“Stand up straight, boy,” Lord Laures said irritably, giving Corin a cuff on the back of the head. It was halfhearted at best, more impatience than real anger. Waiting in the entrance hall of the Laures city house for Lady Laures and Corin's sisters could feel endless.

“Yessir.” Corin obediently tried to straighten up. Too many years hunched forward defensively, trying to keep his head down and his eyes on the floor, made it hard. Even the past couple of years, since the decision to send him to the University and the alteration of expectations with that in mind, hadn't really changed all that much in some ways.

But he had more books, a window into the world outside the Laures estate and the Laures city house, and had been commanded to study them so he wouldn't disgrace the family at the University. He had the promise of a way out, if he could just endure long enough.

And he was no longer a candidate at all for marriage with any but the most desperate girl—which would also mean impoverished, and his father wouldn't allow that despite the mutterings about a wife making a man of him. Laures had limited wealth or power to offer. His eldest brother Marco had a title to inherit and, when he chose to, a considerable command of social graces, which had won him a wife of moderate means and impeccable family. Middle brother Reimon lacked either and would probably make an appalling steward, a common job for second sons, but his brash uncouthness, the despair of their mother, had a certain appeal for some of the girls, if not their parents. Corin figured that sooner or later there'd be a short-notice wedding and an early-born child that was suspiciously well-developed.

Several years at the University in his future, added to the tendency for highborn girls to treat him either as a friend or with disdain, should thoroughly abolish the risk of finding himself betrothed. One thing less to dread about tonight's ball.

Marco and his wife were already out, having dinner with friends, and would join them later, but this sort of ball was mostly about unmarried highborn. In short, it was a marketplace.

“Where's Reimon gotten to, anyhow?” Lord Laures muttered.

“Wherever he can find a barrel of ale,” Corin said unwisely, and got another thump.

“Speak more respectfully of your brothers. I still need to find that one a wife.”

He'll find one, but you won't get any say, Corin thought, but kept his mouth shut. You can't afford to pay off the girl's outraged family for her sullied honour, and they'll insist on selling the poor girl into a life shackled to Reimon because she had one moment of poor judgement, and she'll come with no dowry which he'll resent, as though it isn't his own fault. It'll get especially interesting if there's more than one, simultaneously or sequentially, before or after he's married. And I pity the maids anywhere Reimon is.

As for Marco, Berenice is prettier and more gracious and kind and high-bred than he deserves, and he knows it. He's going to be certain that she's cheating on him, and that's going to make him miserable because he's never going to find any real proof of something that doesn't exist. She won't, unless he gets so obsessed that she gets unhappy enough to start looking for comfort elsewhere. If Marco decides it's Reimon she's cheating with, I'm going to end up the heir, so let's hope that doesn't happen.

Why can't any of you see any of this? It's right in front of you!

But he knew better than to say it. Instead, he rolled his shoulders carefully back a couple of times and stretched his neck, left and right and back, in hopes of loosening the constant tension enough to keep his parents from complaining.

Soon, very soon. This is the last social season I'll have to live through. No one expects students to make more than occasional appearances, if that. By the time I have my diploma, I won't have to do this if I don't want to.

And he very badly didn't want to.

Please. Make me clean the stables. Give me lashes. Feed me nothing but rye bread and water. Just please don't force me to go to this...

But there was no escape.

So, yet again, he shoved all his own feelings somewhere off to the side, and dredged up the mask he wore in public. It seemed to fit less well every year; he wondered what would happen when it deteriorated so badly it no longer fooled anyone. For the moment, it still deceived people into thinking he was cheerful and friendly.

Sound at the top of the stairs, feminine voices with an exaggerated melodic lilt, the rustling of fabric. Corin and his father were in the best Laures could afford, perfectly tailored though to Corin nothing ever felt like it fit properly. It was a given, however, that marriageable daughters had to show themselves off at such events.

Thus, the careful cosmetics, giving his sisters complexions of ivory, absolutely flawless, with outlined eyes and subtly enhanced lips—too dark would be inappropriate for unwed girls. Elaborately styled hair, with curls meant to give the appearance of choreographed casualness, winking with gold pins. The best jewellery of the house, heavy earrings and web necklaces, bracelets and rings. And gowns, Lavinia in violet and Olivia in rose.

Whatever they were wearing underneath that gave them those sleek smooth elongated curves, mere males were not supposed to know, but Corin wished he did, because those weren't the shapes nature had given them. Both gowns were of the latest styles, of course, flared skirts with a great deal of fabric to them, and something invisible that helped give those skirts even more volume and sweep, close-fitting in the torso with curving necklines low enough to tease, close-fitting sleeves down to the wrist. Yet the sleeves had also an outer layer that fell in a long loose cascade from just above elbow-level, and that layer was lace, and further lace filled in the neckline and fell from the waistline across both hips in ruffles. That the lace had been reclaimed from earlier gowns hardly mattered: his imperious sisters looked unspeakably, impossibly elegant.

