Liam breakfasted with me the next morning. Per Doctor Carson, I was to remain off of my feet, preferably in bed, for two more days, but he had allowed that I could be carried into the sitting room for meals if I wished a change of scenery. Liam was quiet but gentle as he carried me from bed to the table. We ate in silence, each stewing over our own thoughts on what we had learned the night before. I looked up in surprise when he reached across the table to place his hand on top of mine.
"I know this is a sad thing, Laren, but...you didn't know, did you?" I shook my head. He seemed relieved at that. "Well then, maybe we haven't lost as much as it feels that we have. We didn't have the chance to look forward to the child's arrival."
"Maybe," was all that I could say in response. I turned my head away, looking at the balcony. Liam squeezed my hand.
"Doctor Carson says that in another moon we can begin trying again." His voice bubbled over with false optimism.
"Of course, my lord." I said, forcing a smile in return. His eyes flickered, but he did not remind me that formality was unnecessary. He squeezed my hand and sat back, returning to his meal. It was as clear a sign as any that our roles with each other had been finally set by the recent events. He had decided not to tell me about his mother's part in the miscarriage, apparently. He also did not try to suggest that the child had in all probability not been his. I was thankful for that. They could keep their secret if they wanted to.
When I had woken that morning my head was finally well and truly clear again, and I was angry. I still did not know if I would have been able to bear raising a child that had been the result of my trauma. Roslyn may well have been right in that I couldn't have handled it. But I very much resented what she had done. It was not just having had the choice taken away from me, but that I was never even presented with it in the first place. My entire life had been made up of people telling me what to do and when and how to do it. Before I came to the House of the Stag, I had fought back, at least a little. I had sought out my own interests and become my own person. Eventually, my parents had stopped trying to make me fit into their mold of a perfect daughter and let me alone to do as I wished. Certainly there had been limitations on what I could get away with, but it had still been a victory, and I had been happy.
Then I had married Liam and come here, where I had been expected to just fit into the already existing structure. In some ways, I had grown as a result, finding new interests that I would never have discovered otherwise. But I had been pushing my true nature further and further into the back of the cupboard with each passing day. I had hoped that with time Liam and I would grow to love each other, to become close friends and to be integral in each other's lives. But that wasn't what he wanted. Not from me, at least. He wanted for me to be the mother of his children and to help him keep up appearances in society. That was it.
So I had come to a decision. I would be those things for Liam as well as I was able, but that was all. I was tired of being expected to conform. I was not like the rest of Pelos' society, and I no longer intended to try to pretend that I was. Within limits of course. I now knew exactly how powerful Roslyn was as well as of what she was capable. I would need to test my limits carefully. I didn't mean to push too far, but I was going to find a balance so that I had a chance at happiness of my own within this life into which I had let myself be placed. It all came down to choices, I had realized. At some point I had let others start making my choices for me again instead of making them myself. I knew I would not be able to take every choice into my hands, but I certainly meant to take as many of them as I could.
After my mandatory bed rest had ended, Doctor Carson encouraged me to start getting out of my rooms. On his recommendation I began to take long walks each day. I started by just walking throughout the manor. When my strength started to return I would walk through the gardens that occupied the inner courtyard. I did not enjoy this as much as I once had, however. Once I had seen the windows and balconies as watching eyes, I no longer felt comfortable under their gaze.
While I had been expressly forbidden from riding for a few more weeks, there were walking paths in the woods that covered most of the estate grounds outside of the manor. I availed myself of these often, and found that I rather enjoyed the freedom of wandering among the trees. A few clearings had been made within the woods, and I often passed my days there. I would pack a lunch and a book, sometimes I would also bring my knitting or drawing materials. Even though I had spent much of the past few moons alone, confined in my rooms by my own will, I found I very much enjoyed the solitude of the woods. I had grown even more fond of knitting during my time in seclusion. The soft clacking of the slender wooden needles as I worked was especially therapeutic, and producing a simple piece with a repetitive pattern allowed me to relax and let my mind wander where it would.
