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The Benefit of Three Dimensionality

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Robin had been admiring the wallpaper. He never had the dining room to himself before, and he refused to squander the opportunity to admire its print up close. But then Belinda strolled in, sat down with the unselfconscious ease of a person in their own home, and began flipping through a periodical.

Robin doesn’t recognize the cover and barely holds himself back from asking if it’s a magician’s magazine, if such a thing exists. He decides to ask Edwin later.

Though Bel seems content to ignore him, Robin can’t shake the feeling that continuing to stare closely at the walls will only lead to later scorn. It would be similarly unwise for him to leave the room; stalking out as soon as a family member enters isn’t something even Edwin would do.

Were Robin at Thornley Hill with a guest standing awkwardly by, he’d like to think he would remedy the situation, not flip through a magazine. Actually, he knows exactly what he would do: offer some tea.

He supposes he could request some. He doesn’t want to overstep his boundaries as a guest at Penhallick, but Bel certainly isn’t making the effort as hostess. Before he can second guess the etiquette, he turns to a maid hovering by the room’s entrance.

“Excuse me,” he says softly, “would we be able to have some tea brought in?”

Once the maid mumbles “Yes, sir, of course” and hurries out of the room, Robin pulls out the chair that’s become his in the time that he’s spent here.

He tries to be subtle about admiring the crown moulding while he waits, but it’s a needless endeavour; Bel doesn’t look up even once.

Though the host in him is mildly appalled by her lack of interest with regards to entertaining him, there is something charmingly familiar about how similar her single-minded focus towards the periodical parallels Edwin’s intensity when in the midst of research.

There is another benefit to her appearing so blasé; if she is uninterested in what Robin drinks, then he can be more confident that she hasn’t tampered in some way. Bel certainly had been more than encouraging when meddling with Maud’s cup.

Anyways, she would’ve needed to spell the leaves at a prior time in order for them to make their way into Robin’s tea, and he isn’t sure whether or not that is magically feasible. Though he remembers Edwin explaining that spelling the leaves results in strongest magical effects, he doesn’t know if there’s a time frame for the magic’s potency. Perhaps Edwin had explained that part too, but Robin had been too tired at the time or, more likely, too distracted by the shape of Edwin’s mouth to properly focus.

Lethe mint could be added post-brew, he supposes, if Bel really was intent on removing his memory right this instant. He tells himself over in his mind to not put his cup down once the tea’s been brought in, but an impossible sort of surety in his stomach tells him that’s not necessary; she could have hurt him any number of times in the weeks since they’ve met, and, somehow, she’s one of the few magicians who never exhibited malicious intent.

Cupid’s bow, the bird attack, even her attempt to take Maud’s memory. It was poor judgement, sure, but cruel? Even wary as he is about Edwin’s family, he still can’t quite think it so about Bel.

Though Robin had been the one to make the request, when the tea is brought in, the brew is offered to Bel first. She closes her magazine gently and takes her cup with a smile. Once Robin’s cup has been poured, he accepts it in just the same way.

“That will be all for now, Lena. Thank you.” Bel says.

The maid — Lena— takes the cue and the teapot from the room.

Bel doesn’t return to her magazine. Instead, she looks directly at Robin without saying a word.

He lifts the teacup to his lips while avoiding her gaze.

She clears her throat. Robin lowers his cup.

“I wanted to apologise,” Bel says carefully, “about being so carefree at the lake. I felt that it would have looked suspicious if I acted any other way, but I really was glad you were okay. For Edwin’s sake.”

That should be offensive, knowing she only cares whether he lives or dies because her brother would, but Robin can’t find it in himself to begrudge someone being honest.

“I appreciate that, thank you.” He takes another sip of his tea.

She graces him with a sad smile. “At least you won’t have to worry about Billy being a threat anymore.”

Robin’s eyebrows shoot up; Edwin had advised they not tell the family anything that could potentially implicate them in Billy’s death. As far as everyone else is concerned, Billy was a model guest who simply lost himself in the pursuit of an old flame. Or, at least, that’s what everyone was supposed to believe.

