People used to say that the only reason the ambassador threw two lavish and extravagant parties so close to each other - one on Christmas Eve and the other on New Year's Eve - was so that he could ogle Mrs. Amanda Llewellyn, and people were generally right about that. Being the ambassador, there was nothing objectionable or untoward about this - his wife accepted this as par for the course, and Mrs. Amanda Llewellyn's husband didn't mind, as long as it meant he could continue his business arrangements with the tacit and implicit support of the ambassador. It was an amicable agreement for all involved parties.
Everybody who was anybody was invited to these parties, and naturally, everybody who wanted to be anybody attended. Among this list of people was the respectable Mr. Tomas de Margent, a former military man who sought to live the rest of his life in good company (read: established company), with fine wine, full-breasted women and succulent food. The ambassador's parties drew him like a corpse draws onlookers.
But despite his penchant for being in the right places with the right people, not much was known about Mr. de Margent. He used to be a military man, yes, but what this meant was a matter for whispered debate. Some said he had killed a whole battalion of the enemy by himself, and was thus reticent to talk about it. Others said that he was in military intelligence and had orchestrated (or even ordered) the massacre of villages and towns with no intrinsic military value, the only purpose being to intimidate the enemy. His reluctance to discuss his career was not borne out of a deep-seated trauma, but from an obligation to take his secrets to the grave.
Regardless of his background (and the lack of knowledge thereof), all were in agreement that Mr. Thomas de Margent was a decent enough fellow; he may have been a bit on the silent side, but he could enjoy a decanter of port like the next fellow, and had a twinkle in his eye for the ladies how all of the chaps did. Looking at Mr. de Margent meant feeling a question crawl at the back of your mind, but dismissing it and knowing you were in agreeable and distinguished company.
The ambassador's New Year's Eve party this year was far more lavish and ostentatious than last year's, of that there was no question. It seemed that the guest list had expanded, too, but as always, Mrs. Amanda Llewellyn and Mr. Tomas de Margent were there, the former looking as lovely as ever, and the latter being his quiet, pleasant, enigmatic self. All was well with the world, and the revelers looked forward to ringing in the New Year with many raised champagne glasses and not-so-coy flirtations.
Mr. de Margent was found by the bookshelf, chatting with the Reverend Carl Byerns and Mrs. Christine Dubrenne. Mr. de Margent and the Rev. Byerns were old acquaintances who were catching up, and Mrs. Dubrenne was wondering how to extricate herself from the otherwise boring conversation without seeming too rude. As the men chatted, a waiter came by and offered to get Mr. de Margent a new glass, which Mr. de Margent found agreeable.
"Whatever happened to old Oxville?" the good reverend asked. "Last I heard he had gone to open up a new business out in the country."
"Hm, yes," mused de Margent. "'fraid that didn't work out well for him, it closed down - farming equipment or some such thing - but he did love the country, from what I heard."
"I used to be a country boy, you know," the reverend replied. "Back in the day."
Mrs. Dubrenne was about to pretend she saw someone she recognized when a waiter returned, bearing a drink on a tray.
"Sir," he said, offering it to de Margent.
de Margent's hand extended towards the glass, and then stopped. His eyes were fixed on the waiter, and a slight furrow formed between his eyebrows.
"You're not the boy who was here earlier," he said.
Had Reverend Byerns and Mrs. Dubrenne been paying more attention, they might have felt a slight spark in the air between de Margent and the waiter - nothing they would consciously have acknowledged, but something that would have activated a primal trigger in either of their minds, that all was not well. As it was, Mrs. Dubrenne was still scanning the crowd for someone she could use as an excuse to leave the conversation, and Reverend Byerns was looking at Mrs. Dubrenne, wondering who she was looking for.
"Simons was detained, sir," the waiter said. "He instructed me to give you your drink."
Another man might have been content to let it go at that, but Mr. de Margent was not like most men; maybe there was some truth to those rumors about a shady past. He scanned the waiter's eyes a second longer before taking the glass.
"Indeed," was all he said.
Any further observations Mr. de Margent might have made were halted by the very late, and perfectly timed, appearance of Lady Elizabeth Cumonte and her retinue of husband and six children. Nobody particularly liked Lady Cumonte - nobody could exactly say why they disliked her - but her presence at the ambassador's ball meant that she had to be tolerated, fawned upon, and loved, preferably very vocally. The cries of "Lady Cumonte!" and the general rush to the door she and her family had appeared at distracted Mr. de Margent, and when his attention returned, the waiter was gone. So too was Mrs. Christine Dubrenne. Reverend Byerns remained, sipping his ice water and fabricating a smile.
"Wonderful," he was saying, "Lady Cumonte has finally joined us."
"…yes," replied de Margent, still distracted. He wasn't sure what it was about that waiter that he found odd, but there was something. Not just the fact that it wasn't the boy who had served him earlier. Something in the fellow's eyes, something about the way he offered the tray to de Margent. Something…wrong? de Margent couldn't say, but something definitely not right.
"You know," the reverend continued, "I've been present at every major event of that woman's life. I was an altar boy when she was baptized, I officiated both her weddings, baptized all her children, served her communion, but I don't think she and I have exchanged so much as a word outside of a service. I've never been invited to her home, and she's never come to see me or talk to me about anything. Not that I'm… resentful, of course, you understand, but it's just, well, peculiar."
"Yes," mused de Margent. "'Peculiar''s a damned good word for it."
If Rev. Byerns found the oath offensive, he showed no sign. He also showed no sign of understanding that de Margent wasn't referring to Lady Cumonte's aversion to meeting with the reverend.
Byerns laughed. "Well, life of a socialite, I suppose," he said, before finally noticing that de Margent's attention was elsewhere. "Something wrong, Tom?"
de Margent shook his head, more to clear it than to answer the reverend's question. Getting too old, he was. Starting to see shadows again.
"No, nothing, just… it's nothing," he said, but his brow remained furrowed and his eyes roved and scanned the throng.
Something in those eyes - maybe the same eyes that had overseen the slaughter of civilians during wartime, maybe not - made the reverend want to step away from de Margent. It was not an impulse the reverend would have consciously identified or acknowledged, but his first thought upon seeing de Margent's eyes - get away from him - was hard to shake.
"I should," he started, "I should, you know, go and see her. It would be…well, polite, of course, and… I should…"
de Margent fixed his eyes on Reverend Byerns'.
"Good seeing you again Tom," Byerns mumbled, and walked a little swiftly towards the crowd surrounding Lady Cumonte.