The great country mansion is ablaze with light and music, and even as he strides up the path he can already hear the politely rumbling rise and fall of conversation - men's voices and women's laughter, the whisper of fine clothes and the bright clink of glasses and cutlery and fine bone china.
From all accounts it's a lively and swinging Country Season indeed, and while Viscount Xavier is grateful for the divertimenti he also has to admit that he is beginning to lose patience with the entire exercise - because he has already determined to pass on his estates and titles to the young girl he's taken under his wing, so he really has no need to look for a spouse. Especially since he's already taken such pains to announce his intentions - and the young lady Raven is already nearing her majority, meaning he's about to descend into the obscurity he's always longed for.
Still, he's been invited expressly to this occasion, and it would really not do to offend either of the sisters Emma and Moira, not when they outrank him so, and so he ties on his plain, unembellished copper-velvet domino, and he places his card on the tray offered by the footman at the door - and someone precedes him into the blue ballroom, announcing him in a grandly echoing voice: "The Viscount Xavier of Westchester".
It's not difficult at all to spot the sisters - they're dressed as each other, Moira in pale makeup and a snow-white gown while Emma's dressed in black from head to toe - and Charles kisses their proffered hands, and none of them feign their smiles.
"You look quite dashing," Moira says, and Charles shrugs elegantly, which makes Emma laugh and add, "Enough to make you quite the catch! But please do not let this go to your head. We are actually throwing this fete for a new acquaintance we have made."
Moira nods, and motions to one of the servants, and murmurs to him before offering Charles a glass of wine. "Let us see if we can pry our guest of honor away, because it's been Emma's idea to introduce the two of you, and just between you and me, I think she just wants to see how you react to him."
"I do so quite like it when you slander me as though I am not here," Emma laughs - but the light in her eyes is amused and sincere, and it is she who gets to her feet when the servant returns and quietly announces the newcomer behind him: "Ladies, sir, I present Erik Graf Lehnsherr."
The man stands head and shoulders over all of them, and with a large, worn hand he removes his fanciful mask with its purple and black feathers, and he smiles with a formal, straight-backed reserve. "It is good to speak with you again, my ladies. And it is a pleasure to meet you - sir?"
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Charles murmurs as he straightens up from his bow. "I'm Charles. And how do you wish to be addressed?"
"I am given to understand you also have a title, sir," is the quiet, rumbling reply. "You do not wish to stand on ceremony?"
Charles watches the sisters exchange incredulous looks, before Moira looks away and starts chuckling. "Charles and ceremony? Don't be absurd!"
"Our friend is not much for titles," Emma says, attempting to hide her smile in her wine. "I do believe he would throw his away if he could. As it is, he has already found a means of disposing of it."
"Oh, I hate you both," Charles says, but he's laughing as he speaks and he punctuates his comments with friendly kisses to the sisters' cheeks. When he turns back to the other man, he knows he's blushing furiously; he can feel the heat in his cheeks, and he curses his fair skin for a traitor. "It's true that I have not been overfond of my title, and it's also true that I have already made plans to pass it on."
"My congratulations to your lady wife, then, and to your heir," the Graf murmurs.
"Lady wife - ? Oh, no, you are mistaken," and Charles waves one hand absently in the air. He is still conscious of the sisters keenly watching their conversation. "I - I have an heir - or rather an heiress, and no wife. My ward, companion, I no longer know what to call her because we are friends and she is good enough to put up with all my eccentricities - my young lady, I say sometimes, my young lady Raven will take the title after me, and in fact I am just waiting for next autumn."
But it's Moira who answers, and once again her smile is fond. "Our dear young by-then-no-longer-a-viscount will travel, he says. He's not been much around the Continent, and he intends to go on some kind of pilgrimage."
"Poor deluded soul, who'll be pining for and writing about missing the comforts of home soon enough," Emma says. "You mark my words, my good Count. We will be hearing from Charles directly within the year he sets out."
