There was a handkerchief in the middle of the table, and it was wet. Beside the cloth of silk, embroidery and tears was a vinaigrette with the unmistakable fragrance of lavender water and vinegar. Beside that still was another container for smelling salts from which the scent of rose wafted. If the thought of someone in great distress had not yet occurred to one who had just entered the room, then the woman whose hands were primly on her lap, her eyes staring blankly in front of her, and the trails the tears had created on her cheeks would have been enough to convince. Yet the despite the obvious allusion to great distress, the woman's gown was unwrinkled, her hair was perfect without a loose lock, and her countenance was—simply put—that of a true and well-bred lady.

"Your Ladyship…" a maid said with caution.

A small wail came from the woman. "Leave me…and call my son…"

"Ah…er, Your Ladyship, he is already here. You called for him minutes ago."

The dainty hand waved her away. "Then shoo yourself away and start with what your position truly calls for."

The maid nodded, and with a look of uncertainty directed to her lady's son, she left the room. These nobles were a strange lot, if they weren't filthy rich they should be jailed in Bedlam. But maybe not her lady's son, for it would be a shame if he were to be subject to such a horror. But against her lady's orders, the maid didn't go back to her duties. Instead, she leaned on the door, and eavesdropped. Such a conversation between her lunatic lady and her handsome son would sure merit a few gossip rounds amongst the maids.

"Mother," the young man's voice penetrated the walls.

There was no greeting in return, "Michael…do you love me?"

He chuckled at her query. "Mother, of course I love you. Do you doubt the possibility?"

The maid felt her heart flutter when her lady's son laughed.

"No I don't. So I ask you one simple favor."

"Pray tell what it is."

The maid gasped when she heard the request. Why it was common knowledge that such a request could only be fulfilled in years to come, but not at this moment. Well…it almost happened…yet after that! Why would her lady's son risk himself once more?

Her lady's son seemed to have to same idea as he had given a sound of pure incredulity. She smiled. This would surely make the rounds.

"Damnation! Are you serious?"

"Don't you dare to talk to me in that tone, young man," her lady scolded wearily.

"What you are saying is simply bloody impossible. There is a reason on why I hold so dear my status is simply because there isn't one who suit my preferences."

"The Season is open with fresh young debutantes. Go and satisfy me."

"Bloody hell, this cannot be tolerated, Mother, your demand on such short notice!"

"This demand has been here long enough," the answer came as calmly as the preceding statement was heated. "Ever since you were born, to be precise."

Her lady's son didn't seem to think it was an agreeable answer. "I do love you, very much, Mother, and this love enabled me to ignore all repugnance of your demand. But such devotion doesn't erase my own belief, and I will take extra measures for you to see I do not approve of this."

"Oh! But you were engaged once. Another time round the bend will not hurt you! Listen to me! All my friends have grandchildren already and I am yet waiting for one!"

The maid was startled when the door she was leaning to abruptly opened, sending her backwards to her lady's son, who stood glowering over her. A blush rose to her cheeks when she realized her eavesdropping was blatantly in display. Her lady's son ran his hand through his hair and growled, "Bloody hell now every single person will know about this damned affair!" He stormed out of the hall, with the girl staring blankly at his back.

"Take care to keep your mouth shut, Mary," her lady said from inside the room. "I do not want this matter to be talked about by the staff."

The next day, Mary was fired. The whole staff knew that Her Ladyship wanted her son to marry.


Mechanizations? The word didn't seem to fit the circumstances. Mechanizations were only so when plans were petty, almost insignificant. But this really wasn't the case at all. Le Sorcière had laid down her life in three words. Three simple words that rebelled against Lara's original view of her grandmother, the lady who was in love with toying with words, the lady who believed in the inalienable right of the person to choose his or her own destiny. Lara merely asked her what she wished, and there her grandmother said those words.

"Great-grandchildren. Next year."

The old woman wanted her married. Now. She wanted to have great-grandchildren. Next year. Lara had done her math mentally. If she were to marry this season, by December she would have conceived. Fortunately the old lady would still be alive and then the old lady would be happy. But what could have pushed her to dictate such…demands? Most of the time, Madame encouraged the usage of one's own intellect and consciousness. Yet this simply and undeniable contradicted her principal beliefs that she passed on to her own granddaughter!

