There were a lot of things Magda had come to expect from her mother over the years, to the point where she hardly even batted an eye when there were new requests. From cozying up to nobles she had never met, to prying for intel from nobles she wished she had never met, Magda had done everything that she was supposed to since arriving in Finsel.
After all, Eliza had saved her—taken her in and given her a life beyond what she could have imagined as a child. Her mother was kind in her own way, and Magda had grown to realize that there was a reason behind every task. A purpose in every demand.
It was only after she had restored the Ellenstein name that one such request had Magda frozen where she stood, mouth agape as she eyed her mother in disbelief.
“You want me to marry who?”
“I shouldn’t need to repeat myself,” Eliza sighed, and she was right. They both knew Magda had heard her very clearly the first time. “I’ve made arrangements with the Jorcastle’s. You’re to marry Gonzalo Jorcastle in six months’ time.”
“But…I can’t marry Gonzalo,” she insisted, shaking her head. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and not in a good way. There was a sinking feeling in her gut, and she knew why. This wasn’t a request—it was already arranged. “Surely you know—”
“This isn’t about love, Magda. It’s a marriage of convenience—a political marriage.”
She felt her world shattering around her as she stared at her mother, seeing clearly that her mind was already made up. More than likely, all of the details had been worked out with Tilla. There may have even been a dowry involved, which made this a lot more complicated since her family hadn’t been established so long that they would have a large amount available.
“What did the patron say about this?”
“It was his idea.”
Magda was sure she couldn’t breathe at this revelation, her mother’s arms suddenly swooping around her as the panic struck. She was gasping, clutching her own chest as she tried and failed to calm down. So many things—she had done so many things for her family. This though? Surely it was too much.
“Breathe, child,” her mother urged, rubbing soothing circles on her back. “This isn’t a negative thing.”
“Gonzalo is—” She exhaled a few more long breaths, steadying herself. “He’s my friend. He won’t…”
He had no interest in marrying her. The words didn’t need to leave her lips for her mother to know and understand thankfully, though there was no response to that understanding. It didn’t matter that Gonzalo was in a committed relationship already, nor did it matter that Magda still had notions of love and happiness in her vision for the future.
This was their reality now. In six moths’ time, she would be Lady Magda Jorcastle.
As expected, Gonzalo wasn’t thrilled with the news, even when his family was hosting a lovely ball to celebrate their engagement. Magda stood by his side with a tight-lipped smile, holding his arm politely as they thanked everyone who came to offer their ‘congratulations’.
“At least there’s plenty of wine,” he mused, not holding back from another long sip from his glass. She wasn’t far behind, taking solace in the fact that at least they were in this together—Gonzalo didn’t blame her for their situation. “Rest assured, I’ll keep your glass for the duration of this farce of a marriage.”
She snorted, not minding that she was showing her less than elegant side. They were getting married anyway, so she was sure he’d see all her bad sides at some point or another. “Our wedding can’t come soon enough, then.”
Gonzalo chuckled, eyeing her fondly. “I know why my mother picked you.”
“She hates me?”
“She adores you. It’s Alan she can’t stand.”
Magda frowned at that, not quite surprised to learn that Tilla knew about Gonzalo’s relationship with Alan.
They didn’t talk much about Gonzalo’s relationship with the guardsman, but it was common chatter in the circle—they didn’t even try to keep it a secret these days. Maybe they didn’t attend balls together, but anyone with a set of eyes could deduce what was happening between those two. Tilla knew her son as well as anyone else, and likely figured it out before the rest.
There were few Gonzalo couldn’t win over when he set his mind to it, and his heart had been set on Alan for ages. It had only been a matter of time before Alan realized the line between friend and lover had blurred even before any lines were truly crossed. And he didn’t run—didn’t deny it. He stood and faced it like he faced everything, albeit with a bright blush on his face.
“Alan’s perfect for you,” Magda said, raising her glass to her fiancé. “Would it help if I talked to her?”
Gonzalo smiled at her, bemused. “There’s only one person my mother adores more than you,” he reminded her, using his free hand to gesture at himself. “If I can’t convince her, there’s nothing you can say either.”
“Alan’s a good man.”
“He’s a guard. She believes the expansion of the guard is bad for stability—everything he stands for, she hates.”
“She’s just being stubborn. Surely her political beliefs don’t overpower her desire to see her own son happy.”
“It’s worse than that. She told me I need to be ready to produce an heir, and that you were the right candidate to do so,” Gonzalo explained dismally. Magda narrowed her eyes at that, calling on years of training to keep her fury in check. How ridiculous! “She seems to think she can guilt me into being faithful to you as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“She told me if I ran off with anyone on the side, I’d be no better than my father. That I’d be hurting you the same way he hurt her.”
“How could she draw any comparison?” Magda huffed. “It’s not as if I’m in love with you. I’ll be more upset if you don’t run off with him regularly.”
