Reentering the upper classes was not something Wylan had planned to do – after almost being assassinated by his own father, he didn’t exactly feel a strong connection to the circles of merchers and government men that controlled Ketterdam. However, he hadn’t banked on becoming the sole inheritor of the Van Eck mansion, money, and name. And he hadn’t banked on Jesper becoming his plus one.
You see, there were events that only the wealthiest in Ketterdam could attend, on account of pure class snobbery and capitalistic exclusionism. Wylan didn’t have fond memories of going to these events as a child, but Kaz had made it quite clear that having an “in” would be very valuable to the Crows, and Wylan was eager to stay in Kaz’s favour and prove himself useful. Plus there was a degree of entertainment in turning up as a skinny red-headed teenager with a Zemeni boy on your arm when most of the room’s occupants were old white men with their increasingly younger wives. There was always live music and good food, and frankly it wasn’t terrible so long as Wylan played along with everything and told himself that it was acting. He could do that – he had done it for the first fifteen years of his life.
Tonight was the first of the major balls that happened in the spring, where the debutants would make themselves known and their overdressed, overindulgent fathers would boast about family earnings to anyone who was listening. Not Wylan’s ideal scene as he wasn’t so interested in the girls and their fancy frocks, but all it had to be was a reconnaissance mission. Listening in to the conversations, hearing about the economic successes of the season, learning who could become a target.
At least, he would be focusing on that if Jesper wasn’t jiggling his leg again.
“Babe,” he whispered, “you’re gonna knock over a table if you’re not careful.”
“I’m nervous,” Jesper replied, stilling his leg and tapping on Wylan’s forearm instead.
“This is exactly the place I’m not meant to be,” he said with an apprehensive grin. “Farm boys don’t belong in mercher balls.”
“Neither do teenage boys generally, but we’re here, aren’t we?”
Jesper sighed and looked around. Wylan followed his gaze to the beautiful coat of arms that hung above the splendid fireplace at the end of the room – two crossed revolvers, each one inlaid with sapphires.
“Don’t even think about it.”
“There’s a Durast gunmaker in West Stave who could make me up one of those,” Jesper commented wistfully.
“Not with the amount of money you have.”
“Spoilsport.” Wylan saw Jesper grin at him before planting a kiss on his cheek. “I haven’t gambled once this week.”
“And I’m incredibly proud of you for it. Just a few more weeks and you can start paying rent,” he teased. Jesper prodded him in the side and Wylan gave a yelp of laughter, earning some disapproving looks from other couples nearby.
“You’d pay me to live with you,” Jesper replied, squeezing Wylan around the waist. “You can’t get enough of me.”
“Stop it,” Wylan mumbled, blushing as more people turned to look at the two boys being affectionate beside the drinks table. He had never been consciously concerned about his relationship with Jesper, but this was such a heterosexual environment. They stuck out like two sore thumbs – Wylan in one of his father’s old burgundy military coats tailored to his slim figure, and Jesper as always in an outrageous plum and emerald green waistcoat and tails. Nothing about Jesper ever displeased him, and he wouldn’t dream of asking his boyfriend to tone down the colours and styles just to fit in, but in that moment, Wylan wished they were less conspicuous. Jesper followed his gaze to the disapproving glances before looking back at Wylan. He bit his lip and gave him a supportive look.
“We’re allowed to be here,” Jesper said quietly. “We belong here just as much as any of them. If you want me to stop, I will, but you shouldn’t be embarrassed that we love each other just as much as anyone else here.”
“Probably love each other more,” Wylan smiled. “Have you heard how many mistresses are here tonight?”
“I’d rather not think about it.”
Jesper sighed and drummed his fingers against Wylan’s waist where his hand lay. Wylan was struck again by how pretty he was. The way his skin shone under the yellow lamplight, the brightness of his eyes and teeth as he regarded the room with smiles aplenty, the fit of his jacket around his broad shoulders that seemed to make him even taller and leaner. Fortunately Jesper didn’t catch Wylan staring, as he tended to do, and instead reached around to collect a champagne flute. He kept his arm around Wylan’s waist as he took a sip, the bubbles collecting at his lips before he licked them and pulled a face.
“I don’t understand fancy wine,” he commented, and Wylan giggled.
“Okay, I definitely belong here more than you do. Can you even name a champagne region?”
“Yes, actually,” Jesper grinned, “there’s one near Eames Chin. You forget that I know Novyi Zem well even if I don’t know champagne.”