How had Bel learned of what truly transpired out on the lake? If such a detail had already reached her, rumours really must be running rampant.

But surely Adelaide would have given notice if she or her sister heard even the whisper of someone poking about. No, the slip up must have come from within the house. He stifles a sigh when he realises he and Edwin are the most likely culprits; it should be easier to remember in a house full of magic that the walls have ears.

Robin must look as perturbed as he feels because she rushes to explain: “I couldn’t react to the drowning because it would have let on that I knew something was amiss. I knew, of course, that dead man’s legs wasn’t part of the pied piper square, and Billy was the only one near enough to curse you on the spot.”

“You knew what was in the squares?” Robin asks, confused. “I thought Edwin said that you drugged yourself so that you’d forget and be able to play fairly.”

She gives him a hard look. “A woman must always keep her wits about her; would you be willing to go into an encounter with a man who had full knowledge that you wouldn’t remember anything he did to you?”

Robin can’t ascertain whether Bel’s comment reflects some suspicion of his sexual preferences, but he’s more concerned with the fact that she doesn’t seem to trust her own husband.

“There are very few trustworthy men these days,” she opines when he asks as much. “I’ve suspected Charlie’s never actually taken the mint, either — he’s so self-aggrandizing that I think he’d make use of any advantage he could find to improve his chances of glory.”

Robin makes a mental note to tell Edwin; he’d worried about the long-term effects of repeated lethe mint use. And while that concern might be warranted, any conclusions drawn from studying his sister and her husband would be relying on faulty data.

Robin’s brow furrows as he thinks about Bel’s answer. In the end, his curiosity outweighs his manners: “Why be with Charlie if you don’t trust him?”

Bel heaves a sigh so wistful that Robin thinks it must have been practised. “As a woman, it’d be quite the challenge to convince those men in power that I have the right to be in the room with them, let alone contribute to their conversations. But when I’m on Charles’ arm, I just glide through with nary a complaint.” She flashes a conspiratorial grin. “You’d be surprised how much is said in front of women by men who forget we have brains beneath our curls.”

It isn’t often that Robin feels so thoroughly chastised. While perhaps he’s not as bad as the men of Bel’s circles — if so, she likely wouldn’t confide in him about their misdoings — it’s a shallow comfort. He knows within himself that he had fully believed her superficial, careless, unsympathetic attitude to be genuine, that he had never bothered to grant her the benefit of three dimensionality.

And he could argue that he doesn’t know why it’s taken until now to wonder if her particular charms are just as put on as Edwin’s stoicisms or his own effusive pleasantries. But he and Bel would both know the truth.

The lump that rises in Robin's throat brings him back to his schoolboy days, when he had to fight himself daily to keep his softer emotions well hidden. He blinks hard to stop the swell that’s bubbling up within him now.

Bel continues on despite whatever must be showing in Robin’s face, a kindness for which he is most grateful. “And it’s no question this house will go to Walt someday, being both the eldest son and the heir with the most overt magical strength. I have no shame in attempting to solidify a future of safety and power for myself, even if by means of tying myself to a similar masculine archetype.”

Maybe because he spends so much time with Edwin these days, he is primed to look for precision in all things. And perhaps it was unintentional, in the way words said in conversation between friends often are. But he and Belinda are not friends in the slightest.

Robin narrows his eyes. “Yes, I suppose Walt does have the most overt magical strength.”

Bel smiles then, something small and pleased and so surprisingly reminiscent of Edwin that his heart squeezes tenderly.

It’s a smile, Robin notes, nothing like the ones she gives Charlie when he upstages her magic and talks about the limited mental capacity of women in the same breath.

He’d always read those smiles as charmed, indulgent, a woman happy to be whatever ornament her husband desired as long as she too was in the spotlight. He thinks now that there must be some cunning behind those smiles, a bite so well camouflaged that it’s as though it were never even there.

