illustrated by Tamago
“I was attempting,” Annabel said, “in my usual clumsy fashion, to congratulate you.”
Sophy stared. The blue flames from the dish of brandy on the table were beginning to wane now; in their dying light, Bel’s eyes looked all pupil — the soft, involving black of unburnt coal, of heaped-up velvety soot. When she blinked, Sophy almost expected her dark lashes to sprinkle her cheeks with ash.
“Congratulate me on what?” Sophy asked. “Why is everybody congratulating me?”
Bel looked drawn, and very pale. For a second, her face — the face that Sophy saw more often than her own — seemed utterly strange and new, like a familiar landscape hidden under a pale blanket of snow. She seemed to be exerting herself in some way, her face pinched hard with thought, or effort; her eyes darted away to the side, quick and glittering with something like sullenness, or shame. Sophy watched, utterly adrift, as she sucked the pink swell of her lower lip between her teeth and worried at it.
Then Bel lifted her gaze, fixed it on Sophy. Opened her mouth. A tiny dent shone on her flushed lip, just for a second, before the blood rushed back. “Sophy,” Bel said, with a sort of dull, tired resolution. “I must ask–“
“No, no, no,” said somebody standing over by the table, so loudly that Sophy started; she saw Bel jump too, watched her catch her breath and whip round, leaving Sophy to look at the delicate shell of her ear, the tiny wisps of stray hair at the nape of her neck, sprung free from the glossy sweep of her coiffure. “No,” the reveller by the table went on, “do not relight the candles yet. Friends, everybody. Listen. Listen! What say you all to a game of Bear?”
A hush fell in the card-room. Expectant faces turned towards the pair of them. Sophy froze. The dark and the flames and the glamour of Christmas Eve seemed to make her a child again; she felt chastened by the sudden attention, guilty, as though she had been caught misbehaving — though she did not know what wrong she had committed.
“Well, Miss Raine,” the same man continued, flushed and eager, and Sophy realised why they were all looking in this direction like a pack of obedient hounds: This was Bel’s house, after all. “What say you? You will not object to a bit of dashing about in the dark, I am sure.”
Bel laughed, loudly. Only somebody who knew her very well would have heard the brittle edge to it. “No indeed!” she said. “Douse the lights! Stars, hide your fires! I am sick of the sight of you all. Call the others in — I am sure my parents will approve. Does everybody know how it is played?”
(There follows, for the edification of the Reader, a brief precis of the Game in question, excerpted from Games, Gambols, and Merry Japes for All Ages, an instructive and affordable work available from all respectable booksellers.)
A GAME OF BEAR
This sport is an improvement on the old ones known as Hide and seek, Shake loose Jemima, Come out of that, Can you not tarry?, and Puss in the cranny. In Yorkshire, for reasons of which your authors can make neither head nor tail, it is called Hot boiled beans and very good butter. We are taxing our brains: Explanation may follow in later editions.
Though these versions are all well-known and variously diverting, their great disadvantage is in each being nothing more nor less than a Downright Romp: and, therefore, of being restricted to the informal precincts of the very closest family gatherings. To sufficiently designing young persons, a darkened house and a scattered party could otherwise present Wretched Temptations.
The superior game of Bear is played thusly:
Players are divided into groups of two and Lots are drawn (in great secrecy) by each individual, to decide who shall undertake to perform the part of the Bear. With this important matter settled, the party scatters (keeping to their pairs, naturally) in search of suitable crannies within which to secret themselves.
At this point, a period of Great Suspense commences. Only the Bear knows that they are, in truth, a Bear, and every other personage playing must reconcile themselves with the Exciting Possibility that their partner, with whom they have squeezed into a laundry basket, or huddled behind a cellarette, may at any moment pounce upon them. It is for the Bear to decide when, precisely, to reveal their true nature to their partner:
This should be done with suitable aplomb. Once this commission has been performed, the partner is a Bear also. The pair of Bears must now begin to hunt the rest of the party, recruiting each discovered couple to the Ursine Cause.
The game generally concluded with a raucous pack of ravening Bears roaming through the house, one final pair of hiders trembling under the billiard table, and your Next Door Neighbour on the doorstep, demanding that the racket be explained, and, ideally, reduced.
It will easily be seen that the greatest recommendation of Bear is its suitability to be played even in hazardously mixed company, so long as the division of the party is handled with sense. By pairing gentleman with gentleman, and lady with lady, all imaginable impropriety is eliminated and merry sport indeed may be had in the dark amongst the most intimate friends, or the slightest acquaintances, without any risk of exceeding the bounds of gentleness and propriety.
“What do you say, Miss Marchmont?” Bel said, turning back to Sophy and offering her a hand, face utterly unreadable. “Partners?
Sophy reached out. She felt the warmth of Bel’s bare skin through her gloves.
Bel gave her another of those strange, tight looks, her eyes shining. “For old time’s sake,” she said, voice soft.
Sophy did not answer, but gripped at her hand, felt the solid press of bone against bone. There was such a sense of finality in Bel’s smile, like the cold, brave smile of a condemned martyr. It shook something loose in the deepest precincts of Sophy’s mind — a murky, half-formed fear that if she was not very careful, if she did not hold very tight to that warm hand, Bel might at any moment be swept away, and Sophy would lose her in the dark.
“Now, Sophia, you must take tonight very seriously, very seriously indeed. There will not be another gathering so large for at least a year: Every eligible man in the county will be there, and you can be sure that they will have their eyes open.”
“Yes, Mama,” Sophy said. “I know.” Because you say so every year during the drive up to West Wycombe, she did not add. I have it memorised. Now comes the long list of interchangeable names…
“Mr Robinson will be there, and the vicar, and Mr Henry Lynn and his brother. And,” her mother said, with smiling significance, “I have it on good authority that Mr Darnley will be in attendance. Mr Richard Darnley. Of Ditchingham Hall. He seemed to admire you last month at the town assembly.”
“Mr Richard Darnley has four thousand a year, and a second house in Mayfair,” the other passenger in the carriage — Sophy’s father — said, with such mechanical efficiency that Sophy suspected some coaching might have taken place beforehand. “And,” he added, with increased enthusiasm, “a very good number of trout in his lake. The best spawn in the South West this year, or so I have heard, and–“
Perhaps Sophy’s mother sensed that trout, even in multitudes, were not the way to Sophy’s heart, for Mr Marchmont subsided in the abrupt manner of a man who has just received a judicious elbow to the ribs.
“Or,” Mrs Marchmont said, “there is always Sebastian Raine: He is certain to be there, after all, and not at all bad-looking, I have always thought. And you have known him since infancy, which ought to be some recommendation: His family approve of you — esteem you, even! Not many couples have that advantage.”
“Very amiable boy,” Sophy’s father said, nodding sagely. “Rich father. Sound on dogs.”
“I am very fond of Sebastian,” Sophy said, diplomatically. “And of his dogs.”
Her mother gave her a searching look, and sighed. “Well, it is little use trying to guess who you favour, my Sophy. Which is very good, very proper. But sometimes I think that you could stand to be a little more encouraging! If you are fond of young Mr Raine, then show it! It is all very well having his family’s esteem, but you will not win him by gossiping and giggling in the corner with his sister.” Then she brightened. “Though you do display to such great advantage next to her, for her colouring is not nearly so fine, and her manner — well! That girl begins to be fast, Sophia. Sometimes I can scarcely credit that the pair of you were educated under the same governess: If I had known how she would turn out I never would have allowed such a thing. You cannot have been much of an influence on her.”
Sophy smiled at this, and held her peace as the coach passed the sweep-gate and joined the string of carriages jostling for a place to set their passengers down. Only a mother’s partiality could allow such an easy dismissal of Bel’s looks: Everybody admired her bold countenance, her strong brows, her quick and flashing eye, even those men who pretended to disdain her — even those who were half-terrified by her, simply because she drank, and scowled, and rode better than they did, and would not go side-saddle to disguise it.
Sophy had no illusions about her own looks, though she liked them well enough: In the right dress, and the right light, and when she was holding herself the right way, she could be pretty, in a rosy, cherubic fashion. But if anybody preferred her to Bel, then it would be for the same reason one might light one’s house with candles rather than bonfires. Sophy might not shine as brightly, but she looked less likely to burn fingers.
“There will not be any musical performances this year, I trust?” Mrs Marchmont was saying, peering out of the window at the frosted grounds of West Wycombe. “No … charades?” Ah, so she had still not quite recovered from the year that Bel had taken her turn before the piano to sing The Roving Blade, dressed in her brother’s shirt and breeches.
“I do not believe so,” Sophy said, as the carriage pulled to a stop. “Though Annabel tells me that there may be some games.”
The sky had been sly and self-important all day, holding a secret within it, and now, as they crunched their way over the gravel towards the house, that secret began to pour down upon them in soft white flakes. If Sophy tilted her head back and looked straight up into the dusk, it seemed almost as though the stars were peeling themselves from the heavens and casting themselves down. As though they, too, wanted to come to the West Wycombe Christmas party, and be looked at by every eligible man in the county.
“Pull up your hood, Sophia!” her mother hissed, chivvying her along with an ungentle push to the back. “Think of your complexion! Think of your hair! All shall be ruined, and we have not yet even been seen. Why there must always be those who dally at the front of the queue, and force decent people to trudge half a mile in all sorts of weather, simply to reach the doorstep, I shall never understand. If we wished to arrive looking vexed and bedraggled, we could have simply walked over the hill ourselves and spared the horses!”
Her father laughed, and clapped his hands together against the cold. “Really, my darling,” he said. “Is it so very dire? Everybody knows full well what Sophy looks like — I will wager that there are a few young men already carrying cherished miniatures of her around in their heads, eh?”
Mrs Marchmont refused to be comforted. “Cast your mind back, husband,” she said, rather sniffily, “and I think that you will remember how a young man’s mind actually works. Each sight supersedes the last. It is utter folly to mar a painting before it has even been admired.”
Or before it has been sold, Sophy thought. Before it has been bid for, and secured, and smugly displayed. Before it has been hung. “The Marchmont complexion is more than a match for a little chill, Mama, you know that,” she said, rather than voicing these cheerful reflections. “It will add bloom.” It will add value. “Perhaps you ought to pull your hood down, and receive the benefit.”
They gained the front step, were announced, were welcomed into the hall, and found it as warm and well-lit as it was every year, as festively decorated and quite as full of company. It was as difficult as ever to make their way through the crush and pay Bel’s mother the requisite courtesies, and it was a downright struggle to push through from there to the punchbowl. And then, finally, Sophy was free to slip away as she did every year, to take the stairs up to the gallery, and listen to the sound of hired strings, and sip at her drink, and wait.
From above, the hall looked rather like a chessboard, all the worthies gathered below in their white muslin dresses and dark tailcoats crossing and recrossing the floor like pieces in a game. But then it was a game, was it not? One that Sophy could only win, she thought, a little sourly, by being taken.
It was not that she did not want to be married; there was something very appealing indeed to the idea of being admired, of being adored, of being universally considered to have achieved that crystalline triumph — the advantageous match. It was only that when it came to adoring in her turn… Sophy ran her eyes over the shining faces of the men below, the curates and gentlemen and sons of gentlemen that she saw year in and year out, drinking the Raines’ rum punch and laughing at their entertainments. She wondered how much truth there was to her mother’s earlier words — whether suitors were really so inconstant that they forgot all about their quarries between meetings and had to be enchanted anew every time. If so, then Sophy envied them their flexibility of mind: So many of those men below had already left such unfavourable first impressions — clumsy dancing, boorish comments, wandering eyes — that, try as she might, she could not erase them from her memory.
Her good opinion was difficult to win, and seemed to be nigh impossible to regain once lost. Which was all very well, all very laudable — a sign of discernment in a girl of sixteen, or of admirable uprightness in a man of any age. But Sophy was two-and-twenty, and a woman, and eligible bachelors were not in unlimited supply. Sometimes she felt that she had already met everybody she would ever know, and found some trifling fault with each one. Some day soon she would be compelled to begin drawing from the discard pile.
She stiffened, dropping all reflection. There was somebody standing behind her: She could hear the near-imperceptible whisper of silk skirts settling after a stealthy approach.
“New earrings?” a voice said, close enough that she felt the words as a puff of air. They stirred her blonde curls, made them sway forward and brush against her cheek. “I like them. Like stars. Or little flakes of ice.”
Sophy found that the corners of her mouth had turned up involuntarily; she pressed her lips together to stay her smile, to check it from growing into the big, flat thing that threw her features into imbalance. “Magpie eyes,” she said, and she could not keep the note of indulgence from her words. “Why do your compliments always sound so much like a highwayman sizing up a prospective haul? They are new, and they are mine, Bel.”
“There is no law,” Bel said, “against looking.” Sophy must not have masked her start as well as she had hoped: She could hear the rich, port-wine sound in her friend’s voice that meant she was pleased with herself. “A cat may look at a queen. Or at a queen’s earrings. As long as I keep my hands to myself, then even you cannot reproach me.”
Sophy turned. Bel was smiling, the bluff, insolent smile that sharpened her features and had her fine eyes sparkling. She had her back to the room, elbows propped on the gallery rail with a deeply unladylike insouciance.
“Good evening, Sophy,” she said. “Sebastian has expressly forbidden me to tell you that he thinks you the most elegant woman in the room. Like Madeline from the poem: ‘a splendid angel, newly drest, save wings’. His very words, though if you tax him with it, he shall deny it, of course. Poor mooncalf. He is utterly at the mercy of your cold enchantments.”
