Fidgeting restlessly, I stalk to the standing mirror in the corner of the humongous bedroom, the same size, if not bigger, than my old house’s living room. I stare back at my reflection; I twist my torso to see as much of the back as I can before I straighten again. The tail of my braid lank to my hip.
The black dress is simple, sleeves with thick straps, fitted at the waist and from the hip, it reaches over the knees, whispering to my ankles. The silky fabric on the outside is appealing with its glossy skirt. The material on the inside, however, is irritating and feels like millions of tiny hairy thorns are scraping against my skin.
Before I can even make a move to change. Three hard knocks echo into my room.
I pause, uncertain of what to do.
It appears wealth can buy chivalry as well, if only that sense of decorum could be loaned to my brothers.
“Uh… come in?”
The byzantine door brushes open with a shrilly creak. Hilda stands on the other side with her expression painted bleak and Joshua’s hand in her blemished grasp. I have never seen my little brother look so awkward in my entire life. His cringing face would make an incredible meme. A laugh jolts in my stomach and I suppress it with brute force.
He’s dressed smartly though, in a long-sleeved black shirt and trousers with shiny black shoes. Hilda is outfitted in a stygian black uniform; long-sleeved with a high-collar and ends before her feet. Notably different from the others, I think, to distinguish her from the other servants.
“Are you ready?” She asks, her voice is as arduous as a boring lecturer, but still manages to achieve a great measure of loftiness.
I nod absently and scan the room aimlessly. I walk to them and when I’m through the doorway; I close the door behind me. I look ahead and see Atticus coolly leaning against the wall, leg crossed over the other. He looks sharp, but I would never tell him that. His head is big enough already, anymore and it’ll explode.
Hilda marches forward with poor Josh locked in her grip. I follow behind them at a distance. Once they pass him, Atticus heaves himself up and sidles my flank.
Perhaps we’ll like it here. They do things… differently, but we can adjust, adapt. We’re good at that.
Atticus slants towards me as we walk. “Are we seriously going to do this every evening?”
I spare him a look.
“Dress up like dolls just to have dinner?”
I shrug flippantly in response.
He scoffs. “Rich people have too much time on their hands."
In due course, we reach the main stairway and make our descent. At the bottom, Hilda turns left, and we walk down the opposite antechamber from the hall of history and down the new passage.
Over her shoulder, Hilda says, “Mr and Miss Apion will join you soon, their just occupied with important affairs that demand their attentions. Everything is already set, but do not touch the food until they arrive. And when they do, arise.”
I smother a snort. Arise? I didn’t know the queen was joining us for dinner.
But in regard to their nobility. I wouldn't be surprised if she did.
I glance to my side at the lineage of aged windows that reach the vaulted baroque ceiling, the boisterous glass tiles shimmers from the eventide light, sparking glimmers of vivid hues. The windows herald in the dying light of a westering sun. The evening shadows fell on the polished floors. To my right, the wide path branches out to a short staircase that leads down to, I guess, the ballroom. On our slight elevation, I could only catch a glimpse of it as we breeze by.
We reach the end and pass through the large trefoil archway and the sight steals a breath from me. The velvety wallpaper of the dining hall is a trademark gold and crimson, everything fashioned in a regal reserve. The luminescent crystal chandelier looms above and casts everything below in a brilliant glow. Blazing candelabras stand in the corner, warding off the darkness that grows in strength as time dwindles.
The air is saturated with the rich smells of fire-roasted meats and an aroma of cuisines that are foreign to me. But if it tastes the way it smells, there shouldn’t have a problem.
In the centre is a furnished mahogany dining table with a blood-red, Celtic-designed runner that lines the its spine. On top of it, they ladened it with platters of choice food. Enough to feed a cadre of people. Among the silver salvers of gourmet food arrayed out to entice with steel tiered stands amidst the platters with a neat assortment of appetizers.
Hilda directs us to our seats and it’s pretty clear from there. Twelve chairs accompany the elongated table, but only five of them bear porcelains plates with a complex set of utensils and a wine glass beside each of them. Three on the one side and two on the opposite.
We take our seats beside each other, Joshua in the middle. Hilda stands across from us in front of the wall. My gaze wafts through and I notice an open archway in the corner. It must be attached to one of the main kitchens because a maidservant emerges and nervously walks to Hilda. She leans in, whispers something to her, and Hilda nods her head in approval. She swivels and returns to the kitchen.
The warmth I felt before was acceptable, but the heat in the dining room was like someone turned up the temperature to an uncomfortable degree. Humid and unpleasant, so thick that it almost feels tangible.
My eyes examine the lavish dishes before me. From the filet mignon drizzled with balsamic finger, baked Dijon salmon, creamy pesto shrimp, and slow-cooked beef bourguignon paired with creamy au gratin potatoes.
Joshua’s dazzled eyes sparkle with euphoria, ogling at the exotic foods, more food than we have ever seen in a week, all delectably presented for just one night. Joshua dramatically sniffs the air, inhaling the mouth-watering fragrance and nods his head to himself in sheer certainty.
“Yep, I think I’m going to really like it here.”
