He was younger than she expected.
Belinda stood at her father’s elbow, studying du Roz across the gathered court. In his twenties and thin-cheeked, he might be handsome if his disposition were choleric, but standing in the court, speaking with a courtier dressed far more expensively than he, du Roz looked mild to Belinda’s eyes. His hair, like his cheeks, was thin; his hands, in motion as he spoke, were long and elegant. There were worse matches to be made, if a glance could tell her anything.
But it had not yet been made. The queen’s approval came first, and that could not be granted until Belinda had been presented to her. Only after that would the nominal steps of courting be taken and permission to wed asked of Lorraine.
Trumpets blared, half a dozen courtiers nearby flinching into squared shoulders and sucked-in guts. Belinda smoothed a hand over her skirts, watching du Roz. He straightened, but not in startlement, and turned to the far end of the hall with calculated smoothness. Belinda, guided by Robert’s hand on her shoulder, turned as well.
The doors swept open with a rush of warm wind that carried the sound of the queen’s footsteps down the length of the silent hall. Seconds passed before Belinda saw her clearly; the room from which Lorraine entered was dark, making her entrance all the more dramatic. From darkness into light; Belinda, despite her own excitement about being at court, could not help a rise of amusement at the deliberate pageantry behind the staged arrival. Then, fighting down laughter, she admonished herself for the thought that Her Majesty, Queen of all Aulun, had to earn her, Belinda’s, approval for how she manipulated her court. Belinda shifted forward a little to see beyond the barrel chest of the courtier beside her.
Titian hair fell loose, bloody curls against translucent skin. A crown, gold and understated, nestled among the curls. Lorraine bucked fashion–or, more likely, set it–with a gown of stiff brocade that pushed her breasts high and left her throat and shoulders exposed, sleeves set further out than fashion dictated, just at the curve of shoulder. Thin grey eyes, a high forehead, and a proud chin, lifted in expectation of received adoration.
Thunder pounded through Belinda’s veins, narrowing her vision to pinpricks, until she saw no one but the queen. Motion of bodies nearby told her to curtsey deep and slow, as the men and women around her did, and she did, black gaze fixed on the floor. When she straightened again, Lorraine had moved beyond them, and Belinda could stare openly at the queen’s fine, slender shoulders. Robert had not told her.
It must not be found out. Belinda closed her eyes, letting Robert’s chuckle wash over her. “Beautiful, isn’t she?” he murmured above her. “Fear not, Primrose. Very few, upon their first visit to court, are affected differently.”
The very lowness of his voice itched through her, making it seem as though he spoke from much farther away. Through a distance of comforting grumbles, perhaps; through a barrier of red-tinged warmth so familiar it wrapped around the edges of her dreams. It seemed extraordinary that she had never quite known it before, not the way she knew it now. Her vaunted memory had not abandoned her, but neither had it offered the puzzle piece that she now recognized. Heat burned her cheeks, a thing so unusual that she had not yet learned to control it with the stillness. It was something to work on, as she’d worked on keeping her breathing steady and her presence unremarkable even when, as now, astonishment and curiosity sparked through her like the promise of a blaze. She knew. She knew. She had thought she’d understood when Robert had spoken of her fate, but now, in the press of courtiers and hangers-on among the queen’s court, Belinda Primrose knew the heart of what had gone unsaid for all her short life, and wanted to fly with it.
“Then I will try not to be too embarrassed.” Her reply was soft and clear, betraying nothing of excitement. Blackness had faded from her vision. All around her, the queen’s attendants exchanged astounded whispers over Lorraine’s daring gown. The women of the court clutched at their partlets and blouses as if they longed to rip them away at that very moment. The men looked as if they hoped the women would.
Belinda, in unconscious sympathy, pressed her hand against the embroidered partlet that covered her throat and chest, even curling her fingers against the fabric. Robert’s touch stayed her and she nodded without argument, letting her hand fall again. Lorraine approached the throne, turning with an elegant swish of skirts to sit. The gathered court let out a collective breath, voices rising into low murmurs as, Lorraine’s procession over, they began to fill the empty space in the middle down which the queen had walked. Robert put his hand on Belinda’s elbow, guiding her through the crowd. Every step echoed through Belinda’s heels and rattled into her bones. She curtsied as deeply as she could, her eyes lowered, when they reached the throne.
“My adopted daughter, Your Majesty. Belinda Primrose, the daughter of my late sister and her husband.”
“Yes.” Lorraine’s voice held no remembered warmth; it was rich and cool and arrogant. She leaned forward a scant inch, examining Belinda as if she were a mote found on a piece of jewelry. “Born in Brittany and raised by your people at your Aulunian estates.”
Robert inclined his head so far it was nearly a bow. “The lands so graciously provided by Your Majesty.”
“What pretty courtesy you always remember to pay us, Robert.” Faint mockery coloured Lorraine’s voice. Belinda heard in the derision all lies of her heritage, and in her own mind, gave words to the truth: she was Belinda Primrose, natural daughter to Robert Drake and Lorraine Walter.
The queen’s bastard.
She straightened as Lorraine spoke her name, stepped forward as the queen beckoned to her. Cool fingers took her chin, turning her face to the left and right. Belinda kept her eyes lowered, but satisfaction in Lorraine’s voice made her dare to glance up. The queen’s grey eyes showed no sign of recognition, no subtle acknowledgment, but neither, Belinda remembered with a shock, had Robert’s, the night he looked through concealing shadow to see her. For an instant, Belinda held Lorraine’s eyes, willing the stillness inside of her to betray nothing. Inside that moment of no exchange, certainty settled around Belinda’s heart. Lorraine could never, and Belinda must never, confess. Belinda lowered her eyes again, lowered them so far that she sank into another deep curtsey, the only acknowledgment she could make. Lorraine clucked her tongue and once more drew Belinda to her feet.
