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Fortune's Veil

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Edros Te'verti was not a frivolous man. Nevertheless, as Coastal Grande's Commissioner of Trade, he knew all too well the prominence of wealth and, as such, did not feign modesty. His galleries, adorned with vast portraitures and landscapes bordered in gilded ornament, dwarfed its guests while they tread softly upon hand-knotted silk rugs and patterned marble. From above, crystalline chandeliers showered facets of glittering radiance, flooding each chamber with opulent warmth that was both inviting and daunting. If a person's character was reflected by their home, then Te'verti was a man who'd claim to be your friend, but for only as long as you were valuable to him. 

At least that was the first impression Caerwyn gathered without having met the man. She traced a gloved finger along the base of a brass candelabra and paused momentarily to inspect her warped reflection on its polished surface. 

Who are you judge a man you've never met? She wondered before dismissing the reproachful eyes that stared back at her. As Caerwyn climbed the staircase, she moved her hand to admire the alabaster balustrade railing, all at once in awe of its construction and appalled at the excess of it. Upon reaching the top, she turned to face the large triplet windows marveling at the view of a sunset sky painted with vermilion and lavender clouds, while speckles of gold danced across the ocean's surface. 

"Amazing, isn't it?" 

Caerwyn hadn't realized how deep in thought she'd been until her heart nearly jumped into the base of her throat from hearing the voice. Fortunately, as she craned her neck to face her father, she saw no indication of discernment that he had caught her off guard. 

"To imagine what this room must look like during the day when the sun fills it with light," he continued, oblivious to his daughter's discomfort. "It's a shame, however, there isn't enough flat surface for it to bounce and illuminate this segmental barrel vault. What a waste of potential."

Aldric Elevar, always reliably pragmatic and aloof, was an architect of budding prestige that had in recent years earned his status among the lowest peers of the social high-class. As Caerwyn's father, he was the role model of her aspirations for architectural and interior design. Although it had become apparent they shared mixed views on the direction of modern architecture ever since her return from studying abroad, she worked as an assistant to his trade with the prospect of taking over. 

"If its potential was providing a space bright enough for writing trade agreements or legislation, then it would be wasted," she contended, turning her back to the window to abandon the dreamy scene and its diversion. "But the vault is merely meant to expand the space to convey a message without being too poignant."

"Oh?" Aldric raised a brow behind his round spectacles. "And what message is that?"

He's testing me again, isn't he? Caerwyn might've openly scoffed if it hadn't been for the scrutinizing glances of lavishly dressed socialities spared their way. She felt the burden of their judgments weigh on her with suffocating intensity, and the answer to his question, which was so clear just a moment ago, flitted away. 

"Um--well--you see, that's not important right now," she redirected. "We're here to celebrate Commissioner Te'verti's son's birthday, right? He's eighteen or something like that. What's his name again?"

"Yusef, I believe." If Aldric was disappointed in his daughter for her forgetfulness or blatant attempt at misdirection, he didn't show it. Instead, he sniffed and rolled his shoulders before offering an arm for her to take. She accepted his invitation and smiled meekly. "I'm glad you decided to come, even if you are a little late. Your mother will be pleased." 

Caerwyn inwardly groaned. "I'm sure she will be. Too bad for Edwin that he's missing out."

"His time will come."

As her father led her up the series of steps, Caerwyn could feel the pounding in her chest grow more frantic as the music of the reception hall and the voices clamoring within filled her ears to the brim. They drowned out her thoughts and just as she feared she might retch from the overabundance of butterflies swarming her stomach, a reassuring hand found her arm. 

"You look beautiful, by the way," Aldric said with a rare, affectionate smile. 

Caerwyn was taken back by the compliment, briefly wondering if her father had been replaced by a misinformed doppelganger. After all, her attire was wholly unremarkable compared to the extravagant finery worn by other attendees. Her satin, peacock blue gown had little to no embellishing features aside from the thin, silver-filigreed lace embroidered at the cinch of her waist. It was high-collared and sleeveless, accompanied by long gloves that made her feel less vulnerable. The only additional accessory she wore was a rose gold hair-pin with a singular ivory pearl rose crowned by white crystal leaves at the top of its stem. It was nestled on the side of her rope-braided bun, the platinum white of her hair a striking contrast. 

