Title: Domina Esques, or, The Lady Knight.
Author: Shu of the Wind.
Summary: At sixteen, Lizzy Middleford has been on a tour of the continent for a year, and has returned a different, sharper person than before...and she's determined to take her place at Ciel's side, whether he likes it or not. All hail the Queen's Paladin.
Disclaimer: Applies for all chapters. I do not own Kuroshitsuji, or any of its characters; they belong to Yana Toboso.
His Fiancée, Frightened
The carriage was rattling dreadfully, and it was disturbing her hat. Lizzy put her hand up to her head, steadying the little cap absently with two gloved fingers, and sighed. The idea of visiting Ciel had always been a pleasant one, but now, she would much rather be at home in bed than attempting not to irritate her prickly and distant fiancé.
Of course, it wasn't Ciel's fault that she had been awake until dawn, unable to sleep. That had been all her fault. She'd been so tired it had been nearly impossible for her to even close her eyes, if that was possible. And now her hat was pinned too close to her skull and pinching her scalp, and the carriage driver seemed bound and determined to find every single rut in the long road between London and the Phantomhive Estate, and she'd already caught herself dozing twice, despite all the rattling. It had been a miracle her mother hadn't noticed yet.
On the other side of the carriage, Mama let out a sharp, irritable breath, and prodded Lizzy's knee with the end of her parasol. "Sit up straight, Elizabeth, for goodness sake. You weren't raised in a barn, girl."
She felt the tips of her ears go hot. She straightened her spine, and lowered her hand, ignoring the way the hat was tugging at her hair. "Yes, Mama."
Edward sent her half a smile, and took her hand in his. Lizzy squeezed his fingers, and relaxed a bit. Edward was here. He was away so often now, on business, that she rarely ever saw him anymore, even before she'd gone on her tour. Once she married Ciel she would probably see him even less, though that was a long time coming still. They were only marrying once Ciel was eighteen, after all, and that was three years off.
He's fifteen, now. It had been his birthday two months ago. She'd been abroad with Papa for the past year, and hadn't been able to celebrate with him. She'd sent him a gift, of course, but she hadn't heard from him since she'd returned; she didn't know if he'd received it or not.
She wondered how much taller he'd grown. She'd worn her flat shoes, the way she always did when she knew she'd be seeing him. She'd been growing like a weed, though; now she was nearly five foot eight, obnoxiously tall for any woman, and anxiety was prickling through her. If I'm taller than he is…
Oh, stop it. This was precisely why Papa had brought her along with him on his tour of Europe. You're bright and beautiful, Lizzy, just like a sword being forged. Now we just need to put an edge on you.
It had been Mama's idea, she was certain. She'd cried so hard and made such a racket when she'd heard that she wouldn't see Ciel for a full year that her governess had nearly boxed her ears.
When we marry, he will be eighteen. And I will be nineteen, she added to herself, and frowned at that. Really, as a wife, shouldn't she be a bit younger than her husband, rather than the other way around? She knew it wasn't her fault or Ciel's that she was the elder, but it was rather aggravating sometimes.
An edge, Lizzy, an edge. Stop acting like a child. Besides, many of her friends were older than their husbands. People married according to rank and availability, not age or beauty or love.
Not one of her friends was marrying for love.
"You look solemn, Elizabeth." Mama said, and Lizzy snapped out of her reverie. "Are you quite all right? I didn't raise you to be quite so dour. As I recall, the last time you visited the Phantomhive Estate, it was impossible to get you to be quiet."
She blushed again. "No…it's just different than I remember."
But it wasn't, really. The trees and the bushes were bigger, certainly, but they were trimmed just the same. As they crunched up the drive, she caught a glimpse of Finny drooping on one of the benches, his straw hat as well tended as always. He lifted his head and watched the carriage go by; his eyes met hers. Finny leapt to his feet, waved wildly, and then took off towards the house, and Lizzy wondered if he'd been set out as a watchdog, rather than as a gardener. Lizzy clasped her hands in her lap, and worried away the hem of her glove between two fingers. She was anxious in spite of herself, in spite of everything she'd told herself she wouldn't do: get anxious, be fidgety, be clingy, be…well. Who she was. Or had been. She was different than she'd been at fourteen, she just wasn't sure how different, and wouldn't be until she saw Ciel.
