When they reached the train station, Rebecca had insisted on riding with Rafe and Edmund, since “When do I ever get the chance to sit and talk to either of you for more than ten minutes at a stretch?” This of course left Willamina and Stephen riding with Stian and Casmin, and if this was by design, Rebecca gave absolutely no indication of it. Stephen and Casmin passed the first part of the journey discussing Stephen’s schedule for the coming semester, but much to the Professor’s surprise, Stian had promptly stuck his nose in a book and not come out since the train had left the station.
“I think we’re boring our companions, Stephen,” he said, smiling at Willamina.
“Oh, that’s all right,” Willamina said. “What are you reading, your Grace?”
“Stian,” he said, not looking up.
“Call me Stian.”
She waited a long minute, before saying, “So what are you reading, Stian?”
He blushed. “Seneca.” Then he added as an afterthought, “The younger.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I like it,” he said defensively. “It’s calming.”
“Not everyone enjoys ancient philosophy, Stian,” Casmin said, grinning.
“It’s not that,” Willamina said, a bit offended. “I just prefer Aurelius. Same philosophy without the pretension.”
“What translation do you use?” Stian asked her.
Stephen hid his grin under his hand.
“Seeing as his Greek is fairly straightforward, my own, thank you very much.”
Stian blushed. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed…”
“My brother taught me. When I was fourteen, I’d have you know.”
“I said I was…”
“Yes, I’m the only girl, but it’s not like I was absent the day they handed out the brains in the family.”
Stephen couldn’t contain his laughter any longer, which attracted Willamina’s ire. “You think this is funny?”
“I think your temper is funny, yes. And don’t take it so personally, Wils. Half the first years are just starting Greek, and they’re your age.”
“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I’m on edge.”
“I thought you’d be thrilled to spend time with Veronica,” Stephen said.
“With her, yes,” said Willamina. “But this is… one long Event, isn’t it, with Lady Hughes and two more of her friends, and Edmund and mother watching me like a hawk every minute, and god help me if I speak to one of the single men, because the next thing you know there’s hinting and significant looks and I’m sitting there fighting the impulse to scream obscenities just to break the tension.” She broke off, panting, and Stephen laughed again, and threw an arm around her shoulder.
Stian, however, looked at her seriously and said, “I know exactly what you mean.” She smiled a little at that, and he asked, “How’s your hand doing?”
“May I see?”
She took off her glove, and held her hand out for inspection. Where she had been burned the skin was pink and new, if still thin and stretched looking.
“Well done, Stian,” Casmin said.
Stian took her hand and looked at it, gingerly touching the new skin. “Not all my doing, I think.”
Willamina blushed and sat back, pulling her glove back on. “So you’re a magician?” she asked Stian, changing the subject.
“No,” he said.
“Andre is a magician. Stephen most likely will be as well, based on his talents. I’m… something else.”
“Shaman is as good a word as any,” Casmin suggested.
Stian shook his head. “No, it’s not. It’s not accurate, for one thing. And I’m not Sami. And…”
Casmin rolled his eyes. “Nobody else would even understand your objections.”
“That’s not an excuse to encourage ignorance,” said Stian.
“What’s the difference?” Willamian asked.
“Anyone can be a magician,” Stian answered, grinning.
Casmin rolled his eyes. “Yes, anyone. That’s why there are so many of us. You’re an ass.” To Willamina he said, “What he means is that in order to be a shaman you have to be born with certain, well , affinities.”
Stian squirmed. “It’s complicated.”
“Oh, it’s really not,” Casmin grinned. “He talks to the dead.”
Willamina’s eyes widened. “You’re a necromancer?”
“No no no,” said Stian hastily. Then he thought for a moment and revised, “Well, yes, technically. It’s part of what I can do, but I don’t, if I can help it. It’s… not a good thing. And it’s not just the dead. You see…”
“Should we be telling her all of this?” Stephen said, suddenly looking nervous.
“Why shouldn’t you?” Willamina asked.
“Well, it’s just… I don’t think… Edmund wouldn’t like it.”
Willamina stuck out her chin. “Then let’s just not tell him, hmmm?”
When they arrived at the train station they found two carriages waiting. While the reunited party waited for their luggage to be transferred from the train, Edmund said, “Right. I want you to behave yourself this time.”
Rafe and Stian looked at each other. “Which one of us are you talking to?” Rafe asked.
Stian had hoped to blend in with the rest of the Greysons when he arrived and go straight up to his rooms. He had not, however, counted on Lady Hughes, who met them at the door as they entered.
“Your Grace,” she said. “I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter, Veronica…”
He looked around frantically, only to see Willamina headed up the stairs with her brothers. She looked back, smirked, and stuck her tongue out at him.
After dinner, the party retired to the drawing room. Lady Hughes was a woman of impeccable taste, and her husband had given her free reign with the decoration of the house. The drawing room managed to be both spacious and cozy: paneled in dark cherry and upholstered in red velvet and oxblood leather, a large fireplace occupied the north wall while the west was filled with bookshelves. Rebecca and Lady Hughes sat talking with Dr. Casmin near the fire, while Veronica, her brother, Thomas, Willamina and Stephen were clustered around a couch and set of chairs on the far end of the room.
