Here for your enjoyment are two of the internal images from the book (in the printed version, the maps will be in black and white) and the entirety of the Prologue. Some of the formatting may not match that in the book, since it’s not precisely formatted for blog posts. At the end there is a link to Chapter 1.
“What makes a man a noble?
What sets a soul apart?
Is it breeding or upbringing
Or the depth of his own heart?
“What forms a mind of greatness
That triumphs through its toil?
Whose memory will not be lost
When buried in the soil?”
30th Viscount of Draishire
Things could not go on as they were. Yet they had been that way for centuries; change was both impossible and inevitable, terrifying and longed for. Most in Gandria had given up hope, focusing instead on their immediate needs or seeking escape in harmless fantasies. Most, but not all.
Deep in the heart of Antaria City, Robert Polidman was visiting his parents’ apartment, programming their new video recorder while they prepared for an evening out to celebrate their forty-third wedding anniversary.
“Don’t forget your coat, dear,” Hillary called down the corridor, “the forecast is for clear skies tonight and you know how poor your circulation gets after sitting down for too long.”
“I am perfectly aware of how my body functions,” grumbled Douglas, then the corners of his mouth shifted upwards a little. “I’m just enjoying the spectacle of Robert struggling with that newfangled contraption of yours. I still can’t fathom why you spent our hard-earned shillings on such a thing in the first place.”
“I’d hardly call it struggling, Father. I’m just checking the instruction manual to be sure, it’s a relatively straightforward procedure. Mother is just keeping up with progress.”
“Progress? Nothing ever changes, nothing that matters, anyway. Having an excuse to spend more time dulling my brain with nonsensical entertainment is not what I call progress. Whatever happened to creativity and socialising, to making time for your fellow human beings?”
At least we can be sure that you’ll stay the same, Father, thought Robert with a faint smile and pressed two final buttons on the remote control. “There you go, Mother. It’s all set to record the Ball of the Year. You can go and enjoy the theatre now.”
Hillary returned to the lounge to admire his competence. “Thank you, Robert. I was so thrilled when Miss Elford and Miss Adams got through the final selection evening, such sweet and honest girls. I voted for both of them, you know.”
“That you did, throwing away two shillings a week on that charade.”
“Don’t be so cynical, Douglas. I would be over the moon if a young lady like that took an interest in our Robert.”
“Mother, I hardly think anyone as dignified as that is going to be interested in a middle-aged carpenter.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Robert.” She brushed a piece of fluff from his coat. “Carpentry’s an honest trade and you’re a solid and dependable man. Any one of those contestants would be happy to find someone like you.”
Douglas rolled his eyes. “All I ever hear is the contest this and the contestants that. I lived through the troubled years, I saw men struggle and die for a lofty goal. If the nobility truly understood what those worthy souls fought for and cared for their subjects, they would have done more for us than organise that annual fairy tale!”
Robert glanced up at the ceiling with a faint sigh. You’re not the only one to have seen those things, they weren’t exactly long ago.
Hilary’s eyes widened and she pointed a shaky finger to her lips.
Douglas glanced at the door and back to her. “No-one can hear us in here. You think my own son is going to turn me in for speaking against the nobility?”
“You know what I mean, we need to be careful.”
Robert looked down at the floor and clenched a fist. Don’t say it, not yet. This is not the time, and certainly not the place. Soon. He put on his brown tweed coat and hat and led them out the front door, then locked the flat and gave them back the keys before escorting the two of them to the tram stop in the street below.
The cool evening air had an invigorating bite to it, and Hillary couldn’t help herself. “Oh, it’s nippy out already. Are you going to be alright walking home, Robert?”
“I’ll be fine.” Robert pulled on his black leather gloves. “You just enjoy your show. Look, here comes your tram.”
Hillary offered to help Douglas up into the tram, Douglas flapped a hand at her to not fuss so much and climbed the steps without any assistance.
Robert waved to them as he watched the tram leave, thinking, You will be proud of me, Father.
He turned and went on his way, past a butcher and greengrocer displaying their usual ‘sold out’ signs. Across the road a half-price sale on televisions and video recorders was having the desired effect, a small crowd had gathered both inside and out. Every screen in the brightly lit shop window displayed the same row of young women in ballgowns. Robert shook his head and headed down a side alley.
