Oh! Letters! Clarice de Ganis thought with a smile as she came in from class. She pounced on the pile that the maid had left on the table. Thumbing through quickly, she found one for Leona — who had gone out, first thing in the morning, for class and then to the library and hadn’t come back yet — a couple wooden chips with the names of local eateries and pubs carved on them, and a letter for her. And Lynn, together.
Clarice frowned. Not at the seeming paucity of letters, because she knew that Danielle — Dannie — and the princess didn’t have class until the afternoons (a benefit of being an upperclassman) and so had probably already eagerly grabbed their own letters. Not even at the fact that her letter was a shared one with her sister. Most of the letters they got were shared, anyway. Their father could never be bothered to send two sets of instructions for their conduct — for that was what his letters usually amounted to — when one would do, and Angelique had taken to writing to them jointly as well.
No, Clarice frowned because she recognized the handwriting on the direction of the letter: her mother’s. And Claire had, so far, always written to Lynn and Clarice separately.
Maybe she just got tired of it, Clarice rationalized. After all, she couldn’t imagine that the letters Claire wrote to her and to Lynn were all that different. How many different ways could there be to say, after all, that Theo had chewed through the cushion on Bors’s favorite chair or that Chastity had learned how to play dead? How many different ways could Claire tell the selfsame anecdote in which Elyan somehow or other made an ass of himself?
The thought made Clarice blush. You’re being corrupted, Clarice! Four months ago she never would have referred to her brother, even in thought, as an ass — a jerk or a fool, maybe, but not an ass — and now — well, who knew what would pop into her head next? The part of her mind that spoke in Bors’s voice insisted that her corruption was the result of ill-bred company (i.e., Dannie), but the part of Clarice’s mind that actually thought knew otherwise. Why, just the other day the princess herself had managed, somehow or other, to drop half a shelf of books on her foot. The resulting barrage of shrieked curses and imprecations had Dannie bent double guffawing, Lynn blushing, Leona taking notes and Clarice trying to memorize most of the words so she could ask Lynn what they meant later.
Oh, well. If a princess could swear aloud in the right circumstances, then Clarice supposed a lady could swear mentally whenever she damn well pleased.
There I go again!
She chuckled to herself and separate hers and Lynn’s letter from the pile. Her hand rested on the banister as she meant to go up to her bedroom — their bedroom — where Lynn was probably still working on that paper of hers. One of the drawbacks of being an upperclassman: more and harder assignments.
“Rob!” Dannie giggled. “You are horrible!”
“And you like it.”
Of its own volition, Clarice’s head turned and she looked through the open archway, into the parlor.
Clarice flushed. It was because of Dannie and Robert Wesleyan — it had to be. Dannie was sitting on his lap, for heaven’s sake! And Robert was nuzzling her neck and whispering things in her ear! Any well-bred lady would blush to see that. She’d blush to see a married couple doing that! (And as it so happened, Clarice had seen a married couple doing exactly that. Not her parents, of course. But anyone who spent as much of their childhood in the Joyous Garde was bound to catch an eyeful of Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere doing something that no proper lady would do anywhere but behind the closed, locked and bolted door of her bedchamber. Clarice had not only blushed, she had nearly died of embarrassment.) And Robert and Dannie weren’t even officially betrothed yet!
Yes, it must have been Dannie and Robert that made her blush — because it sure as anything wasn’t Frederick. If Clarice felt anything at all in regards to Frederick, other than simply noting his presence, it was a mild sense of embarrassment on his behalf. For, obviously, he was here to chaperone Dannie and Robert — and just as obviously, Dannie and Robert were not too keen on being chaperoned and were determined to make Frederick’s time a misery thereby. Of course Clarice would be embarrassed for him. It was perfectly proper to be embarrassed for him. It was only human to be embarrassed for him!
Frederick, who before this had been staring at the wall and not moving his eyes from it — probably in order to pretend he was anywhere else — suddenly moved his head a tad to his right. Their eyes met for the barest of seconds.
Clarice turned around and jogged up the stairs. When she reached the top, she frowned. Maybe she should take Leona up the next time she suggested going for a run or something of that nature — Clarice could certainly use the exercise. Why, her heart was pounding in her ears, and she’d only gone up one short flight of stairs!
Shaking her head at her own weakness, she scurried down the hall to her and Lynn’s shared bedroom. The door was closed, so she knocked. “Lynn?”
Clarice went in.