Not that I was ever actually alone. Liam did not entirely approve of my venturing into the woods by myself, so Roslyn pacified him by assigning a pair of the House guards to accompany me on my wanderings. Before I had really only ventured into the woods with Liam and guards had never been warranted. I had only been so accompanied when venturing off of the estate. The guards usually only served as an escort to my destination and then home again, a rotating handful of silent serious men. But now I had two specially assigned personal guards, I had been informed. They were my new silent shadows. I would find them waiting outside my rooms each morning when I exited, and they would trail along behind me wherever I ended up going for the day, unless I was accompanied by Liam himself, which was a rare enough occurrence as it was. The same two men every day, they always stayed a discreet distance behind to allow me some semblance of privacy, and they never spoke to me or to each other. While I found their presence surprisingly comforting, I also felt a little bad for them. It must have been quite boring to follow me around all of the time.
To ease me back into being around larger groups of people, Roslyn hosted many teas over the next few weeks, inviting over other women of society. They would spend hours gossiping over the latest news and rumors. I attended them gladly, although I kept to myself most of the time. They allowed me my quietness, attributing it to recovery from my illness. Listening to their discussions helped to catch me up on what had been going on in Pelos while I had been in confinement. I was, for instance, extremely thrilled to learn that Denara had finally settled its upheaval and elected a new Magnate. Goods from Denara were flooding back into the Quarter of Trade, and to Dumais through Pelos. This boded quite well for the House of Jade (and the House of the Stag as well, I supposed), and I was delighted for my father and for Garrus. I also learned that Sara of the Sun was expecting her third child, and rather far along in her pregnancy. She was the closest thing I had to a friend and I was quite happy for her when I heard the news.
Liam made an effort to share either breakfast or lunch with me every day during this period. It was during a lunch two weeks after I lost the child he announced that it had been decided I was well enough to venture outside of the estate once more.
"Cantos of Obsidian is throwing a small ball tomorrow evening in order to introduce his daughter to the nobility," he told me. "You will be joining me. It will be a good chance to reassure everyone that you are quite well, and perhaps it will revive your spirits a bit as well."
I had my doubts about that. I had only enjoyed the previous balls that we had attended so much because they were a good opportunity to spend time with Liam, when I had still held hope that we might become something meaningful to each other. I thought it unlikely that such would be the case at tomorrow night's ball. If Kara was there, I suspected I was unlikely to see Liam at all. Still, he was right, it was high time I reappeared in society. Unfortunately, despite my new resolve to assert myself more, social events were an area where I knew I was unlikely to win out if I refused to attend. I felt well enough though, and there was a chance I might see my father there.
"I hope so, my lord," I told him. He smiled slightly, reassured. Who knew? Perhaps I would enjoy myself after all.
Early the next evening I viewed my reflection in the mirror that Liam had given me as a wedding present. Roslyn had commissioned a new gown for me for the event. Her seamstress was not Louise, but it was still a beautiful item of clothing. A deep blue silk with a full skirt that fell almost to the ground. Instead of stiffened underskirts, I wore a simple slip underneath, so the folds of the skirt flowed together deceptively close to my body. I gave an experimental spin and grinned in appreciation as the skirt flared out about me. I would have to be careful not to spin too quickly or the entire party would get a good glimpse of my legs! I giggled at the thought of the "scandal" that might stir. It seemed I was looking forward to the party more than I had believed. In deference to the summer heat, my shoulders were bare, but wide sleeves fell all the way to the tips of my fingers, hiding my wrists. There was almost no scarring on them anymore, and Doctor Carson assured me that what was there would soon fade, but I tended to keep my wrists covered these days and Roslyn had taken that into account when ordering my dress. A belt of wide silver links, long so that two chains hung down from my waist where it was hooked together by a leaping silver stag, completed the outfit. I pinned back some of my hair to keep it out of my face but left most of it down. I decided to finish my look with the jewelry I had worn on my wedding night. The star sapphires gleamed softly in the light that streamed through my window.
The carriage ride to the House of Obsidian was brief, it was not far from the House of the Stag. I spent most of the ride gazing out the window, soaking up the scenery I had not seen in so long. Roslyn told me a little bit about Cantos' daughter as we rode.
"Beryl is fourteen as of the last moon," she told me, "and I believe Cantos means to have her married before the next summer solstice."
