Celine was beginning to feel that she was not as sane as she'd always thought she was. She stared around at the room she was seated in. It was brightly lit with ivory candles at every corner, but dim enough to make even her homely looking father, William, appear rather handsome. And the silverware was just that- pure silver. And the chandelier above the dining table was almost as grand as that of the king's entry hall. A feat in itself, given that the queen was known for her expensive and exquisite taste.
Yet, Celine felt more nervous than awe-struck. She didn't feel entirely happy being seated in this grand place. According to society, this was the mark of a mad woman. For someone of Celine's low class to not be basking in the radiance of the higher classes of Avilbane she was surrounded by was practically heresy.
When this manor's owner, Lord Colne, had sent a very stately looked invitation a week ago for Celine and her family to join him and his son on this night for dinner, Celine had been a little intrigued. Who would not want to dine in so fine a home? She even had the privilege of donning one of her late mother's gowns. She'd had to take it in a bit at the waist, but everywhere else had fit her perfectly, and she had to admit to herself that she felt rather pretty wearing it.
This was all exciting until Father had pulled her aside earlier today.
"Do you know why we have received this invitation, my dear?" he'd asked her, his brown eyes shining expectantly.
Celine had felt confused. She had thought it suspicious that they would be given this opportunity to enter the domain of an upper class family three years after her mother's life had ended. Mother had been the belle of every ball, but with the death of her had come the death of her family's popularity. But Celine had simply hoped that mother was so beautiful as to be remembered after all these years, thus causing her former acquaintances to extend an invite to her family.
And yet… Mother had mentioned more often than not that it was her greatest wish that Celine marry into Roland's family. She had been suspiciously close to Roland's father since before Celine existed, and from the day Celine had been born, mother had told her she must marry Roland. In those days it had not been so silly a notion. Mother had kept her family swimming in riches with the help of the men she escorted. It was not uncommon for the daughter of a courtesan to marry into more riches than her own mother earned. But with the death of Mother came the death of such dreams. Celine had been too busy trying to keep her family afloat to contemplate marrying into money. She'd quite forgotten mother's obsession with her future with Roland.
"No, father. I assume mother's old friends may not have forgotten about us after all?" Celine finally said, not wanting to provoke Father into a glorified speech about how luck had found them at last.
"You are right, in a way." He laughed in genuine glee. Ah, she had failed. The speech was coming. She felt an anxious flush rise to her pale cheeks. "You see, your mother always wanted this. This is what you have been bred for! YOU are the answer to our family's problems, Celine. Roland will be asking for your hand in marriage the night of this dinner. I am sure of it!"
Celine shook her head. She had never even spoken to Roland. Nor had she laid eyes on him. He had been busy as a boy, travelling the country to attend better parties than Avilbane could provide. Father was mistaken.
He was empty-headed, at best. Perhaps that was why Celine loved him so much. Painful and thoughtless as many of his head-of-the-household decisions were, at least they were made out of lack of wisdom, not lack of kindness. Even if their mother had not made it her dying wish that Celine marry Roland, even if their father was not still so madly in love with that same now deceased mother, Celine felt sure he would still at least nudge one of them to marry Roland. He wanted all three of his daughters happy, and though Celine pitied the man because he thought riches were the true equality of happiness, it really was not so uncommon a notion.
It simply wasn't possible anymore though. Not with Celine's family's lack of high social standing. Celine had decided she would go along with this nonetheless. Thanks to mother, she knew how to charm any man. Given that she had the opportunity to try her luck tonight with Roland, she may as well humour father.
Presently, Celine giggled delicately at a joke Roland had just told his guests. She had not actually heard it, but the laughter that resounded around the dining hall cued her to join in, lest she seem rude.
Roland turned out to be handsome enough. He charmed his guests to the highest degree, and his smile was dashing as could be. He certainly seemed perfect. But something about him made Celine feel… uneasy. His gaze was too intense, and some of his dinner guests seemed nervous around him, as if he had a cruel intent bubbling below the surface.
He had made a few snide remarks about the few courtesans that were seated around the table. This had been upsetting to Celine. Though she had never known Mother the way most daughters know theirs, she felt protective of her even in death when she heard this man commenting so rudely about her kind.
"Honestly, I wonder what my father was thinking, inviting these whores to my dinner. I have never understood why they are so easily accepted amongst us higher classes. Seducing men for a living…" he whispered to Celine. She supposed this may be his way of making her feel special, as if she was learning a secret of his. Still, it was hardly amusing.
