A/N: Very sorry about the hideously long delay. So much to write with so little time.
lie is so unmusical a word.
He rode like any aristocrat born to it, but with a low poise as though fixed on an exact point, an economic skill in bringing the horse round. They were first field, the terrain not forgotten to her, and Mary felt a thrill of competition run through her again. The hounds fanned out and the reds stood strong against a greying landscape. Dusk still came early, and in the stables Mary guided Diamond to his box as Anthony stilled his mare and rubbed at its mane with a gloved hand.
Mary cleared her throat. "Am I right in guessing you were cavalry, Lord Rothbury?"
He removed his top hat and spun it in his hands. "Why, do I ride like one of the guards on the Mall?" he asked wryly.
"Slightly more ruthless than the rest of us," Mary replied.
He stood silent for a moment, no longer so humorous, until he said, "You looked glad to go out again."
"I was," she said, smiling. "Diamond's been faithful; I refused Papa selling him to the army."
He raised his eyebrows. "You'd have to have put up a fight, he's excellent calibre." She watched him go quiet, a heavy blink in his eyes, jaw shifting. "Hendricks – " He paused, combing his fingers through the horse's forelock. "Hendricks nicknamed us Ares." His expression cleared slightly. "We called him and his horse Prometheus, because they were always bringing fire with them."
She was surprised he could so readily speak about it, but he seemed at ease here, a feeling that was infectious. "I can't envision Michael Gregson in the cavalry," she said.
"No, I realized early on that it was... obsolete. I transferred and his was the regiment I ended up with." She watched his hand smooth back over the horse's neck, then looked to his face; that trace of solemness again, angles picked out in the ruddy light, hair set with a shine of auburn, eyes down until the horse nudged its head against his shoulder. Outside the hounds scrabbled and far off there was still the stray, sporadic sound of horns. Anthony stepped back, in his navy jacket, in his tan top boots, palm gently pushing on the animal's jaw. As he let go the horse bobbed, stomped until he held the reigns. "I miss them," he said. "The estate's; the war stables'. No use for mews in London now." Her eyes hit his mouth as it unfurled a wistful smile. Handsome, she thought. Shy.
And as that realization hit, so did guilt.
He was a guest in the house over the span of the hunting weekend, more welcome than on his last visit, and now at dinner it was Edith who chose to take the spotlight. "There are some developments in London I think you should be aware of, Papa," she ventured.
Edith set her glass down with a slow, deliberate movement. Mary knew there was no easy way to broach this. "They're proposing changes to property law..." She stopped, frowning, and when Mary glanced at her father he gave a hooded, uncomfortable look.
"Parliament is in the process of reading a new Property Act," Anthony clarified. Mary felt grateful to him, while the rest of the table descended into a gloom that he would not understand. He had already told Mary and Edith just what was happening in London, something that opened old doors in her mind and gave her both doubt and hope. Now Mary was able to catalogue other reactions as Anthony remained unassuming, looking across to her and giving a smile. She watched with unease as her mother caught it and her eyes widened imperceptibly.
"Which entails?" Cora queried.
Anthony straightened in his chair. "Exactly that. Entail laws."
"Anthony could be a liaison of sorts," Edith said brightly.
Robert's jaw tensed. "Could he."
"I wouldn't wish to offend you," Anthony told him.
"No, Edith is right. Evidently I'm not as clued in to events as I could be." He studied Anthony with a calculating eye, voice measured. "And you would be well informed, I'm sure."
"I should think Mary would be eager to hear more from you," Cora interjected. Mary's gaze moved swiftly to her as her stomach plunged, her napkin clutched in her lap. She could feel Tom's eyes questioning upon her cheek, Violet's a little more shrewd, Edith across from her attempting to hide a smile in her wine glass. You were right, Mary wanted to hiss. But her sister looked smug, and Cora's feigned innocence at Mary's glare was enough to spike annoyance. "As would we all," her mother amended. It was Isobel's gaze Mary avoided entirely, not wishing to incite that conversation yet.
The day had made her so tired. Mary sat quietly until the women stood and went through, and she ignored Anthony's eyes following her out of the room. She slipped past Carson at the door with a feeling like shame. It burned in her throat; she hung back from the party, and as they entered the drawing room she turned sharply for the staircase. The nursery. Where there would be no judgement, and when she reached the landing she tore at her gloves, fabric sticking along her palms.