"That seems..." I faltered for a word and then came up with, "ambitious." Certainly it was standard practice to debut young girls at around thirteen or fourteen cycles so that they could begin making the acquaintances and contacts that would lead them to an appropriate match for husband, but it was generally a process that took a few cycles to come to fruition.
"Yes well, I fear he is concerned that without intervention she is unlikely to seek out a match on her own," Roslyn answered, glancing out the window of the carriage. Studiously avoiding my own gaze, I was certain. Her tone was light, but the scenario had something of a familiar ring to it. Liam, slouched elegantly beside me, let out a soft snort of agreement at the assessment. "I haven't even met the girl," Roslyn continued, "and I've been friends with Cantos for years. She is quite shy, I'm told, and rather bookish." Yes, very familiar indeed.
"Cantos thinks if he throws enough parties over the next cycle and parades the girl around to all of the eligible bachelors, enough of them are bound to show an interest that she can have her pick of the match she finds least off--putting." Liam added. I looked at him curiously, noting that he seemed more amused by the situation than anything else. Roslyn nodded at his comment and I could tell she was of the same mind.
Every once in a while I was reminded that as different as mother and son seemed in most things, they certainly shared the same shrewd intellect, especially when it came to assessing the nobility of Pelos. Roslyn just had a better sense of control. Perhaps it was something Liam would learn in time? I pondered this for a moment and then my thoughts drifted to Beryl of Cantos. I wondered how much say she had on the whole subject of her marriage. Bookish and shy did not automatically equal doormat, no matter what my husband might seem to think.
"You know," Liam piped up after a moment, "Cantos is probably right. Marriage into Obsidian is likely to come with many advantages. I can think of a few men who are likely to be tempted."
"As can I, my dear," Roslyn replied, the small cynical smile on her face at war with her light and airy tone. "Let's just hope Beryl finds at least one of them interesting, for her sake." Liam snorted softly again and I casually turned my face away from him and towards the window, hoping he would not see the flash of annoyance in my eyes. I do not think he noticed but I caught Roslyn's eyes as I turned and I knew she had. She shook her head slightly, indicating I should dismiss Liam's attitude. She turned the conversation to the people she was looking forward to seeing at the party and the rest of the ride passed in a more pleasant manner.
As soon as we arrived, a noble I could not name rushed up and struck up an animated conversation with Liam, pulling him toward the entrance to the manor. Liam looked back, chagrined, but Roslyn just waved at him to continue, and another man stepped up to help us down from the carriage. I was surprised to realize it was one of my guards. I shouldn't have been surprised of course. I wondered if it was Liam or Roslyn who had decided that I should have a shadow here as well. It could have either been paranoia because I had been taken from such an event or it could have been an attempt to make me feel a little bit more secure on my first venture back out in public. Perhaps it was a mixture of both, although it only solidified my suspicions that Liam did not plan to stick by my side this evening. I received a second shock once he had helped me down.
"You look lovely tonight, my lady," he said very quietly once my feet touched the ground, "it is good to see you smile again." I froze in place, looking at him with round eyes. I recognized that voice. He was the man who had brought me home from the warehouse. A frown creased his face momentarily. "Are you alright, my lady?" My face flamed with embarrassment. All this time, I had not realized who he was. He had seen me at my most vulnerable, and now he was my constant shadow.
"Laren, dear, is everything alright?" Roslyn had reached the steps and realized I was not with her. "Ballard, is something wrong?" The man I had thought of as my rescuer turned to Roslyn. Ballard, his name was Ballard. I shook myself and turned to Roslyn as well.
"I am fine. Forgive me, I was overwhelmed for a moment." That was certainly true enough, though I knew she would believe I meant I had been overwhelmed by the prospect of the party.
"Well come along then, people are anxious to see you, my dear."
"Of course." I cast a quick glance at Ballard. He was looking at me with an air of confusion but offered a reassuring smile. I nodded at him and turned, holding up my skirt to hasten after Roslyn. Ballard fell in quietly behind us. I imagined I could feel him watching me. My mind was awhirl. It made some sense that he would be assigned as one of my guards. Roslyn had kept the details of my abduction and consequent "illness" a secret even from the household. Ballard was one of a very few who knew anything resembling the truth of what had happened. He was clearly well trusted by the family, and loyal. I followed Roslyn into the party, doing my best to put him out of my mind.