"I am tired of waiting, Lara, my sweet, because if I do not request of it, I would die without toddlers asking stories. You love your books too much to leave them for a good and educated gentleman that will give you more…action than your romantic novels. Well I won't object to your passion but Newton's Principiocannot impregnate you," she added with a chuckle.

Lara had blushed when she said that.

"But that misfortune aside, if I do not remind you of your duties to the title, you would forget them entirely," she had reasoned.

Lara had immediately denied the allegation, but after a few moments of contemplation, she realized that it was frighteningly plausible. Oh but the agony of it all, Lara had internally wailed when her grandmother went into length about her plans. She could barely hear her say that the estate in Somerset would be given to her children. They needed fresh country air to grow properly. Now in London, the reality of it all seemed to be harsher and harder to swallow. I won't be able to climb up the steps to my books if my stomach is bigger than my head…

"Miss Bentley."

How will I save my books from morning sickness…?

"Lara Bentley."

Oh my Lord…what if my countenance will be too weak for me to go to the library in the first place?

"Lara."

But who said I should follow her? I could simply say all possible suitors were swayed by Elaine's beauty, leaving none of them suitable enough for me…

Besides…women have more uses other than bearing children!

"Lara!" Elaine counted to ten. Lara was being impossible again. It would serve her well if she would just look in front of her, and not above. The girl was thinking again. And what a dangerous pastime it was turning out to be! Words didn't seem to register into her obtuse head whenever she did think. Elaine had nothing against thinking. But thinking in this ball…the ball…of all the most revolting actions one could have done.

"Yes?"

Elaine gestured at her surroundings with a frown. "Lara, do you have any inkling on where you are right now?"

She nodded with uncertainty. "We are in the Shepford's ball."

"And?"

"'It is the ball of the Season, maybe even the century. Take care to act with all sensibility and proper countenance as your manner in this event will be, inevitably, a turning point in your life as a debutante,'" Lara quoted Elaine who had said the same thing before they left the carriage. "But please, I hope it is not as boring as the Almack's." They had attended the almost perfunctory ball before, but the tensed atmosphere and propriety was boring. Just boring.

In addition, this ball was everything she refused to believe in. Here, women were dressed to impress the men, not themselves at all. They put themselves into contraptions to fit inside their silk dresses…but not for themselves. For the gentlemen. Balls were also insensitive to the circumstances of the normal English citizen. While they were enjoying themselves with dances and shallow tête-à-tête, children were out in the streets, cold and hungry, women were oppressed in their homes, and men labored till dawn without sleep for a loaf of cold bread! But worse of all was the behavior of these men and women. Unlike the honorable and truthful characters in her books, the characters in her damned reality were pretentious and scheming. Instead of saying what one truly thought, they insist on lying to uphold civility. If it was truly deplorable, they say it out loud for everyone to hear, instead of personally speaking to the person of issue.

How I hate such falsity especially from that—

"You seem to know the importance of this ball…so why do you insist on declining all the men who wish to dance with you?" Elaine's query did the trick, and it immediately plunged Lara into the throes of the reality she so very loathed.

It was impossible not to feel Elaine's exasperation. But she was still a sight to behold. Her cousin was the loveliest lady in the whole of the ball, in Lara's opinion. If she could just look statuesque in the empire cut of the gown, maybe she could be as lovely. Or suppose, if her bosom didn't spill out as hazardously with the low cut that Elaine insisted didn't really show that much, maybe she wouldn't feel too conscious with her every movement. Lara supposed that her only consolation was her fashionable coloring of black hair, although the pale skin society wanted didn't seem to be available in her. If she didn't choose to read her books (those which weren't ancient by the by) under the sunshine, maybe she wouldn't have skin that was slightly bronzed. Maybe she would be as lovely as any debutante. Yet Elaine was different, she was a golden goddess, with her hair piled up and skin as flawless as porcelain. Why, Lara could almost see her in Mount Olympus.

Superficiality is only reserved for those who believe that the inside is more important, Lara thought. Remember Mary Wollstonecroft! She said that such things are never important! Yet she couldn't help but think that Elaine emitted an astonishing sensation that makes ladies insecure. Or rather, make others feel inevitable loneliness.