However, he didn’t follow the alley all the way through and take his normal shortcut home across the square at its end. Instead, he cut into a second darker alley and from there into a third, where he stepped into an unlit alcove and turned his coat and hat inside out. This transformed his dignified evening look into a dark blue ensemble that blended into the urban gloom and he set off towards a different goal. As he made his way via the shadows of murky alleyways, parks and run-down underpasses, the soft rubberised soles of his shoes muffled the sound of his footsteps and left him undisturbed from his many thoughts.
Thoughts of what awaited him as well as what had brought him this far, always returning to that awful day:
“You shouldn’t be driving, it’s too near your due date.”
“Don’t worry, no-one in the family has ever been more than two weeks premature. I’ll have my mobile with me, it’ll be fine.”
“Be careful, and don’t forget I love you.”
“I will and I won’t.” She smiled as she backed out of the drive.
He moved out to the pavement to follow her little two-seater until it was out of sight. The traffic light at the end of their road was red, so she exchanged waves with him while she waited. The light turned green, they exchanged one last wave and she began slowly turning left. Just as Robert was turning back towards the house, he heard a great smash of metal on metal.
His head whipped round towards the noise and what he saw would never leave his memory.
An armoured personnel carrier moving at speed.
Her little vehicle being rolled and crushed under its hardened tyres.
It continued on its way without slowing down.
She didn’t even get a chance to scream.
Robert stood with his mouth hanging open, lips barely moving.
“Wha… No… Mel… ”
A second armoured vehicle bearing the same crest of Marquess Linocia charged through and further flattened the wreckage.
Robert began to run towards the junction.
The three other vehicles in the column skirted around the remains, but none of them slowed down.
Convoys carrying nobles never did, not since the assassination of Earl Scaipland forty years ago.
Robert reached the junction. It was clear from his first glance at the mangled mess that there was no hope.
The world faded into irrelevance as he rushed to the wreckage and heaved at the twisted metal.
It dug into his hands, but he didn’t feel the pain. Expending all of his strength, it still wouldn’t budge.
“Let her go!”
He moved on to a different piece of tortured alloy, then another, but none would yield, none would submit to his pleas. He pounded on the buckled metal plates with his fists, his lungs and stomach heaving, until his arms fell leaden to his sides.
He finally sat on the tarmac and looked at the cuts on his bloodied hands.
Is this my blood, or hers?
The thought awoke the pain. With the pain came clarity, and with clarity anger. Trembling, he stood from the wreckage and shouted after the long-vanished convoy,
“Look at what you’ve done, you heartless monsters! She did nothing to deserve this! Look at what you’ve done!”
“Quiet, you fool!” whispered a passer by. “That was a noble convoy. Do you want to be sent to Stonewell?”
“You be quiet! They killed my wife and child! Look at them, look at them.” Robert descended into sobs and collapsed to his knees in the road.
Her funeral was a cautious affair. Many came to express their condolences, but no-one wanted to talk about the circumstances of her death. Robert also avoided the subject, but hated himself for doing so.
A week later, the Marquess’ office made an official court statement on the matter:
‘To whom it may concern, The Most Honourable Magnus Linocia, 37th Marquess of Linocia has magnanimously decided against pressing charges against the late Melissa Polidman for endangering his life in the tragic accident that occurred on the evening of the 14th of March. There shall be no need to prosecute her immediate family, whom he feels have suffered enough.’
The Marquess was praised for his generosity and sensitivity, and no-one dared to question the official version of events. Robert did not break his silence on the matter, but his private sense of betrayal grew even stronger. ‘Is this what we have become? A nation of cowards, so afraid of becoming a victim that we abandon those struck down and make ourselves easier prey?’
Robert stopped by a gap in a particularly dense clump of pine trees bordering the path. It was here that his fateful walk with Curtis had departed from public view, four months after the event. Once among the trees, Curtis had asked him a strange question:
“Do you trust me?”
“Why are you even asking that? Ever since you warned me about Elegant Ellie, I’ve never had a reason to doubt you. What’s the matter? Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“I could be. We both could.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me about Melissa.”
