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Here’s a sample of the new novella, to see if it suits. My plan with this one was to write the fictional equivalent of a Devonshire tea with extra jam.
If anyone had told Miss Mnemosyne Seabourne (Mneme for short) that she should grow up to be the sort of person who was bored of garden parties, she would have declared then and there that growing up was off the table.
Little Mneme had been an outspoken child, to the constant frustration of her mamma, and adored parties because cakes and conversation were her favourite things. She dreamed of a future when she was Out in Society, attending croquet games and glamorous balls, ready to catch a dazzling husband.
These days, at twenty-two years old, she would much rather be at home in her father’s library, with a cup of tea and a book. There was, as it turned out, a ceiling on how many garden parties you could attend before they all became dismally dull.
Lady Agnew’s garden party was the fourteenth Mneme had attended since this Season (her fifth since coming Out) began, and she was about ready to throw a teacup at the next person who informed her that it was a lovely day.
It was a lovely day. The sunshine was perfect. The roses were in bloom. The cakes were frosted in charming shades of blush pink and cornflower blue. There was the promise of sweetened ices later, and an eligible Duke on the premises.
Everything was awful.
“Is your tea to your liking?” asked Miss Letty Agnew, daughter of today’s hostess. Only on her first Season, she had not yet been crushed flat by the disappointments of the marriage market.
Mneme smiled as genuinely as she dared. Most of her energies these days were poured into appearing dull; today that meant blending into the crowd of lovely, eligible young ladies in muslin frocks who danced attendance upon His Grace. “My tea is perfect,” she said, keeping a careful eye upon the man of the hour, who stood in the centre of the pungent chamomile lawn in his bright orange cravat (which clashed with his even brighter beard), laughing loudly at something.
“We source the blend from a darling little plantation on the Isle of Dormouse,” said the very young Miss Agnew, her voice trailing off as she realised that her audience was less than enthusiastic for the topic. “Oh. You’re not interested in tea.”
“I am very interested in tea,” Mneme assured her. “Tea is the centre of my thoughts. I have drunk three cups this afternoon already, each more splendid than the last.”
Tea rarely disappointed her. Tea would never ruin her chances at a decent marriage by constantly hurling her at the highest-ranked and least appropriate suitors, refusing to listen to a word she said about what she actually wanted…
It was possible that tea was no longer entirely the centre of her thoughts.
Across the lawn, Henry Jupiter, the Duke of Storm, laughed at something one of his admirers said. His entire body shook as he indulged in a guffaw far longer and louder than society deemed polite. A lightning bolt of power sizzled in the air above his head, and no one batted an eye at that either because a Duke was allowed to be as rude or careless he liked. Everyone of a lower rank was expected to keep their magical abilities buttoned up and quiet, when there was tea to be sipped and polite conversation to be made.
The Duke of Storm’s entire existence was infuriating to Mneme. He held out an empty teacup as if expecting it to be snatched by empty air — and oh, there was one of his three personal footmen, who did indeed replace the empty cup with a brimming one, without the Duke having to wait more than a second or two.
The universe was infuriating, that such rituals existed to meet the exact needs of men who had done nothing to deserve them.
Henry wasn’t even a particularly terrible example of a Duke; but because he was a Duke, no one would ever demand that he improve his character to any degree. At least when his mother the late Duchess was alive, there was someone who brooked none of his nonsense.
Mneme’s teacup rattled in her saucer. She caught Miss Agnew staring in alarm at her too-firm grip on the delicate handle, and corrected the hold so that the teacup was less in danger of being snapped to pieces. “I wish he’d choose a wife already,” Mneme huffed. “Then some of us could breathe out for the rest of the Season.”
“I wish he’d choose me,” Miss Agnew blurted, and blushed.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Mneme automatically, a ritual phrase often spoken in magical households. She caught sight of her mamma, fluttering around the Duke of Storm like a hungry butterfly, and turned away with a sigh. “Marrying a Duke is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“But he’s so almost handsome, and he does cut a fine figure in his suits,” Miss Agnew protested. “The Queen often invites him to advise her of matters of state, which means his wife will surely be invited to several royal events every year, and so many parties. Also, they say the ducal estate of Storm has the finest library in all the Isles. Three thousand volumes!”
“A fine library does increase the appeal of any potential husband,” Mneme conceded. She thought better of Miss Agnew, that she counted the library as a bonus to a gentleman’s appeal. “If only one could be sure that he had ever read a book.”
“Oh dear,” said Miss Agnew in despair as her own mother Lady Agnew took the arm of the Duke, whisking him along the lawn. A parade of whirling muslin dresses fell in behind them, none of his admirers wishing to be left behind. “I do believe it’s time for croquet.”
“Balls,” said Mneme, and then grinned impisly at Miss Agnew, who spluttered out a very unladylike laugh in return. “Very well,” she said, with a sigh to show that it was a great inconvenience. “I suppose we can be friends despite your terrible taste in suitors.”
