Chapter 4 : Vanity
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The jacket was too big, the ends of the wide sleeves that hung heavy with gold silk embellishments concealing all but the final two-thirds of his fingertips. His father had been a slightly larger man, not heavy but broad-shouldered and more muscular than his only son. The elder man had seen numerous wars with the Scandinavians, fulfilling his duty to assist the Muggle rulers who commanded the surrounding baronies, but Venn had only six months’ duty for a civil war in Suffolk, during which he’d celebrated his eighteenth birthday, to his name. As a result, his lean frame looked awkward under his father’s coat, even with the crown atop his head.
The youngest Selwyn stared at himself in the mirror, finding that he preferred the scarlet hue of his usual outer covering instead of the brilliant blue that characterized his father’s overcoat. The jacket had been a gift from Witter Ravenclaw, another leader against the Norman conquest. Edeline had thought it more than fitting, an extra reinforcement in the connection to be made.
As his fingers idly traced the edges of the coat, his eyes occasionally straying to his crown, his mind wandered to thoughts of the young woman who would come to life before him so soon.
Venn had endured enough of his mother’s society balls to meet nearly every combination of woman available, or so he presumed, as the flurry of elaborate dresses and pinned-up hair was much too varied for him to recall clearly. His mind lighted upon a slender blonde with deep brown eyes, and then it shifted like an indecisive butterfly to a brunette whom he remembered as a brilliant dancer. At another party, there had been a Welsh princess who had been brave enough to discuss foreign politics with him, and when he tired of her, a slightly chubby redhead had entertained him for the remainder of the evening by making crude jokes about the other guests. None of these girls had aroused his affection, but what of a woman who held all of their talents?
The sound of familiar footsteps was sufficient to jerk him away from his improbable fantasy, and he returned his gaze to the mirror just in time to remove the crown before his mother entered.
“Are you nearly ready to depart, my son?” Edeline asked, unable to resist admiring the black lace hem of her long green gown in his mirror for a mere moment. As she smoothed the folds in her train, she caught sight of his room, noticing not just the crown on the nightstand but the fact that his bed remained un-made and the toes of several pairs of his shoes peeked out of his wardrobe. “It is well that the Ravenclaws are not coming here, with the house in such a state…”
“Mother, you know it is not the house, merely the space I occupy,” Venn replied, smirking a bit.
“It is no laughing matter,” Edeline countered, folding her arms. “You are not a boy anymore, Venn. You are a grown man, and for someone who wants his father’s throne so badly, it seems shameful that you should be unable to remember to have the house elves tend to your things.”
“It is only habit,” Venn said, sitting atop his rumpled covers. “They would clean up after me when I was a boy, and it was always completed well before I thought to request the service.”
“How can you expect to control a kingdom if you cannot master a small team of elves?” Edeline’s voice held judgment, but her smile betrayed her true feelings. “I simply wish that you would recall the words of your father. ‘Leadership is the combination of small victories’.”
Venn nodded, pacified by the kind curve of his mother’s lips. “I understand. My room will be in a better state when the lady and her parents return the visit on a future evening.”
Edeline found the direction of the conversation pleasing, but she nonetheless returned to business, having found a habit of her own in her position as temporary ruler until Venn’s ascension. “Come, my child, the carriage awaits us.”
Venn distracted himself from cringing by looking upon the crown one last time, his lucky charm. Then, he turned to follow Edeline, stepping lightly about her train as they descended the stairs.
The cool morning breeze gently ruffled the dark hair in the manes and tails of the identical gray horses that waited just outside the castle’s doors. Venn affectionately patted the nearest of the twins on the head as he waited for a servant to help his mother into the carriage, and then he climbed in after her, closing both of them inside. There was even less space to move around than he remembered, and he felt a sense of dread about the day-long ride ahead rising up within him. With a sigh, he settled on the green velvet that lined the small seat on his side of the carriage, glancing out the window as his mother retrieved a tiny mirror from a hidden pocket in her bodice and began tending to her hair, sitting upright on the matching seat across from him. After a few moments, the carriage sank into life, the horses that pulled it trotting delicately through the muddy landscape as the servant commanding them wiped dirt from his own shoes.
