Half a Step Away from Love, a historical fantasy romance from the bestselling Russian author Olga Kuno.
"You hate me so passionately,
"You hate me so passionately,
Standing half a step away from love"
Kantsler Gi, "R.R"
“The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”
Passionate embraces, greedy kisses, languid moans. Two naked bodies, striving to join in complete abandon. The long canopy curtains, fastened near the ceiling, have been drawn back, so as not to restrain the lovers' movements in any way. The snow-white, crisp sheet, embroidered with a rather frivolous pattern, is crumpled in the corner of the bed, revealing the horsehair mattress. The other sheet, along with the blanket, has slid to the floor altogether. On the bed, besides the flushed bodies, only a scattering of variously shaped pillows remains — two stockings, one male and one female, and a flouncy petticoat, accidentally caught on the edge of the headboard.
This disarray is not in any way dissonant with the atmosphere of the clean and luxurious boudoir. Armed with a bow and arrow, the god of love, childishly chubby and apple-cheeked, gazes approvingly at the proceedings from the fresco decorating the ceiling. Expensive porcelain figurines depicting naked women and embracing couples share the positive attitude. Every detail of the interior indicates simultaneously the sensuality of the lady, her delicate taste and wide knowledge of every nuance of fickle fashion.
She is tall and graceful, with light, meticulously kept skin, with that natural pallor which is so fashionable in high society, maintained with the assistance of a profusion of ointments and other means. Her luxurious fiery red hair is barely kept within the limits imposed by a complex high hairstyle. He is a handsome brunette with a fair complexion, hazel eyes and dimples. They are so completely engrossed in one another that they do not notice the passage of time, and are unaware of their surroundings.
Out of the blue, a brisk knock on the door destroys the idyll. The knocker does not bother waiting for a response to their call. Instead, just after announcing her presence, a young woman in a lush blue dress with purple ruffles enters the room. Vigorously tapping her heels, she approaches the bed without the slightest sign of embarrassment.
At first, a quite colorful profanity escapes the redheaded beauty's lips, but recognizing the intruder she immediately calms down. The man is not so complacent. He pulls back sharply, forcing the lady to wince when their bodies separate. Pointlessly groping the mattress, in search of a blanket or a sheet, he exclaims:
"Who is that? How can someone come in here without permission?!"
I just purse my lips indifferently in response. I have never liked this guy, though I try not to emphasize this once too often in conversations with the lady.
"She – may", answers the woman, looking at me expectantly. My face adopts an extremely serious expression.
"Duke Almikonte is headed here."
"My brother?! God damn it!" exclaims Duchess Mireya Almikonte, leaping from the bed. "How did he find out?"
"Someone probably snitched," I shrug indifferently. Now is not the time to figure out who caused the problem, but rather how to solve it. We'll catch him later.
"What should we do then?" asks the man perplexedly.
His face is white as chalk. It is amazing how quickly he pales.
"Get dressed! Quickly!" orders Mireya, after her short moment of shock has passed. Both rush to look for their clothes. Not a trivial task, considering that various garments are scattered throughout the room. I quickly begin to lift women's clothing from the floor, completely ignoring the male.
"Should I hide him somewhere?"
Mireya is speaking exclusively to me. Her lover frantically pulls on his shirt. He is in such a hurry he puts it on backwards, so he has to take it off and start all over again.
I observe his nervous antics, somewhat disgusted. It is obvious that the reputation of the Duke's sister does not concern him in the least. The guy only cares to save his own skin.
In a way, I can understand the reasons for this — our Duke can be quite harsh. On the other hand, he should have thought of that before jumping into bed with a woman of such high social status.
"It won't work," I reply, helping Mireya dress. "If the Duke were alone, we could maybe risk it. But, Lord Cameron Estley is with him, and this man is too thorough. He will surely give an order to search every corner and leave no stone unturned."
"What should we do?" The young woman's confused gaze slides across the boudoir. –"Maybe he should climb out the window..."
"What do you mean, out the window?" gasps the gentlemen. "It's too high! We're on the third floor!" he protests.
He has a point. First, Mireya's chambers are indeed located on the third floor, and second, the ceilings of the second floor are extremely high. Consequently, the Duchess' window is really too far from the ground. However, out loud I say something quite different:
"So what if it's high? It's still a good idea."
"I would die!" persists the man.
I don't even blink.
"So what of it? Are you worried your body would be noticed, and would compromise Lady Almikonte? We can throw down some rags to cover it up."
The man silently opens and closes his mouth in a fit of righteous indignation, as Mireya shakes her head, suppressing a smile.
"Nessa, now is not the time for jokes! How should we proceed? "
The Duke's sister turns her back to me, so I could help her put on the corset.
"I am contemplating just that."
Unfortunately no practical solutions come to mind, so I decide to think out loud.
"He can't exit the chambers. When I came in, I saw two spies outside. I think Estley sent them to guard you while the Duke is getting ready. No man could sneak out unnoticed…"
I stop and snap my fingers, latching on to the escaping idea. No man ... but what about a woman?
"Undress!" I say firmly, pointing to the completely dumbfounded lover.
"W-why?" asks he.
"Undress, I'm telling you!" I insist. "We will get you out of here in a dress, disguised as one of the ladies in waiting. My Lady, you wouldn't mind lending this young man some of your clothes?"
"I would not," Mireya supported me.
I had no doubt what her answer would be, and therefore have already come to the door. I open it a bit, and call the maid.
Impatiently I beckon to her with my hand.
Emma is perhaps the only servant that Mireya could trust fully without hesitation. In general, the Duchess selects all her servants carefully, and tries to avoid having suspicious or disloyal people by her side.
However, Emma, the forty year old handmaiden, has served in the palace for a long time, and is more devoted to her mistress than anyone. If Mireya were to decide to slaughter some virgins and prepare a cocktail of their blood, Emma would agree to be on the lookout without a second thought.