Sophy sighed out a laugh that was more pleasure than scorn, and peered back out over the merry throng, hoping for a glimpse of Bel’s brother. “Dear Sebastian. Is it wicked to confess that I shall be sorry to see him married? I believe that I shall miss having one man in the room whose fancy is not too immediately caught by you to notice poor me.”
Ah, there he was, looking shy and handsome in his grey coat, and standing near the punchbowl with a number of other cheerful young men — everybody, it seemed, that did not know what else to do with themselves at a party but drink, and smile, and occasionally slap a friend upon the back. Sophy ran a critical eye over him. His frame looked just as neat as ever, that delicate Raine countenance as achingly fine, his heavy-lidded eyes as soft and dreamy. His general air — that too was entirely unchanged, and had been unchanged these past fifteen years, since the days when he had been no broader in the shoulder than Bel, and so very afraid of horses that the unexpected sight of a stable-gate on a country walk could make him sit down in the grass with a bump and start sniffling.
There had been a time, back then, where Sophy might have fancied herself a little in love with him. She had suffered through a summer of strange, intricate dreams full of romance: storms and shipwrecks and disguises; a boyish hero with flashing eyes; flutters of sharp laughter. But they had been fairy-like, fleeting; the breathless, dizzying feeling of them had always seemed to slide away whenever she met Sebastian again in the waking world, and she had eventually dismissed them as the result of too much reading.
He was taller now, a little bolder, and even dared to ride now and then, and yet he was at heart what he had always been: a diffident, open-hearted young man, tentatively fond of all society and full of slow cheer. Sophy felt a swell of affection as watched him stand there, his glass half-raised, listening to his neighbour with a concentration so earnest and attentive that his mouth hung slightly open. He appeared to be in very good health, and his hair must have been freshly cut, for it looked better than it had last week in church; later she must seek him out, and they could spend a happy quarter-hour talking of the weather, and which of his dogs were in particularly high spirits — the two topics upon which Sebastian could reliably be expected to speak with relative fluency.
“Sorry to see him married!” Bel said next to her, voice high with happy indignation. “But Sophy, you shall marry him! Am I not always telling you so? And come and be mistress of West Wycombe, and rule us all with your iron fist.”
It was a familiar jest, and one that Sophy could not hear without smiling. “One day,” she said, as she always had said, “he may find the courage to offer, and then you will rue all your joking: I like your house very much, and it could do with some ruling.”
Mistress of West Wycombe. The notion seemed as whimsical and pleasing as ever; Sophy took a sip of her drink, felt the bubbles burst on her tongue, and played with this fancied future like a toy. Her mind moved over it all, her promised domain: the dappled groves and gentle prospects of the grounds; the curving lawns that rose to meet the feet. Or so it had always seemed when she and Bel used to run riot over them, tumbling and rolling and landing unshaken in Nature’s clovered lap, neither ever winning any hurt that the other could not kiss better. Then there was the house: the parlour where they had taken their lessons, and gossiped over their paints and embroidery; the library with its leatherbound volumes, where Sophy had gained most of the actual knowledge she possessed — including a couple of things, found on higher shelves and in foreign tongues, that she was sure their governess would not have wanted her to know. The Blue Room, with its wonderful starry ceiling, under which she had spent so many hours lying shoulder-to-shoulder with Bel and letting her show off her knowledge of the painted constellations, gently redirecting her pointing hand whenever she erred — No, Bel, that is Cygnus.
It was certainly a prize worth having. To come in on a chilly night like tonight, and to move through each beloved place, and be warmed by remembrance– Well, it would be pleasant indeed. And then she would head on, to the Tapestry Bedroom–
The vision wavered a little: this was less well-known, but once or twice in games of Hide and Seek she had peeped inside, had won a glimpse of dark wood and heavy red velvet, the thick braided rope of the bell-pull, the grand bed in the centre with its curtains drawn, and darkness waiting within. Rather like a courtroom, she had thought then, and withdrawn, faintly disturbed. But perhaps, if it were hers, and there were a fire in the grate, and Sebastian were sitting in one of those dark-wood chairs with his boots on the fender, and a novel in his hand– no, Sophy had never seen any evidence that he read, so he had better be demonstrating his mastery with the poker, or fussing over one of his dogs, or winding his watch, or doing some other mysterious thing that gentlemen did in their idle moments. It mattered not, because he would leave it off when her heard her approach, and turn with willing expectation, and say–
Here imagination balked. Sophy tried to fit any of the fine, feeling words that Bel had ever attributed to Sebastian into their author’s mouth; she tried to make the poor boy’s face light up at her presence, to make his smile turn adoring, or wicked — to make his eyes flash fire as they had, once upon a time, in her dreams. But she found her waking fancy quite unequal to the task. That blank amiability of his would not be moved. It stopped all conjuring.
She could, perhaps, with a little effort, persuade her Sebastian-puppet to smile vaguely at her, and to say, “Evening, old girl”: She had so often heard him say the same to his springer spaniel whenever it ran up to sniff at his hands that this was almost easy. But to make him reach out for her, and call her splendid? An angel?
And as to the rest, what would come after — every heated, hazy thing in French and Latin and Italian that she had blushed over in the hush of the West Wycombe library — Well. The pair of them sometimes struggled to muster up enough conversation to fill ten minutes. That kind of effort, on both their parts… It stretched the bounds of possibility a little too far.
She felt Bel’s eyes upon her, and could sense the idle mischief in her friend’s aspect. If there was any truth to this particular jest, if Sebastian had ever truly expressed any private inclination towards her, then he was better at dissembling than Sophy would have ever guessed. But she had never liked to press Bel on it, to break up the gossamer lightness of the joke with earnest inquiry. It was an old companion, and had earned some respect.
And Sophy was, at bottom, a vain creature. If the joke should ever be exploded, then the compliments would stop. And she liked them, wherever they came from.
Down by the punchbowl, a look of mild confusion was stealing across Sebastian’s handsome face. He lowered his glass, and said something to his friend. Sophy watched his lips move around a question; she watched his eyes, blank and docile as a calf’s, as he waited with infinite patience for the answer. She ran Bel’s pretty words over in her head once more: the most elegant woman in the room. It should be so very easy to be in love with Sebastian.
At the mercy of my cold enchantments, she thought, and was seized, all at once, by a certainty that froze. Cold enchantment. If he feels my gaze upon him, if he turns and looks at me now, then it is true — it is all true. It is fate. I shall surrender, and marry him, and come and be mistress of West Wycombe.
She held her breath, listened to the soaring slur of strings; and felt a thrill at her heart. Something enormous and cold, half-glimpsed, close ahead: the stealthy movements of a long and narrow future, shifting and settling before her. A soft brush of something like terror.
Sebastian’s open mouth twitched uncertainly into a smile, as though he were puzzling out a joke and timidly deciding that it had been amusing. His sweet, soft eyes stayed fixed on his friend’s laughing face. A heartbeat passed, and then another, and Sophy stood there, all hollow within her stays, her breath stopped in her lungs. And still Sebastian did not turn. He did not look up.
“Hail, tyrant,” Bel said, voice fond, and the spell — if, indeed, there had ever truly been any kind of spell — flew apart like spindrift. “I tremble at the thought.”
Sophy took a full breath and felt that prickly thrill melt. She laughed, and it came out thin and shivery, like it had been caught in the snow. “Dear Sebastian,” she said again, and meant it: She felt him dearer than ever now that Fate had spared her a lifetime with him, felt it with a fervour that was half relief and half guilt. It should be so very easy to be in love with Sebastian, she thought again, and this time the thought was scolding. There was nothing at all wrong with him. What on Earth was wrong with her? “He is so very sweet.”
Bel pulled a face of fine disdain, the one that made her look like a lap-cat refusing its dinner, and that was enough to coax Sophy from reflection. Whatever was wrong with her, it had never seemed to trouble Bel: It need not be corrected tonight.
“So gallant,” Sophy added, and knocked her elbow against her friend’s. “Not like you. And you are supposed to be twins. How do you propose to explain that, Miss Raine?”
“Changeling,” Bel said, happily, and now the lap-cat was pleased, was taking the insult like a scratch behind the ears. She reached out a proprietary hand, and stole Sophy’s punch-glass. “Only possible explanation.”
Sophy let it go, and watched Bel sip at her punch with amused indulgence. “Elf-child,” she agreed. “Imp.”
Little frills of noise — laughter and exclamations — kept rising above the general hum below, floating up past the gallery where they stood to bounce off the plastered ceiling. There was some pattern to it that Sophy could not quite catch: A game truly was being played, less regimented and less sedate than chess. People were skittering across the black and white marble of the floor at pace, darting from group to group with the tails of their coats flying out straight behind them or their skirts clutched in their hand. And everywhere there were outbreaks of whispering: flushed, laughing faces pressed close together; mouths hidden behind discreet hands; broken flurries of consonants; delighted receptions. Sophy watched with interest and then amusement as a vacantly pretty girl in an over-trimmed dress caused a minor outrage by streaking across the hall, swerving to avoid a spaniel, and colliding heavily with an innocent pedestrian — oh dear, with Sophy’s own father, who was at that moment entering the room, deep in conversation with another gentleman and unaware that he was taking his life in his hands by stepping out into the thoroughfare without first looking both ways. His rather uncivil exclamation of consternation did not have to be heard to be deciphered.
Bel must have followed Sophy’s gaze, for she let out a pleased bark of laughter. Sophy permitted herself a rather more dignified smile as the girl and her father appeared to enter into a contest to see who could turn the deepest shade of crimson, and apologise the most profusely.
The gentleman her father had been talking to seemed to find the whole thing similarly diverting; his laugh was discernible even from here. But Mr Richard Darnley — for that was who it was — would take it that way. Sophy’s amusement turned sour at the sight of his arched eyebrows, his conceited grin. She would wager that he rather enjoyed having pretty girls run into him, or fall over, or misspeak, or do anything foolish before him: She would wager that he was one of the many men for whom foolishness was the first and most persuasive recommendation in a woman. What a man like that could have found to discuss with her father Sophy could not imagine. Business, presumably. Or trout.
“What larks they are all having,” Bel said, with a slightly scornful air that told Sophy their thoughts had fallen into a similar track. “Some more than others. Now,” –turning away from the spectacle with the air of one brushing off a fly: Bel had ever had a flattering trick of conversing as though her partner were the only thing in the room worth the distinction of her time– “I must defend myself. I am not so very uncouth. Look, I have brought you a gift.”
She proffered her free hand, which, it transpired, was not free at all: something small and round lay in her gloved palm — a choux pastry bun, if Sophy was any kind of judge, one of the heavily sugared things that were stacked shoulder-high on the side-tables downstairs. A perfect little facsimile of a snowball, shedding its pale softness even as they spoke in a parody of a thaw, leaving smudges all over Bel’s glove.
Sophy sighed. Exactly the kind of delicacy that it would be impossible to consume delicately. “I thank you, Bel, but I cannot possibly eat that in public. I will get sugar on my nose.” She refused to let the likes of Mr Richard Darnley see her with sugar on her nose.
“Sugar on your nose?” Bel cried, straight brows pinched, mouth caught in some feeling between amusement and disgust. Her hand tightened, releasing a minute puff of white powder into the air: She looked, truth be told, as though she were about to allow the false snowball to live out its charade to the end, by hurling it at Sophy’s head. “Damn it, Sophy, I have spent all day in the kitchen, helping Cook sift: I am all over sugar, and my arm aches. And now my labours are to be in vain because you are being demure again?”
If Bel really had been helping, then no doubt the whole kitchen was all over sugar. Sophy smiled at the thought of her friend, her dark hair loose and her hands bare, in a cloud of clumsy white dust, laughing her broad, boyish laugh and blinking sweetness from her lashes. It put a twisting pang of affection behind Sophy’s ribs. And hunger, too: She had not dined, and the vision was enough to make her lick her lips, as though she were in that sugar-bound kitchen with Bel right now, and could catch the taste on her tongue. She looked longingly down at the bun in Bel’s cupped palm.
“They do look delicious,” she said, voice conciliatory. “Impressively snowy.” A particularly wicked thought struck her: She affected a serious tone of ceremony and gave the bow of an earnest young suitor, the kind that Sophy tolerated and Bel scorned. “Miss Raine, you must allow me the great honour of complimenting your kunstschnee.”
Bel made a choking noise, and her cheeks turned bright. “I beg your pardon?” she said, a pleasingly scandalised little laugh to it.
Sophy felt herself flush with smug delight, felt her nose turn an unbecoming pink, but she could hardly bring herself to mind it. “If you had ever paid any attention to your lessons,” she said, in as prim a tone as she could muster, “then you would not need to ask. Kunstschnee: false snow. I cannot imagine what other construction you could possibly be putting upon the word.”
Bel was groaning, throwing her head back in a great display of agonised frustration. In the soft glow of the candlelight, her movements had a fluid, boneless grace, the kind that always made Sophy feel so stiff and unnatural, like some kind of sickening porcelain ornament — like her body was something to be looked at, something on loan, something with excesses and faults that she could curb and correct though very diligent attention. Bel moved recklessly, as though her body was her own, and she enjoyed it.
“Hell’s teeth,” Bel said, feelingly, and straightened up. “Sophy, if you are to begin being tricky in German then I shall return to my party. We cannot all have a tongue as sharp as yours: Mine is a blunter instrument.” And she stuck it out, a flash of pink so bold and brisk that Sophy was stunned into laughter, a real bray of happy indignation. It was loud and foolish enough that she had to clap a hand over her mouth and dart a look over the gallery-rail to make certain that nobody had heard. Heavens, that punch was working on her more quickly than she would have guessed: Perhaps she had better let Bel have the rest.
