Stepping inside from the corridor was like taking steps into another world, a world where there were some vague similarities but enough differences to leave Nickolas uncomfortable and confused.
The room was suffused with light, an endless, boundless light that shone in through immense windows of fine glass. There was a shimmering, iridescent quality to the light; some panes had been dyed into fantastical blue and green shades, sending shafts of coloured light dancing around the walls. They had been pained with bright and vibrant scenes of nymphs and satyrs from mythology, and they seemed to chase each other endlessly over and over. The air was thick with scent, rich and heady; perfumes, scents, flowers, all blending together in an intoxicating and overwhelming mixture. The air was enough to make a man drowsy and drunk with scent, and as Nickolas stumbled through, the heels of his boots becoming caught on the thick carpets, he could his mind begin to slow and his thoughts begin to thicken.
This was a distinctly feminine space, and Nickolas felt that he was trespassing purely through existence. There were twenty or so women in here, young women in brightly coloured silks and tightly bound curls. A few sat at the far back of the room, their profiles silhouetted against the views of the vast gardens below, and they played a harpsichord, a lute, and a reed pipe softly. Most were clustered in the centre of the room, sprawled in their finery upon the floor, while occasionally sipping wine and nibbling on sweetmeats, and looking up to the woman stood above them all.
She stood on a low stool, marvelling at her reflection in a mirror held by two maid servants. The reflection was strangely faded, her skin almost translucent compared to the vivid blue of her velvet gown. She circled around and around, letting the dress flow around her body, and drawing admiring sighs from her companions. The sighs did not seem to be enough for her, for the woman’s lip settled into a fearsome pout and she stamped her heels in a sudden flurry of temper.
“Papa, you promised me such presents that all would be amazed at the sight of them!” She picked at the neckline of her gown. “My companions are bored with this gown, and I do not like the sleeves. I do not think I like how Italian women dress. Why can’t you get me gowns from Paris? French is the only way to be attired.”
A spoiled brat with a petulant voice and a temper. That was what Nickolas saw before him, and what his mind was desperately whispering to his ears, begging him to listen. Her attitude and her stance and the way her eyes glazed idly over his presence, before dismissing him without a further thought, disgusted him. And yet, despite the beauty of the room and the women around him, his eyes were drawn back to her, the preening imp before him. He looked at her, and her flaws appeared to vanish before him. She was effortlessly, impossibly beautiful, a beauty that was so obvious it did not seem quite right.
“Nickolas, you are awake! I trust that you slept well last night.” Now, he noticed that The Cardinal was in here, sat in an elegantly carved chair and surrounded by carved wooden boxes and velvet pouches. “Come, sit by me.”
“It suited me well enough last night, but I do not wish to sleep there again,” Nickolas said, sitting on the floor by the Cardinal’s feet, dragging his eyes away for as short a time as he could manage.
“Trusting that this meeting goes well, I believe you shall be appointed with a suite of rooms of your own. You are lost and alone in this world, and in need of true guardian ship. I only hope that I can help you find ease within yourself.” The Cardinal patted him amiably on the shoulder. “In doing so, you would be helping me greatly. Nickolas, this is my daughter Erzsébet.”
Erzsébet turned around to look at him, and he was able to bask fully in her beauty. The darkness of her eyes matched the lush darkness of her curled hair; her lips, ruddy and thick, the colour of blood, so vivid against the white perfection of her skin; her voice had a soft burr of an accent he did not know, a sound that delighted him; he felt abandoned in the wealth of the stare, reduced below the level of a beast confronted by the divine.
Erzsébet looked down on him, and her jaw set. “Papa, what are you thinking?” She stamped her foot again, setting her hands on her hips. “I am fed up of you bringing this people home! What is wrong with you? Always, always you find these disgusting strays and present them to me, as if you expect me to be happy with what you’ve found.”
“Now, Erzsébet, Nickolas is here as my guest – “
“That scabby little artist you brought back last year was here as your guest, and I hated, hated, hated him! He was so tiresome and he stared at me with such a – “ Erzsébet frowned and pointed straight at Nickolas. “See, he is exactly the same! I want him out of my chambers this very minute Papa. I do not want him in my presence. How can you profess to love me, if you foist these things upon me?”
The Cardinal sighed. “I am sorry Nickolas, but my daughter has the most appalling manners. She is not able to go into polite society as easily as other women, and she has grown far too used to being an empress of this domain.”
“I am sure that Mistress Erzsébet is able to be the empress of any domain that she chooses,” Nickolas whispered, and he could swear that she seemed to smile, just for a second, before she returned to her graceful frown.
“I was hoping, that with a suitable chaperone, that my daughter may be able to visit again. She will be able to attend balls and banquets and garden visits and perhaps even take a visit to the refinements of Paris someday. But if she takes an instant and irrational dislike for you,” the Cardinal raised his voice and looked straight at her, “then she will have to remain in the country for several more years.”
Erzsébet gasped, her eyes wide. “Do you truly mean it? You are going to let me go amongst the humans again?” Her broke into a wide smile, revealing shining white teeth held in raw, pink gums. “Oh, please say yes Nickolas, please say yes! I am dreadfully sorry I was rude, but I did not mean it. I have just been away from people for so very long now – “
“It would be an honour to be allowed to accompany you.” Nickolas thought that his heart might leap from his chest, it was pounding so fiercely. To be allowed to walk and talk with her freely – it was a pleasure unimaginable. Indeed, it had been unimaginable until five minutes ago.
Erzsébet gave a squeal of delight and leapt from the stool. She ran to her father with a strange, loping gait, and he noticed that she dragged one foot behind her as she walked. She flung herself onto the Cardinal’s lap, and wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you Papa! This is the very best present, the very best present I could ask for!” She peppered her father’s face with quick little kisses, the surliness of earlier completely vanished. “Of course, he is entirely unsuitable to accompany me just yet. Why, he shall have to learn table manners, and dancing, and the art of fine conversation…” She broke off to reach a hand down, and ruffle her fingers slowly through Nickolas’s hair. “It’s just like having a human pet, only I should imagine he won’t break as easily.”