Robert’s shoulders slumped. “I miss her so much. The life and warmth she added to the house. The smell of her cooking, the little sketches and notes to herself she would leave around the house. Ridiculous things, like the way she would arrange our shoes in the hallway, always facing each other.” He looked up at Curtis. “Will life ever be normal again?”
“Maybe, in time.”
“What if I never want it to return to normal? How can I just get used to what happened? To what… never mind.” He broke eye contact again.
“What happened? You keep it such a secret. Nobody can hear us out here, I won’t tell a soul.”
Robert looked down at the scars on his hands. “The Marquess’ convoy charged through a red light and ran her down at the junction, they disappeared without even slowing down.”
“So he was showered with praise for doing what would get any of the rest of us locked away for years. There’s no justice here.”
“No, there isn’t.” The tension in Robert’s shoulders dissipated and he looked up at Curtis, his eyes widening and his mouth almost forming a smile. “I was beginning to think I was the only one who could see that.”
“Everyone can see it, just many think they can avoid it by cowering.”
“What about the rest? How many are there?”
“More than you think. I’ll tell you more when you’ve finished grieving. For now, whenever you are tempted to give up, remember that you are not alone.”
From that day on, the mere smell of pine was enough to give Robert hope. Over time they had moved on to even more dangerous subjects until Curtis introduced him to the movement,
… and now The Sage himself is expecting me. Robert took a deep breath and glanced around before resuming his journey in the direction of a dilapidated industrial estate. There the partially functional street lighting would give him more shadows to hide in.
He froze in place then slowly backed into the nearest corner as a faint sound caught his ear among the now distant noises of the city.
He scanned the skies and then followed the movements of the light source that indicated the craft’s position,
Three to four kilometres away, heading roughly west, getting further away now. He breathed a little easier and looked back the way he had come.
A little more convinced that he wasn’t being followed, Robert snuck towards an abandoned factory, his profile momentarily silhouetted against the urban twilight reflected in the clouds. He lowered himself down through a nearby open grille and entered the building through a basement window that had been left unlocked. All traces of whatever had been produced here had faded to a vague mustiness.
After navigating through the former office by what meagre streetlight streamed through the window, he came to a room containing several storage tanks. He crept across a raised walkway that connected their upper surfaces and made his way onto a tank in the far corner of the room. He opened an access hatch in its roof and climbed inside, finally finding the courage to switch on his torch once he found himself in complete darkness.
“You will be proud of me, Father,” he repeated to himself in a whisper, strengthening his grip on the torch and drawing courage from the thought.
A large diameter pipe led from the tank through the wall and he crawled down it, arriving at a second hatchway. After knocking twice with his knuckle, twice with the heel of his hand, then again twice with his knuckle, the hatch was opened on the other side by a pair of heavily armed men.
The visitor stepped out onto a small platform and the hatchway was sealed behind him. The three descended a ladder down to a murky concrete corridor and approached a nondescript metal door. One of the guards knocked on the door using a different pre-arranged rhythm. It was opened from the other side to reveal a windowless room with seven occupants, five sitting and one standing at a lectern, plus the one who let them in. Curtis was sat next to the one standing, and a brief exchange of half-smiles and almost imperceptible nods was all the recognition the two old friends allowed themselves. Robert and his escorts stepped inside, the door was closed and the newcomer was handed a small object wrapped in a plastic bag.
“Welcome, friend,” greeted the man at the lectern in a strong, weighty voice that resonated a calm and authoritative confidence, “our meeting can now begin. Your names must remain secret for security reasons, I’m sure you understand.
“In three months, it will be four hundred years since the infamous decree of Aurelius I granted supreme authority and immunity from criticism to himself and similar powers to every noble in the kingdom. It is this decree that began our nation’s descent into tyranny and misery, this decree that is renewed at each new king’s coronation, and it is the upcoming anniversary of this decree that we hope will be long remembered for something very different. Without accountability, there can be no true freedom. The rule of law is nothing but heartless oppression when there is not one standard for all, from commoner to king. There was a time in Gandria’s past when the law defended the oppressed and its subjects could truly prosper, such times can one day return. This is our goal, our cause, and it is a worthy one.”
