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|Aaaand...still no working title. However, this is the first installment of this story, and since it's getting very, very long, I've gone back and lumped together a few entries. Thus, this is what used to be Shaysiris 1 and part of 2. Nothing really new about this one, just a few edits here and there for grammar and typos. Neato! |
For those of you new to the story, it's about a young woman in a country called Shesnat (map IS coming, i SWEAR). She's a courtier and is very upset about that. And then that all changes and a newcomer to the country gives her something new to be upset about ^^ Uploaded: 10/8/05
There was someone new in court.
It was obvious the moment I woke up. The servants hurried through their chores so they could return to hidden corners of the mansion to gossip. Places that dust collected in because the only thing that ever touched the surfaces was a feather duster held by a chatty servant who had retreated to this shadowed room simply to run their mouths. It had been nearly six months since my maid had taken less than five minutes to stoke the fire, and today she did it in thirty seconds flat.
I rose and dressed. The king would practically lock away our new arrival until the pre-dinner party that occurred, obviously, before dinner. Then, if it was a woman, he would stride in with her on his arm. If it was a man, he would introduce him, clap him on the back, and toast to his health. Everyone likes the king, mainly because he’s so predictable. Often when we get a new, young king, the conservatives have problem with breaking him in and making him follow the rules. This one came pre-broken, and the conservatives practically turned back-flips. Except they’re all seventy, so they didn’t. People like me…well, we all sighed and resigned to wait until this one was overthrown, turned senile, or, best of all, was murdered. That was five years ago, when I was fourteen, and none of the above has happened yet.
The day was a blur. Boring. Court tends to be so. When someone new arrives, all the intrigues and plotting cease for a single day. It’s as if everyone in the entire mansion is waiting to see who can sink their hooks into the fresh meat first. They’re all hoping to catch a glimpse of a sleeve or the toe of a shoe that looks even vaguely unfamiliar so they can pounce on it. It’s all quite ridiculous to me, and while I refuse to directly entangle myself in court intrigues, I do enjoy watching them unfold. Days such as this when all secret plots to spill-wine-on-so-and-so’s-new-white-dress-at-dinner-tonight die down are infinitely tedious.
Finally, the dinner party came. Everyone was buzzing, and word drifted up from the trusty and supposedly sworn-to-silence servants that our visitor was male. Keeping with such infallible advice, I dressed accordingly. Being a Flower of the Court, my sole role in life is to impress a man enough with sheer physical beauty so I can be married off to him, bear him heirs, and die an early and essentially unrecorded death by my own hand because I hate my husband so much. How did my life get to this point?
Don’t worry, that’s rhetorical.
I decided a white under-dress with a sheer pale-blue dress-coat would be suitable. It matches my eyes and offsets my hair, which is bright flaming red. One of the many reasons why I have never been an Est; I’m not a traditional enough beauty. So, with my waist-length mop of curls trained back by a few thousand pins, I arrived at the party.
And thus, here I am. The whole affair is subdued, even for our court. Word has it that our visitor is not only male, but young, single, and from Keterinin. The last part of it is the strangest part of it all. Keterinin is the most liberal country on a map. There, women’s opinions are valued. Women hold lower ranks of authority, parent children on their own if their husband dies, and even are allowed to own property and earn money. Here, women are trinkets. Yes, that’s right, if our husband dies, our children are removed from our care and placed with another family until we remarry. It’s a law. Written. In. Stone. Literally. Welcome to Shesnat. Enjoy your stay.
The point in all my bitterness is that Keterinin and Shesnat do not mix. They are two different worlds.
My father drifts past with my mother on his arm. They are a regal pair, perfectly matched. My mother is a true beauty, but her smile is always false. She just carries it as if it were real. Behind them trails a couple that are in-and-out of court. They are not the newcomer. However, the only other times they were in court, I was away at Blossoming Classes, so I’ve never met them. They are either distant relations or friends; I cannot remember which.
My father sees me, and he smiles. “Ah, daughter, you look lovely. Allow me to present you to your uncle-by-marriage three times removed, Baron Bodan, and his wife Alynne.”
Relations. I prop up my fake smile a bit more. “It’s wonderful to meet you, Uncle.” As is due by court decorum, I curtsey low for the fat blob of a man my aunt three times removed had to settle for, because she’s not exactly stunning. I nod at her, concealing my sympathy for her behind a pretty and appropriately stupid smile. Then I turn to my father and curtsey low to him. “Thank you for the compliment, father.” I nod at my mother. I see her heart twinge in her eyes. She hates how well I’ve adapted to court. She just doesn’t know how much I hate it too.
My father turns to Uncle Bodan. “This is my daughter, Lady Shaysiris. Her title-in-waiting is Countess.”
Bodan’s eyebrows shoot up so high they practically meet his hairline. It doesn’t faze me. It’s a typical reaction. “You’ve made a woman your heir? That’s illegal.”
Father shrugs. “She won’t inherit until she marries, and then it’s really her husband inheriting. She’ll receive the title because she is my heir, by lack of another child, but it’s naught but a word. She has no power.”
Bodan sends a critical eye at my mother. “Why not just have another child? Your wife still seems young enough.”
My father turns his head from mother in embarrassment and leaves her to explain. Such dirty matters as a wife struck barren by the birth of her first child are not to be discussed by men. She instead explains to Alynne. The baron carries a look of disgust when she finishes. “End the marriage. Marry another, younger and not…crippled.” This is obviously addressed to my father, and Alynne and my mother assume the glassy-eyed stare that means, “I’m not listening, feel free to discuss me as if I were nothing but an object.” I have not yet learned this technique, so I opt to stare at the floor.
