The sun sank in a bout of purple and pink, illuminating the countless turrets of a grand villa in the second ring of the city. On the surface of the white stone, golden lines began to glim in response, building a net of overlapping words until the villa resembled an enlarged holy scripture, rolled up in several windings.
On the plaza before the villa, tiny figures moved, people talked, and carriages arrived while they all strode towards the widely opened entrance. Behind it, the room was big and gently rounded. In some of the turrets, spiral staircases led to the second floor and beyond. Servants in black-and-white uniforms handed out champagne to the newcomers.
The host of the banquet, Duke Deverell, better known as the General of the West for he won his most famous battles there, welcomed every guest with a bright smile on his rotund face. He was in his best spirits. How could he not, when his beautiful wife by his side proudly introduced their first-born son to everyone. The baby was quite big and healthy, with a board forehead and a strong grip like his father.
When Katherine saw it, she turned to Nathaniel with glittering eyes. "You didn't tell me this was a Baby-Party!"
"Did I have to?" He raised his brows. To him, the event was mostly to distract from his involvement in the operation tonight. "It's not like there's a difference."
"But of course!", Katherine chided. "I should have brought a gift! We can't go on a Baby-Party without a gift!"
"Don't worry", Nathaniel shrugged it off and pulled her hand to bring her in front of the host pair. "Your Graces."
During her own curtsy, Katherine noticed that Nathaniel was only slightly nodding his head, completely inappropriate for a lower-ranked Earl. Nonetheless, the smile on the General's face turned even brighter. "How wonderful! You managed to make it in time! What a great surprise!"
"Not really a surprise, your Grace. You send me an invitation after all", the Earl gently reminded.
"An invitation...?" Strangely, the General seemed to be confused, before breaking out into hearty laugher. "I see, I see! The Earl of Hymirhall! I should've known. Anyway, I'm happy you could make it. Please eat, drink and dance to your heart's content!"
Katherine noticed the General's eyes wandering in her direction, before he controlled his curiosity. Though their conversation seemed strange, she didn't pay it much mind. Maybe the General only forgot about the invitation. Her attention was fully caught by the new live in front of her.
"So cute!", she sighed. "Duchess Deverell, you two really are blessed."
The brunette with opulent body dimensions beamed. "What can I say? He's a gift from heaven. I've never seen such a well-behaved child! He hardly ever cries, always looking like a pondering little philosopher."
"Sweet!" Katherine laughed. "I guess he's preparing be a great man in the future then. Those always look like the world depends on them."
"Right?", the brunette laughed and gave a sidelong glance at Nathaniel and her husband before lowering her voice. "Yours seems to be an especially serious case. Better watch him closely."
Duchess Deverell winked. Katherine giggled, her face turning red. "That's my plan!"
Suddenly, an arm coiled around her waist, pulling her against a hard chest. "Are you cooking up world domination plans over here?"
The deep voice was so close to her ear that Katherine forgot to breath. She stood limply in Nathaniel's embrace, while her heart pounded away.
The Duchess' eyes gleamed. "Afraid we're snatching your topic? Don't worry, we just talked about babies. I guess a child of both of you would be a real beauty!"
Katherine felt Nathaniel behind her tensing up. However, before she could follow her impulse and free herself, his arm pulled her even closer. The grip was so strong it was nearly painful. If not for playing her role, she would've complained.
"Of course", Nathaniel agreed, sounding suspiciously calm. "After marriage, we'll try our best to produce little beauties. Hordes of them."
The Duke's laugh was a bit forced as he patted his wife's back. "Angelica, don't tempt the young people. They are not even married yet!"
"What? Are you saying I'm a bad influence?"
While the pair was quarreling, Katherine wondered what the Duke had seen in Nathaniel's face that made him chide his wife suddenly. Or did he notice the hard grip on her waist?
Said grip now slowly loosened, then Nathaniel stepped aside and pulled her arm through his.
"Come on", he said, and brought her to greet other guests.
When the General saw Nathaniel leave, he heaved a sigh. "You can't just go around assuming things, Angel. As far as I know, they might not even be a pair. You see, this man is kind of peticular. He gets his orders from the highest position. The last time I saw him, his group of warriors had infiltrated the army we were fighting, turning against them at the critical point in battle. If not for him, I might be dead already!"
"Oh!", the Duchess exclaimed. "He's the one you told me about back then? But didn't you say he was called - "
"Shush", her husband interrupted her. "Names aren't important here. With the King's verdict, status and name can be changed however one wants. The man I knew had brown hair and freckles, but I tell you, they are still the same. It's the aura."
"The aura? What does a general know about aura?", his wife huffed.
"I can discern the time one spend at the battlefield", the General claimed proudly, but soon got distracted by the tiny arms that stretched in his direction demandingly. "Yes, you sweet little warrior, Daddy is here. Let Daddy lift you up!"
With the happiest of smiles, he took his son from his wife's arms, who only sighed. "Men!"
A few meters away, Katherine suddenly pinched her betrothed's arm. "Don't try to break me in two the next time you hear something you don't like."
"I think I would have noticed if I did", Nathaniel answered humorless, which made Katherine raise a brow at him.
"Oh, come on, what's so bad talking about children?" Sometimes, she couldn't understand him. Wasn't he prepared to play his role? How could such a simple comment make him so annoyed?
"The fact that we won't have any maybe? Don't get caught up in phantasies that will never turn real." His red eyes glared down at her.
Katherine stopped and pulled her hand out of his grip. "That's enough. You were the one to ask whether I could play my role in public. I didn't do anything out of my boundaries, but you are being rude without reason. Go on and collect information then. I'm sure I'll do fine by myself!"
Her chin raised proudly, she swaggered away.
Nathaniel's eyes narrowed at her backside, before he abruptly turned around. Should this unreasonable woman just go by herself, he had a mission to fulfill. Integrating into the higher society wasn't easy. Surely she'd come back and search for him when she didn't manage to connect to them.
Actually, Nathaniel himself didn't know why he was reacting so sensitively to the topic of children. He never cared about it before. He didn't want anyone to inherit his powers, so he never planned to have kids. Not that it was even possible.
With irritation he noticed that his temper was getting worse the more time he spend with Katherine. Before, he might just have overlooked or ignored minor matters, now they already managed to annoy him to the point that he accidentally hurt Katherine. Maybe he shouldn't have been so harsh to her and apologize afterwards. She wouldn't be so upset then.
Remembering to what an appealing mixture anger and pride combined in Katherine's appearance, he resignedly shook his head at himself. It was more likely that he would've teased her more. Anyway, it was too late.
"Haaah." Brushing his hair back, he resigned to fate and walked over to a group of gentlemen who were absorbed in political discussions. The dozens of women looking after him with dazed or greedy eyes went completely unnoticed.