Authors: Ava Morgan
Tags: #Curiosity Chronicles, #Book One
“It sounds terribly complicated,” said Iris. “Perhaps you should let Lord Abeiron handle this for you, Lydia.”
“I created those soldiers,
. Nikolaos does not know enough about them to negotiate on his own.”
“He is also given to following wherever the coin leads,” Hector provided. “I never understood why Sabba thought him to be a sufficient adviser. So greedy a man is Nikolaos.”
“Listen to you both.” Iris placed her hands on her full hips. “All doom and gloom about Lord Abeiron. I think he is a practical, level-headed man, one who would be able to care for you, Lydia, after your father and I are no longer here.”
Lydia knew her mother would branch into that territory. She did so every time the subject of Nikolaos was brought up. Lydia voiced her oft-repeated stance. “Nikolaos shows interest only because the line to the throne extends to me through my marriage to Galen. If not for the king and queen being unable to produce an heir, he wouldn’t look at me.” She walked down the small hallway from the communal room to her own chamber. “I have to get ready for dinner. It starts in less than an hour.”
Iris followed. “I’ll help you.”
After Lydia quickly bathed, her mother helped her into a dress reserved for ceremonial occasions. The blue silk skirt reached Lydia’s ankles. A white blouse, green jacket, and gold waist sash completed the ensemble, each trimmed in the elaborate embroidery that her mother was famous for throughout the region.
“I know you work with machines, but I do wish you would style your hair. You have such thick, lustrous curls.” Her mother remarked as Lydia sat down at the vanity table. “Tell me, what kind of man is the ambassador?”
Handsome. Lydia blinked as she picked up a comb and handed it to her mother. Why was that the first thought that came to mind when she considered Ambassador Cartret? “Most diplomats are old men, but Ambassador Cartret can’t be too far past the age of thirty. He’s very self-assured.”
Iris smoothed Lydia’s curls into elegant waves. “A diplomat must act the part.”
“Something about him seems out of place. I don’t know what it is.” Lydia’s mind formed the picture of his face, recalling an unspoken intensity within his dark eyes.
“You said that the ambassador apologized for the sailor who fired upon the Guild. Perhaps his intentions are not for ill.”
“Or he realized that he and his men were outnumbered on the beach.”
“Where do you and your father get such cheer and goodwill?” Iris shook her head with a smile. “There. You look beautiful.” She took a hand mirror from the vanity table and held it before Lydia’s face.
Lydia gave a cursory glance at her reflection. She took after her father in strong features as well as opinions. She didn’t consider herself to be beautiful with her prominent cheekbones, slightly long nose and full lips, but the hairstyle her mother configured lent softness to her appearance. “Thank you,
. I should hurry.”
A knock sounded from outside the chamber. “Lord Abeiron is here to escort you to dinner, Lydia,” her father announced.
Lydia put the mirror down. “Nikolaos does not relent.”
“Persistence is a good trait in a suitor,” Iris defended him, inciting a groan from her daughter. “I just want you to be happy again, Lydia. You’ve been so focused on perfecting those automatons ever since Galen’s accident.”
“We collaborated on the automatons before he left for Italy to attend that lecture. I would see them finished. And I don’t wish to hand them off to Ambassador Cartret.”
“Are you certain it is the automatons you struggle to let go?”
Lydia sighed. “I know Galen is in a better place. Though I sometimes miss him, I don’t mourn for him any longer.”
“No, but you don’t take interest in life as other ladies do.” Iris went to get Lydia’s head covering from the garment trunk. The small hat bore a golden cord with the russet tassel of the Machinist Guild. “Despite wars and talk of wars, the world still has its charms. And men and women still enter into marriage.”
Lydia bent so her mother could place the hat on her head. “Can we discuss this when I return?”
Iris swatted the silk tassel across her daughter’s nose. “You’re still young. I don’t want to see you become a grumpy old widow.”
,” Lydia gasped, addressing her mother in the formal. “Please. I have to go.”
“Yes, and take your
. Lord Abeiron should hear the new song you learned.”
Lydia glanced at the stringed instrument that sat at the foot of her bed. She had no intention of playing it for Nikolaos, but if taking it to the dinner would quiet her mother’s well-meaning criticisms, so be it.