I must say, it was one of the strangest parties I had ever attended. In an attempt to introduce Beryl to as many potential suitors (or men who might be willing to make introductions on her behalf), couples were strongly discouraged from dancing with the same partner for more than a song or two at a time. This actually suited me quite well, however, because it allowed me a chance to dance with my father shortly after arriving. He embraced me fiercely when I met him and inquired closely about my health. I gave him the official story, that I had been overtaken by a very bad cold that left lingering coughs and headaches, and reassured him that I was feeling fully recovered now. In a less public venue I might have told him the truth of things, but perhaps not. I had no desire to cause him worry when it was over and done with, especially not now that things were starting to look so promising for Jade once more.
"I am glad to hear you are in better health my dear," he told me as we finished our dance. "I have missed you greatly. It would please your mother and I if you would join us for dinner one evening soon." I glanced over at Mother, who was tapping her foot impatiently, waiting to be able to dance with Father again. She didn't seem disturbed in the least that I had disappeared from society for over three moons. I fought back a smile at Father's ever-present optimism that Mother and I might one day grow to actually like one another. I promised I would visit soon and he hurried back to her side. Garrus stepped up beside me to ask for the next dance.
I had initially worried that Ballard might stand out among the crowd as he followed me throughout the party, but that particular worry proved to be unfounded. For one thing, he wore the traditional attire of a manservant rather than his uniform of the House guard. Glancing around, I realized that many such servants waited about the edge of the dance floor, ready to do their masters' bidding the moment they were needed. It was actually quite common among the nobles to bring a personal servant or maid to such functions, the thought just hadn't occurred to me until I gave the matter any consideration because neither my parents nor Roslyn were in the habit of doing so. Ballard was also quite skilled at remaining inconspicuous, it turned out. If he could conceivably find a shadow or unobtrusive place to stand while keeping me in eyesight, he did so. He blended in quite well. As I danced it became something of a game for me to realize that Ballard had "disappeared" and to scan the crowds until I located him. Each time I managed to do so, I would catch his eye and he would reward me with a small smile and bow of his head.
One of my worries that sadly did prove to have merit was that of Liam's inattention, or more accurately, the source of his distraction. He caught up with me shortly after Roslyn and I were announced by the page and dutifully danced with me for the first two songs. He then excused himself under the premise of honoring Cantos' wishes and I hardly saw him for the rest of the night. To his credit, he did not make a beeline straight for Kara as soon as he left my side. He honored Beryl with a dance, and then his mother, before moving on to his true goal. At the very least Cantos' decree would prevent him from embarrassing the House (or me) too much by spending his entire evening dancing with her. I had no doubt he would avail himself of as many dances with her as he could get away with, though. I was surprised to find that I didn't even have it in me to be irritated at him, let alone angry. Likely this was in part due to the fact that I spied Roslyn watching him during his first dance with Kara and the look on her face was decidedly disapproving. She was aware of the situation, and I knew she would do what she had to in order to keep her son in hand.
In keeping with the uncommonness of the evening, there was no formal dinner. Instead, a swarm of servants prowled the edges of the dance floor, several sitting rooms that had been opened up, and the balcony with trays of food and beverages. The food consisted of puffs, tarts, savories, and things along that line. Small pieces that could be eaten in a single circumspect bite with little to no muss. It hardly constituted a full meal, but a bite or two in between dances was surprisingly effective at buoying my energy and satisfying any immediate hunger. I suspected that this scheme was because Cantos intended to keep everyone dancing and talking as much as possible throughout the evening, giving his daughter the chance to meet as many people as she possibly might. I had no complaints once I had adjusted to the manner of the evening's "meal." I was quite grateful that it meant I would not have to try to navigate my dinner with the wide sleeves of my dress. Quite effective for covering up my still healing wrists, less so for keeping out of the soup. For drink, the servants circulated with trays of chilled juices and light wines. There was even a strong black tea that had been honeyed and chilled and then poured over ice, which I found absolutely delightful. Apparently it was all the rage in Dumais. I hoped that its inclusion at the party would have it circulating through Pelos soon enough as well.
