21 January 1588
Alunaer, capital of Aulun
Belinda did not do what was proper, and saw in Lorraine’s eyes that she marked it. She met the queen’s gaze and looked her fill: it had been more than ten years since she had seen the woman who’d birthed her, and might well be ten years before she saw her again. There was little enough chance for making such memories as these, and she judged it worth risking Lorraine’s wrath to burn the monarch’s image into her own flawless memory.
Ten years earlier Lorraine had still held the last edge of youth which gave her beauty. Then, as now, as always in Belinda’s memories, titian curls fell loose, bloody against transluscent skin, but now the transluscency was born of far heavier white paint than Lorraine had worn a decade ago. She had been in her forties then, a woman of unprecedented power; indeed, she had set the precedent of a queen ruling without a king. Sandalia in Gallin had held her own throne partly in ironic thanks to her bitter rival across the straits: if Lorraine could manage alone, so too could the one-time Essandian princess. And much further to the east and north, Irina Durova reigned as imperatrix of the enormous Khazarian empire, unchallenged on her throne since her unlamented husband’s death. They were a sisterhood, these queens, a sisterhood of loathing and distrust and tension, bound together by a determination to hold power in the face of innumerable men certain they were incapable of doing so.
Those things were etched around Lorraine Walter when Belinda looked at her; as much fixtures of who she was as the signs of aging: the wattling neck; the length of nose brought out by flesh falling away; the long lines of a face that had once been striking and now fought age in an inevitably losing battle beneath the white lead face paint. Belinda saw that it had been years, perhaps decades, since Lorraine’s hair had been naturally red, and knew that even at the height of youth it had never been that especial shade. But those were trappings, a prison to the spirit housed within, and that spirit burned bright. Her eyes showed it, thin grey gaze expecting and receiving adoration. Even, perhaps especially, from the secret daughter, adoration.
“You are not afraid,” Lorraine said in time. She sounded a mix of pleased and perturbed, and her mouth pursed as though she’d encountered an unexpected flavour. “You are unafraid of us. We wonder if you realize how rare that is.”
Belinda folded a deep curtsey, eyes lowered. “No, majesty.”
“You were not afraid when first we met, either. Rise,” Lorraine said sharply. “Rise, for I would see your face when you give me answers. Why are you not afraid?”
Belinda did not rise, but lifted her face so she could look at Lorraine. The position put a crick in her neck, but she held it, breathing a quiet sigh of satisfaction. Small discomforts were how she had begun training herself in stillness. To have one upon which she could now fall back helped her to remain steady as she watched her queen. “My life has not taught me to fear, majesty, but to be bold. I would dishonour myself and you by pretending otherwise when in your presence.”
“So much so that you are willing to disobey my direct command.” Lorraine snapped her fingers and Belinda finally straightened, hairs on her arms dancing with awareness. Twice Lorraine had foregone the use of we, and spoken of herself as an individual. A monarch did not do that lightly. Belinda remembered all too clearly, and with blistering shame, how Sandalia had used that apparent intimacy to draw Beatrice’s eager, foolish plots to light, even when Belinda had known better. Such a slip could easily prove fatal, and Belinda dared not trust that being her mother’s daughter would save her from perdify now. She held her tongue, and Lorraine breathed a sound of exasperation.
“I suppose you’d be of little enough use if you couldn’t see what lines you might walk, and on what ropes you might balance. Where is he, girl? Robert left our side six weeks ago, and we have been obliged to pay a ransom for his return, which has not yet manifested. Tell us what we must needs know, Primrose.”
Belinda’s stomach clenched, cold running up her arms despite the sleeves she’d added to the dress. Primrose belonged to a woman now dead, and when it had been hers, only Robert Drake had used it. To hear her mother voice it carried more strength than Belinda might have imagined, and to hide that she dropped her gaze, no longer permitting herself the daring of meeting Lorraine’s eyes. The curtsey she dipped this time was punctuation, an acknowledgement of Lorraine’s demand and a physical intent to respond. That action, like the words she’d spoken to begin their audience, was so familiar as to be ritual, and in the wake of hearing Primrose pass her mother’s lips she became aware of how very precious ritual was. “I don’t know where he is, majesty. He only said elsewhere, and that I must return to Aulun and take his place at your side for a time. I am here, and yours to command.”
“We have heard stories of his capture. We wish to hear the truth of them.” Lorraine’s tones were wonderous to hear, such haughtiness in them that Belinda believed, for a moment, that she could see through them; that she could understand the depths of concern and worry and perhaps even love that the peremptory arrogance was meant to disguise.