“He’s not my suitor,” said Miss Agnew, her blush reaching higher on her cheeks. “I’ve only been introduced to him twice.”
“Mnemosyne!” boomed the Duke as his bright cravat and even brighter head of red-gold hair swung past the two ladies. “How jolly to see you. I didn’t even know you were here!” The pressure of matchmaking mammas and young ladies desperate to do something more than drink tea swept him onwards. He was gone before Mneme could do the polite thing and encourage him to talk to her friend.
“You know him personally,” hissed Miss Agnew. “He called you by name!”
“He’s my cousin,” Mneme said heavily.
“Is that why you don’t want to marry him? Because you know, quite a few lovely marriages do start out as family affairs…”
“It’s more that I’ve met him,” Mneme interrupted. She had already received several lectures this Season on why it was Perfectly Normal for cousins to marry. Mostly from her mamma, who would not let go of the image of Mnemosyne as the Duchess of Storm. “We wouldn’t suit at all, is the thing. I’m sure he’ll make someone an adequate husband, if their expectations are not unduly raised by the whole ducal title business, but that person shall not be me.”
“Will you be my partner for croquet?” Miss Agnew asked after a long, thoughtful pause.
“As long as you understand that I shall he hitting my ball in the opposite direction of His Grace the Eligible Duke of Storm at all times.”
“That’s all right,” said her new friend. “I can pine from afar.”
There were only two places where eligible young ladies in the polite society circles of the Teacup Isles could properly show off their magical abilities to marriageable gentlemen: the ballroom, and the croquet lawn.
The object of the game was to knock one’s ball through the right hoops, with a mallet. But ten years ago, the very young Queen Aud was presented with a set of gold-plated croquet hoops as a coronation gift from the distant Troilish Empire and almost caused a diplomatic incident by declaring that croquet was the dullest pastime in the world.
Alfred Lord Manticore, the Queen’s Personal Advisor on Magical Matters, saved the day by challenging the court to a more “interesting” version of the game, after which the traditional rules lurched rather dramatically into a royal indulgence of chaos, charmwork and the gratuitous application of hexes.
The unspoken rules of the new game made it a free for all when it came to charms, enchantment, illusion or any other forms of magic considered appropriate for mixed company. One could not put a spell on another player, or the lawn itself, but you could do so to any mallets, hoops or balls that came within three feet of you.
The New Croquet was a splendid romp, when played with imagination and gumption. It was also, as was true of any pastime enjoyed at garden parties, house parties or other gatherings of eligible unmarried gentlefolk, an excellent opportunity for creative flirting.
Mneme and Miss Agnew were both, as it turned out, very quick with a mallet. They entertained themselves knocking around a ball which flicked back and forth between being a rolled-up hedgehog and a grass-covered coconut macaroon.
Every other eligible lady in the garden party orbited the Duke of Jupiter, as if he needed the attention. Their spells were a riot of hearts, flowers, teasing word games and attempts to be memorable while demonstrating no originality whatsoever.
“You can join the crowd, you know,” Mneme assured her new friend. “I won’t think any less of you.”
“I’m hoping to gain points by being aloof and mysterious,” Miss Agnew shot back, clipping the hedgehog gently through another hoop, which hissed at her exactly as if it were a snake. “Oh, crumbs,” she said, staring at it in alarm.
“Brace yourself,” Mneme warned in an undertone as a certain mamma broke away from the gaggle of lace-shawled chaperones, chuffing towards them with a bosom that was incapable of doing anything other than heave.
“My dear,” Mrs Galatea Seabourne gasped as she reached her daughter. “The best of news! The Duke has invited you and mousy little Metis to his house party next week. A house party, Mnemosyne! For a whole fort-night.”
“What fun,” said Miss Agnew with a hint of jealousy.
Mneme made a pained expression. “You promised me this was the last one, Mamma. You promised we could go home.” Mneme adored the Seabourne family home. They had a modest library, a lovely garden, a very competent cook, and most important of all: no horde of people trotting through the house at all hours, demanding that she audition for the role of future wife.
Home was quiet and peaceful and calming in a way that the flurry of Society was not. If marriage could not offer her that, then she was in no hurry to be married; and to a Duke least of all.
“It’s the end of garden party season, of course I promised this was the last one,” said her mamma with a careless wave. “House party season begins. And you will be a guest of the Duke! Why as his cousin I expect you will be top of the table if that interfering Lady Lovage doesn’t take against you…”
Mneme groaned. This was clearly a battle she would never win. “If I agree to go to Cousin Henry’s house party without complaint, I needn’t attend any others, need I?” she tried.
“That all depends if you have a ring on your finger by the end of it!” declared her mamma, who was nobody’s fool. Mrs Seabourne turned around and trotted back to the game, neatly side-stepping two croquet hoops which had been charmed to dance a minuet together.
“You know what you have to do,” said Miss Agnew in a low voice, as they both watched Mrs Seabourne cross the croquet lawn.
Mneme sighed heavily and nodded. “I have to find the Duke a suitable wife.”
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