The handmaiden drops a short curtsy.
"We need to turn this handsome young man into a lady." I outline the scope of work. "Not necessarily young and charming — most important is that it be quick. You will need underwear, shoes and some old dress, as high-necked as possible."
Nodding obediently, Emma disappears into the next room, which functions as a wardrobe. She comes back quickly, clutching an armful of clothes she has hastily gathered.
While Mireya with my help puts the final touches on her own outfit, the maid dresses the young man in a skin colored undergarment. This part goes off without a hitch, but the next stage causes a complication.
"Ouch!" exclaims the man. "What is that?"
"This is a corset," I helpfully inform him.
"I know what a corset is!" he snaps. "I just didn't think it would be so uncomfortable."
"Well, congratulations," I grin, critically sweeping my eyes over Mireya's outfit and straightening out ruffles in her dress. "You have a rare opportunity to learn not only what a beautiful woman looks like, but also how it feels to be one."
"But I absolutely cannot breathe!" he cries.
"You can, judging by how well you manage to talk to us." I am not so easily softened.
"Maybe we could do without?" the young man tries to take another shot at it, while shooting a look of loathing at the piece of clothing under discussion.
"No we cannot." I am harsh as fate itself. "First of all, without it the dress will not sit properly. And second, the corset will help you create the illusion of breasts.
"That is unnecessary!" At this point I am speaking to Emma, who is holding in her hands a thin sleeveless shirt, usually worn over a corset and under a high-necked dress. "Let's move on directly to the dress — they will be here at any moment!"
They manage to put on the petticoat, dress and silk stockings successfully. The shoes are a different matter: Mireya's foot, although not tiny, is still much smaller than that of the young man. For a while we try to no avail to fit his paw into the elegant shoe, moaning and groaning, like Cinderella's stepmother, struggling to marry off her own daughter to the Prince.
In the end, Emma brings, from somewhere in the depths of the wardrobe, a pair of much larger shoes, probably left over from one of the ladies-in-waiting, which fits the lover. The man stands up — and his legs freeze wide apart and bent at the knees.
"And what do you want to say with this stance?" I ask suspiciously, struggling not to burst out laughing.
"Heels!" he hisses.
"Yes? Heels?" I look at him quizzically, waiting for an explanation.
"Why are they so high?"
"Because that is what's fashionable," I answer.
"All right, but why are they so unstable?" persists the lover, unwilling to straighten his legs.
"Well, that is to awaken in men the desire to take care of us and catch us if we stumble," Mireya let him in on a little woman's secret.
Judging by the sour look on the young man's face, he is not overjoyed by the idea of a strange man catching him. However, I am mainly interested in his hair at the moment, which is in an atrocious state.
"Emma, please bring me any old wig," I ask. "I hope we still have a few of those lying around somewhere in the chest."
"Wigs are no longer worn," Mireya hesitates.
"Some still wear them," I say.
"Only old hags like Baroness Rego," winces the young lady.
"Well, fine. Let him be considered an old hag. What matters is that they allow him out of here."
I seat the man in the chair in front of me, and, equipped with brushes, begin to work on his face. He almost immediately sneezes, thus expressing his ingratitude towards all my attentiveness and care.
"You will have to endure it — beauty requires sacrifice!" I state optimistically. "Be grateful that the present King's father ordained a law banning the use of skin whiteners. Many women hate him fiercely for that. There are rumors that this decree is the reason his lover tried to kill him."
"So why did he issue such a law?" the lover wonders.
"Because the court alchemist enlightened him on the composition of most of those whiteners," I flaunt my knowledge, while quickly working with the brushes. "It turns out that whiteners contain lead, which in turn undermines one’s health severely. Hence noble ladies have paid for their short-lived beauty with their lives."
During this time I manage to somehow put a thick layer of powder on Mireya's lover's face, and then add some blush.
"It is quite the cautionary tale," says Emma, walking out of the wardrobe with a wig in her hand.
The white curls look absolutely unnatural, but back then — like the whiteners – it was a tribute to the flighty and sometimes cruel fashion.
"At least wigs are perfectly safe," I console the young man. Having hoisted the wig onto him, I begin to inspect the results. "Perhaps we are missing something," I mutter under my breath. "Earrings, maybe?"
"But my ears aren't pierced," answers the guy in surprise.
"So what? We can pierce them right here, right now," I am not discouraged.
The young man shrinks away from me, and Mireya, feeling somewhat compassionate towards him, comes up with a different suggestion:
"What about clips?"
"And what is a clip?" suspiciously scowls the lover.
"Clips are shackles for your ears," I say, smiling.
"Nessa!" Mireya reproachfully exclaims.
"But I'm telling it like it is!"
"Well actually, you're right in a way;" she admits upon reflection, and guiltily looks at the man.
However, I reckon wasting time on jewelry would be unreasonable. A few finishing touches, and the image is complete.
"Well, how about it?" I address my question mainly to Mireya.
"Great!" she grins. "No one will suspect anything."
"I would like to hope so." I consider the fruits of my labors with a more critical eye. "Well, we don't have time to improve it, anyhow. We will go and try to not run into the Duke, and you get rid of his clothes."
Emma begins to fuss, picking up a pair of pants, a coat and so on from the floor, while I nudge the lover towards the door.
"Most importantly, do not stumble as we are walking through the first corridor," I quietly instruct. "Try not to meet anyone's eyes. If we have to split up, turn right and descend two floors down the staircase. You know the place. We will send someone to help you from that point on."
Approaching footsteps attract our attention from the far end of the corridor. I have finished my coaching just in time, since there is virtually no chance we could have missed the group of four heading towards Mireya's quarters.
Two of the people approaching us are no more than servants, executors; hence they themselves worry me very little. But the other two could create a lot of problems, and I do not even know which of them should be considered more dangerous.
