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My father married her at a late age. She was younger than him by thirty years, only a dozen years older than me. I was twenty when he brought her to his home; tall and pale like a lily, her hair the color of buttercups or tulips. She wasn’t beautiful – I thought that even then – but she was special. Or so my father told me when I questioned him over his new wife. She would not be what my mother had been to him, but she was nevertheless someone that he loved.

 

I met my father’s bride for the first time at her new home. My father carried her across the threshold and I greeted her with flowers from my garden—as befitted a new bride. Her eyes widened when she saw me, but she never spoke a word to me. I excused it as her being overcome by the moment. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

She cornered me within the first week, pushed me into the wall in a staircase and held me there with her hands on each side of my head. “Stay away from me,” she hissed. “Stay away—don’t even look at me.”

 

I was only too happy to oblige.

 

Her name was Lady Tremaine. I didn't learn her given name, nor was (I suspected) Tremaine her true surname. At their marriage, she took Father's name and became Lady Noire and that is how I came to think of her. Lady Noire of the Noire Estate, beloved of my father and the white ghost.

 

The last name was one that I gave to her. I doubt that she knew of it, as no one truly did, not even my closest friends in the village. Neither do I think that she knew that there was a witness to her long rambles in the rose gardens and the maze behind the estate. Lady Noire knew that I lived away from my sire, that I was my mother’s heir and had taken my mother's heritage as my own. She didn't know that this heritage included a cottage bordering to the estate, looking out over the gardens from a hillock covered with beeches and birches. I sat often on the porch that faced the estate, reading or simply enjoying the view. When Lady Noire began to walk the gardens, I began to watch her as well.

 

There is a little known door at the northern end of the main wing of the estate that leads straight into the beginning of the maze. That was where I first saw her; she stepped outside dressed in a white cape and a white gown like a ghost from time pasts. It struck me as garments wholly unsuited for a simple ramble, and, out of curiosity, I watched her as she acquainted herself with the maze and slowly made her way to the center. There was a marble statue to mark the place, a seat carved into its base, and there she rested, as if part of the statue itself, until a bell tolled, or something pulled at her attention.

 

I always thought her queer for this; even though I, when I looked deeper within myself, had to admit I was rather queer myself for watching her.

 

My father's health began to vane shortly before my twenty-third birthday. For not the first time I cursed the king for gifting my father with an estate so far north. Had it been situated further south, had winter not come quite as soon, he would as like have survived as not. As it was, I could only watch as his skin paled and his eyes grew dull.

 

Two days past my birthday I moved into a guestroom to be by his side as he passed away.

 

Five days past my birthday, he called Lady Noire and me to his bedside. I crept onto the bed to hold his hand, as I had done as a small girl. Lady Noire sat straight-backed in a chair by his head, everything about her as correct and stiff as always.

 

Father squeezed my hand when he saw that I watched her, but his first words were for his wife. "Don't grieve me," he told her. "Remember that I loved you; remember that I loved you enough to give you everything--even things that might not have been mine to give."

 

I was surprised then, to see that there were tears in her eyes. I had thought Lady Noire unable to cry, unable to feel emotions--but even as I sorted out that impression within me, I knew how foolish that thought had been. Everyone felt emotion, even Lady Noire.

 

"Yannick--" Her voice choked on his name and she wiped at her eyes with her sleeves. The movement was so unladylike, so unexpected, that I stared, wide-eyed, at her. "I love you; I swear that I--"

 

A small smile trembled on my father's lips as he took her hand, wet from her tears. "Don't cry--I can't stand to see you cry."

 

That made her cry even harder; ugly harsh tears that turned her face red and unfortunate. For the first time, I felt empathy for her and I turned my father's eyes from her with a squeeze of his hand to spare her at least that indignity.

 

"My birches have finally lost all their leaves," I told him, returning to a subject we had discussed endlessly through the years. "In a few days, I think, they will be covered in frost."

 

"I would like to see them," father said wistfully. "Did you know that your mother planted those birches when we got married? I always had a fondness for them."

 

"I know you do, papa." It was all I could do not to cry--I knew that he wouldn't live long enough to see my birches again, that it was unlikely that he would last through the night.

 

Lady Noire and I slept by his side that night, holding his hands and waking often to listen for his labored breathing. Towards dawn, his hands were cold and his breaths came in longer intervals. When the sun reached his window, they came no more.

 

I think that Lady Noire realized that he had passed before me. Her face went chalk-white, her lips trembled, and then, with a choked breath, she began to keen. It wrenched at my heart; for a moment, I forgot all about her dislike for me, my dislike for her. I went to her, fell to me knees before her and clasped her hands, said, "I'm with you, cry as you like, I'm with you; he's in a good place, my lady. I'm here."

 

Tears fell from my cheeks as well by then and my words tasted like salt. I tried to see if my words reached her, sought any kind of understanding in her eyes and found none. Somewhere deep inside me the knowledge that she had loved him settled; I accepted it, I embraced it.

 

Her hair, knotted and tangled, fell over my hands as she bent her head. I had the time to marvel at the silken feel of it, then--

 

"I told you to stay away from me." Her voice still rasped with sorrow, but there was something vicious within it now--I stumbled backwards, fell onto my behind. My heart pounded, my hands shook. "I told you to stay away--"

 

I had never been hit before, not by father or my mother -- not even my friends or my teachers. The pain was unfamiliar to me, shocking. Her nails had raked my skin and when I touched the marks she'd left, my fingers came away red.

