The Start of Solitaire
The tinkling laughs of beautiful (and occasionally desperate) young belles and the low murmurs of their beaus flickered alongside the firelight on the walls of the then-new colonial mansion's drawing room. Everywhere there fluttered the girls somehow remaining graceful in their heavy, elaborate gowns, the stiff young men bowing to hear this year's wittiest comment, the upright unnoticed butlers serving refreshments, all circling in an inevitable dance of society and monetary superiority.
And in the corner sat the supposed center of attention, working quietly at some piece of embroidery. Every feature was in opposition to the style of the day. Her hair, a dark honey, was not blonde enough for the accepted norm, nor was it dark enough to be one of the rare brunette beauties. Already the ringlet curls were falling out of her perfectly straight hair, leaving it looking rather stretched out and limp. Her features were too pointy for the baby-cheeked look of the day, her skin not strawberries-and-cream but well tanned, her form, though long, too big-boned. Her only assets, gossips would whisper, were her almond-shaped blue eyes (a kickback to a long-ago Asian genetic strain) that gave her an air of mystery, and her full lips. Not even her fathers' money and England's most up-to-the-minute dress could offset such a plain, unfashionable girl.
A slender girl extricated herself from a tangle of overenthusiastic debutantes and caught the girl's needle as it passed out of the fabric.
"Anna," she said reprovingly. "A lady of society does remove herself from her own coming-out party."
Anna looked up, face dead serious. "Please tell me you're imitating both of our parents deliberately." When her best friend left her face as deadpan as Anna's own, she added, "Because otherwise you, Lady Laurel Franklin, are the most frightening person I know."
Both girls pealed into laughter just a little too loud. Ignoring the room's stares, Laurel leaned closer and said, "Come on, come talk to the Hutchinson sisters with me. We could always work our way around the room..." She glanced meaningfully around to a boy sitting uncomfortably in the midst of two girls talking over each other in their eagerness to prove how suitable they would be for him.
Quickly, Anna looked down, the blush on her long cheeks almost as much from the shame of their indecorous laughter as at the boy's appealing glance. "I think he's a bit occupied by Rebecca and Mary," she commented.
"Well, I think he wants rescuing," Laurel observed. "It's amazing how those two best friends can split so over one boy."
"What do they see in him anyways?" Anna demanded. "He's not rich, not particularly handsome, too quiet to have a really charming personality..."
"Those are good reasons not to like him," Laurel began. "...So what do you see in him?"
Instead of ducking her head this time, Anna met Laurel's eyes and glared, infuriated at Laurel's intuition. Denial came to mind and was quickly rejected. Lying never worked with Laurel anyways-- she knew Anna too well.
"Seriously," Laurel said. "You guys should have a long talk and get to know each other. There could be worse matches made…" She trailed off, realizing too late where she had brought the conversation. Since well before her coming-out, Anna's parents had been looking at one Lord Rafael as a possible engagement. He was, fortunately, not the old fat disgusting widower that so many young girls inevitably got stuck with, but he did fill the standard of disgusting. The most polite society, when whispering their gossip on handsome Lord Rafael, would say that he had his money and his looks all right, but something was, "just a little bit off, wouldn't you agree my dear?"
"And here I thought they would find me a man who was nice, regardless of looks or age," Anna murmured. Laurel started a bit, as it was rare to pull even the most subtle of criticisms out of Anna in private, much less in the middle of a public affair where she might be overheard.
"Can't live with them, can't live without them, eh Anna?" In her most vulgar low-society manner possible, Laurel winked at her friend. She didn't mind doing such things in public-- her family was fairly poor.
Anna restrained the similarly uncouth desire to roll her eyes, and decided upon a compromise in her terms. "Laurel, since I must be social upon my own coming-out occasion, will you accompany me across the room to the Hutchinsons? I can say a few nice words along the way and that can be my good gregarity for the night. Your opinion?"
"Perfectly lovely, dahhling," Laurel said, elongating her accent now in the attempt to be a lowborn woman acting in high society, and extending her arm. "Shall we, me love?" They laughed even as they walked towards Anna's hell.