Charles throws his hands up, and pretends to frown at the two women, and then turns back to the Graf and spreads his hands and smiles in apology. "I do hope I have entertained you, sir, together with these two terrible excuses for ladies and friends. And now if you'll excuse me I shall go and seek some refreshment."
"I'll still dance with you," Emma laughs.
"If I ask you," Charles says, to Moira's knowing smile, and he shrugs and bows to the three of them, and before he really thinks about it he's out the doors, he's in the great formal gardens, and he thinks vaguely about plunging into the maze when there are footsteps behind him.
Charles sighs, and closes his eyes for a moment, and when he turns around he has his company smile on - but that falters really quickly when he has to look up, and how did it fail to escape his notice that the Graf was that much taller than he?
"You will not object to my company, I hope," the man says after a moment. "I...I made you my excuse to get out from under all the eyes looking my way."
That makes Charles stop and stare, and he tilts his head and considers his interlocutor carefully. "I suppose I will not mind, if you will consent to answer a few of my questions?"
"Let us make a trade of it," is the answer. "You ask me a question and I will answer it, and then I will ask a question and you answer it as you see fit."
"That is fair. I will go first. What brings you here?"
The Graf smiles. "You would be able to ask the most difficult question first. Very well, I will show you that I trust you, and I will answer truthfully. I am sent here on a mission from my sovereign, who has asked me to act as his representative on a few matters of state. Nothing too important. I have only to deliver messages. Had, rather, I should say. This was the last house I was to go to. After this I am to sail home. In a week, perhaps sooner. It will be good to go back to my lands. I miss the mountains."
"I certainly should not pry any further than this - and thank you, by the way, for your candor. I will try to return it accordingly."
"I would like to inquire as to the nature of your relationship with the ladies of this house?"
Charles laughs. "They are both my childhood friends. We have all grown up together. They might know a few of my secrets, and I in turn know almost all of theirs." He shrugs, fondly. "But I must admit that I like being mothered by them both. Only to a certain extent, naturally, because then they become overbearing, and a man can only be polite to them for so long."
"As has just been demonstrated to me," the Graf says, and Charles shakes his head and smiles, and he takes a left, into the maze.
The moon is bright enough to see by, and the night is mild, and they are not the only ones strolling the paths - though after a moment, Charles puts his mask back on, and he watches the Graf follow suit. "At least this way we can all deny seeing each other in the morning," he sighs.
"As cumbersome as this is, I find I must agree. Now you may ask me another question."
"Oh, it's my turn again, yes," Charles says."Hmm, perhaps you might tell me of your family?"
The Graf looks oddly wistful. "I wish I could say much of them. My parents were lost at sea ten years ago. I have been alone for a while."
Charles reaches out to him, gently sympathetic. "I know what that is like - let me answer your question, if I can guess what it will be. I, too, am alone, and as you may have gathered from the earlier conversation, my heiress is not even related to me by blood. I found her, or perhaps she found me, and I took her in, and have stood as her legal guardian."
"Will she not be as burdened as you have seemed to be, if she takes your titles and ranks?"
"And now you think me a dreamer," Charles murmurs. They have stopped near what must be the center of the maze, and there is a fountain babbling quietly to itself nearby. "Very well, it is no accusation - merely a statement of facts. I am a dreamer, and I wish to be able to dream, and Raven is willing and capable of the task I leave to her - she has been correcting my work for some time now. I do believe she's more than ready, and I am happy to give her the task that truly belongs to her and not to me."
The Graf is silent for a while, and Charles takes a deep breath, and he expects that at any moment he will be left alone. He is responsible, and the estate has flourished under his hand, but he has as good as admitted that he is flighty and silly, and this really isn't the first time that something like this has happened to him.
A stray cloud blankets the moon as he watches the sky, and the gardens and the maze are plunged into darkness.
"Come and visit me," the Graf suddenly says. "If you are determined to travel."
"I will be pleased to do so, if my path takes me thither."
"Then that is all I ask. Good night, my good Viscount."
Charles is left alone, but this time it does not hurt at all. On the contrary, he feels something rising in him, like anticipation, like hope. "Good night, my Graf," he murmurs into the whispering wind of the night.