 

I scrambled to my feet; she followed. Her eyes blazed at me, wild and insane like an animal that has bitten off its own paw to escape a trap. I'm not afraid to admit that I fled, that I ran. Not even my father's remains could hold me in that room.

 

I did not know how much I would regret that later.

 

We buried my father in the heart of the maze, beneath the statue on which Lady Noire had rested so often. There were not many of us attending; the king had sent someone to represent him and the local nobles were there, but there was far from as many that the passing of duke should've been accorded. I stayed as far away as I could from Lady Noire during the ceremony, but I could see that her cheeks were red and blotched beneath her white veil. It struck me that I should've wondered why she always wore white, the color of mourning, during her rambles in the garden. The answer seemed almost at my fingertips when our eyes met. Her eyes widened, bluer than the winter sky above. I didn't know what she saw that startled her; the wounds she had caused were long gone and there was only I. Perhaps that was enough.

 

When the slab of stone was lowered to cover my father's face for the final time, time seemed to stop. My grief felt like winter; seemingly unending though I knew that spring would come. I cast a branch from one of my trees onto the stone, a stark black against the white of the marble that was soon joined by a blood red rose as Lady Noire knelt beside me.

 

My heart hammered. I didn't dare to say anything, though I dearly wanted to. Lady Noire spared me glance; I couldn't read her features at all, their sharp edges unmoving like stone. I nearly shied away as she raised her hand, but her fingers only skimmed my face where her nails had gouged tracks in my skin. The ice of her burned like fire, impossible in its own right. Then she was gone, accepted into the throng of nobles and ministers, leaving me to find my breath in her wake.

 

A twinkle caught my eye. Unthinkingly, I reached down to pick up the small pendant by my feet. I recognized it--who wouldn't recognize the favor of the Queen Regnant for all that she had been dead for five decades? She had built our country after all, united the four kingdoms into one and made peace that yet lasted. My father had carried one just like it--it must've been his, I decided, and it must've fallen from his remains.

 

I held my hand out, intending to drop it onto the stone. At the last moment, I changed my mind and tucked it instead into my bosom for lack of pockets. It would be nice to have something to remember him by; only a few personal items had been named mine in the will, most items falling to Lady Noire. This could be mine, something to treasure when his memory became too painful to bear.

 

My friends came to me soon after this, generous in their shared grief. I thought no more of the pendant, instead singing to my father's memory over pints of good beer and fresh country pies until the grief was no more and only cheer remained.

 

I would not think of it for a long time to come.

 

The winter solstice neared when the word reached us; the Princess-Heir sought a Consort. The news startled me -- it had been long thought that the Princess-Heir would never take a Consort, nor, perhaps, ever take the throne. Noble as my father had been, he had more accurate tidings than the middle-class merchants and business owners that were my friends, but even he had not known what to expect. To have news like this came as a surprise--but I rejoiced with the rest of our people. The throne would be secure and our peace would reign true for another generation.

 

"I can't imagine why she waited so long," I mused during a dinner with one of my closest friends. "She must have an heir by now--to wait this long to take a Consort is risky. Even my father said that there might be a change in the succession, that she might've renounced her claim on the throne."

 

Antoine laughed. "You nobles!" I gave him a mock glare. "I think she went about it quite reasonably, myself. She must have waited until she could choose a Consort properly, without youthful passion and the lusts of flesh influencing her decision."

 

"I wonder, though, that she hasn't presented her heir," Carole, Antoine's wife, commented. "Perhaps she will present her heir and her Consort at the same time?"

 

I shook my head. "That wouldn't be proper. The heir needs to be presented before the Consort--she must be delaying the presentation, though I can't imagine why."

 

The thought stayed with me as I wandered home to my cottage that evening. Why hadn't the Princess-Heir presented her child to the Court and the people? The proclamations gave a date no later than the new year for the presentation of the Princess-Heir's choice and that gave her little time for the ceremonies surrounding her heir.

 

I was nearly home when I smelled it--something burned. My mind flew to my cottage--had I not banked the fire well enough? Had a candle been forgotten and guttered? I grabbed my skirts, no doubt flashing my ankles in a most rude way, and ran--my thoughts tangled, clashed in my mind, yet managed no coherent meaning. There was only fear, fear and--

 

But my cottage stood, whole and untouched on the hillock. No flames broke the roof, no windows shattered from the heat of fire. The smell was still in the air, however, heavier now than it had been on the road below me. Dread knotting within me, I crested the hill and looked down.

 

The home of my father, the home of my childhood, was gone.

 

We searched the ruins for remains. I sifted through the ashes from dawn to dusk, staining my clothing irreparably and choking on the stench of burnt matter. The taste of what had once been my home seemed imprinted on my tongue and I could not seem wash it away with water or ale. There was little left; I found the kettle from my mother's china, a sword that I knew had belonged to Lady Noire. There were no bones that we could find, but Lady Noire remained gone.

 

My grief surprised me.

 

The night the search was called off, I went home to bathe and rinse the ashes from my hair. A week of constant sifting had turned my hair and skin a dusky black, the stain disappearing only after repeated soaking and scrubbing with a brush until I feared my skin would be torn off. I stepped out of my bath feeling as if I had been born again--but not in the joyous manner of the Temples. No, I had been delivered from grief to be born into emptiness. There were no one left now; no one to call family. Lady Noire had not been family to me, not quite, but she had been something, had meant something for my heart to feel like it had been torn in two.