The affair was winding to a close. Anna's father could be found in the smoking parlor sharing a last brandy with the lingering male guests, while her mother pored over some of her beloved books in the library with a few of her close female friends. To give her credit, she did attempt to include the less familiar women who occupied the library as well, but they seemed content to gossip snidely about her family in the corner so she did not overextend herself in her efforts.
In a small, nearly unnoticeable room off of the library that was basically Anna's alone, she and Laura sat on the floor in front of the brightly burning fire, postures slumped in a way that would make their etiquette instructors faint and legs showing from under their uncomfortable over-ruffled dresses. It had been a hard night, and now they relaxed with giggled jokes and a new form of solitaire game that Anna had made up using the newly-American-printed deck of cards.
"So," Laurel began a new conversation, her eyes alight at the prospect of fresh slander, "Take a guess at what the Lady Marguerite Ashton has been up to."
"Am I supposed to care?" Anna teased. With a couple cups of wine tumbling in her blood and in the ambience of her own special room, she felt far more relaxed. "All right then, let me think… our Lady-soon-to-be-Countess was discovered in the midst of meeting her bootblack at a secret midnight rendezvous. Not only has there been illicit courting, but he means to elope with her."
Laurel pondered. "Secret midnight rendezvous, no, bootblack… yes." She grinned.
"Actually, I do. It isn't her bootblack who means to run off with her, but her finacee's butler." Both girls pealed into loud laughter again.
Anna allowed herself a bit of snideness. "Knowing the Count, however, he may not entirely object to this new development."
"Oh, no! Perish the thought! The Count would never tolerate infidelity!"
"Other than his own, of course."
"He's marrying the wrong woman."
The girls were nearly breathless with laughter now, alight with the wicked snobbery that they would never dare to echo in any other society. Gasping for breath, Laurel knocked Anna's card game off of the low settee she had placed them on. Still giggling in a winded way, both girls leaned over to retrieve them, knocking their heads together. Now they were half collapsed on the floor, legs sprawled haphazardly, laughing wholeheartedly.
And, of course, this was the most embarrassing time for the most humiliating person possible to come in. Lord Robert of Elderberry Heights wandered into the room, watching with interest as bookshelves from the library gradually faded into a more regular private conversation room, replete with the works of new up-and-coming artists that this family so favored. He hardly noticed the girls at first, and once his gaze drifted down to their hysterically prone forms, he straightened and began a thorough examination of a painting, clearing his throat to gather their attention.
He hardly had need to, however, as the more observant Anna had seen him almost the instant he'd seen them. She instantly sat up, nudging Laurel hard, and rearranged her dress and posture into the more socially acceptable position for sitting on the floor. Laurel followed suit as she observed that the ramrod-straight form next to her had the exact same shade of humiliation staining her cheeks as the man in front of the painting.
It was the more socially relaxed girl who decided to break the awkward moment and signaled to Robert that they were fit for mixed company by stating, "Lord Robert, so lovely to see you again… as I recall we had a very entertaining conversation this night."
Robert turned and smiled benignly. He had found Laurel extremely amusing in her own odd way. "Lady Laurel, I assure you that the entertainment in our conversation tonight was primarily supplied by you. But I enjoyed the talk as well. Lady Anna, my compliments on your debutante party tonight. You looked lovely."
Anna knew better than to let that obviously false compliment go to her head, but her blush only deepened as she gave the social norm reply: "The party was only improved by your company, Lord Robert."
Laurel, who had been wriggling with impatience for some time, now burst out, "Are we done with the formalities yet? I thought the formal part of the affair was over!"
Anna and Robert could only laugh at her impudence. They met eyes as Anna boldly stated, "Laurel and I were chatting over a game of cards. Would you care to join us?"
"Alas, I know no games," Robert said. His tone made it nearly impossible to tell if he was deliberately being melodramatic, but the girls were willing to bet that he was.
Laurel giggled a bit and said, "I know a game that my fiancée, Alec of Shoreline, taught me… it's called 'Old Maid' I believe." She cast a sly glance at Anna, whose face turned an interesting mixture of puce and crimson as she glared fiercely at her. Robert's face, to his credit, held not a trace of a smile at her expense.
"I for one am always willing to learn any kind of new game," he said gently. Anna nodded in acquiescence.