Duke Conrad Almikonte, a widower of thirty four years, has a commanding and rather gloomy look. Of average height and a not too imposing physique, he has unusually broad shoulders, which make his appearance a bit disproportionate. His eyes are such a dark hue that they seem almost black. He has sharp facial features, a powerful mouth, slightly curved downward, and a square chin. His hair, unlike Mireya's, is dark brown; it is curled in accordance with the current fashion.
Near the Duke strides Lord Cameron Estley, who inherited the title of Count from his father and the title of Baron from his uncle — a man who wields a great deal of influence in the palace.
As Almikonte's right hand, he enjoys all the rights and privileges that come with the position. He is involved in numerous matters that hold interest for the Duke, and I barely have an idea of a third of the areas that are under his influence. However, in issues related to my duties, his intervention is more than enough for me.
Lord Estley, a thirty-two year old bachelor, is significantly taller than the Duke, although he does not boast the same shoulder width. His black hair is pulled into a ponytail, covering the neck; his dark gray eyes have a piercing look, as if the owner suspects everything and everyone of a crime of some sort, and intends to solve the case with his gaze.
He has a thin oval face, a straight nose, and high cheekbones. Estley knows how to be charming and — much worse — is able to use it for his own purposes. However, he never tries to manipulate me, as he knows it won't work.
As soon as they reach us, I stop and curtsey. Fortunately, Mireya's lover is able to keep his cool, and performs something resembling a courtesy. It is rather awkward but in the darkness of the corridor it suffices. Especially since the Duke quickly passes us, without even bothering to nod in greeting. I don't blame him.
The Duke is often angry with his sister, but they do share a familiar bond. Mireya's first lady in waiting, on the other hand, who often assists her in affairs, he finds quite objectionable; all that Conrad Almikonte feels towards her is cold antipathy.
The servants follow the Duke into Mireya's chambers, but Lord Estley lingers. He, unlike his master, greets me with a nod, befitting the relevant rules of etiquette. I would, however, prefer that he behaved less gallantly, because the longer we are in his presence, the higher the chance that he will see through my companion's disguise and realize that he is not a she.
Cameron Estley is very intelligent and observant, which often makes me want to hate him.
"Lord Cameron!" I feign a joyful smile. "Would you mind having a few words with me?"
I hold out my hand and tilt my head in farewell, looking at Mireya's lover. Fortunately, he understands what I mean and hurries off. Estley takes me by the arm, and I lead him in the opposite direction, to the door behind which the Duke has recently disappeared.
"Fancy meeting you here. What brings you at such a strange hour to the female wing of the castle?" I ask, imitating genuine bewilderment.
"As you could see, I'm just accompanying the Duke," he replies.
Sure, he's just accompanying. I'm willing to bet that it was his spies who got wind of Mireya's date, reported this information back to him, and that he was the one who gave Conrad Almikonte the idea to come here unannounced and catch his sister in the act. It's a wonderful way to get her to dance to the Duke's tune at a later date. He can blackmail her, for example, by threatening to send her to a nunnery for disgracing her dynasty.
However, I don't allow my anger to show on my face.
"It seems the Duke simply wishes to visit his sister?" I suggest.
"You literally see straight to heart of the matter, Lady Inessa."
"But in that case, he could have warned her in advance about his visit, don’t you think?" I bat my eyelashes naively, trying to compensate for the rigidity which manages to slip into my tone.
"He could have," easily agrees Lord Estley. "However," the hint of friendliness in his eyes is replaced by searing cold, "this palace belongs to the Duke. And therefore, he has the right to enter any premises at any time, with prior warning and without it. Don't you think?"
I yank my hand. Now facing each other, we stop by the door leading to Mireya's chamber.
"Of course he has the right" I reply, calmly, but just as coldly. "According to the law. But the rules of etiquette require something somewhat different."
"Would you like to discuss the rules of etiquette with the Duke?" without batting an eye, Estley asks.
I grit my teeth against my will. The bastard is unobtrusively pointing out my place relative to the Duke. I reside in the territory of Conrad Almikonte, I live in his palace, and no matter whom I serve, in reality I am the Duke's subject. If he so desires, he can always remind me of that.
This is just like the old Cameron Estley I know and despise. He loves to put people in their place. Well, that is his privilege. But once again I have been able to twist him around my little finger. The man wearing a woman's dress and wig has long since disappeared around the corner. It cheers me up, allowing me to swallow my pride with dignity.
"Of course not. I don't mean to criticize the Duke." My lips curl into an insincere smile. "I'm just worried that Lady Mireya will not be able to give him the welcome he deserves. She hates surprises.
"Well, let's see how she handles it," Estley says, glancing at the door.
Then he looks at me as if trying to figure out what is on my mind. He must have thought that I deliberately delayed him on the doorstep, so as to keep him from entering as long as possible. However, given that the servants and the Duke are already in the boudoir, he has undoubtedly realized that was not the case after all.
"Come on, Lady Inessa." His voice sounds a little more sincere than it had been until that point. "Of course, I understand, and in a way even respect your devotion to your mistress. But a musician as a lover!" He frowns expressively. "You have to agree that it's overkill even for Lady Mireya."
"And don't you think," leaning forward I retort: "that it is a private matter?"
Estley sighs expressively, as if lamenting the fact that he needs to explain simple truths of life to a stupid woman such as me.
"Lady Inessa, you are allowed to have personal matters. You are an independent woman who is not burdened with frequent communication with her parents. I may have personal matters. But Mireya Almikonte cannot have personal affairs, as she belongs to too noble a family to allow that. Any mistake she makes lays an indelible stain on the whole Almikonte family and undermines the authority of her brother. In addition, before she marries she is a ward of the Duke. This in itself rules out the existence of so-called "personal matters".
Well, yes, of course. This very convenient logic gives the brother the right to freely manipulate his sister.
"You ought to know, my lord." I humbly bow my head. "Wait a moment!" I look back at him, eyes wide. "Surely you don't suppose Lady Mireya is in the company of a lover at the moment?!"
