Saphira’s parents want to see her married well. She suspects they might even sell her to the highest bidder. The Marquis, a murderer whose secret only Saphira knows, has threatened to take advantage of this. He’s bought the most expensive venue in her home town from her father, a real estate agent, which won him the man’s favor and and control over Saphira. He organizes a glamorous banquet that everybody in town attends, but his ways are subversive. In this episode Saphira discovers that the Marquis is dangerous in more than one way.
It’s the Night of Venice here in Northville – a town devastated by air raids during the war, and rebuilt by some of the wealthiest families in England shortly after. They restored the houses to former Gothic glory, but there’s none like the Manor with the Fields. The place could easily pass for Dracula’s castle. It was the toughest sell in Father’s career, which got the family out of a very bad money situation, but I would’ve preferred bankruptcy to the chilling presence of its new owner.
The streets bustle with majestic outfits and Venetian masks. Laughter and giggling fill the night air as my parents and I make our way to the Manor, snow crunching with gravel under our feet. My ankles are frozen in the stilettos, and my feet already feel like bruised meat. I should’ve put on something more comfortable for the road, but Mum wouldn’t hear of it. I was required to make an impression from the moment I stepped out the door, since we wouldn’t want Pretty Lauren’s eyelashes to out-bat ours, or her outfit to gain any competitive advantage.
In conclusion now I’m wearing a short golden cocktail dress, and my hair like a mane of golden locks. Little difference left between my appearance and that of a luxury prostitute. Against the cold I’m wearing a quality wool coat, so at least for now I’m safe from stripper-ogling. I think of Father’s eyeballs spinning with dollar signs each time a bachelor shark sets his eyes on me, and my stomach turns. I yank my arm from the hook of his as soon as we reach the Manor steps.
A valet helps me out of the coat, eyes me up and down – discretely in his opinion, I’m sure – and I step into the ballroom. It has quite an effect, I must admit. The Marquis turned the place into a grand venue with mirrors and crystals. Better even than the Royale by the sea, where he and I first crossed paths.
All men wear dark suits like a uniform, but women make for a ripple of color and glitter. A knot begins to swell in my throat, my nose creasing at the flood of cologne. It’s soon hot and too loud. I follow my parents into air-kiss greeting here and there, and fail to spot the figure flying my way until it bumps into me, its arms around my neck with a film of sweat and scent of lilies.
“Saph, oh my Saphy,” she squeals.
I grab her shoulders and look into her face. She’s smaller than me and rounder, her eyes cacao-brown, sweet cheeks and a contagious smile. My mood changes in an instant, and I lift her in my arms.
“Jeanie Simmons, you little loony,” I yelp like a schoolgirl. Jeanie Simmons is the purest soul I’ve ever met. I’m genuinely happy to see her. “You here?”
“Came for the Christmas break,” she says, drawing me away from my parents and their cluster. “Just for two weeks but guess what,” she now whispers in my ear as if not a day had passed since our last pajama party. “I met someone and I don’t want to leave again.”
Like a squirrel she makes our way to a table where we find the banquet-polished versions of what we may call our oldest friends, though the term doesn’t fit in all cases. I’m the only one who still lives in Northville and not some fancy metropolis, so I must watch my manners.
First I recognize Pretty Lauren, the most label-aware, perfectly groomed of the group. Indeed, what Mum would resent as serious competition for a wealthy husband, especially in a pool such as the Marquis’ banquet. Lauren wears a short red cocktail dress, Swarovski jewelry and smoky make-up. Her hair is naturally dark red but now dyed the color of fire, and her smile forced to say the least. She raises her hand, and for a moment I wonder if she’s going to wave from so short a distance, but what she does is flutter her skinny white fingers – in order to prevent that I come any closer, I’m sure.
“Hey there, Saph. Long time no see.” Her voice is nasal and annoying.
“Nice to see you too, Lauren,” I lie and turn to the modest and grounded-looking woman sitting on the right.
Virgin Vivien is an understated and distinguished presence. Her face is smooth as porcelain without a trace of make-up, her eyes intelligent, and her frame slim. Wearing a dark bun and a little black dress, she’s not only a natural beauty, but she’s the most interesting woman I know. The eyes scanning her don’t dare do it overtly.
“Hey, Viv,” I greet as I take the chair by her side. Virgin Vivien and I have always been close in a quiet way. She comes to Northville often because the sea is close and she hates city life. A smile quirks up the corner of her mouth.
“How long do I still have to wait for that lonely-cliff landscape?”
I give an apologetic sigh. Truth is, I’m not that inspired. “Just give me another decade or so.”
“What’s it going to cost to get you moving?”