Some nodded in agreement, others found it hard to imagine that the kingdom had ever been different, while all felt a small flame of hope grow in their chest. Robert looked around at the determined faces and knew that this was where he belonged, these were his people.
The speaker continued:
“Many have given their lives in its name, others will receive that honour in the future, this will be no easy road. The recent brutal efforts of the authorities may have caused us to stumble and fragment, but today I wish to present you all with a plan to revive our hopes and recover the ground we have lost. Each of you… ”
Before he could go on, the dim lighting of the room was suddenly drowned out by the bright flashing red and yellow lights of an object on the wall. He glanced up and then behind himself at the metallic box.
“The gas detector! Masks on!”
All those present drew gas masks from the bags they had been given and put them on. What have I gotten myself into? thought Robert as he struggled with the elastic straps on his mask, then tried to see what was going on at the front.
The speaker trundled the lectern to one side, revealing a manhole cover in the floor beneath, which Curtis lifted out with a metal hook, requiring some effort to do so. When the cover was placed on the floor next to the hole, it did not lie flat. Somewhat puzzled, Curtis flipped it over to reveal a rectangular object covered with a sheet of paper, on which was scrawled:
‘LONG LIVE THE KING’
He snarled and tore the paper off the object to reveal two large blocks of plastic explosive either side of a timer counting down the seconds:
The paper drifted down from his now forlorn and feeble hands and at the last moment he turned to meet Robert’s gaze with a look of devastated apology.
The flame front from the mighty detonation was extruded down through the manhole into a long plume that reached halfway to the floor of the sewer below, then retreated just as rapidly the way it had come.
Two men in black combat suits, complete with gas masks and night vision goggles, emerged from a nearby junction in the sewer with rifles at the ready. Satisfied that there were no survivors, one of them announced over their radio,
“Ten cakes baked and ready to wrap.”
“Wrapping those now.”
“Delivery van is on its way,” added another voice, and the men of Omega Twelve moved in for the cleanup phase of their operation.
The noise of the explosion was heavily muffled by its depth underground, and any that noticed it above the ordinary sounds of evening activity dismissed it as a roll of thunder or passing heavy vehicle, since violent incidents were surely now a thing of the past. All across the city (and the hundreds of other cities in the kingdom) a now familiar orchestral interlude rang out from millions of television sets as families huddled together to watch the most popular show in history.
All was in place; the great halls of Gandria Castle were fitted out in all their splendour, crowned off with a new set of diamond and sapphire cascade chandeliers, their waves of blue, white and yellow gems giving the effect of sunlight at a sandy beach – the royal decorators had outdone themselves. Every noble bachelor in the kingdom was present: baronets, barons, viscounts, earls, marquesses, even the Duke of Antaria.
Along the west side of the reception hall a series of buffet tables offered up the most delightful delicacies in the kingdom, on the south side a large chamber orchestra played dignified melodies, along the east wall a row of circular tables and chairs had been provided for those requiring an alternative to standing and mingling in the large central space.
The Doors of Honour in the middle of the north wall, so called because they were normally only used by the highest of nobles and diplomats, were massive oak double doors plated with gold and engraved with a portrait of the king. A similar set of doors made of solid electrum and known as the Doors of Glory were in the middle of the east wall and led to the throne room, where the final part of the evening would be held. Other exits at the corners of the reception hall led to minor corridors and royal offices The visible security personnel by those exits were dressed to blend in with the attendees at the ball, but their muscular builds and steely vigilance gave them away. They were far from the only precautions taken that evening, a full infantry division could be called upon at a moment’s notice. The nobles mingled freely as they waited for the guests of honour to arrive.
Marcus Draishire, thirty-first Viscount of Draishire, waited in line for the cloakroom and did his best to hide how uncomfortable this evening always made him. Ahead of him the Earl of Hurdland surrendered a top hat to the cloakroom attendant, mopped the area in front of his progressively receding hairline with a white handkerchief and allowed his valet to make a final adjustment to the hem of his tailcoat before making his way to the reception hall. Marcus handed in his own hat and followed at a respectful distance.
