It was his wedding day.
Edmund had gotten up at five, too excited to sleep. Now, he was so nervous he couldn’t tie his own tie.
“You’re useless,” Rafe laughed, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “You take this,” he added, handing him a silver flask, “and let me do it.” As he began struggling with the silk, he said,
“Besides. You’re not supposed to be nervous until tonight, remember? Now, if you need any pointers—”
“Oh, for the love…” Edmund groaned.
“Never mind him,” Stephen said, coming in with a bottle of champagne. “He’s just salty because he knows he’s next.”
“That’s true,” Edmund said. Rafe had been “friendly” with Charlotte’s ward, Amelia, for some time now, and Edmund and Charlotte both hoped it would turn into more. “You’d better hurry, though. Charlotte is still her guardian for another two years, and if you’re going to get her consent you’d better do it before she gets to know you any better.”
Rafe quirked a strange little smile as he finished the knot. “How about next week then?”
Edmund laughed and embraced his brother, while Stephen said, “Doubly good I grabbed this then.” As he popped the bottle, Edmund asked, “Where’s Casmin? He should be celebrating with us.”
Stephen frowned. “My history professor? Why on earth would he be here?”
Edmund frowned. “I… I have no idea…”
“Nerves have gone to your brain,” Stephen said, laughing. He filled three glasses, and they toasted, and then…
It was after the wedding, and they were back at Charlotte’s for the breakfast. It had all been such a blur, he found he couldn’t remember any of the ceremony itself. It troubled him for a moment, but he was surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers and he had a dozen hands to shake. But it seemed to go on, and on, and there was a great press of people around him. The claustrophobia became overwhelming, and he looked around for his brothers, or Charlotte, or, for that matter, any familiar face at all. He began pushing his way through the crowd, searching for his wife. It was like walking through molasses, that horrible nightmare where no matter how fast you run you can make no headway.
His heart began to pound, and just when he thought he would lose control the crowd parted. He saw her then. Her back was to him, talking to one of her bridesmaids. Her dress was immaculate, yard upon yard of white satin, encrusted with pearls from below her breast to below the waistline and trailing for six full feet behind her. She had taken off her veil, and her fair hair was piled on top of her head in a cascade of ringlets. Seeing her, the anxiety fell away, and he stood for a moment simply looking at her.
As if she felt his gaze, she turned then, and smiled at him. The morning sun was streaming through the window, and she was bathed in golden light. More than that, she was lit from within, radiant with the joy that he himself felt. This was the day they had looked forward to, planned for months. Everything was perfect down to the last detail, but far more than that, she was his, as he was now hers, and the future stretched before them, limitless. The light grew brighter and brighter, until he was almost blinded…
It was three in the morning. The fire in his room had long gone out, and the chill had set into the air and into the bedding around him. It was a brutally cruel awakening that left him stunned and gasping for breath. The shock of it was so intense that it was like a great stone dropped into a shallow pool, driving everything before it. But even that small grace could not last. The crashing wave of pain rushed back into the void before he could brace himself, and took him down with it. He rolled over onto his side, curling around himself, pulled the pillow to his face, and sobbed. He wept as small children do, giving his whole body over to it. His frame shook with the force of it, his fists clenched, and his stomach roiled as his grief battered against him again and again.
And then, finally exhausted and overwhelmed, he sank down into a deep and dreamless sleep. When he woke again, it was slowly, and gently, and like the breaking of a fever. His room was bathed in light, and he realized he had slept well past nine. This was shortly followed by the realization that he was absolutely famished. He sent an order down to the kitchen, hoping they couldn’t butcher steak and eggs, and dressed slowly.
Willamina found him in the dining room half an hour later. Walking past, she froze, turned and came back, and said, “Are you feeding a small army in here?”
Edmund laughed. “My eyes were bigger than my stomach. Help me eat some of this, please.”
She grabbed a small plate and sat down across from him. “If you insist.” She grinned as she bit into a sausage.