“Take your clothes off for a nude,” I crack, and she bursts into laughter. A second later something hits my back, and I realize it’s Jeanie’s arm resting on me, her breath warm in my ear.
“That’s him, up there with our host, that’s him.” It’s an enthusiastic whisper. I look up in the direction her gaze has taken, and my throat laces up.
The Marquis stands on the grand stairs, an elegant young man of a stunning beauty. The contours of his face, pale and flawless, contrast with his eerie dark eyes, and make something stir in my chest. I punch the feeling away, but it keeps returning. He is our host, so at least I’m relieved he’s not the new master of Jeanie’s heart. It must be one of the two men flanking him. Still, Jeanie is the exception rather than the rule. The female sighs around at the sight of him – including Lauren’s – leave no doubt the young Marquis fills the dreams of many.
His companions stand with crystal glasses in their hands, one of them keeping a jovial smile in place, the other’s face an impenetrable mask. The music stops and there’s the clinking of spoon on glass. It’s not the Marquis who signals a toast though, but the smiling friend on his left. He’s very tall and lean, his face bony and pronounced. He has ruffled locks and a creepy stare that has a disturbingly familiar something to it. He’s handsome in a unique and, most of all, interesting way.
It takes a few moments of en masse fidgeting until the crowd settles into a murmur low enough to allow a speech, which is restricted to gratitude for accepting them in the community.
Turns out the smiling speaker is the Marquis’ cousin, and Stone Mask on the right is his head of security. The Marquis himself only offers a short welcome to the banquet, and an invitation for everybody to enjoy themselves. That excited flutter moves to my stomach at the sound of his voice, and I realize with a cuss that I have a crush on him.
“Your mouth isn’t any cleaner than last time I heard it,” Lauren spews wickedly. I fail to bite back, but Jeanie does it for me.
“The last time you heard it you were in bed with my brother.”
And my fiancé at the time. I’m grateful he’s not here now. I wish Jeanie would add the part where I wiped the floor with Lauren for everyone to hear, and Lauren’s eyes widen at the possibility too. She picks on another subject with a momentum.
“Who’s your Mr. Special of the two?”
“Why d’you wanna know, plan to bed’em?” Jeanie blocks.
“How does she even know about Mr. Special?” I ask. Jeanie’s still looking daggers at Lauren.
“She was a bit loud when she told me,” Viv cuts in. She’s smiling a warm smile at Jeanie. “Always exuberant in her jolly moods.”
Jeanie drops in her seat next to me. “The one who talked. Joyous.”
“Are you serious? His name is actually Joyous? He looks more like the young version of Hannibal Lecter,” I say.
“Stop that. He’s the sweetest guy ever.”
“Where did you two meet?” I’m dead curious now.
“He came over like some Mr. Bingley,” she sparkles. Then spews a bit of harmless venom at Lauren. “You know, Mr. Bingley? Pride and Prejudice?”
Jeanie’s a bit ridiculous trying to make Lauren look an idiot. Lauren rolls her eyes and raises the Venetian mask on a stick to shield them. I guide Jeanie back to the subject to save her from looking the idiot herself.
“It’s all thanks to the Marquis,” Jeanie continues with reddening cheeks. “He’s interested in my dad’s old pub and the land that goes with it. It’s been rotting closed for years, so dad said why not. The Marquis sent his cousin to discuss the matter.”
My jugular pulses in alarm. “The Marquis wants to buy yet more land?”
This strikes a chord for Lauren, who flashes the mask away and bends into the discussion over the table. “The guy’s so rich, it’s almost insolent.” Her eyes glint. “My dad talked of it often these past weeks, he was intrigued. So he did a bit of digging, and it turns out all the Marquis’ business partners ended up ceding him everything they had. And he’s been doing business with some very powerful people.”
“One of them from Northville, actually,” a young man slips into the discussion. “He died a month ago. On the night of the Royale banquet actually. He was supposed to attend but never made it. You might remember him from other events, in his forties, plucked eyebrows, good body, in love with himself. Found dead in his car.”
A buzz starts in my head, and I no longer listen to the cause of death. I know it’s a fake. The man died at the hand of the Marquis, I saw it. I saw his dead eyes fixed on his murderer.
“Signed the cession on the day he died, word has it,” another man says. Soon the discussion heats up, and I stand with a dizzy head, seeking my way to cooler air. The cologne and body warmth of the crowd smothers me.
Jeanie asks if I’m okay and wants to join, but I refuse. On my way to the door the baldhead piranha who’s been terrorizing me with phone calls walks my way with a filthy grin on. I don’t stand a chance to avoid him, but then I see it. I see what’s behind him. I want to scream, but I fail.
To be continued.
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UPDATE: Saphira’s whole story has been released in the Christmas Story Book for Adults.