“Well,” Bel said, looking feline and victorious. She was the only person Sophy had ever met who could make smugness seem so becoming, but perhaps that was simply because she had so much practice at being smug. “What shall we do with it, if you will not–“
She broke off, and looked over Sophy’s shoulder to the other end of the gallery with a look of such dissatisfaction that Sophy felt a mild thrill of alarm. She turned, expecting she knew not what, and found– Oh. Yes. Displeasing.
“Damn it all,” Bel said, with dull resignation. “There is an end to our revels. Hell is empty, and Mr Richard Darnley is here.”
So he was, looking spruce and smiling and drawn-up tall with a kind of secret purpose. He saw Sophy mark him; she saw it please him, saw it slow his approach, watched him pause to look out over the gallery and survey the party with magisterial satisfaction, his eyes glittering all the while with the happy consciousness of being greatly admired.
Hell’s teeth, Sophy thought, with some feeling.
Well, there was no escaping it: They were about to be subjected to some flirtation. All that remained was to stand there and weather it with as much dignity as possible. She took the sigh welling up involuntarily in her chest and carefully folded it away, attempted to school her features into something amiable and receptive. The shameless grimace on Bel’s face helped: It gave her something to smile about, at least. Bel had ever preferred objection to subjection.
But still– “Bel,” Sophy said, partly for the sake of form, and partly, she could admit, for the old, comfortable pleasure of chiding her. “You must not be rude. I am sure that we shall all have a perfectly merry time, so long as your temper remains under command.”
And as she had hoped she would, she saw Bel’s ire soften a little, saw it turn impish and knowing — watched it become part jest, for Sophy’s benefit. “Your command, I suppose?” Bel said, voice wry.
The thought of such deference, even half-teasing, was as pleasing as ever; Sophy felt the same old shiver of haughty exultation, the expansive warmth that seemed to press against her breastbone from within, to lift her chin.
Pride, Sophy, a small, pinched part of her that she suspected might be her conscience whispered. Vanity.
“Yes,” she said — deciding, in the spirit of Christmas charity, to ignore it. “My command.”
She scarcely had time to enjoy the indulgent flash in Bel’s eyes before there was movement close behind her, and she must turn and submit to being greeted very civilly indeed by the most conceited man in the county.
“My dear ladies,” said Mr Richard Darnley, when he had finally finished his bow, “I appear before you under commission, but under commission of the most agreeable kind. In fact, I can hardly think of a commission I have ever been more eager to fulfil. I declare that it is the honour of my life. I appear before you, buoyed up — brimming! — with worthy purpose.”
This beginning did not cure Sophy of her smiling, though perhaps hers was not quite as admiring a smile as Mr Darnley would ideally have desired. The empty ceremony was not, in itself, wholly repulsive: Sophy was not, after all, immune to flattery. But there was always with him a certain glint in his eye, a certain quirk to his smile that seemed to give the lie to his words. It seemed to say I know how you ladies adore such pretty things — well, here they are. Scrabble for them. And when you are done, I shall move on, and graciously allow the next girl to snatch at them. He would have been more charming if he did not spend half the conversation admiring how well he charmed.
Presently, he stood before them, smiling impressively, waiting for somebody to set up his next line.
Bel did not seem eager to oblige him. She had stuffed the much-discussed snowball into her mouth whole, and now made a gesture that seemed intended to indicate that she would simply love to hear more from him — and would say so out loud, if her mouth were not suddenly so very full of choux pastry.
You little wretch, Sophy thought, heart glowing with affection. Making me do all the work. She turned to Richard Darnley and obediently asked him his purpose.
“I am sent to recruit you into the keeping of a great secret,” Mr Darnley said, and they must have both presented looks of blank incomprehension, for he seemed pleased. “We in the hall have been playing at Russian Scandal,” he went on, “and I could not in good conscience allow you two dear ladies to miss out on the fun. You do know it, do you not? Russian Scandal. It is a capital game: Allow me to explain the rules.”
(Though similar, the following is not quite the explanation given on that evening by said gentleman. It is shorter.)
A GAME OF RUSSIAN SCANDAL
A standing game that taxes only the attention (and, possibly, the patience). It is played in this fashion: The first player conjures up a message, the more fanciful the better, and whispers it to her neighbour. This process continues until the message reaches its Fair Creator again. At this point she is compelled to state it out loud, and to declare whether and in which particulars her poor little message has been altered.
We have seen this played at larger, ill-managed parties, where the message and its transit has tended to become almost an afterthought, and the primary attraction of the game has seemed to be the opportunity it offers for manufacturing intimacy between messengers. We cannot approve of this, and take no pleasure in reporting it.
“Yes, sir,” Sophy said, as mildly as she could, as soon as she was allowed to speak. “We are familiar with the game, thank you.”
“Ah!” said Richard Darnley, a pleased gleam to his eye. “In that case, there is no need for further prevarication. My dear Miss Marchmont, do me the honour of receiving my message.” And before Sophy had even had time to bristle at the familiar address, his hand was heavy upon her shoulder, his breath hot against her neck, his short side-whiskers scratching at her cheek. She received the contact with a kind of frozen horror, her blood suddenly stone within her — and all she could do was pray that she did not thaw, that she remained cold and stiff with shock, because if she did not, then she was going to recoil, going to jerk out of his grip, like a feral, snappish animal, and it was going to be absolutely mortifying.
She barely heard the message, but it appeared to be a snatch of love poetry: something very silly and suspiciously intact, concerning all the usual things — kisses and blisses and coy mistressisses. Sophy had a dim, dismayed sense that such words, such proximity, from such a handsome man ought, possibly, to be exciting. But this was not excitement. Was it?
Richard Darnley had released her, and was drawing back, smiling, with his head inclined as if to say, Yes. I know. You are welcome.
Trying not to look too much like she was shrinking away, Sophy leaned mechanically over to Bel, and placed her own gloved hand upon Bel’s shoulder.
Bel’s hand came up to meet it, their fingers twining together. There was something of a glare in her face: her eyes hard and bright as sparking flints, her mouth in a sour pink moue. But she tipped her head softly enough to invite Sophy’s whisper, eyes fixed on their gallant companion.
So she was finding him equally displeasing, then. Or perhaps she had sensed Sophy’s discomfort, and had thrown her hackles up in sympathy: a rather self-flattering notion, but Sophy let it put a smile back into her countenance as she bent close and delivered her message.
Bel’s fingers went tight against hers, just once, a tiny squeeze of acknowledgement. The heat of her shoulder, her hand was remarkably radiant. Sophy could feel it even through the soft kid-leather of her gloves, and it seemed to work on her like a tonic, chasing the chill from her blood till it flowed smoothly once more. When she pulled back, even the dainty tips of Bel’s ears were flushed and rosy. A tonic, Sophy thought, wryly, or perhaps a quickening tot of liquor: That, after all, was almost certainly the reason for Bel’s own warmth.
“Picturesque,” said their gentleman admirer. “Most picturesque. I believe that is half the reason young ladies so enjoy this kind of game — because they know how admirable they look, whispering together in that intimate fashion.” The other half of the enjoyment, a complaisant smile and an arch of the brow sufficed to imply, came from the privilege of being breathed upon by Mr Richard Darnley. “I hope you did not feel compelled to alter the words, Miss Marchmont,” Darnley went on. “They would not have been my choice, you understand: I did fear that you might be too modest to repeat them.”
Sophy only smiled, judging that this did not merit the courtesy of rational opposition. Beside her, though, Bel was bridling — either taking offense at the obvious falsehood, or simply happy at last to have a concrete reason to bridle.
“Sophy never alters the words, sir,” she said, rather vehemently. “She, at least, always follows the rules. She does not need to cheat to win.”
True enough, though it was a little comical to hear Bel up in arms at the mention of rule-breaking. Sophy could not count the number of times she had returned to a game of Solitaire that she had almost given up as hopelessly stuck, only to find the very card she required now mysteriously sitting on the top of the draw pile, and Bel curled up innocently on the window-seat nearby, looking uncommonly interested in her novel.
Mr Darnley blinked at her. “Well,” he said, sounding bemused at her ardent tone, “that is all to the good, I suppose. You must want to be away, Miss Raine, to share the secret with the next player.”
Bel barked out a sharp laugh. “Oh, not yet: The hilarity of receiving it has exhausted me for now. I shall have to recoup my strength a little first.”
At this point, it became abundantly clear that their happy party had exhausted their supply of civilities. They stood in silence for a minute, listening to the genteel swell of strings, Bel sipping stormily at Sophy’s punch, and Richard Darnley casting his eyes about, apparently for inspiration.
“These walls,” he said, finally, “are a good colour. Do you not think so, my dear Miss Marchmont?”
Sophy was happy to confess that she had rarely seen walls of a better colour. She was also happy to give Bel a stealthy little kick to the ankle, the one that meant We shall discuss this later — and, possibly, never stop discussing it.
“Very good,” said he, warming to his subject, “but what they lack is decoration. Do the men of the household not hunt, Miss Raine? A couple of sets of mounted antlers would look very well indeed: That is how I have my hall decorated, and I have never received any complaints from my visitors. All my own trophies, of course, and not all local — some have come all the way from Scotland. I was there not three years ago, and…”
The recitation was underway, and there was little to be done to stop it: Sophy resigned herself, with all the philosophy that half a glass of punch allowed, to hearing the entire catalogue of Mr Darnley’s hunting triumphs — which foe had been the most fearsome, or the fleetest; which fallen branch or uneven patch of sod had almost vexed the daring rider; which day’s breakfast had been the most fortifying, and contained the most kippers.
Eventually he seemed to hit a pause, and Sophy realised that he was looking at her with an air of expectancy. She blinked the glaze from her eyes and groped for something to say. “And do you only hunt deer?” she asked. “Nothing a little more … challenging? Like a wolf, say. Or bears.”
“Only deer! Only deer, she says! Let me tell you, Miss Marchmont, deer can be monstrous tricky to catch — monstrous tricky.”
There is no “let” about it, Sophy thought. You are telling me, like it or not. You are telling me twice. “I think deer are rather sweet,” she said aloud. “Bears, too.”
“Bears?” he cried, clearly delighted. “Where do you fancy we are? Siberia?” Then he fixed her with a look so pleased and cosseting that Sophy felt a prickle upon her skin, and a chill at the back of her neck. “Here,” he said, “I shall make you a deal. When next I close on one, I shall take it alive, and keep it captive, as a pet. And then you shall have to come and coo over it, and stroke it, and feed it lumps of sugar, and do all the pretty things young ladies do with such creatures. Promise me that you shall come!”
Richard Darnley thinks that I am completely without sense, Sophy thought, and I fear very much that he approves wholeheartedly. Well, it was nearly Christmas: Why not indulge the man a little? “It is a point of honour with me,” she said, making her voice very sweet, and her eyes very wide, “never to make open-ended promises. You must catch the creature first, sir, and then I shall come, if I am well enough pleased. If not, then I am afraid that you shall have to do the stroking yourself.”
Richard Darnley chose to take this by beginning to look uncommonly like a koi carp choking on a fly: His mouth fell open and he made an odd spluttering noise.
On her other side, Bel was spluttering too — with laughter. “And with that, Sophy,” she said eyes sparkling with fond and knowing amusement, “you have certainly earned another drink.” Her hand brushed against Sophy’s, and their littlest fingers caught against each other, so that they were linked. “Come,” Bel said, with a gentle tug.
“I do not know what you mean, Annabel,” Sophy said, smiling as guilelessly as she could, and making to follow. “But I am a little parched.”
But Mr Darnley had recovered himself. “Miss Marchmont,” he said, red-faced but commanding, “stay. I should not like to keep your friend, but I would request the honour of your continued presence. I have something in particular to ask of you.”
Sophy could not thrill at the prospect of a tête-à-tête with Mr Darnley, but her curiosity, at least, was roused. She could not imagine what “in particular” he wanted with her — could he find nobody else to admire him? But she remembered his conversation with her father. Perhaps he was hoping that she would intercede in some business arrangement on his behalf. If he could not persuade her father, then he would certainly have no luck with her, but perhaps — in the spirit of Christmas charity — she ought to let him try.
Perhaps she was a little flattered that her influence in matters of business might be thought so weighty. Perhaps there was a little of that as well.
“Go ahead, Bel,” she said, firmly. “This shall not take long, I am sure.”
Bel frowned, and her eyes darted between the pair of them: There was a kind of guarded concern in her countenance, as though she were leaving Sophy alone with a tiger, rather than leaving her standing in full view of every notable personage in the county with a rather foolish man. “Well, good evening to you, sir,” she said, finally, sounding as though she did not wish Mr Darnley to have a good anything, or even to have many more evenings, good or otherwise — and was gone.
“You must not listen to your friend,” Mr Darnley said, immediately. “Indeed, I hope that you do not attempt to decipher her comments. She has an unladylike mind, an ill-regulated mind. I should not like to think that she has any persuasion over you. An artless disposition should be a closely guarded asset in one of the gentler sex.”
Here were the rewards of curiosity. Sophy could not even enjoy his outrage, nor the success of her own performance of innocence: The departure of her audience seemed to have taken all amusement from it. Now she was simply having a disagreeable conversation with a man she did not like. “Have a care, sir,” she said, coolly. “She is your hostess, and my greatest friend.”
“Well, I am sure that some could find much to admire in her. She is a prettyish girl, certainly; there are many men who prefer their women to be all leg, and who, I believe, like a lively countenance, a little upstart spirit — many men, to be sure. But I am one of the few that cannot agree. I would take a placid, easy-tempered girl over a thousand Miss Raines! I declare that there is nothing more becoming — more indispensable, certainly, in marriage — than a modest, tractable disposition, and a humble readiness to please.”