Lord Hurdland was clearly savouring the opulence of his surroundings, stopping to admire the artistry of the Doors of Honour. Marcus waited, welcoming another reason to delay his entry. Besides, it would not do to barge past a noble that outranked him, not to mention someone more than twenty years his senior. Lord Hurdland moved on into the reception hall and then paused again to take in the beauty of the new chandeliers. Having run out of excuses, Marcus moved past the Earl, through the crowd and headed over to the buffet tables, where he could pretend to be occupying himself choosing between the various culinary treasures on offer.
As chance would have it, the buffet tables were also the next item on Lord Hurdland’s agenda, who took a plate and glass of champagne and patrolled the long table, his eyes lighting up when he spotted a tray of raspberry truffles.
Marcus stepped back to allow Lord Hurdland access to the tray. With the barest of acknowledgments of Marcus’ presence, the Earl reached over and popped one into his mouth, savoured its perfection then took a further two on his plate before scanning the central space for old acquaintances.
Not ten steps away were two, both of whom could be mistaken for the Earl at a distance – one was slightly stretched vertically with darker hair, the other was more compressed and further along the path to greyness. Lord Hurdland stepped around Marcus, approached the two and shook their hands. “Good evening, my Lords Jorland and Treiland.”
Lord Jorland mumbled a “Yes, welcome” while the Earl of Treiland, the taller of the two, displayed more enthusiasm:
“Lord Hurdland, good to see you old man. It’s been too long.”
“That it has.” Lord Hurdland gestured towards his plate. “Have you tried the truffles?”
“I can see that you have.” Lord Treiland smiled.
“Marvelous things, my kitchen staff have spent all year trying to replicate them. I must talk to the staff here to have them share their secret.”
“Good luck with that, and it is quite a spread they have tonight,” he glanced over Lord Hurdland’s shoulder at the buffet tables, “though I’m sure the delightful dishes that are on their way will put them all to shame.” He rubbed his hands in glee.
The Earl of Jorland shook his head with a frown. “Don’t you pretend you’re enjoying yourself, On display for all to see, like a troop of performing animals?”
Lord Treiland twitched his head to the side as if dodging the rhetorical jab. “Of course not. Just trying to make the most of it, it’s only one evening a year. Would you like to go back to the way things were ten years ago?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Vandalism all over the place, street rallies demanding who knows what, some of them even got within a stone’s throw of my castle, for goodness’ sake. Mind you, the way Jorland’s finest came in to make short work of that rabble was most gratifying.”
“Yes, fence ’em in and finish ’em off. I do miss that.”
Lord Hurdland raised an eyebrow. “You think that ended when all this began and things calmed down? It still goes on, just not in the public eye, so as not to spoil the new image.”
Lord Jorland smiled and shook his head. “I can’t believe the people can be so stupid as to think that this charade changes anything, or that they get to choose who comes here,” he remarked, drawing a chuckle from both of the others.
“Never underestimate how foolish commoners can be,” replied Hurdland. “Case in point: Baron Dromstead recently told me about a request he received from one of the farmers in Plurville; the fool was actually trying to take his baronet to court for seizing some of his land!”
“What?!” laughed the other two, then Lord Jorland asked, “What did he do?”
“Confiscated his property, gave all his land to the baronet and sent him and his family to Stonewell,” recounted Lord Hurdland, much to the other two’s amusement. “Let’s see him complain about the size of his holdings now!” he added, leading to another round of laughter from the three of them.
“Shame we can’t do the same to those bitter old crones that go on and on about being passed over for some pretty young thing from the contest.” Lord Treiland chuckled and took a sip from his glass.
Lord Jorland nodded. “Exactly. They should appreciate the sacrifice some of us make to continue their family lines.”
“Our modern heroes.” Lord Treiland saluted with his glass.
“Still,” Lord Hurdland took on a serious tone and caused the smiles of all three to fade, “this process does not sit well with me. Letting the people think they are in control of these proceedings, having them vote for their chosen candidate as if they will change the way things are done, these are dangerous ideas. Furthermore, these are actual lowborns we are admitting to our ranks. What if something slips through the filtering process, what then? I have this nagging feeling that this whole enterprise will come back to haunt us one day.”
