"The mail, my lord." Eli appeared at his side and set a pile of letters on the small end table beside him. "Soup is warming in the kitchen in case you change your mind about dinner."
Ander nodded his thanks and took a sip of his drink as Eli left him alone again. Not for the first time, he wondered what the point of it all was. All of those years sacrificed to learning how to manage the Delacroix lands and affairs, and for what? What did he have to show for it? Just this dusty old house with its echoing, empty halls, and the frozen lands outside. He was alone here now, except for the dogs and his servants. While their loyalty to him was unbreakable, he found their company wearing. They were a reminder of all that his life had become, this silk-lined cage, and all that he'd lost.
He thought about Antoine, his younger brother, who was out and about in the world somewhere, free of these obligations. Antoine had always been a playboy at heart, without the seriousness or dedication required to run their family's affairs. Ander had scorned him for that ever since they were children, thinking him weak, but now he wondered if Antoine hadn't had the right of it all along. What use were lands and prestige if he had no one to share them with? What was the point of any of it?
One of the letters in the pile of correspondence Eli had left for him caught his eye. Turning his head, he pushed the letters on top of it aside to see a dark burgundy envelope with a seal in the shape of a closed eye, the words on it written in gilded gold ink. It was addressed to him -- Lord Ander Delacroix -- with no return address.
He stared at the envelope for a moment, taking another slow sip of his drink. Then he gave in to the pull of curiosity and reached for it, breaking the seal with one finger to pull out the letter inside. It was a single sheet of crisp white parchment on which a simple message had been penned in elegantly scripted calligraphy:
Your presence is requested for an evening of entertainment at the House of Silence.
His initial impulse was to throw the letter into the fire in disgust. He knew what the House of Silence was; a high-class bordello on the Khatar border in which men catered to the fantasies of other men. It was a favored topic of discussion among people of Ander's social class -- for its forbidden nature, for the veil of secrecy that surrounded it, and for the fact that it seemed beyond the reach of the government. The House had earned its name with a reputation that whatever encounters went on inside its walls were never spoken of in the outside world; men of all rankings and social strata were said to be clients there, with no one on the outside being the wiser.
He took another sip of his drink, frowning into the fire.
Why in hell's name would anyone send him an invitation to such a place? He was not the type of man who frequented brothels of any kind; he never had been, not even before his marriage. He'd always been too serious for that, too focused on the demands of his station and upholding the honor of the Delacroix name. His brother, on the other hand.... But no, that was his name on the envelope and no mistake, etched in glistening gold ink.
It wasn't as if he'd never thought about the bordello, especially in his younger years. Any man with blood in his veins who said differently would be a liar. The allure of secrecy, of fantasy, of pandering to one's darkest dreams. The House of Silence was a neutral zone where men could go to indulge in their fantasies and be someone else for a day -- or to be more truly themselves than they could ever be in the normal day-to-day world they inhabited. But he'd never seriously considered....
The image of Sara rose in his mind's eye, and for a moment his hand shook so that he could barely hold onto the letter. But she was nearly eighteen months dead now. It would never have been her wish that he lock himself away inside this house and wait to die; she would want to see him happy, or at the very least at peace. He thought about this silent house with its empty halls, the memories that hung like tattered ghosts throughout every inch of its lands. He wondered how long he would spend wandering these halls before he became a ghost himself... just another memory in the Delacroix family line.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt to be something less than responsible, just this once. To lay aside the burdens of his station and indulge in something for himself.