Caerwyn peered up at her father with a raised, challenging brow. "You're only saying that because I'm your daughter. You pretty much obligated to."

Aldric laughed, drawing unwanted attention and quizzical stares. "What? Is your father not entitled to his own opinions? I might be old, Wyn, but I'm not blind." He paused and shrugged. "Not yet anyway."

Patting her arm a final time, he nodded his head towards the wide arch which housed the bulk of Yusef Te'verti's birthday celebration. "Come on then," he beckoned. "Might as well make the most of the night. You never know what or who you might find." 

"You just want me to mingle with all the potential clients," Caerwyn surmised teasingly.

He chuckled. "Guilty as charged."

With an internal sigh, she donned her invisible mask, outfitted with a smile and glassy lilac eyes. Perhaps, she thought, this wouldn't be so bad. She might survive this night in one piece and with most of her sanity still intact. 

At least that's what she hoped.

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"Quite the party the Commissioner put together don't ya think?" Felden said as he hovered over one of the lavish dessert buffet tables. His hand poised to strike, though his uncertainty evident as he recoiled slightly from each choice. "What's the occasion? Someone get 'itched?" He added before knocking over a skillful stack of macaroons as he reached towards a pastry.

Zachariah smiled at the spectacle while he nodded in agreement. "It IS his son's eighteenth birthday after all. A step towards adulthood, and new responsibilities." Zachariah raised his hand to his mouth as he imagined an old overdressed street dog before him, he hid his enjoyment beneath his gray cashmere sleeve. 

"Adulthood?! Bah!! I was an 'adult' when I turned nine!" Felden snorted. "I was living on my own, earning my OWN money." He turned to Zachariah, his plate now packed with assorted cakes and sweets. "Tis stupid how easy some folks have it, given free handouts and such." 

Zachariah raised an eyebrow as he glanced at the mountain of desserts than back to Felden.

 Felden narrowed his eyes at Zachariah. "Well... I lived for this long.." He replied with a grunt. Turning slowly, Felden gingerly inched towards a vacant wall to lean against. Zachariah stood beside him with crossed arms as Felden found a spot and plucked a cherry from atop his collection. "So... What do Edros Te'verti have, that you need?" Felden said, before filling his mouth with what looked to be marble cheesecake.

"Nothing that I need to take with me this time." Zachariah felt the temptation to relax with his companion but stepped away from its attraction. "But, I need you to act on your best behavior Felden." Zachariah raised his hand and pointed towards him sharply. Felden looked about with filled cheeks, then raised his hand and pointed to himself in exaggerated shock. "Yes, you. I don't need another incident like the one at the Gustav's."

Felden frowned. "As long as they don't treat me like some freak, I think I can manage." Felden licked his fingers before gorging once again. "Besides, it wasn' my fault. They thought I was supposed to be waiting on ya, like some kind of servant." 

"A chauffeur Felden, it's a driver. And you WERE supposed to be waiting by the coach." Zachariah turned away and breathed in sharply to control his growing frustration. Knowing Felden would continue to argue if he proceeded, but he hadn't the patience nor the time tonight. Zachariah lightly exhaled and looked over himself. Not one loose thread seen, nor any visible stains on his gray cashmere jacket and matching pants. Except for the red wine stain inside which made the jacket affordable. His leather boots still gleamed from polish and rubbed his silver inlet cuffs as he rolled his shoulders back then closed his eyes. "Now, stay here and be certain the Te'verti's don't leave. And remember... The most important thing."

"I don't know where ya went..." Felden said in between bites. 

Zachariah smiled, as he walked towards the center of the ballroom. Plunging himself once again into grave waters.


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The ballroom was a dizzying array of shimmering glass and dancing vignettes, trimmed with delicate lace and rivulets of smooth silk. A cacophony of idle chatter and disembodied laughter jarred against the forlorn plight of the tiny orchestra's hum, as polished vamps and pointed heels swept across the floor with unbroken choreography. Among the blur of floating heads, painted lips smiled with feigned interest, and powdered noses flared with concealed resentment. Caerwyn bemused herself with the empty consolation that she was not the only one wearing a mask tonight.