 

The knock on my door was a welcome distraction. I wrapped a robe about me and went to answer, finding at my doorstep a livered courier.

 

"Lady Bouleau?" At my nod, he held out a letter. "An invitation, for the presentation of the heir."

 

My eyes widened--I had forgotten, the Princess-Heir all but gone from my mind with the fire. "Then there is one!" slipped out of me.

 

I could've hit myself for betraying emotion in that manner; from the lack of censure in the courier's face, however, it seemed not a rare reaction.

 

"Prince Jaune was born three days ago," he informed me with the flat deliverance of someone that has repeated the same sentence far too many times.

 

With some effort, I managed to remain silent despite my chaotic thoughts. Born? The heir had only just been born? The thought was beyond preposterous, it was impossible! You couldn't present that young an heir, you certainly wouldn't--what if he died, or became sick? There were a thousand unfortunate circumstances that could befall a child--how could the Princess-Heir risk naming him 'heir' before he was grown enough that he was likely to live?

 

The courier cleared his throat. I forced my mind back to the moment. "I await your reply," he reminded me.

 

I managed a smile. "A moment." I dashed inside and fairly ripped the letter open, reading the sentences inside with a speed that would've earned me praise from my old teachers. Writing a reply -- acceptance, of course -- took a mere moment.

 

The courier accepted the reply with a bow; I watched as he disappeared down the hill, wondered if there was in his bag a letter for Lady Noire that could not be delivered.

 

I slept uneasily that night. Dreams haunted me; memories tangled in my mind, turned into nightmares, into flights of fancies of a young girl long lost. A memory of my first ball at the palace, of exchanging kisses with a woman with nimble fingers, merged into the memory of first meeting Lady Noire, her eyes flat and cold as they took me in. Father stepped from the ashes of his former home, the statue came alive and they danced upon my mother's grave until Lady Noire came down the hill and threw herself onto the ground crying. I went to sooth her, but when I reached her she wasn't there anymore, the woman I'd kissed smiling at me in her stead.

 

I woke up shivering and tangled in my blankets. My legs shook as I climbed out of bed to make the fire and get dressed. I was afraid to sleep longer though the sun was a mere dash of color at the horizon. Suddenly I yearned for the change of pace the presentation would be, yearned to get away from this place where only memories remained to haunt me. I looked around my house; here was nothing to hold me up.

 

I left the same day.

 

At first I intended to live at the palace--there was a suit of rooms still reserved for my mother's line and though they were small, they would fit me well at my state of mind. To my surprise, however, I was met at the gates by my father's solicitor -- I could only imagine he had paid the children dogging travelers for coin to keep an eye out for me, for I had certainly not sent any word.

 

"The town house is ready for you, Lady Bouleau," he greeted me, guiding his horse to walk beside mine.

 

"The town house?" I frowned. "The house is Lady Noire--" The words had barely left my tongue before I realized--before I knew why he had come.

 

The solicitor threw a quick look around us, then leaned over to pat my hand. "There, there!" he urged. "Don't cry--there's eyes everywhere; I beg you, try to keep your head until we're out of sight."

 

I drew a shaky breath. I would not--could not--shame myself by bursting into tears on a crowded street, especially not if what I suspected was the truth. "Am--am I correct then to think--to think that I have been made Duchess?"

 

The solicitor looked approving. "I see you have some notion of the Law--yes, that would be correct. Your father left the estate to his wife, Lady Noire, who, unfortunately, has been named dead in the aftermath of the fire. Therefore, according to law, the estate with accompanying title has--Lady, please!"

 

I bit my tongue until it bled, the pain helping me to keep the tears at bay. The solicitor wisely said no more, leading me onto smaller streets towards what was now my town house. Once we were safely within the gates, he called for servants--my servants--to guide me inside. I found myself put rather hurriedly into the first armchair available and wine brought to me to sip on. I didn't say that I would've much preferred ale--these people would not know that I had lived much of my life outside the circle of nobles. I needed not confuse them on my very first day as...Duchess.

 

My tears brought me a welcome respite and the solicitor excused himself to return the next day. I was grateful--it would give me the time to fully grasp the situation I had found myself in. This changed more than I liked--there would be no gentle change of pace as I had wished for. I had been thrown into the deep end of a pond with stones attached to my ankles and was now expected to swim.

 

I laughed--causing my maid to give me a frightened look. "From the frying pan, into the fire. How apt." The maid ran--just in time not to see me burst into tears once again.

 

I was, in all honesty, not my best that day.

 

By the time the solicitor returned the next day, I had a much better grasp of the situation--and was of a much calmer state of mind. The man seemed grateful and promptly sat down to inform me of what all of this would mean for me.

 

"Most of it we can, of course, not deal with until the new year has begun," he finished his summarizing, "so until then we will simply handle what we can. There is one matter though--" He summoned a servant. "Please fetch the chest of drawers in the wagon--and be careful!" He turned back to me, "There has been certain items left in trust with me for you--with the contents in mind, I believe you will want them for the upcoming celebrations."

 

I looked curiously at the chest the servants carried inside. "I haven't heard of this before--was it my father...?"

 

"Your mother, as I far as I understand."

