Now that Valentine’s legal troubles are drawing to a close, and his notoriety has faded from immediate public memory, his cousin Sieia resumes her efforts to find him a suitable wife. Because Valentine is young by elvish standards — a mere 78 — at first she focused her efforts on exposing him to a variety of debutantes. Valentine divides these into three classes.
First there are the poised beauties of large fortune and impeccable family. They know their own worth, and feel no need to rush into marriage. Their experience and sensibilities are so different from Valentine’s that he retreats into stern, cold silence in their presence; he sincerely believes he would prefer castration or the priesthood to marriage with one of these paragons of gray elvish perfection.
Second, there are extremely young girls who are fresh from the schoolroom. Upon meeting a young and unsophisticated damsel, Valentine feels a surge of hopeful interest. His first love, Ariadne, was so deeply shy that she aroused his chivalrous instincts, and moved him to overcome his own reserve. Though she was a quiet girl, she asked unconventional questions and listened to the answers. He feels that she understood the radical deprivation of his childhood, and the spiritual significance of his escape from the Underdark. Unfortunately, the shy ladies he’s met since Ariadne’s death either cannot drop their reserve, or prove to be as shallow, cruel, grasping or dull as their more self-assured peers.
The final class is made up of ladies who are young in name only, who have been left on the shelf for obvious reasons. Valentine believes he could be a loving and attentive husband to a girl whose brother has gambled away the family fortune, or who suffers from some minor physical defect — an extensive facial birthmark, perhaps, or a limp that cannot be concealed. In reality, these damsels’ misfortunes add an extra layer of apprehension and guilt to his attempts at courtship.
Worst of all, Valentine has no confidence in his own desirability as a mate. He reads High Elvish badly, and speaks it with an accent; he knows little of normal domestic life; he’s extensively scarred from flogging, and covered in martial tattoos. It’s difficult to imagine a gently bred gray elvish girl consenting to marry a man who is scarred to the point of deformity, and whose ignorance renders him inadequate as a husband and father.
For all of these reasons and more, Valentine Shelawn — rich, handsome, well-born, funny and affectionate — remains a bachelor, and cannot see his way out of that dismal state.
Sieia’s optimism is unflagging. She loves and values her cousin, and longs to see him comfortably settled and filling his nursery. As the year’s social season begins, she reviews her strategy and tactics. She’s noticed that Valentine is tongue-tied and stilted in Virginia’s presence. When she asks her cousin what he’s looking for in a wife, he says that Inglorion’s the luckiest fellow alive — Virginia is beautiful, clever and kind, but it’s not just that. There’s something delightful about her manner and presence — she has a certain composure and grace.
After some thought, then, Sieia decides to focus her efforts on widows. Older women are sensible, adaptable creatures, already broken to bridle, and perhaps more realistic in their expectations. Valentine is not cruel or given to vice. Ladies with less romantic notions can be expected to set aside minor shortcomings like a stiff, cold manner, and to appreciate his reserve, good taste and political connections.
The early stages of the campaign prove successful. The first few widows don’t inspire desperate passion, but his interactions with them are less fraught, and do not trigger sleepless nights of desperate self-loathing. He’s almost pleased when Sieia informs him by letter that she’s lined up yet another eligible widow: Lara Lucia, Lady Veii.
“I think you will like her,” Sieia writes.
She’s a sensible creature, much admired for her looks and air of fashion. Her fortune and family are good, and, if I may speak frankly, her husband was neither so cruel as to have given her a disgust of your sex, nor a paragon who cannot be replaced. We will assemble in the drawing room at 8p. It will be a small party, but you would do well to wear evening clothes, and to dress with your usual care and distinction.
Your loving cousin,
Valentine arrives at Wallace House by hackney, and is announced just a few moments before the widow arrives. He stands by the hearth with Sieia, Xardic and a handful of political functionaries and their wives. He watches with interest as she enters and greets Sieia and Xardic. She’s a tall, handsome brunette. Her dress is a rich flame red, and she wears a diamond choker and matching ear-drops.
Sieia greets her warmly, says, “Allow me to present my cousin, Valentine Shelawn, who will have the honor of taking you down to dinner. Valentine, this is Lady Veii, recently returned from a tour of the Continent, where she acquired some vases that may interest you.”
On impulse, Valentine clasps her hand rather than exchanging bows. He looks into her face, and confirms his initial positive impression. She’s no longer in the first blush of youth, which he rather likes. Her manner is assured, and she’s smiling, as if he’s somehow pleased her. They exchange commonplaces, with, perhaps, more than the usual warmth. The company is too small for private conversation, but her manner towards him remains warm and engaged. Rather than restlessly surveying the group, she throws him the occasional expressive glance, as if she’s looking forward to deepening their acquaintance.
