Trying to make enough sense of his past to describe it to Daine, Numair remembered himself as a naïve youth. Not that he felt older now, but he couldn't think of his younger self and not cringe at the mistakes he had made. At the time his choices had seemed so reasonable, so infallible. Now every certainty he had possessed seemed to crumble. And it had all circled around Varice, in the end. It seemed only right that she would be the first ghost that had returned to haunt him now.
He remembered the night she had come to him, smelling of lemongrass, caramel and musky sweat as she looped her arms around him. He remembered the silken hiss of the satin dress, the way it had slipped so easily from her shoulders and pooled on the floor. He remembered the soft and urgent way she had murmured in his ear, how fiercely the heat had burned between them, and how cold and empty his bed had felt when he woke up alone the next morning.
He had thought it was going to last forever.
The first time he had seen Varice he might as well have been an insect crawling up the wall. She had unveiled some creation at a party in New York. The people gathering around it were making such awed noises that Numair thought it must be a sculpture or a miniature. Some great work of art. But when the crowd finally dispersed a little and he made his way forward, he saw that it was a cake.
Spun sugar swirled around the pastel green edges in flurries of white like snow on springtime buds. When he looked closer, Numair saw that the delicate spiral was made of hundreds of tiny birds, circling the tiered cake in intricate loops as if their soaring dance would never end. The sugar sculpture was fastened to the cake so cleverly that it looked like the birds were flying unaided, and might take off at any second.
Numair held his breath, wondering if he might ruin it if he even stepped too close. He had not yet been at enough gatherings in the notoriously scrupulous New York society to be sure of forgiveness for destroying something so beautiful.
"She uses the gift, of course," a man said broadly nearby, and exhaled a cloud of cigar smoke as Numair looked around. He pointed the cigar at the cake, and his thick eyebrows were raised humorously. "Would be a bit more impressive without magic, I'd say, but I doubt anyone would listen to an old man. I'm not as inclined to cosset the little creature as most of 'em are."
"It's impressive even with magic." Numair replied, and tried not to look too confused when he asked, "Cosset who, sir?"
"Ah, you've not met our Lady Vee!" The man twinkled, and clapped Numair on the shoulder. "Then stay here and talk to me, lad. I'll be far happier talking to someone who's not had their mind, stomach or their heart spirited away. You'll be new then, I take it?"
"Yes, sir." Numair shook the man's outstretched hand politely, noticing how the man's gold cufflinks caught the light far more conspicuously than his own silver ones. He'd sold all of his own gold, of course, but the contrast made him feel an odd pang of loss for a moment. "I'm Miss Angelica's distant cousin, and she's kindly sponsoring me for the season until I get my bearings."
"Bearings? A traveller, are you?" The old man smiled at Numair's swarthy skin. "Well, I hear good things about the society in Italy these days."
"Well, that's the right continent." The man returned, and was rewarded with a deep-bellied bellow of laughter.
"Sorry lad," The man drew an amused lungful of smoke and blew out a ring. "Can't resist prying. It's rare I get a chance to beat the gossips to the news. Miss Angelica's word's good enough for most of this rabble, so I'll let it be good enough for me, too. I'm Greaves. There's a title and a first name in there somewhere too, o' course, but I'm too old to let them take up my valuable time."
"Greaves it is." Numair smiled and shook his hand. "Numair, sir, Salmalin."
"Dear God." Greaves raised watery eyes to the ceiling. "Better hope you never make it to old age, then, with an earful like that."
"I'll just have to pray my youth is exciting enough to make up for it." Numair smiled at the cake. "And full of beautiful things."
"Oh, not this again. Look…" Greaves snapped, and then relented and sighed. Pulling a new cigar from his waistcoat pocket, he held it out to the man and shrugged when he politely declined. Puffing on his old cigar for a few seconds to make it smoulder, he pressed the ends of the two together and stubbed the old end out on a silver ashtray.
"Did you know chocolate is an aphrodisiac?" He asked around a mouthful of rich smoke. Numair shook his head, torn between embarrassment and amusement at the man's informal crassness. Greaves blew a smoke ring and then jabbed the cigar through it suggestively.
"Chocolate… and then there are strawberries, of course! And let's not go in to all that sordid business that we call whipped cream, my lad. Then there's caramel, toffees and those tres jolie petit bonbon our French cousins stuff with praline. Can't woo a woman without cavities! Then there are these cakes, towering over the savouries in a most indelicate manner. Don't you agree, my lad?"
"Agree with what, sir?" Numair looked a little stunned. Greaves coughed back a lungful of smoke.
"I'm saying that's how she does it, boy!" He sniffed at the cake and then nodded appreciatively at the scent of marzipan and icing. "In Venice the courtesans used to seduce the menfolk with their songs and their wit. How poorly mankind has progressed! Men used to dance with our minds! Now the lovely creatures move right past that and assault our more basic appetites, and oh, don't we adore them for it."
"Since I don't know the lady in question," Numair said a little stiffly, "I don't think I could give you a fair answer, sir."
"You will." Greaves didn't seem to notice that he'd caused offence. He took a final drag of his cigar and nodded behind the table. "Here she comes."