 

"My mother--" I trailed off as I glimpsed the contents. It was the most magnificent of gowns, sewn from silk and velvet the color of fresh milk with a bodice of gold and silver. The color of mourning and the symbol of justice and balance--it could not have been more perfect for the situation. Too perfect, in fact, not to have been planned. "It cannot be my mother."

 

The solicitor looked not unlike a startled hare. "Excuse me?"

 

I ran my fingers over the fine fabric--part of me yearned to try it on, even as my mind concentrated on the situation at hand. "I'm no fool--this is no inheritance. This was made for me, made for these celebrations." I forced myself to take my fingers off the fabric and slammed the chest closed. "Tell me, what games are you playing? And who moves the pieces on the other side of the chess board I have found in front of me?"

 

"I don't understand--!" the solicitor protested.

 

"Then leave--and take the chest with you. Do not return until you wish to tell me the truth of all of this."

 

I wasn't proud of having put that expression of fear on his face--but neither was I pleased with being a pawn. I didn't regret sending him away, even when the door slammed behind him. Instead I went to my study--I still had friends among nobility. It was time to gather information.

 

I went to bed that evening without any more information than what I had started with. No one knew--or professed not to know--anything about the situation I was in. It was as if someone had slammed an iron door shut and then taken all the keys that would fit the lock. My way was barred, but I wouldn't give up. I would not be played like an instrument--I was far too much my father's daughter to permit that.

 

It seemed, however, that the shadow player on the other side of the board was equally unable to not move.

 

I awoke to a pitch dark room. All candles had been blown out, the curtains were drawn and of the fire there was not even a hint. Someone had gone to a lot of effort to make sure I couldn't see the features of the shadow at the foot of my bed.

 

I pushed myself onto my elbows, aware that I made a positively indecent sight in my disarrayed nightgown and somewhat grateful for the dark that would prevent my visitor from seeing this.

 

"How did you get in?" It was my most pressing question--had they sneaked inside or did they have a hold on my staff? A security question for sure, but it would also tell me much about the identity of this shadow person.

 

"I walked." The shadow's voice was husky, as if she had chewed something to darken her voice before coming, which, well played. Well played indeed.

 

"Not what I was asking," I pointed out, pushing off my covers completely to climb out of my bed.

 

"It's the only answer I will give you."

 

"Then we seem to be at an impasse."

 

It would've been a tense stand-off--something straight out of a novel. Unfortunately I not only made my pithy remark at that moment, but I also stumbled on the heated pan that had previously been at my feet before I had apparently kicked it off. I fell straight into the shadow, who caught me and--very neatly, I might add--turned our momentum to put us into my armchair, I astride a pair of slim hips.

 

I blinked.

 

The woman's hands settled on my hips, seemingly by themselves.

 

"Well," I said, my mouth suddenly very dry.

 

"Well," the woman echoed, but with laughter in her voice.

 

I fumbled--for what, I wasn't quite certain--and ended up with my hands on a pair of strong shoulders. Suddenly, for some reason, I wasn't quite as interested in finding out the truth of what was going on as I had been merely moments ago. The woman seemed to agree, because she eased my hips closer when I wiggled, attempting to find a better seat. To climb off her didn't seem to enter my mind--or perhaps the way her thumbs smoothed over my hipbones distracted me.

 

It'd been a long time since I'd had a dalliance--perhaps too long, judging from the way a series of more or less innocent touches had me considering things that was, quite frankly, among the stupidest things I had ever considered. The woman seemed to agree, because suddenly she stood; for a second, I clung to her with my legs around her waist, her hands supporting my behind, then she dumped me on the bed.

 

"Take the gift as it was meant--a gift--or don't. It's up to you."

 

The next I knew, she had thrown a blanket over my head. By the time I had wrestled my way out of it, she was long gone.

 

I wasn't surprised when I found the chest once more standing in my sitting room the next morning. For some reason I didn't like to think closer about (her hair had felt like silk against my fingers; I had wanted to pull my hands through it, let my lips glide along it as I explored the length of it) I couldn't find the affront it had given rise to the previous day. It only woke yearning to wear it, to maybe meet this person that had given it to me. I wished that it had been--but wishes were for fools and I was no fool. Not beyond the point of wearing the dress.

 

Not unexpectedly, the marks of my mourning and the no doubt furious gossip about Lady Noire lent me a certain kindness as I attended the presentation that evening. I kept to the sides--those that were my friends came to offer their condolences, those that were not politely restrained themselves to greetings. I was grateful; more so than I had expected to be. It was hard to judge what had upset me the most -- the woman's appearance in my room or my unexpected reaction to the loss of Lady Noire. All I knew was that my heart bled and that I was not in the mood for the gossip and machinations of the court.

 

The great bell above the palace tolled; the nobles, working by rote, formed in their ranks to raise their faces towards the high balcony at the heart of the pillared throne hall. I found my feet bringing me to my mother's place; thought I knew that I might as well have chosen my father's at the very front of the ranks.

 

The cries of a small child rang through the hall--I lifted my chin until my neck ached and I could barely see the prince wrapped in joyous black and welcoming blue. I cheered then--as did we all. The kingdom was once again secured.

 

The King-Consort had begun his speech when someone clasped my wrist and pulled me out of the ranks. The crowds were such that I could only see glimpses of tulip hair under a veil and the swish of a dress cut boldly in white and black. My heart skipped a beat--then we were out of the hall and I was once again pushed into a wall.