“It was an arranged marriage. As you know, this means I am unable to terminate it.”
The baron sighs. “Life can be cruel, my friend. I admire your strength in the face of such adversity.” Then the man turns a weasel-like eye on me and appraises me up and down. “Your daughter is lovely, Caireb. You said she was a Flower of the Court. Surely she is an Est?”
“Her Blossoming professors did not see her to be an Est. She is actually quite low ranking. She is a true beauty, but at times she has the temperament of a wild mare. It is a pity. She would bring much more honor to the family if she were not so…difficult. We had hoped court would tame her. All it has done is improve her court-face. We aren’t allowed to see her in private while she is a Flower, and thus, we haven’t been able to determine whether she has progressed or not.”
“It’s a shame.” And with that, they drift off. If you have not yet realized it, life in Shesnat is relatively brutal on women.
Before I have the chance to curse my Uncle Bodan and the country’s stupid traditions internally, the bells ring high above. All conversation stops as the king gracefully glides to the head of the stairs, a wine challis in his hand. “Tonight, we welcome a new cousin to our court. He comes from Keterinin, and will be staying with us as long as he chooses to. I present Duke Vistalt.” Another form joins the king. “May the gods keep him healthy!” The men cheer, the women clap politely, and the duke smirks. No one in Shesnat’s court smirks. Hardly anyone even grins. It’s either a smile or a straight face.
I like the man instantly.
The two men stride down the stairs together, confidence oozing from both. As Vistalt approaches my position at the bottom of the stairs, my heart freezes. The man is gorgeous. His pale blonde hair is cropped short enough that it just flops into his eyes, which are the palest possible grey. There are tiny braids in his hair that are died black. His clothes fit well, and he is perfectly proportioned. Everything about him screams ice-prince.
As he passes me, his eyes connect with mine, and a carefully calculated spark of recognition passes through his eyes. Then I cast my eyes to the floor and bend my head, as is a woman’s place. They pass through the rest of the crowd. Vistalt stops at the foot of the dais, and the king ascends to his throne alone. He surveys his subjects. “Continue,” he calls out, amusement in his voice.
Like a switch has been flipped, everyone launches into polite conversation. Every Flower in the court immediately mobs Vistalt. I simply glide through the crowd aimlessly, eyes downcast in the confident yet respectful manner of an unaccompanied woman. The occasional, “Lady Shaysiris,” and “Countess-in-waiting,” pull me out of my trance to trade pleasantries with various courtiers. Overall, Vistalt is a disappointment. Yes, he is a freethinker if he’s from Keterinin, but as I watch him from afar, he seems perfectly content to let the Flowers monopolize his attention. He’s obviously wife shopping, and since he saves his most brilliant smiles for the Ests, it’s clear what type of wife he desires: stupid, silent, and beautiful. Such men hold no interest for me. Which is a pity, because it is the type of man I will end up being married to. This conclusion is a simple one, because that particular type of men is the only kind you can find in Shesnat, and it seems the same is true for Keterinin, which destroys all my hope for something better.
The bell sequence for dinner is rung, and people do a court version of scrambling for their seats. The Flowers have assigned spots at a table to the left of the dais. The Ests, who embody the perfect Shesnat woman, are seated closest to the king, and the rest of us fall into an order that is determined by our Blossoming professors. I am fourth from the end farthest from the king, which basically means I will only be married when everyone above me is taken. If the King were married, the table would be arranged the other way, to put the least attractive women closest to the queen so she looks more beautiful. But, while the king remains unwed, the Ests will be placed closest to him in hopes that he will select one of them.
Dinner drags past. None of the other Flowers speak with me. I frighten them. Women are not supposed to think, much less be liberal in their thoughts. I am both. They believe it is a disease they can catch. I find this hilarious, which is all the more disconcerting for them.
After dinner is a period of talking before the dancing begins. Past attempts to remove this interlude have lead to people violently losing their dinner on the dance floor, which is not a desirable outcome. Men bring drinks to their favorite Flowers, hoping to intoxicate them enough to steal a kiss. No one brings me a drink. However, I notice with slight triumph that Vistalt does not bring a drink to anyone. The Ests take their drinks from typical court nobles, the barest signs of disgruntlement in their gestures. They were obviously hoping that they had impressed Vistalt enough to earn his desire.
I resume drifting, toying with an ornamental fan to keep my hands busy. After a few moments, a gentle touch on my arm rouses me from my trance. I raise my eyes humbly, and am barely able to control my surprise.
I glance around quickly, but casually. With the Flowers occupied with other men, Vistalt appears to have slipped from their coils long enough to approach me. Satisfied this is simply a man’s attempt to familiarize himself with everyone, I curtsy as is appropriate for a foreign noble. “Duke Vistalt.”
A vague grin plays with the corners of his mouth. He beckons to a servant and gracefully selects a goblet from the tray the servant carries. “I thought you might enjoy a refreshment.”
I believe this is the first time I’ve ever been brought a drink. I take it with a gracious smile and sip it. Instead of the bitter taste of alcohol that I expect, I taste only sweet fruit juice. This man is odd indeed. “Thank you, your grace.”
He dismisses the title with a wave of his hand. “Simply Duke Vistalt. I wondered if I might be able to walk a while with you.”
“As you wish, Duke Vistalt.”
