Clarice’s hand, small and delicate, always clasped his with a strength that belied its fragile appearance. So too now as Freddy helped her down from the carriage. She didn’t need the help — at least, Freddy didn’t think she did — but she always held onto him as if his hand was the only thing between her and a hundred-foot abyss.
Now that Freddy had met her father and seen her family, he wondered how much of that was the training Bors had instilled into her, and how much of that was just the insecurity of day-to-day living.
Still, when Freddy let her go, Clarice stood there, smiling slightly at him. “So …” she started.
“Here we are!” Freddy answered, grinning with a cheerfulness he certainly didn’t feel. It was stupid — it was insane, he was out with the most amazing girl on the campus, in the kingdom, why shouldn’t he be happy? But the unfamiliar weight in his pocket reminded him that, even if being Clarice was enough reason to be happy, he had plenty of reasons not to be cheerful.
She smiled, reaching again for his hand — for both of them. Freddy clasped hers in his, hoping his grip was as strong and reassuring as she needed it to be. Her smile grew softer, more lovely in the moonlight. “Thank you for taking me out.”
“Clarice,” he half-gasped. “You don’t have to thank me! You — look, isn’t that my job? Woo the fine lady by whatever means my meager charms and my father’s not-so-meager purse can together come up with?”
“Freddy!” Clarice laughed, scandalized. “Your charms are not meager.”
If he had been more suave and dashing, like the princes, he would have had some winning reply to that. Tongue-tied Freddy could only grin more hugely and squeeze Clarice’s hands — and shepherd her out of the way as the carriage he had hired to pick them both up began to rumble into the distance.
Freddy, however, was enough of a Ferreira and a Parkinson grandson to have an attempt at a joke at the ready. “Well, you still shouldn’t be thanking me until after dinner is over. The restaurant could be horrible.”
“I’m sure it won’t be,” she giggled, then looked over her shoulder, curious, at the doorway that led to the restaurant. “You … haven’t eaten here before?”
“Me? Of course not. Who would I take here, other than you?”
“Well, I know you and the guys go out a lot …”
Freddy almost laughed out. “Here? Oh, no way. The places we go, the objective is to get from sober to drunk in the least amount of time possible, and the food …” The guys had a lot of clever ideas for the purpose of the food, but, as Freddy was rapidly remembering, most of them involved bodily functions that one did not bring up in front of the lady one was hoping to marry.
“I’ve been to the Lion and Llama,” Clarice pointed out. “You don’t have to remind me.”
“True,” Freddy nodded. “So. Shall we go in, my lady?” He offered her his arm.
She grinned and took it, and arm-in-arm — as they had rarely had the courage to walk, much less in public — he squired her into the restaurant.
He had not eaten there before, but he had been there, both before he had asked Clarice to accompany him and again this morning, to make sure everything would be as perfect as he could make it. So it was no surprise when the host came rushing up to him. “Master Ferreira! And your lady! Come, come! We have just the table for you two!”
“Thank you,” Freddy replied, shaking the man’s hand before taking Clarice’s arm again and following him into the restaurant proper. He should have been watching the host, but instead he watched Clarice’s face. Clarice — who had grown up in great houses and palaces — was eying the expensive paneling on the walls, the artwork, the minstrel playing softly in the corner, the fine candles and silken-polished woods. And she looked — dare he hope? Impressed?
“And here! A table for the good man and his fine lady! And here,” he produced menus with a flourish, “our humble offerings for the night!” Then, bowing and scraping, he ducked away from them, probably to attend to other customers.
And not for the first time, Freddy found himself to be completely out of his depth when courting Clarice. The menu! Most of the meal names were in Gaulish, and the descriptions were hardly descriptive, either. He couldn’t even pronounce half the names, much less identify what was in them. He was going to look like a fool in front of Clarice, he just knew it.
“That was …” Clarice started.
Freddy looked up.
She blushed and ducked her head. “That was — well — I don’t remember …” She chewed on her bottom lip in that adorable way she had. “He treated you like you were his best customer.”
“Oh, that?” Freddy almost laughed. “That’s just good business.”
“… Is it?” Clarice asked, hesitantly.
Freddy looked up. What was she asking? If that was good business? Well, it was, of course it was. Treat every customer like your best customer, and they’ll be sure to come back for more. Freddy had learned that from the cradle. Or was she asking if that was the only reason? It had to be — except, as Freddy slowly realized, it didn’t need to be. He’d gotten that treatment from the moment he had given his name to the waiter on duty. He had known his father was making a name for himself, but he had not realized just how big a name it was coming to be.
So he turned the thought away with a joke. “Well, maybe it was for you. The Crown Princess’s sister and all,” Freddy teased.
“But he didn’t even know who I was. And he kept looking at you, not really at me,” Clarice pointed out. She smiled — and blushed a little as she did.
Luckily Freddy did not have to think of something to counter that, for their waiter showed up, gesticulating wildly, only too happy to guide them through the maze of choices that was the menu.