“How’s that paper going?” she asked. Lynn’s groan was the only answer she got in reply. Clarice chuckled. “That badly, huh?”
“Worse,” was Lynn’s reply. She sighed. “I never should have majored in Literature.”
“Then why don’t you change it?”
“It’s too late, or at any rate it’s too late for me to justify changing it to myself. I mean, I’m already in my junior year. And what would I change it to?”
Clarice shrugged. “Drama, maybe?”
“Well, sometimes players dance — and you know if you’re going to have to devise court masques and such … well, it couldn’t hurt.”
Lynn frowned. “I … I never thought of it like that.” She let her quill fall to the paper. “But Father would never approve.”
“Even if you …” Clarice sighed. “Never mind. He’d say it was beneath you.”
“Aye.” Lynn shook her head, then turned to Clarice with a smile. “Anyway, did you need something, or did you just want to escape the world for a bit?”
“Well, I didn’t need anything, but I do have something. A letter.” She held it up. “To both of us, from Mother.”
Lynn blinked. “To — both of us?”
“I know, I thought the same thing. Here, you can read it — put those Literature classes to some use.”
“You’re terrible,” Lynn chuckled as she took the letter and popped the seal. “Dearest Gwendolyn and Clarice,” she read aloud.
Won’t Mother ever understand that Lynn prefers “Lynn”?
“I hope that this letter finds you in as good, or better, health than it leaves me at present.”
“Or better?” Clarice asked.
Lynn shrugged. “I hope, too, that your studies continue to go well, and that your behavior lives up to the high standards which your father and I have imparted to you. But of course, two daughters such as you could not do anything but make your parents proud.”
“Better not mention that essay to her.”
“Shush, Clarie. Anyway –” Lynn began to read aloud again. “I know that I generally write to you both individually, but the news I have to share is of such momentous a nature that to write two separate letters seems almost cruel, since that would let one sister into the news, inevitably, before the other. Since I know your curiosity has now been thoroughly whetted, I shall be brief. In short — oh!”
“Oh? What oh? Nobody’s sick, are they?”
“No — no, not — not quite …”
“It’s just that she — Mother — is going to have a baby.”
Clarice froze. Clarice stared.
“Hush, Clarice, not so loud!”
“But — but that’s practically impossible! Mother is almost forty years old! It must be the change of life coming on her!”
Lynn scanned the letter. “She says the midwife has confirmed it.”
“Oh, Wright! Don’t Mother and Father know how — how dangerous this could be at her age?”
“Well, Lady Morgause is almost ten years older than Mother, and she just had a healthy child …”
“But she’s a witch! I mean — I hate to use the same word to refer to the princess and Lady Morgause — but it’s true! She probably had all sorts of spells and things to help her through! Mother doesn’t — and even if she did know how to use magic, or knew someone who could help her, Father wouldn’t let her!”
“No, no, he wouldn’t …”
“And of course I’m sure the whole thing was his idea — what does the letter say about Father? What does he say about this?”
Lynn could have protested that there was no guarantee that the letter would contain anything about their father, but she didn’t waste her breath. Both of them had received far too many letters from Claire to even imagine for a second that one would come without news of or orders from their father. Lynn scanned the letter. “She says that Father is thrilled.”
“See! I knew it was his idea!”
“Clarie, just because Father is happy about the baby doesn’t mean that it was … oh.”
“I just read the rest of the paragraph,” Lynn sighed. “She scratched out ‘his’ and wrote, ‘Our prayers for a chance for a second son have been answered.'”
“She didn’t even want another child?!?”
“Clarie! Calm down! We don’t know that!” After a second’s hesitation, Lynn added, “And if she didn’t, there’s no way Father could have possibly guessed.”
Clarice felt her fists clench into two trembling balls at her sides. “What else does the letter say? Mother isn’t ill or uncomfortable, is she?”
“She …” Lynn scanned again. “She says there’s some discomfort –”
“Clarie! But she says it’s nothing out of the ordinary.”
“She’d say that if she was practically on her deathbed!”
Lynn didn’t have an answer to that. She continued to read. “And … oh. Oh dear.”
“What could possibly be ‘oh, dear’ after that?”
“She has orders from Father.”
Clarice instantly shut her mouth.
“He — he wants us to join him in praying …”
Well, that’s not so bad …
“For a son.”
“For a son?” she hissed. “For a SON? Mother is putting her life and her health at risk for him, and he just wants us to pray for a SON? What if Mother dies and he gets his precious son? Will he say–”
Clarice and Lynn both went silent.