His eyes say he can read right past my court manners. This unnerves me, but I begin to walk anyways. He falls in step beside me. Suddenly, he asks, “Are you aware you follow a pattern when you pace through the crowd like this?”
I chance a glance over at him. “No, Duke Vistalt, I was not so informed. I was also not conscious of the fact I was pacing.”
Though I say the last sentence with all the innocence I possess, he grins wickedly. Any man from Shesnat would not have the slightest inkling that I had just used thickly veiled sarcasm, but Vistalt picked it up without missing a beat. The man is perhaps more of a wonder than I had previously considered him.
“You do, you know. You go straight down the center of the room as you move away from the dais, and then you turn around and weave from right to left side of the room on your return trip. You have it perfectly spaced so that you can execute your turn away from the dais well within the crowd. With everyone else moving around, I doubt anyone else has noticed, but I find such things interesting.”
“It is certainly a unique hobby, sir.”
He glances over his shoulder to check our position and judges we are a suitable distance from the milling crowd of Flowers, then stops. “You act like the perfect court lady.”
I stop next to him. I am not sure how to respond to this, so I simply say, “Thank you, Duke Vistalt.” It’s how women here receive both insults and compliments, so it won’t even be considered unusual.
He studies me for a moment. I keep my eyes on the floor, but I can feel him looking at me. “It’s a shame you were born in Shesnat. You would have been perfectly suited to the Keterinin court.”
“To say such a thing would be treasonous of me, sir.” I meet his gaze with large, innocent eyes, as if I can’t believe what he is saying. Cold humor plays across his eyes, like ice crystals forming suddenly on a window.
“I was actually born in Shesnat.” He gazes around the grand hall, disdain in his expression.
“If it is not too forward, sir, may I ask why you moved to Keterinin?”
“The court is easier to infiltrate. Almost anyone can become a noble in Keterinin, as long as one knows basic decorum. Here, it is much more difficult. Those that aren’t born in rarely make it in. But I’ve returned to Shesnat on a very specific purpose.” With that, he looks into my eyes pointedly. I understand his purpose clearly; find a wife. But I already knew that. I decide another innocent question would be best.
“Do you own any lands in Keterinin?”
“Two small fiefs. Aoutrine and Gaeshon are their names. Very pretty little villages out in the country near the southeastern border of Keterinin. They produce quite a bit of vegetables and grains, but the land is too flat to waste on much livestock.” His gaze suddenly refocuses from the distant look he’s had while he described his land. “Don’t you have a title?”
I duck my head. “I am a countess-in-waiting.”
“My Shesnat titles are a little rusty. What exactly does that mean?”
“It means my father had an arranged marriage, so he cannot leave my mother, but I am the only child my mother was able to bear. So, my father does not have any other option for an heir, and thus he allows his daughter to inherit once she is married.”
“And what are the names of the fiefs you own?”
“I don’t own any, sir. They will become my husband’s property when I am married and my father is dead, and currently they are my father’s. Women aren’t allowed to own property.”
“And what if you never marry?”
“Then the property will belong to the king until I die, and then he will appoint a new count to oversee it.”
“So why do you even hold the title?”
“Because I am my father’s heir. Just because that means nothing doesn’t mean I don’t deserve the title.”
He shakes his head. “Now I have a better understanding of why I left this country.”
Overhead, the bells sound once more, and the Flowers begin to cast around the room for Vistalt. It’s time to dance. I reach for his glass. “It’s been wonderful speaking with you, sir. If I could just take your drink for you, I’m sure you have many other young women to dance with.”
And he does the unspeakable. He takes my drink from me and places it on a passing tray. Luckily, no one notices. Men are supposed to let women do all the cleaning up, and the simple act of taking the goblet out of my hand and placing it on the tray is a large breech of etiquette. But I don’t have a chance to tell him that, because he is already speaking. “If I can disentangle myself from the ladies the king wishes me to meet long enough, I would be honored to share a dance with you.” He actually bows to me, and then begins to walk away.
After seeing a man bow to me, which never happens in Shesnat, I feel bold enough to call out, “Duke Vistalt!” He turns, a distant sort of amusement and puzzlement filling his expressive grey eyes. I draw a deep breath. “Don’t you desire to know my name?”
He smiles in a way that is politely vicious. “I already know you, Lady Shaysiris.” And then he nods and gracefully submits to the king, who is beckoning for Vistalt to make his way back to the respectable women of the court. Which leaves me to puzzle. What did he mean by that?
That’s also rhetorical.
Being the 27th Flower of the Court does not attract a lot of attention, even from the most desperate of souls. So, I spend my nights watching everyone else dance and pretending I’m just waiting for a partner that’s currently dancing with someone else so I don’t look foolish. I typically pick one of the men and latch myself on to him for the night. I watch him dance with all the other girls with the hawk-like look that every Flower has when her partner has adopted another girl to dance with for the time being. It is an expression that contains more than a little malice for the girl he is dancing with, and thinly veiled confidence that the noble will soon return to the woman waiting for him. It is a single-minded type of obsession I can carry on without fail throughout an entire party, though I wish I did not have to. I love to dance.
I decide it is best not to hound Vistalt overly much, so I pick Sir Anthon to follow around. He is often the target of my false fascination, simply because he is too pompous to notice, and the girls dancing with him are too in awe of him to care. I have yet to see a reason for the aforementioned awe, but that is of little regard to me.