 

The moment was so familiar that I could scarcely breathe. Her hands were on both sides of my head, as they had been; her eyes blazed blue like a winter sky, as they had. My heart, however, did not shy away. Instead my hands rose, almost despite themselves, to cup her face and run my fingers over her cheekbones. She had gained weight, I noticed in my confusion, her sharp edges rounded and filled. It suited her well; it took her from living, breathing statue to a flower stately and beautiful and blessedly vivante.

 

"You mourned me."

 

Her voice cut into me--but there were no sharp edges in her tone. It was confusion and wonder and--things that I couldn't put words to. No, the hurt came from myself; from the sharp pleasure of having her stand in front of me, to have her alive beneath my hands.

 

"You're alive," I breathed.

 

"You mourned me, and now you welcome me--you cannot--" Her voice broke at that; I would never learn what I couldn't do.

 

"Lady Noire--"

 

She rocked back as if I had hit her; the fire of life in her eyes growing dull. "No. I am not Lady Noire."

 

"Then who are you?" I shouted, my emotions at the boiling point and then crossing it. "Why are you haunting me? Why are you never ceasing in pulling me in only to rip me apart? Why are you--!"

 

"No!" She slammed me back into the wall, her hands cupping my face, her cold forehead against my hot. "No," she repeated, so softly that it barely reached my ears. Her breath tasted of mint on my lips, warm despite the coldness of her skin. "I won't rip you apart."

 

Our lips touched, softly, briefly; the kiss of a butterfly's wing. I drew for breath--and she was gone, stepping into the hall. I followed, searching desperately for a glimpse of her, for anything. But she was truly gone. Once again, I was alone.

 

Another invitation waited for me when I arrived back to the townhouse and this one was not expected. It had been long since both the line of Bouleau and the line of Noire had been invited to one of the Consort Balls--in fact, I would be hard pressed to remember an instance where we had been summoned since the Queen Regnant. The Queen Consort of those days had been a cousin of the Noire Duchy and as such we had been accorded a place. In these days, however, we had no given place; indeed, most would say there were plenty of reasons for us not to be considered eligible. Should I attend, there would be plenty of questioning eyes for sure.

 

Seated at my desk that night, I wished ardently that I had a confidant close enough to discuss the matter with; that I had a bosom friend that I might even mention the storm that Lady Noire had stirred in my life. There was, however, none of those that were within my reach--and even my closest friends at my estate--my Bouleau estate, I had to correct myself--would be pressed hard to begin to understand how I felt. Especially since the matter was too tangled for my own mind to reason out.

 

Caught between my desire to confide in someone and my lack of such a person, I reached for the leather-bound book that I had carried since my first year as a woman; it had been a gift from my father and was one of my most cherished belongings. Within its pages, I had confessed to many thoughts, had I asked many questions that I had nowhere else to ask.

 

I opened the book to a new page and wet my quill in black ink. The nib bled onto the paper as I waited for my thoughts to come--but there were none. There was a black circle when I finally gave up--but this was not new. I sanded it, brushed the remains off and returned it to its hiding place--and found that as I had been lost in thoughts, another chest had been delivered to my room. I had, of course, heard servants enter and leave, but the sound of them carrying something as heavy as a chest had quite escaped me.

 

I opened it with trembling fingers; part of me knew what to expect.

 

The gown was beautiful, much as its companion had been. The color had, however, changed from mourning white to the hopeful jade green covering, still, the bright gold. I dragged my fingertips over the bodice and they snagged on the fine fabric. This gift would be worth more than my everyday dresses combined--the gold thread alone worth half of the contents of my traveling purse. It was, simply, not a gift you gave without intentions, and, in that, it was the twin of the gown that I still wore.

 

"It came with a courier, my lady," my maid answered when I summoned her to question the delivery. "There was no note or anything else to tell the origin of the chest."

 

There had been, however, though my maid wouldn't know it. Nor did I think that my benefactor knew; I had only found the hint once I lifted the gown from its resting place. There had been a single white pearl in the corner, as if it had been ripped from a garment. Not much of a clue, admittedly, but even to my eye the pearl had been remarkably well-formed. Maybe it would tell me something; maybe it would not.

 

The gowns hung across the room when I went to bed that evening. Some rebellious part of me forewent the heating pan and discarded the nightgown in favor of a practical shift. If my visitor returned, I would not stumble, nor would I be stifled by copious amounts of silk.

 

There was no visitor that night, however, only dreams that left me breathless come morning and wanting of something that I could not easily get here in the capital, where my friends were political allies and not persons to share my heart and mind with over a mug of ale. Had I been at my small estate, I would've asked Marie to come for a walk and we would've tussled beneath the branches of the weeping birch before I let her push me down by the fire and tease the tingling out of my skin. Here, I could only lace myself into my corset and put layers of velvet between me and the world.

 

There would be no solace.

 

The gossip swept like the wind around every corner and through every side street the next day. The amount of people asking themselves if they were going to be invited to the ball was equal to the number of nobles patting themselves on the back for being invited already. I, on the other hand, had no time for gossip; I had a much more important chore at hand. While I was still rather tense over the whole gifting matter, I needed to talk to my solicitor about the very sensitive subject of Lady Noire being alive--even if she did not admit to the fact.