I feign surprise on my face, as if the thought had just occurred to me. As if we have not just talked about it almost in plain language.
"Lady Mireya definitely has a lover in her chambers right now," Estley says, showing he doesn't buy into my game. "And you can distract me with small talk all you like, it's not going to change anything."
"Lord Cameron," I bare my teeth in a smile, resembling a snarl: "I certainly understand, and in some cases even respect your devotion to your master. But believe me, there is no lover in Mireya's chambers."
He looks at me with narrowed eyes, then opens the door and enters the chambers. He doesn't worry about such trivial things as letting a lady pass through first. Thankfully, I'm not the easily offended type, so I just follow him in.
Mireya lounges in a comfortable deck chair, and watches her brother, who towers over her like a statue, from beneath hooded eyes. He clearly has failed to induce any sort of shame or even a blush of embarrassment in his sister. Judging by the sound coming from the adjacent quarters, the servants are diligently trying to find a lover in her boudoir, investigating for this purpose one room after another — the bedroom, the dressing room, the bathroom.
"Ah, Lady Inessa," Mireya says, still keeping her eyes half-closed. When we are surrounded by strangers she addresses me much more formally than when we are by ourselves.
"Come in, sit down please. It seems this will take a while."
Needless to say, to the appearance of Lord Estley she doesn’t react at all.
Modestly inclining my head, I sit down on the edge of the white and green patterned banquette.
Cameron approaches the Duke, who in turn gives his assistant a worried look. It has become quite obvious that the lover will not be found in the chambers. Lord Estley frowns, clearly realizing that something is fishy. He begins to carefully inspect the room, then unhurriedly walks up to the window, draws back the curtain, and looks out.
"It's a good thing we did not settle on the lover falling out of the window," I think, "Or right now Estley would have found a corpse, and certainly would have thought something bad."
Meanwhile, the people the Duke sent to search return empty-handed. Conrad Almikonte's jaw muscles clench from frustration. He glares at his sister, but she just gives him a calm, innocent look in response.
"Would you like some tea, gentlemen?" With the tone of a friendly hostess she asks. "A foreign cook supplies me with delightful strawberry jam. She's not willing to disclose the recipe to anybody. And also these... oh, I have forgotten." She snaps her fingers and turns to me.
"Bagels," I suggest.
"Yes, yes, bagels," agrees Mireya. "Funny name. No connection to beagles." When pronouncing the name of the animals, she somehow very intently looks at the men. "It's a sort of pastry. Very popular in the Orient. If you'd like, I'll order that they be served."
"Thank you." It is obvious from the Duke's tone that this is a refusal. "Why is your bed such a mess?"
We really have not had the time to deal with the bed; the only thing Emma managed to do to salvage the situation was to pick up the blankets and sheets from the floor.
"The maid was just about to lay new linens," Mireya calmly responds. "Forgive me, dear brother, but we had no knowledge that you would bless us with your visit now, of all times."
I try to hide a smile. In the end, and without my help, Duke Almikonte still receives a lesson on the subject of good manners. I glance at Estley. He continues to look around the room, as if searching for clues; his lips are pursed.
Suddenly, the Count steps to the bed and kneels, apparently unafraid to besmear his trousers. Then he bends down and draws a man's boot from beneath the bed.
Mireya starts, but immediately rushes to pull herself together. I bite my lip. Apparently, while trying to quickly get rid of the lover's possessions, Emma just missed this little detail.
Estley turns his find in his hands, surprisingly not the least bit squeamish.
"What is this?" He for some reason addresses not Mireya, but me specifically.
"A boot," I say, looking at him through the eyes of the crystal honest.
"A boot,” Lord Cameron repeats after me, and a smirk begins playing on his lips. "And what is it doing here?"
"It is my boot," I answer firmly.
"Yours?" The Count's smile becomes a little wider. "A man's boot?"
"A man's boot," I confirm in such a tone as though it is obvious.
Estley's questioning stare demands an explanation, and I do not disappoint him.
"No, of course I do not wear it. But it was I who brought it into Lady Mireya's chambers. You see, we needed it for... for the samovar."
"For the what?" asks the Duke.
"Do you remember, Lady Mireya mentioned a foreign cook? In the Orient, those devices are commonplace. I'm not sure how convenient it is, but my lady is interested in all sorts of odd trinkets, so we decided to find a master who would make us such a thing."
"All this sounds just wonderful," Lord Cameron interrupts me. "But can you tell me what the boot has to do with it?"
"You mean, you don't know?" I throw up my hands, supposedly shocked by such ignorance. "Boots are used as bellows for firing it up. You don't believe me?"
The men's looks leave not even a shadow of a doubt that they don’t believe me.
"Well, I'll prove it to you."
I rummage in the bottom drawer of the dresser, where several pamphlets are lying around, that Mireya and I sometimes browse before bed. One of them describes the customs of different countries, and was the source of the information that turned out to be very helpful to us. This just proves that education can be useful in the most unexpected of situations. Taking out the aforementioned book, I find the right page, and triumphantly hand it to Lord Cameron. That page features an illustration of a samovar with a real boot on top of the pipe. The Count's eyes widen again, and he presses his lips again in dissatisfaction.
He shows the picture to the Duke, and then gives me back the brochure.
"Well." The Duke steps to the door, not bothering to conceal his anger. "I'm not going to keep you any longer."
After giving me one last heart-searching look, Lord Cameron follows him. I accompany the two of them, not so much out of politeness as to ensure that they are really going to leave.
At the last second Estley stops and turns around
"One day you'll have a fall," he says in a low voice.
"That's when we'll talk," I respond, smiling politely.
“Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.”
