Chapter 2: Arrival
The day of Lord Ashton's arrival found the castle in the highest state of distress. The cooks slaved away in the hot kitchen to ensure the welcoming feast was ready in time, and since no one knew what their guests liked, they made every dish known in Elyria. Servers and maids and every other servant of the castle rushed about to make sure everything was properly cleaned, polished, scrubbed and dusted. No one had ever seen the castle looking so clean.
While the servants scurried about, shouting orders and arguing about who should change the linens, three of the Harcourt daughters were equally distressed. Esther, it turned out, had not had enough time to complete two new dresses, so Mira was left to try on every gown she owned to find one suitable enough for meeting her future husband. Liliana, who felt that this was her last chance to find a husband, was equally frantic as their maids rushed back and forth with fresh gowns to try on. An hour before Lord Ashton was expected to arrive, they were both still in their underclothes, their hair about their shoulders as they tried one dress after the other with increasing anxiety.
Though she was already dressed in her new gown, Cassia was fretting over her hair, chiding her maidservant for not getting it right and making her redo it so many times that the girl was nearly in tears.
"No, no!" Cassia snapped. "Look at it – it's uneven! And falling down on one side! And that piece there – it's sticking out! Do you want me to look like a rat has nested in my hair when Lord Ashton arrives?"
Evalina shook her head at the pandemonium before her. She'd spent the morning after breakfast reading in the garden while her sisters headed upstairs to start getting ready, and had come back to the dressing room to find gowns heaped everywhere and her sisters in a state of panic. She calmly went to her own wardrobe and found the dress she had selected the evening before; it was a pretty cream-colored gown with gold embroidery. It was not as fancy as the ones her sisters planned on wearing, and indeed was actually rather plain, though it had an understated elegance. Eva had never been one to wear gowns with excesses of lace, mother-of-pearl and jewels.
Once dressed, her hair was pinned up in a simple but elegant style with golden tinsel wound through it. And so it was that in only half an hour she was ready before her sisters, who had been "getting ready" for nearly four hours.
Cassia's maidservant had finally done her hair to her satisfaction, and Liliana and Mira had finally found gowns they deemed suitable for the occasion. By the time they made it down to the courtyard, however, the rest of the welcoming party had been assembled for twenty minutes and their father was none too pleased.
"A very fine impression, it would have made, if Lord Ashton were to arrive to find none of you present," he scolded.
Liliana and Mira had the good grace to blush, but Cassia simply tossed her head and said, "I would prefer to be late than to arrive looking anything less than my best, Father."
They had made it just in time, for Lord Ashton's entourage was sighted soon after they arrived. Within minutes they were winding their way through the gates, knights and guards first, and then the lord himself, followed by cooks and servants. Liliana, Cassia and Mira were bouncing on their feet with excitement, straining to catch sight of the duke, while Evalina stood calmly by with her hands folded in front of her.
Lord Ashton was quite young, as Cassia had told them, but his demeanor made him seem much older than his years. He had a serious, thoughtful face, and did not smile at them as he dismounted his horse and came toward them. He had dark hair and brown eyes that did not ease his somber countenance by showing what he was thinking. He had fine facial features that would have been quite handsome, Evalina thought, if he would smile. He carried himself with the dignified air and straight posture of a nobleman. Young though he was, as he came toward them Evalina had the impression of an old man.
"Lord Harcourt," he said with a bow as he stopped before the other man. His voice was pleasant, with the accent of his region, but it was as lacking in emotion as his face was.
"Lord Ashton," Evalina's father returned. He then stepped aside and gestured toward his daughters. "My daughters. May I introduce you to my eldest, Liliana?" Lord Ashton bowed politely to her, and she curtsied with a nervous smile. "And this is Cassia and Mira," Lord Harcourt continued. Cassia curtsied with a coy smile, but Mira was so excited she nearly tripped over her skirts. "And my youngest, Evalina."
Lord Ashton's eyes met hers as he bowed, and she obediently curtsied. She did not smile like her sisters did, feeling that one would be rather lost on this man.
"A pleasure to meet all of you," Ashton said.
"There is a feast awaiting us inside once you and your companions have changed from your traveling clothes," Lord Harcourt said. "My steward will lead you to your chambers."
And so the initial introduction was over. As the welcoming party followed their guests back inside and her sisters started to whisper and giggle beside her, Evalina knew it was only just beginning.
Lord Harcourt, knowing it was perfectly possible for dinner conversation to lead Lord Ashton to make his decision, carefully arranged the seating for the welcoming feast. As it was his intention for Lord Ashton to choose Liliana, he placed her directly across from him, so he would not be able to miss her beauty. Beside her was Cassia, and on Ashton's left was Mira. Evalina, whom Lord Harcourt was determined to keep, was seated beside Cassia, the farthest from Lord Ashton.
Evalina did not mind. She'd never been particularly good at idle dinnertime conversation, preferring to focus on her dinner instead, and since she already knew the lord would choose one of her sisters, this spared her the pretense of caring.
It seemed, however, that Lord Ashton was as content as she was to eat rather than talk. Her sisters' attempts at conversation went mostly unnoticed, with only an occasional nod or terse reply from the lord when absolutely necessary. Any attempts at jokes failed utterly. Her sisters, however, didn't even seem to notice. Cassia and Mira talked enough for all of them, and Liliana was too busy trying to think of clever things to say to him to notice he didn't care.
Lord Harcourt, noticing that his daughters' charms were being wasted, stepped in at last.
"Lord Ashton, you are exceedingly quiet. Why so pensive?" he asked.
"I have journeyed far," Ashton said. "I'm weary, and not a man for conversation, my lord."
Evalina wondered how this man expected to decide which of her sisters suited him when he paid them no mind, but then she decided it wasn't her problem.
"Perhaps he likes to listen rather than talk, Father," Cassia said, and smiled at Ashton. "Surely that's it, my lord?"
Lord Ashton looked at Cassia for a moment, then said, "If that is what you would like to believe."
Cassia and Mira screamed with laughter, Liliana smiling timidly along with them, but only Evalina really understood what he'd meant; the lord, after traveling miles upon miles, would much rather enjoy a quiet meal than listen to her sisters' incessant chatter.
When the feast was finally over, everyone left rather pleased. Lord Harcourt, though disappointed that his counterpart was showing little interest in his daughters, was relieved that he didn't seem to have noticed Evalina at all. Liliana, feeling as though she hadn't quite given the impression she wanted, was still hopeful for the next day, and was satisfied that she had, at least, looked her best. Cassia and Mira were each convinced the lord was already madly in love with them, and Evalina was just happy to leave the hot, smoky great hall.