I acquitted myself well throughout the evening, speaking with several people and receiving many surprisingly heartfelt expressions of relief at the obvious recovery from my "illness." I had hoped without really believing that Sara would be in attendance, but due to her pregnancy she was not doing much in the way of socializing this season and had opted to stay home. She had never really cared much for the big parties and events. I suspected that being with child was a rather convenient excuse for her to sit them out. While happy for her, I had not seen her since before my abduction. Though I doubt I would have told her the truth of the matter, I was nonetheless disappointed not to have a chance to catch up with her.
Eventually my energy began to flag, and having no desire for any more party discourse, I avoided the sitting rooms and made my way instead to the ballroom's balcony, snagging a glass of the iced tea from a passing servant's tray. I made sure to stay well within the circle of lamplight despite the fact that the sun had not yet fully set. Still, I found myself much reassured when I saw Ballard slip quietly into the nearest corner of the balcony. He nodded to me once more and I offered him a thankful smile before turning my gaze back to the scenic view before me. The House of Obsidian's estate was situated right along the edge of Peregrine Lake. An extremely elegant flower garden gave way to the well-manicured lawn which in turn led down to the lake's edge. I could see a small boathouse and dock. Beyond that, in the distance, I had a clear sightline to House Prima, resting majestically on its island, watching over all of Pelos. I am unsure how long I leaned against the railing, staring out at the heart of Pelos. The sun had set before a voice interrupted my reverie.
"Ah, my lady," the familiar voice said behind me. I turned slowly, unsurprised to find Sebastian and Nathaniel. A beaming young woman stood arm-in-arm with Nathaniel. "We had hoped we might see you here tonight," Sebastian continued. "We had hoped the rumors that you were well once more to be truth."
"Hello, my lords, my lady." I said. The young woman looked familiar, although I could not recall her name.
"We are quite glad to see you out and about again, truly." Nathaniel joined in. Something seemed different about them from the last time we had met. It was an agreeable change. They seemed more relaxed and open, less furtive. I wondered if it was because I now knew what their true intentions toward me had been, lessening the tension between all of us. In any event, I found myself quite glad to see them. I glanced at the young woman again and Nathaniel, noticing, straightened. "Might I introduce you to my wife, my lady? Laren of the Stag, this is Madge of Blades." He beamed a smile that almost put his wife's to shame and I could not help but return it.
"Married! Congratulations, I had not heard!" News of the House of Blades was unlikely to have reached me while ensconced so firmly in the House of the Stag, of course.
"One moon ago, my lady," Madge said shyly. Given her name, I was finally able to place her in my memory. She had formerly been Madge of the Bull, and I had spoken with her a few times at the social clubs. I remembered the conversation about knitting we had with Sara not long after my marriage. She had been extremely shy but always very friendly to me. I suppose most people might have thought her plain, her demure manner keeping her from making much of an impression. But I thought her radiant smiles transformed her into an absolute beauty. She and Nathaniel were both obviously quite pleased with the match. Even as I felt a pang of jealousy that I could not have what they did, I found myself very happy for them.
"Please, call me Laren," I told her, though I looked at each brother to include them in the request. Despite the loyalty I owed Liam as his wife, I found I rather liked these men. Perhaps it was only a subconscious desire to irritate Liam, but in that moment I decided to be their friend, if they would have me as such. Sebastian, at least, must have seen something of the decision in my eyes, because he shot me a mirthful grin.
"I will, Laren," Madge assured me with a pleased smile of her own. "I wonder if...no, I am being silly..."
"What is it, my love?" Nathaniel asked her. I cocked my head to the side, inviting her to go on.
"Well, your father has been saying that I should begin hosting my own events now that I am the lady of the House. I thought it might be wise to start small though. I am not at my best in large crowds, you see," she said shyly to me.
"Nor am I, truly," I admitted. "They can be a bit overwhelming, I find."
"Exactly!" She agreed. "I would be honored if you might join me for tea some time, my lady. Laren, I mean." She blushed and bowed her head. I felt a wave of affection for her wash over me. It had taken over a cycle, but I suspected I might have at last found that kindred spirit I had been searching for. Of course, there was only one problem...
