“Our engagement?” he clarifies. “You wish to know why I didn’t inform you?”
“Yes, Nikkolas,” I reply, uncertain how he will respond to my question.
“Well,” he begins, lowering his gaze at the table. “I initially didn’t think to correct you on this, mostly due in part because I desired to hear what you thought about our union,” gesturing to me with a wave of his hand. His answer stirs my unease, cruelly casual in his recount. “It’s truly comical, Avalor,” he suggests as a smile creeps over his lips, “I nearly lost my composure with you.”
“Comical, you say?” I repeat politely, struggling to find the humor in that, “How so?”
“Ah,” he says, peering up at me, “you see, I was under the false impression you didn’t wish to marry me.” His words give me pause as I sense a growing concern for his mistranslation of events. “However, upon a better comprehension of your dilemma, I was relieved to hear that the origin of your request lies merely in your distaste for our institution.”
“Forgive me for my bluntness, Nikkolas,” I offer, attempting to sugarcoat the following, “but how can you suggest it’s merely my distaste?”
“Avalor,” he consoles, “when you first approached me in the courtyard, you were…” He pouts his lips, looking for the right words. “To put it plainly, you appeared hysterical.” Hysterical? I refrain from narrowing my eyes at him, intent on hearing his narrative. “You were in a state of distress, rambling on about politics and such,” he admits, waving his hand to illustrate my tirade. “To witness your torment, first hand, I couldn’t help but be overcome with fear of what you might do.”
“Fear what I might do?” I inquire, innocently tilting my head in curiosity.
“Yes, Avalor,” he replies, nodding, “I could tell by the falters in your tone that you were pitifully desperate, and couldn’t allow you to be tempted by such rash behavior.” I choose my next words carefully as I disguise my encroach around his truth.
“Tempted, you say? Could you be alluding to–?”
“Your plea for escape?” he adds, nonchalant as he finishes my thought. I nod cautiously, motioning for him to continue. “Well, yes, I soon realized that trying to steer you away from your ambitions proved futile. So, I compromised- I would humor your antics, and in exchange,” he reasons with the tilt of his head, seemingly acquainted with my perceived naivety, “you would mollify your woes with some rest and tea.” Some rest and tea? Humor my antics? I’m disgustingly certain he had no intention of ever aiding in my strife. I struggle to compose myself, sick with indigestion by his portrayal of such trivial barters. The gall of him to act as though they took part in some scheme, some plot to coax me out of my rage. “But I digress, I am relieved to see you are feeling better. And although you appeared quite dreadful, it’s my intention to help rectify your hurt.”
“I beg your pardon?” I question, leaning back in discomfort at the proposition, “You wish to help me?” I can tell his help won’t be without an ulterior motive so I tread carefully.
“Of course,” he assures, a strange sincerity in his tone. “It’s apparent our system has misled you into believing that you are worthless outside of your marriage to me,” he pauses to focus his gaze, tenderly tightening his grip on my hand, “and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
“W-what is the truth?” I stammer, uncertain as the gold in his eyes beg for my attention.
“How I yearn for the tide of your sapphire eyes to not spare me in its wake. That your crimson hair may singe my fingertips while I caress it. That the clack of your heels might just dance over my heart, trampling it with all your grace.” The fondness of his tone in which he recounts such horrific affairs puts me on edge. He speaks so nonchalant, I grapple to comprehend if his ease comes from a place of deception, or merely a seeming lust. “To learn that it was you who spilled my champagne glass into me,” he reveals with widened eyes, “I would have happily drowned in all the liquor imaginable, if it meant gazing upon your face once more.” He looks at me intently with honey dripping from his gaze, an expression I realize is lovesick. “Avalor, your presence alone is a gift, but to remain in your presence as your husband, I would wait out thousands of endless nights if I might return home to your embrace.”