The carriage slowed to a stop, and the door opened; she caught a glimpse of silver hair in the February sun. She couldn't help it; ignoring her mother's irritated tutting, she took Snake's hand and let him help her down out of the carriage. He looked anxious, as always, but she squeezed his fingers once before letting go, and let herself smile a bit. Improper to treat a footman that way, but none of the servants at Ciel's home had ever really been servants to her, not the way that Barrow was. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
He blinked, and then a shy smile found his face. "Yes, Lady Elizabeth. Says Oscar." He added quickly, looking nervous, and one of his snakes poked its head up out of his collar. She wondered where the others were; taking care of the garden where Finny couldn't, perhaps, or living in the cellar to ward off mice. Snakes were actually quite useful, now that she thought about it. She'd never considered it before.
Edward came down next, and then her mother, and Snake turned prim and steady with her, though she could see Mama's eyes glint at the sight of his shaggy hair. Papa had stayed home; he'd been summoned to meet with the Queen, and had had to beg off of the visit, despite his own objections. "After all," he'd said, "I'd much rather see my adorable nephew than the Queen."
That had earned him a smack from Mama, of course. No one surpassed the Queen. Not in the opinion of one Frances Middleford.
Barrow smacked the horses into a trot, and headed for the stables around the other side of the manorhouse. Lizzy fought the urge to trail after him; Beatrice would be wanting attention after a long haul like the journey to the Phantomhive Estate. But the mare would be fine, she reasoned. Barrow was a born horseman. She couldn't think of better hands to leave her in.
It was all just the same on the inside. Well, almost. There was a painting where the portrait of Uncle Vincent and Aunt Rachel had been, one of Ciel, and she couldn't help it; she kept her eyes on it as the rest of her family filtered in behind her. He didn't look much different than her memories portrayed him. It had probably been done a little after she'd left. He would be taller than that, she reasoned, and he would be losing the childish round shape to his face.
Sebastian had combed his hair back. Remembering the last time she had visited with her mother, Lizzy couldn't blame him. It was an image she would rather forget, honestly. He bowed to them, hand on his heart. "Marchioness Middleford, Lord Middleford, Lady Elizabeth. Welcome back."
Mama sniffed, but let him take her wrap. She could, apparently, find no fault with his appearance. "And where is your master, Sebastian? I trust he's here."
"He is in the library, my lady, finishing some papers. He will be downstairs momentarily." He took Edward's hat and overcoat as well, and draped them over his arm. "He begs your forgiveness for not being in the hall to receive you."
"You're slipping, Sebastian. If there's one thing my nephew doesn't do, it would be to beg forgiveness for anything he does."
Sebastian smiled a bit, and angled his head forward in the slightest of acknowledgments. "I will escort you to the drawing room, my lady, Mr. Middleford, Miss Elizabeth."
That was the same as she remembered too, with the deep crimson couches, shining wooden tables, and the brocade curtains. Lizzy waited until her mother had settled on one of the loveseats before taking the chair nearest the window, relieved that she'd worn the green. She didn't want to fade into the furniture.
Sebastian vanished for a few minutes, and then returned with a pot of tea (Darjeeling, if she wasn't much mistaken) and a plate of what looked like biscuits, and vanished a second time. She felt her stomach clench. She hadn't eaten much over the past few days. She and Papa had only returned the day before yesterday, and sea travel had always turned her stomach, ever since the Campania. So while her brother took one, politely, she accepted a cup of strong tea and hoped that would tide her over until dinner. They would be here for a day or two, after all, according to Mama. She should, hopefully, be eating again by the time they left.
A few days in Phantomhive Manor. She wasn't sure she could handle that.