“You’re not wearing your gloves anymore,” he said.
“No,” she said, stretching her left hand. “The duke said it would scar, but it’s almost completely healed up now.” She smiled a little. “It must be wonderful to be so…”
“Powerful?” Edmund suggested.
“Useful,” Willamina replied, and there was something plaintive in her voice he had not expected.
He felt a sudden pang at that, and remembered how he had ended up teaching her Greek. It was shortly after their father had died, and he had sat down with Willamina’s tutor to discuss her education. He had believed her more than capable of the subject, and thought she would enjoy it. The idiot had refused, and they had argued, and by the time the fool had uttered the phrase “intellectual promiscuity” he had decided to sack him and oversee the affair himself. She had a sharp mind, and he didn’t want to see it wasted. For that matter, he didn’t want her turned into another pretty piece of parlor decoration, refined, polished and utterly… useless.
He was not often a fool. But when he was, he told himself, he did quite the thorough job of it.
“In any case,” she was saying, “it’s a good thing, too. It would have been awkward to explain. I told Thomas I scalded it in the kitchen, and he was almost as scandalized at that prospect as he would have been at the truth if he’d heard it.”
He laughed, and they moved on to safer topics while he finished eating. After breakfast he retired to his study until noon, when he heard Casmin arrive. He went out into the hallway to greet the professor. “Are you here for Stephen?”
“Yes, if he’s not otherwise occupied.”
“I don’t believe so,” Edmund said, “but can I have a word first?”
“Of course,” Casmin said. He frowned slightly.
They went back into the study, and after he had closed the door Edmund stood awkwardly for a moment, feeling at his waistcoat as though her were searching for his watch.
“Is everything all right?” Casmin asked.
“For the moment, yes,” Edmund said. “I just wanted to ask your advice. It’s about my sister.”
Casmin frowned. “I’m not sure I’m in any position to…”
“No, this is as regards your, ah, particular area of expertise.” Edmund leaned back against his desk, chewing his lower lip as he searched for the right words. “Do you think I’ve been too stubborn about her… education?”
Casmin hesitated only briefly before answering, “Yes.” A sly smile spread across his face as he sat down in one of the chairs facing the desk. “But I’m not sure you should stop.” He then briefly laid out the plan he’d concocted over the ten days that had passed since Stian left London.
Edmund listened with growing skepticism. “Do you really think it will work?”
“Surely you noticed,” Casmin said.
“Of course I noticed,” Edmund scoffed.
“Well, subtlety was never his strong suit,” said Casmin.
“I just never considered it a possibility, given the difference in their station,” said Edmund.
“Believe me, that’s not a problem.” At Edmund’s incredulous look, Casmin said, “The Mogens have never cared about status, at least not the way you mean it. They care about power. And if her potential is anything near her brother’s, which I think we can safely assume at this point, no one will raise any objection. Hell, family legend has it one of his ancestors married one of the chamber maids after she got startled and turned into—”
Edmund shuddered. “Yes, I get the idea.”
“And even if that weren’t the case, at this point they’re getting desperate,” said Casmin. “Josef — his maternal uncle and official majordomo — has bungled the whole affair, and they’re starting to panic.”
“Nevertheless,” Edmund said, “you’re asking me to tacitly participate in a conspiracy against myself in my own house?”
Cqsmin waved a dismissive hand while he fished for a cigarette in his jacket pocke. “More like turn a blind eye and pretend to be a good bit more dense than you actually are. Let them think they’re getting away with something. Don’t pretend you won’t enjoy it.”
Edmund couldn’t help but grin. “There is that. Still, it’s… not what I had envisioned for her.”
Casmin sighed. “Edmund, you know that would have ground life right out of her. Being the next Lady Hughes might have been safe,” although he very much doubted that, “but she would have been absolutely miserable.” After a brief pause, he continued in a soft voice. “I’ve known him since he was a boy. I think… I know they would make each other very happy. I think we both know how rare a thing that is.”
Faced with this argument, what further objection could he raise?