The drawling shriek from beyond the hall sent goosebumps creeping across her skin. Tearing through the crowd with little concern for the drawn attention, a middle-aged woman with probing hooded eyes and a hawkish nose barreled towards Caerwyn and her father. Aldric immediately stiffened, then pet his daughter's arm to signal the release of his patriarchal duty. 

"Seeing as your mother has found you, I have some business to attend with," he paused, eyes searching the room for a convincing, but vague target. "Those gentlemen over there, to discuss... buildings." 

Ducking his head behind the tall nest of a woman's extravagant bun, Aldric slipped away in time to avoid confrontation with the swooping harpy, otherwise known as his wife. Caerwyn should've been disappointed with her father's hasty and unapologetic abandonment, but it was nothing less than expected. When Tess Elevar finally emerged from the disgruntled masses, she blinked with perplexed disbelief at the vacant space beside her daughter.

"Wasn't your father just here?" she asked, craning her long neck in search of her dubious husband. "I could've sworn he was. I sent him to go look for you forever ago and haven't seen him since." 

Caerwyn shrugged, drawing her lips tight. But before she could even get a word out in reply, her mother waved a dismissive palm and took her by the arm. "No matter. I have been waiting for you all night," Tess exclaimed with an exaggerated shrill as she hauled the young woman through the throng of amused spectators. "How inconsiderate. Lucky for you, you have a mother who cares enough to spend all her free time regaling our peers with your notable virtues and accomplishments to keep them interested in meeting you, instead of spending this memorable night dancing and feasting and--well--enjoying myself as I most rightly deserve to."

Your accomplishments, you mean, Caerwyn thought with the words on the tip of her tongue. Clever enough to avoid invoking her mother's reprisal at the cost of her dignity, she puffed her cheeks and swallowed her pride. But as they approached the circle of scrupulous gentlewomen and their refined companions, she began to wonder exactly what her mother had told them and how much of it was embellished. Heat steamed from her ears as her neck grew hot beneath the high-collared gown. 

They came to a stop at the reluctant gap in the ring. The women, near her mother's age, arched their shoulders like challenged birds, bristling their iridescent plumes. The men, most of them older than their companions, were aloof but offered amiable smiles. One of the men, closer to Caerwyn's age, contributed nothing but a blank expression and measuring eyes. These were the unfortunate victims of her mother's attention. 

"May I present my daughter, Caerwyn?" Tess announced with thinly veiled enthusiasm while Caerwyn presented an adequate curtsy. She glanced at her daughter with a double-take, her face skewed as if reconsidering what to say next. "Obviously, I must been preoccupied with more pressing matters during the selection of her wardrobe for tonight. In her defense, she's been quite busy with the success of managing my husband's architectural ventures, which I'm sure you all know."

At that moment, Caerwyn wished she had been born blind and deaf. As her mother paraded her unconvincingly to each member of the group with scant opportunity to reply, she could feel herself shrinking beneath their indifferent scrutiny. The subconscious prickle of magic raised the fine white hairs on the back of her neck with an open invitation to be used. But, even though she wanted to receive its call, she couldn't, especially not under the gaze of so many eyewitnesses. 

"If I recall, Sir Revvick, you have an interest in exotic and antiquated designs?" Tess's question was poised at the young man with the hollow stare.

He shot a glance at the tall slender woman beside him, likely his mother by the shared darkness of their hair, who offered him a subtle twitch of her nose as assent. Sir Revvick straightened and replied with a stiff nod.

"Well, then perhaps this a great opportunity to...probe my daughter's experiences," she offered while Caerwyn cringed at the unfortunate phrasing. "She's just returned from abroad, as I've mentioned, and is full of fascinating knowledge. I'm sure."

Faithful to his upbringing Sir Revvick wouldn't deny the intended request of a lady no matter his social seniority. After all, he was gentlemen willing to play into the obvious scheme laid before him out of dignified civility. "I agree," he replied. "I would be interested in hearing more about your endeavors Miss Elevar. Shall we step away and leave our betters to their conversation so we can enjoy ours?"