Lizzy set her teacup down and stood, turning to the window. It was really quite beautiful outside; February frost coated most of the plants, making them sparkle in the weak sunlight. Outside, she saw Snake and Finny talking; Finny was gesticulating wildly, and Snake was laughing, for once looking carefree. She fought a smile of her own, and crushed a fold of her skirt in one hand. They, at least, were happy enough. She wondered where Maylene and Bard were, if they were spying from the crack in the doorway. She wouldn't be surprised.
"There you are, boy." Mama said loudly, and Lizzy stiffened. She couldn't move. She could barely breathe. What will he be like? What will he think of me? Drat. An edge, remember your edge. And she took a breath, and realized it wasn't so difficult after all. It was only Ciel, for God's sake, only Ciel. "I hope you have a better excuse for your tardiness than Sebastian did. Paperwork? I've never known you to do paperwork in your life."
"Good afternoon, Aunt Middleford." His voice was deeper, she realized, and felt stupid for not remembering that he would be grown-up now. Of course his voice would be deeper. It was still light, though, and laced with sarcasm. "Wonderful to see you. You haven't changed at all, you know."
Mama sputtered a bit, and Lizzy wondered if she had That Look on her face, the one that said she was trying to figure out if she'd just been complimented or insulted.
"Watch it, Phantomhive."
"Cousin Edward." Ciel added. That was all he had to say for Edward to clench his fists and crack his knuckles angrily. Lizzy moved automatically, putting a hand on her brother's arm in warning; he glanced at her.
"Don't be cross, Ed, Ciel's only teasing."
Edward gritted his teeth, but said nothing more about it; he bowed, sharply. "Lord Phantomhive."
He was wearing black, she noticed, but she still hadn't looked at his face. She couldn't tell, through her bangs, whether or not he was taller than her. Now that the time had come to greet him, she felt oddly calm, at peace. Her heart wasn't even pounding. Lizzy moved away from her brother, and curtsied alongside him. "Ciel."
"Lizzy," he said, and he sounded slightly surprised. Maybe because she hadn't attacked him with an embrace…? "I wasn't aware you were back from the continent."
"I returned the day before yesterday." She straightened, and gave him a sunny smile "It's wonderful to see you again, Ciel."
"Ah…" He blinked once. "Yes."
He looked…different, she realized, studying him. She hadn't thought much about exactly what he would look like, only that he would probably be different, just like she was, and that had been the end of it. She was sure she looked different, too, though the last photograph of herself that she could study had been taken when she was twelve, and of course she was different in four years time. She wasn't sure how she was different than Ciel's memories of her, however, and she wondered if she would get a chance to ask him. Or if that would be acceptable. She doubted it would be.
He was different, of course. His hair was a bit longer. Still shaggy, she thought, though it was difficult to tell considering he'd brushed it back like Sebastian had. His face was thinner, too; he was lithe now, instead of skinny, and less awkward than he had been before. Ciel seemed to have finally grown into the stiff, caustic formality he'd always tried to force himself into a year ago.
His hands were the same, pale with long fingers. She'd always thought he had a pianist's hands, but had never dared to say so. She knew he played the violin because Uncle Vincent had played it, after all. And his eyes were the same, one covered by that formal patch, the other large and sapphire blue.
She wasn't sure if what he had could be called 'handsomeness'; there had always been an edge to it that had made him prettier than that, some aspect of Aunt Rachel that would have made him a beautiful girl if he'd been born that way. No wonder she'd always wanted to dress him up in frills and fine fabrics when they'd both been children; he had the face for it. It was sharper, now, that beauty, chillier and maybe a bit more regal, than it had been before, with a rough side to it that made it impossible for anyone to really mistake him for a woman.
He still looks young. She realized, watching him. He would always look young, she thought, no matter how ancient the look in his eye had become. Because that look was old. So terribly, terribly old.
There were other things, but she would have more time to observe them later. She would have a great deal of time to observe him, she realized, and wondered why the back of her neck felt hot at the idea. Or, well, she knew why the back of her neck felt hot, but it shouldn't and it made her even more embarrassed.
Ciel and Mama finished the courtesies (i.e. sniping at one another under the pretense of exchanging greetings), and then he waved at Sebastian; Sebastian opened the door, and bowed. "My lady marchioness, there is a new pavilion being built on the south lawn; the young master thought it might be advisable to get your opinion on its construction."
