There was no loneliness that was quite as strong as the loneliness of being surrounded by so many other people.
She was an island — a silent island — surrounded by a hundred storms that raged around her. Or, no. The calm island in the middle of the storm was in a place to be envied; it was warm and tranquil while the rest of the sea was a cold and churning deathtrap. She was tranquil, yes, but not warm. And whatever was going on around her was not raging.
She could get up — or so Clarice told herself — and mingle anytime she wanted. She just preferred to sit quietly for now. After all, everyone was having a wonderful time just now. It would be rude to try to tack herself on to any of the groups. Nobody liked a …
Third wheel, Clarice thought, and it was only through force of will that she kept back her sigh.
Perhaps, in a moment or so, she would get up and start a conversation with her sister. After all, though they all would be returning home to Albion in less than forty-eight hours, Lynn had already graduated and would not be returning. And she would be getting married in a week’s time! Clarice ought to be spending as much time with her sister as possible now, for who knew when the next chance would be?
Except, not right at this moment. Lynn was a bit … busy at the moment.
Perhaps, in the carriage on the way home, Clarice would ask Lynn just how one went about managing a betrothed — managing in such a way as to keep both of them happy, but not to cross the bounds of propriety. But maybe the rules were different between a Prince and his betrothed than a regular noblewoman and her betrothed. Certainly Clarice had no idea how one would go about refusing favors — within reason — to a Prince.
And maybe the fact that the Prince generally kept his hands to himself in public (generally) had something to do with it. Lynn certainly never made the fool of herself over Tommy in public that Clarice had made over Freddy.
Freddy … Drat it all. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t think about him tonight, not until she had to.
Her eyes cast about the room again to find something else to do. The seats at the poker table were all full — not that that would have been a good idea — Clarice was never good at cards, and her allowance was not so great that she felt confident enough to gamble portions of it away.
Besides, with her luck, when a seat opened up, it would be because either Robert or Lamorak left. And the last thing Clarice wanted was to have to play poker against Dannie and Garnet. Dannie would glare daggers into her over her cards, and Garnet would play with her usual single-minded dedication to winning, caring not at all how much damage she caused along the way.
And as for Robert and Lamorak … Lamorak would be fair and courteous, as he always was. But Robert was uncanny. His dark eyes had a way of sizing you up and seeing through you, right from your eyes to the other side of the skull, and taking careful note of all the thoughts on the way. It was unnerving enough when you didn’t have a hand of cards to protect. It was even more unnerving on those occasions where one got the impression that Robert was passing over the cards, ignoring them in favor of what he thought was more important — the thousand other things lurking in her mind.
Yet, for all of that, Robert was always courteous, and she had a shrewd sense that it was him who was keeping his betrothed on a leash. For though Clarice and Freddy had gone back to barely speaking to each other, for some reason, Dannie had yet to take her to task over it.
Or maybe the Princess had something to do with that. Clarice had certainly caught her from time to time grabbing Dannie’s shoulder and dragging her off for a heart-to-heart.
Maybe, if she could find some time before the wedding, she should ask the Princess just how one went about keeping a betrothed happy without becoming a wanton. Certainly the Princess seemed to have found that magic balance.
Perhaps that’s it, Clarice thought with a ghost of a grin. Magic.
It made about as much sense as anything else.
She shifted, glancing around the room in search of someone, anyone else to talk to — for even though the Princess was on the right side of propriety and Lynn was … straddling the line, both of them were quite obviously busy — and her eyes fell on the chess table. But that was no good, for it was occupied.
Clarice had no idea what it was that so attracted those two to the idea of cheating at chess, but it served to keep Heloise and Galahad occupied for the whole of an evening, without either of them having recourse to their books, which she supposed was quite the achievement. Though for a moment, she wished one or both of them had slipped into the library. Then perhaps she would feel less awkward doing so herself.
But maybe it would not come to that! Surely Leona had to be around here somewhere!
… And so she was, right in front of Clarice’s face, having a grand old time (and probably a few more drinks than were strictly good for her) with that young Glasonlander of whom the Prince was so fond. It was a good thing both of her brothers were in the room, else Clarice might have had to stage an intervention before the young man got any ideas.