The knocking came again. “Lady — Lady Clarice?” As if she wouldn’t know the voice — a voice that should not have been outside of the parlor, never mind right outside the door to her bedchamber — it continued, “It’s — it’s me. Freddy–I mean, Frederick.”
Clarice and Lynn exchanged glances. “I’ll be — just a second,” Clarice murmured. Her heart beating fast — she must have been angrier at her father than she thought she was — she slipped out the door. “Why are you up here?”
Frederick tried to look into her eyes, but Clarice kept her gaze focused on a point just beyond his head. His gaze dropped. “I — I heard you downstairs — you sounded upset …”
Clarice put her hands on her hips. “It’s none of your concern.” She stuck her chin up and tried to remember who she was, the kind of affront she should be feeling — really, a man having the gall to come up here, so near to their private chambers! “You really shouldn’t be up here.”
“Dannie told me to come up.”
The nerve of her! Didn’t she have any idea of the rules of decency — of propriety? On what planet was it permissable for young men to approach so near to the bedchambers of the house of young ladies? The common areas of the sorority were one thing — but the bedchambers? And while the hall wasn’t exactly the bedchambers, there really wasn’t anything in the hall to provide reason or justification for a young man to wander. The potted plant in the corner was about it.
“Well, she shouldn’t have,” Clarice replied. She looked off to the side, though her eyes flickered to Frederick’s face every couple of seconds. “She probably only told you to come up so she could — so she wouldn’t have a chaperone to watch what she and Robert were doing.”
Was he smiling? He is! “You don’t know Dannie very well, do you?”
“First of all, though Dannie … hasn’t much use for all the rules of propriety, she does have standards. And … well, if she was going to do something improper — really improper — she wouldn’t do it in the parlor, which doesn’t even have a door, where anyone could see.”
“That didn’t seem to stop her earlier today.”
“That wasn’t what Dannie would consider ‘really improper.'” He was still smiling! “Besides — knowing her — she figures that if society is going to make her sit in rooms without doors if she wants to spend time with her boyfriend, she might as well give them a show.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?” Why didn’t that come out the way she wanted it to? She wanted it to be harsh, cutting, angry — instead, she sounded almost … curious. But that wouldn’t do!
Now he was chuckling! “Lady Clarice — for me to be bothered is exactly what she wants.” He leaned in, the light catching his warm brown eyes, his teeth as he smiled, inviting her to share the joke.
Clarice took a full step backward and forced herself to ignore his hurt frown. He was taking liberties — liberties that he had no right to take, even if they were practically betrothed! — and she couldn’t let that continue. “So you’re saying that you’re ignoring your proper, brotherly instincts — you’re refusing to act in your sister’s best interest — because you’re trying to … trying to win a twisted sibling power struggle?”
Frederick turned his head to one side. “Lady Clarice — don’t you have a brother?”
“Of course I have a brother.”
“Well,” Frederick shrugged, “don’t you ever do silly things just to prevent him from winning?”
Prevent him from winning? Nonsense. There was no preventing Elyan from winning anything. Every girl in the de Ganis household knew that Elyan would win every battle before it begun, because he held the trump card — appeal to their father. Why bother to fight with Elyan when he would win no matter what? It was easier just to give in to what he wanted and spare oneself the trouble of the fight.
“No? Never?” He almost sounded like he was trying to tease an admission from her!
“Never.” If her first answer had left any room for doubt, this one did not.
And his face fell. “Lady Clarice — you — you can talk to me, you know. I know — I know we don’t know each other well yet — but –”
“Well, we’re going to have to get to know each other eventually, what with–”
“I need to talk to my sister,” Clarice interrupted, backing up another step, her hand on the doorknob, twisting it as it trembled. “We — it’s a family matter — it’s private –”
“Wait — I just — if you need to go I understand, but –” Suddenly, too suddenly for her to move away — probably suddenly enough that he surprised himself — he reached for her hand, took it in his, and kissed it.
“I just want to get to know you,” he murmured, letting her hand drop. “What’s so wrong about that?”
“I need to talk to my sister,” Clarice whispered — before bolting into the bedchamber and slamming the door behind her.
Lynn had already made her way back to the table and her dreaded essay. “What did he –” she began to ask as she turned around. Seeing Clarice’s face, her jaw fell. “Clarie? What happened?”
Clarice stared at her sister — rubbing the spot on her right hand that he had kissed. “I — I don’t really know.”