inessa, you surprise me. The Duke is her older brother. You know perfectly well that the marriages of girls from aristocratic families tend to be arranged by next of kin. What’s so outrageous about it, or does it go against the generally accepted norms?”
“I don’t care about the norms!” I snap, angry because of my own, personal, reasons. “Lady Mireya has the right to choose her own husband herself!”
“Excellent,” Estley offers no objection. “Let her offer an alternative candidate. If this person were an appropriate fiancé for a woman of her status, the Duke probably would not mind.”
“We are not talking about someone specific,” I counter. “At the moment, Lady Mireya doesn’t have a candidate in mind.”
“Then I do not understand at all what the matter at hand is. If she has no candidates, the Duke offers her one.”
“He didn’t offer, he stated it as a fact.”
“Call it whatever you want. As I understand it, the groom has not even arrived at the palace, and your mistress is already raising a racket. Honestly, it is just like her.”
“Keep in mind” — I have not noticed how my hands released the chair and forefinger stretched and poked Estley in the chest — “there will be no wedding. I’ll personally make sure of it.”
“Excuse me, Lady Inessa, but it has already been decided, and the wedding will take place,” he replied. “Even if I have to take care of it personally.”
“In this case — see you on the battlefield!” I leave the room, walking in a wide circle around the poor valet, who shrinks away just in case.
The whole book is available here – https://www.royalroad.com/amazon/B01GGEWA88