 

Of course, once I had the opportunity to speak to the man, he appeared less than surprised. "Ah, yes. Lady Noire has--fully within the law, I might add--bequeathed the estate and the title upon you. Whether she is alive or not does not matter to the law. I assure you; all papers have been properly signed and countersigned. You are the Duchess Noire-Bouleau."

 

A mouthful of a title, but one, I realized soon, I would have to get used to. Gossip had once again run ahead of me and from the looks that swept towards my company on the way back to the townhouse, I was now a prime subject of speculation about whether I would be invited to the ball or not. They would not think I had already been invited--and that worried me.

 

I was my mother's daughter; I did not play the games of the major nobles. It did, however, appear as if someone were quite determined to use me as their playing piece.

 

Once evening had ushered the sun towards the horizon, I once again dressed in my gifted gown and journeyed for the palace. I carefully made sure not to arrive too early--or too late. I wanted to be firmly average in this game of never being just that. My fellow nobles would mark it down as inability to jostle for position; they would never understand a position such as mine that involved no yearning for advancement.

 

A small number of my noble friends flocked to me as soon as my arrival had been noted.

 

"Oh, I didn't expect you here!" Lady Chantelle noted with enough surprise that I gathered the thought really had not even crossed her mind briefly. "Forgive me, dear, but I had simply not seen you as eligible."

 

"Neither did I," I soothed her. "It must be a way to show their support; my father was close to the King."

 

Lady Pauline did not look convinced. "This is the Consort Ball. They can't have invited you for reasons as simple as those! There must be something else--say, perhaps there are favors involved."

 

I shook my head, prepared to answer that I knew nothing of any debt. The trumpets marking the hour interrupted our conversation however, parting us to take our places to greet the King, his Consort and the Princess-Heir. I found myself shuffled into place somewhere in the middle, and then nudged even further to the right by the heralds keeping us all in place. I could barely see anything from my station, but we would scatter soon enough as the ball officially began.

 

Some part of me, distant from the grand hall that I stood within, wondered where Lady Noire was. Who she truly was, if I would ever see her again. That she had kissed me--it made no sense! Nor could I find any rhyme or reason behind the way she had subdued me with a single touch, why she had always pushed me away--why she had married my father if this was--

 

But no, that thought couldn't be finished, ought not to be finished.

 

There was a brief lull in the air; without looking, I knew that the orchestra had taken their cues. The first dance begun and I withdrew to the sidelines. We would all dance with royalty today; most of us would dance with the Princess-Heir herself. There was half again as many women as men--it seemed as if the Princess-Heir preferred her own gender, as her father had, but were open still to the opposite gender, which her father had not been.

 

Our King, the most hidden of gossipers said, had been in love with his King Consort even when married to produce his heirs. Romantic, some called it; foolish, others said. Kingdoms had fallen for reasons less charged than a spouse receiving less attention than a lover--especially when all parties knew that the lover would gain the status of Consort as soon as the heirs had been produced.

 

I wondered briefly who the Princess-Heir's husband had been, if they had been in love or whether it had been a business arrangement for producing the heir. The Princess-Heir had not often showed herself in public--there was little known about her personality or political leanings. Rumors said that she was talented with a sword--which was only proper for a Princess-Heir to become Queen Regnant--but that was all of the personal information there was.

 

"Duchess." A herald had appeared by my side, white lipped and with a strained expression on his face--a royal herald, charged with organizing this entire venture without letting the veneer of spontaneity be shattered. "If you would come with me."

 

I came--internally marveling that I would be brought to the Princess-Heir this early, that I'd be brought at all. Murmurs and gazes followed me, asking the same. Had I been less than I am, that would've hurt, but gossip were mere pinpricks rather than stabs. I knew better than to listen.

 

The herald came to a stop and I, without falling out of rhythm, fell onto one knee and bowed my head. "Majesty."

 

"The Lady Nour, Duchess Noire-Bouleau," the herald announced.

 

Nothing happened.

 

Custom proclaimed that the Princess-Heir would ask me to rise, and then bring me to the dance floor where we might have one dance, at the end of which the Princess-Heir would indicate whether she would like to continue our acquaintance. I expected her to tell me to rise, so I kept my eyes on the floor. When the bid to rise did not come, I expected the murmurs behind me to become outright gossip--but there was only silence.

 

My heart began to thud, picking up on something in the air perhaps. I debated whether to look up--perhaps try to see through my lashes what was going on. I knew that I had to look foolish as I was, standing on one knee with my carefully coiffed hair falling awkwardly over my face, and my chest no doubt heaving very prominently within the low-cut bodice. Even thinking it in my mind, there was the uncomfortable feeling that I was portraying a scene out of particularly lurid romance novel.

 

Of course, if this was a romance novel, then the Princess-Heir would suddenly say something like--

 

Two cold fingers touched my cheek, then slid beneath the tip of my chin and lifted my face. My lips parted on a name; my mind struggled to understand what I saw, what was being revealed to me--oh how stupid I had been not to see! How utterly ridiculous I must've seemed not to--

 

"Rise, Lady Nour, Duchess of Noire-Bouleau."

 

My title, the name I inherited from my mother, was a soft whisper that carried. It was a caress that touched every part of me and set me aflame. She had not withdrawn her fingers from my face, but suddenly they were no longer cold, but burning hot. They guided me to my feet and I followed, stepping helplessly into the sphere she had created to surround us--as she always had.