Venn drifted in and out of sleep as the carriage trundled along, frowning each time as he woke to the itchiness of his formal clothes and the uncomfortable heat contained within the closed space. Edeline stretched out easily upon her own seat, resting comfortably with her nose in a novel so worn that Venn could not even make out the title. Every once in a while, she glanced up at her son, smiling as she noted the similarities between his current self and the five-year-old version. As a small boy, he would often amuse himself by making lists of the birds he saw in the trees they passed, comparing them with varieties of fowl that his father had hunted near the estate. Now, he was much quieter, but she still envisioned him counting the seconds until they arrived. Inwardly, she hoped he could use his excitement about being able to emerge from the carriage as a mask for the lack of joy he had previously expressed regarding his impending choice of a wife.
As soon as she looked back down to find her place, however, she heard her son speak to her.
“Has Salazar said anything else about this girl?”
“We spoke a little on the evening of your birthday, yes,” she replied.
Venn frowned slightly. “Are you going to share that conversation with me?”
Edeline closed the book, placing it lightly on the empty part of the seat next to her. “He told me a great deal about Rowena. Apparently she enjoys growing herbs, much as I do… delightful…”
“Mother, please,” Venn frowned, resting his elbows on his knees and leaning closer to Edeline. “As much as I wonder about the affairs of women, my interest does not lie with the countess.”
“Indeed.” His mother tucked a strand of flax-hued hair behind one ear, turning her green eyes fully upon her son and settling herself into a more comfortable position. “He said little about her, and I have reason to believe he has never properly met the girl, though he spoke kindly even with his sparse commentary.” She watched Venn’s eyes flick subtly upward to meet the centers of her own pupils, and a benign smirk curled the corner of her delicate lips as she noted the display of interest. “Helena is said to have hair so dark and fragile that it matches the feathers of the ravens which gave their family its name, the very ones that have populated the estate since time began. The sound of it settling upon her shoulders, they say, imitates the graceful dismount of a bird.”
Venn paused, taking in this information. “What of her skin? Is her complexion pleasing?”
Edeline glanced out the window for a moment before returning her gaze to Venn’s dark eyes. “I know not of her skin for certain, my son, but if it is of the same caliber as that which clothes the few Scotswomen I have seen in my days at court, it is nearly as white as the highland snow.”
Venn glanced out the window, wondering how his mother could conjure up such a vision when there were green blades of grass and fully dressed trees to be seen for miles in all directions. He closed his eyes momentarily, and in the expanse of a few seconds he lost himself in a dream, a blinding image of a young woman so delicate and fair that she could take off with a flock of birds and disappear completely in the rustling mayhem of their gentle cacophony of feathers. He felt his heartbeat begin to quicken as she rose higher and higher into the horizon of his mind.
“He said that her eyes are like ice, like her father’s,” Edeline added. “Perhaps a bit unkind.”
Venn found that he did not care. She would not have to be kind. She would be glorious.
His pounding pulse had moved to his ears and the heat of the small carriage was getting to him. “Mother,” he said quietly, but she had turned to retrieve her book and had not quite heard him. He longed to hear her speak of him with such pleasantries, to return to the days when he was a little boy in the bath and she would sit patiently by his side and compliment his future reign. Venn, you are everything to us. You are my most prized possession. You are the perfect child.
“You look very handsome.”
He looked up and offered her a tiny smile in return, satisfied for now with this sentiment. Though mothers occasionally embellish the truth for the sake of their children’s well being, it was not the first time a woman had acknowledged his strong jaw or broad, sinewy shoulders. He would be a fitting match for this strange woman from Galloway, no matter her perfection.
English woodland bled all too easily into Scottish forest, and before he knew it, the road before Venn opened up and he caught his first glimpse of Ravenclaw Castle. He stared out the window, much as the boy of his youth might have done while bird-hunting on a long journey, unable to peel his eyes away from the slender turrets that spiraled into oblivion with the tallest trees. Unlike his own home, which was rigidly embedded in a century of mud and damp moss, this building stood on firm ground, looking much like a jewel in the crown of surrounding pine. Silver-rimmed panes of crystalline glass dotted the pale white brick on all sides, and with the dark blue color of the wooden roof, Venn saw a stark contrast, like that of Helena’s features.
