Aveline frowned - and then froze. Quick as breathing, she wiped the undignified expression off of her face, replacing it instead with her more habitual veneer of neutrality.

"Dear Aveline,

...We regret to inform you...."

She dug her nails into her palm, studiously avoiding looking at at the well-dressed young man sitting across from her. He was meant to be her escort, of course; and from the deadpan expression on his face, he was one of her mother's stock. That made him easy to ignore, perhaps, but it was even easier to pretend he simply didn't exist. Aveline's eyes skimmed past him. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the limousine's wall-mounted mirror - frowning again - and she sighed, abandoning the pretense of control. Idly, she drummed her fingers across the bracelet that encircled her wrist, her fingers brushing over the delicate design of clasp and wire. The bracelet was a pretty thing wrought in leather and metal, and the swirling, flowery motif was narrow and feminine and functional all at once. It was probably the nicest-looking thing her cousin had ever made, and it was certainly one of the least superficial gifts that Aveline had ever received from a member of her family. But that was not why Aveline had disdained to take it off after the ball.

She glanced down at the delicate-looking strap of leather buckled innocently onto her wrist. Perhaps there was something sacrilegious in the sentimentality inherent of clinging to it. She wouldn't know one way or the other; sentimentality had never been her strong suit. She'd been feeling so dangerously off-kilter since yesterday afternoon that she could barely trust herself to keep a handle on her own emotions, let alone attempt to analyze the political and ethical ramifications thereof. She hadn't had the time to think about last night. She hadn't had the time to filter through the embarrassment, the confusion, the elation, the....guilt.

"...Died of unnatural causes..."

She'd sent her father that rose. She'd shipped it off to him, content that Lafayette Forsythe would be able to handle such a juvenile prank, that he would figure it out, dismantle whatever silly 'curse' it carried, and send her back the plucked petals in a pretty, gift-wrapped box. But now, instead, her father was dead. Was it her fault? The roses'? Did it matter?

Perhaps it was just a coincidence. Aveline hadn't had time to think about it - any more than she'd had time to do more than contact one of her mother's retainers to let them know to expect her at the mansion the following morning. A separate missive demanded one of the Forsythe drivers in accordance with that timetable, and she'd penned a third to the Magischola clerk's office announcing her temporary leave of absence from New World. That done, she'd put on her dress, applied her makeup, and gone to wait outside of the dorm commons. It had been a lovely evening, all things considered. She hadn't wanted to talk about her father at the ball - and fortunately, she'd managed to distract her date with the banal repetition of the scandalous rumors and baleful intrigue currently floating throughout the student body. He'd been less than impressed, but who could blame him? Who in their right mind could think that Theo was in league with Jack Slager?

Aveline bit her lip, smiling as she remembered the Registrar's indignation at being accused of consorting with the Gorecasters - and then she wiped the expression off of her face, feeling abruptly awful at her own expense. How could she have been happy, how could she have laughed, on the eve of her father's death?

She loved her father. As self-possessed and broken as the Forsythe family was as a whole, her mother and father were hers, and she loved them. Perhaps they did not get together for dinners around the kitchen table or go on family camping trips in the wilderness like she'd heard that the plebeian Mundanes liked to do....but they were hers, all the same. As the only daughter of the second son of the second son, Aveline was far from the seat of Forsythe power - but now, with Lafayette's passing, she was one step closer. And that knowledge did nothing to soothe the hollow ache in her chest - or the guilt she felt about her ability to ignore it.

Despite all odds, she'd enjoyed herself at the ball, and could hardly force herself to feel apologetic for it. Even the looming specter of having to return to Massachusetts the next morning hadn't been enough to eclipse her overall enjoyment of the evening. Perhaps that, in itself, made her a bad person. Perhaps sorrow and elation could not exist in such close proximity within the same heart without causing a bit of confusion. Certainly her chest felt tight, her stomach oddly fluttery - though perhaps that was just the result of Magischola's lamentable culinary arrangements.