The situation saved for the most part, the young adults settled down to a more casual atmosphere as they chatted. With Laurel's witty comments acting as referee and chaperone, Anna and Robert gradually got to know each other as the fire burned regrettably lower.
The next day dawned like a scene out of Johnny Tremain. Roosters crowed as they had at every other hour of the night, cows eagerly awaited the relief of the pressure in their bags with the arrival of the farmer, mothers screeched at children to wake up, and gradually the peasantry of the town arose.
It was not for a few more hours, of course, that the nobility forming the rim of town and in the country would arise, unless they had actual businesses to maintain. As Laurel and Anna had yet to learn the ways of business (if indeed they ever will), nor did they have households to maintain and maids to whip into action (Laurel's house had very few anyways), they slept late to compensate for their late hours at the party and met later at Anna's house for a day of pleasantry and shopping. As their day was perfectly predictable I shall skip to another girl's day out of a more vicious circle, as Lady Marguerite Ashton (newly disengaged from her equally infidelous Count Marbury) met with Rebecca Le Fleur at the home of another of her sidekicks, Mary Nightingale.
Just before she took a ladylike slurp of tea, Mary commented, "Well, I hear that Lord Robert has a definite affinity towards Rachel Hutchinson."
"Oh, really," Rebecca replied, "He hardly talked to her for ten minutes!"
"About as long as he talked to you, wasn't it, Becca?" Mary retorted. She was still stinging from last night, when Robert's attention lingered longer on her friend than on Mary herself.
"And longer than you, I notice," Rebecca put in smugly, before Marguerite cut in to break the rising tension and refocus the attention back on her. "But of course a man's favors is not decided by how long he talks to a debutante, but by the satisfaction he receives from the interchange, am I right dears? After all, he is obligated to speak with each girl at a social gathering, to be gentlemanly."
"Unlike Lord Rafael," Rebecca muttered. Each girl smirked, publicly pleased that they were not engaged to him. What slime!
"Actually, may I confide something in you, my best friends?"
"As always," Rebecca replied, her face as innocent as if she wasn't going to announce it to the world as soon as she left the house. Beside her, Mary nodded gravely.
"Well," Marguerite began modestly, deciding just the way to go about this, "Last night Robert claimed a few dances for me. And while we danced we talked of course, and somewhere between the gavotte and the waltz I discovered that he has he most fascinating mind! His views on politics and today's society held me riveted-- even upon the few occasions that they didn't mirror mine. And I decided that he would be the most interesting person that I could spend time with." She carefully did not mention that Robert's looks, wealth, and influence had decided this before she ever set foot on the dance floor.
"So you're going to set your cap for him, Rita?" Mary asked eagerly.
"Well, not in such vulgar terms, of course," Marguerite said in mild reproof. "But I was wondering… what the opinions of the two women I value most would be?" This question was possibly the most genuinely spoken in the entire conversation. Marguerite did value the girls in her own way, and she knew that the loss of a very loyal and malleable follower and the busiest rumor mill in town would be disastrous. Rebecca and Mary fell silent for a moment as they pondered the various advantages to be taken in this situation, and the most diplomatic response possible.
"I think," Mary said, shocking everyone as she for once spoke first, "That of all the girls in this town-- indeed, this state-- you, Marguerite, would probably be the most appropriate for the town's darling Robert. There are few enough other people who could put his influence to good use, not to mention the ways in which you two suit each other-- you are practical where he is absentminded, diplomatic where he is honest, socially aware and active where he is reclusive. Of all the girls last night who demanded his attention--" she swept a forgiving glance across Rebecca, "--you are perhaps the most deserving. Besides…" She smiled widely even as she blushed, "Jason Little and I are finalizing engagement plans."
Rebecca and Marguerite's eyes met as they freely shared their condescending love for their surprising friend. "And I," Rebecca said as gently as them moment required, "Completely agree with Mary. She is right; a better match would be hard to find."
"Do you have another man on your mind, Becca?" Mary teased. Rebecca merely smiled, perfectly happy that the girls could not see what was flashing through her mind at the moment. She had no intention of telling even these close friends her thoughts of the man whose brown eyes sparkled in his lined face as he shot some witty comeback at her, even as he pitched a bale of hay over his shoulder. Not a word of this peasant to whom she had absolutely no inclination to gossip; she was too occupied with keeping up with his keen mind.