How can he show so much politeness with such a dead look on his face? He must really hate this. Despite her misgivings, Caerwyn wasn't about to pass a good opportunity to escape her mother's clutches. She nodded and accepted his arm's invitation as they separated from eyesight and earshot of the group without a further word. In fact, nothing was said at all until they stopped and turned to observe the dancers with awkward reticence. 

Finally, Sir Revvick cleared his throat and spoke. "Would you like a drink? I'll locate a waiter and bring us something if you'd like." 

Not since meeting him had Caerwyn uttered a single word. Now, the interior of her throat was thickened with neglect so she merely nodded her response. He turned, paused as if to say something, but quickly changed his mind and left. A heavy sigh escaped her lungs resulting in the most sound she's made since entering the ballroom. 

Casting her eyes on the center stage where sweeping gowns and pressed ensembles whirled in unison, Caerwyn felt a longing to join their whimsical exposition, but also great terror at the prospect of being on display. Ultimately, she preferred being a wallflower and the obscurity which accompanied the solitary role. Without thinking, she began to pace the outer platform, weaving in between gatherings of chittering gentry as she captured glimpses of the performance from varying angles. Willingly ensnared by her own dreamy disposition, she lost sight of where she'd been and practically forgot all about Sir Revvick fetching their refreshments. But, the pang of remorse was brief once she convinced herself he'd be relieved at her absence. So, she congratulated herself for the sense of thoughtfulness at releasing him from his uninspiring obligation. 

It helped to numb the pain that way. 

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The room was radiant as any other ballroom should be. The incandescent light from the chandelier not only illuminated the room but also the spirits of its occupants. Each person undoubtedly swayed by its charm and drawn to the room's epicenter. The sound of footsteps tapping in rhythm to the music of the chamber orchestra had drawn in Zachariah, observing elegance and class that was once familiar. Discerning between novice and adept was a simple game for him to pass the time when he had "family obligations" to attend. But his game was soon interrupted when a familiar voice pricked his ears, sending a slow chill up his back.

"Do my eyes deceive me?... Zachariah?" A soft voice said, feeling the stranger skulking behind him. 

"Hi, Yvette." He replied, twisting his head to the side and glanced at her sharply. She stood beside him within his peripheral view, fanning herself with a white goose feather fan as she hid her mouth while she spoke.

"So it is you, how long has it been? Much too long for certain." She spoke with an airy tone, picturing her smile beneath the fan. Coiling upwards from a smile to a slight smirk, eager to converse for her entertainment. "How is your family?"

Zachariah felt a tinge of pain trail from the back of his head towards the front, he closed his eyes to regain control once again and replied. "I don't know, I've been rather busy lately." Zachariah's eyes shot towards her but were unable to meet her own as she continued to look forward. "But, tell me Yvette, are the rumors true? You're still single?" He felt her gaze but instead flashed her a wide grin, content knowing he pulled a string.

Yvette lightly cleared her throat as she began to fan herself again as she recouped. "There aren't any suitable suitors I fear, but there is no rush for me. Unlike someone who had last all hope of finding someone, if not for love but also money and influence." She raised an eyebrow towards him, though Zachariah's face remained steadfast.

"That maybe, but I do recall a certain young woman who pined for my affection. Even begged her father to arrange us, but was rebuked." Zachariah's nostrils flare, as his firm expression loosened. "I do wonder about her, hoping she had moved on."

Yvette sighs and turns towards Zachariah, who continued to look towards the dancers. "I HAVE moved on Zach. Unlike someone who remains a ghost, craving to be seen once more. ignorant of the fact that I and everyone else had moved on from you." She snapped her fan shut and turned, walking away promptly. Zachariah clenched his jaw from the wound she had left in his heart or was it his pride? He narrowed his brow and begun to push his way through the crowd. I will make them remember... Zachariah's eyes caught a shimmer from a rose gold hair-pin before him and reached for its owner's hand. Feeling her gloved hand in his, he spun her around and as he bowed his head in frivolous chivalry. 