She murmured, “They’re more true than not, majesty,” but refused any mark of emotion in her own voice. She was not high enough to offer one such as Lorraine a sympathetic shoulder, nor rude enough to burden a queen with her own anxiety over Robert Drake. “He was imprisoned for a time.”
“How is it he was betrayed?” Still ice, still caring contained within fury, still every inch a queen. Belinda wanted to wrap herself around that flawless execution of inquiry, to sing admiration she had no right to voice.
Instead she shook her head. “A courtesan, majesty. One I knew briefly and who, it seems, knew my fath–”
Lorraine’s grey gaze snapped to her as Belinda broke off the word, appalled at herself. Beatrice Irvine might have said such a blatant thing; Belinda Primrose ought never have let it pass her lips. But once upon a time, before she knew him to be her father in truth, she had called Robert Papa, though she was supposed to be his sister’s child, and he her uncle. That, perhaps, could excuse her, and Belinda finished, “father,” with as hesitation as she could manage.
It was not enough. She knew, even without meeting Lorraine’s eyes, that it wasn’t enough. A vision of flagstones rose up in Belinda’s memory, her own fingers raw and rough as she pulled herself across them in the name of duty, fighting her own desire to turn her back on it and flee toward passion. She had chosen duty. She would always choose duty: it was what she had been raised to do, to be.
She could not, therefore, permit herself a slip as blatant as the one she had just made. “My papa,” she said lightly, “is a handsome man, majesty. I think this courtesan may have had dreams that outstripped her reach, and when they came to dust, found revenge in whatever manner she could.”
“Your papa,” Lorraine said after a long cool silence, “is properly your uncle, girl, and has the eye of a queen. Do not be so bold in naming him father to one whose jealousies can unmake him as easily as he has been made.”
Belinda whispered, “Majesty,” and sank deeper into a curtsey.
Lorraine held her silence another few eternal moments before moving, shaking off reprimand with a rustle of skirts. Belinda lifted her gaze, though she didn’t stand again, and watched the queen pace a few steps before coming to a stop at one of the windowless walls. “We have seen the papers you removed from Lutetia,” Lorraine said. “They give lie to treaties in negotiation between our royal self and the imperatrix of Khazar. They speak of our sister-queen Sandalia’s ambitions toward our throne, and they are ratified in her own hand. We had thought our position with Khazar to be sacrosanct, if for no other reason than favours done by our assets at Irina’s behest.”
The room was not warm; her gown was not warm. Still, a second rush of bumps over Belinda’s arms startled her. She was accustomed to more control than that over her own body, but then, Lorraine, queen of Aulun, wasn’t supposed to know that murder had been done by her people for another regent’s benefit.
Lorraine shot her a pointed glance. “We know what you are, girl. We know why you are. Do not for a moment imagine that we do not know what you do. You are very like Robert. He, too, thinks that we are blind to what is done in our name, and that we cringe from a violent path because of feminine weakness.”
“No, your majesty.” Belinda bit her lower lip, cursing her impetuous tongue. Lorraine arched an eyebrow in challenging surprise, and Belinda fisted hands in her skirt before continuing. “I do not think, and I doubt Robert thinks, that you hesitate out of weakness. I think it to be wisdom. It is a dangerous game we speak of now, and a queen should not trouble herself with its details, most especially when the subject should be other heads of state. Once such a play is set in motion it is far too easy for thoughts to turn from one regent to another. It is not weakness that stays a hand like yours, majesty. Not at all.”
A new leaden silence filled the room before Lorraine, dryly, said, “We thought you were supposed to be meek and controlled, girl. We are surprised to discover you have so many opinions.”
“Forgive me, majesty.” Belinda fixed a gaze so expressionless it felt like a glower on the floor. Beatrice’s impulsive words, Belinda’s own struggle to choose duty over desire, inexplicable images stolen from her father’s mind, hours of foolish gazing toward Gallin; she no longer knew herself, and wished briefly for a retreat to Robert’s estates, where she might re-familiarise herself with the stillness that had sustained her through most of her life. Return to the beginning, and start again; if nothing else could be done to re-establish the woman she’d once been, then that was what she would do. “I have been keeping peculiar company of late.”
“With a prince and his peers. Have you got above yourself?”
“I do not think so, your majesty.” Her response was soft, but golden witchpower flared with outrage. Jaw set, Belinda quelled it, holding back its petulance with a willpower that was beginning to slip. She was not above herself in mingling with a prince and his fellows; they were of no better blood than she, and only the necessity of preserving Lorraine’s reputation kept Belinda from standing beside Javier as an equal. Even more, his witchbreed blood whispered that Javier was not the son of any man his mother had married. Only Sandalia’s reputation kept him in line for the throne, and to face the truth that the prince of Gallin was as illegitimate as Belinda herself, yet held a place of respect, tasted bitter as almonds.
