“Vanity is not becoming,” the mirror warned.
“Perhaps not,” Claudia conceded, “although it’s an acceptable consequence of physical perfection.”
It was important that today went well, and as Claudia could control so few external factors, she felt justified in spending a considerable proportion of her energy on her appearance; she could control that, at least. Her silk robes swathed her like molten copper, the flurry of embroidered leaves around the hem a nod to the season. Fall would soon fade into winter, and after winter followed spring, marking the end of Claudia’s unmarried life.
When wed, she and Nathaniel would move into their own home together. Today’s excursion comprised viewing of several properties among the magical societies within Louisiana and Mississippi. Claudia’s Dubois grandparents had assured her that budget was not a concern.
“I should be buying the house,” Nathaniel argued.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Claudia answered. “I have considerably more money than you and no younger sibling to share it with.” Danny didn’t need her financial assistance—he was doing more than adequately on his own—whereas Nathaniel’s younger brother would be pleased to have extra funds available for his own future. There had once been a time when Claudia would have tried harder to uphold traditional gender roles, but such a triviality seemed so petty now, compared with all of the everything else she’d experienced spanning the past decade.
The morning began with a New Orleans mansion a stone’s throw from Claudia’s family home. “It’s too close,” she told Nathaniel. “It barely counts as moving out.” Indeed, the black ironwork, painted wooden shutters and immaculately pruned topiaries were eerily similar.
“I’m sure it already feels like home,” Nathaniel encouraged.
“Hmm,” Claudia replied. In her younger years she’d have been delighted to turn out exactly like her idolised mother. Now the idea of only lifting her want to execute ornamental charms for guests’ amusement (Claudia scarely believed that her mother had reputedly founded a defence against the dark arts club in her RMI days), and raising an heir who’d defy society norms, held considerably less appeal.
Next was a sturdy farmhouse in several acres of land, with a wide veranda, flooded with natural light. There were paddocks for horses, and plenty of space to accommodate a large family, neither of which Claudia desired. “I’m perfectly resigned to the notion that I need to procreate,” she muttered as they were shown the sixth bedroom, “but an heir and a spare is really all I had in mind.”
Nathaniel laughed, and afterwards they investigated a city penthouse, which was beautiful, but Claudia couldn’t abide the idea of sharing her building with any other families. Next, a brick built manor with rose gardens and stone courtyards preceded a modern steel-framed box loaded with every technomagical invention of the past quarter-century. Nathaniel liked every home they’d seen and would have bought them all. Claudia didn’t feel drawn to any of them.
“We’ll find somewhere,” Nathaniel reassured her.
“After living in a squalid dormitory for seven years, the last two of them down the corridor from someone who tried to kill me, you’d think I’d be less picky about my living arrangements,” she teased herself. She didn’t understand the expression her finance offered in return but would guess at something akin to fond amusement. “What?”
“Have you chosen your wedding dress yet?” He asked.
“No,” Claudia said, but the wedding was still months away. She had plenty of time.
“I’m letting our mothers sort that out,” she said, certain she’d told him so before and wondering where this line of questioning was leading.
“Have you picked any bridesmaids?”
“Oh Merlin,” she frowned with distaste, “is that something I have to do for myself?”
“Claudia.” Nathaniel took her hand. She let him. “I know you like to seem tough-”
“I am tough.”
“- but it’s okay if the future scares you.”
“I’m not scared.”
“You haven’t made a single life decision since you left school.”
Claudia wanted to feel hurt by the accusation but had to settle for resentment that he’d noticed. She made to tug her hand away from his, but he held it fast.
“It’s okay,” Nathaniel said, in a low voice that was obnoxiously soothing. “You don’t have to hurry into anything. We can even move the wedding back if you want to.”
“No.” The speed of her refusal surprised even her. “I want to marry you.” She was sure about that, at least. “I’m overwhelmed, I suppose. I feel this incredible pressure to get everything right. I somehow managed to get you, and some days I still can’t believe it.” He smiled, awakening butterflies within her chest. “Everything else feels like it’s waiting to trip me up, and whatever decision I make I know the consequences will be on me.”
“Us. We’re in this together.”
Merlin forgive her, she was weak to the idea of having someone take the fall with her. The silver lining to having to share her home, her thoughts, her bed, with another person for the remainder of her life was that the person was Nathaniel. “Fine. I’ll let you share the blame.”