Virtue

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The palace nestled in the rolling hills of Insontia was hardly the fanciest place Lux had ever been, and to be honest, it disappointed him. Everything tried too hard to be opulent and lavish, and even when it succeeded, the effort was all too apparent.

Lux had gotten through the gate with an invitation to the party, courtesy of his boss, and he’d been ushered down to the ballroom. Instead of going in, he waited just outside the gilded doors, spying on the masquerade ball with disdain.

The ballroom was filled to capacity. He hadn’t expected that many people to attend a tacky affair like this, but once again, Lux had overestimated the human race. All the girls wore flowing gowns, and their faces were hidden by glittery masks. A brunette caught sight of him hiding in the doorway, and she lowered her mask to get better look at him.

Lux wore a perfectly tailored suit with a black shirt underneath, the top few buttons left undone. His blond hair had been pushed back, so it lay straight, except for where the curls formed at the base of his neck. He had the kind of smile, that when used correctly, got him nearly anything he wanted, but it never quite reached his blue eyes.

There had been a time when all of this appealed to Lux. This anniversary party for a Lord and Lady he’d never met would’ve held some entertainment for him, even with its faux splendor and forced extravagance. The dance floor would’ve been a treat, full of beautiful women on which to dine, but he could barely muster the effort to smile back at the brunette. He’d grown bored with this all.

If he hadn’t been sent, Lux would never have come here. His instructions were to attend this ball for a job, and everything would be explained once he arrived. After years of this, he’d gotten used to vague orders, and it suited him better when he didn’t know what his boss was doing.

A waiter offered him a flute of champagne, and Lux swallowed it down greedily. He considered leaving the palace entirely, hopping on his black horse, and racing off to meet Gula at a bar where they could eat and drink too much.

But he knew better than to disobey his boss, so he settled for wandering away from the masquerade. He needed a moment to let the champagne hit him before he dealt with the crowd in the ballroom.

Lux went down a long hallway, following a deep red carpet away from the ball. Eventually, he found himself in a rotunda, the sounds of the party a faded din on the other side of the palace.

A massive chandelier hung from the ceiling, its crystals dangling like stalactites. The walls were papered in off-white with gold designs. A wide marble staircase curved up from the center of room, leading to the second story twenty feet above him.

Lux put his hands on his hips and sighed. The red velvet rug underneath his feet was worn in places, the paper on the walls peeled in the corners, and several of the candles in the chandelier were missing.

None of this made any sense. What could his boss possibly want with a Lord and Lady and their fading glory in a forgotten place like Insontia?

“Are you lost?” A soft voice came from the top of the stairs, sending a warm shiver through him, and Lux turned to see a girl.

Her long dark hair hung down her back, decorated simply with diamond clips, and her sparkling white dress revealed her slender shoulders. Her skin looked pale and smooth, like snow, and her lips curved into the most delicate of smiles.

For a moment, he was struck completely mute by her beauty, and that response to her startled him.

“Are you alright?” she asked, a nervous undercurrent to her words. Her hands on the banister, she leaned forward to see him better.

“Yes, I’m fine.” He suppressed his unnatural reaction and flashed his infamous smile, and she returned it easily and her shoulders relaxed. “I needed some air.” He stepped toward the stairs, feeling oddly drawn to her, but stopped himself before going farther. “What about you? Are you lost?”

“No.” She gave a small laugh and lowered her eyes, her hands twisting absently on the railing. “I know my way around here quite well.”

“You’re not enjoying the party either?” Lux asked, staring up at her from the bottom of the staircase.

She shrugged. “I always feel out of place at these things. I feel silly shouting down to you. Shall I come down to meet you?”

“Yes,” Lux replied before she’d even finished the question. 

She descended the stairs in a startlingly elegant way, as if she glided down them. Her fingers trailed along the banister, and her gown flowed out behind her. Something about her was terrifyingly captivating. He didn’t trust himself to even look at her, so Lux ran a hand through his hair and pretended to admire the chandelier.

“Do you like it?” she asked when she reached the bottom.

“What?” Confused, Lux allowed himself to glance over at her. Up close, she was even more stunning, and he had to remind himself to breathe.

“The chandelier.” She gestured to it.

“It’s… nice,” Lux said noncommittally, afraid of offending her.

“Lady Scelestus commissioned it after her wedding,” she said, and Lux noticed a sadness in her tone. “She wanted to leave her imprint on the palace.”

“Well, she certainly has,” Lux muttered, letting his derision seep into his words. She laughed, a light sound that rippled through him. “Sorry. I don’t even know your name.”

“Lily,” she smiled, and he would’ve sworn he’d never seen anything quite so radiant.

“I’m Lux.”

When he said his name, she held out her hand, and he took it, a warm electricity running through him. He bent down and kissed the back of her hand. Her skin was cool on his lips, and her cheeks flushed ever so slightly.

Lily quickly pulled her hand back from his. She took a step away, and he stepped after her.

“The ball doesn’t suit your either?” she asked.

“No. I’m not much into parties,” Lux lied. He’d spent the majority of his existence partying, but he’d say anything to please her.

“There are too many people.” Lily linked her hands together in front of her, resting them on the embroidered bodice of her dress.  “And I have nothing to say to them.”

“I’m sure you have plenty to offer.” He took another step closer to her, so close that he imagined he could smell the sweet fragrance of her skin. “If I may be so bold, you look lovely in that dress. In fact, I would say that no one has ever looked more lovely than you do right now.”

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