When Vistalt brought me a drink, it caused some memories to resurface. When Flowers are first introduced to the court, they spend one day unranked. They enjoy the dancing party without having to worry about how the number attached to their name is going to affect them. If they’re pretty, they are often sought out above the Ests. And then, reality hits the next night when a Blossoming Professor comes and seats them in their place at the table.
I came to the mansion with a group of 29 other Flowers. We all enjoyed a single night free of a number. And I was sought after by every man there. It isn’t spoken of anymore, but the King even got off his dais and danced with me. And then my Blossoming Professors seated me 27th, and there were actually men around the room who were wiping their hands off on their napkins, trying to rid their flesh of the horridness of me. The Ests still remember that night, and have never spoken to me again, even though one of them used to be a close friend.
And I believe this is the answer to my rhetorical question. My life got this way because I was born a beautiful noble with a brain in a world that would prefer your pretty little head was empty. Granted, I’m not exactly brilliant, but I can think, which is saying more than Temarotha, the first Flower of the Court. When we were fourteen, it took a month to teach her which hand was right and which was left, and she still gets them confused sometimes. If you think I’m kidding, I’m not. Stupidity is bred into the family lines like speed is bred in for a racehorse. Somehow men think their smarts will carry down to their sons, and their wife’s empty-headedness will find its way down to their daughters. And somehow, it never happens that way.
The dance ends, and Anthon begins to move across the dance floor towards his next partner. I move along beside him, my fan once again in my hands. I glance over at the orchestra, and freeze. They are bringing out the fiddles. And that means only one thing. The Piacolishina. (*)
The fiddle is not a native instrument to our country. It was brought here from Yetmin, and the Piacolishina is the only dance that is allowed to be played on the fiddle in Shesnat. No one is quite sure why, but that’s how it is. And the Piacolishina is my favorite dance. They have not played it in two months. They probably will not play it again for at least two more. I have not danced it in six months.
And while I can’t believe it’s happening, I feel tears well up in my eyes. I remember what it feels like to dance the Piacolishina. At first, it’s like any other dance, calm and stately. Then, it picks up, going faster and faster until you feel like you’re flying. When I dance the Piacolishina, I can fly.
I glance around the room as I duck my head in shame, for it is deplorable to be crying in public, and I notice Vistalt watching me. His partner is very unsure of herself. It’s obvious she does not know this dance. People are hastily making their excuses and leaving the floor, for they haven’t the slightest idea how to dance to this song.
But Vistalt is still there. And then suddenly, he smiles at his partner, who is probably babbling away about how she needs to rest because she is a delicate woman, and begins to walk towards me. My heart skips a beat. If he is honestly doing what I think he’s doing, it’s social suicide. In a more typical dance, with everyone on the floor, it might have gone unnoticed that he was dancing with me. But during the Piacolishina, when hardly anyone is out on the floor in the first place and I will be dancing my heart out…everyone will see.
But then he’s in front of me, and he’s smiling, and he extends his hand to me, and bows low. “Lady Shaysiris, would you do me the honor of a dance?”
Well, considering that just killed any social status he may have had, I don’t feel so wretched about slaughtering his chances anymore. For I am going to do so. The fiddles are tuning, and with a partner waiting for me, there’s no possible way I can resist this dance.
I take his hand, and seal our fate.
“The honor would be mine, sir.”
He leads me on to the floor with elegant grace, and for a moment, my resolve wavers. He seems far too proper to know the Piacolishina. Perhaps he simply doesn’t realize what it is. I do a little innocent reconnaissance. “Have you danced the Piacolishina many times before, sir?”
“I learned it in the Yetmin court, when I visited there a few years ago. It is one of their most time-honored traditions, and they play it often there. So, yes, I have danced it many times. How many, I could not say.”
Satisfied, I move on to the one other thing that is bothering me. “How did you know I wanted to dance, sir?”
He smiles. “Well, first off, you were staring at the fiddlers like a woman possessed. Secondly, some people truly love this dance, and it shows in their eyes. I’ve seen it in the eyes of the Yetminese, and I see it in yours.” And with that, he turns to face the orchestra, which is his beginning position.
I take a moment to gaze around at our fellow dancers. One couple looks quite unsure of themselves. The gentleman in another group is a little tipsy on his feet. The last two couples are in their 40’s or 50’s, and I know will do a cut-time, toned-down, re-choreographed version of the dance that is not nearly as risqué as the original. And then it’s Vistalt and I. The rest of the dance floor is empty.
The fiddles play out a warning note, and I close the gap between Vistalt and myself. I place my left hand on his left shoulder, and my right hand goes lightly on the back of his head. I rest my chin on his left shoulder. In the dead silence that lies over the entire room, he whispers so quietly I can barely even hear it, “Let’s make the Yetminese proud.”
And the music begins. A long, slow note with a slight and intentional tremor to it. Vistalt takes the hand that rests on the back of his head and pulls gently to my right. He side steps to the left, and I do the same to the right, trailing my hand along his shoulders. I execute a quick turn under his arm, and I face directly opposite him. The musicians move on to a playful series of quarter- and half-notes, and I pull my hand away from Vistalt. I strike a set of poses meant to symbolize a chase. The Piacolishina is technically the dance of life, and it is supposed to show stages of life. This, obviously, is a childhood or early adolescence phase. Vistalt watches me dance around in a little circle, and then raises his hand.