“And who will keep you company in our marriage bed while I’m off with Alan?” Gonzalo wondered, glancing around the room curiously before his eyes fell back on her. “I’d let you choose, of course. I want you to have some form of happiness as well.”
“I couldn’t do that.”
“Surely there’s someone who’s caught your eye.”
Magda glanced around the room herself, shaking her head. There were plenty of attractive nobles, of course, but the idea of sleeping with one just because she could felt a bit too scandalous for her. Maybe she hadn’t been in Finsel as long as it seemed.
“It’s not as if you have to love them,” Gonzalo reminded her, gesturing at one particular man in the room. “What about the pink gentleman? He’s attractive enough. I’m sure he’d indulge you in an extramarital affair.”
Magda laughed softly. “I could never. Juven’s my closest friend.”
The Viscount seemed to know they were speaking about him, winking as he caught Magda’s eye from across the room. She gave him an imperceptible nod as he continued chatting away with yet another noblewoman hoping to earn his affections, clearly humoring her despite his lack of interest.
It was a bit of a contest among the ladies in Finsel—which would be able to get the elusive playboy to settle down? Juven knew, of course, but only those closest to him were aware of just how perceptive that man really was. To most, he was a mindless playboy, but to Magda Ellenstein, he was a force to be reckoned with.
Since the day she figured him out, she had admired him more than anyone else in this city.
“Gonzalo!” Her eyes lit up as she turned to her friend, a winning smile on her face. “What would you say if I could get us out of this arrangement entirely?”
“I’d say you were a genius, and then ask you what you had in mind,” he responded, raising a brow.
“Your mother is a very traditional woman,” Magda assessed, waiting for him to nod in agreement. “She already knows about you and Alan, and that hasn’t stopped her.”
“What if I were the one involved with another man?”
Gonzalo’s eyes flickered back over to Juven, understanding washing over his face. “Would he play along?”
“If I asked, yes.”
“An impure woman,” Gonzalo hummed thoughtfully, his smile growing. “It would almost certainly destroy my mother’s opinion of you.”
Of course it would, Magda thought, knowing all too well how deeply Tilla Jorcastle’s ‘values’ ran. This was the same woman who called charity a hypocritical game and vowed vengeance if she had coin to spare—she was harsh in her opinions, unforgiving even on her best days.
“My mother isn’t the only noble with such dated opinions,” he warned, his hopeful expression growing more and more uncertain. “I wouldn’t ask you to put your reputation on the line.”
“No, you wouldn’t. That doesn’t mean I can’t offer.”
“It’s not as if Alan and I will get our happily ever after just because you aren’t an option. You shouldn’t risk so much for me.”
“For us, Gonzalo. I may not have anyone in mind today, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t hope to marry eventually. I want to know what it’s like to fall in love.”
And if she married Gonzalo now, she would never have the chance.
Her resolve was hardening by the second, glancing over at Juven. It seemed he had caught her stare, gesturing toward the balcony so indiscreetly that she almost missed it. Leave it to Juven to know her all too well—to know she needed his help even without words.
“Magda,” Gonzalo said, eyeing her meaningfully. “It’s okay if you don’t want to—”
“I want to,” she promised, offering a reassuring smile. “Everyone will forget by the time the next bit of gossip strikes.”
Just like they forgot how Leslie Bavlenka had his way with Miss Kelly on the night that Alminas formally turned down her affections, and how Lynna had spent the night with her own attendant. The gossip had taken the entire circle by storm, and it was forgotten just as quickly as the next interesting topic arose.
“I’ll let you know what he says,” Magda said, already headed toward the balcony.
It felt like enough time had passed since Juven slipped away, which meant she could sneak away to join him without being noticed. Thankfully Gonzalo was there to support her, calling a toast in honor of his mother before anyone could think to notice his fiancée had slipped away from his side.
“Eyas,” Juven greeted, a smirk on his face as he watched her approach. “Have you also come out to sober up?”
She tried not to laugh, knowing he had likely seen the copious amounts of wine she had downed already. The night had barely begun, but it felt like it was dragging on and on. “I came for some fresh air.”
“Ah.” He gestured for her to come closer, leaning over the balcony and indulging her as she tried to figure out how to breach the subject. “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Magda agreed, taking her place by his side. “I’ve always felt the moon in Finsel is much more beautiful and gentle than anywhere else.”
“Never so much as since you joined our little circle.”
Her smile grew at his words; it really never ended with him. “Thank you, Viscount.”
“Of course. It’s my duty as a gentleman to ensure all the ladies in Finsel know their beauty hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
She rolled her eyes, a bit more fondly than intended. “I didn’t come out here to listen to your flattery.”
“Yes, you mentioned as much. Fresh air.”