Freddy already knew the wine he wanted, so that was easy enough to order — it was the rest of it that was the problem. There was also the problem of Clarice. She seemed to take it for granted that he would order for the both of them, while Freddy had never before eaten with a woman who did not know exactly what she wanted and was not afraid to let the waiter know what it was. At least he had a system in place for Clarice’s refusal to let the waiter know what it was she wanted: after the problem had presented itself, he had swallowed his pride and gone to Leona, begging her to let him know what Clarice liked to eat. Leona had rolled her eyes, mumbled something that Freddy could not catch but would bet his last farthing somehow involved Bors, and gave Freddy a list. Now Freddy just ordered the first thing that matched up with Clarice’s preferences. As for he himself, he ordered the first thing that didn’t sound too outlandish.
Soon the waiter was gone, and soon after he returned with and poured the wine. As soon as he was gone, Freddy raised his glass. “Toast?”
Clarice grinned and raised hers. “To what?”
“To y–to us,” Freddy answered. “To us, and to our future.”
“To our future,” Clarice answered. They clinked glasses and drank.
Clarice put hers down, rested her chin on her hands and smiled at him in that … way she had. “So,” she asked, “did you and your friends figure out the bridge over the gorge yet?”
“Oh, aye,” Freddy laughed. “Wasn’t that hard, really. Just a matter of proper support. You see, you just have to make sure …” Clarice tilted her head a little to one side, and Freddy chuckled. “Your eyes are going to glaze over in a minute. I don’t know why you ask me these things.”
“You let me talk on and on about my classes,” Clarice replied, sounding almost — hurt? “Even until you’re about to turn green.”
“I haven’t turned green in months!”
“That’s only because I think I have a pretty good handle on what you can and can’t — handle,” Clarice giggled. “I know when to stop, now.”
“And I know when to stop, too,” Freddy shrugged.
“But you … you always stop so quickly. Unless you get on a roll. And I am interested, Freddy, I really am. We’re — we’re going to be married someday. Shouldn’t I be interested?”
Freddy pondered that. His parents, he knew, could talk about business until both of their lips fell off or their voices gave out. But — that was different, for them. Their businesses, their ambition, that was a huge part of who they were. Freddy loved building things, making them tall and straight and right, but it wasn’t who he was the way his parents’ businesses made them who they were. He was not entirely sure all that went into who he was, just yet, but he knew it wasn’t that.
He knew, though, that the woman sitting to his side and smiling would play a much bigger part in who he would become than any mere cathedral or curtain wall.
“Maybe a little,” he finally agreed. “But you don’t have to pretend, Clarice. Wouldn’t we be boring, if we were just interested in what the other was interested in because he — she — whatever, was interested in it?”
“But you’re –” Clarice broke off, but unlike the way she often broke off — when she stopped saying what she was going to say because she was afraid it would not please him — this was different. This was merely breaking off for thought. “You — you make things that will last. That’s … that’s so different for me.”
“Oh, come now.”
“My father was a military man. Always was, always will be. And a large part of being a military man is knowing how to destroy things that take so long for other people to create.”
“It’s not just about that, is it? Isn’t it also about defending what you love?”
“From other people who would destroy it.”
“… All right, you have me there.”
Clarice took a long sip of her drink. Freddy knew that look in her eyes: she was still thinking, pondering something. He sat back, waiting for her to put it into words.
“You …” she started, slowly, wonderingly. “You’re different, Freddy. You and your family. You think about making connections, building things, creating something new from what you have. My family … my father, he doesn’t see the world that way. He thinks the world is perfect as it is. He thinks — he thinks that the most honorable way to gain wealth is to, to go to war and steal it from someone else. Oh, he wouldn’tcall it stealing, but that’s what it is, isn’t it? Going in and taking what you want, because you’re stronger. And your father, he builds wealth by connecting people and bringing goods from one part of the world that has too many of them to another part that doesn’t have enough — and everybody gets fairly paid for what they’ve done, and nobody gets hurt — and my father looks down on your father and thinks that he’s doing something shameful!”
“I don’t think it’s quite that simple, Clarice.”
“Maybe not — quite, but it is a bit simple. Don’t — don’t you think? Maybe, a little?”
Freddy pondered that. The difficulty was that he did not know Bors all that well. Oh, he had heard the horror stories and met him once, but that did not give him the kind of insight into the man’s psyche that he was starting to realize he needed. But all the same … he knew noblemen.
And he was starting to know Elyan. Elyan, Freddy realized, thought much in the same way that Clarice was describing. The men who deserved to be on the top of society were the knights, the lords, the men of the military. Theoretically it was because they protected everybody else from threats and evil, but really, how many of those threats were outlaws and marauding Smoors — and how many of those threats were other knights, identical in all significant respects to the protecting knights, save the device on the surcoat?
The waiter came back with their food before Freddy could successfully formulate a reply for Clarice.
But as soon as the waiter was gone, Freddy knew he had to say something, and so he started with something easy. “I think you have a point.”
“But …” Before her smile could fade, he said hurriedly, “I don’t think it always has to be that way. You know, that men like — like your father have to be in charge. I don’t think that the princes, or men like Sir Lamorak or Sir William, think like that. So I think a change in the wind.”