"Well, whatever man you have in mind, Becca, I wish you the best of luck," Mary said gently. Perhaps she did have an inkling of the thoughts in her best friends' mind.
"May our life's goal-- successful marriage-- be realized," Marguerite said. As a group of male friends at an alehouse would clink glasses together before taking a long draught, the three ladies picked up their teacups in unison and sipped.
Whoever would have thought that I would be here, in such company, feeling this happy, on such a purportedly ordinary day? Anna thought wildly as she gasped for breath.
Of course the Reader is picturing a scene as innocent as was actually happening. Anna, Laurel, and Robert gasped for breath, a few more laughs jolted out of them with the bumping of the carriage, at Laurel's latest verbal folly-- she had partially on purpose completely contorted a sentence giving it a whole new, slightly-senseless meaning. Anna's sly editing questions only served to twist the sentence further and confuse Laurel, until her tongue tripped.
Anna had never imagined that they would meet Robert at one of the corner stores on their shopping trip, though Laurel carried a small smirk in her eyes when the girls made their way over to Robert to greet him. He had of course accepted their offer to shop with them that day, then to retire back to Anna's house for tea.
As Robert wiped watery eyes, he repeated the final outcome and set them off laughing again, so loudly that the coachmen glanced back and rolled his eyes. He couldn't contain the bemused smirk on his face, though, until it was wiped off his face by a heavy jolt as the left front wheel flew off of the carriage.
This is not so disastrous as a modern day car losing a wheel while going seventy miles per hour, but in the day of no seat belts it was severe enough. The cart abruptly rolled onto its right side, throwing the coachman, crushing the inhabitants sideways in a tangle of limbs, and twisting the axle so that the horses were suddenly yanked both to the side and back by the coachman still holding the reins. The horses reared, terrified though they had no blinkers to hide the scene behind them, and the servant reacted instantly: he loosened the reins and rushed to the horses heads to calm them. After cutting them loose to graze he turned to the attentions of his human charges, limping slightly on his sprained ankle. Laurel had already extricated herself and was leaning back into the overturned cab to help Anna out. Still crushed in the bottom, Robert decided to keep his eyes prudently shut for the time being to avoid seeing certain forbidden anatomy-- like her ankles or calves-- as Anna removed herself.
Robert was just lifting himself out of the carriage when another coach trotted to a halt and the driver immediately leaped out to assist the unfortunate manservant attempting to right the carriage. And who else would be better suited to take advantage of this situation than Lady Marguerite, who at that moment stepped out of her stagecoach and assessed the situation with her frozen-chocolate eyes.
"Well," she said, a smirk behind her look of polite concern, "What a mess we have here!"
"No kidding!" Laurel said, brushing hair out of Anna's eyes. "I don't believe I've ever been in an overturned carriage before, have you, Anna? Quite exciting!"
Anna took her cue to override Marguerite's subtle insult to her defunct coach. "None of our carriages have ever lost a wheel before," she said firmly. "It was certainly an interesting experience."
"Indeed," Robert said with a half-laugh, "Is life always so exciting around you two?"
"We do our best," Laurel replied, repinning loose strands of hair as she kept a wary eye on Marguerite's next move.
"Well, it seems this bit of excitement is going to take a while to work out," Marguerite cut in smoothly as she eyed the carriage, newly righted, and the horses' cut reins. Though her servant had assisted Anna's, she made no other offer to give the girls a lift back to Anna's house to save time. "While they correct this, Robert, would you like to come back to my house for tea?"
Robert turned regretful eyes back to Anna and Laurel. "I do apologize wholeheartedly, ladies, but I do have an engagement in an hour. Would you be terribly offended if I took a rain check on your tea?"
Of course, phrased like that, there was nothing the girls could say but, "Of course not, Robert, have a good time! Good day, Lady Marguerite."
Anna and Laurel silent watched the carriage roll quickly away from the corners of their eyes as they surveyed the damage and what needed to be done. It was only after the coach was well out of earshot that Laurel burst into the most tremendous of all rages, while Anna shrank further into herself as she faced the prospect of sending her man home on a sprained ankle, for of course he would not accept their walking the three miles.
