In the carriage on the way home, it seemed to Camilla that Al’bert got pleasure from seeing how far he could push the propriety of Senna in front of his sister. She didn’t really help the poor girl’s embarrassment, because she blatantly watched as Al’bert worked his practiced “magic”, although he didn’t use any of his actual magic on her at all.
This was one way in which the siblings differed.
As they arrived at the Hednes holdings, at about three minutes before eleven o’clock, Al’bert pulled his hair back, secured it perfectly, and, in several graceful movements, restored Senna’s gown to its state of proper order, several of which adjustments she hadn’t even realized he’d performed, and opened the door for her blithely.
At the entrance, he kissed her hand chastely and she backed inside, looking flushed.
Once within the carriage with his sister again, he relaxed entirely, sitting across from her and crossing his feet on the carriage seat and unbuttoning the top several parts of his overcoat, as if nothing had just happened between him and Senna for the past half an hour.
“You haven’t used it on her at all?” asked Camilla, propping her feet up on the bench beside Al’bert, so they mirrored each other. He tickled her ankles out of habit.
“No, not once,” he said to her, grinning.
“I would find that infuriatingly difficult, Al’bert,” she said. “Just have it done with.”
“I suppose I like to be challenged,” he shrugged.
“We have very different tastes, then,” she replied.
“And Fangline…?” he asked her, finding leaving the question open-ended much more effective than anything he could specify.
“It doesn’t work on him at all, you know that,” she said. “Well, not that I can tell.”
“Maybe a little,” he said.
“Do you think so?”
“At least he knows you exist,” said Al’bert thoughtfully, glancing down at his hand on her ankle. “Honestly, Camilla, you know he’s never cared for anyone.”
“I tried it on Sangwine,” she said with a grin.
“Well, I was bored, and Fangline was gone doing whatever it is he does, and I thought I’d steal him away from Hope for a while,” she said.
“How did it go?”
“He… giggled,” she said dryly, which made Al’bert laugh again. “So I thought it was some kind of strange reaction or something. You know how he is.”
“But instead I realized he was trying not to laugh at Hope, who was making faces for Sangwine behind the old Earl of Bandrinal!”
“So when I saw her, she looked at me, and winked. It was like she knew what I was doing, that little brat!”
Al’bert was highly amused by the whole story.
“Perhaps the resistance to it runs through the Schloeffel blood,” he suggested.
“It would explain why there aren’t any royal Fromages yet, wouldn’t it?” she said.
“Indeed,” he said, and then added with drama: “Oh, Camilla, you are our greatest hope yet.”
Camilla laughed at her brother and threw a glove at him.
Over the next few days, at the Fromage estate, Al’bert received several letters, and Camilla one. His were all from Senna, who could apparently think of nothing else, and Camilla’s was from Fangline.
Thank you for your attendance at the ball.
It was so obtuse she could hardly stand it.
“What is wrong with him?!” she demanded of Al’bert, as she’d burst into his room suddenly, causing him to drop the book he was reading.
He read the letter and grinned.
“At least he sent something, no?” he offered.
“His aunt probably twisted his arm until he did it, too!”
Camilla flounced to an armchair beside a pair of very long windows and fell into it with despair.
“Well,” said Al’bert thoughtfully. “Why don’t you write him back? Perhaps you could start some sort of correspondence?”
“You know correspondence isn’t my strong suit,” she said.
“Perhaps in this case, it will be,” he suggested with a one-shouldered shrug. She didn’t move at all in response, so he continued, “I mean, since your voice doesn’t work on him, perhaps Fangline just requires something else.”
“Do you really expect him to get caught up in the romance of writing letters?” she asked her brother with a humorless laugh.
He had nothing to say to this, and so her mood darkened.
“Perhaps I’m losing it,” she said in a depressed way.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Camilla, you had that tailor whipped into such a frenzy your gown couldn’t have been more perfectly suited had it magically grown and bloomed upon you in springtime.”
“Yes, but tailors are easy,” she sighed.
“Write him,” insisted Al’bert.
“Fine,” she said stiffly as she stood, brushed off a sleeve, and exited her brother’s room.
Thank you for your invitation. I had a lovely time.
Please write back.
She had decided to fight fire with fire, or rather succinct blandness with equal or greater succinct blandness, if need be.
The reply came in a few days.
What did you want me to write?
Camilla wasn’t sure how long she could do this, but she bolstered herself and continued on, stubbornly, and perhaps driven by the principal of it all.
She at least amused herself by deciding that was mostly likely the shortest body of a letter ever addressed to royalty. On the other hand, she couldn’t get any more succinct or bland than that, so she sorely hoped Fangline would break their streak with his next letter.
It came, after another few days.
How’s Al’bert? Tell him he should come to the palace next week because there’s going to be a watchmaker there. I guess you can come too, if you want. I don’t think I need to mention just how rare watch-makers are, at least the kind that are any good, and oddly enough, this fellow is a gnome. We don’t see gnomes very often, do we?
Well, maybe you do, but I don’t. Do you get gnomes up at the Fromage estate? Perhaps you have dinner parties full of gnomes. Nobody really knows what happens within the walls of the Fromages’. If you lived a bit closer, maybe you wouldn’t be so mysterious. Is that what you want? …To be regarded as mysterious? It works with getting your way, doesn’t it? Don’t worry; your secret is safe with me, Camilla.
You looked beautiful at the ball, but I didn’t need to tell you that. I know you wanted me to, but why should I when you had twenty or thirty others to tell you far more emphatically than I could or would ever want to? You knew it, and were I to say it, it would only be treading on ancient waters. But there, you’ve had it from me; I’ve admitted it. I hope it gives you all of the satisfaction you’ve ever dreamed of. Meanwhile, it makes me sick to my stomach.
Are you surprised? After all, I’ve known from the time you were a child of your designs. How could I be ignorant of you, all the while being the closest friend of your brother? You could learn from his patience, Camilla. I have had no lack of feminine wiles thrown in my direction because we all know someday I will be the most powerful man in Schloeffelonia. It disgusts me in its predictability, and in its utter falseness. But why should I be given such power just because of when I was born, and who I was born to? How have I wrested it, or fought for it, or made it my own? I have to do nothing but jump through the mind-numbing hoops my aunt and father set up for me, just like Sangwine who is so obedient I expect him to start bleating like a sheep any day now.
No, the power I’ll be given won’t be mine; it will be the institution that was set up before me, and I’m merely a place holder who has to keep everything in the absolute status quo forever until I grow old and die and one of my unfortunate progeny has to take it up after me. It’s made me sick until I don’t want it anymore, and were I to refuse it, I know my father would leap for joy because that would mean the son he truly loves would inherit what he has.
But what does that leave me? Camilla… how did I get born into this family? Who am I?
Don’t make me regret I didn’t tear this letter to shreds and throw it into the fire.