"I am not so sure that would be the best idea, dearest sister," Sebastian chipped in gently. "Laren's husband doesn't much care for Nathaniel or myself, I fear. He might not approve of her visiting the House of Blades." Madge's face fell. I flicked my eyes toward Ballard in his corner. Night had fallen now and he was well and truly hidden in the shadows. I wondered what he might make of the conversation. Was he tasked with reporting on my activities to Liam or to Roslyn, I wondered? I realized the time had come for my first test of the boundaries within which I might make my own choices.
"I fear Sebastian is correct about my husband, Madge, but I have no quarrel with the House of Blades." I reached out and took her free hand, squeezing it gently. "I would be honored to be your guest at tea. You need but issue the invitation and I will do everything in my power to attend you." Sebastian blinked, surprised, before grinning at me once more. Nathaniel gave me a warm smile as well, and Madge squeezed my hand in return.
"Thank you!" She exclaimed, "I shall look forward to it!"
"As shall I," I replied. The starting strands of a new song drifted to us from the ballroom and Madge turned in that direction.
"Husband dear, I am quite fond of this tune," she said to Nathaniel. "Might we dance some more?"
"Of course, my love," he told her. They turned to me and bowed, excusing themselves and making for the dance floor. I watched them go with a sad smile and it was a few moments before I realized that Sebastian had remained behind.
"That was very kindly done, Laren," he told me. "I believe that Madge rather took to you after your meetings in the clubs last cycle. When we heard you were ill, she was quite distressed. She is so shy, I am amazed that she ever managed to attract Nathaniel's attention." He glanced after the two of them and then turned back to me. "They are a good match, though."
"Yes, I think they are," I agreed.
"So, you've decided you will risk dear Liam's ire to associate with us now?" I was momentarily caught off guard by the blunt question. Again, I thought of Ballard in the shadows. Was he close enough to hear our conversation? Did he know of Liam's past with the twins? I wasn't sure it even mattered anymore. Still, it would not hurt to be careful with my answer.
"As I said, Liam's quarrel with you is not mine, Sebastian. I believe that you and your brother have been honest with me about what is between the three of you. I almost wish I did not." He nodded at that. "I appreciate your honesty, and it is not Liam's place to say with whom I may or may not be friends. I will remind you, however," I raised an eyebrow at him, "that I have limits. I will not do anything to harm his reputation or that of the House of the Stag." As an afterthought I added, "Or mine, I suppose."
"Your own reputation is of least concern to you?" He seemed surprised.
"I am at peace with who I am, Sebastian," I answered. "I know the extent of my own honor, and the strength of my loyalty." He was quiet for a few moments, pondering my words.
"My lady, I do not believe I have ever met another woman quite like you," he told me at last.
"Yes, I suppose I am something of an oddity." He laughed at that. It was warm and honest and friendly, with no trace of the seduction that had imbued it at our last encounter. I liked that laugh a rather lot.
"A welcome one, though, I assure you!" He grew somber again. "I truly am glad to see you well, and to see that you appear happy, Laren. When you disappeared after our last discussion, I must admit, I worried that perhaps..."
"I promise you, our last discussion had nothing to do with my...withdrawal from society. It has never come up, truth be told." He relaxed visibly. Had he been worried that Liam had found out about their offer and harmed me in a fit of rage? Or that out of jealousy he had locked me away from everyone's sight until I knew my place? I did not truly think either was in Liam's nature.
We stood together at the railing for a while longer, enjoying a companionable silence. We were each lost in our own thoughts. My mind wandered back to Ballard and I glanced his way involuntarily. I could see only his barest outline and could not make out any expression on his face. I wondered what he might be thinking of my actions. I did not like to imagine him thinking badly of me, I realized, even if he was there to report on me to Roslyn or Liam.
"I suppose it won't do for us to be too long on the balcony by ourselves, will it?" Sebastian said suddenly, interrupting my chain of thoughts. We were hardly alone, there were several other people about, though they were gathered in their own groups, each spread out as much as the space allowed. "Might it fall within your limitations to dance with me, Laren?"
"At a party where we are encouraged to dance with as many partners as possible?" I asked him, laughing. "I can't imagine why not!" He offered me his arm and led me back into the ballroom. As we took up our positions on the dance floor, I saw Ballard slip back inside and take up his post along the wall. Sebastian noticed him as well and frowned.