She rest her head against the cool leather interior of the limousine. She was tired, her feet were sore, and she couldn't stop frowning. The escort sitting across from her gave no indication that he'd noticed anything amiss, and Aveline took his reticence at face value. The Forsythe escorts might as well have been revenants for all the emotions they displayed; the family didn't like to be distracted by the feelings of their servitors. Aveline glanced away from him, unable to meet even his eyes. She blamed herself for her father's death as much as she blamed Kathryn Dwyer's silly, sanctimonious prophecy. And her mother...No, she was not looking forward to seeing her mother.

With a sigh, Aveline gave up and simply closed her eyes - and closed her hand around the bangle that clung to her wrist.

______________________________


The limousine rolled down the public thoroughfare. Aveline glanced disinterestedly out of the window, her eyes skimming away from the cobblestone walkways and the perfectly manicured lawns of the houses set back off the main road. Cambridge was less industrial than nearby Boston, but it was filled with its own wealth of Mundane history. Most notably, however, it was home to the Forsythe foothold residence in Massachusetts. Boston had its own unique magical culture, but Cambridge was owned by the Forsythes.

The car slowed as it approached a large, Gothic-looking gateway. The private road continued beyond, but the distant house was shielded from the main street by large looming hedges on either side of the entrance. A stonework placard jut out from the side of one of the carefully pruned bushes, with the indentations carved into the pale marble listing the address as 33 Forsythe Manor. Instead of slowing to a stop and waiting for the wrought iron gate to open, however, the limo turned a little too quickly, swerving into the nearer hedge - and passing straight on through it.

This was, after all, Destiny Province. Nothing was ever quite as it seemed - least of all the entrance to Lafayette's home estate.

The carefully manicured lawn and privacy hedges that she'd glimpsed beyond the iron gates had vanished. Gone was the charming Cambridge veneer, the expected brick-and-mortar colonial abode. Instead, a large Gothic monstrosity of a castle, complete with European balustrades and panes of stained glass set high in the tower windows, stood silhouetted by gardens, pools, and standalone trees pruned to look like dragons and cactus cats. The elegant grey building projected an air of staunch timelessness, of expert craftsmanship, the entire affair underlined and highlighted by its singular beauty and symmetry of design. Gardening Golems trudged between the carefully cultivated flower beds, and shimmering veils of power rippled in the air over the artificial walkways. Aveline sighed, turning away from the window. Home sweet home.

The limousine rolled up the raked driveway, finely-ground gravel crunching underneath the tires. Before it had come to a complete stop, a quartet of perfectly matching maids trudged out from the main entrance of the castle, two of them lining either side of the entryway. Aveline picked her hat off of the seat beside her and placed it deliberately on her head as a fifth lady in waiting breezed past her fellows to open Aveline's door. Her escort remained seated,and Aveline spared him no further thought.

"Miss Forsythe," the maid - Juli? - said, bowing Aveline out of the limo. "Your mother is waiting in the parlor." Aveline nodded, steeled her shoulders, and started up the walk. She took the steps at a practiced pace, and the staunch wooden door was flung open before her. The plush woven carpet hugged her heels, and she turned into the lavishly furnished parlor with an air of expediency.

The house felt...hollow. Always too grand, too haughty, to inspire a warm and cozy feeling, the manor now seemed almost desolate. Aveline stiffened as she entered the parlor and caught a whiff of her father's favorite pipe tobacco. Reflexively, she grabbed for the bracelet on her wrist - and released it almost as quickly, hoping that Hildegarde hadn't noticed the new tic. Her mother sat in one of the armchairs that were artfully arranged around the mahogany coffee table. She procured a thin, Cheshire smile as soon as she caught sight of Aveline in the doorway.

"Avvie, dear, do come sit." Long dark hair fell to her mother's waist, expertly curled and teased into loose ringlets. Aveline couldn't help but notice that her mother's eyes seemed perfectly dry, her makeup untarnished by blemish or tear - but then, she hadn't really expected Hildegarde to cry. As a Lawshe, her mother had been married into the Forsythe family more than seventy eight years ago. It had been an advantageous pairing, beneficial to both Unsoiled pedigrees, but there was little love lost - at least on Hildegarde's part. She had married Lafayette for one reason, and one reason only - and a good portion of that reason lay in the Forsythe assets. For what other benefit does anyone marry their first cousin?

