The chair and the desk that had once stood here had been pressed into service in the adjacent meadow, bearing food and drink.
That meant that everyone sat on the floor.
To Edward’s left, Oliver Marshall’s knee jammed into his thigh. On his right, Patrick Shaughnessy sat, quietly contemplating his cards. Violet and Sebastian Malheur sat shoulder-to-shoulder across the room. Opposite them sat the Duke of Clermont, with Stephen Shaughnessy at his side.
“So is someone going to explain to me,” Edward asked, “why we must all play cards in a closet?”
“Tradition.” That came from Sebastian Malheur.
Sebastian Malheur was precise and amusing. He’d glanced once at each card as it was dealt, and then never looked at them again. Edward had met him first a few weeks ago, when Free had taken him down to London on her brother, Oliver’s return.
“Tradition?” Edward looked dubiously around the space.
They were crammed in every which way. Marbles—which Clermont had insisted were the only tokens to be used—took the place of cash bets. Clermont had explained the matter of those tokens solemnly. Apparently, marbles were a serious business in these parts.
Edward shook his head. “You lot have terrible traditions.”
“The cramped space is not part of the usual way of things,” Clermont said. “It’s more that when one of the Brothers Sinister gets married, we get together the night before and play cards.”
“Discomfort, however, does seem to be the norm.” Sebastian grinned. “Particularly on the part of the groom.” He looked off in distant memory. “And Oliver did say you could use a little discomfort.”
Edward pushed back against the wall—as much as he could in these maddeningly close quarters—shaking his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “Just because I’m left-handed and married to Oliver’s sister doesn’t mean I’ll join your ridiculous organization of entirely non-sinister proportions. I will not be dragooned into such a thing.”
“Don’t worry,” Robert said. “We’re not dragooning you. You’re not really a Brother Sinister. You’re just a convenient excuse.”
“That’s a relief.”
“And Stephen and Patrick may be left-handed, but they’re not even relations. So unfortunately, we can’t include them.” That came from Free’s brother.
“Also you’re not really marrying Free today,” Violet pointed out. “You’re just holding a late wedding breakfast.”
“While we’re at it, it isn’t even the night before.” That was Sebastian. “So you see, it all comes out right. All the ways in which this is almost the right circumstance, and yet not, cancel one another perfectly. Ergo, we must all sit in this closet while I win at cards.”
“You will not,” his wife muttered.
“While the Malheurs win at cards,” Sebastian corrected smoothly. “Speaking of which—how do we fare? I know that Oliver and Robert have both already crossed twenty-one. But what do the rest of you have?”
“Seventeen,” Patrick said, flipping over the card he’d kept facedown.
“Nineteen.” Violet turned over a nine and a seven to go with the three she had on display.
“Ah.” Sebastian flipped his single card over, showing a pair of kings. “I’m at twenty. Can anyone beat that? I think not.” The man smiled beatifically and glanced at the marbles in the middle of the room.
“I’ve only got eighteen,” Stephen said, “but I don’t think that your almosts do cancel out. You see, I’m not really left-handed.”
“No!” Robert and Oliver spoke together in joint outrage.
Sebastian’s eyes widened. “An infidel! Stone him!” He looked wildly around, found a scrap of paper on the floor, and hurled it ineffectually at him. “Die, fiend, die!”
Stephen watched the paper flutter to the ground, and then shook his head. “Are you mad?”
“No,” Sebastian said. “I’m not even angry, but it’s more fun this way. You set everything off balance. If I can’t get a little amusement in return, what’s the point?”
“Ah,” Stephen said with a wave of his hand. “You lot were asking to be lied to. Gathering a bunch of men, muttering something about being left-handed.” Stephen shrugged. “Of course I’m going to say, ‘Yes, I’m left-handed.’ Why wouldn’t I?”
“Ah, well. At least tradition was upheld on the most important point.” Sebastian leaned forward and began to gather up the marbles in the center of the room. “I won.”
“No,” Edward said. “You didn’t.”
Sebastian froze. He glared at Edward, who had a string of cards showing. “You can’t have won,” he said. “Not unless you have a three under there. The chances of that are—”
Edward smiled blandly and flipped over the card, revealing the three of spades.
Silence met this proclamation. Sebastian blinked at Edward’s hand, frowning. “Did you cheat?” he finally asked.
“I lie. I forge. I blackmail.” Edward shrugged. “But cheating at cards? I’d never stoop so low.”
“Good to know you have some principles,” Oliver said with a roll of his eyes.
“Indeed,” Edward said. “Cheating at cards is too easy. I’d be vastly bored if I let myself do it.”
Beside him, Patrick—who knew Edward’s sense of humor rather better than the others—let out a crack of laughter.
But at that moment, the door opened behind him. A draft of cool air swept over him. Edward turned and glanced around.
“Ah,” he said. “Speaking of principles. Here comes my principle now.”
Free stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips, dressed in a gown of brilliant blue and white. She glanced over them all—crammed into the too-tight space—and shook her head in exasperation.
“Why is half my wedding party hiding in the archive room?” she asked.
Edward reached forward and gathered up the scattered marbles. “Ah, Free. How lovely to see you. Did you know that every one of these marbles represents a favor owed to me by these fine men and women?”
Free tilted her head, contemplating the marbles. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I did know that. Jane mentioned these to me once. Apparently she’s still holding one in reserve.”