The music stops for a moment, and then a new key begins, less playful and more seductive. I raise my hand and lay my forearm along his, and together we turn a circle with a set of steps meant to mimic the syncopated rhythm. With a flourish, I push his hand away, turn, and meet his other hand with my other one. We turn the same circle in the opposite direction. Then, I push away from his hand and spin away from him. There is a slightly sustained note, and I finish spinning exactly at the end of it. Then, as another sustained note plays, I lower my up flung arm and hold it in a beckoning position, reaching towards him. I have figured out by now that the man can see what I’m really like through my court manners. So I decide to give him a little taste. While it is not actually part of the dance, I beckon him with a single finger and a wicked grin.
He matches my grin, and the fiddles begin a section of raucous counter-melodies in unusual rhythms. My feet follow the steps of the dance, which act like percussion for the fiddles. I end up with my back to Vistalt. Perfectly in time, I feel his breath on my cheek and his hands on my waist. I step forward and spin around, throwing both hands up in the air. He steps forward, wrapping his arms around my waist. I dip backwards in a graceful arc, waiting for him to tap a finger on my back and let me know it’s as low as I can go before he drops me. As I dip, I raise one leg to help me balance. But I just keep going, and then my fingertips are brushing the floor. He is in perfect form, his head bowed all the way to my navel. It registers to me that the man must have incredible strength to sustain this, and it’s not doing much for me.
Then, the fiddles play a bit of a sweeter melody, and he gently lowers me to the floor, which makes it quite obvious what stage of life we’ve progressed to now. I sit up, do a little spin on the floor, and raise both hands. He is right there, and pulls me up off the floor. But, instead of stepping back as is considered courteous, he stays right where he is, and we end up exactly as the dance was originally choreographed; pressed up against one another. I smile. He grins back, and I shove him away.
From there, the dance becomes a blur of twirling and footwork that I don’t even know how I get through. We part and rejoin countless times as the music grows faster and faster. I execute one last series of twirls under his arm, my hand releasing and re-gripping his. I can barely breathe, and the fiddles are racing in the sweetly heart-wrenching final notes. I feel my heart bubbling with happiness. Then the last note is here, and all the dancers following the true choreography collapse to the floor.
I lay on the ground, trying to make my empty lungs take air. I realize my hand is still in Vistalt’s, which is unusual. Typically, when the dancers collapse, partners get separated. I believe there is actually a legend that if you are still holding your partner’s hand at the end of the Piacolishina, they are the one you are meant to spend your life with. I raise my head to look at Vistalt.
He is already looking at me. While he holds my gaze, he gently brings my hand to his lips, and kisses the back of it.
Then he gets to his feet and helps me up. My father is instantly at my side. “I suggest you go and…adjust your appearance, daughter,” he hisses through clenched teeth. I realize that a few curls have slipped free of my pins, and that I am sweating lightly. I curtsey deeply to Vistalt and hurry away. As I walk past the orchestra, I can’t help sneaking one last look as they pack away the fiddles. The performers played so hard that the bows actually have broken strands hanging loose.
I race through the dumbfounded crowd, deliberately ignoring any strange looks I’m receiving. No one dances like that, or at least no one should, as far as they’re concerned. It’s too close to losing control. In one fell swoop, I have ruined Duke Vistalt’s record in addition to wiping out any and all shreds of a good reputation I still retained. Not bad for a night’s work.
I duck into a woman’s antechamber and close the door behind me, thoroughly satisfied.
I splash cold water on my face to help cool me down. I sigh and look at my image in the mirror above the ornately carved sink. My skin has a slight tan to it, which is a monumental transgression in Shesnat. My cheeks are flushed from my exertions, which just makes my eyes look even paler. A few curls hang down in a very bedraggled fashion. They’re short curls, because they only hang to my shoulders, but I fear I’ll have to re-pin the entire mass. I splash my face again, turn off the faucet, and grab a clean towel.
As I dry my face, I hear the door open and then shut. I quickly glance into the mirror, expecting one of the other young ladies in the dance has made her way to the room. Instead, I don’t see a skirt at all.
The towel falls from my hands as I whirl around. The distinct blonde and black hair almost makes me sigh with exasperation. The man seems determined to make himself into the court sleaze, which is usually the fruit of a few months’ work, in a single night. But, he smiles a very disarming smile.
“You’d think someone just ran into the room in their undergarments, the way they’re gossiping out there.”
“Forgive my bluntness, sir, but if someone had done that, they would have probably been beheaded. And it’s rather humorous that’s the case, since that’s what I’ll be if they find us in here.”
He throws his head back and laughs. “You’re very amusing, you know that, right?”
I struggle with my temper for a moment before I feel able to speak. “No, sir. It is common knowledge that men do not venture into a women’s antechamber. Thus, the logic of our country is that for a man to be in such a room, the woman must have seduced him into entering. I am a Flower of the Court, and a Flower seducing a man constitutes an automatic announcement of Defilement. A Defiled Flower is usually beheaded.”
He’s not laughing anymore. He glances at the door. “Then I won’t tell anyone this occurred. I just want to speak with you a little. I’ve never really been to Shesnat, and my diplomatic skills within this country are sadly lacking.”
This I have managed to deduce by now, but I do not tell him so. “How may I be of assistance?”
He seems to be relieved, and seats himself with a tired yet graceful air. “How do I get away from all these…ladies the king has presented me to?”
“May I speak plainly, sir?” I sit across from him and begin to re-pin my hair. It is generally considered vulgar to perform any acts of personal maintenance in front of a man you are not married to, but he is in my antechamber and I must not be too long or my father will get suspicious and send my mother to find me. He doesn’t even seem to notice. Instead, he lets his head fall into one hand, massages his temples, and gestures to me with the other hand.
