Our mother always said no good would come of us. When again we’d trick our governess into thinking one of us were the other, or pretend one was two, Mother would punish us with separation and discovered a deterrent more powerful than any previously devised. Abruptly, we became angelic charges and our governesses grew calm, complacent. So it continued, until we grew old enough, cunning enough, to thoroughly disguise our machinations.
In the end, our mother had been right to curb us so. If it were not for our old game, Victoria would never have met the Maquis. If not for our old game, she would never have ensorcelled him with clandestine meeting and fleeting embrace. If not for our old game, I would not be sitting here now, taking comfort in my reflection in the mirror as I waited in my finery for her wedding hour.
I should be happy for her. I should be overflowing with an abundance of love and joy and all those other emotions that our acquaintances had expressed repeatedly during the bride supper the night before. I should be all those things…why was I not?
The fine lace of the gown caught against my fingers, its strands easily unravelling with gentle pull. Victoria claimed the lace made from the finest of silks, hand-spun and woven by the Sarimiian weavers. Bah. What did she know of such things? Look how it disintegrated. She’d been cheated and well, no doubt by those same Sarmiian weavers, eager to find a gullible fool to purchase their wares.
Provoked beyond measure, I rose to stand before the mirror, eager for distraction. For all that the gown might disintegrate about me, I did look well. Puffy sleeves notwithstanding – the dictates of fashion were sometimes beyond trying – the dress Victoria had chosen flattered and seduced, sliding over my body in a graceful fall. Gold flashed and shimmered beneath the lace, the afternoon light catching and illuminating the different silks with different intensity. The thin sheath was flattering, it was true, but still not as flattering as it should be.
Today was Victoria’s, and I was not to outshine her.
Hard of task, however, to not at least equal her. I was but thirteen minutes younger, and so alike in appearance that all could not help but stare. Tracing my brow, the dark arch of it above the midnight eyes so similar to hers, I catalogued my features. Her features.
We were dark, my sister and I, with black hair and eye, yet skin as pale as cream. Our features were not the current mode of beauty but none could deny we possessed it, our red mouths wide and full, our cheekbones high, our bodies curved. Many had been brought low by our twinned beauty and, more than like because of it, we had ruled the ballrooms of Della Tir since we had first debuted at seventeen, brought out a full two years before custom dictated by our ever-ambitious mother.
The capital at our feet, we’d become the toast of society and had retained our rule for over eleven years. The king may hold Tier Dea Lael safe, his strong hold defending our small country against any who sought to destroy us, but Victoria and I ruled the ballrooms, two queens with society grasped tight in their delicate hands.
As was our due, we gathered and discarded admirers on a whim, playing one off against another in delicious game. At least we had. Until the Maquis. Odes had been composed in our honour, and of a certainty lust beat in the breast of many a young man, fantasies of Victoria and I together consuming them as they grappled with themselves, sweating and grunting in their solitary beds, their passion for us spilling onto their sheets.
We knew what desire we caused in men’s hearts, and we knew how to use it and how to find delight in it. Mother had instructed us well. Through nothing more than an accident of birth we inspired such, and we knew if not for our form and face all would be taken from us.
Always we stood before others because of our duet. Always, because we were two, we enchanted and ensorcelled. Yet now, Victoria sought to destroy that. Now, our duet was severed. From this day, from the day of her marriage, I would be Anne, solitary Anne.
Ah, well is me. Mayhap it was time for something new.
The door flew open. She didn’t knock on the door, my sister. She strode through, her veil spun like spidersilk through her hair.
“What are you doing, Anne?” Arms crossed as the veil settled about her, Victoria seemed almost agitated, though others would not perceive her as such.
“Waiting for you, sister mine. What else did you think?”
“Do not play, Anne. Not today.” Fair impatient, she grabbed my hand and dragged me from the room. “I need your help. Mother will not leave me be. She has pestered and pecked and insists all is not right with my dress. It is my dress. I do not see what say she has in it.”
As she led me to her rooms, Victoria commenced diatribe on our mother, a steady stream of words that did not falter through the hallways. Quiet, I allowed her rant, following meekly. After all, it was her day.
We entered her suite, and at last her bedchamber. The distant crash of wave against cliff drifted through the enormous windows, the late day sun bathing the room in shades of gold and amber. Even from the door of the bedchamber, I could see the faint outline of Santa Criza, all the way across the Corellean Sea.
From my own rooms, the distant peaks of the Mantemarch ranges cut jaggedly along the horizon. Silvery tracks of the Gangeer and Horrath rivers twisted across the landscape, green velvet hugging the thin tracks as they wound toward the mountains. All else was gold and brown, the desert encroaching further into the green as the miles increased.