In the nursery staircase she collected herself. She could hear William babbling, though he should be asleep by now, and she couldn't help but smile at the sound. He sat amidst the chaos of toys and books and blankets, with a grin for her as she sat and gathered him in her lap. "Will you not settle, my prince?" she murmured. She dismissed Nanny with a nod.
He did, curling himself into her shoulder and picking up her necklace in his small palm. "Dogs are out, Mama?" he asked, lifting his head to look at her. The foxhounds had been a delight to him and Sybbie that morning.
She gently brushed his hair away from his eyes. It tangled in her fingers, damp from a bath. It would need cutting soon. "No, they've gone to sleep, my darling." She tilted his chin so his eyes met hers again. "As should you," she said.
The blue left and returned under dark lashes. "Gran Iz?" he asked sweetly.
She kissed the light freckles on his cheek. "We can say goodnight to Gran Iz."
The voice stopped her return upstairs from the drawing room, and she turned on the step, William heavy on her hip, finally asleep. Anthony hovered at the bottom of the nursery stairs. After some hesitance, he put a hand to the side of the narrow doorway and bent his head to see her at the top of the flight. "At dinner..."
"Not here," Mary said, moving away from the landing. It took a moment before she heard his footsteps follow. He straightened from the stairwell and glanced around the room, the low light and the curtains, Mary treading between detritus to the bed. She knew that he was aware of the barrier he had just crossed. Her hand slipped from beneath William's head as it hit the pillow, and as she watched him fall into deeper sleep she thought that all of them were an amalgam of lightness and dark. This was not wisdom from one of the ancient tomes in the library, but in one sense a simple fact of human physicality. William's hair was darkening to a shade close to her own, and part of her despaired for it. He would become a child with a bicycle and a cousin who sang the Gaelic songs her father taught her. A child with a birth and death day. But such memory should not be put on children, she thought, and so she tried her best to cease seeking out comparisons in his August eyes; in the way he might frown when reading, fussing over the words with his finger to the page; his stubborn streak that was perhaps partly her own. Yet on days of dark he was Matthew's boy, her only boy, her great lament, her sadness and resolve, and on days of light he was just her son.
Today must remain a day of light, even as it waned. She stood and smoothed her dress, looked up to Anthony's gaze politely turned away. "You were singing," he said in a whisper, lifting his eyes to hers.
She had not even realized. She put a hand to her mouth, and he looked on her with a gentle understanding in his face, a look Matthew had given her so often, the slight angle from under eyebrows, and her stomach lurched at the sight of it in another face. She thought it would be patronizing, from anyone else, but it wasn't; instead, it shocked her in being reassuring.
"It's all on your terms," he said suddenly.
She kept her voice low, glancing at William. "What is?" she asked, wanting to occupy herself and carefully gathering toys from the floor to deposit in the large trunk between the windows.
He moved to help her, and she felt a stir of annoyance. "At dinner, your family presumed to know what we wanted," he said quietly. "And I don't know. So I gladly give you the upper hand."
She paused when he gave her a stack of blocks, staring into the bright mess of toys and trinkets. He blurred in her periphery, suit a black mass against the fireplace, and vulnerability surged, crouched in her. He was trying to do something gallant, or moral, she knew; in many ways she had more to consider than him, and that weight stifled her for a moment, amidst the stale smell of the trunk's leather, her palms gripping its edge fiercely. "I don't need a hand if no game is being played, Lord Anthony," she said.
A long silence. "Clearly I've overstepped – "
She turned, snapping the lid shut. "Have you? Are you fond of being here?"
His shoulders fell. "I am," he said honestly. "Yes, I am."
Their next silence was less tense, and she checked on William then moved to his end of the room, to the settee that sat before the fireplace. Her fingers lifted to her necklace. "It's quite admirable, having no qualms about saying exactly what you mean."
He smiled and tension shifted. "Are you telling me I'm rude?"
She shook her head, and he sat next to her but a fair distance apart, took a breath. "I am hesitant in saying some things." He played with a cufflink. "I... veil them."
He tilted his head one way and then the other, in an uncomfortable but graceful movement, his eyes flicking to hers and then away. "I said I didn't know but..." He looked into the fire's grate for a long time. "But I like you," he said finally. He looked down with a small quirk of his mouth. "First and second and third."
"Ah. Clever," Mary said, turning toward him. "Do you know the context of that quote?"
Fires and couches and strange accents. Young dares. "Yes," Anthony told her. She tilted her head, felt her hair swing out against her jaw, the heavy pearl of her earring following.