George Bernard Shaw
I settle comfortably into the chair, and observe the row of dancers with interest. The musicians play the waltz, the second dance of the ball today. The first is a polonaise according to tradition, in which all guests without exception must take part. The list of partners was drawn up in advance; if a gentleman wanted to dance the first dance with a certain lady, he would engage her a week before the ball, or even earlier, to make sure that nobody beat him to it.
My case is somewhat different: I am dancing with Viscount Leon Shiro, with whom I am on strictly friendly terms. We do not feel any strong emotions, either positive or negative, towards each other, so the dance progresses peacefully, to our mutual satisfaction. As soon as the last notes fade, Leon walks me to the chairs arranged for the convenience of the guests, and goes on to play cards at one of the tables prepared for this purpose.
So now I'm relaxing and watching the dancing couples. This season pastel colors are in fashion, so the women's dresses are dominated by colors like pink, yellow, ivory, pale blue. As it should be at a ball, the dresses are luxurious. Lush due to the layered petticoats, decorated with colored ruffles at the edges, as well as lace and bows. Ornaments adorn the fabrics, depicting various flowers. Because of the abundance of decorations on the dresses, accessories such as brooches and necklaces are almost out of fashion. Narrow sleeves extend to the elbow. The high hairstyles decorated with feathers alone are reminiscent of works of art.
The soft colors of the women's dresses make a nice contrast to the darker and richer colors of the males’ coats. The most popular choices are deep blue, dark green and purple. The vests are fortunately rather plainer; otherwise the men would look like parrots. From under the outerwear peek out snow white collars and cuffs.
For a while I observe how Mireya and her new partner gracefully whirl around the dance floor. Well, at least this one isn't a musician, if that helps our dearest Duke any. After the recent incident in which her brother almost caught her lover, Mireya has grown noticeably colder towards the latter. I do not know what has caused her to change her attitude, but the fact remains: he does not visit her chambers again. The red-haired Earl however, with whom she is currently dancing, seems to have a chance to become her new favorite.
My gaze gradually shifts, sliding from the dance area to the far wall of the rectangular room. There really is something to see. The wall is covered from end to end and floor to ceiling with a fresco depicting a lovely garden. Rose bushes, flowering cherry trees, even the clouds floating in the sky look so realistic that it seems as though if you just close your eyes, you will smell the exhilarating scent of roses. As far as I know, one courtier even mistook the painting for a real garden and tried to enter it. To be fair, he was thoroughly drunk. The accident ended in a slight concussion, and a vow never to drink so much again. However, I don't guarantee that the last promise was fulfilled.
This mural is the creation of Pablo Eskatto, arguably the greatest artist of our time. His work has graced a few walls of the palace. His work is incredibly expensive; he happens to work for the noble people of the country; he also travels abroad at the invitation of members of royal families. Speaking of which, there are rumors that he, too, at one time spent a lot of evenings in Mireya's boudoir.
"Well, how about that," drawls Ilona, turning over a small ivory snuffbox in her hands, "they're saying you quarreled with Cameron Estley again."
My friend Ilona Dennis is also Mireya's lady in waiting, but in the court she is known not because of her position but because of her eccentricity. She dresses, talks and generally behaves somewhat differently than the others. While fashion and etiquette prescribe that ladies be soft, gentle and mysterious, Ilona prefers frankness, swears frequently, and has a number of habits that are usually considered masculine. For example, she sniffs tobacco and sips brandy, and calls red wine sour. She hates ladies' saddles and loves prodding the horse to a gallop. Her movements have something angular about them, and her mannerisms are sometimes overly sharp. Even her clothes are different from ours: a bit more practical, a little less jewelry, no bows nor bright colors. Living at the court means following fashion trends — it is an immutable law of the palace. The only way to not be a slave to fashion is to be the one creating it. However, not everyone has the power and status necessary for the latter. For example, Mireya can do it, but not I. Yet Ilona manages to be a rare exception to the rule: she does not follow any fashion trends, but she is forgiven. Perhaps due to the breath of fresh air she brings with her eccentricity to high society.
Trying to set the young woman on the right path, supporters of more traditional behavior present a seemingly sound argument: if you do not behave as a woman should, men will not love you. Supposedly this is airtight logic. But the paradox is that Ilona doesn't suffer from a lack of attention from the opposite sex. She has lovers and admirers. Yes, her relationships usually do not last long and do not turn into anything serious, but, honestly, who among us — classical and traditional ladies — can boast that?
"Yes, but it was not exactly a quarrel..." I wince, making it clear that the word she chose was too strong. "We just had a small conflict of interest. He intended to catch Mireya with a man, and I was not going to let him. In the end, I managed to get the better of him."
"That's not good," says Ilona, placing her snuffbox on the adjacent empty chair. Such a reaction from her surprises me.
"Not good?" I ask. "Why? Would you prefer that the Duke and that windbag Estley caught Mireya's lover in her bedroom?"
"That's not the problem." Ilona shakes her head.
"The fact is that with such men as 'the windbag', you need to keep on your toes. Beating these people is risky; when dealing with them often winning costs you more in the end than losing would. Sooner or later he will want to take revenge on you, and he is an extremely dangerous opponent."
"Come on, don't demonize him," I protest. "He is, of course, a right bastard, but not that terrifying." I bite my tongue, but to my relief no one has heard me. Ilona has a bad influence on me: in her presence, I also begin to speak more vulgarly than is appropriate for a court lady, especially at the ball. "And besides, you know I am not easily frightened."
"I'm aware," confirms Ilona "and that's why I consider it necessary to warn you. Courage is of course, a great virtue, but sometimes it can lead to dire consequences. Heroism leads the army to victory, but often ends badly for the hero."
"The two things are not even comparable!" I shrug off her philosophical metaphors. "Heroism is out of the question. After all I'm not throwing myself chest forward onto a sword."
"There are worse things than a sword," Ilona disagrees. "What do you even know about Cameron Estley's affairs? Especially about those that do not relate to Mireya and her brother's eternal quarrels? He is in fact involved in much more serious issues.