“Please do. My head is truly beginning to hurt from all this court finery. It is not nearly so popular in Keterinin.”
“You can’t.” I almost can’t believe my own mouth, but the man obviously is exhausted and in no mood to have it sugarcoated.
He laughs in a strained way. “I actually believe that. Can you tell me why, though?”
“They are the Ests.”
“The what?” He raises his head and studies me.
Somehow, it never occurred to me that someone might not know what being an Est means. All my life, it has been a universal explanation as to why some girls are remotely happy and why others murder their newborn children just to get revenge on their husband. The Ests get first pick of the crop, and actually get to select a man that they have some feelings toward, usually. The rest of us…you’ve already heard my thoughts on us. I struggle for a moment, then find the words to explain. “The Ests are the ladies that the Blossoming Professors have dubbed to be the perfect woman. They are gorgeous, empty-headed, and silent. They tend to coo and sympathize a lot, but don’t really have much else to say. However, in Shesnat, these are the ideal women. Because they are such, they are placed before all others in all matters. Every man walking around the Shesnat court would rather marry an Est than any other woman.”
“So basically, because they’re the most eligible young ladies, I’ll be expected to constrain my attentions to their number?”
“Exactly. Taking interest in anyone but an Est is considered ‘settling for less’.”
“And you are an Est, I take it?”
I barely restrain my laughter, but I cannot help the smile that suddenly occupies my face. “I said ‘empty-headed and silent’. While I’m not brilliant or overly vocal, I am definitely not ‘empty-headed and silent’. I rank 27th.”
He looks even more confused. “And this is what I don’t understand about your country. It seems like women aren’t supposed to be people, only objects.”
I smile bitterly. “That’s all you need to know to relate to the thinking of men around here.”
“That women are objects?”
He shakes his head sadly. “So that’s why there’s such an uproar about you and I dancing. It was a display of personality.”
“You’re a fast learner.” I rise and return to the sink. “Would you care for some water? Or perhaps something a little stronger?”
“Water is fine.” I fill two glasses and turn back to him. He is watching me closely, much like a hawk watches prey, but with a bit less of a malicious intent. It’s a look I’m used to, and it typically means the man is plotting something not entirely wholesome for a later time. I bring the water to him anyways, and he sips it gratefully. “So if women are to be objects, how did you learn to dance like that?”
I place my glass on the low table beside me. “I learned to dance in Blossoming Classes. ‘Like that’, I learned on my own. There’s something about that particular dance that speaks to me. There’s no other way I can dance it.”
“I’ve seen Yetminese women who cannot perform it so beautifully.” The way he’s looking at me and the things he’s beginning to say are setting off very loud alarms in my head. I decide to tread a bit lighter.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Tell me what Blossoming Classes are. I keep hearing of them, but I haven’t the slightest idea what they are for.”
“They are to teach young girls how to become a Flower of the Court. You are typically recruited when you are fourteen, and then you spend five years under the direction of very strict and very matronly professors.”
“What do you learn?”
I shrug. “How to be emotionless and appear stupid. How to dance. How to ignore men when they begin to speak about ‘manly matters’. Such things that are crucial for the everyday existence of a Flower.”
“Sounds fairly boring.”
“It is extremely tedious, but it is made less so by paying attention to, without participating in, all of the other girls’ schemes that they concoct to become an Est.”
“So you never wanted to be an Est?”
“At one time I may have desired that, but I have long since found out I never could have been one.”
“It is certainly not for lack of anything, my lady.” The look in his eyes betrays his sordid intentions, and I’ve had enough.
“Sir, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the dance before my father becomes suspicious.” I rise and take his glass. “It’s been wonderful speaking with you.”
He smiles in a suggestive way. “Yes. It was very…” His eyes flick over me. I restrain my lip from curling. “Informative,” he finishes.
I turn and walk to the sink to hide the quiver in my hands. The man is obviously a disgusting pig. The Ests can have him, no matter how well he can dance. I dump out the water in the glasses and rinse them out. Then, I set them up on the shelf.
I turn to curtsey to him so I can make my exit, but practically leap back on to the sink. The man is standing not two inches away from me, and I’ve got nowhere to run. My heart begins to race and my mind is screaming for me to run while it plays back all the stories Professor Diena ever told us about nice court ladies being raped. He inclines his head and leans towards me slightly.
Suddenly, in one fluid motion, he crouches down, grabs something off the floor, stands back up and offers it to me. It is the towel I dropped when he first entered. “Wouldn’t want to forget that.” He steps back, bows to me, and when he straightens, he is smiling a very pure and gracious smile. An amused type of mischief plays in his grey eyes. “Have a good night, Lady Shaysiris.”
And he leaves.
And I realize all of his lewd behavior was simply an act. He was testing me, to see how I would react, and what I would say. The theatre lost a brilliant talent when they passed that man up. But why? Why would Duke Vistalt be testing my reaction to a man’s advances? The man is absolutely impossible. I’ve had enough of puzzling him out. I return to the dance, bid goodnight to my parents, and retire for some much needed sleep.
The next day at court marks the revival of the members. The gossip mills are flying, and the plots have once again taken flight. Interestingly enough, it seems as if my slip in deportment has been mostly forgotten. The only thing anyone is saying about it is that the duke was seeking to make a lonely girl feel better. So, rather than ruining his reputation as I was certain the dance would, it has turned him into a heroically sympathetic man. Which, of course, has every single eligible woman drooling.