She was wearing a silk dress that whispered along the floor as she walked. Although the room was filled with laughter and chatter, the soft sound seemed to trickle through the noise until it captured every ear. It seemed almost indecently intimate, that every movement of the woman's body was so brazenly declared. And yet her face was so open, so bright and friendly, that the thought immediately darted away.
She couldn't be doing it on purpose, any more than it could be her fault that the soft glow of gaslight caught her dress there and there. Such sensuality could not be practiced; it could not be anything but unconscious, because if for a moment her full-lipped smile seemed deliberate then her whole bearing would become too licentious to dare to look at. For decency's sake you would have to look away, and no-one would want to do that.
The dress was green, the same soft shade as the cake, and her neck was adorned with a simple string of seed pearls that rested lightly on the curve of her breasts. As soon as Numair realised he was staring he tore his eyes away, and then blushed at the scornful expression on her face.
"What," she asked Greaves in a distant voice, "is that?"
"My dear, may I introduce Miss Angelica's cousin, who has come all the way from Europe just to be insulted by you tonight?" Greaves' mouth twisted, but Numair couldn't tell if it was distaste or amusement before the older man bowed to kiss the woman's hand. She made a polite moue of disinterest and turned away, swinging her hip a little so the long train of her dress wouldn't tangle around her feet.
"The gentleman with the moustaches is a general, did you know?" She said, almost to herself as she picked absently at the lace on her fan. Her eyes were infantile and stupid when she looked back at Numair, and her voice was utterly false. "Don't you think that's impressive, sir?"
"Any man can grow a moustache." Numair returned automatically, and could have kicked himself. She looked furious for a moment, and then recovered smoothly.
"But not every man can be a general. For example, I don't recall my dear Angelica mentioning any military men in her family."
"We have more sense." He muttered. For all his clumsiness around the woman, he still responded with the same irritable impatience he had for all people who pried into his life. It was one of the most distasteful things about New York, he'd found, and even from a woman who made his heart race he still couldn't let the rudeness go unnoticed.
Varice blinked, and then laughed. It was a low husky sound, utterly unlike the fake voice she spoke with, and it made the hairs on the back of Numair's neck stand up. He winced and tugged at his nose, trying to find refuge in the nervous habit. It didn't work.
"It's got teeth, this puppy of yours." She said to Greaves, and the man sighed as he looked at the flustered young man.
"Vee, my dear, don't you ever get tired of this game?" He puffed at his cigar and ignored her pointedly wafting the smoke away with her fan. "Don't play-act, girl. I've heard you smoke cigarillos."
"Only on special occasions." She murmured. Her voice held a rich, suggestive note that made both men look away. She smiled crookedly for a moment, and then folded up her fan with a decided snap. "Well, if you gentlemen are done admiring my latest masterpiece, I did promise the dear general a closer look…"
"I bet you did." Greaves took a very slow drag from his cigar and then bellowed a sudden laugh at the stark contrast between Varice's narrowed eyes and Numair's wide-eyed stare. "Come on, my young friend, let's go."
That night, even after the last taxicab had rattled its way home over the clattering cobbles, Numair couldn't sleep. He twisted in his bed, willing his mind to empty and his eyes to close. Last night he had been bitter about the lack of coal and menial servants to build up his fire in the night, leaving him to shiver by dying embers. Tonight he was too warm, although when he pushed the faded satin and down duvet back the night air made goosebumps flush across his skin.
He hated it, hated the awareness that made him sensitive to every touch. He hated the way the draughts felt like whispering fingertips on his hypersensitive skin. He hated the slight pressing weight of the duvet against his body. He hated the soft moaning creaks of the settling house. He hated it, because every time he fell asleep his dreams turned all of those things into her. He would see her mocking eyes again, hear her breathy laugh and wish she had spoken his name, so he could hear it on her lips. The soft sheets turned into the peach-softness of her golden skin, and he would wake up burning with fevered desire.
"She won't have you, lad." He remembered Greaves' sympathetic voice, the glass of brandy that he had pressed into his numb hand. "You're not rich enough or powerful enough to tempt her. Better you just accept that now."
Numair groaned and shoved his face into the pillow, wondering if he could smother himself to sleep.
"She's beautiful," he had replied, and then he had corrected himself. "No, she isn't. She's… she's something else."
"Don't do this to yourself. If she knows then she'll torture you. She's like a cat." The older man looked speculatively at him. "Think of it as a hazing ritual. To get into New York's society, one must attend the opera, wear white gloves with a red buttonhole, and meet Lady Vee."
Lady Vee. Even the nickname seemed brazen, as if she had let men strip away the fabric covering her name until only the first letter was there. A letter exposed for the world to see. A name that dripped from the tongue like honey, that took the edges off the sharp Varice and made it into a word to be whispered in the darkness. A name that was wrapped in soft green satin, in layers of fabric so sheer that the curves of it still shone through.
A name that caught the light.
If this is a hazing ritual then I've failed, Numair thought bitterly.
By the next morning, even the servants could tell from his dark shadowed eyes and nervous twitchiness that something was wrong with the young master. By lunchtime, the doddering Miss Angelica had raised rheumy eyes from her embroidery hoop and suggested her cousin see a doctor. By evening, Numair was prepared to admit it himself:
He was hopelessly, senselessly, besotted with Varice.