As Laurel savagely whipped the white contents of one bowl into a froth, a glower lined her face as she thought on the events of the previous day. Slapping it into a larger bowl and throwing the bowl onto the fire to think about what it had done, she sat suddenly in front of the fire to think about what she needed to do.
"I can not let that witch ruin Anna's best chance!" she declared loudly after a moment, springing up again to check how the brown gooey liquid in a third bowl by the window had set. She smirked suddenly upon the idea of Marguerite being a witch. "It's almost enough for me to mix up something to show her what a real witch is about," she murmured. An idea brightened her eyes. She stopped herself from slamming into the chair at her desk with the recognition if its frailty, but she did give herself the satisfaction of yanking open the sturdy drawer in the solid mahogany desk. Removing her ink, pen, and stationary, she began to write.
Robert looked at Laurel's invitation and sighed. Much as he would love to join them, his business and friendship engagements and the ones that the Lady Marguerite had roped him into was completely filling his schedule. Removing his own stationary, he wrote out his regrets, paused, then made another copy to mail to Anna-- Laurel's invitation had included her, after all. He sighed as he sealed the envelopes, but by the time his manservant came to fetch his correspondence, he had nearly forgotten the whole affair.
Anna reread the letter, aghast at both Laurel's impudence and the response. She knew the full implications-- Marguerite was the one preventing Robert from spending time with them, and no doubt she would continue to do so. Her chances at courtship? Impossible. She might as well resign herself to the marriage to insane old Rafael.
Feeling vaguely lost, Anna wandered out her door and further into town to Laurel's abode. She had only been there a couple of times, but remembered it as perhaps a small place for nobility, but imbued in its walls was a far more pungent feeling of home than in any other grand mansion she had seen-- including her own. As soon as she knocked on the door and was let in by two of Laurel's siblings-- fighting madly over who got to open the door for 'the lady'-- Mrs. Franklin looked up and merely waved her up the stairs. Originally a peasant woman, Laurel's mother was not one for etiquette and rarely attended social gatherings.
Anna knocked at the door, heard a rather dazed "Come in," and entered. Laurel was seated in front of the fire, staring numbly at her own letter from Robert. She did not look up as Anna meandered over to inspect the large pot cooling from the fire's wrath on the side table.
"I got his letter, too," Anna said softly. Laurel jumped-- literally-- to her feet in her surprise.
"Anna!" She burst out. She recovered quickly from her surprise as soon as she observed Anna's slumped, dejected form. "I hope you wouldn't think me too brash," she said in a gentler tone, "But we had to do something, you know."
The other girl sighed a bit. "Don't worry about it," she replied. "I give up. …But, Laurel? What is this? …It isn't what I think it is."
"No, it probably is," Laurel said, unconcern in her voice but nervousness in her eyes. She crossed to Anna at the table. "It's a spell, Anna. A potion."
"You're a witch."
"Not in so many terms. I just like to…" She met her best friend's eyes. "Well, perhaps I am."
"…Is that okay?"
"I think…" Anna smiled. "I think it fits for you. And I think that Alec has a whole lot of surprises coming to him when he marries you."
Laurel laughed. Serious again at the thought of love, she suddenly burst out, "This is a love potion, Anna. It doesn't necessarily force people to fall in love, but it does dim their recognition of other women around them. It keeps them from being distracted from the best features of the girl in question."
"Brewed especially for me and Robert."
"I want you two to be happy."
"But I don't want that! I mean, I don't want to have to fight!" Anna swung away, fighting with herself. "I want to just go away. I want to be locked into my own little room forever, I want to just be alone for the rest of my life! I don't want to fight for courtship, get married, go to parties, fight the rumor mongerers, and fulfill all of my social obligations for the rest of my life! I just want-- to be-- alone!"
Laurel listened as for the first time, Anna spilled the true weight upon her soul. Her eyes were a mix of disappointment, love, understanding, and compassion. Though she was saddened by Anna's lack of will, lack of willingness to fight for a full life, putting her own unique spin on the expectations of her class, she completely empathized with her feelings. She too felt the load put on her by society to live 'successfully,' and she too wanted sometimes to just be alone, to just be. She just hadn't realized how desperately Anna needed this.