Sieia has seated them with care: Lady Veii’s right-hand partner has eyes only for his dinner, while the woman on Valentine’s left concerns herself with recounting a series of legal woes to a nearby barrister.
“Madame,” Valentine says, “What did you acquire on the Continent? Lady Ceralac was correct in thinking that would intrigue me.”
She smiles and says, “You’re kind to say so. I promise I won’t bore on if you don’t care for such things. I am pleased, though. I came upon a handful of red-figure vases in a private collection. I made an offer, and to my surprise it was accepted.”
“That sounds like a stroke of good fortune. Do you often do such things?”
“No, which is why I felt particularly clever — I’m accustomed to making studio visits and bargaining with living artists, but I was surprised to reach an agreement with a collector. He’d intended to put several pieces up for auction, so my offer came at an opportune time.”
“Why did they catch your eye?”
She cocks her head, takes a thoughtful sip from her wineglass. “It’s hard to say. The quality was good, and I liked the theme. It’s more than that, though. A certain kind of resonance, an instant sympathy. Does that sound like nonsense?”
“Not at all. I’ve had the same feeling, but have never found words to describe it.”
She glances up at him, and appears truly grateful. “Have you? It feels odd to say it.”
They attend to their plates for a moment, then she says, “I hope you won’t think it rude, but I must ask. Your accent — is it Drow? Sieia told me you spent your childhood and youth in the Underdark.”
“I did, and it is. I used to think I’d lose it, but I came aboveground too late. It’s improved, but I’ll never pass for a native.”
“You should keep it. An accent is a charming thing, especially if it’s difficult to place.” She glances at him with a roguish smile. Though her manner is quiet, he feels a distinct thrill, and begins to wonder if they’re flirting.
“How kind of you to say so.”
She shakes her head. “Not at all. It’s a commonplace because it’s true.”
He’s tempted to inquire further. He’s itching to know how he sounds to her. He refrains, and turns the subject back to her collection and travels. They converse with perfect ease, and for the first time, Valentine is disappointed to see Sieia signaling to the other ladies that it’s time to withdraw. As they file out, a line of rich silks and glowing gemstones, she looks back over her shoulder. Valentine thinks that she has a lovely smile and — God help him — an even lovelier ass.
The gentlemen aren’t inclined to linger over their port. Within a very few moments, they’ve joined that ladies, who have arranged themselves strategically around the drawing room. Valentine approaches his cousin, hoping to talk about Lady Veii.
“What do you think?” asks Sieia.
“I like her very much,” he says in a wondering tone.
“Well, you were certainly as thick as inkle-weavers over dinner,” Sieia says with a laugh. “I’m glad. I don’t know her well — we move in different circles — but she’s received everywhere, and seems quite clever.” She looks past him, giggles. “I think you should end her suspense.” She signals to a footman, procures two glasses of Champagne, and sends Valentine over.
“Sieia insisted that I bring this,” he says, offering her a glass.
She accepts it and takes a sip. “What is it?”
“I have no idea. A pretext, I believe.” They both laugh.
After this, Valentine makes no effort to conceal his interest. He monopolizes the charming widow, and she seems pleased with her situation. At one point she confesses, “I was surprised to receive an invitation from Lady Ceralac. I have little acquaintance in political circles. Do you know, she paid a morning call and pressed me to accept?”
“Lady Ceralac still has a bit of Bohemian in her,” he says. “It pleases her to discover someone interesting, and to share her discovery.”
The party begins to break up, and the guests’ carriages begin to arrive. Valentine realizes he should make a move. Nothing slick occurs to him, so he says, “Madame, I’ve enjoyed our conversation immensely. I should very much like to pay you a morning call, if you’re receiving visitors.”
She flushes a bit, lowers her lashes. “Please do. Do you know Villa Veii? I live in the Dower House. I would receive you with pleasure.”
Again, following impulse, he clasps her hand, kisses it. It’s an old-fashioned gesture — he feels lucky and reckless, and it seems right. He’s rewarded by feeling her fingers quiver in his grasp, and seeing her breath quicken.
“They’ve announced my carriage. I’ll hope to see you soon, sir.” She walks over to the footman, throws a final glance over her shoulder. Their eyes meet, and her smile is particularly intimate. He marvels at her supple waist, and the heart-stopping flare of her hips outlined in crimson silk.
She’s gone. The room is nearly empty. Valentine leans against a handy pillar. “Oh, God,” he hears himself say.
For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.