Gardens flush with life, verdant in their prime, withered with the coming of winter. Lacie spent most of her time wandering through Glen’s teeming wilderness more often than not. It was a rush of freedom from the confines of fine stone walls and stiff corsets beneath satin dresses.
Well, she couldn’t quite escape the dresses--Glen bought her so many—but she could escape the other confines of her life even if her freedom was an illusion at best.
She’d orchestrated much more elaborate escapes as a child but she was a proper lady now and her jaunts into the unknown were primmer as well.
Even though she knew it would all be over soon, that unknown darkness would overtake her, she couldn’t find it in herself to feel angry anymore just…
She refused to name it.
“Lacie, whatever are you doing out here in the cold?”
There he was; her constant shadow, oppressor, companion, and now soon-to-be lover, as well.
“You should try harder,” she said mildly. “You already know the answer to your own question, so why ask it?”
He chuckled softly as he lied down beside her. She was on her back, taking in the cumulus clouds slowly meandering overhead, her large skirt swaying with the gentle breeze. It was mid September and while it was chilly there was no frost yet; just the brisk air and fading flowers.
She thought one of the clouds looked like a rose but love had been on her mind so much lately. She despised herself just a bit for trying to find such a virtue within Glen. She sincerely doubted he’d ever felt it for anyone other than himself.
“I bought you some presents,” he said after they’d lied there for a bit together in silence.
“You always are.”
“Well, it seemed especially appropriate now. What do you think?” He was clutching a small, black box in his hands suddenly. He must have had it in his pocket though she couldn’t fathom when he’d reached for it. She said nothing as he popped it open. Within was a simple band of white gold topped with a small ruby. She arched a brow at him.
“What? It seemed appropriate. It’s what got you into this mess.”
“I believe it was my brother who got me into it.” Somehow she didn’t sound bitter, which she considered a small miracle. If only her brother hadn’t been a Baskerville…
But she didn’t blame him, not really. She didn’t even blame herself. She wanted to blame the Abyss but it was so beautiful: nothing but golden hues and sparkling lights…
She pitied it.
“I’ve gone and upset you,” he observed. “I had hoped making our relationship more formal might make things easier.”
“You actually intend to marry me?” she scoffed in disbelief. “Whatever for? I’ll be dead soon.”
“Hmm, true. Quite true. Still.”
She studied his face, which was serious for once in his very long life. His strange eyes gazed back at her intently and she noted, absently, that he was handsome. At least there was that.
But for him to actually propose marriage and not even as a joke…
“What is all this to you?” she demanded. “I thought we were just conducting an experiment together.”
“And so we are, but I don’t dislike you, Lacie. In fact, I’d say I’m as fond as you as I’m capable of being. That’s worth something, wouldn’t you say?” He shook the box a little for emphasis.
“You’re going to wine and dine me?”
“Or just get married. Or we could just … know each other. Now.”
She sniffed at his wandering eyes. “Really, you’re not as subtle as you like to think you are.”
“Whoever said I was trying to be?” he laughed.
“We’re out in the open. What if Oswald walked out here?”
“Oh, he won’t do that,” Glen said idly. “I sent him on a few errands that should take him a little while. And you’re quite far out in this forest; I sincerely doubt anyone would find us here.” It was true; she was on the outskirts of his gardens, which were in turn connected to several dells.
They stared at each other for a while, each sizing the other up. Lacie didn’t feel put upon. Glen would never force her, she knew that much. She was a touch annoyed he’d encroached on her personal time but he also brought with him a sense of adventure from his travels. Ultimately, she enjoyed their verbal sparring.
While he was forward and a cretin as well he wasn’t like some of the men she’d encountered in the city during her travels. He saw her as a person if nothing else. She could say no, he’d laugh, and they’d both go back to whatever it was they’d been doing before.
But she was curious and he was right there and the weather was pleasant by Lacie’s standards. He’d even proposed as absurd as that was. And he looked … pleasant with his tailored jacket, relaxed manner, and fragile health.
“Put the ring aside,” she said imperiously, “and I think we can see this experiment through, hm?”
His eyes widened briefly in surprise and Lacie smirked; that was as much a victory as anyone could have with Glen. Very little surprised him nowadays after all. He thought he knew everything. Well, he didn’t and it was nice to remind him of that on occasion.
“Right,” he said, recovering swiftly, “and how would you like me?”
That was the correct question and Lacie gave it some thought before saying, “Just stay exactly as you are.”
“Such a romantic. You’ve got me curious now,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
As she sat up and straddled him, pushing him back when he moved to kiss her, she wondered if she might have lost her mind. She wasn’t even sure what their union represented for it certainly couldn’t be love. It couldn’t be any of the romantic notions books spoke of. Everything about them was wrong.
He was gazing up at her with a twinge of doubt in his eyes and for the first time she wondered if he might feel the same. Did he wonder if he was doing the right thing? Did he have any sense of morality at all?
The ring in the box lied forgotten, pushed aside in their rush.
“You know, we can sto-“
She pressed her lips to his, not wanting to hear him voice something so understanding, so human.
After that the only sound between them was the rustle of clothing and Glen’s shaking breaths along with the occasional cough. His health really was beginning to fail, wasn’t it? It would probably only get worse when he lost his title.
Afterwards there was a prolonged, awkward silence. Glen, for once in his life, didn’t seem entirely sure of what he was supposed to say. Lacie had resumed her cloud watching, allowing herself to feel the earth beneath her, smell the leaves as they began to rot around them. It was a good smell, better than death should be.
“You can keep the ring,” he finally said as he slowly redressed.
“What makes you think I want it?” she said dully.
“Lacie…” He glanced briefly at the sky before focusing on her once more. “It’s yours, like all the gifts before. I would so hate to have to go to the trouble of returning it.”
She reached for it and examined it thoughtfully. Things would return to normal between them soon, she knew that, with biting remarks and grim smiles. But for now, perhaps she should allow the illusion to remain. For once, Glen appeared to actually be trying as strange as that was.
“All right,” she allowed. “Just don’t expect me to wear it.”
“I would never,” he said, giving her a faint grin. “Shall I walk you home? I’ll have some tea brought in.”
He extended his arm and she felt warmth infuse her ever so briefly. Well, she’d known him a long time. Maybe some fondness couldn’t be helped.
She accepted the assistance and they returned to the castle, arm-in-arm, leaving the gardens behind for the day. Oddly, she didn’t feel as though she was returning to a cage this time. Her experiment with Glen was a final show of defiance, her way of staking a claim on the whole of the world.
They had a leisurely tea party. The pallor of Glen’s skin improved slightly afterwards and Lacie felt content, that feeling she refused to name shoved to the corner of her mind where it certainly belonged.
Outside it was still bright. She hummed quietly to herself as she envisioned another world, all the brighter still.