This was all so disagreeable that Sophy hardly knew what to take offence at first, and stood there in silence for a second, simply feeling herself turn frostier. A modest, tractable disposition! Here was a declaration that was to the purpose, if nothing else! So Mr Darnley wanted humility, did he? Readiness to please! Perhaps he ought to marry Sebastian.
She repented of the thought immediately; she could not in good conscience condemn poor Sebastian to spend the rest of his life meekly saying, “Evening, old boy,” to Richard Darnley, not even in fancy.
“And as regards her figure,” Darnley was continuing beside her, “well. Who can spare it much thought, when there are other ladies present?”
Sophy’s hand had tightened on the gallery rail with such force that it was a wonder it did not splinter in her hand. She fixed her eyes on her own gloved fingers, soft white kid-skin stark against the dark wood, and forced them to relax — took a breath, long, and steadying. Her breath out felt purgative: She was surprised it did not scald. It took with it all her astonishment, her mortification, leaving only a species of stiff calm.
“You are silent,” Darnley said, in a voice intended to be insinuating, “and I know the cause. You have guessed at the very lady I mean, and your modesty keeps you from making reply.” And the poor fool reached over and took her hand.
Sophy snapped her gaze to his face, and found him wearing a smile that shone forth even more self-satisfaction than usual.
“My dear Miss Marchmont,” said he, bending over her purloined hand in an unutterably silly little bow, “your penetration does you credit. You have guessed correctly: It is upon you that my thoughts have been dwelling. You are surprised, perhaps, by my attentions. I am somewhat surprised myself; I should never have guessed when we first met the hold that you would be able to exercise over my fancy! But your temperament is such that I hardly think I risk raising you to any conceit by admitting that I think of you often. Why, only a few hours ago, on the very drive up to West Wycombe, when my carriage passed by those luxurious hillocks of the park, so sweetly rounded and all pale with snow, I found myself thinking of you and your … perfections.”
This elegant reflection did not have its desired effect. Unless Mr Darnley was trying to bait Sophy into throwing him head-first from the gallery, in which case he deserved all the self-congratulation he could muster, and was proceeding towards his goal with great expediency.
She attempted to snatch her hand back with so much force that she rocked a little in her heels; but her efforts were in vain. “That, sir, is deeply improper,” she hissed. “Let me go, if you please.”
Mr Darnley chose instead to hang on and look bemused. “This is not what I expected from you,” he said. “I am paying you a compliment. Ah! But perhaps you do not understand me.” He was all smiles again in an instant, folding her hand in his own like a tutor coddling a recalcitrant child. “That only does you more credit: You are so unspoiled, so ignorant of your own assets that—”
“Stop there, sir. I understand you perfectly. And I have asked you to let me go.”
At this he did let her hand go, though the action savoured more of surprise than obedience. “This is gratitude!” he said, confusion in every feature. “You are so cold! So rigid! You do not make it easy for a gentleman to talk to you. You almost make me regret my errand.”
“I did not ask you to talk to me,” Sophy said, struggling to keep her voice even in her frustration. If it had not been so very beneath her dignity, she might have stamped her foot. She might have stamped upon his foot. “I certainly did not ask you to pay me such attentions. If it is a struggle, then, by all means, give it up! I do not doubt that we will both be the happier for it.”
Incredibly, this had security rushing back into his countenance. “Ah!” he said, brightly, and tried to take her hand again, giving her a look of great penetration. “You encourage — I should have seen it at once. It is, of course, the custom of elegant females to seem to reject the addresses of a man they secretly favour. Charming, most charming! But, my dear Miss Marchmont, I am afraid that I know of everything of Woman and her little games. You cannot hope to baffle me.”
“So first,” Sophy heard herself say, her voice an icy blast of disdain, “I am too artless to know when I am being dishonoured, and then I am so artful I can encourage your attentions by seeming quite simply to reject them! Perhaps you know Woman a little too generally, Mr Darnley: You seem to think that I contain all her many and varied charms within me, and am by turns whatever kind may suit you best. Well, I am afraid that I would rather be rigid and unladylike than your changeable lady!”
Richard Darnley was looking at her, his eyes very round with surprise, his handsome face beginning to turn sharp with an instant resentment. Good, thought Sophy, savagely. She was breathing hard, mouth tight and tension in every muscle, a little more discomposed than was truly decorous. But how else should she have reacted? Such a suit, begun so poorly by insulting her friends, and then– Where was Bel with that drink?
Her erstwhile admirer was still staring. He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before he could conjure up words, and when he did manage it, his voice was thin, hollow with astonishment. “Well,” he said. “Well. Very well. I wish you pleasure, Miss Marchmont, if you can ever be pleased.” He paused as though hoping to light upon a more scathing farewell, but had to settle for a brisk nod and a stiff retreat, his head high with a conscious, wounded dignity.
Sophy watched him go, and felt a rush of shaky feeling that could have been triumph, or relief. She felt herself relax by degrees, felt the stiffness melt from her spine; there was a slight tremor to her limbs, as though she had been too long in the cold, and been left shivery and stinging. She turned that thin energy into a rather aimless movement down the gallery and stared out blankly at the eddies of silk, the glitter of punch-glasses, the laughing faces in the hall below, and almost felt like laughing herself.
Incredible man, she thought. Unaccountable man!
Sophia Marchmont, said that acid voice inside her head. You deliberately play at sweet ignorance, and then you resent the man for taking you in earnest. Is this kind? Is this fair?
The imagined criticism pricked at her pride; her hand went tight on the railing again, as though she were a defendant standing in the dock. Yes, but, she thought. Yes, but. If he were any sort of gentleman, he would not have approached with the steadfast assumption that she was a fool, that all women were fools. If he had a temperament that was in any way compatible with hers, surely he should have been ready for the jest, should have enjoyed it — seized upon it with glee and pretended in his turn. If he had any kind of understanding, then he should seen through her facade of ignorant, decorous modesty — her delicately worked facade, the one that she prided herself upon for its completeness, its cleverness, its total impenetrability…
Oh, Hell’s teeth.
Well, very well, perhaps she would never be pleased. Perhaps she was not kind. Perhaps she was not fair. Why should she change? So that she might spend the rest of her life being sweet to Sebastian? Or being stupid for Mr Richard Darnley? Fine rewards indeed! She did not want them, any of them. She wanted somebody who understood her, now, as she was — vain, critical, demanding — or she wanted nobody at all. She wanted– She wanted–
There was a dry, slightly rough brush against her cheek; the same tingling shock as spilt champagne bubbling against the skin. A quick, darting kiss.
She turned and there was Bel, so close at hand that Sophy could not take her in all at once, just snatches of her familiar face, vivid in the candlelight. There was an uncharacteristic glow to her cheeks, and her eyes were very bright; she smelled of spirits, and of sugar, and of herself, of crushed jasmine and heat.
“Season’s greetings to you,” Bel said, all in a soft rush. She was holding two glasses, though one had more air than alcohol in it.
“Season’s greetings,” Sophie said, a little surprised, but not displeased by the fit of affection. She let the last of that cold tension slip from her shoulders and leant back against the railing, surveying her friend.
There was a resolute set to Bel’s jaw, the look she wore when she was on the point of doing something daring: when she was on horseback, sizing up a difficult jump, or first placing her skate on uncertain ice, her nose red and her hair wind-whipped. As always, the sight of it warmed Sophy like a brazier — the same comfort; the same crackling sense of danger — and it drove away all her displeasing thoughts. Bel was here, and she was going to say something very wicked, and make Sophy laugh and say something worse in return. She waited, impiously, to be tempted.
Bel must have taken the stairs at pace, for she was breathing hard enough to make her stays rise and fall like a heroine on the stage. And yet now that she was here, she seemed to hesitate, pressing the full glass into Sophy’s hand without a word, her eyes sliding over the rail to gaze deeply into the black and white waves as they swelled and swirled and heaved. Sophy thrilled to that hesitant look, to her indrawn breath: Whatever was about to be shared must be very scandalous indeed if it could make Bel pause.
“Sophia Marchmont,” Bel said, at last. “You are incorrigible.”
Sophy blinked. Not what she had been expecting, but not an unpromising beginning. “Am I?” she asked, smiling, ready to believe it.
“As if you do not know,” Bel said, moving to lean on the railing beside her, eyes still on the party. She sighed out a soft laugh, just the smallest breath of air. “You are at it now. Acting the innocent, and all the while dallying under the mistletoe like a lovelorn serving girl.”
Sophy looked up, and laughed to realise that Bel was right: Her movement had brought her directly under a kissing bough. Thank God, she thought, with a shudder of relief, that Mr Richard Darnley and I were not standing here.
She turned and had opened her mouth, ready to recount her ordeal; but she found that Bel was still staring out over the assembly with a certain strain in her countenance, a deep, distracted look in her eyes. It was puzzling enough to stop Sophy’s words in her mouth.
“Sometimes,” Bel said, “I think that only I know what a wicked creature you truly are, Sophy.”
“Wicked!” The word was peculiarly gratifying: a compliment and an offence at once. It struck Sophy with the force of a welcome slap, if there was such a thing, making her cheeks hot. “Am I wicked? More so than you?” Say yes, Bel. Or– the idea slipped through her like spiced wine, made her shiver with anticipation. Or say that we are equally wicked. Say that we are the same.
“More clever than me, certainly,” Bel said, and before this very moment, Sophy would have sworn that she had seen Annabel Raine in every possible temper, even the worst. She had seen her turbulent, resentful; she had seen her sulky and outraged and proud. But she had never quite seen the look Annabel turned upon her now, and then just as quickly turned away. She had never seen her face so bright and hard, nor her eyes so sharp and opaque. That brief glance was like the flashing of a sabre. As though Bel were parrying some blow that Sophy had never meant to give. “Sensible Sophy — always the most sense in the room. But you know that.”
If her previous words had been all warmth, then these hit Sophy like cold water.
“Clever?” she said, faintly. “Sense?”
She could not have said why she was not pleased. Did she not pride herself, secretly, unworthily, on her cleverness? Was it not her one superiority? Was she not, seconds ago, resenting Richard Darnley for overlooking it? And yet from Bel such praise felt so thin, so hollow: It seemed to run through Sophy’s hands like slush, to fill her with a kind of dull, squirming horror. To make her feel, in a way she never truly had before, like a dry and dusty spinster, invisible and ashamed.
Bel might as well have said “well-read” or “accomplished”. She might as well have praised the evenness of Sophy’s stitches.
If Bel registered her dismay, then she did not show it: She only sighed again, less of a laugh to it this time, face still lit up and inscrutable. “Clever,” she said, “to stand here: Now there is not a man in the room who is not thinking of kissing you. And sensible, ever sensible, to think, as I know you do, of kissing them back.”
For the first time in years, Sophy had no idea at all of how she must have looked; what her countenance might have expressed she could not have guessed for the world. She felt as though she were seated for whist, with half her fortune on the line, and had just watched her partner smile and reach out and trump an ace. As though, on a quiet country walk on flat and friendly ground she had tumbled and looked down, expecting a bruised calf, and seen glossy red blood and the candle-wax white of bone. It was less a feeling of pain than of surprise, confusion, betrayal. As though some unspoken rule had been broken, for the first time in years.
And it had: there was an unspoken rule to their nonsense, one that had never even been tested. They could accuse each other of all manner of vices, and had, but never this. Men were supposed to be in love with either of them, but to suggest that they might want somebody in return, that they might be earnestly encouraging such attention, that they might be making themselves ridiculous in the attempt? That had always been considered an indignity too far.
“I do not know what you are implying,” Sophy heard herself say, her voice so thin and faraway that she would have thought it was somebody else speaking, if she could not feel the shape of her mouth around the words. It felt pinched and unlovely — like the mouth of some prim, maidenish stranger. “You go too far, Annabel. You outrun your jest.”
She tried for a steadying breath, and then another; tried to pour out her mortification. But this time she had no relief. She could still feel flames in her cheeks, and there was something hot and unyielding in her throat. She downed her drink in an attempt to drown it: It did not help, only putting the metallic tang of spirits in her mouth and a heaviness in her stomach, but it felt better to do something, take some sharp, decisive action, rather than stand there, stunned and foolish.
She stared uselessly at Bel’s shuttered profile, waiting for it to crease into laughter — waiting to understand, and laugh in her turn.
Bel’s dark brows had furrowed; she had opened her mouth, as if to speak again, then shut it briskly, her countenance tight with a strain that could have been anything — frustration, anguish. Scorn. Certainly not amusement
For another long second, Sophy simply stared. Then her stuttering brain lighted upon another sharp action she could take. She turned on her heel, and withdrew.
Plunging back into the powder-scented warmth of the party felt less like a relief than she would have liked. Her cheeks still burned, and her steps were unsteady — though from drink or agitation she could not have said. All she did know was that she was agitated, and confused, and probably looking all of it, and in great dread of meeting or talking with anybody, and that everything about her felt vivid and complex and hostile, as though every movement, every noise was pressing directly against her, against her lungs, and that the first darkened doorway she came upon looked exactly like a sanctuary.
The noise dimmed as she got solid oak shut behind her, and she could breathe again. The distinctive shadowed shape of the parlour resolved around her, lit only by the last embers of an untended fire. Mindlessly, she moved towards it, and stared into the grate.
It was not warm at all, but then she hardly needed warmth. Her face felt hot; her stomach felt hot. Even her mind felt hot and muggy, full of soft, dense fog. Her heart pounded in her chest, and not from her hurry. There was a sharpness behind her eyes, too, and that was not from the weak light of the fire, nor from its feeble streams of smoke.