"You have a guard?" He seemed to have seen right through Ballard's "disguise." I had to admit, for anyone paying close enough attention, the man held himself much more like a soldier than a servant. "He was on the balcony the entire time?"
"A necessary precaution, I fear." Sebastian looked at me in concern. I tried to allay his fears as best I could. "As I told you," I said quietly, "Our last discussion truly had nothing to do with my withdrawal, but it was not so simple as a lingering illness. I am fine, truly I am, but with this my first venture back into society, Roslyn simply wanted to make sure that there were no complications."
"You are in danger?" I sighed in frustration. I could hardly tell him the whole story here, but he clearly was not satisfied with what I had told him so far. I began to worry that his stormy expression would attract attention. His next question almost made me miss my steps. "Is this Liam's doing?" he demanded. A piece of the puzzle fell into place. It seemed that while he no longer intended to try to steal me away from Liam, his focus had shifted to keeping me safe from him. I was mildly offended at his presumption, although I was touched by it as well. I believed I understood the drive behind it.
"No." I told him firmly. "If I have the opportunity, Sebastian, I will explain to you what actually happened. But now is neither the time nor place. I promise you it was not Liam's doing, or his fault. I am also certain that the danger has passed. As I said, this is just a precaution. Now please," I implored him, "for the Ancestors' sake at least try to look like you are enjoying yourself. Dancing together is one thing, having a serious quarrel on the dance floor another, my friend." He gave me a hard look and then nodded briefly.
"Very well, I must trust you in this. After all this time, Roslyn, at least, would not have let you attend if she did not think you safe." He spun me in a circle and when I faced him once more his face had been restored to its usual pleasant expression. "Besides, you are right, it would be silly of me to waste this opportunity to enjoy dancing with such a lovely woman." I rolled my eyes at him, but soon found my smile matching his own.
We danced for the next song as well and then I was surprised to find the band setting down their instruments. Had the evening flown by so quickly? Sebastian bowed his head before returning to his family and I sought out my own. I did not see Liam (a quick scan of the room revealed Kara to be also absent and I shook my head my head slightly in exasperation) but Roslyn was chatting with Cantos and Beryl and I moved to join them.
"Ah, Laren, there you are!" Roslyn greeted me. "You've been enjoying yourself, I see."
"I have!" I laughed, surprised at myself. Despite my annoyance with Liam, the evening overall had been quite pleasant. Turning to Cantos, I dropped my head in a quick bow and said, "This has been quite a lovely gathering my lord. Thank you so much for allowing us to share it with you."
"You're very welcome, child," he replied, grinning. Cantos was clearly quite pleased with how the evening had turned out himself, and really he had every reason to be. "May I just say how wonderful it is to see you out and about again, and in such fine spirits as well? Prolonged illnesses can so often sour a person's entire disposition." He made a small noise of distaste and puckered his lips in a brief grimace but then smiled once more, clearly putting the unpleasant thought out of his mind. "At any rate, I am very pleased at the admirable recovery you have made."
"I...thank you, my lord." I did not want to dwell on the topic either so I found a new one. "I must tell you, this tea you have been serving is quite delicious! I do hope that it will be a common offering at this season's events." He chuckled and nodded with a knowing smile. I glanced over at Beryl, who had gone quiet upon my joining the group. "This really has been a fine party Beryl," I said to her with a gentle smile. "I do hope you enjoyed yourself as much as I."
"Oh!" She did not quite squeak, but it was a close thing. "Yes, my lady! I danced with ever so many people, and really it was all quite amazing. All of these people here to meet me? Who would have thought it?"
"I don't know who wouldn't have, my dear," Roslyn said kindly. "You are shaping up to be even more lovely than your dear mother. You will find yourself most welcome in any circle you choose to join." The girl looked at Roslyn in wide-eyed delight. I remembered that her mother had passed away a few cycles ago. Beryl seemed quite taken with the compliment.
"I was planning a visit to the club on Lakeside Boulevard next week, Beryl," I chimed in. "Many of the ladies here are frequent patrons. Perhaps you would care to join me?" Roslyn nodded in approval and Cantos beamed at me. Beryl agreed happily and we made rough plans for the outing, to be firmed up by messenger when the day drew closer. Our group chatted for a few moments more before Cantos and Beryl were drawn away to make their goodbyes to parting guests.
