The Elms, Wickshire, Cumbria
12 September 1015
My dearest cousin Armand,
I have now had my engagement ball, for so I shall ever think of it; and I am delighted to say that it was completely unencumbered by strange and mysterious goings on, at least of the dastardly variety.
I don’t suppose a minute-by-minute narration would do more than bore you unduly, for you were never one for balls; so let me begin by saying that we danced the usual dances, and ate the usual refreshments, and if the fashions were not quite up to the minute for Yorke they were quite sufficient for one who had spent that past half-year in Wickshire. Indeed, the most notable difference between this ball and those I have attended in Yorke was the ages of those invited. In Yorke, every ball has match-making at its heart. There are the young ladies and the young gentlemen, and the older ladies to keep as many eyes on them as possible, and a scattering of older gentleman to provide spice for those of the older ladies as cared for it.
At Nexing Cross, we instead had a gathering of all of the Archer’s acquaintance in Nexinghamshire, of all ages. I had met the greater proportion of them while visiting with Maximilian, and all of this company from young to old was bent on nothing more than having a joyous and merry time of it. I won’t say that match-making didn’t figure in, here and there, among the younger set, for there was much bringing of refreshments and filling in of dance cards; and I observed a number of couples go out to take the air before returning to the dance floor. But the whole company was engaged in the event for its own sake in a manner I had not seen before, not even at that disastrous ball at the Willoughbys’.
Maximilian and I opened the dancing, of course; it was the first time we had ever danced together, for of course he was not at the ball in Wickshire. I was pleased to see that he danced just as I had expected, calmly and expertly, with an air of great satisfaction.
And in fact I danced with him repeatedly, for as an engaged couple we were not limited to the usual two dances that propriety dictates; but not solely with him for I also stood up with Papa, and with Mr. Archer, and with Octavian, and with Mr. Myrtlewood, and with a selection of young bucks all of whom assured me how deeply jealous they were of my intended.
I had meant to dance with John Gamble, for both he and his sister were present, looking ever so much more presentable than they had at home, but he eluded me until the next to last dance, throughout which his face was occupied by an impish and mysterious grin.
“Just what are you intending, Mr. Gamble?” I said. “For I know you quite well enough to be sure you are not to be trusted.”
He beamed at me. “You are quite right, Miss Montjoy,” he said. “I am not at all to be trusted. But I assure you there will be no, grim business this night, as you might say. Max wouldn’t stand for it.”
“I should think not!”
“No, indeed!” And he continued to beam impishly as we went through the rest of the figure. I caught the eye of Maximilian, who was dancing with Mrs. Sloane-Price, and he winked at me. Whatever it was, the pair of them were in it together. Or, knowing Cathy Sloane-Price, the three of them.
At the end of that dance Mr. Gamble handed me off to Maximilian for the last dance of the evening. The music rose; and then there was a gasp as Maximilian and I went up the line. I gasped myself, for strange lights had appeared all around the edge of the dance floor, darting and weaving between the dancers and the on-lookers. I looked at Maximilian in surprise, and found that he was wearing a crown of light, as though strands of gold wire had been woven into a crown and then set ablaze. As I watched the strands of gold ran down his form, outlining the edges of his coat and his neckcloth and on down to his boots. He smiled at me, a small satisfied smile, and I looked down to see that my gown was similarly outlined in silver.
Do you know, Armand, it is entirely impossible, while dancing, to determine if one is wearing a crown of light on one’s head? No matter what one tries, one’s forehead is in the way.
“Of course you have one too,” whispered Maximilian to me when we had a moment. “What would be the point otherwise?”
The danced ended; the lights faded; and Maximilian and I took station with his parents and mine to say goodbye to our guests as they headed out into the late summer moonlight.
“Well done, young Archer,” said Mr. Myrtlewood. “It is good to see that the old ways are not completely forgotten.”
“Your great-uncle did the same for us at our engagement ball, an age and an age ago,” said his wife. “It has been many years since I have seen the like.”
Maximilian bowed. “I am not him, I am afraid. I had help from Mr. Gamble and Mrs. Sloane-Price; by all accounts he would not have required it.”
“Do pass on our thanks to them, young Archer,” said Mr. Myrtlewood.
“You are to be married in Wickshire, I collect, Miss Montjoy?” said Mrs. Myrtlewood.
“Yes, that’s right,” I said.
“Then I shall wish you very happy, and I hope you will come to visit us after.”
“I shall be glad to,” I said, and I meant it, Armand. “But I do not know when that shall be. Maximilian has plans, so he says, but he won’t tell me what they are. I do believe he likes to surprise me.”
“And so I do,” he said.
“And so he should,” said Mrs. Myrtlewood.
It seemed an age before all of the guests had gone, for I was quite fatigued, having danced every dance; but Maximilian and I stood under the moon for a time, just the two of us.
“We return to Wickshire tomorrow. When will I see you again?” I said.
“I have some mysterious and surprising doings to attend to, here and in Yorke. But never fear, I shall return to Stourness by the first of October.”
“Is there anything I should be prepared for?”
“Yes,” he said, and kissed me, and took me inside.
He quite failed to expand on that single word, either that evening or the next morning, and so now here I am in Wickshire wishing mightily to be prepared—but for what? And how could it possibly be as magical as my engagement dance?
Your crowned cousin,