Saphira is a young artist with a curse – she’s that kind of beautiful that sells. Which her parents – business people in distress – decide to exploit, dragging her to business banquets in order to find her a rich husband. It’s at one of these banquets that Saphira witnesses murder and draws the attention of a highly dangerous killer with mysterious reasons. This scene depicts the pivotal moment when Saphira becomes a witness and meets the killer known as the Marquis.
The most luxurious banquet hall in town. Or so it wishes to stand with its chandeliers dripping crystal, golden curtains and mirrors with gilded frames – fake of course, but they can trick a lay eye. I sit at the table with palms on my lap, focused only on my breathing – Mum insisted that I wore the corset dress she got for me in London, all white lace and cream silk fit for a wanna-be bride, so I can hardly breathe.
Father talks to the “prospect,” Vladimir Pukov, who fixes me with a piranha grin. Big and fleshy in his tailcoat, bald and overconfident, he’s known to be a ladies’ man. And filthy rich. Which is why Mum spared no effort to groom me into his usual prey.
The piranha likes what he sees – his business partner’s thin-to-a-fault daughter, face nicely painted, tired eyes heavy with mascara, styled golden hair cascading down a fragile frame. Yes, I fit the profile he’d do. Father aims for a wedding, but I’m sure he wouldn’t shy from pimping me for a night or two if Pukov agrees to save his business.
“Saphira,” the bald piranha finally addresses me. “That’s a beautiful name. It suits you. I’d think of a face like yours if I’d simply hear it.”
No shit. I give him a fake smile.
“She’s more than looks,” Mum advertises. “She has a degree in Beautiful Arts and even sold a couple of paintings before her graduation.”
None. Both Mum and Father smile and bear while the piranha looks down on me. He’s satisfied to have made us all lose face. His proud posture doesn’t compliment him, it makes him look like a double-chinned penguin.
“Excuse me,” I say and push back my chair. I leave the table and make my way through the crowd towards the exit, then take up such a pace down the stairs that I stumble over my own dress folds.
I manage to reach the bottom of the flight on my feet and lean on a marble pillar, hand on my belly and struggling for deep breaths. The freaking corset makes it hard.
The first cloakroom is full of powdering noses, so I seek a more secluded one to cool down. This part of the venue is still undergoing some renovation, which keeps precious personalities at bay. Given that the ball’s full of them, this wing is empty.
I stroll among a few scaffolds for interior and take the curve around the corner. I stop in my tracks and my breathing catches, yet this time it’s not the corset.
An elegant back in a tailcoat, stripping off a pair of black gloves. He moves like a feral licking its bloody snout, which must be why the white-faced dead man in a suit sitting on the floor facing him, back against the wall, actually fits the picture for a second. I realize I’m witnessing a murder and I want to scream, but the killer turns, and my heart stops.
His face is marble-white with astonishing features and the blackest eyes I’ve ever seen. He’s probably no older than twenty, barely more than a dazzling boy, but the calmness he displays, the composure, it leaves no doubt – it was him.
I turn on my heels and run back towards the populated hallway, my shoes clattering on the marble floor, dress folds gathered in my hands. I barge into the packed toilet, breathless and unable to utter one intelligible word. The powdering noses now staring and batting fake lashes don’t look like much help.
I crack the door and peek outside. People stroll up and down the luxurious hallway, stiff and wearing the fake grins specific for these business balls. He’s nowhere in sight. I slap a bit of water on my cheeks, which brings my shaking limbs back in moving condition, and hurry up to the ball room, intent on blurting out a report to my father.
But only a few steps into the dancing and tumbler-clinking crowd the young killer blocks my route, arranging his tie and fixing me with those dangerous dark eyes. I freeze in place. Before I realize what’s happening he reaches around my waist and leads me into a slow dance. He moves so naturally, no one would suspect that something’s wrong with this picture. I move along, my mind blocked and relying only on my sixth sense – I dread what would come out of struggling away from such a man.
“Are you going to tell on me?” His voice is a pleasant baritone. Soft, warm, it could fool anyone. It could’ve fooled me.
“You just killed a man.” I begin to shake.
“I had the best reason there is for that.”
“There are no good reasons for murder. You’re a monster.”
“You’re good with labels. Stamp people a lot?” He exudes a bittersweet scent that stirs me inside.
“No more than they stamp me.”
“I have a label for you too, then.” He sounds menacing. I can see “dead woman” racing my way. But he takes distance, keeping my hand in a smooth palm. His eyes hypnotize me into calmness as he takes it to his beautiful young lips. “Persephone.”
“Why Persephone?” I whisper with my last drop of wit. He seems to hypnotize me in the most real sense of the word.
“Because I might just take you with me back to the Underworld.”
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