 

Her fingers slid from my face, but before I had the time to mourn them, they tangled with mine to lead me onto the dance floor. Her hand settled on the small of my back, drew me in, close enough that I felt her lungs expand her bosom against mine. I wanted--but this was no time for wanting.

 

She led; guiding me over the floor in intricate patterns. There was no twirls, no partings, only two of us as close as two dancers can be. I followed--partly because I did not want to cause gossip by pulling away, but mostly because I couldn't not. Not when my heart stuttered every time her breath warmed the skin of my nose, not when her hand on my back made me wish it would go lower, when I wanted to get closer and closer--

 

But the physical is not all and the woman I had known as Lady Noire knew that better than I.

 

"Please." She said this into my ear, her lips caressing the shell of my ear. "Let me."

 

I didn't need to ask what she meant--I knew. But--

 

But.

 

The melody was ending; the dance was coming to an end. I tip-toed, just short enough to need to, and kissed her--half a test, half the inability to stand the temptation. She still tasted like mint, I noticed, clinging to her hand in mine, breathing in the odd sensation of being in intimate contact with another person--with her. She had been taken by surprise, her body stiff against mine, but as I was already beginning to lean back, she pulled me in. Her hands were in my hair, her nose bumped against mine as we collided, as she searched me out and took and took until my knees half gave in and I remembered--remembered that I couldn't.

 

"No."

 

I didn't realize at first that I had said it. The audience had, however, and it made it easier to repeat it, to separate myself from the moment.

 

"No," I said. Then, because meeting her eyes hurt me as they always had, I turned and ran.

 

It was unforgivable, cruel and a dozen more things that I couldn't name in that moment--to abandon--to abandon her after initiating-- But I couldn't stay either. I couldn't let her trap us in something that neither she nor I had properly thought of. It was easy to say, 'follow your heart'. But my heart knew nothing of politics, knew nothing of history, knew nothing outside of the moment.

 

I stopped briefly in the archway, looked back. I had scandalized the hall, I knew, but when I met her eyes I saw only understanding and sorrow reflected back at me. I closed my eyes, unable to take it.

 

I needed to go home.

 

My cottage was as I had left it. My friends had aired it out and left food stuffs for me in preparation of my arrival, but other than that nothing had changed--including my lack of servants. It was a credit to my father's household that they had not even batted an eye at my denial of their accompanying me; I had lived for nearly five years without people tending to my needs. To acquire them now would only be a bother.

 

There was one matter, however, that was not the same; a matter that followed me from the city and seemed stubbornly determined to stay attached to me. The word of the refusal of the Princess-Heir by the Duchess Noire-Bouleau had reached all over the country, and even here, where only few even knew that my cottage was an estate, the upset questions and malicious tongues followed me like a tick clings to its host animal.

 

The whole situation was near unbearable. I didn't regret what I had done, what I had denied myself--how could I say yes as if the Princess-Heir hadn't played me from start to beginning? I knew that it had been needful--few were the royal spouses that were commonly known--but it nevertheless left me feeling dirty and betrayed. That the Princess-Heir, technically, had been my stepmother before all her claims had been renounced, made me uneasy.

 

Antoine snorted when I shared this with him. "Love, you didn't even live with each other--the time you spent together was less than what I spend with my mother-in-law. You can't tell me that you in any way considered her a mother."

 

"No," I admitted, "but there would be people that thought so, as there are people that think I am of far too low a rank to even dream of becoming consort."

 

"Do I hear a note of the true problem? Heavens, you always were fond of hiding the true problem under layers of excuses."

 

The joys of childhood companions, I thought--a bit sourly, if to be honest. "I don't like all of this--the plotting, the lies, the way she kept luring me in--"

 

"I would say there were less luring and more you being enchanted by her."

 

"...luring me in but immediately pushing me away--"

 

Antoine sighed, leaned back in his chair. "Do you want me to tell you what I think or not?" he demanded. "You're doing an excellent impression of a sulking child at the moment."

 

I swallowed--he was right, I knew that. The truth of the matter was that I had watched her for as long as she had watched me. I had been the one to initiate contact in half of our meetings--for all that I kept telling myself it was by pure accident. She had warned me off--if ineptly and rudely--but I had kept coming back.

 

"She had reasons to believe I might say yes," I admitted, a hole I'd been pretending wasn't there growing wider in my heart. "I let her--she kissed me, and I didn't say no." And I had been the one to touch her when--when she had only come to let me know that she was alive.

 

It was a bitter pill to swallow.

 

"You've made a good mess of this." Antoine put an arm around my shoulders, let me lean against him. "But I ought not to be surprised; you've inherited your mother's passion. I remember her, did you know that? I'm only a few years older than you but I remember the romance she had with your father. They were as far from a suitable couple as anyone could be, but they were so very much in love that they could face anything together."

 

"But she died." I had closed my eyes, my mother's face painted on the inside of my eyelids. It'd been a long time since I had thought of her. "She died, and then he married--" I didn't even know her name. She wasn't Lady Noire anymore, but neither could I find it in my heart to call the woman I had come to know 'Princess-Heir' for all that it was her title.

 

"Life isn't fair, I'm afraid--especially not to you nobles, I have noticed."

 

I laughed, hiding my wet face in his shirt. "You've never spoken a truer word."

 

Antoine sighed. "How I wish it wasn't so."