There was a concerned silence among the three of them before Lord Treiland broke it by raising his glass. “Here’s to unfounded fears.” The other two raised theirs.
“To another four hundred years of civilised rule,” proposed Lord Jorland.
“Hear, hear,” responded Lords Treiland and Hurdland, chinking their glasses together and taking a sip.
Lord Treiland looked to his left. “Oh watch out, the cameras are on, they must be nearly here. How much do you think they caught of that?”
“It doesn’t matter, they’ll edit it out.”
“Still, let’s give them something they can use,” suggested Hurdland.
“Agreed. Best behaviour from here on, eh?” said Treiland. “So, have you had a chance to see Folberman’s latest play?”
“The one about the kingdom’s heroic border guards? I’ve been meaning to.”
“It’s well worth it. Very creative use of scenery, and the barbarians outside the wall were particularly frightening…”
Marcus Draishire had overheard the conversation between the three earls but had not joined in with their laughter, instead taking a sip from his drink and feeling a little more isolated than usual. This was quite a feat, since he was traditionally ignored by the majority of the other nobles at these events. Perhaps it was due to his not sharing their sense of humour, his relative youth (still well below thirty years of age), or that maybe even… No, it couldn’t be that, he shuddered at the possibility, before shrinking away from the others to the relative safety of a distant end of the buffet table.
Five young women braced themselves for the evening that some hoped would define the rest of their lives, their excitement mounting with each dignified step towards the Doors of Honour, doing everything they could to maintain their composure.
Stay calm, step, step, focussed the girl at the front of the line, looking straight ahead and avoiding a glance at the cameras either side of them. This is what it’s all been about. Nearly there now, relax, smile and dazzle them.
All clocks in the castle had been moved forward an hour for the day to give the impression of a live broadcast while enabling any embarrassing scenes to be replaced with pre-recorded interviews.
“They are on their way, these are the girls that you the people have chosen to attend this evening of a lifetime, and what a majestic sight they make,” remarked Alastair DeVaudlen, the contest’s primary commentator.
“That they do,” agreed Beatrice, his wife and co-host. “As is now tradition, each of them was assigned a personal tailor from the royal court to work their artistry, and the results are truly magnificent.”
“For those unfamiliar with the format of the evening,” explained Alastair, “the ball will last until midnight at the earliest, and if none of the guests of honour are engaged by then, then it will continue until one of them is. This means that in order for multiple weddings to occur, as they did the year before last, those proposals must be made and accepted before midnight.”
“Oh, what a year that was, we were so thrilled for them. Let’s hope this year’s girls meet with similar success.”
“The wedding ceremonies will occur immediately afterwards in the presence of the king in the throne room, what an honour.”
“Yes indeed. Good luck, girls.”
The Chief Herald led the slow procession to the Doors of Honour, halted before them and ceremonially knocked twice with his silver sceptre to request admittance. The doors swung majestically open and he stepped into the doorway to announce his entourage in descending order of their ‘popularity’. As each name was announced, the appropriate debutante came forward past the herald, curtseyed and moved on into the hall:
“My lords, allow me to introduce Miss Madeline Hartford, Miss Gloria Forster, Miss Penelope Aldridge, Miss Judith Elford and Miss Sylvia Adams.”
A series of ohs and ahs accompanied the entrance of the first four women, resplendent as they were in various sumptuous gowns with perfectly matching jewellery, masterfully arranged to delight the eye, while absolute stunned silence greeted the fifth arrival.
Her simple white gown was devoid of embroidery or other enhancement. she was virtually unadorned with facial cosmetics or jewellery, save a single silver locket around her neck and a few small flowers in her hair, but what truly stood her out from the rest was the way that she glowed.
She radiated a deep, peaceful joy quite unlike anything any of them had ever seen before. There seemed to be light emanating from the very core of her being. One of the other tailors turned to Ortis Gerworth, who had prepared Miss Adams, and asked, “How did you get her to glow like that?”
“An artist must have some secrets.”
“Whatever you did, it was a stroke of genius, astounding.”
Ortis smiled to himself as he received similar plaudits from the other tailors. He couldn’t possibly pass up this tremendous boost to his reputation by admitting that he had done basically nothing, merely given her a preparatory full-body cleanse and moisturise, and had been as surprised as anyone else by the way she glowed.
