After the terrible events aboard the Carpathia, the first part of Lizzie's convalescence in her own home was almost pleasant. She had a concussion, Dr. Harris told Mother, and needed to keep quiet and sleep as much as she could.
"You got hit on the head," Edward told her.
Edward's gaze wavered, but then he looked her in the eye and shrugged. "There was a lot of confusion, when everyone was getting into the boats. Maybe one of the davits hit you."
"What's a davit?"
"One of those little cranes for lifting and lowering the boats. Look, I've brought you the new Kipling book that Carrister's sister was on about. It's supposed to be ripping fun."
"Dr. Harris says I mustn't read for more than half an hour at a time."
"Well, see how you get on. I'll come back to have tea with you."
Mother needn't have worried about how much she read: Lizzie found her eyes would slide shut on their own after only twenty minutes, even though the novel was just as interesting as Edward had said. Unfortunately, her sleep wasn't as restful as the doctor had intended: sometimes she would find herself trapped in dreams where she had to fight hundreds of horrid dead people, but the worst part was that when she had come to the last of them, it would turn into Ciel, who would shrink away from her. Sometimes she woke up crying.
"There, now, Miss Lizzie," said Paula, her maid. "Don't take on so. It's not like you!"
She knew it wasn't. She could see in the mirror how her face was wan and had shadows under the eyes: not cute at all. Paula fetched cold water with cucumber slices in it and bathed her eyes, and she felt a little better. Gradually she started to dream less vividly, to wake feeling rested, and to be hungry for her meals again. After a week, she was allowed to come down for tea.
"You're looking better, pet," said Mother. "The day after tomorrow, we'll try a very brief session in the fencing salon."
Lizzie's heart clenched, and she put down her fork, even though she was not finished with her strawberry napoleon, and it was very good.
"Aren't you going to finish that?" asked Edward. "Michaelis made them especially for you."
"S-sebastien?" whispered Lizzie.
"Yes, my dear,"said Mother. "Whatever's the matter? Does your head hurt again?"
Lizzie's eyes were burning. Abruptly she slid down from her chair and ran out of the dining room, down the hall, and up the stairs. It seemed to take forever to reach her own room. She flung herself on the carefully made bed and started to weep into the counterpane.
Mother's voice was stern. Lizzie rolled over and sat up. Mother gave her a very thorough looking over as Paula appeared in the doorway behind her. "Paula, fetch some cool water, a cloth, and a towel."
Then, when Paula had gone, Mother sat in the armchair by the window and held out her arms. "Come here, pet."
It had been ages since she sat on Mother's lap. Lizzie was chagrined to find that their faces were on the level now when she did so. Mother gave Lizzie her own cambric handkerchief, scented faintly with cologne, and stroked her hair. "I won't say anything about your leaving the table without excusing yourself, or about throwing yourself onto your bed like a tragic heroine. But you mustn't run like that yet, especially not up a flight of stairs, my dear. If your head didn't hurt before, I imagine it does now."
Yes, it did. Lizzie was glad to see Paula arriving with the water pitcher and towels. She wrung out the cloth and passed it to Mother, who sponged Lizzie's face and then dried it. "Thank you, Paula," said Mother. "Leave us now, please, and close the door behind you."
Lizzie rested her head on Mother's shoulder. It was not especially comfortable because Mother was so strong and bony, but her arms felt good around Lizzie. "Now," said Mother "Please tell me what is it that has you so terribly distraught. You stopped eating when I mentioned your being able to start fencing again, and you started to weep when Edward mentioned that the pastry was from Ciel's butler."
Lizzie's nose and eyes felt peppery again. "Ciel … ."
"Ciel is fine. I have seen him."
"He s-saw me fighting the dead. He saw me take those swords from the wall and … ."
"Yes. You did a splendid job. Those swords needed sharpening, so you triumphed by skill alone. I told you so when you first woke. Do you not remember?"
"B-but Ciel! He saw me!"
"Lizzie, look at me."
Lizzie sat up on Mother's knee and did so. Mother looked tired. Lizzie was surprised to see shadows under her eyes, and tiny creases between her beautifully drawn eyebrows.
"Explain to me why it is so terrible that Ciel saw you acquit yourself so well against so many foes."
"When we were little, Ciel told me —" Lizzie stopped. What Ciel had said about Mother all those years ago was not very nice.
"Please. you mustn't be angry at Ciel!"