Maybe he did not know that mother had been a courtesan? No, that could not be. Mother had been the best known courtesan in the land. None had dared to look down upon her. Up until this man, that is.
Celine's half sisters, Agnes and Amelie both looked smug as could be. Celine could hear them whispering from the seats next to her. Something about it being about time these stupid people invited them to a party. Agnes mumbled harshly that half these women were hardly as attractive as she in any case. Celine raised an eyebrow at this. Mother had been a silly woman to spoil Agnes and Amelie as much as she had. It was absolutely ridiculous that two girls would behave so pompously.
Father had not helped much, either. He could have stopped the spoiling of his daughters. Instead he had gone along with it, simply because it was his lovely wife's idea and he wanted only to make her happy.
"Ah, Celine, I do hope your, ahh... broth is to your liking. Even so humble a dish is made with only the finest ingredients here at my residence".
Celine was caught off guard at the sound of her host's voice. She had requested that she have some of the servants food instead of the roasted rosemary lamb and creamy vegetable dishes that adorned the table. Her stomach felt too queasy to eat anything, really. She now regretted doing this. The first rule mother had taught her was to hide her feelings at all times.
She fought down her impatience with Roland. He was doing it again; either speaking without thinking or thinking too highly of himself. Surely he would know that, given her family's financial state, which was no secret around the city, that they would nightly dine on the same "humble dish" that the man had just insulted.
Still, he had kindly invited her family to his father's residence. She ought not be rude.
"It's lovely my lord, thank you. I've not tasted food so divine in years". At her remark, Celine heard her father clear his throat in embarrassment. She knew the comment would sting him, but she also knew that Roland rather favoured feeling as if he was the highest man in the room. By stroking his ego like she was doing, she could at least attempt to become Roland's desire.
At least the man had ensured that Celine be seated directly next to him. This was a hopeful sign.
"So Celine, you're eighteen years of age now, are you not?" asked Roland.
"Yes, my lord, I am. And yourself?" Celine leaned a little towards Roland, folding her hands beneath her chin so as to appear very interested in his reply. Her mother had taught her well in the art of conversation, particularly with men. Still, she had been presented with few chances to use the talent with anyone of high social standing until this night. She prayed she was doing well.
" Five and twenty".
"O really? I imagine you will be searching for a wife soon, my lord" she said, vaguely as she could as to not appear too obvious.
"But of course" he replied, obviously liking where the conversation was heading.
"Well then. I envy the lady who catches your eye". Celine smiled a half-smile.
"No need to envy anyone, I assure you". Roland seemed to be hinting that she was the lady that was catching his eye. So Father had been right…
She imagined herself marrying this man. And for all her vast imagination, she couldn't do it.
The dinner dragged on in proper high class fashion. Celine ate only a few bites of dessert, as to refuse it would be rude after already having hardly had dinner, while her sisters ate more than their fill. They were only a little above average in build, but to feast after having bread and vegetables for so long was a luxury indeed. Celine had had to lace their corsets very tight in order to fit them into mother's dresses. Agnes wore a deep shade of green, and looked pretty enough. And Amelie's pink gown did bring a pretty flush to her cheeks.
When dessert had finished, Roland softly ordered one of the servants to prepare some champagne and have it brought to the table. His request was carried out within minutes.
He stood and made a small speech, thanking his guests for attending this dinner, and warning them that tonight's festivities were hardly over.
"The reason for this is, I've a very special intention for tonight, and given that it goes well, and I'm sure it will, we will have much to celebrate". His large audience applauded.
He then turned to Celine, got down on one knee, and said the word's Celine's mother had always dreamed of hearing for her daughter.
"Will you marry me?".
Celine now regretted flirting with him. Perhaps father had always been wrong about this in the first place. Panic rose in her chest. She bid herself to not be selfish. There were nothing so wrong with this man as to say no to him. And this opportunity would never come again. This was not about love, this was about duty. And yet, her reply was..
"I shall have to think-"
Roland, who had taken her hand expectantly in his, squeezed it too tightly and gave her a look that only she would notice and fear.
"….Yes". Her answer was no. But her lips had said yes.
The guests clapped louder than before, the silence that had overtaken the room broken by cheery congratulations. Of course, even if every person in this room disagreed with the match that had just been made, Roland's family's power was higher than most in this room. They had no choice but to fane happiness, if indeed any of them were unhappy about the event that had just taken place.
Celine refused to look at her father or sisters. Instead, as Roland's lips met hers, her mind resounded only one thought. What had she done?