Each of those dresses, not counting the jewellery and the rest, could buy me at least five good books. They'll wear them this year, hoping to finally snag husbands, but whether they do or not, they'll refuse to wear them next year because they'll be out of date. But books are always there. It's not fair. And getting to spend the same amount on clothes, that wouldn't help. Men's clothes are just... well... they just are. Marco will be lucky if there's anything left to inherit, after multiple years of this and their dowries as well. All-Father help any daughters Marco has, unless he comes up with a brilliant way to increase the Laures income dramatically. Two or three generations of living frugally and no dowries might give it a chance to build up a bit, a chance to invest it somewhere stable. Otherwise, Marco's sons or grandsons will be marrying the daughters of wealthy commoners so they can pay for upkeep on the houses and not sell off the land itself.

Why am I the only one who can see things?

Maybe because I don't feel like I'm part of it? I suppose it's easier to see when you're watching from outside than it is when you're in the middle of it.

It isn't much surprise they don't have suitors fighting over them. About all my sisters have to offer is a highborn name, half the Laures jewellery that doesn't go with the title of Lady Laures, a bit of money and a chest full of reasonable-quality household goods, their clothes, and themselves. They do look beautiful when they make an effort. Of course, most women do, especially when they can afford fancy clothes and a lady's maid. The problem is, they spend several hours a day making an effort. Which is why each has her own maid, and will expect to keep her even after marriage.

“I believe we're ready to go,” Lady Laures said brightly. “The carriage is waiting?”

“Of course it is,” Lord Laures said, and opened the front door. He wouldn't be so crude as to reprimand them for the delay, but he was certainly bored with standing around.

Corin, courteously, offered each of his sisters a hand into the carriage. Their relatively soft slippers had less traction, and their layers of skirts needed to be gathered out of the way to step up into it, further hampered by a lacy drawstring reticule and a folded fan in one hand. That was probably the main reason Lavinia didn't reject it, though Olivia gave him a fleeting smile of thanks.

Lord Laures handed his wife in, and joined her.

If he could have, Corin would have climbed up to sit with the driver, rather than sitting in the back, but he'd be scolded and ordered to be civilized.

His sisters were on the rear-facing seat, his parents on the other. Either was bad, but any chance of so much as a wrinkle in his sisters' gowns was asking for trouble, so he took the spot next to his mother.

She smiled at him and patted his hand, as the carriage rattled into motion. “Get as much as you can out of society this year, Corin. I'm sure you'll miss it terribly the next few years.”

“Yes'm,” he said dutifully. Carefully, he adjusted the dark brown folds of her soft wool skirt so they weren't being creased against his leg. Green-leaved white flowers were embroidered along the hem and in twisting chains down the bodice. There was no expensive lace on hers, and he recognized the fabric and material, though it had been through enough alterations to make it more stylish. Lady Laures had no intention of spending more on herself than the minimum necessary for appearances, not when she had two unwed daughters.

They're just lucky I wasn't born another daughter. I don't think Laures could afford three. At least one of us would have to find a job as a governess or a lady's companion or something instead of marrying.

That wouldn't be so bad, actually, as long as the master of the house wasn't another Reimon...

He shied away from the thought hastily. Ideas like that made something deep inside twist itself into uncomfortable knots, and this evening was going to be bad enough.

Even being somewhat thrifty, his mother was still splendidly regal. Whatever lay under that dress gave her smooth curves, even after five living children from seven pregnancies, and her posture remained straight, always confident and self-assured with every motion graceful. Her own family, Romild, was somewhat better off than Laures, but as the daughter of a cadet branch, marrying into a title at all was an unexpected boon.

How did she actually feel about his father? Corin wondered, not for the first time. She would never let even her own children see anything save support of her husband, but how did she feel about being more or less sold to him as chatelaine and brood mare?

Olivia snapped open her fan and fanned herself with quick small motions. “I hope Wallys Godwin is there tonight. He was quite friendly last year, and I'd like a chance to speak to him again.”

Corin listened distantly to his sisters chattering about people he was sure he'd met, or at least been introduced to, but for the most part couldn't remember. He had scant common interest with any of the males on the list, and to the females on it he was either safe and sympathetic, or beneath notice, or sometimes both.

They disembarked at Othmar Hall in a flurry of motion and greetings exchanged with others just arriving.

Inside, the great ballroom was ablaze with countless candles and lamps, all high on the walls or hanging from ornate chandeliers to keep them well out of the way of loose fabric and dramatic gestures. By their light, as least to Corin's eyes, the men were drab counterpoint to the women, in their bright colours and flowing gowns and shining jewellery. Even the ones that, under other circumstances, were plain or mousy became almost unbearably lovely when dressed to impress. Pale flawless skin with alluring darkened eyes and enticing tinted lips, sleekly curved figures that perfected whatever nature had in fact provided to each, glossy hair artfully styled to enhance faces, graceful practised gestures as a fan was snapped open and fluttered coyly or a hand was offered in greeting.

It was hard to look away and yet, looking at them, he felt cold and empty and sick, and dared not consider why.

He took a deep breath, and reminded himself yet again, Just this year. After this, I'll be at the University. Almost the whole University is male, only a few women, so there are no balls like this. Just this year, and I can escape...

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