Aveline minced carefully into the room, perching on the edge of the other armchair. "Hello, Mother," she said. Hildegarde continued to smile, gesturing to a tea set arranged on the table. "Tea, dear?" her mother offered. Aveline paused, then nodded. Her mother made no move to serve, and so Aveline bent forward to pour the Darjeeling into a porcelain cup. The brim of her hat shaded her eyes.

"Are you...alright?" Aveline asked into the predatory silence - for the sake of propriety, if nothing else. Her mother's bell-like laugh grated against her ears. "Oh, of course not, Avvie. I'm devastated. My poor Laffy. He dropped right in the middle of dinner, you know. He was regaling me with such an interesting story about that little flower you sent him. Just slumped right down into his soup - didn't even get half way through his bisque. Caused quite a ruckus among the wait staff," her mother pouted. The snide smile that touched upon her carefully rouged lips gave lie to whatever grief she pretended to. "Such a shame. Now what ever will I do with our share of his inheritance?" Hildegarde simpered.

Aveline winced. She set the tea pot carefully back on its saucer, playing with the sugar tongs longer than was absolutely necessary. "Has the family made...arrangements?" Aveline asked. Hildegarde flapped a hand in the air, waving away Aveline's concern. "You arrived just in time, though you needn't have rushed on our account. The arraignment will be tomorrow evening."

Aveline nodded, swallowing whatever emotions had wakened in response to her mother's cavalier attitude. Hildegarde leaned forward, and Aveline braced herself, taking a carefully measured sip of her tea. "Now. Let's talk about you." Her mother's voice had sharpened, become syrupy-sweet. Like chocolate laced with poison. Aveline knew better than to let down her guard; she was, mostly, prepared for the shift. Empty and air-headed though Hildegarde Lawshe might seem, she was one of the foremost information brokers in the Magimundi. Being wealthy, well-connected, and possessing the all the honesty and integrity of a purebred shark certainly didn't hurt her mother's inborn ability to bribe, buy, blackmail, or otherwise procure whatever sordid secret she desired. Aveline's information network paled beside Hildegarde's, and she brooked no illusions about that fact.

"I heard that you were sorted into DuBois. Good on you...though you know, dear, that I would have preferred to see you in Croatan. Especially once I heard that one of your House Presidents, that charming Mr. Hayes, was arrested at the ball. How scandalous! I do hope you didn't still have any designs on him? No, certainly not - he paired off with Miss Hyacinth Oehler, didn't he? Handsome pair, those two - though I wonder how handsome he'll be once he's released from Avernus." Aveline remained silent. She knew better than to try and interrupt Hildegarde's show - and that's all it was, really. A show of power, of prestige, of connections. A show of how much she knew, without even trying. "Now, that Lynwood fellow," Hildegarde continued. Aveline stiffened, carefully maintaining her rigidly neutral expression. "I must say, that was a rather brilliant move on your part, Avvie. Good show, going for a member of the faculty right off the bat like that." Aveline dipped her head in acknowledgement, though something in her stomach twisted.

Hildegarde continued, "I really must admit to feeling some shock when I heard about what happened, though. Really, Avvie, kissing? Right in the middle of the dance floor? I almost hexed the poor dear who'd come to tell me. I mean, imagine my shock! I thought you'd set out to become one of the Silent Sisters, and then I hear about you acting like a love-struck Mundane. Twenty two years old and not a single lover. People don't even make rumors about you any more, you know? Not even a whisper. Not even a hint! Really, girl, what have I been teaching you? Don't you know that some of the most interesting things can be learned from pillow talk?" Aveline opened her mouth to retort - but as always, Hildegarde spoke right over top of her.

