Kasimir and his valet; an excerpt from A City of Stone

It’s been a while since I posted any book excerpts. Mostly, it’s because it is difficult to come up with anything that isn’t too spoilery. Here is a scene from the second book, A City of Stone, that is pretty self-contained. I hope you like it. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

-kf

“I’m not sure about this waistcoat,” Kasimir said, frowning at the mirror.

There was gold threaded through the brandy-colored brocade, and he thought it a bit much. Especially with the amber fob hanging from the gold chain on his watch. Every time he’d seen the businessmen of the city, they had nearly all worn raven black. Not this tobacco-and-brandy combination of silk and cashmere. And gold.

“You look fine,” Sims assured him, giving the coat another brush. He was a medium-sized man with limpid dark eyes and not much hair on his head. “Not everyone can carry off that combination, and you want to make an impression.”

“Yes, but I don’t want it to be the wrong impression.”

He wasn’t entirely accustomed to Sims yet. The man had showed up rather suddenly when the word went out that he was in the market for a personal valet. Kasimir wasn’t exactly sure why he needed a valet in the first place. He had been dressing himself for years.

But his father said that if he was going to take his place in the business world, he needed to look the part. Besides, John remarked, he’d seen over the years how his son dressed, and thought he could use all the help he could get.

From some of the combinations that Sims suggested, Kasimir began to suspect that his credentials as a dresser had been in the theater dressing the actors. He was forever going on about effect and lighting.

“You won’t,” Sims replied, “the effect of that color on your hair…all golden, and it brings out the little gold flecks in your eyes. You’ll look like a young Adonis, emerging from the fog. Everyone will be impressed.”

Definitely theatrical.

“I wasn’t aware that I had gold flecks in my eyes.”

Kasimir’s eyes were light green, and tilted upward slightly at the outer corners, like a cat. They were a legacy of his Russian mother.

“Oh yes sir, near the center of your irises.”

Kasimir leaned in closer to the mirror to look. Sims was right, after a fashion. There were tiny flecks in his eyes, but they looked more brown than gold to him.

At last, the other man ceased brushing his clothes and stepped back to admire his work.

“Perfect,” Sims declared. He looked very happy.

“If you say so,” Kasimir replied, “I’ll bow to your expertise.”

He headed for the door. No point putting it off any longer. He was probably going to be late anyway. Sims called out to him when he reached the hall.

“Wait! There’s one more thing. I nearly forgot.”

He hurried over with a mahogany walking stick in his hand, and presented it to Kasimir as if handing him a scepter. Kasimir looked at it dumbly.

It looked heavy, and had a gold head on it that was set with a large nugget of amber. This was truly over the top. Besides, he never carried a stick. That was always something Bert did, and he didn’t recall ever seeing Bert use one as ornate as this one.

“I really don’t think that’s necessary,” he said when he found his voice again.

Sims appeared to deflate a bit.

“But it completes the ensemble,” he protested, “and can be a very useful prop.”

Kasimir wondered again which acting troupe had abandoned him in this city.

“How so?”

“Well…some men find it an effective weapon to use in their defense,” Sims said, “And there’s a small flask inside. The head is actually a cup. Just large enough for a nip on very cold days. Winter is coming, you know.”

“It always does. All right then, show me the flask.”

Sims unscrewed the head of the cane to reveal that it was hollow inside. A rubber stopper was stuck into the shaft of the stick, held in place by a tiny hinge and lever similar to those on apothecary jars. It was cunningly done.

“I took the liberty of filling it with brandy,” Sims said, “and don’t worry about the metal affecting the taste. That’s twenty-two carat gold.”

“Good Lord, I thought it was brass.”

“No sir, the tin in the brass would’ve given the liquor a bad taste. I’m told the gold is from one of your mines. In California, I believe.”

“And you think that will help me impress the board of directors?”

“It will let them know you mean business sir, and are not someone to be trifled with. ‛All the world is a stage,’ after all. You need to look like the lead player to get them to pay attention.”

Kasimir took the stick from him and looked at it. He had a feeling that he might need the brandy before the day was through. Too bad it didn’t look like enough to get drunk. He looked up at the other man, who was looking back at him with hope in his eyes.

“Thank you Sims,” he said. Then he went downstairs to the carriage that was already waiting at the front door.

His father stepped out of the library as he came down the stairs and looked up. John stood frozen for a moment, an arrested look on his face.

“It’s too much isn’t it?” Kasimir said, brandishing his walking stick.

“No,” John said, recovering himself, “It’s not that. It’s just that…for a moment…you looked for all the world like Vasily Andreyev. I thought perhaps I was seeing a ghost.”

Vasily Andreyev was Kasimir’s maternal great-uncle.

“Really?”

“Yes. A little more quietly dressed perhaps, but…if you could summon even a tenth of his imperiousness, then you should have the board cowering at your feet in no time,” John smiled at him. “Just don’t overdo it. I wouldn’t want to live with Vasily’s ghost for any amount of time.” A slight shudder went through him.

“Was he really that awful?”

Kasimir had heard so many conflicting stories about his mother’s uncle. Yelena practically worshipped him.

“Well I was always afraid of him,” John admitted, “I suppose from his perspective, he was only upholding the family honor. But I’ve never met anyone with so much…presence. There was story going around that he could summon the dead to do his bidding. I wouldn’t have put it past him.”

That hit a little too close to home. The dead that kept haunting Kasimir’s own waking dreams insisted that he was the one doing the calling. Except that they didn’t seem to be willing to do his bidding. Nor the living, for that matter. He wondered how his great-uncle had managed it. Blossom came out of the library then, and looked up at him.

“Well?” Kasimir said to her, stretching out his arms, “What do you think?”

“You look lovely,” she said.

Her face turned pink.

“I mean, handsome,” she amended, “Well-dressed. The colors suit you. I don’t really know what I mean. I mean…I know what I mean…but the words aren’t coming out right.”

She was becoming even pinker as she spoke. Then she made a sound under her breath that sounded shockingly like a curse, and went back into the library. John looked in her direction, a speculative look on his face.

“I shouldn’t keep you any longer,” he said to Kasimir after a moment, “You’re going to be late.” Seeing his son’s expression, he added, “Don’t worry, it should afford you the opportunity to make an appropriately grand entrance. Image is everything to these people.”

Kasimir shrugged into the coat that was held out for him by a servant—he had yet to learn all of their names, most of the old staff had fled before the fire—and took his leave of his father.

The morning fog had cleared off by then, and it was noticeably colder outside. They should have frost by tomorrow. He climbed into the waiting carriage and settled back into the cushions, trying to steady his racing pulse.

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