“That’s like alehouse trivia compared to actual mercher knowledge,” Wylan protested, grinning as Jesper waggled his eyebrows.
“Still managed to get one. Maybe I deserve the Van Eck name.”
“Aw, but I so wanted to be a Fahey.”
Wylan blushed at his own words. He was nowhere near as good at flirting as Jesper was, and it made him embarrassed to even try. But Jesper bit his lip in response and gave Wylan another kiss on the cheek.
“That was cute,” he said, resting his chin on Wylan’s shoulder. They said nothing for a moment, just looking out across the room. That was the benefit of these functions – although they were tedious at best and awkward at worst, at least they always took place in beautiful rooms. Filled with ornate wall hangings, elegant chandeliers, plush chairs and delicate tables, with gleaming details carved everywhere that shone under the light of the crystal lamps.
“I think we’re being too anti-social right now,” Wylan said softly, looking around at the merchers as they rotated among the groups, laughing decadently at each other’s jokes before moving on once more. “Should we try talking to someone?”
“You’ll have to help me with what to say, I have no clue how to talk to rich people.”
Wylan laughed and picked up a champagne flute for himself.
“You say “It’s an honour to meet you” if you’re talking to someone better off than you, and “It’s a pleasure to meet you” if they’re beneath you.”
“Is that an actual rule or just a social one?”
“Jes, social rules are the real rules in here. Come on.”
He took his boyfriend’s hand and walked across the room. Slow, purposeful strides to show that he belonged here, and that he knew what he was doing. Jesper’s hand was slightly sweaty in his, and Wylan gave it a squeeze as they approached an older man with his wife. Fortunately the wife seemed to be of a similar age to her husband – much easier to talk to.
“I don’t believe I’ve met you before,” Wylan smiled graciously to the man, whose eyebrows raised as they approached. He regarded them with interest as Wylan and Jesper both gave a short bow at the waist. “Wylan Van Eck, sir.”
“Count Frans de Koning,” he introduced himself, giving a brief nod.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Jesper said. Wylan pinched the inside of his hand, and Jesper flinched before coughing and adjusting his words. “Did that sound like I said “pleasure”? I said it’s an honour to meet you. Sir.”
He coughed again, and Wylan patted him gently on the back.
“You’re the Van Eck heir, then?” Frans intoned in a deep voice. He sounded exactly as merchers should – rich, comfortable, and a little intimidating. “I used to work with your father from time to time.”
“I’m so sorry that you had to experience that,” Wylan said wryly. Jesper gave him a slightly horrified look, but Frans burst into indulgent laughter, his large belly shaking.
“Yes, Jan wasn’t an easy man, was he?” he replied, wiping a droplet of wine from his hand. “Very much pleased he’s no longer one of my trading partners. Used to fiddle the numbers occasionally.”
He gave a heavy wink at the boys before chuckling to himself. Wylan gave an easy laugh as well.
“No need to worry about the Van Eck business now, of course,” he said, putting an arm around Jesper’s shoulder. “It’s been sold off to an outsource in Ravka now. Much more legitimate, and means I don’t need to do the maths.”
“Yes, yes, always much easier to hand it over to someone else rather than try to figure out the system of your forefathers,” Frans agreed. “Tell me, what is being done with the mansion now?”
“It’s under my care,” Wylan said. “I was the sole inheritor once my father was locked up, and his wife disappeared under ordinary circumstances.”
“Ordinary circumstances?” Frans’ wife finally piped up. She was a smaller woman who clung to her husband both for physical and emotional support. Jesper looked between Wylan and Countess de Koning.
“Seems to be living with her piano teacher now,” Wylan explained. “She gave birth to my half-brother and looks to be expecting a second child soon enough. Although I don’t believe that child will be related to me at all.”
Frans burst into laughter again, and Jesper joined in. It was so easy to make merchers laugh – all you had to do was play into their sensibilities and be just a little outrageous. Just enough to show your awareness of the proper ways to do things, but not so much as to alienate yourself. It definitely seemed to be working now, though.
“A very true statement,” Frans chuckled, mopping up more spilt wine from his hand. “I wish you and your friend good luck with the house, then, and I hope there’s no more issues with the Van Eck accounts. A pleasure to meet you.”
He gave them another pleased wink before moving on with his wife. Wylan inhaled deeply and took a sip of his champagne. Jesper moved from his arm to in front of him with an expression of astonishment.
“You’re the posh people-whisperer,” he said in amazement. “How did you manage to get him to like us so quickly?”