The look in his eyes told her far more than his words, and she knew he was just waiting—playing along and waiting for her to say whatever it was she wanted to say the moment their eyes had locked from across that ball room. As usual, he had no problem beating around the bush and letting her get there whenever she was ready.
It was now or never, she supposed.
“I don’t want to marry Gonzalo,” Magda admitted, to no one’s surprise.
“I can’t imagine why not. For a green peacock, he’s quite—”
“Don’t call him that!”
It was Juven’s turn to roll his eyes. “It’s not an insult, and it’s not as if he doesn’t refer to me as the man in pink.”
“The pink gentleman,” she corrected, conceding a smile as he gave her a pointed look. “I need your help, Juven.”
“Oh?” He quirked a brow, growing more curious by the second. “Shall I propose to you as well? We can duel for your hand. I assure you, I’ll win.”
She laughed despite herself as he clasped his sword in his hand, reminding her with a start that it was actually more than decorative. Juven was a man of many talents, all hidden under this façade that he had created—that all he cared about was bedding women.
For a long time she had believed that as well, but not anymore. She knew better. She also knew he would always be there to help her, even if she was far more self-sufficient these days.
“I can only see one way out of this engagement,” Magda told him, both of their laughs tapering off as she got right to the point. “Tilla won’t allow her son to marry me if she believes I’m not worthy.”
“Then I fear you’re doomed, Eyas. There’s no other noble lady in this circle who is more coveted than you are at the moment.”
“If my reputation were tarnished somehow,” she persisted, not quite sure how to come out and say it.
“It would take more than a slight fumble to damage your reputation now,” Juven reminded her, eyes narrowing as he seemed to finally be piecing it together. Perceptive as always, deducing her request without ever making her speak it. “Perhaps you need more than fresh air. Shall I arrange some water for you?”
Magda insisted, “I’m not drunk.”
“Then I should be flattered. I’ve not attempted to sway you into my bed once, yet you offer yourself to me freely,” Juven mused, eyes dancing with amusement as she huffed. “Unless I misunderstood your intention?”
“I’m not going to do anything improper with you.”
“You’ll just allow all of Finsel to believe it.”
“Exactly,” she responded, face red as he studied her carefully. “Please, Juven. I know it’s a lot to ask for—”
“It’s not, truly. Allowing the circle to believe a lady of your status would join me in bed would only benefit me.”
“Then you’ll do it?”
“Of course not,” Juven shorted, still smirking as she blinked in confusion. “Did you forget who your patron is?”
“Since when do you care so much for your father’s interests?”
If anything, thoughts of that man left Juven bitter, and she watched as the reminder seemed to resonate with him. Usually these conversations were the other way around—with her defending her mother’s decisions, while Juven discarded his father’s.
“You always were more than a lovely face, my Eyas.”
She finally cracked a smile at that. “The same could be said of you.”
“I’m not certain you understand what it is you’re asking for,” he warned, glancing her up and down like he was finally considering it. “A rumor like this might end more than just your engagement.”
“Surely I’ve sacrificed enough for my mother.”
“More than most would have,” Juven agreed easily.
“I deserve some semblance of happiness.”
“And satisfaction. We both know the green peacock won’t be able to—”
She whacked his arm playfully, her stare warning him not to bother finishing that statement. For two men she got along with so well, it really was strange how they spoke about one another. To say they didn’t get along would have been an understatement, and yet somehow they still respected one another. Usually.
“He’d owe you a favor as well,” she continued, and it was her turn to smirk as his eyes lit up curiously. It was probably a scenario Juven had never imagined. “This is a rare opportunity for you.”
Juven chuckled. “Would you believe me if I told you I’d received no less than six propositions this evening? Each from a lady willing to do exactly what it is you ask me to pretend to do with you,” he revealed, still laughing softly all the while even as her eyes grew wide in surprise. He continued, “I turned them down without consideration, of course. Yet here you stand, tempting me like a true seductress with nothing more than promises of favors.”
Favors were the real currency in this circle—she knew that much, just as well as he did. She trusted Juven not to take advantage or ask her to do anything unreasonable, though she could only hope he was in a good mood when he chose to collect from Gonzalo.
“Please,” Magda tried, one last time.
He stared back down at her, his expression unusually somber as he seemed to consider the full weight of her request. “You’re an impossible woman to deny,” Juven said, sighing dramatically as she beamed up at him. He raised a single finger before she could get too excited, though. “I’ll only agree to this if you ask me again tomorrow, when you haven’t had a drop of wine.”
That was good enough for her to jump into his arms, the relief washing over her in waves as he chuckled and returned her impromptu hug. It was a lucky thing they were secluded on the balcony, or the hug alone may have caused whispers—it wasn’t exactly proper behavior, leaping into the arms of a man who wasn’t her fiancé.
Then again, nothing she intended to do or pretend to do with this man was proper. Not anymore.