Her mother was calling — going up and down the house shouting someone’s name — but Heloise Wesleyan was ignoring her. Or was she? Maybe she didn’t hear. It was, after all, a well-known fact in the Wesleyan household that trying to interrupt Heloise while in the midst of a book was like trying to get the sun to go around the moon. Not only was it borderline impossible, it was dangerous, liable to rip apart the very fabric that held the universe together.
At the very least, Heloise would snap at you.
“Heloise! For Wright’s sake, where –” The door to Heloise’s sanctuary (her bedroom) flew open at the hostile army’s approach. “There you are!”
“No, I’m not. I’m actually in the library. What you’re seeing is an illusion.” And Heloise scrunched down in her seat and buried her nose in the book.
“Sit up, you’ll ruin your posture.”
Heloise put her book more insistently in front of her face, but she did sit up. No use baiting the woman.
“Isabel wants to go to the High Street. I told her that you’d go with her.”
“Who told you that?”
“You know the way,” Helena continued as if she hadn’t heard Heloise at all, “and you can help her with the shopkeepers, if she wants to buy something.”
“She’s been here for over a year and can’t walk to the High Street?”
“She just wants to get out of the house, Heloise. She’s been wearing herself out looking after Darius.”
“All right. So let her go.”
“She would like some company.”
“So you go with her.”
“Someone needs to watch the baby!”
“Babette’s here, isn’t she?”
Helena looked skyward and sighed explosively. “You need to get out of the house more.”
“I was just at the bookstore yesterday.”
“You need to get out of the house and socialize more. With people who aren’t selling books!”
“Because that’s what normal young wom–what is that?”
Heloise looked up. “What’s what?”
“That!” And Helena pointed to Heloise’s desk.
Heloise followed the line of her finger. “Oh … that. It’s a jar of butterflies.”
“Um … yes?”
“What are they doing on your desk?”
“I was studying them.”
“But they’re dead!”
Helena sighed and stared at Heloise. “There are days when I wonder how it is that you are my daughter.”
“Maybe I’m a changeling.”
“Or maybe you’re just cantankerous. Either way, clean those butterflies up. They’re disgusting.”
“Then can I go back to my book?”
“No, then you can go with Isabel to the High Street.”
“Because I said so, that’s why,” Helena replied, leaving the room and shutting the door behind her.
For a moment, Heloise sat still, wondering what would happen if she just ignored her mother. Wondering if maybe Helena would take the hint and go herself, or send Babette.
Then Heloise sighed. No, if she just sat here, then Helena would come up, grab Heloise’s ear and use it to drag her down the stairs. And there was no need to make Isabel feel insulted, which of course she would be, because any reasonable human being would be insulted to find out that her sister-in-law had to be dragged out of her room to spend time with her. Isabel might not break into the ranks of those who Heloise considered to be “good company” — though, truthfully, her father and her brother Rob were the only people who broke into that category with any kind of consistency — but she did qualify for the “non-annoying” category. Which was almost as difficult to achieve, in Heloise’s eyes, as “good company.”
Besides, if she just did what Helena said now, it might win her a week or more of peace; at the very least, she’d have the rest of the day to herself.
That settled it. Heloise marked her place with a length of embroidered ribbon that had, once upon a time, been part of an elaborately trimmed dress and carefully restored her book to the shelf. Then she wandered from her room to the parlor, which was where Isabel would probably be waiting.
She left the butterflies where they were, though. No use letting her mother win everything.
“It was very kind of you to accompany me, Heloise. I do appreciate it,” Isabel said as they walked along the High Street, by the village shops.
“It’s not a big deal,” Heloise lied with a shrug. “It’s excercise — mens sana in corpore sano and all that.”
“A healthy mind in a healthy body. Indeed.”
Heloise almost jumped; most other women didn’t understand phrases — even highly proverbial ones — in the ancient language. Then she told herself to stop being an idiot. Of course Isabel would get it; Isabel was university-educated. Though it was easy to forget that … somehow, Isabel just didn’t seem like a university-educated woman to Heloise. Though what a university-educated woman would seem like was another question … maybe she would just sort of exude knowledge in a way that Isabel didn’t. Hell, from a couple of whispered, flirtatious conversations Heloise had (unfortunately) overheard between Isabel and Josh, she got the feeling that Isabel had only gone to university to get a husband.
