Lady Estora Coutre sat alone in her bedchamber. In a few minutes, a chambermaid would knock and then bustle in, followed by another and probably one of Estora’s sisters, and there would be at least half an hour of giggling and chattering and excited anticipation of the dance that evening. She would smile, and make herself beautiful. And the dance would be delightful – the wine perfect, the clothes stunning, the company charming. She would be observed having a wonderful time. Everything about the evening would be in precise, flawless good taste.
And it would be as flat as a sewing sampler and just as lifelike.
She closed her eyes and breathed slowly through her nose, trying to think. Most ladies would be delighted. And she was, of course. On the surface, at least. Years of projecting the most appropriate reaction to any circumstance regardless of her true feelings had blurred the line between the two in her mind, and it became difficult to sort out. Of course she was delighted. It was wonderful to be safe again in the king’s keep in Sacor City, wonderful to be back with her family, to have servants instead of saddlesores and afternoon tea instead of rations at swordpoint. And yet…
Well, nothing had changed. She’d had a week of feeling nothing but relief, and it was good to be back among family and not under threat, but now it felt as though she was back to exactly where she had been before the abduction: trapped.
She was the eldest daughter of Lord Coutre, and she’d never had any choice about that. But she had never known any different, either. She had been taught very firmly that thousands of girls would do anything to be in her place, that she should be grateful, that her clan had given her everything and that it was only right and proper that she should therefore do as she was asked with grace and in appreciation…
And then she had met F’ryan. Oh, F’ryan. And despite her station and despite her limitations, she had been free. She’d seen the edges of the world beyond her own, and she had longed for it. A world where what felt good and right and true could be placed above what was appropriate or mannerly or ladylike, instead of the other way around. And then he’d been taken from her, and that world had gone dark, and now she was to be married to a man she had not chosen and did not love and gain a position that she did not want…
Oh Zachary was kind, if a little distant. A good man. She was very lucky, given the circumstances. But it wasn’t enough. Not after having tasted so much more.
There was a quiet tap on the door. Estora opened her eyes and carefully set her facial expression to something less revealingly sad – the last thing she needed was questions and fuss.
‘Come,’ she called. The door opened and in came the anticipated two chambermaids and not one but two Coutre sisters. They were talking, but there was no laughter at all – the expressions on all four of them were sombre. Estora frowned slightly.
‘What is it, what’s the matter?’ she asked, looking from one sister to the other. Eveny, the elder, spoke first.
‘Oh, Est, it’s awful,’ she said, and Brinna nodded. ‘You know Lady Yvette, from Mirsway?’
Estora nodded slowly. Lady Yvette was the daughter of a middle-ranking noble of Bairdly province.
Eveny looked at little Brinna and then back at Estora, and lowered her voice.
‘Well, apparently she’d been seeing this young man – one of the household guard – and she’d promised to run away with him. But her father found out, and he dismissed the guard and confined her to her room, only when he came back in the morning to check on her she’d – she’d –’ Eveny broke off, shaking her head and composing herself before speaking again. ‘She’d hanged herself. The news just reached Lord Bairdly today.’
Estora belatedly raised a hand to cover her open mouth. She felt ill. Swallowing back the bile, she turned and walked over to the window, staring sightlessly at the darkening sky.
‘That is truly awful,’ she heard herself say softly. ‘Beyond words. Will father be sending his condolences?’
‘I think so.’
Estora missed whatever it was that her sisters said next. She was too preoccupied in her thoughts – reeling from the shock. She hadn’t really known Lady Yvette, not any more than she knew the hundred other young noble ladies who did not quite equal her social standing but attended many of the same gatherings. She tried to picture a face but somehow everything was blurred… she was crying, she realised, and blinked suddenly to try and clear her face before her sisters or the chambermaids made note of it. Though they would probably think she was just tender-hearted, and not wondering what she would have done in Lady Yvette’s place…
‘… and I don’t think father knows quite what to say, he was fussing over the two of us something awful this afternoon. Well, fussing for father, anyway.’
Estora let out a slow breath and gathered her stillness and dignity before she turned around.
‘It is terrible news, and I don’t take it lightly,’ she said gently. ‘But neither can we keep the rest of the court waiting if we spend our time discussing it rather than getting ready.’
Eveny and Brinna took the soft rebuke gracefully, and they all went to their tasks in thoughtful silence. Estora suspected that the two of them – and particularly Eveny – were caught up in the romance of it. Star-crossed lovers, never able to be together, tormented by their forbidden love… even the chambermaids’ eyes seemed moist. But despite her earlier tears, Estora realised gradually that the news did not provoke sadness in her. No. It took her a few minutes to recognise that the feeling growing inside her like an iron bar was anger.
Karigan slid from Condor’s back with a grateful sigh. The skies over Sacor City were clear, but she’d travelled through rain two thirds of the way from Corsa and it felt as though the water had soaked clear through to her bones. She led the horse to the stables and slipped into the easy routine of getting him settled, playing over her last message errand in her mind.
Hardly a real errand, from her point of view, though she supposed all it took to make one was a message from the king. She had been delivering the news of her recently gained title to her father, along with the information about the lands available for her to select from. Officially a real message-errand, but also a chance to go home and visit her family with express permission to take her time doing so. More gratitude for the rescue of Lady Estora, she suspected.