"May I have this dance, my lady?" 

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There was a sweet innocence in the twinkle of Caerwyn's eyes as she watched the dancers take flight. But, lurking behind the gleam was despondent envy, hollowing her gaze. She was deep in the recesses of her reverie when a foreign touch brushed against her hand. She was content to ignore it as a casual incident, but when the stranger's fingers curled around hers with elicit intent, her mind reeled as the daydream came to an abrupt end. 

Caerwyn spun at the command of the hand, half-expecting to find Sir Revvick waiting with a bitter expression for her careless abandonment. Instead, she nearly gasped with surprise to find an entirely different gentleman regarding her with an expectant gaze and offer to dance. She stared back at him, wide-eyed and stiff like a frightened doe resigning itself to the maw of a hungry wolf. An awkward tension followed his invitation with the absence of her response. Though only seconds had passed, for her, it felt like forever.

Realizing her jaw was agape, Caerwyn hastily snapped it shut and bit the side of her tongue. With an audible hiss, she reflexively freed her hand from the man's grasp and raised it to her lips, squinting her eyes to will the pain away. Her cheeks flushed, with a blend of embarrassment and irritation to paint them pink. She fluttered her tear-tinged eyes open, settling on the gentleman still waiting on her reply.

"Umm, I'm sorry? Uhh, no?" Instantly, a spark of remorse for her rejection countered a reply. "I mean yes." But that was honest. "Wait, no. Yes, that I mean no." Caerwyn inwardly cursed the visible uncertainty that discredited her good judgment. Drawing her hands to her stomach, she clasped them together with a writhing motion. 

"I'm utterly hopeless when it comes to dance and so, for your well-being--especially for the well-being of your feet--I'm going to have to decline." That should've been the end of it. However, Caerwyn had been so caught off guard by this gentleman, that her invisible mask slipped out of place, revealing a clumsy and unstudied woman who had an unfortunate inclination to overshare.

"Just to be clear, I'm not rejecting you because you're not pleasing to look at--you are, pleasing, that is--and I'm sure your feet are too, so I wouldn't want to step on them, which I will do a lot of--I think. I'm not really sure because I don't dance much, but I think it's better to assume I would."

Oh please, stop. This is why I don't talk. 

Caerwyn swallowed, feeling exceptionally parched. "You know, I'm quite thirsty and it's really hot and this dress is suffocating, so I think I should bid you farewell. Excuse me."

She turned in an attempt to scurry away as quickly as possible, praying he'd relent and she would never have to ever see him again. Small ripples of magical energy sent chills down her spine as she tamed her urge to cross into the veil and disappear out of sight.

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Zachariah's eyes could not tear away from the soft lilac eyes before him, not because of their beauty. But from the undeniable awkward tension that suffocated himself and undeniably her too. Caught in utter surprise, Zachariah felt his heart sink as the woman stared absently at him. Mouth agape, she removed her hand from his with an audible hiss. Zachariah's hand retracted slowly while fixing his posture awaiting her response. 

"Umm, I'm sorry?... Uhh, no? I mean yes... Wait, no. Yes, that I mean no." 

Zachariah felt his arms cross slowly as her words began to etch inside his mind like chalk to a blackboard. Furiously processing what was happening, as his focus darted from her words to her body language. Noticing her hands drawn to her stomach. Was she sicken at the thought? He looked up to see her face flushed. 

"I'm utterly hopeless when it comes to dance and so, for your well-being..."

What do you mean MY well-being?? You're clearly making me uncomfortableZachariah raised an eyebrow as she continued with arms still crossed, if not tighter.

"--I'm going to have to decline."  Zachariah felt the opportunity to speak, opening his mouth to speak but was cut off shortly.

"Just to be clear, I'm not rejecting you because you're not pleasing to look at--you are, pleasing, that is--and I'm sure your feet are too, so I wouldn't want to step on them, which I will do a lot of--I think. I'm not really sure because I don't dance much, but I think it's better to assume I would." Said the perplexing woman.

Zachariah was at a loss for words, as his mind clawed and scratched upon the blackboard since the chalk had been discarded. He winced, not knowing whether or not to accept the compliment or to even give one in return.