Edmund, however, was standing at the windows, watching the night, a slight frown on his face and a crease in his forehead.
“It gets easier, you know,” Stian said when he found him there.
“Bearing the weight of it all.”
Edmund smiled a little.
“My father also died when I was twenty-five,” the duke continued, “But I was better prepared for what I was taking on, I think.”
After a moment of thought, Edmund said, “I used to be able to enjoy a night like this. Now I wonder what’s out there, in the darkness.”
“That gets easier as well,” Stian said. “Or, at least, you get more certain that you can manage whatever is out there.”
They were both silent a moment, and then Edmund said, “I know you think I’m being heavy handed as regards my sister.”
“I know you want to protect her,” Stian said carefully.
“She’s our exposed flank.”
Stian raised an eyebrow at that. “An… interesting analysis.”
“Stephen will be more than capable of looking after himself soon, if what Casmin says is true, and the only thing that I believe will ever be a significant threat to Rafe is Rafe himself. When Willamina marries, Mother will likely go with her, at least after a time.”
“You see her as a liability; I think she could be a significant asset to you.”
“How could I ask that of her? How could you, for that matter? No, it’s best that she be married and settled far away from all of this.”
It was then that Rafe joined them. “Gentlemen,” he said, grinning. “At least one of us is making good use of her time.” He gestured towards the twins with his head. “I had wondered why Wils and Veronica had grown so close lately.” Thomas Hughes had taken the chair to the left of the long couch on which Willamina was sitting, and while she was talking to both Veronica and Stephen, it was obvious to the outside observer that she held his undivided attention. “He hasn’t said anything to you, has he?”
“No,” Edmund said, shaking his head. “She could do worse,” he said, appraisingly.
“Or a fair bit better, if you ask me.”
“And yet no one did, Rafe.”
“I know it’s early, but I have a Christmas present for you,” Thomas was saying, grinning broadly.
“And nothing for your own sister?” Veronica asked, giggling.
“You wait your turn,” he fired back.
“A present? Is that entirely appropriate?” Willamina asked with mock seriousness. “There could be talk.” Her jesting concealed a legitimate prick of anxiety, which was releived when he drew his hand from his pocket and held out a fresh orange.
“I remembered how much you like them,” he said.
Willamina laughed and clapped her hands with delight before taking it. “Thank you, Thomas. That was really sweet.” She took off her gloves and began peeling the skin off the orange in long strips. “I think they’re my favorite part about Christmas, actually. Remember, Stephen, how we would always get one in our stockings?”
“You always got two,” her twin said. “You would take mine.”
“What happened to your hand, Wils?” Thomas frowned, and took her left hand, peering at it.
“Oh, I scalded it the other day. It’s nothing, really.” She took her hand back and divided the orange up, popping a section into her mouth. She closed her eyes and chewed blissfully for a moment before divvying up the rest of it among the foursome. The lion’s share she gave to Stephen, saying, “To make up for Christmases past.”
Sitting by the fire, Lady Hughes reached for an end table and opened a drawer. She drew out a small ivory fan. She opened it and began fanning herself, flushing. “Forgive me,” she said. “These last few months…” She looked at Rebecca and raised her eyebrows as if to say ‘If you don’t know what I mean yet you soon will.’ The other woman smiled sympathetically before saying, “I don’t believe it’s just you. It has grown incredibly warm in here.” She noticed that the fire had grown from a cheerful crackle to a low roar and looked at Casmin curiously.
Lady Hughes noticed it as well, and said, “I do hope there’s nothing wrong with the chimneys. We had them swept last week in anticipation of us all being here.”
Casmin took in the fire, then the tableau at the other end of the room. Still puzzled, he caught sight of Stian’s face.
Rising, he said, “I’ll see if I can track down one of the butlers.” Crossing over to the three men by the window he said, “Stian, can I borrow you for a moment?” Out in the hallway he said, “I thought you could use some air.”
“Why is that?” Stian asked, scowling.
“Because you can feed me that line about professional interest all you want, but the rest of us were about to burst into flame in there.
The color drained from Stian’s face, and was then replaced by a furious blush. “I… see. Yes.”
“Do you want to…” Casmin began, but Stian interrupted him.
“I think I’ll just go for a Walk.”
“Don’t go far.” They both smiled at the old joke. Casmin went back to the drawing room while Stian made his way upstairs.
He was, to say the least, deeply mortified. He hadn’t had a loss of control like that since, well, since he was a boy. He removed his coat and vest as he walked down the upstairs hallway, and tossed them in his room. He sat on the bed, resting his elbows on his knees and crossing his hands. After a moment’s thought, he came to a decision, stood, and walked to the door.
As he began to Open it, he wished for just a moment that he were possessed of the gift of self-delusion. It would have been nice to deny himself the truth.
He wasn’t used to wanting.
This would take time to get used to.