Except me. Granted, the man is very easy on the eyes, and he is quite kind, but he is a courtier. He could be faking any and all pieces of his personality. He’s obviously quite the skilled actor. I couldn’t even distinguish when he went from his court personality to his false face in order to provoke a response from me. The man was born to fool anyone and everyone. And he’s succeeding with flying colors. Everyone loves him.
I retire to the Sunroom, hoping to get some honest embroidery done. I walk into the room, and I’m struck with a sight that I’ve never seen in my life; every single chair is full. And the word “Vistalt” is flying through the air at about a hundred repetitions per second. I sigh. So much for that thought.
I return to my room. I could simply remain there and embroider, but it is considered rude to lock oneself away. So I settle for a short conversation with my maid and a stroll in the gardens. “Riaon?”
“Here, ma’am!” She calls from where she is ironing garments.
I quickly find her. “How are you feeling today?”
“Very good, ma’am.” She smiles at me. It tells me she does like me, but she is slightly afraid of me. Most people are, especially women.
I smile back. “That’s very good to hear. Is there any pressing news I should know about before I venture out into the court?”
“Lord Dunrad and his wife Matia are due to arrive in the next few days. Matia is five months with child, and she wishes to be in the mansion of Shesnat where the doctors are the best when she delivers.”
This news brings a warm smile to my face. Matia spent a few years in Blossoming Classes with me. Because she is from Palanitha, she thinks much like I do, and we are close friends. Palanitha believes women are more or less men’s equals, which makes them more progressive than Keterinin in that respect, but their monarch is chosen by an extremely unorthodox method that dates back to the very beginnings of their country, which sets them farther back in the rankings of the world. If she is, as Riaon says, with child, she will be staying for at least a year.
“This is good news.”
Riaon smiles, but continues with her ironing. “I thought you’d like that.” She sends me a covert glance through her eyelashes. “And I’ve been hearing a great deal about this new man…Duke Vistalt, I believe his name is.”
Ah, so there is talk about last night, but the nobles aren’t touching it. I was worried for a moment there the gossip mills had failed. “I’m not surprised. Riaon, I’m going to take a walk in the gardens. If anyone comes for me and they cannot wait, ask them to find me there.”
She bobs a small curtsey. “Yes, my lady.” I smile at her. I genuinely like the woman. She is not the maid that lights my fire in the morning and likes to gossip. She is my own personal maid that my family pays for and doesn’t begin to work until nine, when I should be out of the room so I don’t have to soil my eyes with the sight of everyday chores. But she has long-since learned that I come and go throughout the day, and that I am more offended when she stops work for me than when she doesn’t. I believe she should finish her work and go home to her family, whom she actually loves very much. She was one of the lucky ones. The man that chose her loves her, and she returns it.
I leave for the gardens. They are a complex maze of corridors and alleys through hundreds of different kinds of flowers. It is early summer, and practically everything is in bloom. The flowers have a very soothing effect on me. Being drenched in their scent and surrounded by their beauty makes me incredibly happy. It’s almost like being drunk, but it’s so much nicer.
I feel a light touch on my arm, and a soothing voice says, “Lady Shaysiris.” I sigh and resign myself to never being rid of the man.
“Good morning, Duke Vistalt.”
“It is a lovely morning, isn’t it? For all its shortcomings, Shesnat has gorgeous gardens.”
“Do you know that it is highly atypical for a man to walk in the gardens?”
He raises an eyebrow. “It is?”
“Yes. Usually, they must be with a woman, and even then it is difficult to get a Shesnan male into a garden without a promise of secret intimacy.”
“There is the difference, my lady. I am not a Shesnan male. I am a Keterinin male, and I enjoy strolling in gardens very much. Besides which, it seems as if I can do no wrong.”
I stop walking as he pauses to study a particularly rare flower. “Sir?”
“After the way I trod all over their culture last night, everyone should probably be hating me. And somehow, I am a hero.”
I bristle inwardly. “So was that all last night was about? Testing our culture?”
If he catches the hint of anger in my voice, he doesn’t show it, but only moves on to the next bush of flowers, gently caressing the petals. “Not at all, my lady. At the time when I broke the unspoken rules, I was unaware of them. Still, now that I am aware, I know that they should still be upset. No one is. It is very strange.”
“I believe the king has made it clear you are in his favor. Sir, may I ask you a question that is, admittedly, a little forward?”
He throws me an amused look. “Certainly.”
That stops him dead in his tracks. He turns, and his grey eyes catch mine. For a moment, I feel like I’m drowning in his eyes, seeing vast banks of past memories and deeds. Then the fancy passes, and he says, “Why not?”
Still holding his gaze, I press for an answer. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but something about Vistalt brings out who I am beneath the court veneer. “That is very circular logic, sir.”
He inclines his head, ceding the point to me. “It is. And it is a fair question.” He breaks the eye contact, and I feel slightly dizzy. He thinks for a moment. “I believe it was because I saw the spark of intelligence in your eyes. All the other women lacked it, but yours was burning quite brightly. Women who simply listen bore me easily because I bore myself easily. I need to speak with someone who will converse, and none of the other women will.”
“Why not a man?” then, realizing this is almost accusatory, I quickly add, “sir.”
A slight tremor of his lips that is the beginnings of a smile is all that betrays my mistake. “Because the men here are far too pompous. They believe their culture is the only one, and that everyone should understand it. If I were to ask them the questions I asked you, they would always see me as an inferior. From what I can tell, asking you the questions I did actually made me a superior man in your eyes. This was not my original intention.” He adds, with a pointed glance towards me.