"I didn't reject them," Lara pointed out. "I merely told them that I wouldn't be their substitute partner after you rejected them."

Her cousin feigned innocence. "I did not reject them," she replied with restrained pleasure. "I merely told that I could not possibly attend to their requests with my dance card already filled." Lara rolled her eyes when she heard her words thrown back at her.

"Well, no one would really want to dance with me, nor care that I have a dance card with only two names on it. I hardly believe it would be filled up like yours," she told her cousin. "And I do not really mind," she hastily added. "It doesn't matter at all."

Elaine shook her head. "The night had just started, the merriment only conceived. You will get your dances, Lara, I promise you." She offered her a smile of reassurance, which was sincere with determination and conviction.

Lara shook her head. "No, no. I believe that I do not have any shred of hope, yet I do not mind. A woman's worth is not evaluated with how her dance card is filled, or how many people compliment her looks. She is graded through her strength of character, her intellect, and her goodness." If only more people saw that way—

Elaine grabbed her hand suddenly. "There! There's Cassie! You must make her you acquaintance then you will meet her fiancé and his fiancé surely has expressive connections to all sorts of men!" She pulled at Lara, almost dragging her to the direction of this oh so marvelous Cassie.

She should be worth Elaine's spell of unladylike behavior, Lara thought with amusement. As she let herself be led by her cousin, she also noted semiconsciously the train of the gown her grandmother had insisted she wear…


"Sulking again, Ascot?" a young man commented to his companion. With no answer coming from him, he nudged him. "You haven't been yourself lately, Ascot, what the hell is the matter?"

Michael Ascot sighed. "Simple, Everett. A mother who wishes you all the best."

"Dear Lady Ophelia never meant any harm, Ascot, I suppose she had the most honorable intentions in mind, as any mother should." Jeremy Everett grinned. "What has she done now?"

"Something damned unspeakable and almost impossible," he answered with something short of amusement.

"Bloody hell, she referred to a marriage?" Jeremy laughed.

"It is for someone who has not yet found a fiancée that is as perfect as yours," Michael shot back.

His friend grinned. "Not too many people are lucky to have found someone as exceptional as my Cassie. But then, not too many will want a hellion for a bride."

"Not too many are as aroused with a challenge like you," he replied with a smile. "But Cassie is different. She will be a perfect lady if one will remove that tongue of hers that, I can attest, will draw blood to some unfortunate, but if that is the case then the unladylike Cassie will suit just damn fine."

"Amen, Ascot, for Cassie will never be Cassie, soon-to-be the Viscountess Wrothon if her voice will be as soft as any other lady's voice. Damn her if she will do it again to spite me," Jeremy added with smirk.

Michael nodded. Cassandra, or Cassie, was certainly a woman to contend with. She followed all the rules of society, she acted the way a lady outside privacy did, but when she was with friends, or with Jeremy in particular, she was a veritable dragon. "If I were to marry, I will have someone as refreshing as your bride. Alas, I will only get the bride I want if I steal yours," he added with a laugh.

"I welcome the challenge, old man, but Cassie is likely to bite your hand off," his friend replied with certainty. "She almost did that to me; no assurance that she wouldn't succeed with you." He laughed again, and Michael saw the strong love his friend felt for the fortunate lady. On a more serious note he added, "But we both know that the two of you would detest such a match for you see each other as brother and sister." He grinned suddenly. "You will find it bloody hard to consummate the wedding, I dare say."

"Unlike you who will find it no harder since you've probably done it already," he shot back with triumph.

Yet Jeremy, a reformed rake, just shrugged his shoulders. "Don't want to admit anything more than what you said," he told him with a chuckle. "Wouldn't want to tarnish the bride's image now, do we?"

Michael nodded. "Amen, Jeremy, amen. Her reputation is still intact and immaculate, if you are so worried. Although, did you betroth yourself to her for that reason alone?"

His friend shook his head. "No, no. I love Cassie, more than you can ever imagine, Michael. Years of dishonorable…manhandling—" Michael raised his eyebrows. "—will not change suddenly without love. Besides, I didn't want to lose her again anymore than I want her to lose me."