Mama straightened, and shot a suspicious look at Ciel. "…really."
"Of course, Aunt Middleford." Ciel said, with one of his secret smiles. "Shall we all go? It would be better than waiting around for one of the idiots downstairs to break a vase."
It was said affectionately. Or, at least, she hoped it was. Lizzy watched his back as they followed him downstairs again, her hand tucked into the crook of her brother's elbow, and wondered why she was less excited. Perhaps she was in shock? It would describe the numb feeling inside her skull quite well.
They were almost even, she thought, and relaxed a bit. She was maybe an inch taller than him still. If she stopped growing…boys grew for a longer time than girls did. So if she stopped, then maybe he would finally be taller than she was.
The pavilion on the lawn was not 'being built' by any stretch of the word; it was pretty much already finished, and only wanted a coat of paint and maybe some floorboards. Her mother circled it anyway, and began to lecture Sebastian and Ciel on what flowers should be planted around it. "Roses," she said, propping her hands on her hips and surveying it like the manager of the whole estate. "I should think roses. Red roses."
Red and white, Lizzy corrected her silently, and fingered her halfpenny (and well-thumbed) copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in her skirt pocket. White roses painted red...But she said nothing about it. There was no point; Mama had already moved on to the color of the pavilion (green, though Lizzy thought it should be ivory) and the smaller flowerbeds that would be set up around it. In spite of herself, Lizzy drifted away, down towards the bridge.
A month or two before Uncle Vincent and Aunt Rachel had been murdered, she remembered Aunt Rachel whispering to her that the bridge was where Uncle Vincent had proposed, when he'd been twenty and she'd been seventeen. It had been a terribly romantic story; she could barely remember any of it now. It was all overshadowed by Aunt Rachel and Uncle Vincent's murder and Ciel's disappearance.
Lizzy peeled her gloves off, shoved them into her pocket, and wrapped her hands around the guardrail. The wood was smooth under her fingers; she wondered if someone had come along to smooth it. The last time she'd been here just touching it had given her half a dozen splinters.
It was the first time in a week, she realized, that she had been alone. Well, relatively alone. She had been traveling with her father and her maid Cecily; then home, and she hadn't been able to sleep, so she'd gone down to the kitchen and sat there with the cook until it was time to go back upstairs and pretend she'd been asleep all that time. Better than tossing and turning all night long, after all. And during the trip she'd been sharing her room with Cecily most of the time; in hotels and train compartments and cabins in boats. She'd only been able to glean a moment or two, here and there, to herself: in a salon in Paris, for example, or those two hours in Venice when she'd been lost and never felt more alive. Papa had scolded her soundly for wandering off, but she had no regrets.
She wore the bracelet she'd bought during that little outing even now, hidden under her glove. She doubted Mama would approve of it; it didn't match her dress, firstly, and secondly, it was rather common, not even made of a precious metal, but braided twine around her wrist with a string of Italian lira woven into it. She liked it, though. It was so totally unlike anything she could get in England.
She ran a fingertip along the coins, watched the little trickling stream (when she'd been small, she'd thought it was a river as big as the Thames. Of course, at that point, she'd never seen the Thames.), and let out a shaky breath. Maybe now she wasn't quite so numb. She was starting to feel again, tingling sensations in her hands and feet.
I'm back. She thought, and glanced, in spite of herself, back at the others. Mama and Edward were still crawling all over the pavilion, grateful to have something to lambast Ciel about; out of the corner of her eye she could see the black-clothed figure of Sebastian, standing just behind Ciel, leaning forward to say something to his master. They were both standing apart, the way they always seemed to. Ciel always stood apart, whether he intended to or not. He was the Queen's Watchdog, after all.
And when we're married, will he stand apart from me?
Something burned in her chest. Her life was coming back to her. She'd seen Ciel, and all had gone well. She'd seen Ciel, spoken to Ciel, missed him so much over the past year that at times she hadn't been able to breathe, and she hadn't reacted much at all. She had been in shock, and now she was coming out of it; she flexed her fingers and wondered how long her heart had been beating quite that fast.