He takes part in the investigation of major crimes, and in the sentencing; he helps settle conflicts with foreign ambassadors. Did you know that he drove Count Kroyton to suicide?"
"I didn't," I respond, shocked. "I’ve never heard of Count Kroyton nor his suicide. And why did Estley treat him so horribly?"
"I have no idea. The details of the case are unknown; people mostly spread rumors in murmurs about it. The only thing they agree on is the name of the perpetrator."
"Well, if it's just a rumor, and not exactly from a reliable source, then, you know, Estley's guilt is also questionable," I shrug. "Maybe the poor old Earl had just died from a common cold and Estley and was careless enough to visit him a few hours before his death."
"It's possible of course." Ilona does not argue, but from the look in her eyes, I gather that she herself doesn't question the involvement of Cameron Estley in Kroyton's death. "But it is a widely known fact that he is personally present at some interrogations. And what kind of methods are used in those interrogations is no secret either."
"So what?" I grimace. "He's not going to put me in the interrogating chair just because I was able to get a man out of Mireya's chambers at the right time."
"That's for sure," Ilona agrees with me whole-heartedly. "He's not the kind of man who would send a woman to a torture chamber for such a minor transgression. Moreover, in this regard, you are quite well protected. After all, you are a count's daughter, even if do not keep in touch with your parents, and are also under the patronage of Mireya. This is a good position. I just want to emphasize that you're playing with fire."
"If he leaves Mireya alone, I won't bother him anymore!" I snap. “And if I never see him, all I will have to say is good riddance. Why did he latch onto her? Surely with his intellect he can understand that it's undignified of an aristocrat, of a man, even, to fight with a woman, trying to sniff out what's happening in her bed!" I grimace with disgust. Ilona smiles.
"Do I have to remind you that Mireya regularly thwarts the works of her brother?" she replies. "For example, the time when the Duke wanted to promote his man as a senior assistant to the ambassador. Mireya, behind his back, appealed to the King, putting forward the candidacy of her own protégé."
"So what's wrong with that?" I come to Mireya's defense. "Her protégé was no worse, I would say — even better than the one the Duke offered." Ilona laughs, looking at me, and I become flustered, realizing the way I am sitting, sticking out my chest, as if I were really ready to jump on a sword to protect my mistress.
"In any case," I continue more calmly, relaxing my stance, "then, if you remember, the Duke got what he wanted. In the end his man received the position, and not without Estley's intervention. "
"That's the thing. Estley's task is promoting the interests of the Duke. Mireya constantly interferes with this mission. This turns her into an enemy who must be neutralized. How exactly? She is the sister of the Duke, so the option "put a bag on her head and make sure no one is the wiser" is not viable. What remains? The most effective way to keep her under control is blackmail. But what can he use for blackmail? She does not break the law, is not involved in any political conspiracies, and does not sniff “purple dust”. Her only weakness is men. Everyone knows that she's not exactly virginal. Mireya herself doesn't make a big secret of it. However, as they say: "no body, no crime". You cannot blackmail based on popular palace gossip. Hence the Duke via Estley tries to catch her on the spot. The only problem is one restless lady in waiting who always butts in and ruins their plans."
"And I'll continue to butt in as long as they use such dirty methods," I snap.
Laughing, Ilona picks up her glass of brandy.
"Well, as I expected, my soul-saving talk was in vain," she sums up.
She sips her drink, rolls it around her palate and swallows, closing her eyes in pleasure. "Good intentions, as always, lead to nothing. Well, it serves me right." She takes another sip.
"Would you like me to read you a lecture, too, about the dangers of alcoholic drinks?" I suggest slyly.
Hearing this idea causes Ilona to choke and cough, and then back off from me, crossing her arms in front of her.
"Anything but that!" She pleads. "Let me enjoy the ball in peace."
"If you want to enjoy the ball, go dance," I suggest. Ilona expressively winces.
"I'm too lazy" she admits in a low voice. "Besides, these pumps chafe my feet horribly."
"What part of them could chafe your feet?" I ask in surprise, looking down on my friend's shoes. "They barely cover the toes. In this new fashioned model there is not even space for buckles!"
"I'm actually glad about that," snorts my friend." Nevertheless, it has still managed to graze my foot."
"Lady Ilona!" Baron Growly greets us both with a polite nod, emerging from the crowd. He is a peppy and cheerful thirty year old man who looks five years younger than he is, likely due to his energy and enthusiasm.
"Would you like to dance?"
Ilona sighs dolefully and looks at me plaintively, as if I could do something to help her. I pretend not to notice this, and take a sip of weak "sour stuff" from my glass.
"Mazurka?!" Even more painfully Ilona moans, listening closely. "All right, Ralph, so be it, I accept your offer," she says jokingly. Fortunately their friendship guarantees he would not be offended. "But keep in mind: those wacky new shoes chafe my feet, so I'm going to limp and may even stumble."
"Do not worry, my lady, I will support you," with a smile the Baron promises.
"If I stumble, I may begin cursing," ominously warns Ilona.
"I'll survive," says Growly. "I hope this concludes the list of threats?"
"It does." My friend's sigh expresses hopelessness, but her eyes don't seem sad. "Come on, if you're so persistent."
Growly leads her to the dance area, and I am left behind all alone. That, however, doesn't bother me in the least. Furthermore, I decide to escape from the hall before someone decides to join me. It would be nice to have a little breath of fresh air in the garden. I could return just in time for dinner.
Across the room, I notice Cameron Estley speaking with Lady Clara Wharton. More precisely, Lady Clara is clinging to the Count and passionately telling him something, while he carefully maintains a moderately civil expression on his face, which is clearly no easy feat. That is unsurprising. Estley's companion is an elderly lady, who somehow inexplicably manages to combine enthusiasm and tediousness. This rare combination of qualities is simply deadly, almost fatal for those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves at the center of her attention. Escaping her attentions without violating the rules of behavior in decent society is possible only after the old lady herself tires of lecturing you. However, this usually takes a very long time. Therefore, passing the couple, I mentally rub my hands together in glee. Serves you right, Lord Cameron, I think to myself. I really hope that she tortures you for another thirty minutes.
