The calisthenics lesson passes quickly and without incident, and I hastily change. Since I didn’t give Trissy a place to meet up, I wait for her at the same bench (it also happens to have a good view of the door) and tell my friends not to wait for me. It’s about a minute later that Trissy shuffles out of a changing cubicle, her nervous gaze darting around until she spots me.
I smile and raise my hand in a half-wave.
As she slowly walks over, it doesn’t escape my notice that Lady Ashford and another lady are watching, but I pretend not to see them. “Hullo, Lady Brook,” I say a little loudly.
Trissy tenses at the greeting without stopping. “Hullo, um, Lady Kent,” she says.
I stand up and smooth down my dress, pick up my handbag. When she comes close, I lean forward and ask, “Are you ready to go or do you need to powder your nose?”
She takes a second before shaking her head.
My gaze drops to her hand, yet I think better than to hold it. Instead, I pinch the end of her sleeve, lightly tugging her into motion. “Come on, Lady Trissy, let’s not waste time being slow,” I quietly say.
Her feet seem reluctant to comply, but soon get the hang of it and she matches my pace. I’m unwilling to let her go lest she try to escape; for her part, she doesn’t make a fuss of me leading her like this.
Once we’re outside, I take a deep breath of the fresh air. Checking on her, she seems like she’s in a bit of a trance, probably too overwhelmed to worry. It’s a bit funny. Even Violet (when she was a child) would become obedient when I led her by the hand, and it works on Trissy (even if I’m not actually holding her hand).
In a comfortable silence, we walk over to the main school building and enter. She doesn’t say anything about this not being the way to the library or our dormitory. The corridor is nearly empty by now. Of the few students hanging around, none pay us any attention, and we shortly come to my classroom.
Like the last couple of weeks, some desks and chairs have been rearranged to make it look like a dining table. Books are already spread over, pen cases and pots of ink out, a warm atmosphere of chatter between everyone.
Taking a step inside, I have Trissy behind me in the doorway. “Hullo, everyone,” I say.
My friends and the princes look over, and they’re quick to try and peek behind me. A disorganised chorus of greetings come my way. When they finish, I turn around, ducking down slightly to meet Trissy’s gaze.
“Be brave, okay? I’m here, everything will be fine,” I whisper to her, letting go of her sleeve to pat her shoulder.
Her eyes glitter, but she doesn’t look away from me. Eventually, she softly nods, and I smile.
I turn back to face everyone else, only I feel a tug on my dress. Glancing down, now she’s the one pinching my clothes, her hand white as chalk. My heart melts.
“My lords and ladies, if you would forgive me delaying introductions until another time, I will be tutoring my friend over here,” I say, gesturing at the tables closest to the door. Then a thought comes to me. “Lord Sussex, would you like to join us? We shall be starting with algebra.”
Evan perks up, thinks for a moment, agrees, and then piles up his stuff, bringing it over this way; meanwhile, I move two tables together and have Trissy sit at my side. After putting down his stuff, he sits opposite me.
My thoughts turn to settling Trissy. I speak softly to her, saying, “This is Lord Sussex. Despite how he looks, he’s a gentle person. Did you know he attends embroidery club?”
It works well, her timid expression turning confused. “He sews?” she asks.
“Yes. He made a Yuletide present for his sister and it looked rather good,” I say. While I’m more or less whispering, Evan is near enough to hear me and my praise goes straight to his cheeks, blotches coming up. I giggle and tug at her elbow. “Look, he’s embarrassed. Isn’t that cute?”
She glances over at him and, after a second, a smile blooms.
“Ah, you have a pretty smile.” Turning to Evan, I say, “Lord Sussex, don’t you also think so?”
“Um, yes?” he says, more a question than agreement.
I turn to my side and see another one who struggles with praise. “Really, as a lady you should be able to take a compliment. Confidence is the most attractive trait, you know?” I say, my tone chiding. “Yes, let’s start here. I want you to repeat exactly what I say, okay? No mumbling either, speak clearly—I know you can.”
She’s become an adorable mess of embarrassment and confusion, but she softly nods.
“I am beautiful,” I say to her, looking her in the eye.
Her eyes widen, and then she tries to look away, but manages to bring her gaze back to me. I give her a tender smile, encourage her with a small nod.
“I, I am… beautiful,” she says, her voice quiet but clear.
“You are,” I say with conviction.
It’s too much for her and she breaks into embarrassed giggles, her cheeks positively glowing—I’m sure I can feel the heat radiating off of them. After she calms down but before she has time to remember she’s nervous and tense, I move on with a clap of my hands.
“Now, speaking to both of you, there’s nothing we can do about being clever or not. However, you can be hardworking. It might not be enough to do well on this exam, or even next exam, but I’m sure you will eventually find that the most precious praise is that which acknowledges your efforts. Maybe your sister thanking you for her present, or your friends telling you how proud they are of you. So, rather than studying, think of it as training your diligence.”