She needed to fence. That was the only way to get this buzzing out of her limbs. She'd been practicing with Papa the whole trip long, ignoring Cecily's shocked squawking. Abruptly, she wished she had a sword in her hand right now. It would make her steadier. Give her a rock to ground herself on. She was floating in the updraft of a wind, now, caught between the sky and the earth.
They would be married once he turned eighteen. She'd known that for years. But now she stood on her aunt's favorite bridge and looked up at Phantomhive Manor, and she felt it. Sooner rather than later, she would be living here. Sooner rather than later, she wouldn't be Lady Elizabeth Middleford any longer; she'd be the Countess Phantomhive. The thought of living here, forever…relief swept through her. She knew this place, knew every inch of it, every blade of grass. Moving to the Manor…it would be like coming home.
So why am I so scared?
She stood there, lost in thought, for quite a long time. She didn't notice the others trooping back up towards the house, and they didn't notice she was missing. Well, almost all of them didn't notice.
Lizzy jumped, and clutched at her gloves. It was Sebastian. He bowed again, and his hair fell forward into his face. "It is time for afternoon tea, Lady Elizabeth."
"Is it?" She blinked, and checked her watch. It was nearly four o'clock. They'd arrived at around noon. She frowned a bit, in spite of herself. And it took them that long to notice that I was gone?
Well, perhaps they'd assumed she'd gone to check on Beatrice. She'd been shifty enough, after all. Maybe she should have; her poor horse would be panicked by now. Beatrice was flighty and irresponsible and everything that a good horse probably shouldn't be, but she'd bought Beatrice herself, with her own money that she'd inherited when Grandpapa died, and she was a dream to gallop on. She'd figured that out on the Spanish plains. So the horse had become a permanent staple; where Elizabeth went, so did Beatrice. Papa had shaken his head and laughed at her, especially after Beatrice had thrown him.
My horse picks her people. Lizzy thought, and fought a smile.
"I'll be up in a minute." She said, and turned back to the stream. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sebastian straighten, and watch her for a moment; then he bowed again and swept away, and she slowly loosened her hands. Her gloves were all crumpled. Mama would notice, definitely.
She was scared. That was what this trembling in her limbs was. She hadn't recognized it until now because it had been so long since she'd been truly scared about anything. She'd been scared of Ciel rejecting her fierce side – not just a side now, not at all – on the Campania. That was the last time she could remember being truly terrified of anything.
Now she was scared.
She picked a pebble up from the riverbank, fingered it for a moment, and then threw it into the stream. It vanished into the silt, hidden under ripples. Then she closed her eyes, drew a breath, and began to build the image she'd cherished of Ciel in her mind's eye. Slender. Short. Dressed impeccably, as always. His face round, his visible eye hidden behind long bangs and long lashes. That ring on his thumb, the only finger on either hand that would hold it. The Ciel she'd seen an hour ago was so much different, but the same in some ways; he still had longer lashes than she did, and his hair would still dangle in his eyes if he took it out of the small ponytail that he was keeping it in. But the ring was on his middle finger, now; she'd seen it gleaming there. The ring she'd thought she broken. He must have found it and had it reset. She thought, and leaned on the railing again.
Is he even the same person anymore?
The look in his eye had been colder.
As the water began to still, she finally said it aloud. "I'm back, Aunt Rachel. Now what do I do?"
The stream had no answer.
Posting is going to be weird for me for the next few weeks, so please alert so you know when the next chapter is up. After all, it could be tomorrow. Or it could be two weeks from now. Keep an eye out.
So I wrote a oneshot a few days ago called Defending the Sky, and some of the images in it were far too powerful for me to ignore. So here is a long-term Lizzy fic. I don't know how long it'll turn out to be - hey, maybe only twelve chapters, though that's just a wild and random guess at this point - but...yeah. This makes...whoa, um, four fics with ten pages per chapter that I'm supposed to be updating once a week.
...yeah, I'm trying to kill myself, so what's your point? XD