Adam Van Hett fumbled with the cracker in his hand while reading through reports. Eventually, he popped it in his mouth, doing his best to savor its pristine texture and masterfully-crafted flavor while he lost himself in the numbers and figures before him. He’d always had a nose for a good deal, and had made an incredibly comfortable living for himself and his family by putting it to work. His colleagues all came from old money; outside of the odd merchant who’d struck a lucky sale, everyone that was anyone in the VOC was just the newest in a long line of very wealthy European families. These were the people who grew up surrounded by the comforts that come with power and influence—the kind of people who likely wouldn’t understand just how delicious this cracker was.
But Adam wasn’t like them. He’d never really been like them, but his incredible sense for a good deal (his weird sense, according to many of the rumor’s he’d overheard) had allowed him to buy his way in. The second son of a sail-maker and a seamstress, his future was always one of hard work and managing misery. He’d rejected that promise as readily as his brother had, but their paths had diverged almost immediately. Where Philip had needed the freedoms and promises of the open ocean, Adam needed the comforts and safety of money. There was an increasing sense globally that Adam’s needs were somehow more evil than his brother’s. He tried not to dwell on that too much, lest the guilt take him.
The reports were dry and full of numbers and charts. Neatly-lined pages filled to the margins with earnings, outflow, manifests, taxes, tariffs, bribes, and tabulations that led to tabulations. To many, these reports were a boring and bureaucratic process that were filled out to keep the higher-ups happy. To Adam, they were pure paydirt. A rich gold mine of information that no one else seemed to understand like he did. Many a long night had been frittered away studying reports like these, and in his darker hours, Adam would wonder if he’d wasted his youth doing just this. Two marriages and a dozen courtships had ended over his fanatical devotion to his work. His good looks, clean grooming, and massive wealth all had firmly cemented him as one of the most eligible bachelors in Amsterdam, but if you asked him, he’d struggle to remember the last time he’d been introduced to someone’s daughter. He was an invaluable asset to the company that people simply didn’t like being around for too long.
Which made the arrival of an invitation all the more surprising. “You’ve been invited,” Jarvis began, reading the small card aloud from the other side of Adam’s desk. “…To the Applewood ball, in Voledam, by the Lords and Ladies of Applewood. Wednesday the 30th of July, under the full moon.” The manservant lowered his arm and tucked it behind his back, still standing at alert. “Shall I make preparations for your attendance, sir?”
Adam mulled quietly, trying to determine his brother’s reason for inviting him to such an affair. Philip had made it abundantly clear that he no longer wished for Adam’s help or company, and in light of that, a gesture such as this seemed almost like an olive branch. Unlikely. “Philip would be displeased if I showed, I believe. The Applewood ball is a regular VOC affair, and my invitation is just the servants being polite. I think I will find myself entangled in an inescapable engagement that evening. Send a bottle of scotch from the cellar in apologies.” He picked the reports back up, to indicate the conversation’s completion.
“Very good, sir.” Jarvis nodded, and turned on his heel, but hesitated. He turned partially, so as to indicate that he was not yet defying orders. “In case it interests you, sir, there are many prominent young men in the VOC’s employ, including Misters De Witt and Andersen, who have not received invitations.”
Adam grumbled a bit at this, as a very small, very quiet part of his soul caused his stomach to flip. Despite his best efforts over the last two decades of his life, despite all the money, despite all the power and influence, despite being there for his parents when Philip wasn’t, there had always been a voice in the deepest parts of him that longed for his big brother’s approval. Adam rested his head on his hand for a moment, contemplating the social ramifications of attending this party. He came at it from a hundred different angles, analyzing every possible outcome and what they could mean in the future. Being spotted or rumored to be at the Applewood Ball, when virtually every other eligible bachelor in the VOC had been slighted by the hosts? Openly cavorting with his brother, the company’s most distrusted individual, in an informal setting? There were a thousand different ways him attending the Ball would end very poorly for him.
But the chance to see Philip having fun? An opportunity to see that salty, stubborn lark enjoy himself? He hadn’t seen his brother so much as crack a smile since Sarah, or heard him laugh in just as long. Hell, at this point, Adam would be happy to even see Philip’s crew having a good time. They’d gotten dour and surly since he’d seen them last—with good reason. And it would be nice to get away from those stuffy pricks De Witt and Anderson for a while.
Adam finally lifted his head, brushing back his hair as he did. “Clear my schedule for Wednesday evening, if you will, and please prepare my green jacket. The ball sounds lovely.”
Jarvis nodded sharply. “Very good, sir.”
Aart Driesen was grading papers when the courier came into his office. “Only a few things for you today, professor,” he’d said, before dropping the stack of envelopes on Driesen’s desk and heading back out. Aart had barely lifted his head in acknowledgement. His students were trying hard, but a lot of them were borderline hopeless, and needed his full attention.
It was several hours and glasses of beer later before the professor even touched the day’s post. A request for a letter of recommendation from a former student. Ongoing correspondence with a fellow professor in Berlin. An invitation to a party in Volendam. Another threat from a former researcher to go public with—wait what?
Aart flipped back to the small card, indicating his requested presence at the Applewood Ball. For a moment, he stared at it, utterly baffled at its mere existence. Alan had left their conversation doing the closest thing an ALAN can do to openly sobbing and screaming. Aart had no doubt Alan would rather jump into the ocean than see him again. Had there been a mistake?
The night was not kind to Aart. The invitation had reopened the wounds left by his conversation with Alan, and the guilt of what he’d done had come crashing down upon him utterly without mercy. Guided on his journey by alcohol and a profound sense of self-loathing, Aart spent the evening recounting every atrocity he’d committed in the pursuit of realizing his goal, and each time he’d turned a blind eye to the atrocities of others. When sleep finally claimed him, his dreams were filled with haunting faces and childlike cries for help. The world deserved Alan, but Alan did not deserve the world that had created him.
When Aart woke, he knew that attending the Ball would be the greatest insult he could deliver upon Alan, who he loved as his own son.
But before the day was done, he found himself wandering into a tailor’s shop, and pricing a new jacket. The next day, despite his internal protests, he paid a young boy to shine his shoes. In their reflection, he could see only shame. And that night, as he rooted through his drawers for his finer cufflinks, he repeated to himself that he couldn’t survive Alan rejecting him like that again.
But when Wednesday came around, Aart climbed into the carriage as dutifully as a soldier marching to war. All the fear, all the self-loathing, all the guilt; all of it had melted away at the opportunity to see his son again, and try to apologize one more time.