She sighed. “But mother, I really think"”
“It does not matter what you think, darling. It never has. You are not in charge of this household. My word is final.”
The woman said it almost distractedly as she pinned her long, flaxen hair up, sitting before her vanity as she did every morning. It was the only part of her reestablished routine that Lady Wandesford absolutely refused to go without.
Long used to such thoughtless insults from her mother’s lips, the only part that registered in the girl’s mind was the fact that she was being denied. Again. She took a deep, bracing breath and prepared for another arduous hour of explaining why she did, in fact, deserve to have her way on this matter.
“William has been out since he was my age, attending all sorts of balls and events that I am never allowed to go to. It’s hardly fair to let him"”
“Your brother is male; they do not have such things as coming out parties. As such, they are allowed out into society as soon as they should so like to be. Or are forced to be.” Her china doll face pulled into a grimace at the words, and another pearl-topped pin was neatly in place. “Besides,” the woman continued, “he will be joining the ranks at the end of this year. I see no reason why he should not enjoy himself beforehand.”
“Precisely!” the girl exclaimed, exasperated. “I wish to enjoy myself, too, before you start lining suitors up for me. Part of my season, at least, should be something to look forward to with anything other than dread.” She spoke in a rush, words tumbling over themselves so as to be out before she was interrupted, only to find her mother was quiet. Moving to look at her mother in the reflection of her mirror, she wondered what she had said wrong this time. The normally soft, well-bred features of Lady Wandesford were drawn and her brow was furrowed in a look of unmistakable disapproval.
She finished pinning her hair without further comment, checking that each bit would be secure for the remainder of the day, that she could go about her duties without wondering how she looked. Then, turning in her chair, she focused her deep blue eyes on her daughter. “Claire,” she said, hushed voice heavy with what Claire was sure was pending doom, “darling. You are a girl, fourteen years old, practically a woman. Before long, you will want a marriage almost as much as I want one for you. For now, however, you seem fixated on such frivolities as dances with no purpose when you should be looking for suitors yourself. You have never so much as batted an eye at any male who passed these doors, and until you show a sense of responsibility for your future, a sense of duty, you will not have your own coming out. I will discuss this no further. You know my mind on the matter"come to me when you have changed yours.” With a smile lacking any sort of maternal warmth, she rose and left the dressing room to attend to more pressing matters. The door clicked shut behind her, quietly, but with a sort of finality that left Claire staring for several small eternities.
“I can’t believe it,” she said at long last, a whisper into the still room, bereft of anything except her growing anger. In a display of unladylike temper, she let out a short, loud growl of frustration that startled a few birds lingering on the outside windowsill. She whirled upon the vanity and sat down with a heavy thud, hands curled like claws on the wooden surface. The vanity was elaborate, made of rich, dark wood inlaid with delicate silver filigree and painted enamel; it had several drawers and compartments for the various womanly effects the Lady kept. Claire had played with them when she was little, in happier days when her mother would hold her on her lap while she got ready for the day. The centerpiece was the mirror, however, always polished to a high shine--it was big enough to see the entirety of one’s upper half without moving. It was while glaring at her reflection, willing herself to not look as much like her mother as she did with the same golden hair and dark pools of eyes, so bright against her fair skin, that Claire heard the door open. She glared behind herself in the mirror as William came out from where he’d been standing, just outside the room.
“How long have you been there, lurking like some scullery maid?” Her voice came out low, gravely with frustration.
The young man let out a low chuckle as he shut the door behind him. “Long enough. Are you really quite that envious, sister, of my little slice of freedom?” He flashed a disarming smile and exaggeratedly smoothed a stray hair, pointedly looking at his reflection and not Claire’s.
“Do you even need to ask that question?” Her eyes were burning pits as she turned to face William properly. “You know bloody well that you are mother’s favorite, not I.”
“I can see why, with such language coming from you.” Recoiling with mock disgust, he leaned against the door frame, long build graceful even in repose. He was four years older than Claire and his frame, though not yet fully matured, held great promise to be both imposing and elegant. Already he had a certain roguish appeal and had several handfuls of admirers.
Claire was not currently one of them and dug her nails into her palms to quiet her temper. “You would speak such if you were as restricted as I find myself. I cannot go to other parties until I have had my own, as custom dictates,” she said, pulling a face to show how much she though of custom, “and mother will not let me have my own until I can convince her I care about being thrown into the arms of some wealthy old lecher.” Feeling defeated, she let out a long breath and laid her head down on the vanity’s top. Loose curls fell around her arms, hiding her face from sight.
William couldn’t repress a laugh at his sister’s expense, but he quieted as he drew near to the vanity, stopping when he was but a breath away from Claire. He reached out, gently lifted her head up, and met her eyes in the mirror before them.
“You’ve a face almost as pretty as mine, even with the little mole by your eye,” he said with a tiny smile, earning one out of Claire before she remembered she was upset. “You’re a better liar than ever I was. You are built elf-like, as mother"dainty and graceful"yes, even you.” For the sake of illustration, he pulled Claire abruptly from her seat and whirled her, quite without warning, to the end of his arm as though they were dancing. Though taken off guard, the girl adeptly kept herself in commendable posture, finishing with her weight on the appropriate foot. Their dance instructor had done well.
William grinned, satisfied, and Claire glowered before crossing her arms, staying where she was. “When you’re angry, you flush becomingly,” he said, laughing; and it was true. A pinkish stain had spread on Claire’s cheeks, matching the color of her high collared satin dress. Standing with the warm spring sunshine flooding through the window behind her, she looked ethereal.
“It’s not for want of beauty or ability to act that you haven’t had your party yet,” the young man continued, sobering to his point, “since you have both in abundance, sister. You merely need to learn to control your reactions, to not interrupt and act as young as you are. We both know that you’re able to pretend to like someone"you can make any pernicious man thrust upon you feel comfortable, even if your words are veiled insults. You need to do the same with mother: make her feel as though she can trust you. Then you’ll have your party…and with enough practice, your way in every matter.” Taking her hand once more, he spun Claire back to her seat with that same infectious smile.
“Trust me, though you so rarely do. How else do you think I convinced her to let me leave and join the military?” There was a certain sadness to his smile now, but it showed only briefly. “She’d never let me go otherwise.” Without further explanation, he gave a gentlemanly bow and left as abruptly as he’d entered.
Left once more in silence to ponder the parting words of her family, Claire turned and stared past her reflection, to the nothingness of the eye-level middle space behind her. William had always seemed so shallow to her. Gossip said that he only ever danced with the loveliest of the girls. He boasted of his achievements in riding and swordsmanship, and had an air of superiority about him that was suffocating. He’d been somewhat more amicable as of late, and she was curious as to why"was it an attempt to make up for lost time before he left? Did he feel guilty? Regardless of reason, he had given her valuable advice and she would be foolish not to use it.
Without realizing she was doing it, Claire breathed on the mirror, fogging up a patch in the middle with the warmth of her breath. She reached out one finely boned finger and wrote, in her scrolling handwriting, just one word:
A sigh escaped William’s lips, and he shut the door fully; he had wanted to see Claire’s reaction and was thankful she’d been too distracted to notice the crack he’d been peering through. He’d seen her thoughts float across her face as clearly as though she’d voiced them; not that she was easy to read, but he’d been watching her from afar for long enough now to guess at her thoughts. Why? Why was he leaving? But he couldn’t, he wouldn’t answer that for her. Not now.
“Later. Later you shall know.”
Claire heard the faint clack of William’s boots as he finally left. She wondered why he’d lingered.