She grabbed the
before leaving her chamber. Her father walked her to the entrance of the house, where Nikolaos sat in a cushioned chair.
He did not wait for her approach. He advanced towards her and bowed with a flourish, apparently not to be outdone by Ambassador Cartret’s earlier gesture on the beach. His robe dusted the floor rug in a wash of crimson. Rising slowly to full effect, he offered Lydia his arm. “May I compliment you on how you look this evening?” The words rolled off his tongue as easily as the fabric swirled about his feet.
“Greetings, Lord Abeiron.” Lydia rested her hand atop his sinewy arm.
Lydia’s father held open the door for them. “I trust you will escort my daughter home promptly once the dinner is over, Lord Abeiron.”
“Yes, Hector.” Nikolaos didn’t bother to address her father by his surname Korba. “Lydia will be safe with me.”
Hector leaned in and kissed Lydia’s cheek. “His robe is silk. Food stains do not wash out,” he whispered in her ear.
Lydia suppressed a grin. Sometimes her father could be filled with absolute mischief. “I will pass your greetings on to the king,
Nikolaos’ mouth twitched as he no doubt strained to hear their exchange.
Once he and Lydia left her residence, they walked the pebble-lined path to the palace and through the king’s garden. Lydia often enjoyed the view of the gardens from her house. The palace, though much smaller than the royal dwellings on the Continent, shone resplendent against the evening sun with its Classical architecture. Designed to pay homage to the ancient Athenian palaces, its pillars and steps were limestone.
As Lydia inhaled the fragrance of flowers, her sensory pleasure was cut short. The heavy scent of Nikolaos’ perfumed beard burned her nostrils as he leaned in to speak. “I see you brought your
. Music lightens a tense atmosphere. Perhaps the ambassador will enjoy an Aspasian folk tune while he dines.”
“It was my mother’s idea.” Lydia breathed through her mouth so as not to take in the scent of his cologne. All that did was substitute the urge to sneeze for the inclination to cough.
“Iris is an astute woman.”
They passed among the marble statues that lined the garden walkway. “I took the ambassador on a short tour of the palace grounds an hour ago,” Nikolaos said. “I wanted to see if he would reveal more details for his visit.”
Lydia’s ears perked. “What did he say?”
“He talked about the hot weather and remained silent as to his true interests. No matter. I will find out soon enough at dinner.”
“I’m anxious to hear his proposal, too.”
“And have you given any thought to
Nikolaos and her mother were forging a united front against her. She was sure of it. Lydia held her skirt as she climbed the palace stairs. “I declined your previous marriage offers, Nikolaos.”
He persisted yet again. “But should we wed, you needn’t worry about preserving the wealth young Lord Dimosthenis bequeathed you.”
Lydia stared at the double doors of the dining hall at the end of the corridor. King Sabba appointed ceremonial guards for the occasion. “My work with the Guild proves I can take care of myself.”
“One needs more than a scientific mind to prosper.” He paused, placing his free hand over hers as though he were a courting lover. “Many wellborn women would not hesitate to accept my offer.”
Lydia caught the hidden barb. She was born a commoner, holding royal title only by marriage. She would have never met Galen or become a Guild member had he not visited her father’s shop and seen one of her clockwork designs. Even so, she refused to allow Nikolaos to bleed his blue blood all over her pride. “If you’re intent on providing security for someone, donate your wealth to the people of Aspasia and my uncle.” She read his reaction to her newly acquired knowledge of the country’s financial state.
Nikolaos wore a pleasant expression for the servants that passed them in the corridor. “Your late husband’s uncle, you mean. Sabba tires of keeping a ward unrelated by blood or profitable ties.”
He succeeded in stirring her indignation. “My value doesn’t depend upon profit. If not for my inventions, Aspasia would have fallen to pirates.”
“There is more to maintaining a noble title than building engines and arranging cogwheels. Instead of marrying me to solidify your place for the throne, you tinker with steam boilers at your leisure, using His Majesty’s funds to do it. Do not think he will tolerate that or your outspoken candor for much longer. ”
Lydia glimpsed the lavishly-displayed food on the table as the dining hall doors opened and closed behind the servants. She lost what little appetite she had for dinner. Surely Sabba would not force her to marry Nikolaos against her will? “You seek my hand only to get to the throne, Nikolaos. You have no affection or love for anyone but yourself.”