"Ergo you are shackled to each other," Michael concluded his friend's solemn confession. He smiled. "This is bloody good for you, Jeremy. Wish I can say for myself."

"Why not find one in this crowd. The Shepfords have outdone themselves this time. But then, simply getting your attendance will be a challenge."

With a look around his surroundings, he nodded gravely. "Yes, they have outdone themselves." The large ballroom of the Earl of Shepford was in itself a marvel, with columns inspired by Corinthian design, mirrors with intricate likeness to Greek myth and legend, and the French doors opening to balconies facing gardens of all sorts of flora. Michael shrugged his shoulders. "As for my presence, Mother's orders. By the by, where is your lady? Last I saw her she was descending the staircase with you."

"She was dragged away by her lady friends," he replied. "I never did understand why Cassie chooses their company. They are soft-spoken pigeons, while she is…some other bird."

"They are soft-spoken only to you."

Jeremy nodded almost immediately. "True, true. There's Cassie now."

Amidst the crowd stood out a lady. Although her coloring was unfashionable—auburn hair and green eyes—she refused to change her God-given traits, and stayed away from the dye. Yet she was still an exceptional beauty, despite the fact she swayed away from fashion.

There was a young lady approaching Cassie, and her pace was set with all determination and haste. She was dragging another young lady with her, who as smiling despite the humiliation she should be feeling. The leading young lady was striking, to say the least. She was the epitome of a London lady, fashionable, graceful in spite of her haste, and mannered; as she murmured apologies to those she passed by. The other one was the opposite, to say the least. Her smile was wide with a blatant display of amusement,

"Well, a surprise is here. Lady Elaine Deighton. She is Cassie's friend since childhood, but the girl had left Town for two years to reside in France with her aunt. From what I've heard the French loved her." Jeremy cast a sly look to Michael before saying, "Maybe you will too."

Michael raised an eyebrow. "Lovely but then a conversation is worth more than a face."

"Judgment before acquaintance, Ascot? Give the girl a chance. Cassie speaks highly of her, even if it is her first Season."

He ran his hand through his hair involuntarily. "Well then if Cassie does esteem her, I will, I suppose, give her a chance. But a clarification, I am not earnestly searching for a bride. I wouldn't want anything better than to tell Mother I couldn't find the right woman."

Jeremy didn't reply, instead, his eyes were fixed on Cassie, almost devouring the sight of her. He didn't seem to notice what Michael had just said, completely immersed he was in his obvious infatuation. Michael suppressed the desire to laugh out loud.

But a shriek had abruptly ended his thoughts. He looked at Jeremy still, and noticing the incredulous look on his face, he turned to the direction of Cassie.

There was the other lady, a raven-haired child to be more precise, sprawled on the marble floor, the train of her pastel gown wrapped tightly around her ankles. Lady Deighton looked horrified at her companion's state, and was struggling to keep her upright. Unfortunately, she was getting no cooperation from the young lady.

"I told Grandmother that I can never wear such a train without tripping," Michael heard the girl muse. Without making an effort to dislodge herself from her circumstances, she grinned at Lady Deighton. "Now look. She will never have her plans be a success because of her insistence."

All around her, gentlemen and ladies alike gaped at her, stunned by her reaction—or lack of reaction—to a situation that would normally have a lady fake a swoon to disguise her clumsiness. Michael was equally surprised, used as he was to society's functions. His friend, on the other hand, had already made his way to Cassie.

The lady untangled her legs, revealing some leg, an action which she didn't seem to notice, and stood up. Still, gentlemen and ladies stared at her, either amused or horrified by her behavior—but mostly horrified. She smiled innocently, and swept a magnificently graceful curtsy that baffled the audience even more for how could a lady who possessed such poise fall on the marble without at least some sort of finesse?

"I am truly sorry to have disrupted your precious moment in this ball," she declared in a sweetened voice. "Apparently, this train and I don't suit at all. Please return to your activities before this incident happened, and try to forget the memory for the sake of your own countenances."

Michael would have applauded to her perfect apology. Impressive young woman, to have escaped this fate without so much as a blushing cheek.