Well, now. Really. How silly. All this, over what? A single stinging jest, from her closest friend? Why had she not simply laughed, and refuted it, and passed on into a very enjoyable evening? Bel had said far worse things to her, after all, and things with far more truth to them.
She remembered their longest quarrel, one that had lasted all of twenty frosty minutes. A wintry day, like this, and the pair of them, curled up on the sofa in the drawing-room, apparently absorbed in their own novels; Bel, catching Sophy checking her reflection in the window and poking a stockinged foot against her thigh. Poor Narcissus. Cannot keep from admiring yourself. A far more poignant critique, surely, and yet it had not stirred Sophy like this; she had not run away, or flushed, or cried, only squawked with outrage, and demanded an apology that had never come — having to settle ultimately for Bel’s sullen insistence that it had not been intended as an insult, however little sense that made.
Or there was their first quarrel, the one that came before they were even truly friends, on Sophy’s third or fourth visit to West Wycombe. It was so early, in fact, that Sophy could barely remember it, except in snatches of sound and colour, and flashes of deep, formless feeling, but she knew that it had taken place in this very room — before this very fireplace, in fact. The two of them still prowling warily about each other, still spending most of their time unattended playing separately and casting speculative glances at one another. Sophy must already have decided that Annabel Raine could not be all bad, despite her obvious wildness, for she had deigned to bring along her prized possession at that time: a small cloth doll gifted her by an aunt, too fine, really, to be played with, but perfect for showing-off to tentative new acquaintances. There had been a tussle: a tangle of limbs; Bel, more bored than envious, snatching the thing up and tearing about the room with it, regardless of Sophy’s haughty protests — seeming rather to enjoy them. The awful endless moment when she had tripped, and spilled, and the fine cloth lady had landed in the grate.
Bel’s eyes huge and bright with shock; her headlong scramble towards the fire, obviously intent on throwing her hands into it and burning them to cinders. Sophy, muscles charged with horror, springing up and throwing her arms tight around Bel before she could do more than dirty her hands on the hearth.
Sitting there, wrapped up in this lunatic girl, watching the fine lady twist and shrivel and turn to smoke and ashes. Feeling a quake in the body in her arms and realising that Bel — wild, wicked Annabel Raine — was crying, those bright eyes seeming almost to melt, and slide in shining tracks down her sooty cheeks. Sophy had been so surprised that she had forgotten any anger, or sorrow: it had simply dropped right out of her.
You will not come here any longer, I suppose, Bel had said, sniffing, and Sophy had sensed something, in her words or in her posture, even then, when she had understood almost nothing else, that had told her how badly Bel wanted to be contradicted.
And though she was already a frosty, disdainful little girl, fond of her own way and apt to be recoil at the first hint of disrespect, Sophy had found herself saying, quite honestly, I will, if you ask me nicely.
That doll had had a name, probably; Sophy could not remember it now, nor the colour of its dress. But she remembered the way Bel had wiped her nose at those words and tried to hide a smile behind her hand.
There was nobody else in the world who knew that story. Sophy had trembled her lip very convincingly and confessed to their governess that she alone had been responsible for the accident, and she had already been such a favourite that the scolding she received for her clumsiness had been very gentle indeed. She could remember the way Bel had looked at her then, too — the shy awe in her countenance that had straightened Sophy’s spine, made her glow with giddy thoughts of church, and mailed heroes, and rigid, righteous saints.
The noise of the party suddenly wavered and increased; a halo of yellow light spilt through the opening door, chasing away the shadows. Sophy blinked, and was back in the present.
“Good evening?” said a low, diffident voice. “Is that you, Sophy?”
Sophy stiffened, and attempted to look as normal as possible. Her cheeks were wet, actually wet. What was wrong with her? She patted at them briskly with gloved fingers, and turned. “Good evening, Sebastian,” she said, her voice — thank God — coming out admirably light and even.
“Oh,” said Sebastian Raine, bowing but making no motion to approach, staying within the circle of light shed by the open door. Very proper, some distant part of Sophy thought, with fond approval. Now this was how a gentleman ought to behave. “Oh, good,” he went on, with what sounded like genuine relief. “I thought I had seen you come in here — I have been standing outside this door in the stupidest manner for the past ten minutes, worrying that it might have been some other young lady, and that I was about to make a complete cake of myself. Good evening, Sophy.”
Sophy laughed, a little, too exhausted to keep it in. How long, she wondered, would they stand there, bidding each other a good evening? It was more pleasant than standing in the dark feeling sorry for herself, she supposed. She moved towards the door, wondering whether her parents could be persuaded to head home now. She wished to be in her own room; she wished to be in her own bed. She wished, quite frankly, to go to sleep and sober up and pretend the whole blasted evening had never happened.
“I am glad it is you,” Sebastian was saying, holding the door open for her. “I was hoping to offer you my congratulations.”
Sophy paused in the doorway, and looked up into his open face. She found no clue to his meaning there, only artless cheer. “That is very kind of you, Sebastian,” she said, slowly. “But I am not sure what I have done to earn them.”
A slight frown marked his brow, and his sleepy eyes clouded for a second in confusion. Then some inspiration must have struck him, for his countenance shifted; he darted a look at the thick flow of guests streaming past their shelter, and bent his head closer.
“Oh,” he said in a whisper, fixing her with a look of earnest anxiety. “Is it supposed to be a secret? I am sorry, Sophy; I had no idea. I think a good many people may already know. But I will keep it under my hat, I promise.”
Sophy began to wonder whether she might not have tripped on her way into the party, smashed her head on the steps, and slipped into a very long and very perplexing dream.
“Is what supposed to be a secret?” she asked, as patiently as was possible.
But Sebastian was now apparently so very terrified of betraying Sophy’s confidences — even to Sophy herself — that he would not be drawn. He only blushed, and nodded, and said, “Ah, no, I see. Yes. I understand you completely. Not a word, I swear it. Silent as the grave.” He paused for a second, wet his lips, then said, with an air of quiet desperation, “The weather is very seasonable, do you not think? Snow, I mean. In December.”
By this point, Sophy’s spirit of Christmas charity was all but worn through. She drew desperately upon the very last of it and reminded herself that Sebastian was one of her oldest friends, and Bel’s dear brother, and did not deserve to be screamed at by a cross young lady having a very vexing evening. “Yes,” she said, firmly. “Very seasonable. In fact, Sebastian, I think perhaps my parents and I ought to be taking our leave, before it can begin to pile up: You know how treacherous our way can become. Have you seen them?”
Sebastian paled with consternation, presumably beset by visions of splintered axels, screaming horses, and Marchmont blood in the snow. “Oh, Lord, Sophy,” he said, eyes large, “I had not thought of that! I wish that I could aid you, but I have not seen them. Perhaps they could be in the card room? I believe that some of the company are playing Snap-dragon.”
Sophy felt a pang of remorse at his panic — but really! The poor boy needed such very soft handling! She was not up to it, not tonight. She thanked him, and moved to press her way through the chattering throng.
“Oh, and Sophy–” Sebastian said, causing her to turn back, half-way into the crowd. She had to stand very firm to avoid being swept up in it, and he paused so long that she wondered whether he had forgotten what he had wanted to say. But then he smiled nervously and said, “Um. Just. Bel might know? Or — or supposing that there were some kind of secret that I might be congratulating you upon, then she would know too, I think. If there were one. Which there is not! Anyway, a happy Christmas, Sophy, and my apologies, and the very best wishes for your — well, for the rest of your life, I suppose!”
Sophy received all of this as graciously as she could, and turned towards the card-room, mind humming with dim conjecture. There was something about those words — Bel might know– even entirely shorn of context: The sound or the shape of them did not seem to agree with her. They seemed to put a guilty flutter in her bloodstream, a jerking catch in her stomach. Bel might know what?
The crowd thinned a little, and Sophy was able to draw in her elbows and enjoy full breaths again. A darkened doorway; a writhing flare of lambent blue within; ecstatic peals of shrieky laughter. Sebastian had been right in one particular. The card-room was no longer a card-room: They were playing Snap-dragon.
A GAME OF SNAP-DRAGON
A game most well suited to Winter, and it is played as follows: —
A shallow dish is placed at the centre of a table (round is best), and a Sea of Heated Brandy is poured therein. A multitude of Raisins are then in the brandy drowned. The candles are snuffed. The Sea is set alight. So far, so contemptible. But at this point the party are encouraged to seize at the poor fruit and, catching them up, eat them while they still flame. There is a certain tradition (French, possibly) that the player with the most impressive harvest will meet their True Love within the year. We cannot comment on the veracity of this claim: They will at the very least have a brandy-burnt tippet and a stomach full of Raisins.
(This merry Christmas gambol, which had otherwise been the most wanton sort of folly, has happily become less dangerous as the Lady’s Sleeve has dwindled and finally disappeared from all but the most conservative fashion plates. If the coquettish Winds of Fashion should reverse and bring back the lace and ruffles of our foremothers, then we can no longer in good conscience condone the game. As it stands, gloves must be removed, a pail of water should be kept present, and Gentlemen should either roll up their shirtsleeves, or be prepared to bear combustion with manly fortitude and discretion.)
Only a few hardy players ringed the table in the centre of the room, and Sophy could clearly see the flaming bowl in all its bright variety. Its wide base seemed deep with liquid darkness — black as night, like the impossible reflection of some starless polar sky.
The flames threw off a spectral blue glow that ran freely about the room, finding out brightness in every surface, bouncing off the polished wood panelling, the doused chandelier, the cut-glass decanters on the sideboard — making them all spark and glitter so that the whole room seemed laced with frosty light. It looked so sulphurous and cold in there that Sophy could almost have imagined that she was peering at some devilish gathering in the perpetual winter of the Ninth Circle. But the air was heavy with brandy, and sugar-melt, and the blithe scent of jasmine, and she could not believe that Hell would smell so sweet.
Her parents were nowhere to be seen. In fact, Sophy could scarcely have said who was stood round that table, their faces slid so readily off the surface of her mind. Except for Bel, in the centre, her features alive with laughter, her hands braving the heat in fast, neat darts.
There was something familiar in her features, a look that Sophy had seen on her time and again, when she had been scolded or slighted or vanquished in some sport. A kind of fresh, forceful cheer; a stubborn determination to be gay and lively. Bel hated most of all to be thought beaten down and disconsolate. She was always loudest when she was losing.
Which rendered the scene before Sophy now almost incredible, for Bel was lit up with that same defiant mirth: She was outshining the flaming bowl, pouring friendly scorn upon her rivals in one breath, and cheering them on with the next, her firecracker laugh echoing round the room. And yet she seemed, as she did in every game of Snap-dragon, to be handily dominating the field.
Sophy stared as Bel bent her head, and reached into the crucible again, her bare hand a pale gleam in the dark. All at once, she felt it again, as she had earlier: that swelling thrill within her, that soft stirring of Fate. The promise of something vast and unknown and lasting, unfolding before her, just beyond her feet. Only this time she did not know what, exactly, was settling in front of her, as fresh and stealthy as snowfall.
She stood there, stock-still, filled with a frantic, formless expectation. This, she thought dizzily, must be how a tuning-fork felt when it was lifted for the very first time, swollen with silence and seconds from being struck. Or water in the winter, just before the cold shimmered through it and refashioned it as ice.
Perhaps she moved; perhaps she made a noise. It did not feel as though she did either. It felt as though she were frozen, stony straight down to her bones. But perhaps she was mistaken, because at that very moment, when she was standing there and staring and feeling the icy brush of magic, Bel stilled as though startled, as though heeding a call. And then she raised her head, and she looked straight at Sophy.
Behind the blue flames, she looked half-frozen and half-fey: bloodless, stricken, her eyes wild and starry. Sophy could not have guessed at the feeling in that look — anger? anguish? affection? — but it was so bright and aching that it seemed to Sophy as though it should sear. It burnt out all the breath in her, only brandy fumes left in her shivering lungs.
Then Bel’s face twisted with something like shock, and she let out a little yelp, snatching the hand she had left, suspended, too close to the blaze. She moved away from the table, slipping back into the shadows, brows furrowed and her hand cradled against her chest. Any confused fancies were lost in a tide of surprise and concern, and Sophy moved hurriedly to meet her, exclaiming as she went. “Bel!” She seized Bel’s hand, squinted at it through the dark: The very tip of her finger looked raw and rosy, licked red by the flames. “Oh, Bel. Does it hurt very badly?”
Bel was staring at her, limply letting her hand be examined, and her face did seem pale and drawn with pain, or something like it. “Yes,” she said, simply. “It hurts very badly for the moment. But it was bound to happen eventually. I am determined to get over it.”
Her voice sounded so hoarse and shaky that Sophy felt a tremor of alarm: It truly must be bad, though it looked so slight. Surrendering to the fond force of habit, she drew the yielding hand to her lips, and pressed a featherlight kiss to Bel’s fingertip. “There,” she said. “That should mend it. And now you are repaid your earlier kindness beneath the mistletoe.”
This last came out a little more reproachful than Sophy had intended, more scolding than sympathetic. Bel seemed to hear it, for her mouth tightened with discomfort, the same instinctive squirm of shame that was the closest she ever came to apology. Sophy felt the last of her resistance melt at the sight of it, if not the last of her confusion.
Silly girl, she thought, fondly, frustratedly, fed up with the pair of them. Why say it, then? And why did I care so much?
Before her, Bel only sighed. Her broad face looked very pale in the dying blue light, her eyes like two velvet pits. “It was a parting kiss,” she said, so quietly that Sophy was not sure she had heard aright. “I was attempting, in my usual clumsy fashion, to congratulate you.”