Stevic G’ladheon had been pleased for her – well, once the shock had worn off. Karigan grinned to herself as she brushed Condor down. Her aunts had been instantly delighted, and absolutely confident that she had deserved such an honour, and very quick to prod her father out of his daze and into congratulating her. It had been good to be home. And they’d spent much of the five days that she’d been there talking. They’d cleared a lot of things up.
Well, even advice from her father hadn’t helped her be absolutely happy about the land ownership, but at least he’d helped her work out a spot that would be beneficial to the clan in the future.
That wasn’t the only thing they’d worked out. Karigan felt mixed emotions when she recalled the conversation they’d had about the brothel. And the piracy, but mostly the brothel. He’d stormed out the first time she’d brought it up – well, thrown it in his face, in a way. Two G’ladheon tempers in one room could make it rather… overheated. But the second time, when both of them were more cool-headed, had been more productive. Karigan still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea, but she felt embarrassed by her initial reaction to the news – and her father had also managed to explain, with a strong blush, that there were women and men who chose the profession willingly, and that he supported no brothel that compelled people into the work. The idea didn’t quite make sense to Karigan, but the sincerity on her father’s face and the lengthy (if awkward) discussion afterwards convinced her to respect it.
She shook the thoughts from her mind as she finished seeing to Condor and started to walk back to the Rider barracks, picturing the hot bath and dry clothes that waited for her inside.
‘Estora, in your absence… it occurred to me that I do not express to you enough how much you mean to me. I love you dearly, and I want you do know that I will always put you first.’
Her father’s words seemed to go round and round in her head. Zachary had been charming tonight, as always. Polite and charming and well-mannered. The perfect gentleman. And she had been the perfect lady, and everyone had smiled at them, how perfect they were, how well suited, don’t they look wonderful together, that’s our future queen, and she had smiled and smiled and smiled until her face ached almost as much as her heart. The dance, the dresses, the jewels, the compliments and the blushes and the curtseys and the damn smiling, there was nothing underneath it. She remembered F’ryan, remembered how real she had felt then. As though she was rooted to the earth, bathed in light. Now all she felt was a hollowness in her chest, and oh how the nothingness ached.
And it would be this way for the rest of her life.
Bitterness surged in the back of her throat. She kept her face neutral as she walked the darkened corridors. Why? There was no one to see her, besides the two Black Shields that followed her like shadows. They never commented on her habit of wandering at night. She wondered if they reported her restlessness to King Zachary; surely not, they were famed for their discretion, but if he asked them they would tell, she was certain of it. King Zachary. Estora tightened her jaw. It wasn’t fair, it really wasn’t. If she’d not met F’ryan, if she hadn’t known any different… Zachary was good, and kind, and under other circumstances she would have been growing fond of him. But every gesture he made just bound her tighter into this hollow future. Every compliment, every attempt to include her. Every smile. One tiny piece at a time they fixed her life in place. Zachary was a good man. He deserved better than this, didn’t he? Deserved a truth of affection that Estora was slowly despairing of ever being able to summon.
She reached the end of a corridor – a dead-end, with only doors to offices and chambers. How appropriate. She turned on her heels and strode back the way she had come, the Black Shields wordless in her wake.
But there was nothing she could do to stop it now. Had there ever been anything? No, there was no way out. She bit back something that might have been a dry sob before it could show. No way out of marrying the King of Sacoridia. No way out of the most desired position in the country. How ungrateful, how selfish, how childish was she that… but not even imagining her mother’s rebuke made the feelings stop. No way out. Well, one. Estora shivered slightly and drew her shawl more tightly about her shoulders. Lady Yvette… but no. She could not; did not wish to. To refuse a marriage was one thing, but to end her own life was beyond her.
Refuse the marriage? Estora stopped in her tracks, lost in her thoughts. The idea had risen in her mind simply as a contrast to Lady Yvette’s choice, not as a feasible alternative. Could she refuse it? The marriage contract was signed, but it was between her father and King Zachary. They could choose not to release her from it, and force the issue, but there would be an uproar – contract or no contract, marriage was supposed to be a free agreement. And Zachary would not force her, would he?
The castle was silent around her as she considered him. No. No, he would not. He would release her from the contract. And her father?
Estora felt as though snow was settling along her spine. Her father would be furious. He would cast her out. Hate her forever. Disown her, so she would never see him or her mother or her sisters again… and then what would she do? She could not work in any meaningful way, or earn her own living. And no noble would take her in, for fear of her father’s enmity. It would be like a death sentence.
But his words came back to her, over and over; ‘…that I will always put you first’. Would he? Would he understand her decision, would he respect it? His marriage to her mother had been a formal one, and they were perfectly happy. Was she, Estora, simply failing to live to the standard expected of her? A standard that all others easily reached?
Not Lady Yvette, she thought. She remembered the anger she had felt, hearing about her death. How petty and stupid and terrible, to die for not behaving exactly as everyone around you did – not even that! To die for not concealing your behaviour as well as they had. To die because the world could not make room for you, make allowances for you. To end your life at sixteen years old because tradition kept your heart in a box and made you smile about it…
Her sister Eveny was only sixteen.
She could feel the anger rise in her again, until it felt as though she was made of the same cold stone as the castle walls. Something inside her gripped her heart.
Tradition had killed Lady Yvette. Tradition, and formality, and silence. It could not – should not – be allowed to happen again.
Resolute in her decision despite the trembling in her skin, she walked on through the corridors.