Her apology didn't stop the whispers that followed. At that moment on, he had despised once again the snide serpentine tendency of society to strike on a person's back. Most especially the ladies who lie and declare themselves to be genteel and well-mannered, when gossip and backbiting contradict their allegations.

Yet despite something short of a defense for her came to him, a breath of derision came to him. This young woman, whoever she was, would as well create a scene for herself. Such a dramatic person, to crave the attention of society. And to go to such lengths…

He walked over to Jeremy, as he reached his fiancée. She was equally startled with the happening, unaccustomed she was to young women falling over her feet. Jeremy had looked at her with a twinkle on his eye and a smile on his lips. Whispering words to her, Cassie immediately regained her sparkle and grinned.

"She is a refreshing change," she replied to Jeremy's statement. "I wonder who she is. Perhaps, Lady Deighton will introduce us."

Michael reached the two of them. "Lady Grey," he acknowledged.

The young woman laughed. "How strange to have that coming out from your lips, Michael, for it seems like we haven't known each other for ages."

He smiled. "With the sudden bursts of impropriety, I thought it best to not promote consistency."

"Famous! Michael Ascot, the eternal deviant, following the rules. My, my, more and more surprises. Jeremy, we must chronicle of Michael's spells of propriety. It amuses me vastly."

He shook his head. "Ascot will have my hide, love, if I attempt such a thing." But at the wink of his eye, Michael knew already that he would be willing to do it for her,

She rolled her eyes at his response. She was indeed exceptional, simply by her talent of tolerating her usually obnoxious fiancé. She ignored Jeremy once again, and suddenly smiled. "Elaine," she greeted warmly. "How lovely it is to meet you once again. I missed you terribly when you were in France. You are witch to leave me here all alone!" Lady Deighton was in hearing range but still not close enough.

Lady Deighton, Michael observed, was even more stunning up close. As she approached, he noticed the flawless skin and blue eyes. There was an air about her that attracted him, as well as the attention of the men she passed by. Perhaps it was the way she walked, or the way her chin lifted slightly to show an air of dignity. But ultimately, he concluded that it was basically because Lady Elaine Deighton was a very beautiful woman.

A conquest, he thought to himself.

When she smiled, she was even more glamorous. "Cassie, I have missed you sorely. We haven't met up since I returned from Paris, but from what I have heard, you are already engaged."

Cassie frowned exquisitely. "I hate for you to know by hearing from a stranger, but yes, I am already engaged." She grinned at the direction of Jeremy. "To this unlucky young man. Please, Lord Everett, Viscount Wrothon, this is my dearest friend, Lady Deighton of Whitemoor." Jeremy bowed while Lady Deighton curtsied.

"I have heard great many things about your virtues, and I have looked forward to your acquaintance."

Lady Deighton blushed prettily. "It is my honor, my lord."

She waved her hand to Michael's direction. "My lord's companion is Michael Ascot, marquess of Quinson." He bowed, and as he did, he noted an expression of surprise from Lady Deighton.

"My lord, it is indeed, a pleasure to be of acquaintance," she murmured as she curtsied.

Michael replied, "As it is with you, Lady Deighton."

She stepped back from them, and grasping the arm of the person behind her, she pulled. The young lady she pulled was occupied chatting with a passerby who had acknowledged her, and was clearly annoyed with the disruption.

"Lady Lara Ewing of Pencast is my companion." The slight annunciation sent a visible wave of tension on the Lady Ewing. "My dear, this is Lady Grey as you already know, and Lord Wrothon, and Lord Quinson."

The young lady curtsied with all grace, her ebony head directly faced to the floor. "A delight to be of an acquaintance." Michael observed her behavior with bemusement. She hated it, he understood, and by then he knew she preferred to be somewhere else. Yet why did she crave such attention?

"She is my cousin," Lady Deighton said. "And if I do say so myself, she is enjoying her visit here in London quite well. It is first Season, as it is mine as well."

Cassie nodded. "I would do so love to introduce you to so many people. After all, Elaine, I am truly very devoted to you. I would not like it any less if I were not to show you around the delights and despairs of the London Season."

"Thank you so much Cassie. We are in indebted to you," Lady Deighton said with glee.

"Oh I see there is much to despair," Lady Ewing suddenly said absentmindedly at the same time. "I am sincerely apologetic but despair outweighs the delight in the Season so far. Will the boredom be constant?"