“But my brother still thinks like that,” Clarice sighed.
“Well … Elyan …” Freddy could not do anything other than sigh, either.
“He hasn’t improved at all since I’ve been away, has he?” Clarice answered, worried.
“Well, there’s always hope.”
“Hope for what?”
Freddy gave that due consideration. “Hope that Leona will eventually have had it with him and punch him so hard that he gets a new personality?”
For a moment, all Clarice did was stare at him. And Freddy thought he had gone too far. This was her brother! How would he like it if somebody were to suggest punching a new personality into George (much as he might deserve it some days)? And —
Then she started to laugh. Long. Hard.
“Oh! Oh, Freddy! That’s too funny!”
“Er — thank you?”
“But it’s so true!” A tear glittered at the corner of her eye — she swiped it away carelessly before Freddy could reach out and do the same. “Oh, poor Elyan! His best hope is his betrothed assaulting him!”
“You know,” Freddy pondered, “if we were to tell him that — seriously — do you think it would have an effect?”
Clarice’s laughter died away. “Maybe if you could get Prince Kay or Aglovale to say it. But he wouldn’t listen to me, if I said it.”
Clarice blushed. “Freddy –”
“Don’t,” he answered. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — don’t apologize for them. You can’t control what they do. You can only control what you do. And you do wonderful things.”
She slowly smiled. And with that, they were able to turn the conversation to more pleasant things.
At least — until Clarice sighed, and laid down her fork, and smiled at him. “Are we getting dessert?” she asked, blushing a little. Apparently women were not supposed to have healthy appetites, or something.
“Er, er, yes,” Freddy replied — because it was now or never, now. They were both fed, and lubricated, and if it worked, they would have a wonderful dessert — and if it didn’t, well, he could take her home and that would be a ruined evening. “But — but, um, I have something I wanted to — to ask you first.”
“Oh?” she asked, turning her head a little to one side.
She didn’t get it. Well, of course she didn’t get it, gently-reared ladies weren’t supposed to get it in conversations like these, even if they did. They were supposed to feign ignorance and surprise when it happened, even if they had seen it coming for miles.
Well, Freddy would soon see if she had seen this coming for miles. He reached into his pocket, breathed a prayer — and took the box out and set it on the table.
“Oh, oh — Freddy — this — this isn’t –?”
For an answer, Freddy opened the box without a word. The diamond shone and Clarice gasped again, her hands coming up to cover her face. Only her eyes, wide and dark and startled as a doe’s, peeked above them.
“Clarice,” Freddy gulped and vaguely felt that he ought to be going down on one knee, but he would probably end up in a heap on the floor if he tried to move now. “Clarice de Ganis, will you marry me?”
“B-b-but the papers — my father –”
“Clarice, this — this isn’t about the papers. And Lord knows it isn’t about your father! It’s — it’s about you, and it’s about me. I–” Freddy gulped. “I love you, Clarice, and if you’ll give me a chance, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make you happy. It’s not much, I know it’s not much, and you deserve so much more — but it’s what I can do. Can you — will you — give me that chance, Clarice?”
She gasped, and sobbed. “Clarice?” Freddy repeated. Was this about to blow up in his face?
But she was — nodding? Yes! She was nodding! “Yes, yes!” she gasped, the tears running down her cheeks. “Yes, of course! Freddy! How could I say no? I love you — and — and you’re the only one to ever ask! Ever!”
There was something in the way she said “ever” — it was not that Freddy was the only man to propose marriage to her. There should have been, if there was any justice in this world, men lining up at her door to propose marriage to her. It was that he was the only one to ever bother to ask how she felt about this, to ask if this was what she wanted to do with her life. It was terrible — but he had the rest of her life to make it up to her, if he could.
Meanwhile, Clarice continued to stare at the ring, tears flowing down her cheeks. Freddy fished his handkerchief out of his sleeve — at least he had been prepared for this eventuality — and wiped her face. “You know,” he murmured, “you’re allowed to put the ring on. If you want. If you don’t like it –”
“Don’t like it?” With shaking hands, she grabbed the ring and slipped it onto her finger. “Freddy, l-look at it! Look at it sparkle! How could I not love it?”
Freddy did not know, but that was probably because he paid no attention to the sparkling ring, much preferring to watch the sparkling girl in front of him.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. “You’re — you’re so — I –”
Freddy laid his hand over hers and smiled at her. For that moment, that was enough, for both of them.
Then he squeezed her hand. “Shall we dance, my lady?” His lady, now, for he was hers and she was his, her father and his contracts be damned.
“D–” she began, then grinned. “Yes! Yes, why not!”
He grabbed both hands and hauled her to her feet; Clarice came laughingly. And when they reached the dance floor, his arm encircled her waist and he held her as close as he dared.
Clarice smiled at him.
Holding her close, staring into her eyes — forgetting that anything or anyone else had ever existed — Freddy realized the most important thing.
He — they — had won. He was hers and she was his. And they would remain that way until death they did part.
And nothing — nothing — would take her away from him.