Or perhaps not, for the young man (Milo?) seemed to sense her gaze and toss her a grin, as if to say, “Can you believe it? I’m just letting her talk to see what comes out next.” And though it was perhaps disloyal, Clarice was reassured.
But it didn’t last. Within a few seconds, Clarice was fidgeting. She adjusted her skirt, patted her hair, glanced around the room through her lashes. Maybe I should just go, she thought. It’s just across the road. I could go home, do a bit of reading, pack a bit more for the journey home …
“Now who leave a pretty girl sitting all alone in a chair like this? Tsk, tsk. If I didn’t know better, Clarice, I’d say your sweetheart was being quite remiss.”
Clarice managed a smile. “Hello, Kay.”
“Hello, Clarice! Everything all right?”
“Oh, of course.”
Kay only raised one eyebrow — but it was King Arthur’s eyebrow, the Prince’s eyebrow, the Princess’s eyebrow. The sort of eyebrow that demanded answers. The eyebrow that hinted that there would be consequences attached to silence. Unpleasant ones.
And then he smiled, and it was only Kay’s smile — warm, inviting, almost begging confidences. Clarice could only shrug and try to smile.
Kay tilted his head to the side, his curly mop-top moving as a mass with every motion. “You want to be dancing, don’t you? I know you aren’t as bad as your sister with the whole dancing thing, but on the other hand, you are a young woman and plenty of you seem to think that the whole world is going to crash and burn if you don’t have a partner for every dance.”
It was easier to smile this time. “I assure you, I’m not one of those young ladies.”
Oh dear, is he trying to ask me to dance? Clarice did her best not to sigh. The last thing she wanted to be doing was fending off the feckless young prince —
“Because I could find you a partner.”
“You could — what?” Clarice gasped.
“Find you a partner.” Kay grinned again. “You are a pretty girl, you know. Sorry — young lady. I’m sure that any man here who isn’t spoken for would love to have a go.”
Isn’t spoken for … Clarice did her best not to sigh as she leaned back. And since she was technically spoken for, she shouldn’t even be thinking of dancing with anyone other than …
She brought her arms around herself, feeling suddenly so cold and alone.
“And maybe I could find one young man for you who is spoken for.
Clarice gasped and looked up.
Kay wore his most ingratiating, most wheedling, most Kay smile. “Though not your sister’s spoken-for man, because that would just be awkward. Unless Lynn suggested it, of course, and …” Kay glanced over her shoulder. “I think Tom would have to let her talk in order for that to happen, you know?” His grin invited a laugh with him.
Clarice could only manage a wan smile.
Kay barely seemed to notice. “And I don’t think I could promise my sister’s spoken-for man either. Not that she would mind, but Tom would. Which makes no sense, because he gets upset when Will is too affectionate with Jess and then when he’s not affectionate enough. But there’s Tom all over, I guess.”
“And you don’t?” Clarice murmured.
“Get upset? Over … over Will?”
“Are you kidding me? I’ve seen how Jess gets mad at Tom when he tries to be the protective big brother! I value my life too much to pull any shi–stuff like that!”
Clarice finally had to give up and giggle. And of course, Kay took that, puppy-like, as Kay would.
“So will you?” he asked.
“Will I … what?”
“Dance with a spoken-for guy, if I can find one for you?”
“Oh … oh I don’t … I don’t know … that wouldn’t be very nice, would it?”
“Depends on the guy, I would say,” Kay replied, tapping his chin with his fingertips. “And the girl, of course.”
“If the girl is unpleasant … or pleasant, I suppose, enough …?”
“I actually wasn’t thinking along those lines,” Kay answered. “I was thinking, well … what if dancing the guy wouldn’t involve any kind of conflict of loyalties on either of your parts?”
“What …” Clarice began, and looked over Kay’s shoulder. “Oh no!”
Freddy had been smiling, but when their eyes met it began to fade.
“No …” Clarice whispered.
“What’s the matter, Clarice?” Kay asked. “Come on. You need to talk to somebody, even if it’s not me. Freddy would be a great guy for you to talk to, but I’ll admit that even I’m not holding out much hope of that happening –”
“No!” Clarice shouted, suddenly finding herself nose-to-nose with Kay — when had she risen? “I’m not spoken for!”