"Anna," she said softly. "I could help with that… if you wanted. I could put a spell on your little room off of the library to keep people out. You could just sit, play cards, do whatever you wished for the rest of your life. I could lift the spell whenever you wanted to…"
"But I need to eat and other vital functions," she said, beginning to warm up to the impossible idea.
"Well, actually… you don't. I fixed that long ago, so you wouldn't ever be sick. Don't you ever wonder why you're never hungry? You eat and use the outhouse out of habit, but you don't actually have to. If you wanted, you could live forever."
"But I don't want to."
"Easy enough… I just link the passage of your life to something else finite. It would mark the passage of a normal life and then you would die."
Anna's eyes took on a dreamy look. "You know what I've always wanted to do… I've wanted to just crawl into a fire, feel what it's like when its flames wrap me in its arms. Maybe, at the end of my life… I could?" She looked at Laurel, and was reminded again why she believed in this preposterous idea.
Laurel smiled. "We have a lot to do now, my dear."
Nothing and everything changes in five years, Laurel thought as she gave over the baby and the toddler to Alec and wandered over to the library. Everything for me, and nothing for her. Laurel entered the little room, nearly forgotten by all inhabitants of the house.
For one, the translucent barrier had shrunk over time. Laurel was still unsure what facet of the spell had created that detail, but by now it hardly mattered. She could still slip through it easily. Everyone else believed that they could not get through, and so they didn't.
Anna looked up in the same way she had for each of Laurel's biannual visits-- the look of a hungry animal being interrupted in the middle of feeding. Now, though, her look included a spot of resignation that Laurel pondered upon.
"Did you know, Laurel?" she began, her voice raspy from lack of use. "Did you know that the human body is allotted only a certain number of heartbeats, a certain number of breaths in their lifetime?"
"Hold your breath," Laurel advised as she sat by the low settee they always used for their games.
Anna laughed. "If it were only that practical, best friend of mine…" she fell silent for a moment as she dealt cards, then looked back up at Laurel's slightly more aged faced, the laugh lines in her eyes and the frown lines around her mouth a little deeper than she remembered. "Laurel, my number of breaths and heartbeats is fast running out. Five years longer is all I was meant to live." She shrugged apologetically, sad that Laurel had gone to all that trouble only to last half a decade.
Laurel was looking back at her in shock, the usually forbidden tears filling her eyes. For one disjointed moment she wondered if these were the tears she was supposed to cry over her first unborn baby, then wrenched her mind back to the present moment. "…Anna?" she said uncertainly.
"I am sorry, Laurel… but I think you deserve thanks for the five years of solace that you gave me. I enjoyed every minute, you know. But may I ask one last favor? Would you mind staying with me until my breath runs out? There is no company greater than your own that I would want beside me when it comes time to crawl in the fire." Involuntarily, both glanced over at the fire, burning lower and lower as each minute passed.
"Anna," Laurel began. "The constant solitude has been your solace. But your presence has been my consolation from society for the past twenty years. How can I calm myself down when I find myself too neurotic without your influence?"
"You said yourself that you named your second child Anna very aptly, didn't you?" The older Anna responded. "Comfort can be found wherever you choose to look, Laurel. We were always the closest of friends and I personally treasure every memory that we created. Perhaps when your heart runs out we can rekindle that closeness. But for now… I have a fire to rekindle, my dear." She turned over the last card in their game-- the deuce of hearts-- and rose. "Pass along the knowledge of the game I created, dear? The prime entertainer in my solitary life-- my Solitaire." She paused. "Much love, my dear."
She crossed to her beloved fire, knelt, and sat inside the fireplace. Leaning her head against one side and pressing her feet against the other, she lay back and sighed as the fire enfolded her in arms as comfortable as a lover's. Laurel squinted as the fire exploded upwards, filling the room with Hell's heat, and the ashes of flesh, bone, and a white brocade dress settled back onto the grate. The fire resumed a more normal height, though it rose higher and hotter than it had been when Laurel first entered the room.
Laurel sat by herself as she laid out a simple Solitaire game in tribute to her best friend. Much to her surprise, she won-- it was more common to lose for some reason. She just sat then, pondering, remembering. She sighed, still mourning the loss of her friend, and rose to leave the room.