Even with the candles doused, the house was not quite dark; there was too much moonlight pressing at each window, pooling onto floorboards and stripping the dark wood white. At first, every corner and corridor echoed with sound — shrieks of joyful fright, doors slammed open against walls, the pattering of footsteps, the frothy rush of muslin and silk — but it all began to die down as hiding-places were found and guests tucked themselves away. By the time Bel and Sophy had reached the second floor, an eager stillness had descended.
Sophy let it happen. She had watched the game begin — had stood empty while lots were drawn by the light of the last candle, had received her own slip, looked at it blankly, and tucked it into her glove — all with the dazed vacancy of an automaton. Even the tumult of her own mind seemed so indistinct, so foreign: Her thoughts flowed past her, or through her, in a cold flurry, never resting long enough to be apprehended.
The only close, concrete thing was Bel’s ungloved hand in hers, and the floorboards under each step that lead her forward.
The Blue Room. It was only once they were standing under its painted heavens, looking at the dark walnut armoire, with its three squat drawers and the hanging space above, that Sophy realised she had known from the start that they must be headed here. It was the most suitable place in the house — her favoured place to hide in such games as a child, and the first place Bel would look, if she were one of the hunters.
But they were here together, and nobody else in the whole world knew that of her.
Bel let go her hand and got the thing open, exposing its soft, dark innards: The cavity that seemed to swallow up winter light in one thick gulp. It was just as Sophy remembered — though mounting the drawers would be less of a scramble than it had been then, and the cupboard itself would be more of a squeeze for two full-grown young ladies. But it had the same feeling of hushed and patient secrecy, and it was still densely hung with furs, the furs that had spent centuries slipping against the skin of generations of Raine women, bobbing flirtatiously about fine ankles as though they still lived.
They had always drawn that fancy from her, Sophy remembered now, every time she had opened the armoire’s polished doors: They had always seemed as though they had only just fallen still at her approach, and now were looking back at her, conscious and expectant. As though they would be quick with life again when she shut herself in, and would breathe against her, fold around her. It seemed incredible now that the notion had never frightened her, a child of that age, but it had not. There had been a wild thrill to it, a strange comfort in the promise of that swarming animal embrace.
Bel was stroking a slightly wistful finger against the inside of the door. She had been quiet on their journey, a deep, obtrusive quietness, heavier than the stealth of the game: It had kept Sophy silent too, seemed to press against her mouth and stifle any questions. “There is no key to the lock,” Bel said now. “That would guarantee our success.”
Sophy stared at her friend’s fingertip as it brushed over the keyhole. “We shall not need a key,” she said, then startled at the sound of her voice, so dreamy and odd in the thin night air. “It is a good enough hiding-place on its own merits, I mean,” she said, more briskly, looking up to meet Bel’s questioning gaze, “and it would not be playing fair to lock the hunters out. They must have us eventually.”
Bel sighed out a laugh, and gave her one of those odd, brittle smiles. “True. You keep me to the rules, Sophy.” She turned to the armoire and addressed the modest climb with a brisk determination: a little effort, a confusion of petticoats, the gleam of a business-like knee and the flash of a lean calf, and she was up. “Also,” she said, getting herself settled amongst the furs, “we should not like to risk getting stuck in here for centuries and wasting away to bones, like the girl in the ballad. Although it might be worth it to miss the rest of this wretched party. I never knew such a tedious crush in my life.”
She sat there for a second with her knees drawn up to her chest, fussing with her skirts. Her face looked so spare and lucid in the moonlight, like some bewitching borderland thing. A wary, long-lashed changeling curled up in her chilly nest.
“Morbid girl,” Sophy said, but there was no force behind her censure. She was too glad to be talking again, almost as usual. There was a question she must ask, but she had not quite worked out what it was. What is wrong with everybody tonight? Why are you all acting like lunatics? No, she discarded those attempts, and came to take her place, lifting herself up backwards with both arms, as though she were mounting a horse side-saddle. The coats yielded to the press of her shoulders, letting her in, Bel’s little hollow expanding to house the pair of them.
Bel gave her a thin smile, reached for the door, pulled it to, and the house, the party — everything and everybody else — was gone. All was black, and close.
The shelf was not comfortable, and the furs were cold against Sophy’s skin: She felt a little like a platter on an ice-house shelf. Perhaps she and Bel would find themselves stuck, or snowed in. Perhaps they would try the doors and find them glazed over. Perhaps they would have to settle in here for the winter, or the year, or forever, while the whole world trembled under brittle white covers. Perhaps they would emerge, blinking, a thousand years from now, and find everything still strange and muffled and sparkling, and all that they had known quite gone. Just her and Bel, left alone in the crisp, clear cold, their breath like spun sugar before them.
Sophy imagined reaching out and pulling down a cloud of Bel’s frozen breath, imagined sucking it into her mouth, feeling it melt against her tongue. Cold, it would be so cold — wet and numbing. And yet it would taste like brandy, like fire.
Would it indeed? And your own, Sophy Marchmont, she thought, would taste like rum punch, you half-sprung goose. “Do not go hiding away by yourself, at least,” she said, out loud. “You would be so lonesome if you left the rest of us behind.” And I would be so lonesome, she did not add, if you left me out in the cold, with them.
But she thought it, and the thought put a cold twitch of alarm back in her chest.
She could feel Bel — the solidity of her shape, the tiny movement of her every breath — beside her in the dark, but suddenly that was not comfort enough. She pressed closer, and dropped her cheek to Bel’s shoulder: partly chasing her brandied warmth; partly needing to check that she was still there, that she had not slipped away and become one with the liquid blackness.
Bel flinched at the touch of Sophy’s cheek against the bare slope of her neck — flinched, and made a very comical noise of surprise in her throat. “Sophy,” she said, voice high and shocked. “God, you are freezing.”
“Yes,” Sophy said, amused despite everything. If Bel thought her cheek was cold, Sophy should turn a fraction and let her feel the tip of her nose, which was so numb and icy it almost felt wet. Like a little bear cub’s, she thought, and smiled against Bel’s shoulder, wondering idly whether she could feel it. “Everything is freezing,” she said, aloud. “Have you not heard? It is snowing. It was just beginning to come down when I arrived.”
“I know.” There was a stirring of limbs, Bel settling, letting a little of that odd, iced tension ease out of her, leaning into Sophy’s weight. They were pressed so close that the shift made Sophy’s own skirt whisper; it slid across her thighs, catching on the fine hairs there and pulling them to stand on end. “I saw the drops of meltwater in your hair,” Bel was saying. “Thought you were strung with diamonds, at first glance. You ought to wear a hood, Sophy: Even you can catch cold.”
Her voice was distant, and a little hoarse, as though she were the one catching a chill; Sophy thought of Bel’s breath in her mouth again, and of contagion, of miasmas, of hacking coughs and raw throats and trembling lungs. Fever-sweat in the air. The taste of rust. If Bel is ill, she thought, stupid again, then I do not care if I catch it. She would pull the sickness from Bel, and take it into herself: They would fight it off together, as partners.
“I’m sorry,” Bel said, out of the darkness.
Sophy blinked. The words sounded blunt, so abrupt and heavy. It was as though Bel had been holding onto them all evening, biding her time, and now she had pushed them out of the dark, and let them strike Sophy in the chest. Bel, saying sorry.
Bel must have felt the shock in her frame, for she huffed out a laugh — a weak, inward little thing — before continuing. “You are surprised,” she said, “I know, to hear me say so. But I mean it. For all of it, for everything. For all the times I have” –her voice trailed off, to the barest hint of a whisper, but they were so close that Sophy need not strain to hear– “all the times I have said the wrong thing, gone too far. Outrun my jest. I do not do it to hurt you. Or I do not mean to.”
A vision flickered before Sophy’s eyes: a much younger Bel, her hair in tangles and her fingers dirtied with ash, grey smudges down the front of her dress. You will not come here any longer, I suppose. Sophy remembered how she had screwed her eyes up then — screwed them shut, as though Bel had finally found something at which she could not laugh, and could not bear to see it — and she had to fight off a half-crazed impulse to reach out in the dark, and brush her fingers against Bel’s face, feel for creases, see if she was all scrunched-up again.
“Bel,” she said, and sat up properly. “Why so grave? I forgive you: I always forgive you, do I not?” She made an attempt for Bel’s hand, but could not find it; her nails scratched, so softly, against the silk of Bel’s gown. The noise of it, that narrow brush, was monumental in the hushed dark, and Sophy found herself unaccountably hesitant to reach out again, as though she had been rebuffed. “I know that you are only joking,” she said, and if she sounded a little plaintive, a little flippant and foolish, light with a kind of limp whimsy– Well. Then she sounded foolish. She wanted Bel to laugh and to say that all was well between them, far more than she wanted her dignity.
There was an indrawn breath beside her; it sounded like the cocking of a pistol. A decision made.
“Sophy, I have to ask,” Bel said, more solid, determined. “I know that you will not like it — that it has not been done the way you would like. I know that I ought to wait for the announcement. But I cannot pretend that I do not know: I was never as canny a player as you. Are you to be married?”
The apology had been shocking, like a blow. This was shocking too, but in a very different way, soft and stunning: It felt as though Bel had reached out and put a very gentle hand against some vital part of Sophy’s mechanism — against a pendulum swinging away inside her chest — and stopped it working. Her heart was still. “Am I to be married?” she heard herself say, voice empty with astonishment. She was not sure that anybody had ever asked her such a thing, as though there were any question. Shall I grow older? Will I die? “Well… eventually–“
“Oh, there is no need for pretence!” Bel said, her voice harsh with that forced gaiety again. “You are to be Mrs Richard Darnley. I heard your mother speaking of it– Everybody is speaking of it. You have made very pretty sport of me, the pair of you, when I thought– I had no notion that you actually favoured him, Sophy, none at all, or I would not have spoken of him the way I did. I must have seemed such a child. And yet I have said nothing of which I am ashamed: I cannot esteem the man; I do not approve of his manner. I think him a perfect coxcomb, and probably always shall. And yet — and yet I shall learn to like him, at least, for your sake, if you will only tell me that it is true, and it is truly what you wish.” She laughed. It sounded wretched, all hollowed-out and wrong. “If it is what you wish, Sophy, then I will be so happy for you, I promise. Perhaps not this evening, but soon. You have only to command it and I shall be happy for you — for the pair of you.”
Sophy scarcely heard the majority of this speech, or not at first: Its beginning was too impressive, too astonishing, and it turned her deaf to all else. You are to be Mrs Richard Darnley. Dread words! Portentous words! She would never have imagined that the sound of them could fill her with relief. But where all her tentative conjecture had failed, their crude force succeeded, and finally knocked the muddled pieces of the evening into a comprehensible order.
Something in particular to ask of you. Darnley’s business with her father. The very best wishes for the rest of your life. Well! There had been more than one game of Russian Scandal played here tonight, it seemed! How pleased her mother must have been; how eager to boast! And how sure Mr Darnley — the Mr Richard Darnley, of Ditchingham Hall — must have been of success! Well, Sophy had scotched all their plans very nicely indeed — had been so thoroughly disagreeable that the poor fool had balked and slipped the shackle before it could be bolted.
“Oh, Bel,” she said, weak with relief, and with amusement at the absurdity of the whole thing. “You must not believe everything you hear at parties.”
You are to be Mrs Richard Darnley. Bel must have thought Sophy had completely lost her senses.
But she did not sound as though she were worried about Sophy’s senses; she did not sound surprised, or embarrassed, or disapproving. She sounded cold and young and shattered, utterly shattered.
Sophy could feel Bel’s breath close against her face — tiny puffs of warm mist that brushed by her cheek, her lips, and clung there for a second. It was shallow enough to be almost silent, and yet there was some persuasion in it: It had Sophy’s breath coming quickly, too, light enough to daze. It put a tremor in her blood.
She had the queerest, half-glimpsed flutter of feeling, bewildering and familiar at once, as though something were rattling hard within her. As though it had been rattling away, unheeded, for years, and she was only now daring to turn and look.
“Was it not true?” Bel said, the words small, as though they took a great deal of effort to speak.
A round shaft of light was shining through the armoire’s keyhole. It was a strange, celestial colour: the crisp bluish-white of the Pole Star, or the surface of the moon. Sophy looked at it where it fell in a wavering line against the furs; and felt again that cold thrill within her, that soft, stirring knock at the heart. It did not feel like terror, this time, or not only terror. Sophy held very still, and let it unfold within her. It felt more like–
“Sophy,” Bel said. “Was it not true?”
Hope. A frenzied, trembling thrash of hope.
A door in Sophy’s mind rattled once more, and flew open, and through it blew something cold and clear, like the air off ice. A single crystalline thought. A lancing beam of light.
Bel wants kissing, she thought. And then: Bel would like me to kiss her.
I would like to kiss Bel.
Want — potent, irresistible want — seemed to pour through her, and make her move, and then she had a hand fast in Bel’s dark hair, and the taste of brandy and sugar on her lips.
She knew Bel’s mouth so well; she had felt those soft lips press against her hand, her forehead, her cheeks so many times, and had returned the compliment, too. But she had never truly connected those swift, fond brushes with kissing, this kind of kissing. A lover’s kiss. In her mind it had always seemed so abstract — little more than a word, a shape on the page, a sweet and airy pause in a poem that politely signified “happiness”, or “success”, or “perfection”. Like a full stop.
Perhaps Sophy should have called on those chaste and hazy imaginings now; perhaps there was some procedure, or custom, or a set of rules that she should have known and followed diligently in order to do it right. But she did not. She surrendered to that urgent swell of want, and let this kiss rewrite it all. It was not brief; it was not airy; it was not precise and ethereal. It was like the other kisses that they had shared, every one, in that it left Sophy’s skin warmed and tingling, had her spirit surging and star-bound with affection.