I should have been more impressed, I knew.
Each of Victoria’s rooms were clothed in sumptuous fabrics and decorated with priceless artefacts, the bedchamber holding pride of place amongst all the splendour. I was unsurprised by their lavishness. The Maquis had assured of nothing less than the best for his bride and thus the most unattainable venue in all of Tier Dea Lael was obtained – the king’s private estates. None knew how the Maquis had secured the king’s permission and, I suspected, one wouldn’t want to know.
Strange that wealth had never impressed me. Victoria loved recounting the Maquis’s prospects – the estates he owned, the industries he conquered, the jewels he showered upon her. I, though, was indifferent to it all. Oh, I was grateful for our wealth, for the possessions it afforded me, the stability an excess of coin guaranteed, but never had I sought more. Our father had left us a sizable fortune, ably managed by our mother. This would see us in silks and jewels for all the days of our life. I was content.
Victoria…Well, she was to marry the Maquis.
She collapsed in a puff of skirts on the bed, her face set in petulant lines. Silence fell but for the faint crash of wave against rock. Was the excuse of her dress simply that? Mother had been annoyingly present at every part of her daughter’s wedding preparations, and yet, Mother was nowhere to be seen. For a time, I observed Victoria, and wondered if my own features would form the same pout.
After a time, I grew weary of the silence. “There is no need to perform for me. I can use that as well as you.”
The pout disappeared. “You take all the fun out of it.” Unmindful of my protests, she pulled me down, a grin stretching her mouth as I tumbled beside her.
Turning to my back, my gown a spill of champagne between us, we stared at the canopy.
“Where is Mother?”
I felt more than saw Victoria shrug. “Somewhere plotting, no doubt. I…she was here earlier about my dress but Anne, I needed…”
I knew better than she could express what she meant. I knew because I felt it too.
Moments passed, the crash of waves against rock growing louder until it seemed it was all that I heard.
“I shall miss you.”
The words I had not meant to utter fell from me with distressing ease. Blinking at the canopy, I berated myself with every epitaph I could remember. Victoria should not be burden with this truth. Through her courtship, her engagement, through all the preparations for this day I had kept it close to my breast, and now, with little thought, I had revealed all. Stupid, stupid Anne.
I could feel her gaze upon me. “I won’t be far.”
“You know what I mean.” Rich gold and vibrant scarlet wound intricate patterns on the cloth above, forming dragons and saints, bloodshed and tears.
“It had to happen.” Finality hung heavy in her voice.
“At least it is with a Maquis.”
Again, all fell still. Never had I studied a canopy so intently, with no waver nor deviation.
Finally, her soft words disturbed the hush . “I shall miss you too.”
I turned to look at her, at the face so like my own. Her hand crept into mine and we stared at each other unspeaking, until they came to take us to the chapel.
In the shadow of the king’s grand palatial estate, all were witness as the Maquis took the most desired of objects…one of the d’Arren twins to wife. The ceremony had been pomp and spectacle, a grand wash of elegance and wealth sheathing the chapel and lending it a grandeur it did not usually possess. The bride had been clothed in a tangible representation of the Maquis’s wealth, her colours of silver and grey threaded with those of the Maquis’s house. The Maquis himself dark and handsome, stark in his lack of adornment, stood tall and straight next to his bride. Whispers and rumour had flooded the congregation, and by the following year, all of society would claim attendance, though fewer than half were present, and all would talk of the obvious grand passion between the Maquis and his new bride, when in truth little of anything could be discerned from either visage.
The wedding party burned late into the night. Wine flowed like a river along a raised dais, inviting guests to dip their goblets into the ingeniously designed receptacle. Tables groaned under the weight of the bounty they supported, exotic fruits and delicacies from far Aurialea, spices and sweetmeats from darkest Hrongiar. Brightly burning torches lit the revels, firelight glinting off the jewels and silks of the attending guests, whirling and celebrating before the largess of the Maquis.
Three weeks the celebrations would run, three weeks in which the Maquis would impress all with his boundless wealth and influence, for to have run of the king’s estate for so long a time must surely mean he had more than the king’s ear, and Victoria sat with her new husband, looking down on the masses with the bearing of a queen.
From my table in the shadows, I watched her. Never before had I observed her thus, the full impact of our shining glory displayed before me. Always before I had been beside her, motions mirrored, expressions twinned. I was possessed of disconcertment, to see her so.
Victoria gazed down on all, a half-smile curving her lips even as her hand curved loosely around a goblet. I knew she would not touch the wine it contained, as always must a clear head be maintained. Her eyes and her demeanour held challenge and distance both, and the twin dichotomy would be as a lodestone, drawing gaze and adoration. If I stood beside her, if the effect was doubled, none would withstand the pull. Indeed, it had been an age since any did.