 

Life returned to normal. I engaged local craftsmen to take care of the ruins of what had once been my childhood home, began to sort out what legal obligations had been added to my person with the acquisition of my new title and tried to ignore the way I desperately wished that I could talk to--and Sol-Above-Us! I did not even know what to call her in my own mind. The world did not stop over a tattered heart, however, and neither did I.

 

Spring closed in on us and I stopped wearing the whites of mourning. No news came from the city. One morning, I walked out to find that there was--for the first time in months--no ice to break on the water. I celebrated by sticking my hands inside, relishing in the way they went numb, and then splashing my face and hair liberally. Half of my bodice turned sopping wet but I couldn't bring myself to care; there was no one about to protest about indecent exposure and proper clothing.

 

So of course this is when I turned around to come face to face with her.

 

She was alone; not even a horse nearby to betray how she had come to me. Her clothes were sensible, so she might even have traveled alone to see me. Her son was not with her--I could only assume that he had been left with a wet-nurse for the journey here. I could not help but to rake my eyes over her, drink in the sight of her--I had been without her for months and now I was parched.

 

My distraction could explain why I didn't notice until a few seconds later that her eyes seemed glued to my chest. "Might--might I request that you--" Her voice was hoarse, strained.

 

It occurred to me that I should feel shy and ashamed standing in front of the Princess-Heir with my breasts visible for all to see through my shift. I swiftly decided that I didn't care.

 

"Why are you here, Majesty?" I intended for it to be accusing, but my voice sounded more as if I was begging her of something.

 

She shuddered, then dragged her eyes to my face, a frown gathering between her browse as she took in my words. "Majesty? How can you call me that--are you so angry with me that--"

 

I interrupted before she could draw any conclusions. "You haven't given me a name. You let me think that you were Lady Noire and then--then you were--"

 

"Cate." It was her time to interrupt me now. "My name is Cate--and I do not know your name either. We never spoke in--in Yannick’s company."

 

I...had never thought of that--her not knowing my name, it seemed as incomprehensible as not knowing hers. We had both been fools, I was slowly realizing, such fools that our likes wouldn't be found within the kingdom.

 

"Rani."

 

Her eyes widened. "You're--"

 

"I'm my mother's daughter," I said sharply. Even if the thought of her being like them, of her equaling me with everything they had ever heard of my mother's people hurt beyond reckoning, I couldn't tolerate her disrespect of my mother.

 

The sharpness of my words ought to have made her step back, but once again she surprised me, because she stepped forwards and cupped my face in her hands, not letting me go even when I tried to escape. "No!" she said sharply, then, again, brought our foreheads together like she had only once before. "I was merely surprised--don't you know the meaning of your name?"

 

I wasn't quite able of thought at the moment, the whisper of her breath against me, the warmth of her body so close were doing more than a decent attempt at distracting me. I scraped together what attention I could.

 

"No--she died before I learned much of my heritage."

 

Cate chuckled--but it wasn't amused, but rather weary and somewhat...sad. "She was a wise woman, your mother, to have named you thus."

 

"What did she name me?" I gave up on keeping a hold of myself, letting my arms wind around her body and pull her closer. It almost seemed as if tension I hadn't known I held within me was released as our bodies collided--as if I had merely been waiting for the opportunity to lean against her.

 

"Queen," Cate whispered. "She named you 'queen'."

 

I closed my eyes then, every emotion that I had been carrying for the last few months welling up inside you. "Why did you come?" I repeated my first question, my voice aching in my throat.

 

Cate turned her face into mine, our noses brushing. "I find that I can't give you up without trying again. Rani, you--you're everything."

 

Another person would've gone into why she loved me, how she had come to love me, why I should love her in return. Cate...didn't. I think that was what made me lean away and nudge her chin up when she seemed to want to duck away from my gaze.

 

"It won't be easy," I warned her. "Not with--not with father, not with my station, not with--"

 

Cate shook her head, slowly. "I didn't do this on a whim, Rani. I wish that I could say that I had, but I've thought, I've considered, I've reasoned and calculated." I held my breath when she hesitated, begged her to continue as if that would help her collect her thoughts. "You're worth it," she finally said. "I can only hope that is enough for you."

 

What could I do when faced with that answer?

 

It felt like coming home, kissing her. It felt like flinging open the door to spring, like opening a window to let in fresh air. At first, I was simply taking what I could from her, having backed her into the wall of my cottage and tangled my fingers in her tulip hair that always begged me to touch it. Then, she was the one pushing me into the wall with my legs wrapped around her hips and her hands up my slip to explore what had distracted her to such a degree earlier.

 

"Rani," she breathed, "you--" She moaned as I nipped at her ear. "No, listen." When I didn't stop, she pinched my nipple; I pulled away, affronted. "I can't--not if you're not sure."

 

I leaned my head against the wall, my weight shifting enough that she had to push me harder into the wall to keep her balance. A whine escaped me; her breath hitched. We probably should've parted for this conversation that we really ought to be having, but--well. I refused to--and from her grip on me, she did as well.

 

In the end, there was only one answer. "Yes," I told her.

 

From the way her eyes widened, I think she heard that the 'yes' encompassed everything. She laughed a hiccupy laugh that was as much tears as it was joy. I unhooked an arm from around her neck to stroke a tear from the corner of her eye, and then leaned in to kiss her again.

 

"I love you," she breathed in the moment before our lips met.

 

The moment my mouth was mine own again, I murmured the same.