It was unlike them, in every other particular: It was wet, biting, messy, long. Loud, too, the slick cling of lips against lips almost shockingly loud in the dark, and hot. A spark, struck between their mouths, that burned, and lingered, and grew.
Breaking off felt like surfacing from sun-warmed water into a bitter winter chill. It left Sophy utterly breathless, her limbs weak, desperate only to plunge back in at once. A dizzy, nonsensical thought brushed against her mind: that she had wasted years of her life breathing in air, when she could — she should — have been breathing in Bel, and been invincible. Her fingers against Bel’s neck, her jaw; Bel’s fingers where they had flown to clutch at Sophy’s hair — they both felt so strong and solid and vital.
She drew Bel in, rested their foreheads together for a second, and laughed at the thought, at everything. “I am not to be married,” she said. “I am not sure that I am ever to be married.”
“Sophy,” Bel said, and her voice was so thin and wondering that the word sounded like a plea, or a thanksgiving, or both at once. It floated between them for a second, deathless. Sophy had heard those syllables so many times in her life; she had heard them from Bel so many times — and yet they had never, not once, sounded so right, so complete. They seemed to tug at something deep within her and set it shivering, like a harp-string that had stood untouched for years, and was finally being made to spasm and sing.
Then Bel said something else — something unladylike, but very like her — and Sophy could do nothing but lunge forward, surge up onto her knees and kiss Bel again, and again, as quickly as possible.
The first kiss had felt like a waking: these were conscious, and building, full of hot, clumsy security and absolutely nothing like a full stop — a delirious string of commas, maybe, or a dizzy forest of exclamation marks. Sophy crowded against Bel’s body in the dark, pressed her back against the furs, felt lithe warmth against her in a dozen places. She could hear the rustle of crushed silk and the creaking complaints of wood as their movements tugged against the armoire’s pegs, but all of that seemed very dim and insignificant when she was so happily employed, and had so many more important things crying out for her attention. Like Bel’s mouth, bold and demanding against her own, sucking and nipping at her lips. The phantom-soft brush of a bare knee as she got between Bel’s legs. The warmth of a hand suddenly against her collarbone, and moving down towards her neckline, leaving a shimmering thrill in its wake.
And then there was a palm laid against Sophy’s breast, over the white silk of her gown, and she had to break off all her happy industry to gasp stupidly against Bel’s lips and feel her own blood blazing in her throat, faster than she knew it could move. She wondered whether Bel could feel the beating of her heart through her stays. It felt strong enough to strike at her ribs. Strong enough to make the whole wardrobe, the whole room shake.
Almost at the instant that she felt it, the pressure was gone. Bel had made a soft, guilty noise, and snatched her hand back. “Forgive me,” she murmured, pulling back to put intolerable inches between their lips. “Forgive me. That was not very gallant.”
The teasing retreat had left Sophy open-mouthed and ready to scold, but this startled her indignation away. She laughed — her loud, foolish laugh, but somehow it did not sound so foolish this time, just fierce and joyful. “I do not want gallant,” she said. She wanted Bel, and she wanted that warmth back, and she wanted it with nothing in the way, no constriction, and no civility. She wanted to reach back and tug her own fastenings loose, wriggle her way out of her dress and kick it away.
So she did, with such astonishing ease in the pitch-blackness that she wondered for a second whether she might have dozed off against Bel’s shoulder, and this was all a lovely, slippery dream. But her undergarments were reassuringly awkward, particularly with Bel there, apparently cured of her fit of diffidence and not helping at all, just getting her hands hot against Sophy’s face and drawing her in for more kisses, deep, distracting things that made Sophy’s fingers stutter and go nerveless as they fumbled at the lacing of her own stays.
That first unfettered lungful of air was so welcome and so cold that it left Sophy a little giddy. Combined with the effort of getting her shift over her head and off, at last, it was enough to have her wobbling on her knees, and she might have tumbled right out of their hiding-place and onto the floorboards if she had not flung a hand down to steady herself. It met— what was that? Not flat, polished wood, but something hard and curved and warm, even through the fine leather of her gloves.
Bel’s ankle. Sophy felt the bone flex under her fingers. She heard Bel’s breath catch. And, suddenly, kneeling there clad only in kid-gloves and silk stockings — which ought, she knew, to feel faintly mortifying — was making her face flame for an entirely different reason. Not only her face: Her whole body was blazing, even in the winter air, her pulse hot and potent within her. She could feel it thrumming at her throat. She could feel it — Lord — between her legs, a dreamy, demanding throb.
Burning, half-spellbound, Sophy slid her hand higher, tracing a firm, slow path up Bel’s calf, leather sliding smoothly over silk. When she reached Bel’s knee and slid upwards and in, along the long, bare line of her inner thigh, Bel shuddered under her and made a noise, a little wounded sound that Sophy found very agreeable indeed. So agreeable, in truth, that she wanted to hear it again, immediately — that she fancied something within her might ache until she did so.
With a flash of inspiration, like knowing all at once which card ought to be played next, she ducked her head and gently pressed her lips to Bel’s bare thigh, right next to the place her hand rested.
Bel’s skin was dove-soft under her lips: soft as flour, or a packed and yielding drift of icing sugar. That first brush won Sophy another stifled noise, and a hand tangled blindly in her hair. “Sorry,” Bel said, half-gasp, half-laugh. “Sorry, Sophy, but I cannot help it. If you do that again, you may be dishevelled.”
Sophy laughed too, and repeated the action, again, and again, higher and firmer each time, till Bel was breathing hard, muscle jumping under her skin as though she had been running. As though Sophy had caught her, and tumbled her to the ground. Her thigh was so warm to touch; the cold trail of Sophy’s kisses must feel just like a sprinkling of snow, like the clean bite of ice.
Finally, Sophy pushed forward far enough to feel the tickle of silk and soft linen against her face: Bel’s skirts and petticoat, where they must be rucked up, almost around her waist. She pressed on, ducking beneath and making Bel gasp, and oh, then Sophy was gasping too, because now she was so close to Bel’s lap that she could feel heat against her face, and, under her raised skirts, Bel’s thigh was slick.
She smelled bright, and fresh — like warmed pearls, after a spell by the fire. Like the sea in summer. Acting entirely on instinct, half-dizzy with her own audacity, Sophy flicked her tongue across the warm, wet skin, tasting it. Bel’s fingers went tight in her hair again, and Sophy could feel the muscle in her leg shift and shiver over the bone. Which was all very well, but she wanted that noise again, and she thought she might know how to secure it.
She parted her lips, and sucked hard.
Bel yelped, actually yelped, and her legs jerked, closing a fraction. Her thigh kissed against Sophy’s cheek with a tiny smack, and it left her face wet, as though she had been crying, or struck by a snowball. She laughed, puffing out air; Bel tried to laugh too, but it came out more like a shivering sigh.
Suddenly, Sophy was gripped with an impossible desire to see her, to watch her come undone. She knew Bel’s face so well, better even than her own: If she closed her eyes, shutting out the inky black, she could almost conjure her up, shed witch-light on her and see her through the darkness — the sharp flash of her smile, the line of her throat when she threw back her head and laughed. And yet there were some things that Sophy had no knowledge of, or only the most infuriatingly partial knowledge. Suddenly, that was intolerable.
Well, what she could not know by sight, she would simply have to feel.
“Undress,” Sophy said. “Bel, take your clothes off.”
Bel laughed properly at that. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, voice wry and fond. But her amusement had not kept her from shivering under Sophy’s hand, and it did not temper her haste to obey. There was a cacophony of fabric against fabric as dress and petticoats were shed, then some more rather unseemly language as something, apparently, became caught up. The frank urgency made the heat between Sophy’s legs build almost to a burn.
She finally pulled off her gloves and reached out blindly, found Bel’s hands where they were tugging uselessly at the front fastenings of her stays. “Let me,” she said.
Bel stilled, just breathing hard. It was difficult to concentrate when Sophy could feel the heaving of her chest beneath the stiffened fabric of her short stays; she gave the cords a rough yank, simply to have Bel gasping, to hear her breathless laugh. Then she compelled herself to focus and felt at the hard little knot, learning its tricky shape under her fingertips, and gently coaxing it loose.
When Bel’s stays finally fell open, Sophy did not touch her, despite the near-irresistible itch in her fingers: She did not want to feel her warmth through her clothes, did not want a half-measure of closeness. “Arms up,” she said instead, and fisted her hands in the linen of Bel’s shift, tugged it up, let Bel take over and wrestle herself free, giggling.
And then Bel was bare before her, so close in the dark.
They both went still, not touching at all. And yet for a single dream-like second, it seemed as though they were touching everywhere, as though in some indefinable way they were two parts of one entity: Sophy and her reflection, or Bel and hers. One soul, untethered and limitless, straining towards a unity; two fragile bodies eager to dash themselves against one another, to melt together and become whole.
She could no longer hear the other girl’s breathing — though she must still be breathing hard — because it was so perfectly synchronised with her own. She reached out, slowly. The body before her moved as well: she could feel the air it displaced shift against her bare skin, a phantom half-touch that made her shiver. Is she reaching for me?
It was impossible to say which came first, the brush of Sophy’s fingers against Bel’s flank or the sweat-damp warmth of Bel’s palm against Sophy’s neck. It was impossible to say which of them shivered first.
“Lord,” Bel said, mouth shaping the very word that hung stupidly in Sophy’s mind. And then: “Sophy. You feel like ice all over.”
“So warm me.” It was more a gasp than anything. Sophy got her fingers tight around Bel’s wrist and drew it down, hardly knowing what she did, simply letting want move her. And then there, against her breast, was a dear, familiar hand — blood-hot, strong-fingered, rougher than a genteel young lady’s truly ought to be.
Some deep part of Sophy fluttered at the touch: a tight, grasping sensation, an indefinite demand for more.
“Sophy,” Bel said, again, voice rougher, and then she was all movement, and Sophy was all feeling, joyful and giddy with it, just trying to stay upright on her knees. An imprecise kiss was being pressed into her throat, right over the point where her pulse thundered, blood jumping up to meet Bel’s warm tongue; soft hair was tickling under her chin; bold fingers were tracing abstract patterns over her breast as though searching for something– oh. Were pinching wickedly at her stiff nipple. Sophy felt a rough jump of sensation, a shiver all down her front, and heard herself make a noise that was humiliatingly close to a whimper — half-surprise, and half something else. The pinch came again, firmer, more determined.
She only had the vaguest idea of what, mechanically speaking, ought to come next, what would make the smudged and wonderful feeling inside her sharpen and grow. And yet her body seemed to know what to do; it chimed at each touch, and leaned in, blind but wanting, like a flower seeking the sun. When a firm thigh pressed between her own, she sunk gratefully, forcefully down to meet it, glorying in warm pressure finally against that hot, wet ache between her legs — against her cunt, she supposed somebody as brave as Bel might call it. Oh, Lord. The obscene thought and the divine contact was enough to drag a queer whining noise from Sophy’s throat. Her stockinged toes curled against the wood of the armoire, searching for leverage; she let her head fall forwards and grabbed clumsily for Bel’s shoulders, steadying herself as she ground her hips down hard, chasing friction, letting it stoke the blaze building in her abdomen.
A hand swept up over her thigh to grip firmly at the swell of — of her arse, and guide her down, and Sophy saw sparks in the shifting dark.
Something soft and wet — what could only be a well-known, clever mouth — pressed against her breast, not quite at the jutting peak of her nipple but catching the broad, blushed halo that surrounded it. Sophy shuddered, and then she was shuddering some more; her thighs clamped tight around Bel’s leg, everything a bit slicker, because Bel had sucked a firm and fiery kiss into sensitive skin. “Bel!” she breathed, scolding and delighted.
The tiny, chirruping noise as Bel’s lips let go only had her squirming more. That would bruise, Sophy thought, actually bruise — would linger beneath her stays, bare inches below her neckline. The thought sent something rich and subtle stealing through her, stirring every nerve.
“Yes?” Bel said against her breast, all innocence, and then, not innocent at all: “You like it.” There was rather too much awe in the words for them to truly be called a boast. “God, Sophy. Feels like a dream. You are so wet. So warm, and so wet.” She had both hands at Sophy’s hips now, helping her ride her thigh in earnest — straddle-legged, the way Sophy had never allowed herself to ride a horse.
“Wish I could see it,” Bel said, suddenly, a rushed whisper, like a confession. “Pretty as the rest of you, I’ll wager.”
For some reason, the words ran through her like flames through a fuse. They were not what she had just imagined; they were almost chaste, almost innocent, but from Bel’s lips, with no prevarication, no disguise– Sophy heard herself make a very stupid noise, a kind of whimpering squeak.
The thigh between her legs began to shake: For a second, Sophy’s mind was a blissful blank, the motion blowing all sense from her head like soft furze in the wind. Then she worked out that Bel must be laughing at her, leg juddering with the force of it. With a valiant attempt at indignation, Sophy attempted to shush her, but could not keep from letting out a laugh of her own, a silly, hiccupping thing. She groped blindly at Bel’s face, felt her soft cheek, her sharp little pussycat chin, then finally found her lips and pressed her fingers firmly against them, in the manner of a gag.
They were welcomed summarily into Bel’s mouth, as Sophy had rather suspected they would be. What she hadn’t suspected was quite how splendid, how monumental it would feel, every detail immensely magnified in the dark — that heat around her fingers; the crushing squeeze as Bel sucked hard; the velvety press of her soft palette. The veiled strength of her jaw.