The carriage slowed to a halt, and Venn glanced into one of the windows, catching a glimpse of what appeared to be a rather large bookshelf just on the other side of the room. He stepped carefully out of the carriage, having to remind himself at the last minute that there was no need to be cautious about putting his expensive shoes into the dark, cloudy water he knew from home. As his mother got out of the carriage behind him, the servant who drove the carriage pausing to help her fluff the edges of her full skirt, Venn took another long look at the huge castle.
It is not so impressive, not really. It is too tall, too slender. There cannot be room on the inside.
His mother was speaking to him but his mind was full of his own guilty thoughts. He should have no more talk of the feeling of inadequacy, the distinct sensation that he would not deserve his potential bride-to-be. He would not allow himself to get lost in the serene beauty of Ravenclaw Castle and its surrounding estate, no matter its magnificence. No matter hers, either.
“Venn,” his mother spoke gently again, and this time he attended to her. But her eyes were behind him, seeking out the origin of the sound of an ancient door closing. He turned his own face back toward the castle, seeing two figures approaching with some haste. On the left was a tall, stout man, wearing an elegant jacket much like the one currently covering Venn’s torso. To his right was a woman with hair just as his mother had described, long and flowing and as black as the most starless night he had ever observed from his tower bedroom. She clutched the man’s arm gingerly, as if she felt the need to stay herself lest she trip in her rush to greet the visitors.
As she approached, Venn noticed that she was closer to his mother’s age than his own. He bit back a grimace, noting the raised blue veins in the woman’s pale hands and wondered what Salazar had been thinking. Surely he did not intend for his nephew to choose a bride so old!
However, his fears were relieved when the woman stepped gently past him and took Edeline’s hand graciously, revealing herself as the countess. “Welcome! I trust your journey was smooth?”
“Yes, not a drop from the sky,” Edeline confirmed, smiling at the woman and gesturing to Venn. “This is my son, Venn, and I am Edeline. My dear brother sends his greetings from Suffolk.”
“Oh, please give Salazar my regards when you return,” the man said, clasping Venn’s hand with surprising force. “I am Witter Ravenclaw, and this is my wife, Rowena. Helena awaits within.”
Venn felt his heart jump shamelessly to life at the mention of the girl’s name, and he nodded as curtly as possible, unwilling to put his cards on the table when there was yet no prize to be seen. His mother put a warm palm on his back, guiding him along as they followed their hosts inside.
He was wrong again. While this castle’s foyer was not as wide as his own, the ceilings stretched up into a broad expanse of white, an endless sky that made the room seem quite large indeed.
“Dinner will be served in a few moments,” Rowena said, sending an elf to gather their coats. Venn refused the service, not willing to let even an ill-fitting jacket abandon him in this strange land. His mother, on the other hand, easily parted with her warm woolen covering, which had been gifted to her by his father and made entirely of the coats of the sheep that inhabited their lands. Behind him, Venn heard Witter mention something about Edeline’s wine preferences.
The sound was so soft and delicate that he might have missed it had he not been trying so hard to remain disinterested in the event’s events. But there, just visible in the edges of his periphery, he caught a glimpse of a figure standing near the bottom of the staircase, her hand nervously caressing the silver railing. Her dark hair fell just below her shoulders, the tender man-made curls twirling elegantly about the fragile diamond tiara that shone from the top of her head. Her pale blue dress made her white skin seem almost bloodless and perfect in its transparency. For a moment, she looked like a flower, the kind that would wilt with the slightest breeze or touch of heat. But then her tiny fingers gripped the banister with an unforeseen sense of purpose.
She took a step forward and, as if by magic, his eyes swept up and drowned in the depths of hers.
Helena gave him a polite smile, and he regained his strength, pressing his lips to her soft hand. Her feet made no noise as they moved down onto the thick carpet and brushed silently past him, the scent of an inviting meal providing an excellent distraction for the butterflies in her stomach. Venn, on the other hand, found within himself a sudden craving for the wine his mother carried.
It was not until his feet pulled him toward the dining room that he realized he was smiling, too.
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