Her own witchpower cried that it was unfair, and that, at least, was so absurd as to allow Belinda to squash it without remorse. Nothing in the world was fair or unfair; those were expectations born of a belief that things should be easy, and nothing was, not even for a queen. Belinda thought of Robert, and thought, perhaps most especially, not for a queen. “I am trained for something else,” she murmured. “My place is not on a throne, and I have never set my ambitions so high.”
“Have you not?” Lorraine’s question startled Belinda. Its asking gave substance to the truth of her birth, a topic about which she, by all rights, should know nothing. Lorraine couldn’t possibly know, that Belinda’s memories stretched back so far, so clearly; that she remembered bloody curls and thin grey eyes, remembered a regal voice then worn with exhaustion, even remembered her mother’s swollen belly rippling with afterbirth in the brief seconds before her father had taken her away.
They had shared a moment, mother and daughter, twelve years later, just before Belinda had murdered a man to protect Lorraine’s safety. There had been endless things unspoken in that instant, a weighty nothingness, and in that nothingness Belinda had found everything. Her reason for existing, her strange aching pride in being an unrecognised secret; it had all been there, in what she did not see in Lorraine’s grey gaze. She had imagined that Lorraine, too, had seen that admission of silence, and that it had bound them in a way that logic defied.
That the queen should ask such a question now gave credence to Belinda’s childhood whimsy, though that light word belittled the strength of emotion that had overtaken her that day. Usually quick with an answer, Belinda stayed silent, gauging what she might and might not say, and at the end, settled on a truth sufficiently unpolished as to discomfit her. “No, your majesty. I have known what I am since I was a girl, and have taken a sort of pride in it. Playing this recent part…”
She pushed out of her curtsey without having been bade do so, and turned toward the small room’s round walls. Stone of a lighter shade suggested a window had once broken the unrelenting solitude, and she spoke to that brighter spot rather than dare Lorraine’s countenance. “Your majesty has looked through old glass, has she not? Thickened and wavering, distorting all that lies beyond it? So the part I have played has seemed to me, a thing lying on the wrong side of that glass, unrecogniseable and uncomfortable in all ways. I have never looked to stand beyond the glass. I have never needed to. I have loved my place on this side of it, and hoped for nothing more than to serve my country and my queen as best I could.”
Truth, in all ways but one, and for that one falsehood, Belinda forgave herself. Witchpower demanded recognition and a place on Lorraine’s side of the glass, but that was an ambition never to be pursued. She wouldn’t overthrow a lifetime’s training and willingness to serve for a madness born of golden magic and the sensual touch of a prince’s hand.
“And if the boy had married you?”
Belinda blinked over her shoulder at Lorraine, realised she’d turned her back on a monarch, and nearly allowed herself the luxury of throwing her hands up in exasperation. Perhaps it was the intimacy; perhaps it was witchpower daring to put herself on the same level as the queen in small but noticeable ways. Whichever, whatever, drove her to those tiny indiscretions, they would cost her life if she didn’t regain control and become once more what she had always been: meek, modest, unremarkable. “I can’t imagine a world in which that would have been permitted. The engagement was a ploy to see if wedding a Lanyarchan noble to the prince of Gallin might frighten the Aulunian throne into foolish action; you must know that as clearly as I did. Sandalia would have had me killed before she would allow me to marry Javier, though I should think I might have escaped that fate through my own wits, if not Javier’s–” For the second time she found herself verging on dangerous language, and ended with “fancy” rather than words with more emotional weight.
“And Javier? Would he have pursued the union?”
Might he yet? underlay the question, and Belinda permitted herself a rough chuckle. “He would have, but no longer. I should think myself his enemy from ten days ago until the end of time.”
“Youth,” Lorraine said, “is much given to dramatics. Enemies are a luxury we indulge in from time to time, and make bedfellows of when a new one comes along.”
Belinda, daring, asked, “Sandalia?” and Lorraine gave her another steady look that turned to an answer Belinda knew she had no right to expect.
“We did not dislike her,” Lorraine said softly. “We might once have been friends.”
“If the world had been other than it is.”
Lorraine nodded once. “But it is not, and we are pleased, girl, to know that you do not look for it to be.”
“Never,” Belinda whispered, and crushed the flare of witchpower in her mind.
from THE PRETENDER’S CROWN
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