"That was very well done Laren," Roslyn told me as we made our way out of the ballroom. Even after everything that had happened, I couldn't suppress the wave of happiness that I felt at the approval in her voice.
We met Liam in the entry hall and Roslyn shot him an annoyed look. I was quite proud that I managed to keep my own expression neutral. He ignored his mother, as well as anyone could ignore Roslyn of the Stag, and took my arm. I was surprised to find he gripped it with rather more force than was usual. He was pleasant enough on the ride home, but when we arrived back at the manor he left the carriage first and strode inside without a backward glance, leaving Roslyn and I to look at each other in bewilderment.
"Well." She said after a moment. "Ballard," she called out. His head appeared in the doorway, "would you be so kind as to help Laren and I down from the carriage. It seems my son has left his manners at the House of Obsidian this evening." Her tone was calm and friendly, but I could see a glint in her eyes and suspected Liam had a very unpleasant conversation ahead of him in the morning. A small part of me reveled in imagining it. Ballard helped us down and we, too, made our way inside. He gave me a small smile and bowed his head before turning toward the east wing.
When I reached my rooms, Liam was waiting for me, pacing in the sitting room. I stopped inside the doorway, unsure for a moment. Surely he did not expect to resume intimacy tonight? Doctor Carson had declared I must wait another two weeks before engaging in that particular activity again. I closed the door behind myself and moved to sit down in one of my chairs, waiting for him to speak.
"I thought we had an understanding." He hissed at last, coming to a halt and whirling to face me.
"Keras informed me that your partner for the final two dances of the evening was Sebastian of Blades," he resumed his pacing, "he also said that before those dances you were alone on the balcony with Sebastian for quite some time." Ah. Well, that explains much. Liam stopped pacing once more and moved closer. "Well? What do you have to say for yourself, Laren?" My eyebrows shot up in indignation. He actually had the gall to demand an explanation from me? Where had he and Kara been that he had needed Keras to tell him with whom I danced?
"I was hardly alone on the balcony with anyone, my lord," I stated. I was no longer surprised that Sebastian had been worried about Liam harming me. I still believed myself safe, but his fury was clear and it would be a lie to say I was not a little bit frightened. Still, I had known there would be consequences, and I had made my decision regardless. "When I began to tire from the dancing, I sought a few quiet moments on the balcony by myself, that is true, though as you are well aware, I was under the ever-watchful gaze of my guard." Liam looked momentarily confused at that. It had been Roslyn then, who had set Ballard to keep an eye on me.
"Nathaniel and Sebastian found me on the balcony," I continued, "to introduce me to Nathaniel's new wife. She and I had met before and she hoped to strike up a friendship with me."
"You did not turn her down, I take it?" He had folded his arms across his chest and was frowning at me now.
"No, I did not. I will have no part in your quarrel with the twins, Liam," I said calmly. "I find Madge of Blades to be a lovely girl and I wish to pursue the friendship. I do not believe it shames the Stag to do so."
"And the rest of it?" he insisted, obviously displeased.
"Nathaniel and Madge returned to the dancing and Sebastian remained behind to speak with me. We were in full view of many others, not to mention my guard. You should have no trouble confirming that nothing inappropriate occurred. I assure you that nothing inappropriate will occur. I give you my word on that, husband."
"You danced with him! With Sebastian of all people!"
"Yes, at a party where we were encouraged to dance with as many people as possible. He asked, and having no other partner available," I gave Liam a pointed look, "I accepted." He fumed and seemed about to speak again but I forestalled him. "I do not begrudge you your choice of companionship at these events, Liam, although I could wish you might be a little more discreet," his eyes widened and he seemed taken aback. Did he really think I had not noticed? "But I will thank you for the same courtesy. I promise you that I will uphold the Stag's good name." We looked at each other for a long time in silence. I could see the thoughts racing behind his eyes, and several times he opened his mouth to speak only to close it before saying anything.
"You are not the woman I thought you were," he said at last.
"No, I suppose I am not," I answered. "I suppose we shall both have to find our peace with that fact. I am, however, your wife, and I will fulfill my duties as such."
"Very well, then." He left, then, not even bothering to shut the door behind him. I got up and closed it, then after a moment locked it as well. It had been a tiring evening.