But if that’s the case, why is she entrusting Robin with a secret that she surely has been crafting for years? Everybody knows stage magicians aren’t supposed to reveal how they do their tricks, and he would have assumed that rule applies all the more for those with real magic.

When Robin asks, Bel takes a sip of her tea before looking off into the distance and then back. Her gaze is thoughtful, but Robin is sure she has already planned each word she plans to say. On her, these gestures, these expressions simply add weight, make Robin hold his breath in anticipation of every syllable.

“Edwin very clearly… cares for you,” she says slowly. “And while, as siblings go, we are not particularly close — the fault of which lies with him and I both, I suppose — I do see some of myself in you, especially in the ways that you’ve chosen to act and interact with everyone here. Our roles are not so different, you know, and we play our parts well. But Edwin doesn’t take part in the same sort of games; I don’t think he knows how.”

She looks him directly in the eye, like she needs to make sure he hears every word. “And that was fine, when he had a lower profile. But whatever mess you two have been involved with since you first arrived on this doorstep is not going to resolve itself smoothly or quietly. You’ve already drawn so much attention with your foresight; you can’t afford to show more of your hand.”

“If you aren’t careful you two might find yourselves hunted down like a pack of dogs. Whatever price you think is on your head — triple it. You’ll be cornered and threatened and locked away for study or the highest bidder until your only option is to fake your death, flee to New York, and leave the entirety of magic behind.”

“You need to be smart — not Edwin’s brand of smart, your own — and you need to be careful.”

There’s a fuzzy edge between remembrance and forgetfulness tickling at Rabin’s mind, like the happenings within a vision occurring just out of frame.

“New York,” he says eventually. “That’s where Lord Hawthorn’s gone, isn’t it?”

If Bel finds the question odd, she doesn’t show it. “I do suppose it is.”

“And his sister — she must have also had a price on her head. Before she became… What was the word Charlie used? Unbalanced.”

Belinda’s smile now is tight at the edges. It doesn’t give away any secrets. “Magic is both coveted and complicated.”

Robin knows when not to press. Instead, he lets the conversation turn as the corner of his mouth lifts. “So is family.”

“In my circles,” she says, “those are often the same thing.”

Bel takes a sip of her tea, but quickly pulls away with a frown. She does a quick cradle over her teacup, and Robin watches as steam begins to rise.

She wiggles her fingers in his direction. “Want me to do yours?” It’s said teasingly, like she knows he won’t relinquish his cup to anyone with magic in their veins.

“No, thank you,” Robin answers politely, not willing to confirm her assumption of his distrust, even if it is correct.

Bel takes another swig of her tea. “As for your family, Maud has been asking to attend university?”

“Oh, yes. She’s only started talking about it recently, but she’s very intent on going. It’s not what our parents would have liked, mind you, but they also hadn’t properly prepared any sort of future for her — us — at all.”

“I think she’ll suit it,” Bel muses. “She’s got enough backbone to get herself killed, and I mean that as a compliment. University will help her hone that gumption into whatever she wants to be.”

Robin has to fight a chuckle. “I suppose preventing her from getting killed is a worthy endeavour. Would you have gone, had you had the opportunity?”

“Given the opportunity and given that the rest of the magical community would not look down on my parents for allowing it, certainly.”

Robin nods slowly before sipping the final dregs of his lukewarm tea.

“If you ever need any funding for her to attend — tuition, boarding, books — you let me know, okay?”

Robin tries to hide his surprise behind his empty teacup. “Oh, thank you very much.”

He’s already made up his mind to not accept anything she offers, but he certainly won’t admit to that.

Bel sees right through him. “And don’t even consider trying to prevent me from contributing. Edwin would skin us both if we let social mores prevent a young woman from getting the education she deserves.”

“I think you might be right about that,” Robin says with a fond chuckle. “And I understand why Edwin would care about Maud attending university, but, with all due respect, why do you?”

Bel laughs. “Think of this as an investment in my future. Let’s just say I know better than to keep all my eggs in one basket.”

“And who knows,” she says, a twinkle to her eye, “perhaps the pair of you non-magicians will save us all one day.”