About six feet from the door, she flattened and reeled backwards as resoundingly as if she had walked full force into a sliding glass door. Shocked, she reached a shaking hand forward and discovered a very solid barrier-- lacking the usual acquiescence to her commanding presence. She pushed her hand more firmly against it, then beat upon it with her fist. Kicked it-- her legs had always been stronger. Battering rammed it and ended up with a bruised shoulder. But it always let me out before, when Anna was here, she thought desperately.
When Anna was here.
She leaned her forehead against the transparent wall, thinking mightily. That's where it went wrong, she thought. I knew it was wrong somewhere, especially when the barrier started shrinking. "I inverted the wild card," she said aloud. "I… I put too much fire in, I messed it all up!"
She paced, dimly realizing that her shoulder, her hand, her foot no longer ached-- the gift of self-healing that she had given Anna. She stopped in shock as she registered more fully that she was wearing Anna's favorite white brocade dress-- that minutes ago had gone up in flame with her. "I'm trapped here," she said aloud, stroking the fabric of her skirt, "Unless I get someone else to stay in the room so I can leave."
"Trapped," she said aloud, some minutes later, after a furious game of Solitaire. "Alone, destined for my husband, my children to forget about me. Living forever in loneliness. That was the fate Anna wanted, not my own!"
Robert decided that she had had about enough. Stepping out from the alcove created by the bend in the hallway where it connected the small room to the library, he crossed over to the divan she sat in front of and settled down on the other side. "She figured out this curse a long time ago, you know," he said, the gentleness of his words contradicting the cynical lines in his face created by five years married to Marguerite.
Laurel looked up. By now, a spaceship from the future crashing into the room wouldn't surprise her. "Really."
"About a year after you set this up," Robert explained, "When everyone else was beginning to forget her, I found this room. We had a long talk. I told her that I did not wish to marry Marguerite, and we had a long-- difficult-- conversation about feelings and relationships. I proposed that we elope, and she accepted it readily enough. Then she found that she couldn't leave the room, that I could go into the barrier but she couldn't go out. I don't think she realized that you couldn't leave. I think she believed that the curse was only for her."
A single tear dropped onto the king of spades.
"Yes, you messed up badly, Laurel," Robert said gently. "But we decided to forgive you. We decided that this was the way life must go-- Anna decided that she would far rather be trapped in the confines of this room than in the confines of society-- even if it was side by side with her. And I respected her decision enough to marry Marguerite. She assumed that I would be miserable unmarried, so she asked me to marry the witch anyways."
Laurel looked at him, a twitch pulling up a corner of her mouth. "The witch?"
"No offense to you of course. But. Anna was wrong. I am completely miserable with Marguerite. Look at the person she has turned me into! Think of what I could have been with Anna! You have a man you love and two children you adore, and a society that you can reconcile your nature with. I have a witch of a wife and a position in society that I hate, with all the expectations it puts upon me. I don't care if Marguerite inherits my property… Laurel, I want to stay here and take up Anna's gift, your curse."
"So you want to just stay here the rest of your life."
"Well, no. I am more social than Anna was. I want to stay here until I know that that vile woman is long dead. I want to rejoin a more modern society with no previous ties to bind me, so that I may make a life that suits me best."
"I feel as though I'm being let off too easy," Laurel murmured. "In a simple mistake in a spell, I destroyed the happiness of my best friend and the man that she loved. She would have been happier than she'd thought, with you to help her along. Shouldn't I be doing some sort of penance?"
"Funny, I didn't know you were Catholic," Robert mused, startling a laugh out of the woman. "Laurel, you can make your penance whatever you want. You can make it teaching everyone you know this game. But I ask that you forsake this kind of penance to make me happy. I think that's all the atonement you need for skewing my life."
Laurel looked him in the eye. "If you find Anna first," she whispered, "Tell her I love her and that I'm so sorry."
Without another word, she rose and left. The white brocade dress faded unnoticed into her previous attire halfway down the hall, and reappeared on Robert in the form of a white suit.
Without a backwards glance but with many a backwards thought, she rejoined her family, her society-- the people she loved best and the life she had learned to live with. Robert remained seated, staying with the memory of the woman he loved best and the life he could have lived.