The four of them looked at her blankly. Michael mused that she aught to have a little discipline foe r tongue, for if Lady Shepford were to hear such an insensitive comment about her ball, she would certainly have lost her sanity. Or perhaps she wanted it, to be shunned then impress society by rising above it. Women were like that as always…scheming and manipulative.

Cassie broke the silence by laughing. "I assure you, Lady Ewing, Lara, is it? That the Season will only be tedious with the wrong company. If you are to join me, boredom will never be a consequence of your attendance."

"Fabulous!" Lady Ewing exclaimed. "I have been waiting for a positive answer all night long. These people do not take my opinions quite lightly. I do believe they could throttle me when I made mere mention of the dullness. How strange."

Jeremy cleared his throat. "Do you mean to imply, Lady Ewing, that you have made mention of your circumstances of late to some other individuals?"

She looked at him as if he were the biggest idiot. "Well who am I to complain to? Elaine was much too preoccupied dancing to take notice of this monotony."

"Are you aware of the latent consequences of your actions, Lady Ewing?" Cassie asked with uncertainty.

"What consequences are there except that I am able to voice out what I thought?" she answered willfully. She shrugged her shoulders when she was replied with silence. "Well, if I did something bad, it isn't my fault at all. It's the fault of the system of things, the mechanism of society. If their rules and mannerisms were blatantly displayed like the Ten Commandments, then no one would misinterpret the decoding of this mysterious and subtle enigma of social graces."

Michael was the first to react. "Amen, Lady Ewing. I do agree with you wholeheartedly," he said with a small laugh. "Now this lady could be the symbol of a start of a revolution within the ballrooms of our lords and ladies."

She raised an eyebrow. "I do not know what to make of your statement," she retorted baldly.

"A compliment, Lady Ewing, for I am yet to see one as strong-willed as you."

She looked incredulously at him. With a short laugh that resembled more a snort, she said, "Oh see here, Lord…"

"Quinson," Lady Deighton managed to supply despite her surprise.

"Lord Quinson that, as far as I could interpret from the code of social graces, being strong-willed is in fact a trait of unsavory character. So do you insult me?"

"It all depends how you view it, Lady Ewing. As I see it, you are not at all unsavory of character. In fact, I find you rather intriguing."

She couldn't help but roll her eyes. "I never will understand this code of social graces that insists one must veil their true opinions on others for the cause of civility." With her hand on her breast, she exclaimed with some melodrama, "This is beyond me. Incivility, as I would like to term your behavior to be, should be countered with incivility for you wholly deserve it. And with that, I turn my back," and she did so, but Michael noticed a smile from her as she did, "and bid you all a brisk farewell that, take note, is not at all polite."

Michael suppressed a laugh just to suit the reaction of his other companions. Lady Deighton was red with mortification, and Cassie had a blank mask for a face. Jeremy's hand was over his mouth, apparently to cover a laugh. Michael coughed to let out his mirth in a more subtle way.

"Well," Cassie managed to breath out, "that was probably the most peculiar encounter I had ever had."

"Oh my dear…" Lady Deighton collapsed into a faint.


Notes:

Vinaigrette – it is usually a metal box with engravings. It is filled with different scents, along with, of course, vinegar for a strong smell. It is used mostly by ladies when feeling faint or to ward of bad odors from their surroundings

Almack's – this is one of the most fashionable ballrooms during the Regency (early 1800s). It is a must that a debutante should get a voucher in the Almack's before having her launch in society. But despite the fact that going into the Almack's would very well secure a good social standing, it was also very reputed to be very boring as stricter protocol was followed.

Mary Wollstonecroft – she is in fact a real person, also one of the inspirations of feminism. Her book, The Vindication Of The Rights Of Women, was also one of the forerunners of feminism.

from the past chapter

Olympe de Gouges – she is also one of the first women to have spoken out for women empowerment. The Rights of Woman (Le Droits de la Femme), if I'm not mistaken, is an aftermath of the French Revolution, when the National Assembly declared the Rights of Man, sadly excluding the women. She was later guillotined. (Please feel free to correct me. Unfortunately, I forgot some info about her heehee. Sorry!)