Chapter 1 Part 4 | Son in Sorrow | IHGK Book 2
Corland's approach broke into his thoughts. "Dashed impudent of that son of yours to give Princess Ellika to Litta for the first dance," he said. "Belonged to Fennows, I should think. Everyone knows he's first among her suitors."
"'Everyone' does not know that, my Lord," replied Harsin, a chill in his voice. "Ellika's marriage is still not settled and won't be until I complete negotiations for Sedra's. I would ask you to remember that."
"Beg your pardon, Your Majesty," said Corland meekly.
"Temmin played the moment well, singling Litta out for the honor."
"Litta and his honor. He's dashed unreasonable in council!"
"I share Litta's opinions on your slaves, Borney. I don't want so many Incharis on Tremontine soil, especially under conditions where they might revolt."
"Why would they revolt?" Harsin raised a brow, and Corland grimaced. "Well, yes, there were those damned impudent agitators I had to put down on my plantations in Endar."
"Your 'damned impudent agitators' were three thousand strong."
"The Seventeen Gentlemen of Inchar have had greater rebellions--"
"And the Seventeen have company troops to put them down. Imperial troops had to put your rebellion down, not you."
"I remember. I'm still paying the Treasury," grumbled Corland. "I don't know why you mightn't give me permission to move my own troops to Inchar. My own troops, Harsin, bought and paid for!"
"I need them at the border with the Northern Wastes."
"There hasn't been an incursion in years!"
"And I will keep it that way. It's not negotiable," said Harsin. He cast a restless eye around the room in pursuit of his other interest.
Fennows was talking to a nervous young girl standing away from the dancing. A small circle of men were clustered around her as she blushed under their attentions. Beautiful thing, quite out of her element judging by the way she held her fan. She reminded Harsin of a foal still finding its feet, a foal who'd be a thoroughbred once she got them under her. The girl had astonishing eyes, as large and blue as a spring sky over the mountains, and brown hair the color of mink welled in ringlets over her shoulders. Her cherry dress walked an exquisite line, cut to draw maximum attention to the swell of her breasts, a dress meant for men's eyes and thus unusual; in polite society, women dressed for one another. The dress seemed to make her uncomfortable; her free hand constantly wandered to her neckline, only for her to yank it back down to pluck at her fan.
Harsin had no idea who she was, and rather doubted she was even minor nobility. How had she gotten past his social secretary? Lady Olster made exceptions at more casual affairs for prominent members of the gentility--at the most casual, even for members of the merchant class if they were wealthy enough and not too coarse. Any kind of commoner was not usually on the list for state occasions like the Heir's birthday; the King might make exceptions for a beautiful girl, but Lady Olster would not. "Borney, who is that girl talking with your son?"
"Her? Nice little piece, ain't she?" grinned Corland. "Curves in all the right places. Don't approve of commoners at the Keep, I should think, but it's not up to me, is it?" His small eyes squinted in disapproval. "Ever heard of Shelstone and Sons?"
"The tailoring concern? I believe my man Gram has applied to them for his own needs, and pronounced them quite satisfactory. Is the father Shelstone or Son?"
"Neither--grandson. Elbig Shelstone. Revolting little man. Social climber."
"It is hardly my habit to invite tailors to state occasions no matter how zestfully they climb."
Corland waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, he's not a tailor any more--not any kind of merchant. Sold out and bought himself some gentility. Paid off a relation with a better name to launch his daughter into society. Has hopes for her--if not a brilliant marriage than a brilliant…liaison, shall we say? Recognized only, though. Kept proper."
"Does she belong to Fennows?"
"Not to anyone as far as I'm aware, though not for lack of applicants." Corland noticed his son--the son supposedly devoted to Princess Ellika--flirting with the girl; he blanched and cleared his throat noisily. "Percy was unavoidably introduced to her father--good friends with their relations, d'you see--and he made them known to me for the obvious reason. Might become that brilliant liaison myself if I can manage it. Certainly no other suitor's presented himself who's dazzling enough for Daddy." Corland gave a low, throaty chortle, choked off when he saw his wife across the room, a dry woman covered in a great wave of diamonds breaking in sprays against her desert shore. "I've got the rank, but damned if I can find a way to publicly keep her without hell to pay. Have to keep my girls on the quiet side. Neya bless that little Cosetta of mine. Say, would you like an introduction to the Shelstone chit, old thing?" He jerked his head at his son; Fennows dutifully led the increasingly nervous girl through the throng to the King.
"Your Majesty," said the lordling, "may I make known to you Miss Twenna Shelstone, daughter of Mr Elbig Shelstone of Newtown."
She was even prettier up close--stunning, in fact, with a peach complexion and an unfeigned sweetness suggesting her supposed ambitions were entirely her father's. She made her curtsey. "May I have this dance, Miss Shelstone?" said the King, raising the astonished girl to her feet.
He expected her to giggle, but instead her face lit up in a radiant smile. "I would like it above all things, Your Majesty!" He led her onto the floor.
"Oh, sir!" she burbled as they began the long graceful loops of the dance, "I have lived in the shadow of the Keep my whole life and have hungered to be inside and see its splendors! Now that I am here, I am filled with--with--" she stammered, aiming for the right word and missing with room to spare-- "with vehemence! And I never thought I'd dance with the King!" she added.
Usually wide-eyed girls bored him, but Twenna's artlessness extended to an unwitting, innocent physicality. She leaned into his touch like a little animal enjoying its fur being stroked--a natural voluptuary. Harsin found himself increasingly charmed: a beautiful, inexperienced girl ripe for the plucking, uncomplicated and begging to be molded. To take such a girl under his protection might be charming indeed.