“What? Clarice –”
“He’s not spoken for! Of if he is, it isn’t to me!” Why did her voice crack so when she said that? “Or if we are spoken for each other, nobody’s bothered to tell me about it!”
Kay blinked. “Clarice?”
“My father hasn’t told me anything!”
Silence — except for the harp in the corner, still bespelled into melody. Her heart managed to keep time with its frenetic pace.
Finally, a voice. Lynn’s, who else’s? “Clarie? Clarice?”
But when Clarice finally looked up, it was not into her sister’s eyes she gazed, but into another pair — a pair dark brown, and startled, but slowly dawning into comprehension.
Clarice gasped and ran for the door, out into the sky that wept even as her eyes threatened to.
She barely had time to feel the first fat drops hit her dress and hair before a voice stayed her.
Run, said the voice of reason. Keep running! The house is only across the street! If you get inside, he won’t be able to reach you!
She stopped running.
Slap, slap, slap — the sound of leather soles on wet stone. Clarice crossed her arms in front of her chest and shivered, cringing like a dog or a woman waiting for the blow.
It didn’t come. Instead, there was nothing but — presence. Warmth and breath and the faint rustling of cloth. If she turned her eyes to their corners, she would see him.
Clarice closed her eyes and tilted her face to the ground.
She felt herself turn to him as a flower turned, unknowing, unheeding, just doing to the sun.
“You all right?” Freddy asked. He reached for her hand.
Clarice snatched it away and closed her eyes so as not to see the hurt that would flicker across his face. “My father’s told me nothing.”
“I heard. I’m not asking –”
“Don’t you get it?” That — that couldn’t be her voice, could it? So shrill, so shrewish? So everything that her father said was wrong about women, so unable to listen to reason, to be calm, to think, to listen at all —
“He’s said nothing! Nothing! So — so as far as anyone should be concerned, you’re not spoken for, and I’m not spoken for!”
The rain ran in rivulets down Freddy’s hair and cheek and jaw. If she let her imagination run away with her, she could tell herself that the water was tears, that she was making Freddy cry because she could not bear that he would see her cry. And what right had he to make her cry, anyway? What right did any man, even her father or Prince Kay, have to take her heart and her pride and whatever sense of self-worth she had and roll it up in a ball and squish it underneath their boots?
Even men surely couldn’t have the right do to that.
“Please, Clarice, calm down for a moment –”
“No!” Lynn had whispered to her, after returning home from the break, that she had defied their father — defied their father — and instead of feeling shocked or aghast or ashamed, she had felt strengthened, uplifted, exhilarated. Clarice had not believed her.
She had been wrong — so wrong — not to take Lynn at her word for that! There was something heady and freeing and dangerous in saying those two letters, that tiny word, that single syllable to a man. It was so intoxicating Clarice immediately took another hit of it. “No!” And another. “No!”
There was no reply. That was disconcerting. Lynn had said that there had been a great deal of sputtering and yelling when she made her stand. It had only stopped when she herself had marched out of earshot.
So Clarice stumbled like a drunk woman to fill the silence. “I’m not going to calm down! I’m sick of being calm and quiet and — and — pretending to be happy to be doing my duty when all I am is sick of it! Sick of all of it!”
“You’re — you’re not happy?” Freddy croaked.
“How could I be?” Clarice snapped. “Answer me that! How could I be?”
“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I guess I should have known better than to think you would be.”
“Right!” That wasn’t forceful enough, so Clarice topped it with a, “Damn right! Who would be happy, in my position?”
His eyes squeezed shut, and the streams of water running down his face grew thicker and stronger.
“Bought and sold and — and haggled over like a piece of livestock! Without even being told! Everyone else finds out about this before I do, officially! It’s not fair!”
“And it’s not right!” Clarice snapped, her finger going up into the air to make her point. “Nobody would like being treated like this! So why do I have to pretend that it’s all right?”
“You don’t.” His voice was so thick, and deep — she’d never heard it so before. She watched, fascinated, as his Adam’s apple bobbed up and then down again. “When — when we get home, I’ll tell my father to call it off.”