"You know, I'm quite thirsty and it's really hot and this dress is suffocating, so I think I should bid you farewell. Excuse me." The woman turned and scurried away, leaving Zachariah bewildered by the event. His mouth mimicking hers, he closed it and cleared his throat than turned towards the opposite direction. 

"Well, an interesting development." He said quietly to himself as he continued to walk away, his companion tilting his head upon the discovery of Zachariah's current location. 

"It seems I'll be killing time elsewhere..." He said on passing, not waiting for a reply as Felden's mouth was busy from the discovery of assorted exotic candies. Zachariah looked ahead and furrowed his brow. He wasn't lost or anything, but knew exactly where this path would lead. Jiggling his pockets and hearing the sound of loose coin, he sighed and pressed forward towards the private common area. 

"Please, let my fortune turn in my favor tonight.." 

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What in the world was that?! Caerwyn didn't dare look behind to see if the man was following her--at least not at first. How embarrassing! I must have looked like an idiot. Who knows who else saw that disaster. Splendid show you've put on, Caerwyn! 

After what she deemed was an appropriate amount of time, she pretended to stop and admire the string quartet before diverting her eyes to survey the ballroom. There was no sign of the mystery man, yet she didn't feel relieved. Just guilt. Fortunately, it seemed no one else had noticed the awkward exchange, or they were too 'polite' to show that they had. 

Regardless, the night was ruined for Caerwyn, just as she expected. But, it wasn't quite over yet and more torture duly was inbound. She would need to steel herself. So, she took a deep breath and held it, shutting her eyes and driving out the dissonance that pervaded her ears until all she heard was the music. It calmed her, a symphony that grounded her to the earth.

Such heart wasted on a crowd not listening. Strings of sympathy tugged from within as she opened her eyes and faced the quartet. They play, knowing that few will pay their passion heed, yet they still do without relent. A violinist caught her pensive gaze and offered Caerwyn a knowing smile before turning back to the sheet before him. She flushed at having been caught, but a familiar voice called to her to distract from the humiliation. 

"Wyn? Ah, yes, it is you," Aldric declared, resting a hand on his daughter's shoulder to grab her attention. He didn't seem to notice the twisted and sunken flesh shaping her expression, just as he rarely did. "Come, let me introduce you to our next client."

Caerwyn stiffened briefly but nodded, eager for the redemption of her inept social skills. They approached a small gather of men, all well dressed with impeccable posture and steadfastness that rivaled stone. One particular stout man, with a less than inconspicuous hairpiece, eyed her approach with dubious contempt. Aside from the girth of his round belly, his attire suffered much of the same overindulgence, each polished adornment glinting with nurtured hubris.

This must be Edros Te'verti, she thought, clenching her jaw tight. Our next client. The needling puncture of his beady eyes convoked a swell of defiance within Caerwyn, and she readied herself to counterattack whatever animosity he bore against her. He must have seen the blaze behind her gaze, for when they stopped, he hardened and sucked in his gut. 

"May I introduce you to my daughter and protege, Caerwyn Elevar." Aldric gestured to her rather stiffly, surprising her with his apprehension. Then, he swept his hand towards a lord that was not her portly prosecutor. "Caerwyn, this gentleman here is Edros Te'verti, our most gracious benefactor in our next project."

When Caerwyn laid eyes on the real trade commissioner, she confessed she had been fooled. He didn't strike as nearly as an imposing figure as she initially surmised from the pageantry of his residence, but there was an air of solemnity and purposeful dignity to his character. Slender, but not fragile, he tucked his hands neatly behind his back and nodded his neatly bearded chin with acknowledgment. Aldric went on to name the other men, including the belly-endowed aristocrat who was an esteemed architect named Lord Lesorde and who had lost his bid to her father. Alongside Lord Te'verti was his 18-year-old son, gawking at her with beaming glass spectacles that did no favors by magnifying his wide eyes. Despite how uncomfortable she felt under the young man's gaze, she presented a suitable curtsey and turned her attention to his father. 