“Oh, Koning isn’t a bad guy anyway,” Wylan said, pleased with himself. “And it’s always useful to improve the Van Eck image in the eyes of people who might previously have ended up seeing us as rivals. We’re neutral ground now.”
“You didn’t sell the business to Ravkans, though.”
“Of course not. But now it means they don’t think we have anything to do with it if a little bit of number-fiddling continues to happen. I gave Kaz most of the shares, and he helps me read through it all.”
Jesper gave him a look that made Wylan feel very warm and happy.
“It’s so sexy when a guy knows how to scam people,” Jesper murmured, and Wylan laughed.
“You have a type. Me, Kaz—”
“Shut up!” Jesper exclaimed, batting Wylan’s chest with a grin. “Also didn’t you hear Koning? We’re just friends, apparently.”
“Mm, yeah. Best buds. Love sleeping beside my friend and waking him up with—”
“You’re going to make us very unpopular,” Jesper admonished him. “Breaking your own rules and everything.”
“Ah, you’re getting the hang of it,” Wylan grinned.
There was a rasp of violin strings, and the background music that had been being played for them all evening came to an end. A brief silence brought most conversations to an end, and the man who had hosted the event walked to the front of the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “we will now welcome in our debutants for the evening, and we will begin the Spring Dance. I shall not speak for too long – after all, we’ve been enjoying our wine.” He paused for the small rumble of laughter before continuing. “Everyone is welcome to dance, of course, and I hope you will continue to enjoy the evening. And now, the debutants!”
There was a smattering of applause that Wylan joined in with. Jesper was giving him an appalled look.
“We have to dance?” he whispered incredulously.
“Well, we don’t have to,” Wylan said. “It might be nice, though.”
“I don’t know how to dance!” Jesper whispered furiously.
“The patrons of the Crow Club would beg to differ.” Memories of Jesper vibing to live music performers at the bar filled Wylan’s mind and he grinned to himself. It wasn’t that Jesper couldn’t dance… just that the way he danced was not recognised by most humans as dancing.
“I am not nearly drunk enough to enjoy this,” he muttered. “I’m getting more champagne.”
“Oi, no you’re not.” Wylan pulled him back, and Jesper sighed. “Just one dance, please? For me? I’ll show you how to do it, it’s really easy.”
“Somehow I doubt that. I have roughly double the average amount of leg for a person.” Jesper knocked his knees together, making Wylan laugh.
“Trust me when I say this will be fun. Come on, we’re getting into the role. Mercher men all dance badly anyway.”
“Your faith in me is astounding.”
“Let’s just watch the debutants first, you’ll like that.”
Jesper snorted, but happily settled into place at the side of the room with Wylan as the young ladies emerged through the double doors. They all wore the kind of dress that Wylan would best describe as “wedding cake”: layers and layers of white frothy tulle to give them a large bell-shaped figure, all covered in sequins and jewels and a million other things that gave the impression of a little girl who had raided her mother’s closet. It did nothing for Wylan, but then again, the merchers were eyeing the young women with interest. Gross.
“No-one can see us here,” came Jesper’s voice close to his ear. Wylan turned his head slightly and saw the gleam in Jesper’s eyes. “They’re all watching the girls.”
Jesper leaned forward and caught Wylan in a quiet kiss. He immediately sighed, resting a hand on Jesper’s chest as he kissed back comfortably. Nobody was looking at them – it was just him and Jesper in a crowd of occupied merchers. Jesper’s arms slid around Wylan’s waist, one hand cupping his hip as the other smoothed circles onto his thigh. Wylan held onto the front of Jesper’s shirt, their lips parting and coming together as Jesper flicked his tongue lightly over Wylan’s lip.
He pulled away, looking at the soft expression in Jesper’s eyes, and gave him another brief kiss. Jesper smiled and licked his lips, nuzzling against Wylan’s cheek for a second before looking back at the debutants as they danced around the room.
Wylan was less interested in dancing now.
“Do you want to leave now?” he whispered in Jesper’s ear. They were meant to stay for the whole duration, both as guests and by order of Kaz, but Wylan didn’t feel like acting anymore.
“You wanna go back home?” Jesper replied, his teeth shining in a mischievous grin. Wylan nodded in response. “Fuck yeah.”
“Language, young man,” came the complaint of a nearby mercher, but it was too late. Wylan was holding onto Jesper’s hand as he led them both through the crowds of observers. They had done what they came to do – and now it was time to go back to being Wy and Jes. Everything else could wait.