And from the soaring high came the crashing low, after the drunken ecstasy came the throbbing hangover, and after the thrill of finally saying no and putting her foot down there was only Freddy, standing with tears in his eyes in the rain and staring at her as if — as if — “What?”
“I’ll my father to call of the — well — I guess it wasn’t much of a betrothal,” Freddy almost laughed. “Since nobody bothered to even tell you about it.” He sighed. “And — and in the meantime, I’ll back off. Since you clearly don’t want this.”
“I … I never said that …”
The look Freddy shot her was so withering that Clarice wished she could, like plant, shrivel up and return to the earth. “No, you only said that you weren’t happy, that nobody in your position could possibly be happy, and that I made you feel like a piece of livestock. Believe me, my lady, you were quite clear.”
“But … I never wanted you to …”
“Wanted me to …?”
“Leave,” Clarice whispered.
“Then for Wright’s sake, what do you want?” Freddy snapped. “St. Robert and St. Agnes! One minute you’re running away, the next you’re beckoning me closer, and then you’re putting up all kinds of walls and — and — I give up!” He threw his hands in the air. “I give up! I know what I want, would it trouble you too much to figure out what it is that you want?”
Clarice cringed away. “I — I don’t know.”
“How do you not know? How can you not know? It’s easy! It’s yes or it’s no! There are only two choices!”
She turned away, her arms wrapped around her chest for fear that she would fall apart if she did not hold all her parts together.
If the rain on her face was a few degrees warmer, she would have sworn it was not rain at all, but tears. Clarice closed her eyes and let her dripping sheaves of hair fall on either side of her face.
“Look, Clarice,” Freddy finally whispered, “I just — I just want you to be happy. If that means that I can’t be near you, then … then I can’t be near you. But you have to let me know, one way or another. I can’t go on like this.”
She shook her head.
He was closer now — so much closer — if she leaned back, she would fall into his arms, however wanton and wrong it was. She was sure of it.
“Are you — are you all right?” he asked finally.
“I don’t know,” Clarice whimpered.
“Do you want me to –”
“I don’t want you to go!” she heard herself gasp.
“Clarice?” His hands on her shoulders, softly rubbing. “You said you weren’t happy.”
“Not about you!”
“You said you were sick of it.”
“Not of you!”
“Then of what?”
“All of it!” Clarice gasped. “Of — of — of being treated like I’m not even a Sim! Of being — of not even being told that I’m worthless, just being treated that way! Of being s-sold to the highest bidder without even being told that I was being put up for auction!”
“Clarice!” The hand moved from her shoulder to her waist, and with only that tiny bit of prompting her knees turned to water and her weight to fall on him. Freddy stumbled, but he caught her — and held her — and scarcely dared to breathe. She could feel ever second that he passed without moving.
When he finally exhaled, it was warm and stirred the hair by her ear. “Clarice?”
She closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder. Freddy slowly circled his arm around her waist. Clarice gasped, but before he could move away, she leaned more of her weight — if that was possible — against him.
“Clarice … is that how I made you feel?”
“No,” Clarice sniffled. “No, you made me feel …” Wanted. Wanton. Cherished. Forgotten. “Wonderful,” she finally decided.
He stepped back — Clarice almost sobbed — but before she could gather the breath, he was in front of her, his arm around her waist again, and now his other hand on her shoulder blade. “I made you feel wonderful?” he repeated.
His grin was so silly — so wide, so toothy, so carefree. Clarice wanted to know to grin like that. But for now, she only nodded.
Freddy rubbed her back, still grinning that grin. “Clarice — you make me feel wonderful, too.”
She must have been a quick study. Her face certainly wouldn’t do her the indignity of hurting for a grin any less wide and toothy and carefree. She felt her head come rest on his shoulder rather than willed it to, and felt the laugh rather than thought the situation was funny.
His hair tickled her cheek, his whiskers her jaw. And then suddenly there was a faint pressure, a faint heat, at her neck. “Oooh …”
Freddy pulled back a little, still grinning. “Come on,” he whispered. “Let’s feel wonderful together.”