“I knew this was a bad idea.”
Beside me, Stewart shook his head, then swatted my hands away from my cravat. “Let me do that for you,” he said, kissing my temple while I scowled and fidgeted.
“I can tie a cravat,” I snapped.
“I know.” He continued to tie the pale fabric at my neck, and I continued to let him. “Ah, there. All done.” Stewart stepped aside and I scrutinized my appearance. To my frustration, my cravat looked quite good. No more excuses to make.
“I know you’re not nervous,” Steward said with a knowing smile, “so don’t be.”
“When I come back in tears, you owe me.”
“Sir Liam is good at what he does. He knows talent when he sees it. Perhaps more importantly, he’s a good man.”
“Is he still a ‘sir’?” I’d asked around about this Gallery rep, and found he was Benzarian born, yet recently disowned.
“Technically, no,” Stewart replied, “but everyone still calls him that. You’ll understand once you meet him. He earns one’s respect quite quickly.”
“Hmm,” I grumbled.
Stewart smiled and nudged me to the door. “Get going. Your paintings will be delivered before you if you don’t go quickly.”
I let him kiss me before I left.
I’d been to art spaces before, but never within The Gallery itself. The building was centuries old, constructed with pink marble and white stonework, and the only three-story structure beside the royal palace. Looking up at the monolith gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘intimidating’.
“It’s a merely pomp and pretension,” I said to myself. Of course, if this place truly was all facade and no substance, why was I here?
Just go inside, little fox. Stewart’s voice echoed in my brain and I imagined giving him a huff as I made my way up the shallow stone steps and into the Gallery building.
If the outside was intimidating, the inside…I had no words. The entry hall was opened through all three levels, with floor to ceiling frescos. “Holy shit,” I couldn’t stop myself from muttering. Unfortunately, the acoustics in the enormous room made my small voice bounce from wall to wall. I flushed as a young nobleman across the floor looked up and headed over to me.
Wonderful. I’d managed to get myself expelled before I could even interview. My cheeks heated and I hated allowing myself to feel flustered, or ashamed.
“Rua Athene?” he asked, at the same time I attempted to sputter an apology.
I blinked. “Uh…yes.”
The young man, graced with the pale skin and dark hair of a “true” Benzarian, lit up like a sparkler. “Brilliant, Sir Liam will be so please you have arrived. Right this way.” Without missing a beat, he turned and waved for me to follow as we stepped into the two-story arched hall that lead from the room. More frescos here. Windows to the roof, some tinted in various colors glowing from the sunshine beyond.
I tried to take it all in as we went from one long hall to the next, but the spectacle was beyond me—and the young man, who still hadn’t introduced himself, kept up a constant chatter.
“Your works arrived not long ago and Sir Liam would not leave them, even to greet you himself,” he said, eyes wide, as if this was a social faux pas. All I cared about was whether this Liam was so aghast by my work he planned to throw me straight onto the street the moment I was before him. My palms began to sweat.
Finally, after we’d wandered through hall after hall and delved through a normal-sized wooden door into a high-roofed, sunny, but dusty room, my leader said brightly, “Sir Liam, he has arrived!”
Cluttered with covered canvases, draped sculptures, and with half a wall open to a back lane outside, I deduced the area was an immense storage room. Near the exposed wall were two men. Though not much older than myself, both seemed to have more poise and purpose than myself as I was lead over to them.
My feet almost faltered as the men’s eyes turned toward me. Oh Lord, what was I doing here? One man was taller and blond, with a kind smile, but one that seemed to indicate he had me sized up within seconds. The other was obviously Benzarian and--
“Sir Liam, here is Rua Athene,” my guide said, giving the other Benzarian—Sir Liam—a neat bow and then parting. I looked at his retreating back and despite his congeniality I decided I didn’t like him for leaving.
“Rua, so lovely to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine, Sir.”
I swore I heard a snort from the blond man and wondered what I was missing.
“Ignore him,” Liam said, elbowing the man. Smiling at me once more, he clarified, “My title was taken from me, and some people,” he eyed the blond at his side, “find it amusing that people here often still use it, out of respect.”
“I see, Sir—um, Liam.”
He was kind enough to ignore my stumbling and waved at the other man. “Off you go, before you cause any more trouble.” Then, to my astonishment, Liam gave him a kiss straight on the mouth before pushing him toward the open doors.
“Sorry about Adaine. He can be incorrigible sometimes.”
I found myself returning his grin. “I know the time.”
“Come, let’s look at these works of yours.” Liam took my arm and I walked beside him in a haze of wonder.