Grandmaster Draw

“Please, allow me to introduce myself,” the man says. He sweeps into a low bow–but not enough to hide the smirk that crosses his face, so wide it nearly splits in half. “Xerxes Break, at your service.”

“You’re the Lainsworth servant, aren’t you?” Vincent says. He smiles gently, matching Break’s with his own. “I remember, you were there when the Lady Sharon came to negotiate about us taking my brother in from the Vesalius. I’m indebted to her for that.”

“My lady is a gracious person,” Break says. His smile never wavers; it’s more perfect armor than anything else Vincent has ever seen. “And a softhearted one. When she heard of your plight, how could she do anything but offer her help? Especially since the Lainsworth has such a good relationship with the other Houses.”

“That’s true.” Vincent pushes away from the wall, walking on the balls of his feet, and leans forward until he is in Break’s space. Nothing changes in the man’s face or posture, not even to lean back, like most people would. It’s as much of a reaction as it *isn’t* one, which utterly delights him. “Why, one might say that without them, the rest of the Houses would have simply fallen apart through their own petty squabbles by now.”

“Such a thing to say about your own House!” says Break, who is now the very model of a concerned servant. His one eye is open very wide in the picture of sincerity. “What if your honored father heard you?”

“The honored Lord Nightlay has his own things to take care of, tonight,” Vincent says. He reaches up, his fingers not quite touching Break’s face, ghosting over the sharp edge of a cheekbone without ever quite touching. The skin is smooth and cool, like the porcelain of a doll. (A proper one, not the dressed-up raggedy thing perched on his shoulder.) “I’m free to do as I like, provided it isn’t anything too … outlandish.” He smiles again, sweet as the cakes that are being served at this little soiree. “What about yourself? Shouldn’t you be checking upon your Lady Sharon now?”

Without breaking eye contact, Break points. Vincent glances aside and sees that, unerringly, his finger is directed at the tiny heiress of the House Lainsworth. Tonight she is splendid in a dark blue dress, her long hair caught up in complicated artistic draping and pinned with seed pearl netting. She’s speaking to a member of the Barma family, poised and elegant despite her young age. He sees all of this in a moment, but when he looks back at Break, there is something that has subtly changed in the other man’s face. He’s still smiling, but there’s no longer anything even pretending to be friendly about it. One would have to be very close indeed to see that.

“Ah,” Vincent says gently. “As always, you serve your mistress well.”

“I always have,” Break says. This time, when Vincent leans into his space, he moves away just fractionally. Nothing else changes, not even the pace of his breathing. That’s very interesting.

“And I hope you’ll continue to do so, for a long time.” Vincent lowers his lashes and peers up at them; leaning forward as he is, he’s in a position to look up, coy as a maiden. “Your dedication is quite the inspiration for me.”

“Haha, is that so? The young master flatters me.” Break rubs the back of his neck, a calculated sort of embarrassed gesture. Anyone looking would only see a humble servant, embarrassed and pleased at the attentions of a young lord. “It’s my pleasure and my honor to serve the Lady Sharon, as I did her mother before her.”

“Your pleasure,” Vincent purrs. “How wonderful, to have such simple pleasures.” His hand trails lightly in the space just above Break’s shoulder, tracing the shape of it, sharp and angled. The cut of his clothes is very fine, better than most servants would be allowed–but he’s the manservant of the Lainsworth heiress, so perhaps he’s allowed a little more leeway with his budgeting. Vincent makes a note to buy Echo a particularly nice dress, the next time he goes into town. “Tell me, Mister Break, how deep does it go? Does your sun rise and set on her smile? If she touches you, is it something you feel all day? Right here–”

He reaches out. Before he can make contact, Break smoothly sidesteps him. It’s not awkward or out of place–instead, the movement is smooth and easy, flowing from his stillness without effort. Vincent is close enough to see what flickers just briefly through Break’s eyes, rippling through his pleasant smile. He doesn’t bother to drop his hand, standing there with it still outstretched, his own smile never changing.

“Oh,” he says. “Too close?”

“Those are rather personal questions, wouldn’t you say?” Break asks. He’s almost prim. “I’m sorry, Master Vincent, but I don’t believe I will be able to sneak away with you for any sort of tryst. Someone needs to keep an eye on the Lady Sharon, and if anything were to happen to her, even by accident …”

“She doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable,” Vincent purrs. He takes a half-step closer, and there is nothing polite or proper about the way he leans in close once more. Anyone looking would know immediately what’s happening. “After all, she could deal with my father and the head of the Vesalius family and not have them come to blows or blood. If you asked, I’m sure she’d let you go.”

“Then perhaps I should say that I don’t wish to ask,” Break says. He smiles sweetly now, and this time he doesn’t bother to hide what poison he feels. “You said so yourself, didn’t you? If my greatest pleasure is to be found at her side, why would I ever leave?”

“Why indeed,” Vincent says. He glances down, his lashes a fan against his cheek. “I apologize for any insult. I hope we can not let this become an issue between us.”

“Oh, hardly,” Break says. “I am but a servant, after all. I live to serve, though I am afraid that in this particular manner, and for you, I am not yours to ask for. If you’d like, I can recommend some discreet individuals who’d be more than happy to satisfy your whims tonight.” His one eye, jewel red and bright under the transparent fringe of his bangs, is dagger-sharp. There is a sudden and distinct distance between them; it’s no more than an arm’s length, but it might as well be the length of the entire ballroom. In spite of himself, Vincent can feel the corners of his mouth curling up wider. It gives away too much, but he thinks it must only be fair: he’s close enough to read so much out of Xerxes Break’s pale face. He wonders if even Shelly Lainsworth had seen this much of the man, who’d followed her everywhere like a pale ghost until the day she stopped appearing in public and her daughter stepped forward instead.

“Perhaps another time,” he murmurs. Like two dancers, they sidestep and move around each other so that it all looks very natural, and in the end Vincent is leaning against the wall again, watching as Break drifts back to Sharon Lainsworth’s side, drawn easily back into her orbit. She smiles more immediately and more warmly for him than anyone else she’s spoken to all evening–even from a distance, it’s quite easy to see. Ah, she’s still so very young, and he wonders if her contract froze more than just her physical age. He wonders how far he could push before he no longer could see Xerxes Break, just the Mad Hatter’s leering grin.

Vincent ducks his head and laughs quietly to himself. He rubs his thumb against the tips of his other fingers, then presses them to his lips.

“Ah, next time,” he murmurs, “I’ll skip to the queen herself.”

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