She moved to take her arm away from him, but he held on, pulling her into the dining hall. He spoke under the melodious strains of a lyre being played by a musician. “Even with your title and wealth, you fail to catch the interest of any man in Aspasia. You are not a beauteous woman. You are twenty-eight years old and engage in a man’s profession, further diminishing what minor charms you do possess. You cannot spurn me forever, Lydia.”
If he thought to hurt her pride with his harsh appraisal, she would not give him the satisfaction. “I would be
to marry a scheming, uncaring man like you.”
Lydia gathered her strength and used enough force to yank herself free. The momentum sent her arm behind her body. She heard a soft grunt and looked over her shoulder.
To her horror, Ambassador Cartret doubled over in pain.
Still holding her
, Lydia put her free hand on Rhys’ broad shoulder, prepared to steady him in case he lost balance. His tanned face grew ruddy. He muttered unfamiliar words in English. The forcefulness behind them made her guess that he was swearing.
The musician stopped playing the lyre and stared aghast at what transpired. The servants halted their traffic in and out of the kitchen door. Nikolaos made his thin eyebrows into a long black worm that stretched across his forehead in a frown.
Embarrassed, Lydia spoke English to the ambassador, but could not form sentences smoothly. “Ambassador Cartret, I—I beg your pardon. Standing there, I didn’t…I didn’t see you standing there.”
“Not to worry.” He ground the words out through his teeth, doing a poor job of concealing his pain. “After all, how could you see me standing behind you?”
“Forgive her, Ambassador.” Nikolaos’ tone became syrupy. “As Lady Dimosthenis works amongst her machines almost daily, she is unused to being in such close quarters with those not made of metal.”
Lydia wished her elbow had gone into Nikolaos’ ribs rather than the ambassador’s stomach. “Shall I find a physician?”
She could tell Rhys still ached as he put up a resilient front. He stood tall again. “No need. I took worse blows when I worked on the Swansea docks in Wales as a youth. I can stomach this. Although, your strength is impressive, even without a blunderbuss.” His eyes twinkled with humor.
The back of Lydia’s neck warmed.
Nikolaos cleared his throat. He indicated for Lydia to look at her hand. She still held the ambassador by the shoulder. She dropped her arm to her side.
“I was following too closely.” Rhys straightened his black tail coat. The color matched his hair, which was combed neatly and gave a blue-black sheen under the chandelier. He certainly was young for a diplomat. And a dapper one at that. “I approached to tell you that we’re seated next to each other at the table. I hope that won’t be too much of an inconvenience.”
“Yes. I mean, no. I shouldn’t think it will be. ” Lydia regained her composure. At this rate, he would think her a dullard as well as an oaf.
He offered his white-gloved hand. “I’ll escort you to your chair, if Lord Abeiron doesn’t mind, of course.”
Lydia knew that Nikolaos did indeed mind, but he inclined his head politely to the ambassador and went to stand by the door.
Being seated next to Rhys would be a welcome respite from Nikolaos, even if he did hail from New Britannia. She allowed him to take her to the table, his hand sure and warm through the glove. Why he chose to wear such things in warm weather was beyond her understanding. She wanted to ask whether his countrymen always dressed for the cold, but she dare not say anything more to make herself sound uncouth. She needed to appear competent to negotiate.
“You look lovely this evening,” he conversed while they stood waiting for the king to arrive. “And I see you brought an instrument. It looks much better in your hands than a firearm.” He smirked.
“You should have stopped after the first compliment, Ambassador Cartret. Perhaps then I would have believed you.”
His smirk deepened. A dimple appeared in his left jaw. “I spoke true to both compliments. And call me Rhys. After tonight, we’ll be seeing more of each other.”
Lydia set the
against her chair. “You’re very confident of your success when we have yet to hear the proposal, Ambassa-
. Is that how you pronounce your name?”
“You may call me Lydia, though not here. It would be inappropriate before the king.” The heat of the cooked food and the hall’s warm temperature prompted her to remove her jacket.