"And what happens after it?" she asked, eyes wide, a challenge flickering in them.
"Yes," he said, head matching the angle of hers, until they were studying one another, and her hand descended to cover his on the cushion between them.
"But you won't run away," she murmured.
His eyes did not travel to her mouth as she expected them to, as hers had to his earlier that evening, and even though she felt attraction she also felt relief. His eyes stayed fixed on hers, earnestness tinting them again as he spoke. "No."
Anthony was gone before the next morning's breakfast, and Robert was quick to vacate the table, leaving Mary and Tom alone.
"I think he's worried over the entail being brought up again," Tom said to Mary's surprised look.
"Old ghosts," she murmured, sipping her coffee. Her air of calm could not fool Tom for long. It worried her too, having the uncertainty build; was she to bear up to tradition for her son or take action for herself, as she had always wanted? There was no certainty in any field anymore, and she felt unsettled by it, adrift in worries for William, her father, her memories of the last time the entail had been broached.
All had seemed secure in the first hour of William's birth, and even after Matthew's death it still technically was, but she could not look on the subject coldly. Matthew fought for its break when he had barely known her, and despite feeling selfishness she clung to his young morality as justification – she wanted it broken. Matthew was the reluctant heir, and how could she know how William would feel? A hollow title, Anthony had called it. This could be one in the same, her ownership with her son's name. It had meant a great deal to Matthew. It meant a great deal to her.
She excused herself and went to find her mother.
The drawing room clock was loud in her ears, a fire set, and her mother was bent over the writing desk, intent on the page.
"Mama," she said softly, knocking at the doorway, the action making her feel incredibly young.
"Mary," Cora said upon seeing her. "I'd like to speak with you about Lord Anthony."
Mary sat on the settee and smoothed her skirt. "That's a subject better broached with Edith, I should think," she said lightly.
There was the rustle of folding papers, then her mother came into view, sitting close to her. "Mary," she said with a serious inflection, taking her hand between her cool palms. "You're the one who's been getting quite close to him."
"Edith – " Mary said, feeling tension square her shoulders. The night before came rushing back; her terms, first second third, and she began to realize just how genuine his words had been.
Cora gave her a reproachful look. "Forget what Edith did or didn't do." Her voice softened. "What is it you want, my darling?"
Mary looked down, and revisited what had been reeling in her head moments before. "I'm not sure that matters."
"Your whole life can't be William, Mary. Much as it feels like it should. And whatever sway your father wants to have over his upbringing as heir is always overshadowed by your right as his mother."
There were many times Mary had found her mother's accent soothing, with it the feeling of being a child again, and if she shut her eyes she was ten, twelve, thirteen years in the past, in her red room in a blue dress, inadequacy flooding her, crying that her father finally had a son.
"Papa will make the ultimate decision though, won't he? About the entail."
"Don't get too far ahead. Not even London knows for sure yet."
"Oh, Mama," she cried. "Must history repeat itself with no-one in my corner?"
Cora's hands tightened around hers, and the sympathy in her eyes made it difficult to swallow the claustrophobia in her throat. "You've always known this house was your blood, Mary," her mother said. "It's cruel you can never be its Countess but your money runs it now, and if you have the chance for everything except name, take it." She reached up and touched Mary's cheek. "The world is changing faster than I gave it credit, and I think that in the end William might thank you for shifting some weight from his shoulders."
Mary gave a heavy breath at the thought. That was what she did not know and what was stalling her – would it, in the long run, be good for William?
Her mother kept speaking. "Your father will come round, because you've always been his champion. So if this law passes... you will be the only one standing in your way."
She was always in her own way, always on the difficult route, cursed, stubborn. She prayed it wasn't a trait William could inherit. The truth, what should have played out and felt so tangible in her mind, spilled from her lips and made her want it all the more. "Matthew would have broken it," she whispered.
"Yes, he would."
She looked up desperately. "Tell Papa that. Please."
Cora touched her cheek again. "I think you are the best advocate, my darling."
It was a telegram from London that solidified the point, the conflict, her father's terse mood and hushed telephone conversations. A telegram from the only person at the hub of it all, the person who would of course know before anyone else. He kept tabs, and as she read it Mary wanted to laugh at his presumption, or maybe his thoughtfulness. Maybe what she felt was pure relief. Fear. Caution – for the sentences typed brought with them opportunity in two standout words – then set an insistent task in her mind.
Royal Assent for Property Act. Entail breakable. Watch Times headlines. Anthony.