I find myself at a loss for words, struggling to digest his words. Mere moments ago, he was boasting of his success in manipulating me; however, now he was swooning at the thought of being my victim in a senseless crime. As calculated as he was, I find it difficult to conceive such dribble would fall past his lips. I feel certain the purpose of his monologue was geared towards swaying my heart, but unbeknownst to him, it rather attested to a frightening duality lurking within him. Perhaps, the only victory within his sweet nothings was his consequential subduing of my unspoken fury. Having polluted my mind with such disorientating smoke, I had forgotten to tend to the kindling of my anger.
Sitting across from him, still taken aback by this revelation, I notice his unwavering gaze. I part my lips to speak, the tilt of his head confirming to me his pressure to form a response.
“I hadn’t realized you thought so… highly of me,” I admit awkwardly, not fully convinced highly was the right word to describe the thoughts he had divulged.
“I merely thought it necessary to voice my admiration,” he answers. Admiration, is that what he calls it? “Given how torn you were,” he continues, mulling over my past indiscretion, “I felt obligated to help mend your heart.” His condescension rears its ugly head between his words, teasing my rage. I can’t be certain if his mockery is deliberate, or he just possessed innate talent.
“And for that I am grateful, Nikkolas,” I force out with a crude smile, betrayed by the smite of my own tongue. I fear what I might say if this conversation prolongs when I’m suddenly alerted to the sound of rolling wheels. Among them is the march of several footsteps, coming down from across the hall. Supper! My stomach growls at the sight of the French doors swinging open to reveal the pushcart.
The servant steering it parks the cart beside our table. Curiously, I only recognize one silver platter, despite there being ample room for two. I watch as His Grace suddenly lurches for the wine, grasping its neck while the churning ice fills the space left empty. He pops the cork off swiftly, anxious for a glass. My eyes follow the red liquid as it clashes into the side of his cup. He then brings it to his lips, glugging as though he had been withholding his thirst for days.
“Excuse me, Lady Avalor.” I turn to the attendant at my side, holding another bottle of wine out for me.
“Oh, no thank you,” I say politely, shaking my head. I would not be getting drunk in his presence. The server replaces the liquor in the ice bucket and goes to bring back the single platter. He sets it in front of me, and lifts the cloche to reveal several slices of pheasant and mashed potatoes, alongside a bed of herbs. The pleasant aroma of caraway fills the air as I peer over at the cart, wondering if the help might’ve made an error. I glance at His Grace for any indication of a discrepancy, but he oddly remains composed as the servants begin to take their leave.
“Nikkolas?” I chime, unconvinced he was unaware of the issue, “Might the attendants be bringing your food in a separate cart?” He perks up at my question, obviously enamored with his second pouring of wine.
“Hmm?” he responds. “Ah, no the alcohol will hold me over,” he smiles, cheerfully tipping his drink towards me. His eyes gravitate to my empty glass. “Did the servant not offer you any?” He darts his gaze at the nearest attendant, questioning them. “Did you not serve her any?” The man seems startled by His Grace, and I act to mediate.
“No, Nikkolas, he did offer me some,” I assure him, with an outstretched hand, “I merely declined it.” He tilts his head in bewilderment at my response.
“Well, why not?” he asks, motioning with the flick of his hand for the help to be excused.
“Oh, wine just isn’t my taste,” I lie. He takes a respite from his liquor and places his glass down at the table.
“Really?” he prods, seemingly fascinated by the prospect. “What is your taste, then?” Would he believe me if I said I didn’t have one? I suspect where he is leading me with this conversation and try to counter.
“Oh, I simply meant to imply I wouldn’t be drinking tonight,” I affirm sweetly.
“Not even for the celebration of our engagement night?” he adds, nudging me to partake in the festivity.
“Unfortunately no, Nikkolas,” I declare, not taking kindly to his persuasion.
“Alright, Avalor,” he taunts, relenting on his escapade. “Suit yourself,” he smirks before downing the glass of red wine.