"Miss Elevar, thank you for coming to celebrate my son, Yusef's, birthday," Edros began, his tone surprisingly pleasant. "From what I understood of your mother's very... thorough explanation earlier, is that you were quite engaged in your father's work and might not come. I must say, your transcendent commitment to such duty has reassured me that we have placed our trade wing's expansion into the right hands."

Caerwyn blushed under the bombardment of his honeyed words. She caught a glimpse of his languid satisfaction in teasing her, which challenged her to remain steadfast. Perhaps her initial assessment of the trade commissioner wasn't mistaken. After all, money is the perfect medium for making con artists out of men.

"Thank you, Lord Te'verti," she offered with a bowed chin. "I hope to prove your sentiments and esteem justly placed. I must say, you have a lovely home. No doubt, procuring and integrating such luxuries to display is a clear testament of your exceptional administration for trade. I wonder if any household could rival such secure levity during these uncertain times."

The air around turned to frigid mush and Caerwyn paled until the border of her forehead and platinum locks disappeared. Lord Te'verti raised a brow, the warmth of his gaze diffused. His son, optics still beaming, seemed ignorant to the underhanded accusation the young woman had just proposed, as was Aldric. Lord Lesorde barely contained his curling simper and the other men shifted uncomfortably.

She had fix this fast or risk losing everything to blind triviality. "That is, your business acumen is admirable and the Council showed great judgment when choosing you to lead these endeavors that are well beyond my simple comprehension. There's a lot one can benefit from by studying your achievements."

Caerwyn spoke too fast, the string of words a muddled, knotted mess as they departed her lips. But when the men's shoulders relaxed and Lord Te'verti proffered the dip of his head with a conceding smile, she knew she was in the clear even if only by the skin of her teeth. If she wanted to escape this night alive, she would need to tame her tongue and unbridled opinion. 

Lord Te'verti shifted his attention to the men. "Pertaining to our discussion before, I think it's nearly time to retire to the parlor. Now that my son is a man of enterprise, he should learn the distinctions between good and bad business, and the fickle quintessence of lady luck's part in it."

"Cards?" Aldric inquired, stifling his enthusiasm. "So there'll be gambling?"
Caerwyn nearly paled again. It had been years since her father had gambled and not since her brother's birth. She could spot the twinkle in his eyes and the way he wrung his palms together with reserved anticipation. She lightly touched his elbow to signal her misgivings, but it went unheeded as the men grunted with unanimous endorsement. It was too late to change his mind, but not too late to keep him from spiraling into ruin. Or so she hoped.

"Why don't I join you, papa?" Caerwyn wrapped her arm around his, and for a moment he looked guilty as if recognizing the shame of his wanton inclination but quickly replaced it with blank reassurance. "I do enjoy a good game of rummy every now then. This could fun."

Lord Lesorde snorted. "This, as you call it, isn't some benign pastime you ladies partake in to waste a perfectly good afternoon on a rainy day; this is high stakes. You'd be better suited in following the other gentlewomen into the drawing-room for gossip and complimenting on each other's choice of ribbons." 

"Oh come off it, Gerg," said one of the other men she'd forgotten the name of. "You should know better than anyone that the ladies can be as ruthless as men at cards when coin is involved. I recall your wife single-handedly sweeping the board clear of even your own game earnings at the last time we played. Played us, and you, for fools."

The portly lord glowered, spittling a single word as a reply. "Luck." 

"Luck indeed," Lord Te'verti agreed. "Lady Luck offers her favors to few, and often times when we least expect it." He raised his chin, casting an appreciative glance at Caerwyn. "Perhaps the young lady here will be the fortunate recipient of her favor today. Either way, it will be refreshing to have such... candid youth at our table."

She flinched. He may have openly forgiven her earlier remark, but he hadn't let it go. Caerwyn doubted she was making the right choice in going with her father to gamble, but the alternative didn't seem any better. To return his open endorsement with gratitude, she lightly curtsied and then followed the men as they retreated to the parlor. Lord Te'verti's departure from the ballroom signaled others to do the same, though many would remain as they preferred music, food, and dance to that of smoke, bourbon, and the peal of lost coin.

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