“She’s been asking for you,” the Duchess says, and her laughter is clear in her voice even if her mouth is hidden behind her lace fan. Even in her aging face, her eyes are as diamond-bright and hard as they’ve always been. The years have — perhaps — weakened her body, but only an idiot would challenge her directly, especially when she’s in this sort of mood. He presses a hand to his heart and bows from the waist, ignoring how it makes his head hurt: a single stabbing pain right through where his eye should be.
“This entire week,” the Duchess goes on. Her fan flutters. “Nonstop, in fact. ‘When will he be home? Oh, do say he’ll be home soon.’ The servants are growing tired of making excuses for you.”
He doesn’t rise from his bow. “I apologize,” he says. “I did not intend to be away for so long, my lady.”
The Duchess laughs. She touches the back of his head with her free hand, and he doesn’t freeze simply because he was already holding so still. “Go see to her, then,” she says. “She’ll be insufferable if you don’t.”
“Of course,” he says, but he doesn’t move until her hand falls away. When he straightens, he doesn’t look her directly in the eye, but he’s so very aware of her: white-haired, elegant, like ice and steel edged in lace. He knows she’s watching him the entire time as he walks away. Her gaze feels like cold fingers down his spine. Part of him wants to look back; the rest knows better.
Outside the sky is still threatening rain with no delivery: it’s the same pale pale gray as before, with the world limed in pale bright light. There is the garden, silent and dark; there is the neighbor’s house, tall and straight; there is a girl at the table with the remains of afternoon tea, bent over something in her lap. She does not look up when he approaches, though when she finally notices when he stops beside her. It’s ridiculous to say that her face lights up — there’s no reason, but —
“Xerxes!” she says, then stops. Her mouth twists like she doesn’t like the taste of the word. “… Break.”
He bows. “My lady,” he says. It feels like it’s been a very long time since he’d last seen her, a tiny wide-eyed little girl clutching her doll with one hand and his with the other. He doesn’t quite bow as far for her as he did for her mother. It still startles him, though, when a hand touches his cheek, small and smelling of lavender.
“Does your head hurt very badly?” she asks him. Her brows draw together as she brushes his bangs back. “Break …”
For a moment he catches her hand in his. It surprises him, a little, at how small she is in comparison. “Just a brief irritation, milady,” he says. He smiles, nuzzling his cheek against her palm to watch her blush and look away. “Nothing that you should concern yourself with.”
She frowns at him. It’s very cute; he can already feel his headache dispersing. “You’re always saying such things,” she protests. “Once in a while, can’t you be serious?”
“I’m always serious, milady,” he says. He presses his thumb over the fragile bones of her wrist and counts her heartbeats. Compared to him, she’s very warm as well. “Perhaps you’re not trying hard enough to meet me halfway.”
“Oh, do stop that,” she says. “I’ll be cross in a moment.”
“We can’t have that,” he says agreeably, letting her pull her hand back. “A young lady of nobility must never let herself lose her temper in company. She’ll lose face! And get wrinkles.”
“Hush,” she says to him, and she pushes into his chest the thing she was working on. He takes it automatically before he looks at it.
It’s a doll, one that looks quite similar to the one she carried as a child. (Ah, but she’s still mostly a child now, isn’t she, with her bright eyes and red cheeks?) It wears a coat very similar to his, but the embroidery is shakier and a lot less elaborate. He blinks at it and it smiles back at him with a wide stitched smile and two mother-of-pearl buttons for eyes. Behind it, his little lady stares at him with her heart in her eyes, and he wonders how she can be so very young, even after all this time.
“You’re a bit old for dolls, aren’t you, milady?” he asks. “Though it’s well-made, I suppose. Your work?” He holds it back out to her.
She doesn’t take it. Instead, she smiles at him primly, folding her hands in her lap. “I am,” she agrees. “But I wonder if you’re not.”
“Me~?” he trills. He keeps holding the doll out. “My dearest lady, I’m not quite sure what you mean …”
“I think you quite know,” she tells him. “Do keep it, or I really will be cross.” She leans back in her chair, and for a moment he sees shards of her mother in her, though nothing in her is quite so hard yet. There is time before she freezes entirely, even in this house, even with the plans that are set for her. Pandora’s had its eyes on theLainsworth heiress for longer than she’s been alive, though she won’t be eligible for her selected Chain for another two years. One day, he thinks, he’ll turn around and she’ll have her mother’s eyes, hard and unforgiving and stripping the soul down to its naked components; one day, she’ll use a lace fan to hide her face so she can pretend she’s still smiling kindly when her mouth is eternally a hard smirk.
One day — but right now, she’s a little girl pretending to be older; right now he has a doll in his hands and a headache that’s almost gone. On impulse he sinks to one knee before her, like a knight to his queen, pressing the doll to his heart as he takes one of her hands in his. He kisses the palm, smiling when she squeaks in surprise, and he looks up at her. From this particular angle, the dim light still lights her pale hair to halo-brightness.
“As it pleases you,” he says, “I’ll keep it close.”