That raspy voice hits me in the back, like a bullet between the shoulder blades. Truly, the gods have decided to punish me. You should not wish such suffering upon your fellow man. Even if that man is as intolerable person as Lord Cameron. With a barely restrained suffering sigh, I turn and hurry to put on a friendly smile.
"Lady Clara! How nice to see you! How are you feeling? Are you enjoying the ball?"
I fire these questions in rapid succession, deliberately leaving her no time to answer, and slowly backing towards the door. Alas, Lady Clara stops my attempt to retreat, tenaciously grasping my hand. However, she is in no hurry to let Estley go, either.
"I just told the Count, it's downright indecent." The lady does not respond to my questions in any way, remaining faithful to her old habit of listening only to herself. "Two such prominent personalities of the court cannot have such a cold relationship. You just do not have the right. It's bad form!"
Unable to restrain myself, I roll my eyes. How many times will she repeat the same idea, using different expressions?
"You hold such significant positions under such important people," continues Lady Clara, thankfully unaware of my reaction. "Your behavior must set an example to others. Your squabbles are just intolerable! In my time, ladies and gentlemen would never allow themselves to behave that way." She shakes her head in disapproval and tut-tuts at the same time, clearly relishing the action. "You must change your line of conduct. Do you hear me? You must!"
"I'm sold," unexpectedly announces Estley, drawing his wrist from Lady Clara's clasp and after a brief bow, staring me straight in the eye, and says:
"Lady Inessa, would you do me the honor of dancing with me?"
I admit, I am a bit befuddled. But what would you have me do? In general refusing an invitation to dance without a sufficient reason is frowned upon. But dancing with Estley… Still unsure how to proceed, I meet the Count's eyes.
"Just try to refuse me," he hisses furiously.
I realize that in that case Estley would make sure I suffer. For instance, he could make me have tea with Lady Clara every night for a month. Besides, a dance is indeed not such a bad idea, as it would allow me to escape the company of the bothersome lady.
"Of course, Lord Cameron," I declare, and curtsy in a manner befitting the occasion.
"I hope you'll excuse us, Lady Clara."
Without waiting for an answer, which could have lasted for a whole dance even if it were positive, Estley leads me to the dance floor.
"One minuet, and you're free to go," the Lord assures me with a stony face. "Lady Wharton will calm down and find a new victim." I incline my head in agreement, halting beside him.
"How fortunate that we don't have to dance long," I say in a casual tone, extending my left hand to him, while gently moving my right one to the side.
"Do you dislike dancing in general, or do you have something against the minuet specifically?"
I have something against this particular gentleman. But I couldn't say it to his face, especially since he clearly already knows.
"Just because otherwise you and I will have to make small talk," I explain, taking a sliding step back.
"And that frightens you?"
His eyes flash with mockery, which clashes with his movements which, by the nature of dance, are meant to express admiration for his partner.
"I am not of the easily frightened type, Lord Cameron."
My tone does not conform well to the atmosphere dictated by the minuet's movements either.
"I know." Something I don’t fully understand — either curiosity or approval — flickers in his eyes. "That just makes it even more fascinating."
I arch my eyebrow questioningly, requesting him to clarify the meaning of his words. However, the Count does not take the hint, and asking him to explain would be beneath my dignity. We are silent for the next few steps.
"So, Lady Inessa," Estley speaks first, apparently remembering my words about the necessity to make small talk. "Tell me one little secret. Dressing up men in female dresses – is it a hobby or a perversion?"
That means he has realized what kind of lady in waiting in a wig left our company in such a hurry. Well, I am not particularly surprised.
"One day, you'll know," I smile promisingly.
It is his turn to raise an eyebrow, and mine to remain mysteriously silent in response.
"Well," he continues, as we step on our tiptoes toward each other. "In this case, answer me this: Why do you dislike men so?"
I nearly trip at hearing such a question, and stare at my companion with unconcealed astonishment.
"Why on earth would you think that?" The initial shock has passed, and I am able to pull myself together. "Lord Cameron, your ego knows no bounds. You should not presume my attitude towards you personally to be an indication of my feeling toward the male sex as a whole."
My lips curve into an acid smile. He responds approximately in the same way.
"Lady Inessa, if you expect to offend me with that statement, I am sorry to disappoint you. Many people hate me — such is my occupation. If I were to have suffered because of every person who feels an aversion towards me, I would have become a monk a long time ago."
"It would suit you," I assure him, sounding as though we are discussing the weather.
"I doubt it. But let's get back to my question."
"Frankly, I do not quite understand the gist of it."
"You are very tepid towards men, Lady Inessa. No — I'm not suggesting that you have other preferences. That you like women, or animals, or, for example, corpses."
My eyes widen in shock after hearing these assumptions; he seems to have been waiting for just that. He maintains a serious expression, however, the corners of his lips lift in a hint of a smile, giving him away. But I have no doubt: Estley enjoys watching my reaction to his affronting and ridiculous statements, which is why he has made them in the first place.
"Oh, Lady Inessa, believe me, in the civil service, one sees far more terrible things," he complains. "However, I repeat, I do not believe that any of this applies to you. No, your tastes, without a doubt, are much more traditional. I know that you have dated men. Nevertheless, you don't indulge in this part of life. According to my information, in the four years that you have lived in the palace, you have only had three lovers and those were long ago, near the beginning of your time here. Compared to most other young ladies in waiting that is a very small number. Can you tell me why?"
I can't believe it, what exact details he knows! He has probably conducted a whole investigation. I recognize his methods. I smile frostily.