Which was a horrible waste of an education, if you asked Heloise. But no one ever did.
“Was that a flower shop?” Isabel asked, half-turning around.
“Um … yes?”
“Do you mind if we go in?” Isabel asked. “I …” And she flushed and paused.
Heloise shrugged; she knew that Joshua gave Isabel an allowance for impulse buys, and it didn’t matter to her what Isabel spent it on. Besides, it wasn’t like there was anywhere she had to be.
So they entered the small shop, the shop-bell tinkling above their heads. A bored shop-boy looked up, but he didn’t say anything to them other than a muttered, “Welcome.” Heloise nodded.
Isabel made a bee-line for the display and Heloise followed, lacking an alternative. Isabel stood in front of the display, peering intently at every bloom. Heloise shifted her weight from one foot to the other and wished the shop-boy would stop staring at her. It wasn’t like she was going to try to steal the flowers — and even if she wanted to steal flowers (which were a stupid thing to steal anyway, because if you really wanted some, you could just nip into any old field and pick some wildflowers without anyone knowing or caring what you’d done), it wasn’t like she had anywhere to hide them. Putting a whole pot in her pocket would be rather impossible, after all.
Finally Isabel stepped away from the display with a sigh. “No luck?”
Isabel shook her head. “In — in my homeland, there was a flower we had that grew, oh, all year around if you planted it right … I used to have a vase of them by my bed. The smell … oh, the smell was heavenly. I was always in a perfect mood when I woke up next to them, I swear.”
“But,” Isabel sighed, “they do not grow here. I have not been able to find them anywhere. Too cold, I expect.” And she sighed again.
Heloise could not for the life of her understand why a flower would evoke such an emotional response, but in the interests of politeness, she asked, “Well, what’s it called? Maybe it does grow here and you just haven’t seen it.”
Isabel frowned. “In my language, they called it the boca de dragón. But I do not know what it would be called here.”
Heloise shrugged, having not the slightest idea.
“In any case …” She waved her hand toward the display. “It is not here. Maybe someday, I can send to Simspain for some seeds … but not today. Anyway, come. Is there a shop would like to go to?”
Heloise shook her head. Which was a bit of a lie — she’d love to stop at the bookstore — but since she had blown three months’ worth of her allowance the day before on two volumes, there really wasn’t much of a point in going there.
She tried not to sigh. Books were an expensive hobby, and the library at the school was paltry. She couldn’t wait to go to Camford, which had the best library in the region — or so Josh and Rob both swore.
“Hmm …” Isabel murmured. “Do you drink café?”
Heloise jumped. “Do I drink cafés?”
Isabel laughed; Heloise was surprised at how rich and throaty it was. She didn’t laugh very often, at least, not like that. “My apologies. I think it is called — er — coffee here.”
“Oh! Coffee! Aye, I drink that.” She smiled. “Only person in the house who can stand it, to be honest. Dad will drink it, but only when he has to stay up all night doing the accounts.”
Isabel gave her a funny look — Heloise guessed it was meant to communicate something along the lines of Barbarians through a noblewoman’s patented inoffensive gaze — but she smiled and said, “Well, you are no longer the only person who can drink it. Come on, I know there is a shop above the dress shop that sells some.”
“Sounds good.” And so Heloise followed Isabel to the upper floor of the dress shop.
Isabel insisted on buying, which was fine by Heloise, since she didn’t have any money left from her book buying spree. Isabel let her order first, and Heloise sat, pondering the wall, as Isabel ordered her own drink.
“Mmm,” Isabel said as she sat, taking a long draught. She smiled. “I have not had a good cup of ca–coffee since …” Her face clouded and she put her cup on the table with a sigh.
Heloise figured it had something to do with the reason Josh was so insistent that she and Babette weren’t to pester Isabel with questions about Simspain, and so kept her mouth shut.
After a moment, Isabel smiled. It didn’t even look forced or anything, which was odd. “So … what did you think of your admirer?” Isabel asked, raising one eyebrow.
“The boy in the shop?” Isabel’s eyes were twinkling. “He seemed quite taken with you.”
“Was he.” Heloise carefully kept her voice flat. It was better than allowing her irritation to show through. She considered whether perhaps placing Isabel in the “non-annoying” category had been precipitate.
“I agree that you can look higher than he, of course,” Isabel said with a nod. “But it always nice to know that one has admirers, is it not?”