Mother sighed. "Elizabeth Midford! Compose yourself like the young lady you are and start at the beginning!"
Lizzie tried to find a dry spot on Mother's handkerchief. Mother plucked it from her hands and gave her a fresh one. Lizzie blew her nose again. "It was when we were quite small. You had just given Ciel his first fencing lesson. He … he was quite overwhelmed. He said that — that if his wife were as strong as you, he would be quite frightened of her."
Mother shook her head, frowning. Lizzie trembled inside. "Please, don't be angry at him!"
"I am not angry at Ciel, but I am wondering at your own behavior."
"All I wish is to always be pleasant and cute for him, and make him smile. Even if I am really th-the one who will protect him."
"Lizzie … ." The marchioness was studying Lizzie's face. She traced one cool, elegant finger tip along Lizzie's eyebrows, down her nose, and stroked the corners of Lizzie's downturned mouth. "You are doing so well with the sword, and you are growing to be a beautiful young woman. I had hoped you would be over your childish notions by this age. But sometimes, you are still a little goose!"
Lizzie blushed. "Mother!"
"Listen. Yes, Ciel has great burdens. He needs to be strong. Will worrying about his pretty, empty-headed little fiancee make him feel more powerful? He has enemies. Do you think it does him any good to be concerned that someone he cares about so very much is vulnerable to those who wish him harm?"
"But he said he would be frightened if I were that strong!"
"Do I frighten you, Lizzie?"
She thought she would die of embarrassment, right then and there. But Mother did not ask questions unless she wanted them answered, and promptly. "S-sometimes."
"And why? Is it because you fear that I will strike you, or harm you in some other way?"
"Of course not, Mother!"
That took thought. Finally: "B-because I don't want you to be ashamed of me."
Mother sighed. "Yes. None of us want to disappoint those we admire and love. So: what of Ciel, and his fear of me?"
Lizzie was silent for a few moments, pleating the edge of the damp handkerchief. "Mother … is it because he is afraid that you will stop believing he is a suitable husband for me?"
Mother smiled, but it was a sad expression. She tightened her arms around Lizzie. "Indeed. I have already called him my son, and he fears that he will somehow lose my regard. Just as you do, and Edward does. But it's not really fear, Lizzie: it is respect. They are not actually the same thing. Ciel was a young child when he told you that: he did not really know how to say what he meant."
Lizzie buried her face against her mother's neck, smelling the familiar scent of clean skin and roses. Her eyes were damp, but she did not cry. After a few moments, Mother gently pulled her upright again, so they could see each other's faces. "So tell me now, Lady Elizabeth: do you truly think you have frightened Ciel by your acts of bravery and skill aboard ship?"
"No, Mother. Maybe — maybe he will start to respect me?"
"I believe he already does. He has repeatedly asked to see you, but Dr. Harris said you are not fit to take visitors. If you come through your session with me in the salon well and hale, I shall send for him to have tea with us the day afterward. How does that suit you?"
"There: that is the smile I wished to see. Now, you will attend to your studies and your practice, You and Ciel shall treat each other with respect, and that is all I really could ask of either of you."
"I would still rather be cute."
Mother smiled and shook her head. "I can't expect you to follow my lead in everything. But Lizzie, although being a sweet little creature suits you now, you will likely feel differently five years hence. Don't try to stop the advance of the years: meet them boldly, and with a smile. Ciel will still love you, I assure you. Now: I shall have Paula come and put you to bed. A little sleep will do you good. Edward shall have supper with you tonight, here in your room, and tomorrow you shall come down for all your meals and walk in the garden a bit in the afternoon."
Later that evening, over a supper of cheese toasts, cocoa, and baked apples, Edward entertained his sister with tales of the pranks and doings of his schoolmates at Weston. He was always solemn in his recitations, no matter how ridiculous the tale.
"… And then I told Venables, 'Well, I certainly don't know where it came from, but I can certainly tell you a good place to put it!'" he finished.
Lizzie laughed and laughed, until her cheeks were nearly as wet with tears as they had been earlier in the day. Edward looked smug and handed her his handkerchief. She smiled ruefully, thinking of how Mother had done the same thing, and wiped her streaming eyes. "Ned?"
"Are you ever … afraid that you will be a disappointment to our parents?"
"All the time," he said, and his eyes were somber. "I don't suppose you worry about that, yourself."
"Then you suppose wrongly," she said, and picked up the chocolate pot. "More cocoa?"