“Wicked girl,” somebody was saying, voice awed and distant, and Sophy realised that it must be her, because Bel’s mouth was full. “Quite incorrigible.” Then abruptly that strength was no longer veiled. There was a blunt, candid pressure against her fingers; a teasing shock of pain. Bel, biting down. “Hell’s teeth,” Sophy said, out loud, for the first time in her life. She pulled her fingers free, and flexed them to feel the ache.
“Bel’s teeth,” said a very smug voice, out of the darkness.
Right. This seemed to Sophy to demand some retribution. She reached down with rough haste, found Bel’s tense stomach and moved lower, till she was feeling the scratch of hair — thicker and springier than her own. Bel made a noise of surprise at the touch, and then she stilled all over as Sophy found the seam at the centre of her, barely seeming to breathe. Aglow with her own daring, Sophy dipped inside.
Her fingers were still glazed with spit, but that began to seem rather incidental when she felt how smooth and slippery Bel already was here. She brushed her fingers over soft folds, and now it was her turn to wish again for light: Was Bel as pink and vivid here as she was at her lips? Was she flushed and shining? But apparently she did not need to be able to see to make Bel sigh and moan. Each noise seemed to urge Sophy on, to fill her with a giddy sense of power: She lost any semblance of hesitancy and moved with gentle determination, spreading and stroking, seeking for variation, finding out the distinct spots that made Bel’s breath hitch and her whole frame shiver.
When she dipped her fingers lower, tips circling Bel’s blood-hot entrance, she felt the muscle tremble under her touch.
Sophy’s heart seemed to quake between her legs, so hard that she wondered whether Bel could feel it against her thigh. “You do not bite here, do you?” she asked, her voice full of gravel, as though she had caught that sore throat after all.
Bel laughed — a soft, strained noise. “Don’t know,” she said, shakily. “Never — never tried.”
Sophy smiled, and sunk a finger into that rosy, dawn-bright heat.
She had formed some vague plan of exploration — that she would take things slow, feel her way — but then Bel was whimpering again, and the sound was so welcome — the heat of her was so welcoming — that Sophy was all urgency in an instant. She introduced a second finger, plunged them both deep, felt Bel clutch wetly at them, listened to her panting breath. If Sophy angled her hand just so, then perhaps she could still stroke at Bel’s twitching folds with her thumb, tease at the tiny, peaked hardness she had found hidden there–
Bel let out a fervent, whispered curse; her hips jumped hard enough almost to dislodge Sophy from her seat, like a disobedient mount — certainly enough to have the armoire shaking. Sophy laughed, startled but pleased. “Hold still,” she said, mock-stern, and laid a light slap to Bel’s hip with her free hand.
The noise that won had Sophy’s fingers jerking in surprise, once and then again when the serendipitous movement seemed to make Bel’s whole body shudder. “Oh, God,” she said, “Sophy, there–” And then she broke off into a keen, and Sophy heard the leg that she was not perched upon fall against the front of the armoire with a dull thud. Inspired, she kept at it, crooked her fingers relentlessly and traced circles with her thumb, driving Bel’s whimpers higher, feeling an almost unhinged joy at the untaught potency in her hands, at the way she could win so much with so little. The way she could please Bel so well.
Then Bel fell very quiet, just breathing hard. Something seemed to spasm under Sophy’s thumb; Bel’s thigh went iron-tense, rigid, and she was shuddering around Sophy’s fingers, seizing hotly, helplessly at them, in an ardent, pulsing caress that went on and on, until Bel went limp and boneless.
Sophy drew her fingers back, a little dazed. She could feel a bead of hot liquid rolling down her wrist. She could feel the muscles jumping in Bel’s thigh.
Bel panted out a laugh and curled forwards, her hands at Sophy’s hip, her waist again. “God,” she said, almost a groan, and her forehead butted languidly against the soft curve of Sophy’s stomach, sweat sticking slightly, tacking them together. “Sophy. Those clever fingers. Not only good for untangling embroidery. You have undone me.”
Sophy’s blood sang with indecorous pride. “Poor darling,” she said, and petted aimlessly at Bel’s soft hair, regardless of the mess on her hands. “But I think that you enjoyed it.”
Bel’s whispered speech was a pleasant tickle against her sensitive skin. “You know that I did. Shall I” –and then Sophy actually felt her blush, felt a radiant heat blossom in her cheek as clearly as if it was her own blood burning– “shall I show you how much?”
The catch of Sophy’s breath must have been answer enough, for Bel nuzzled at her middle, pressed a tentative kiss there, and then another, firmer and lower, and Sophy understood what she intended to do. She felt another twitch of sharp-set heat between her legs, and the fingers in Bel’s hair went tight rather than tender. But it was not a staying motion, not at all; she lifted her hips, arched her back, as upright as she could get on her knees, presenting herself — a little immodest perhaps, but it was only practical, only sensible to give Bel her space to work.
Bel gratified her instantly by licking a wide stripe up Sophy’s wet thigh, then surprised her immensely by stopping. “I do not know what I am doing, not in the slightest,” she said, sounding more amused than abashed, and then her voice went deeper and richer. “You shall have to take charge, Sophy.”
Sophy had not engaged in a physical fight in a very long time, but she could just about recall the sensation of taking a bony elbow to the stomach; it felt a lot like hearing those words — shocking, disabling, stopping all thought for a split-second. When she spoke, her voice came out weak and winded, an almost hysterical gasp. “As though I have any idea!”
“You will know what you enjoy,” Bel said, and Sophy could actually feel her smile against her thigh. “And you shall make me give it to you. Tyrant.”
Sophy froze, oddly frightened for a second, though of what, she could certainly not have said: that the sensation would be too powerful, perhaps, and would undo her, or that it would not be powerful enough, and that she would stay cold and rigid and waiting forever. Then Bel’s warm fingers slipped between her legs and spread her open, and her hot little tongue was there, against the soft, slick skin inside, and Sophy was making another comical squeaking sound and bucking her hips upward, gripping at Bel’s hair.
It made Bel catch her breath and let out a secret flutter of laughter, pressed against Sophy’s skin; it seemed to travel inside her, seemed to set every muscle in her fluttering as well, including a couple, deep and wanting, that she had not really known she had before tonight. There were words, proper words, she imagined, for what Bel began to do then; her fractured mind tried, at first, to fit a couple to the action — kissing, lapping, sipping at her, licking broad strokes and then neat little flicks. But it felt as though it might be beyond words, or before words, bigger and more primal. Bel had some manner of alchemy in her tongue that turned everything in Sophy’s legs, her pelvis to glowing, starry mist. Her thoughts ran thin and fanciful, and were full, suddenly, of that blue liquid flame that had danced around the table earlier: It felt like that between her legs, a hot slickness sliding down her thighs, muscle and bone melting away and leaving nothing behind but a hazy floating sensation — beyond heat, beyond anything.
Reality went a little strange, unmoored and — and pressurised somehow: The world bore down against her, clung to the pair of them, as though they were at its very core. As though every atom of air, every flake of snow, every cold spot of fire in the firmament, was being drawn towards them, wanting to press against the keyhole and watch. But Sophy could hardly spare it a thought, any of it, when she was so occupied in grinding against Bel’s mouth. Bel’s hands were gripping at her hips hard enough to bruise, and she must have been learning what Sophy liked because that strange floating feeling was building, that more-than-heat growing heavier and more insistent; it was rolling her towards something, something vast and dizzying and bursting starlight white behind her eyes and–
An avalanche tumbled over her, a soft, devastating sweep of feeling — tumbled her over, and over, and kept her tumbling and trembling against Bel’s lips for Heaven knew how long. Her thighs spasmed, and those deep muscles inside her pulsed and shivered: heavy, rhythmic convulsions, the wild spending of a strength she had not known she possessed, a strength that she could not help but exult in, even as it seemed set to shake her to pieces. She heard a noise, quiet but distinct — a raw, sobbing, exultant sound, almost like an animal cry — heard it and knew that it was hers. She felt it come from her chest. It only seemed to arouse her further, to quicken her hurtling blood and draw out her strange, tumbling flight.
Vanity, Sophy, she thought, foggily, but she thought it in Bel’s fond, admiring voice, and with Bel’s grin so bright in her mind that her eyes stung. Brighter than moonlight, than the glare off the snow. A very mortal kind of magic.
When she could next think again, she was slumped against Bel, sunk in her embrace, their chests heaving, their legs in a tangle. She stirred a little, raised her head. Furs pressed softly against her bare skin; blunt nails traced an aimless pattern on her sweat-damp back.
“Tongue’s perfect, Bel,” she said, still with a hitch to it. “We’ll make a linguist of you yet.”
There was a slightly sleepy hum of amusement, then movement, and lips were pressing against the hollow of Sophy’s throat.
Her flushed, sticky throat. “Oh, Bel, don’t,” Sophy said, laughing, finally abashed. “I am all over sweat.”
She felt Bel’s grin, broad and foolish against her collarbone. “Good,” she said. “I like it.” And she flicked her perfect tongue out, and licked with frank intent.
Sophy shoved at her, loving her very much. It was ludicrous, she decided, intolerable, not to look upon her now, and she moved to kick at the front of the armoire.
It swung open in an astonishingly graceful arc. Discarded clothes fell out onto the floorboards in a soft, crumpled swoop; moonlight fell in, brighter than before, blinding and bathing the pair of them.
Bel lay next to her, blinking, cushioned on a fallen coat, her features softened with satisfaction and her face shockingly shiny. She still had that fey look to her, all pearl and shadow in the pale light, her hair in elf-locks and her eyes black and enchanting. And she was looking up at Sophy — prim, imperfect, perspiring Sophy — as though she were something immense and heroic and radiant. As though she were a queen, or a cold and brilliant star.
Silly girl, Sophy thought, enjoying that look immensely. But she remembered how she had climbed into the armoire, confused, cringing, mind full of fog: Now, with all that they had done and with Bel looking at her like that, she did feel different — armoured somehow, dauntless and complete. That hard-won sense of clarity had not faded. Perhaps it would never fade, as long as she kept Bel by her, a charm for fearless living.
She sat up, and slung her legs over the ledge of the wardrobe, then straightened them, and looked at her stockinged toes with something approaching affection.
Bel was laughing, and the golden glow that noise inspired was affection, without question.
“Sophy!” Bel said, pushing herself up to sit as well, and sounding pleasingly scandalised. “Are you mad? Anybody might see us!”
It made Sophy laugh too, and she turned back to look at her friend some more, at the dark patches of hair between her legs and under her arms, at her neat, dusky nipples — not like Sophy’s at all, but very sweet, very tempting. She could sense Bel’s gaze on her in return, could almost feel the warmth of it as it fell upon her face, her neck, her breasts.
“Censure?” she said. “From you, Bel? After everything that you have done over the years, surely you will not begrudge me a little scandal-seeking of my own.”
Underneath that starstruck look, Bel’s face turned serious. “You must know,” she said, and Sophy was not sure she had ever heard her friend so very earnest, “I never gave a damn what any of them think. I never sought anybody’s eyes but yours.” She smiled a little sleepily, her eyes soft. “I have done a lot of stupid things, hoping simply to please you. To impress you, or to make you laugh. I have been very foolish over you for a very long time.”
Sophy felt something crack and kindle in her chest, something so keen and hot and expansive that she was amazed it left enough air in her lungs to speak. “I know,” she said, and as she said it she did know; she felt the knowledge reverberate through her entire history, and shuffle everything into place. “I have enjoyed them all immensely, Bel.” And she reached down and pulled her into another kiss, because she could, and because she had been wanting to, it turned out, for more than half her life.
When they broke apart, Bel was trembling again, with cold and fear and excitement; they shook together for a second, breathing each other’s air — a single, intoxicating cloud of warmth that flowed between the two of them. Then Bel sighed against Sophy’s cheek and pushed her away, decisively. “We must dress,” she said. “Somebody really could come.” She laughed, and scrubbed her hands over her face, with an air of joyful disbelief. “You are making me step out of my part! These are your lines!”
“We must dress,” Sophy agreed, happily, touching at Bel’s dark hair, tucking a strand gently back into place. “Or we may well freeze to death. But nobody will come.” She leaned in and stole one last quick taste of that brandy-warm smile, then reached for her shift where it lay in a crumpled pile on the shelf beside her, pulling it briskly on, not caring how she held herself.
When she emerged from the embrace of the cotton, Bel was still looking at her, eyes a little hazy from the kiss and a frown of confusion upon her face. “Do you forget the game, Sophy? They are hunting us as we speak–”
Sophy laughed. “No,” she said, “they are not. They are all still tucked away in their own hiding-places, waiting to be found. I do hope that they have managed to entertain themselves.”
She had almost forgotten the game, it mattered so little. But she was glad of it now, because it gave her the supreme pleasure of hearing Bel’s scandalised laugh, of watching delighted comprehension break across her face. “Sophy! You do not mean–?”
Sophy grinned back at her — the flat, ungainly grin that stretched her face too wide and that felt completely wonderful. “Yes,” she said, simply, “I was the Bear, all along. And now you are too, my darling. Do you feel mauled?”
Bel hummed happily, and reached for Sophy’s hand, twining their fingers together, then pulled it up to her mouth and pressed a kiss to the back. “Half an hour and only one victim,” she said, looking up at Sophy through her lashes, her face sharp and lovely with mischief. “You will be thought a very poor hunter.”
And though she was sitting in a chilly, unlit room on the last dark night before Christmas, and though the world stood silent and snowbound around her, and though she was proud and rigid and sometimes not very nice, Sophy looked at Bel’s wicked, admiring smile and forgot what it meant to be cold.
“I do not care,” she said, pleased beyond belief. “I have already won.”