Her bridegroom sat beside her, sprawled in lazy elegance even as a sneer painted his rough-hewn features. He was not convention, the Maquis, and yet he drew the eye without effort, his care-for-little attitude a lodestone of its own. If pushed, I could see why my sister had chosen him. Of all our suitors, he possessed an allure comprised of all that was masculine, a beauty of raw bones and swarthy skin, dark hair and cool eyes. Those eyes swept those assembled now, that sneer twisting further his well-formed lips.
I had not conversed much with this man who was now my brother. Never had he pursued me when first we’d met, his eyes for Victoria only. She’d led him a merry chase, and we’d often laughed at the lengths to which she made him strove. However, he met each with a surprising ease, though I had been amazed when Victoria had told me she seriously considered his suit. Always he seemed me of difficulty, never providing an ease in handling. He would demand, and he would dominate, and it would take all our skill to control him. I was not one for a life of exhaustion. Victoria, it seemed, did not agree.
A sudden raise of his head and he caught my considering gaze. Though flummoxed, I pretended as if not with small smile and raised brows. My sister’s new husband merely looked upon me, the ever-present sneer still in place and with little fanfare, dismissed me from notice, instead turning his attention to his new bride. Was it fancy, or did I see a faint softening in his countenance? Ah, but surely fancy. The man was all that was artifice and disdain. All knew he pursued the d’Arren twins for the prestige they would bring.
No matter. There was little need for conjecture, and I had no care for his turn of expression. He was Victoria’s now, and though he treat her kind, never would my dislike pass my lips.
I, too, was well versed in pretence.
“Victoria did well this day.” Sitting beside me, my mother gazed at the couple also, her still youthful features shown to best advantage in the firelight. Her fan gently wafted back and forth, bringing with it the scent of her perfume, delicate flowers and exotic spice. The scent was a combination of the perfume she had commissioned Victoria and I, as if to remind all, even in the most subtle of ways, that she was responsible for the most beautiful women to grace the court in its long and proud memory.
She turned the eyes that had felled a thousand men to me. “My eldest child has made me proud. Would that the youngest will do the same some day soon.”
I do not believe my falter showed upon my face. My expression remained as always, a slight smile curving my wide mouth, but not so forceful as to produce lines or creases.
“Anne, we must look toward your future now that Victoria’s is settled. She has made the match of this season, but we will accept nothing less than the d’Arren girls sweeping two seasons in a row, causing spectacle and ceremony. Think of it, my dear. You will be the talk of the town.”
“Yes, mother.” With surprise, I noticed my hands had curled tighter around my goblet. Releasing the glass, I brought my hands to my lap, my gaze slipping over the throng as I listened with half an ear, though I knew it did me ill. I should listen to my elders, always deal in respect, but this night I could not do so. This night, I was free, if only for a little while. Exhilarating to think that for this short time, focus was removed. None in the crowd glanced toward me, none pretended even slight interest in my form. They were all here at the Maquis’s bequest and all gawked and speculated.
Most, I think, I did not listen so as not to hear my mother’s lecture. She did not mean to be cruel. Simply, she sought to better her daughters, to utilise their full potential. In this life, there is only beauty and charm to recommend us. We have need to employ them to secure our future.
Victoria had made a most excellent marriage. I had yet to realise my potential. Thus, my mother’s words.
“We will have much to discuss, now that your appeal will be wholly dependent upon you alone, Anne. You will no longer have the novelty of your sister to support you. You must double your efforts.”
My mother continued, talking of stratagems and designs for my return to the capital. Her voice became a pleasant blur, a highlight to the faces and forms melding into a cacophony of colour. Tomorrow I would look to Mother’s plans for me, would retrain myself to be one instead of two.
Tonight, I would enjoy being simply Anne.
My gaze slipped over the crowd, noting the presence of those who sought the Maquis’s favour, those who sought Victoria’s, and those who simply aspired to be held close to our majesty. All gazed upon the bridal couple, all preened and beckoned and tried for attention. All but one.
Instead, his focus was on me.
Even though I was in shadow he sought me, his eyes intense. Blond hair gleamed red, then yellow, then a burnt sort of gold, as the firelight danced and spluttered over him. Cast in flame and shadow, he was hidden and then revealed, his long, rangy body obscured by passing guests as they flitted and danced and caroused about him.
And still he stared.
Unwillingly entranced by such a bold gaze, I slowly allowed my mouth to form the small smile Victoria and I had practised endlessly, one that spoke of mystery and enticement, one that had ensnared countless admirers. Something about this man teased the edges of memory, but so faint our acquaintance couldn’t be more than passing.