My short speech captures them, pushing my previous teasing out of their minds. Honestly, I’m not sure how motivational that actually was, but it’s the pattern of encouragement I’ve seen Lottie use with Gwen, and my mother uses it as well. Since I could read and write early (thanks to Ellie’s memories), I thought my parents would have high expectations of me and then become disappointed when I ended up average. However, that wasn’t the case at all. The only time I can remember them scolding me (for something to do with my education) was for not doing my homework.
Having said that, since it’s me we’re talking about, my behaviour probably lowered their expectations.
Anyway, I have Evan and Trissy hooked, so I might as well reel them in. Opening my algebra book, I find a page of exercises from last term for Evan to do (carrying on from where I last taught him) and then probe Trissy for what she knows. My experience with my friends (other than Violet) gives me a rough idea of what Trissy won’t know, so I use that as the base.
Speaking frankly, she is the worst off of them. I guess it’s likely she was too shy to ask for help from teachers or friends, or maybe she went to a different school that is worse for maths than Queen Anne’s.
Well, the past doesn’t matter now.
She’s a bit slow at this (like Evan), but I patiently go through things with her and, you know, it’s really nice to see her face light up when she suddenly understands something she couldn’t before. Almost like she’s an entirely different person in those moments.
I can’t help but wonder if some of her shyness comes from thinking she’s stupid. If so, well, the past doesn’t matter now. All I can do is be friends with the Trissy in front of me. Um, to the side of me.
We spend an hour or so studying (with short breaks now and then), the four o’clock bell when we start to wrap things up. I give Evan a couple of chapters he might want to study himself (not homework). For Trissy, I suggest she could write out the questions we did today but without the answers, and then try to answer them again.
“It’s probably too scary to talk to me when I’m with my other friends”—she nods—“but, if you’d like, you can come to my room in the evening,” I say to her. “Any evening is fine. Tonight, next week, after the exams—I don’t mind.”
“Okay,” she says, her voice level and eyes clear. That won’t do.
Leaning in, I whisper, “Ah, but make sure you knock first, otherwise you might catch me changing.”
Her reaction is exactly what I wanted, a pink tinge coming to her cheeks. “I will knock,” she says, rushing out the words.
I smile, just managing to keep my laughter from spilling out. After a deep breath to calm down, I look at her and then Evan, a warmth accompanying my thoughts of them. “Lady Brook, Lord Sussex, well done for today. You both worked hard and made good progress.”
That easily, I turn both of them red. However, Trissy doesn’t look away, giving me a bright smile. “Thank you,” she says softly.
Evan follows. “Thank you, um, for tutoring us.”
An honest smile is my only reply.
With that, we pack away our things. I look over at the other table and see them doing the same, Violet and Cyril still in an animated discussion about something; I can’t make out what they’re actually saying.
My attention is pulled from those two to behind me, Lady Ashford’s voice drifting through from the doorway. I’m not the only one who heard. Trissy turns around and, seeing her friends there, hurriedly finishes packing her things.
“G-good day, my lord, my lady,” she says, curtseying.
Evan replies instantly, his manners well-trained. As for me, I beckon her to come close and, when she leans down, I whisper near her ear. “See you again soon, Trissy.”
It takes her a moment, but she smiles brightly, nodding her head. “I hope so too,” she says.
I send her off with a wave.
Once she’s gone and I’ve checked she hasn’t left anything behind, I slump onto the table.
“Are you okay?” Evan asks.
I tilt my head to look at him, seeing some worry on his face, and I smile. “Yes, I’m just tired. It takes a lot out of me to act like that.”
He hesitates, but does eventually ask, “You were acting?”
My smile slips away, eyes losing their focus as I turn my thoughts inward. “I honestly don’t know if I’ll get to talk to her again, so I wanted to make sure I was a good role model for her,” I say, pausing there to think.
There wasn’t exactly a clear plan in my mind at any point, but I had a desire to show her how much fun it is to make new friends. I mean, really, there’s no point justifying it since I pretty much made it up as I went along.
But I do care for her, and I think that showed in what I said and what I did. I paid attention to her, kept her in the right state of mind, not going too far in my teasing and generous with kind words. Like she wanted, I filled in many of the gaps in her knowledge that has made maths hard for her. I might not have taught her exactly what’s in the coming exams, but she’s now in a better position to study by herself and make progress.
Sincerity. I treated her with sincerity.
“It’s not easy for me to talk to strangers either, so I have to act like I’m confident, that I know what I’m doing and that I’m saying the right things.” I look over at Evan, and he seems surprised. “Do you think I fooled her?”
There’s a long second of silence, his expression eerily unreadable for a change. Well, it’s normally only easily readable because I overwrite his mood with embarrassment or humour.
“She looked like she really trusted you, so I would say you did very well,” he says softly.
I blink, and in that time my eyes feel wet. Turning to hide in my arms, I smile to myself, not for the first time thinking that Evan truly is the one who knows how to say the sweetest things.
And I can’t help but think I was right to say that your effort being praised by your friends is the most precious praise of all.