“I doubt I would classify him as an ‘admirer.'”
Isabel raised one eyebrow.
“If — and only if — he thought I was pretty — which is what you seem to be saying — then he’s not admiring much, is he?”
“You are too modest, my dear.”
“No, I’m not,” Heloise replied. “Everyone has different tastes. My looks might very well be to his. Hell, in some places, and to some people, I might be a raving beauty. That doesn’t change the fact that all he may or may not be admiring is my looks, and that’s not admiring much.”
Isabel sat back, saying nothing — but Heloise thought she could see, veiled behind her noblewoman’s uncaring mask, the sort of I-know-better-than-you smugness that her mother often had when Heloise would say something of that sort to her.
And Heloise hated that look.
“I mean, really!” she said, her volume creeping slightly upward, her hand flying so. “So what if he thinks I’m pretty? He hasn’t heard me speak, he doesn’t know what I feel, what I think, hell, he doesn’t even know my name — so what’s he admiring? Nothing of importance. Nothing that isn’t going to grow old and gray and wrinkly soon enough.”
“Mind your cup,” was Isabel’s only reply.
Heloise set it down on the table without even noticing that she had done so. “I’m so sick of everyone pretending that everything in the world is right as long as some boy likes the way you look, the whole damn world is perfect. Mother, Babette — oh, Babette’s the worst, her every other thought is devoted to making herself look pretty so the boys at school will try to chase her, even though –” And she clammed up quickly.
“Even though she already has an admirer?”
“Who told you?”
Isabel’s eyebrow shot up. “My dear — I may not speak your Albionese perfectly, I may not quite understand how to run a business as the rest of your family does, I may not even be as well-read as you. But I am not stupid.” She took another sip of her coffee. “Besides, I have noticed that your sister is in the habit of relieving whatever flowers that come to hand of their petals — and there is only reason that I know of why she would do that.”
“He loves me, he loves me not,” Heloise minced. “Idiocy. Either he does or he doesn’t, and killing a flower isn’t going to help you find out.”
“No,” Isabel agreed.
“And let’s face it, I doubt that whatever boy Babette is sneaking around to see is after anything but her looks.”
“No? Not her kind heart?”
“She doesn’t have one,” Heloise said literally. “She’s almost as catty and bi–er–rude as I am.”
“No, she is not rude,” Isabel disagreed. “Not to other’s faces. But I will agree that neither of you are — er — sweetness and light.”
“Damn straight,” Heloise replied.
“But what of your sister’s other virtues? Don’t you think that a boy might be interested in them?”
Aye, in relieving her of them!
“Since you are rather open about your faults,” Isabel continued, “you will admit that Babette is a better conversationalist than you are — or at least, her conversation is more likely to impress young men of your and her ages, though yours might be more amusing to your elders and to the more intelligent of your peers.”
“I’m not jealous of her, if that’s what you mean,” Heloise snapped.
Isabel cocked her head to one side and tapped her finger against her chin. “You know, I do not think you are,” she mused. “Most girls of your age — if I was a girl of your age, and my younger sister, who I took to be nothing more than a pretty fool, had an admirer and I did not — most would, I would, be jealous. But you … truly are not. Why?”
“Why would I be jealous of any boy Babette picked out?” Heloise asked with a shrug.
“Because you are older, and cleverer, and if you are not prettier by birth you could be just as pretty with a little bit of work,” Isabel replied. “And yet she has a boy — and you do not.”
“But I don’t care. I’d rather have my books.” She took a long sip of her cooling coffee. “Besides, why would I want some boy who’s only after me for my looks? He’d likely be an idiot, and I don’t want to waste my time with an idiot.”
“Those who do are generally idiots themselves,” Isabel agreed. “But let me ask you something, Heloise. If you could find a boy who would be interested in you for your clever mind — with your looks, say, just as a side benefit — would you be interested in him?”
Heloise put her cup down on the table and stared. “I doubt such a creature exists.”
Isabel chuckled. “What?” But her sister-in-law just chuckled again, shaking her head. “What?”
“You are so naïve, Heloise,” Isabel said, still shaking her head.
“I am not. I’ve not met one young man who gives a damn about what I think, and I doubt that’s going to change anytime soon.”
“Very well. Very well. You think that.” Isabel took another sip. “And when you do find such a man — well, I won’t tell you I told you so.”