Nobles that had taken almost no notice of Sylvia’s quiet progress through the competition, as she placed only fifth in the final, now began to congregate around her in greater numbers than any of the others, although they had their own crowds of enthusiastic suitors.
The nobles around Sylvia did their best to charm her with polite conversation and refined humour. She rewarded truly ingenious wit with a gentle smile that made those who witnessed it feel they had been let in on some wonderful secret. Sylvia glanced around the room until her eyes alighted on the one she was looking for.
“My lords, I thank you for your kindness and your time. If you would excuse me, there is someone I must speak with.”
The crowd around her parted without complaint, as was fitting for men of breeding.
As she left earshot, one was heard to comment, “It seems her heart was won before she walked through those doors.”
“Lucky fellow, whoever he is.”
Marcus turned away, disgusted by the spectacle at the entrance to the hall, and headed for the sanctuary of the one location that was not covered by cameras.
Sylvia followed her quarry at a respectful distance as he left the hall and made his way to the men’s lavatory. She waited at the corner of the corridor, where she could follow the doorway without being immediately visible to anyone coming out.
Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. Various nobles went in and out in that time, but there was no sign of the viscount. Sylvia began to be concerned.
Marcus finally reappeared after twenty-five minutes, but as soon as he noticed one of the contestants he had successfully ignored all year, slowed down and began patting his various pockets with a furrowed brow. After apparently finding nothing, he sighed and returned back through the door, shaking his head.
Sylvia’s concern turned into a snort of indignation as she saw through his little ploy, walked over to the door and knocked.
“My lord Draishire, I would speak with you.”
“I want nothing to do with this farce,” came the response through the door, which remained closed. “It makes a mockery of marriage, parading us all for public entertainment.”
“You are quite right, my lord, this whole situation seems like some ridiculous dream, but there is no other way I could ever approach you like this. I am from a lowly family from Fristead in Draishire.”
“Why me? I’m only a viscount. I saw both the Marquess of Dromia and of Teloria fawning over you at the Hall entrance. Their wealth is incomparably greater than mine.”
“I am not interested in your wealth, I would never have considered taking part in this frankly ludicrous exercise if it was not for you. I am one of your subjects and have seen how you govern, how you defend the oppressed and care for the people, I want to support you in that. I don’t want to rule you, I want to work with you towards a common goal, to comfort and sustain you through the hardships of life, to share all I am with you, to be mother of your children, if you will let me.”
There was no response.
“I know what you must be thinking; one in a thousand men can be trusted, but not one woman.”
On the other side of the door, Marcus couldn’t contain a smile as he thought to himself, Yes, that does indeed fit the- then his smile dropped. The forbidden book! How did she know?
“I cannot make you love me, I cannot remove all your doubts about me in one evening, all I can do is to be who I am and hope that you believe me.”
Having finished what she had to say, Sylvia waited for a response. Marcus wrestled with his thoughts:
Very brave, I’ll give her that. Such integrity, or is it a ploy? No, no-one would lie in that way, such an obscure and appropriate reference, not to mention placing herself in so much danger. Can it be, right here beyond this door? He took a deep breath before making a life-changing decision:
“I believe you.”
The door slowly opened and Marcus studied Sylvia closely for the first time, taking his time in doing so. Everything about her confirmed what she was saying.
“Well, wonders never cease. You are a truly remarkable woman, Miss Adams.”
There was then a glint in Marcus’ eye. “Shall we let the other bachelors off the hook for another year?” He got down on one knee, drew a small box from his inside pocket and opened it to reveal a family engagement ring and pair of wedding rings, compulsory for all noble bachelors at the ball. The engagement ring was solid silver with three small gemstones set together in a single gold setting: a ruby, sapphire and golden beryl. The wedding rings were smooth on the inside and on the outside had the appearance of a triple-braided cord of red, yellow and white gold.
“Miss Sylvia Adams, would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
“The honour would be all mine, yes I would.” She offered her ring finger with a beautiful smile, and the ring slid on and fit perfectly.
“Meant to be.” Marcus smiled.
And so it began.