When they got to the road, there were only two carriages left waiting to carry the stragglers back to the lodge. The first carriage, with its hood down, was led by young horses, and took off quickly due to the lenience of the driver to the cries of the adolescents inside.
It left the last carriage standing alone on the grass, an old and boxy thing with heavily varnished doors and moth-eaten cushions. It had apparently been brought for a few of the older courtiers, but the soft breeze and the warmth of the evening had persuaded even the most prudent among them to engage one of the open carriages.
The footman and driver both considered the solitary couple in the closed carriage out of the range of prudence and so discreetly opened the back window. The young lady's companion handed her into the carriage and climbed in after her, noted the expressions of the two men, and laughed to himself.
"No--I'm sorry, midear, I can't kiss you on the way back! They might throw me from the coach!" He said it loudly enough to be heard by both men, whose frowns became tangible, but drew a reproachful glance from his friend, who had taken off her shoes once more and was massaging her feet. The carriage took off and jostled its way onto the road.
As soon as they were on the smooth lane, she drew her knees up to her chin and gazed out the window at the trees that lined parts of the road. All but the latest had stopped flowering, and the breeze carried in the scent of sun-warmed leaves. He'd taken up his habitual sprawl on the opposite bench and was tapping his foot on the floor to a beat quite unrelated to the clip-clop of the horses.
When they drew up beside the lodge, he silently exited the cabin and handed her down from the carriage. She sighed, straightening her skirts, and looked up to thank the servants. They'd already withdrawn to the other side of the courtyard, leaving only a faint echo of the horses' slow gait as they made their way to the stables.
"Can you walk alright?" he asked when she had turned to face the long flight of steps to the front door.
"I'm sorry to be such a nuisance. If you'd just lend me your arm for this last flight of stairs, I'll leave you alone for a week." She looked miserable.
"I could carry you up to your room," he volunteered, laughing. "Oh, here, let me help you, you'll sprain something trying to make it by yourself." He offered his arm.
"Don't talk about it in jest. I'm sorry to be annoying about that, but I don't want to turn that into some kind of joke between us." Her voice was quiet and strained. What! Here was something she was not willing to treat as a jest. He wondered if this was a warning.
"Are you alright? Not going soft on me, I hope." He held his breath and hoped to heaven she wouldn't blush and become coy and shy. She kept her eyes on her feet and the steps ahead of her.
"Never mind. I've been listening to Fiona talk and now I'm a bit touchy about the subject of marriage." Ah, good, her voice was steady and sounded merely exhausted.
"What does Fiona say? What's so taboo about marriage?" He was curious, now--Fiona at least had always seemed rather practical.
"She just gossips; I'm just hypersensitive." They were almost to the top of the stairs.
"Well, I was only joking. You know that."
"I know. I wish you'd forget I said anything about it." They reached the landing and a guard opened the door.
"That's alright. I should have thought about what I said. I'm tired. You're tired. Go to sleep. Where's your room, anyway? Not upstairs, I hope." They stepped into the front hall and faced the large sweeping staircase with its carved balustrade. It seemed as if the entire building was empty beyond the door guards. People were probably having their meals in their rooms; tomorrow was a long day of a full court session with everyone in attendance.
"I'll make it from here. Thank you for your help." She curtseyed, and added: "And for the dance."
"The honor was mine. Good night." He bowed and stifled a yawn. Stupid formalities. She bid him a good night and they parted. His room was at the top of the long staircase, and he turned and took the stairs two at a time.