Stonily unaffected, he crossed his arms before his broad chest…and still he stared
Impressed by his resolve, for it was not often a man resisted our blandishments, I studied this man who stared at me as if I should know him. That tall, rangy body was taller than most, long legs put to display in a trouser of some kind. The fashion was foreign to Tier Dea Lael, and quite the contrast with the current fad of skin-tight stockings tucked into knee high boots. Would that he adopt such garb. It would be glorious sight, this man’s legs encased only in stockings.
A short coat cut to mid-hip completed his dress, so different from the voluminous jackets flowing to mid-thigh his contemporaries wore. With the nature of his wear, the subdued, dull colours, he should be forgettable, a faded peony amongst the glory of orchids, and yet the sedate clothing made him exotic, other from the clash of jewel-bright garb surrounding him. Such fare drew the eye to his pleasing form, his handsome features, which was no doubt the intention.
Deep-set eyes, the colour indiscernible from my vantage. Large, straight nose. Slashing cheekbones. Wide mouth. He possessed a regularity of feature not often seen in a man, and paired with a pleasing body, with broad shoulders and slim hips and long legs, he would draw as much attention as even Victoria and I.
Slowly, I raised my gaze to his, and though his stare did not falter, I knew he’d observed my perusal, and, what’s more, that he was infuriated by it.
Interesting. I must know this man. Slight smile still playing about my features, I raised a brow, silently beckoning him come to me.
Before he could disguise the emotion, fury flashed across his face, confirmation of what I had sensed earlier. Turning on his heel, he removed himself from my gaze to blend into the crowd with consummate skill.
Even more of interest, a reaction wholly incommensurate with the action. Could it be I was mistaken? Did we know each other better than I had supposed? Only someone who truly knew me, who had been ensnared in the games Victoria and I played, would have cause to hate us so.
“Anne, you would do well to mind your elders…and better still to remove thoughts of such as he.”
Her words returned me to the presence of my mother. The man now wholly gone, I did not react to the sharpness of her tone, instead turning my expression to the bland smile so often seen on the faces of those at court. It was armour, that smile, one that concealed and protected, one that had fooled many a suitor.
My mother, of course, taught it to me.
“Thoughts, mother?” She was working herself to passion, her eyes flashing with her angst. Oh, that I could stir such reaction. First him, and now the woman who had borne me. All that was needed was Victoria’s irritation and a trinity was complete.
“Do not make believe with me, daughter. You would be foolish to play with an unknown quality, and foolisher still to attempt ensnarement on such a man. He is nothing. Indeed, I have it that he made one fortune in Ariblica, only to lose it in Sarimiia.”
Ah, now, this had to be right. Insouciant, with just the slightest touch of disdain. “Everyone loses their fortunes in Sarmiia.”
Indeed, impatience placed a light touch on her brow. “He is here to find himself a rich bride. You will remove all thoughts of him from your mind.”
“Mother, I cannot think where you get such notions. I was simply caught by the simplicity of garb. Imagine, attending such an event in such as…that.”
“Anne.” Her tone forced my gaze. A struggle, to keep my eyes from sliding away. “Do not entertain such thoughts.”
I could never fool my mother. Was there some way to conceal my interest…but no. “Who is he?”
With furious brow, she stared at me. “You do yourself no service with this.”
“Who is he?”
Lips pressed into a thin line, she said nothing. How would she react, if she knew the lines she gave herself with such tart expression.
My words fell gently from my lips. “Mother, if not from you, then from another.”
Abruptly, her brow smoothed, though silence remained. None could read her now, not even I, but then, she was the mirror I practised upon. Around us, revels sounded. Music, laughter, murmurs…the sudden burst of fireworks. The Maquis really had spared no expense. A burst of gold and green lit my mother’s face, and in her features I saw reluctant acceptance that I would not falter.
“Though I will regret this…that man, he is Zienn of Venuza. The old zienn died over a twelve month ago, with no heirs but he. The title is empty, a name only. No wealth, no consequence, simply a rundown estate and a tract of useless land. I have it that before his elevation he was a staple at Driac’s court, charming women, and some men, out of their jewels and their wealth. He was possessed of a different name then…something Pietrell.”
Pietrell…his name danced about the edges of memory, so long ago it was all but forgotten.
“He may be fodder for your wiles, Anne, but he is not to be entertained seriously, do you understand? You must at least equal Victoria, if not exceed.”
“Yes, mother.” I paid my mother the lip service she seemed to require and I barely noted the twist of her lips, her eyes bleak as though she knew her warning futile the knowledge in her eyes.
The man…the Zienn of Venuza.
How very intriguing.
©2009 Cassandra Dean