“We are well pleased you have finally allowed us to see your adopted daughter, Robert. She is an attractive child and we are sure great use will be had of her.” Lorraine’s hand brushed down the bodice of Belinda’s dress, and moved up again, touching the partlet that covered the girl’s throat.
“We suggest you continue with this until the summer months,” she murmured, bringing her mouth close to Belinda’s ear. “We have a rash, and the lace irritates it, and so today we have chosen to go without modest coverings. Tomorrow the ladies of the court will be most distressed when having followed our lead makes them both chilled and unseemly. But in the spring, we think we shall flaunt our assets.”
Lorraine flicked a brief, mischievous smile at Belinda, and sat back again. “Heed our words come May Day, girl.” She made a dismissive gesture with one long-fingered hand, and Belinda murmured thanks as she backed away from the throne.
“My lady Primrose.”
Belinda’s spine stiffened, the tiny dagger making itself felt for a moment. She turned; Rodney du Roz stood a few feet away, head inclined politely, though his gaze was fixed on her through dark eyelashes, calculating and interested. “Forgive me.” His words were marked with a Gallic accent, but carefully spoken. “Forgive me, my lady, but I overheard your introduction to Her Majesty, and thought I might make so bold as to present myself to you. Baron Rodney du Roz.” He executed a small bow, arms folded to the front and back of him.
Belinda allowed herself a smile and dipped a curtsey exactly as deep as du Roz’s bow. “My lord Baron. I am honoured.”
“I think the honour is mine, my lady. For an Ecumenical at the Aulunian court, a friendly smile is beyond price, and yours does me gladness. I am forward, I know, but it is the way of Gallic men.” Self-deprecating humour lit his eyes and curved his mouth for a moment. Belinda had been right: with passion, his thin features could be handsome. “Would you walk with me, lady?”
“You are forward,” Belinda agreed, amused, but when he offered his arm, she took it. “Outside, perhaps?” she suggested. “The courtroom…I am unaccustomed to so many people, pressing so close.” Du Roz nodded, escorting her through the crowd to a side door.
“You’ve never been to court before, then?” he asked as they slipped out of the courtroom and down a hall. Arrow-slit windows allowed patches of soft grey winter light to blotch the floor and change the aquamarine shade of Belinda’s overdress. She shook her head as they approached the end of the hall, du Roz pushing open the iron-bound wooden door for her. “Then you must see Alunaer from the palace walls,” he announced. “There are a dozen times in a day when it’s most perfect to be seen, dawn and noon and darkest night.”
Belinda laughed, carefully gathering up her skirts to avoid slush and half-frozen mud. “But it’s none of those times, Baron. It’s mid-morning.”
“Ah! But it has snowed lately, and the city is quiet under snowfall, and so that is perfect too. Have you a fear of heights, my lady?”
“No, my lord.”
“Bold and beautiful,” du Roz murmured. “This way, then: think you to risk the guard stairs?” He gestured extravagantly as he led her around a corner. Icy, steep stairs shot upwards, a short wall of calf-height the only barrier between the stairs and a long fall. Belinda blanched, then nodded with determination. She took the first step, and felt du Roz’s hands on her hips. “Fear not, my lady. I won’t let you fall.”
Belinda laughed again, breathless. “I trust you will not, my lord Baron.” She climbed, placing her feet carefully. Du Roz took his hands from her hips in order to better balance himself. Nearly three-quarters of the way up, she paused, her hand pressed against her chest as she turned to lean against the high wall, looking out over the low. “Forgive me,” she pleaded, taking in quick, shallow breaths. “I’m unaccustomed to climbing so many stairs, and the corsets are tight.”
“Not at all. Even from here, the view is remarkable.” He took a half step forward, gesturing over the palace walls at the city beyond.
“It is.” Belinda studied his shoulders, falsely broadened by his doublet, rather than the view, and her father’s voice echoed in her flawless memory.
“And this is how it shall go, my Primrose. Heed me well. Du Roz visits Aulun for one purpose and one purpose only: he is sent by the Essandia court, by Rodrigo the prince, to bring down our beloved queen and instate an Ecumenical pretender on the Aulunian throne. He is too minor a noble to be suspected, too hungry for land and wealth. Should he be found out, Rodrigo can easily claim no knowledge; du Roz will be called an opportunist, working alone to impress a foreign prince.”
Belinda touched a hand to du Roz’s shoulder. He turned, avarice colouring his eyes. She smiled, and he stepped closer.
“The man you believe I mean you to marry,” Robert’s voice murmured in her mind, “is the man Aulun needs you to kill.”
Stillness filled her, a calm centre. Belinda smiled again, putting her fingertips gently against du Roz’s chest. He made a pleased sound in his throat, edging closer on the icy steps.
Belinda straightened her arm, full force of her body weight behind the shove. Astonishment filled du Roz’s eyes, then panic as he fell, silent, hands clutching uselessly at thin winter air. It took a surprisingly long time for him to crunch against the flagstones below. Belinda stepped forward cautiously, looking down. The body, small, puppet-like, convulsed twice, then was still.
She edged back against the wall, lifting her gaze to the snow-covered city. In the far distance, chimney smoke rose up, blue against grey clouds; the scent of wood smoke, rich and sharp, intruded on her senses, now that the task put to her was finished. Closer, black-branched trees with snow-dusted caps littered the parks that surrounded the palace. There were distant voices, lifted in argument and in laughter and carried on the wind. “You were right,” Belinda murmured. “It’s beautiful.”
Only then did she begin to scream.