"I'd have thought at some point you'd at least have taken advantage of ickle Bastian - but nooo, your first kiss is with Theodorus Lynwood, of all people. I do hope you realize, dear, that he's not strictly Unsoiled." Her mother raised a brow - and would have kept talking, but all of a sudden Aveline had had quite enough. "I didn't come home to talk about my date, mother," she interrupted firmly. Hildegarde paused - and then her smile gained an even sharper edge. Aveline realized her error at once, but it was too late to detract her statement. Hildegarde had latched on like a purebred show dog shown a suitably expensive bone. "Oh, of course not, Avvie! No, of course! But let's not forget, shall we, the deal we made, hrmmm? You did promise. I won't have Bertram's line one-upping us in the marriage department. Your father and I agreed to give you some time to find your own partner - you were so charmingly forceful about it - but if you can't manage on your own, I will arrange for someone suitable to accompany you in the future."

Aveline clenched her jaw, glancing away. Generally speaking, she did not object to the concept of an arranged marriage. When one was Unsoiled, it was simply a fact of life. Still, she'd valued her friendship with Bastian too much to compromise it with marriage. When her father had raised their union as a possibility back in primaschola, the resulting argument had procured Aveline five years of romantic freedom. Her mother, for once, had taken her side - though Aveline suspected it was simply for the experience of one-upping her husband.

Aveline hadn't taken advantage of the last two years in the slightest. She'd never truly been interested in pursuing romance in the first place, and she had rather more pertinent concerns to occupy her time. But now....

"You know, I've also heard the most interesting things about some of your professors. You will be getting better grades at this quaint little college of yours, won't you, dear? Not like your scores at Providence?" Aveline set her cup down with a clang, snapping out of her emotional reverie. "My scores at Providence were perfectly fine, Mother. Until you - "

"Oh shush, Avvie. It's not my fault that those stodgy old codgers don't know what's good for them. Would it really have hurt them to bump up your scores just the teeniest bit? It's not like they object to greased palms in the general sense - and really, I would know." Hildegarde said. She did that weird hand-fluttering thing again; Aveline was reminded of a crocodilian butterfly. "There was certainly no harm in trying. Why, just a few more points and you would have beaten even your dear cousin Hercules's test scores. Ah well, no matter. Imperial would have been best, of course, but New World is perfectly servicable. I imagine that you'll do great things there, won't you dear? You certainly have the familial clout. No sense in letting it go to waste."

Aveline scowled into her teacup. Hildegard didn't notice - or rather, she did, and didn't let that fact deter her. She kept talking. "Now that Laffy doesn't have control of the purse strings, we'll have to see about upping your allowance. You're doing some rather marvelous work with your wards and batteries - and branching out into herbology too, it seems!" Aveline stiffened. "I have no interest in herbology," she corrected warily.

Hildegarde smiled brightly. "No? Why ever did you send him the prophet's rose then, dear? I thought it was quite lovely."

Aveline set her tea down deliberately, standing up from the armchair very, very slowly. "I will be in my room, Mother," she whispered. Hildegarde continued to smile. "Of course, Avvie. You rest up for tomorrow, won't you?"

Aveline nodded and turned away, fighting the sudden up-swell of emotion. Guilt, grief, and pain washed through her thoughts, each of them alien, all of them unfamiliar. It was both like, and unlike, the DuBois Ritual. Like, and unlike, the butterfly-wings feeling of the Registrar's lips on hers.

She left the room clutching the bracelet on her wrist - and she turned, deliberately walking up the steps to her room. All at once, she missed her father. Strict and no-nonsense as Lafayette Forsythe had been, it had been a loving rigidity, structure spiced with tobacco and caustic humor. He'd begrudged Aveline nothing in life; save for the argument about the arranged marriage, they'd never fought. They'd been too much alike. One of Aveline's fondest memories was of handing her father a prototype power ring; he'd frowned, critiqued her workmanship, called it a shoddy effort...and then worn the thing for the next week straight. She'd had to beg him to take it off, but he'd only pretended that it had been one of his artifacts all along.

But now....

Aveline shut the door of her room behind her - and the sound of the lock in the latch seemed suddenly like a very lonely sound.

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