General Warning for sensitive material and adult content.
How shall we begin.
Perhaps in a small, cloistered room. There is a seamstress. Her lips are pursed in displeasure, her fingers pale from constant wringing. She is a rail of a woman, her body a narrow line to match the one that has been permanently etched between her brows.
“Turn, please, my Lady.”
Her words hold an edge that her bitten tongue could not beat out. The Lady turns, her dress made of satins and silks and hints of lace that tickle her ankles and wrists. It is a garrish thing, a monstrosity of fabric, and when the Lady peers towards the seamstress she is shocked to see the satisfaction on her face.
“You look beautiful, my Lady,” she says.
“Thank you,” the Lady replies. She does not mean it.
“You are growing into a handsome young woman.” The seamstress flutters her hands, wrings them, flicks them towards the door as the latch creaks and the knob turns. “You will make someone very happy.”
The Lady does not look at the door. She does not look at the seamstress. She stares at the wall and thinks about how much she doesn’t want to make someone happy. Thinks about how the very expectation infuriates her. Thinks that she would rather rake her nails over a suitor’s face, claw out his eyes, sink her teeth into him for searching for a pretty doll instead of a person.
I am here, she thinks. There’s a mind behind these glassy eyes.
The Baron stands in the door now. He is handsome, his jaw is strong, his eyes are bright. The shock of grey around his temples makes him look noble rather than old. A weather-tested man. A man of means, one who has been measured and never found wanting.
“You’ve done well, Miss Virana,” he says. “I’ve your payment in full.”
The seamstress beams under the praise. The Lady turns to look at her father, look up at him, for she is thirteen and he towers over her. Always he looks down at her, and she cannot recall a time, not even when she was a little girl, when he deigned to stoop and look her in the eye.
There’s the sound of coins jingling, of murmured thanks. The seamstress plucks up her things, still nervous, always nervous, like a dog whining to be let off the leash. When she walks out the door the sound is hollow, a thudding, the last beat of a cold heart.
“You will meet with Baron Nordein tomorrow.”
No, she thinks.
“Yes, father,” she says.
“Arrangements have been made. When you come of age, you will be wed to him.”
“He is an agreeable man. It is a fortuitous arrangement.”
You marry him, then.
“Look at me.”
She turns. The Lady peers up at him without tears, for tears have never helped her before and they will not now. She is stone-faced, carved out of marble, her hands loose at her sides. The hands are the hardest part. She wants to curl them into fists.
“I want you to be on your best behavior.”
He reaches out for her, not to embrace her but to take her hands. He turns them over, running his fingers over the callouses on her palms, frowning.
“You’re not to visit Alandien any longer,” he commands. “You’re not a child anymore, Evirea. You’ve no more time for child’s games.”
Just try and stop me.
No. This is not where we begin.
Perhaps in the training yard, with the stable boys running loose through the fields, flinging dirt and dung and not caring which was which. The barony does not have an army, but it has good, strong fighting men for when times are hard and the road brings foes rather than friends. Alandien, the oldest of them, the wisest, stands calming one of the horses. The beast breathes hotly into his face, its hide is slick with sweat from running. His hands are gentle, his knuckles slightly swollen, and there are lines around his tired mouth and eyes.
“Will you teach me to fight?”
Alandien turns to her, stares at her, his features showing neither approval nor a lack of it.
“Why would a young lady need to learn to fight?”
She draws herself up, as though her years do not simply number twelve, as though she is not perched upon the fence to make herself seem taller.
“I order you to,” she says.
She thinks she sees him smile, if only for a moment.
“Bah, my Lady. You can do better than that. Answer me. Why would a young lady need to learn to fight?”
She sucks in a breath, grips the fence frustratedly between her hands. Then she climbs the rest of the way over, walking towards him as she speaks.
“Men came to the Lady Elida’s lands, and they did not care that her father was a baron and her mother the baroness. They did not care that she was set to be married to a powerful man. They cared only that she was lovely, and they took her, and they raped her.”
Stunned, Alandien opened his mouth to speak, to ask her how she knew of such things, how she had heard of them, but she does not allow him to interrupt. She keeps speaking.
“You will not always be there. Other men will not always be there. Now Lady Elida is spoiled goods and her betrothed hunts like a dog for a way out of their engagement.”
“You want to learn to defend yourself, my Lady?” he asks. His face is blank again, a canvas of old, worried lines.
“More,” she replies. “Teach me how to kill whoever tries to take what is not theirs.”
He stares at her for a time, letting the silence between them grow heavy, but she does not waver. Perhaps he sees strength in her, sees determination, or perhaps in some way he takes pity on her because he does not believe that she will ever be able to learn what he has to teach. She can read nothing beyond his quiet brown eyes.
“That is a good reason, my Lady,” he says finally, his voice quiet. “You will come to me, every day, after you’ve had your dinner and before you go to bed. So long as you finish your other lessons, so long as you don’t fall behind in your studies, I will teach you.”
He places a hand upon his chest, his words growing grave. “I am a man of my word, Evirea Velacel. A promise made is a promise kept.”
She will remember this.
But this is not where we begin either.
Perhaps with a birth, in a room which smells of blood and sweat and pain. Her mother’s face is pale, too pale, and the sheets between her legs are ruddy. The midwife is no longer panicking. She knows what is coming, and her face is set with grim resolve as she works to free the infant from dying loins.
The baron waits, eager, watching, his eyes not on his wife but on what spews forth with her dying throes.
The Lady, fifteen, clutches her mother’s hand. She strokes her cheek, and brushes back her hair, and murmurs soothing words. She knows that she is dying. She has seen death before, when a foal came too late or too early, when in its eagerness it twisted and turned and tore the mare apart from the inside. She has never felt hatred for those foals, for surely they could not have meant it, but when she peers down at the bloody feet poking out below she senses blooming fury.
“What is it, then?” Demands her father of the midwife. “A boy? Is it a boy?”
Her mother has died. The baby’s head has slipped free of her, slick and deformed from her chute. The baroness stares dead and lifeless as a broodmare, her fingers limp in the Lady’s grasp.
There is a cry of jubilation. The cord is cut and the infant, crying, bawling, is swung up into its father’s arms.
He looks down at his son in a way he has never looked at his daughters.
“A boy,” he murmurs, and he rubs his little head. “A boy, a boy, a boy.”
He turns from his dead wife and he weeps as he holds his treasure. His Name is secured. Velacel shall hold sway over his lands for one generation longer. His daughters will not taint this legacy.
Turning to look down at the corpse, the Lady feels a new hatred now. She resents this woman that is her mother. She hates her for letting herself be what she is now, dead, having been used up and spent and never having amounted to anything but a puppet on gossamer strings.
She vows to no one but herself that this will not be her fate, and it is a promise as grave as death itself.
Yet a flower does not start to grow until the seed bursts and spirals downwards. This is not where our story starts.
So this is how we will begin:
The Lady raced her horse down the road. Her dress was stained with blood...