On cue. Mr and Miss Apion enter the dining hall attired in new outfits, but still just as… suffocating. Thick scarves gagged around their necks with clothing that cover every inch of their skin. Including their hands since their encased in twin black gloves.
On approach, Hilda signals fervidly from behind them, her index finger stabbing the air. Atticus and I both stand up in a show of respect like we’re back at school or something. But I suppose it was the right move since Miss Apion smiles amiably at us and even Mr. Apion looks marginally impressed.
“You all look so charming,” Miss Apion says and clasps her gloved hands. “I’m glad to see the new formalwear fits you well.”
I force a smile. “Yes, very comfortable,” I say as compellingly as my will can allow.
Together, we all sit down and shuffle closer to the table.
Promptly, a rigid line of servants slink out of the archway and glide down the hall. They move to stand stagnantly in front of the wall, spaced out from each other, equidistant. Two of them hold ice buckets with a bottle of wine in each and their forearm lapped with a white napkin.
“Please, eat, feast. All of this is for you,” Miss Apion enthuses, her voice rich with cadent energy. “I want you to feel at ease here and hopefully you’ll come to call our home yours as well.”
Atticus leans back into his seat and rests his elbows on the arms of his chair. An indecipherable look on his shaped face, dulling the edges of his sharp features.
Unsure of how to translate his actions. “Thank you,” I say as the spokesperson of the Ballo siblings. “We feel very much welcomed already here already, don’t we Josh?” Hoping he’ll back me up.
He nods head vigorously, his eyes claiming the food in his sight. “Yep,” he chirps.
Mr. Apion lifts a hand and flags a servant over. One servant breaks from the chain of statue-like waiters and suddenly appears by Mr. Apion’s side. She serves him and his sister a bottle of wine into their polished wine glasses that sit in perfect symmetry from their porcelain plates. Soon their glasses brim with a luscious red.
“Would you care for a glass?” Mr. Apion asks, his loam-grey eyes set on Atticus. “A bottle of Château Margaux,” he says as if we’re wine connoisseurs, like as if either of us will know what that is.
To me. Wine is wine, my dude.
Atticus perks up in his seat. “Certainly,” he says with a smirk.
“Not,” I conclude, and watch the smug look melt off his face. “He’s underage, I however, am not.”
Mr. Apion looks at me for a long, assessing look before he glances at the servant and nods his head at me in gesture. She rounds the table and moves to fill my glass with the same lush red.
Feeling a thousand times hotter, I glimpse my side and view Atticus’s scorching glare drilling holes into me. Once she finishes, I pick up the glass and innocently partake in it, taking a polite sip. Surprisingly saccharine and its woody, rustic taste spills across my tongue. The earthy favours with a potent relish, a matured sense of history like sipping on the spills of time.
Soon all our plates are teeming with delicious foods. Joshua greedily devours the slices of the beef bourguignon, cheeks smeared with shiny brown sauce. And I find myself enjoying the salmon. Whereas Atticus looks at his untouched food, a reluctant look creeping on the corners of his face.
Miss Apion observes him for a while, then lowers her fork to her plate. Finally, she says, “Is the food not to your liking? Because the head chef can make you something different, whatever you want. Please, you need only to ask.” Miss Apion offers eagerly.
So quick to offer, to win over our affection. But unlike most, our attentions can’t be bought.
Foreseeably, the offer does not please Atticus, instead it leaves him with a rather distasteful facial expression. Not from disgust, but understandably...intimidated.
“What more could you offer… you have an entire restaurant of fancy foods laid out on this table for just five people… it’s… a lot,” Atticus says. His orotund voice is stern, but there’s a certain vulnerability in it, a mutual pain that still lingers.
Miss and Mr. Apion mirror confused looks and I immediately intervene, dousing fires that my brother habitually kindles. Which seems inherent rather than deliberate, which only makes it worse.
“What he means to say… is that we are not used to such treatment… the way you live… the closest we’ve ever come to it is near our TV screens,” I say and push out a laugh.
Mr. Apion nods his head slowly and attempts a smile.
“We do not mean to overwhelm you… we have lived like this; our family has only known but to live like this. We are incredibly grateful for what God has blessed with us and even more, now that we get to share it with all of you.” Miss Apion beams another warm, pacifying smile.
I nod my head and try to replicate her smile whilst my eyes survey the deadpan expressions on the servants’ faces, their Cossack-cold eyes, devoid. They stand so still in front of the wall, so silent that they might as well be a part of it.
It feels pretty wrong to eat and have other people, watch. I mean, they’re not looking at us directly, in fact they cement their gazes to the opposite wall, way above our heads. But surely they’re hungry, and now they must be tormented by the sight of us eating and tortured by the hunger-provoking smells.
Atticus pulls a quick tug at his white dress shirt; it must be dank with sweat because it looks as if it peels off his chest. I guess I’m not the only one uncomfortable. At least my arms are bare, these two are trapped in long-sleeves and I cannot even imagine how the Apions must feel, their bodies chocked in their thick layers.
Discomfort shoos my own hunger and my appetite flees from me, but out of politeness. I eat anyway.