“That is fair. Thank you for obliging my fancy.”
“Perhaps now you will oblige me one.” This sets off all kinds of alarm bells.
He walks forward a few steps and selects a flower from a bush. It is a pale but lush lavender that compliments both my eyes and my hair well. “Do you own a dress similar to this shade?”
This is not what I expected. Besides which, it’s an odd question, because I actually do. The very same flower sent me on a quest a year ago to find a fabric that would match it exactly and have a dress made. “I do, sir.”
He smiles and walks to me. He tucks the flower behind my ear gently. “Will you wear it tonight?”
I curtsey low and bow my head. “I will, if it is your wish, sir.”
He places two fingers beneath my chin and raises my face to look at him. “It is. And please, my lady, you don’t ever have to hide your face from me as you do from the men here. When you curtsey, which I am certain I cannot convince you to do away with, please do not bow your head. It makes me feel very regal and old.”
I rise from my curtsey, but his fingers remain beneath my chin. “Is feeling regal so bad, sir?”
He places a curl behind my ear in a way that is almost tender. “I’ve had more than I can stand of being treated regally in my life, my lady.” He bows. “I will look for you this evening. Don’t expect it to take long before I escape the Ests.”
“Just because you feel as if you can do no wrong now, sir, doesn’t mean that such support from Shesnat’s nobles will continue. I suggest you spend most of your time with the Ests tonight. If you don’t, you may anger the king.”
“I’m glad I have you to be my social advisor. I will leave you to your walk now. Good day, my lady.” And he takes a side-path that leads back to the mansion.
I wander for a while more, and then decide to see what my parents are doing for lunch. While I dread seeing them, the faster I mend relations with my father, the better.
I make my way to their suite and knock discreetly. Their maid answers. “Good day, Lady Shaysiris. How can I help you?”
“I was wondering what my parents’ plans for lunch are. Perhaps you can assist me…?”
Her expression tells me I’m very brave, which also brings me to the conclusion that my father is still tremendously angry. “They are dining in today. Would you like me to ask if you might join them?”
“If it wouldn’t be any trouble.”
“None at all, my lady. Please, come in and sit while you wait.” The maid opens the door for me to enter, then closes it behind me. With a quick curtsey, she is off to an adjoining room to inform my father I am here. He will not turn me away, no matter how angry he his. It would send a message to the court that he no longer supports me, and any lingering interest in me would dissipate completely. As soon as a daughter with a fragile inheritance falls out of favor with the man granting her the inheritance, it is likely said daughter will lose said inheritance. When said daughter has nothing else going for her, men, realizing this chain of events will soon come to pass, tend to flee at the first sign of trouble. While I’m certain my father would very much like to disown me, he doesn’t want the land we own to pass to the king, and thus into the hands of another family. So he tolerates me, and will eat lunch with me today.
Which is confirmed when the maid comes back in, curtseys, and says, “You may go right in, my lady. They are about to start.”
I’m not allowed to be alone with my parents for any amount of time, but since there will always be at least one servant in the room tending to something or another, we won’t be alone. I seat myself on the other side of the circular table from my father and mother. I bow my head towards their general vicinity. “Thank you for allowing me to dine with you this afternoon.”
My father takes a deep draw on what is no doubt high-potency wine. As he sets the chalice down, I can see him mentally squaring off with me. I brace myself. “Where did you waste your morning, daughter?”
“I went for a stroll in the gardens, father.”
The first course is served, and I smile graciously at the maid. Then, I begin to eat my soup. My father doesn’t touch his. “A stroll. In the gardens.” He pauses for a moment, as if letting this information cycle through his brain. “And you…” he shrugs, “don’t see anything…wrong with this?”
I glance around innocently. “No, sir.”
He slams his fist down on the table. My mother flinches. “The time could have been better spent patching the relations you destroyed last night, daughter!”
“No one was even speaking of it, father. There is nothing to be patched.”
His voice is now a menacing growl. “You know full-well there is plenty to be corrected.”
I make my eyes appropriately stupid and affix an extremely confused look to my face. “But…no one was talking about it.”
My father attacks his lunch in complete exasperation. For a moment, all is silent save for the noise of eating. Then, my mother quietly asks, “Did you enjoy your walk, dear?”
“I did, mother.”
“Did anyone accompany you?”
“Duke Vistalt did.”
I truly believe my father is about to start throwing heavy, pointed objects in various directions. His face is quickly progressing through the deeper shades of red and into the purple category. “You…asked him to accompany you?”
“He was there when I arrived.”
“Men do not walk in gardens, you lying wretch!”
I can feel a dangerous anger boiling inside me. I suppress it. “Which I told him when he asked me why I was surprised to see him there. He responded that men in Keterinin do, and that he saw nothing wrong with it.”
“You are on such treacherous ground, daughter…”
“I’m aware, father.” The acrimony that is just barely perceptible in my voice knocks all the color out of my father’s face. His anger retreats to his eyes and burns strongly there. I can tell he would like to say more, but he knows better than to pursue the subject when I’m like this. He remembers what happened the last time.
The rest of the meal passes in complete silence. Afterwards, I curtsey and retreat to my room. The worst edge has been taken off of my father’s anger now that he has yelled at me. It hasn’t done much for me, though, and rude or not, I’m all for locking myself in my room and embroidering until dinner. Which is exactly what I do.
(*) = a dance native to Yetmin
|Shaysiris 8||The Seven 2|