"I'm curious. What could be the reason, from your point of view?" I throw the ball in his court. But such a move doesn't floor him.
"I see only two possibilities," eagerly replies Estley, not even trying to accuse me of avoiding the question. "Option one: you have been very disappointed by men. The most likely culprit is your last lover. Apparently, this idiot seriously screwed up, and as a result you have decided to dissociate from the male sex in general."
"So what is the second option?" I ask enthusiastically.
"The second option is simple: you are still in a relationship with someone; you're just keeping it a secret," says Cameron. "The most likely candidate, again, is your last lover. Has he left the country, or am I mistaken?"
I just snort in response. How can you be mistaken if you have carefully checked the information in advance?
"You might occasionally correspond with him, and are faithful to him," continues Estley. "I do not know which of these options is correct, and it is none of my business. I just want to emphasize that either way you are making a big mistake. You must learn to enjoy life."
"So how do you do it? Changing partners as often as a woman changes clothes, and every week taking someone new to bed?" I am still smiling, but my eyes turn hard.
"Do they really say that about me?" Estley pretends to be appalled. "Don't listen to them, Lady Inessa! The court consists of nothing but gossipers and enviers."
"Some revelation!" I snort.
Estley smiles fleetingly.
"It is not necessary to change partners every week," he says. "But don't bury yourself while you're alive, either. Look around. I'm sure you'll find a decent man."
"Lord Cameron, what is this really about?" I frown. "Be honest: why did you even start this conversation? What do you care whether I have a man or not? Or maybe you just want to anger me? If so, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but it is not so easily done."
"Don't worry, Lady Inessa, I have plenty of time to anger you," he laughs. "I'll be honest with you: I really would like you to stop neglecting your personal life. At the moment, all your efforts go towards serving your mistress. It makes my work somewhat… difficult. When you finally have a social life of your own, you will devote less time to Mireya Almikonte's affairs. And that will be to my advantage."
"Do you really think that after this admission I will follow your advice?" I am surprised.
"You should consider it carefully," advises Estley. "Because whatever my purpose, following my advice would be in your own self-interest."
We stand diagonally from each other, right shoulder forward. A few more movements and the dance ends.
According to the rules the partner should escort the lady to the place where he asked her to dance. However, if Estley had brought me to Lady Clara, I would have had to strangle him with my bare hands. He apparently suspects as much, and decides not to risk it. Therefore, following my request, he leads me to the chairs, and then immediately disappears into the crowd of guests.
I pick up a fan someone left on the seat and begin to fan myself thoughtfully, sitting on a nearby chair. How did you put it, Lord Estley? Enjoy life? Find lovers? I smile weakly. That's not going to happen, milord. I will somehow survive without your advice. And my last lover has absolutely nothing to do with it. I did not even know that he had left the country. And besides I only dated him for a couple of weeks, and even then only for fun. And if I do treat men with a fair amount of caution, it is not because of him.
Besides, you are doubly wrong: I do not hate the male sex. I'm just too lazy to spend time and energy on frivolous, fleeting romances. As far as a long-term relationship and marriage go... I have nothing against it, but only if I meet the right person. One who would fulfill all my criteria. Someone who would be a really good husband. Gentle, kind, well mannered. Unable to insult a woman, not to mention more serious forms of aggression. Educated, loves to read. Domestic, cozy. In short, a good family man.
So far I have not met such a man; even if I never do, I'm not going to cry about it. Unlike many women, I am convinced it is better not to marry at all than to have a failed marriage.
My thoughts are cut short by the sound of a gong, calling the guests to go into the next room, where dinner is served. Lowering the fan, I look around in confusion, as if just awakened from an afternoon nap.
Damn. In the end, I never go to the garden. However, there is no hurry. The echoing gong reminds me that it would be a good idea to get something to eat. Especially since the dishes served at the ball are truly divine (even though we at the palace can't complain about the food even on regular days). Only who will I go with now? We are supposed to go into the dining room in pairs: ladies must be accompanied by gentlemen. Typically the last partner in the dance would fill that role, but I have missed that dance. I do not know how Lord Cameron has spent the last few minutes, but it would be foolish to hope that he will show gallantry and hurry to my rescue. I'll have to look for one of my acquaintances.
"Excuse me, Lady Antego?"
An unfamiliar voice causes me to raise my head, frowning. In front of me stands a young man, I would say twenty-five years old — that is, about my age. He is quite attractive, though not handsome. Brown hair to his shoulders, curled according to the latest fashion. Dark brown eyes, a round face, a cute dimple in his chin, of average height. His lips curve into a pleasant smile, though his facial expression reveals some embarrassment.
"My name is David Limon. Baron David Limon", he corrects himself, looking questioningly at me. "You may recall we were introduced at the beginning of the ball?"
"Ah yes, I remember."
I hurry to put a polite smile on my face. Indeed, we were. But at such events you are introduced to so many new people that it's impossible to remember everybody.
The Baron looks relieved at my confirmation. Apparently, he is afraid that I would not remember our acquaintance and deem him coming over to be impolite.
"May I accompany you to the table?" he asks, encouraged by such a promising beginning. But immediately after this he becomes flustered again. "Or perhaps you have already promised someone?"
His behavior makes me laugh good-naturedly. That's what I call manners. What a contrast to my recent dance partner!
"You may," I graciously agree, and laugh again.
David offers me his hand, smiling, and I rise from my chair, taking the fan with me. We join the number of guests traveling to the next room.
"I don't think we've met before," I say. "Have you just recently arrived in the city?"
"Oh, not at all," He replied. "I have lived here since childhood."
"But you don't visit the court?" I ask.
He shakes his head.
"Almost never. We have a villa here; I live there with my mother. And, frankly, I find all of these receptions and events too noisy. I prefer a calm pastime with a book and a glass of wine. Or sitting by the fireplace among friends."
When we pass the high doors, he lets me cross in front of him, without letting go of my hand. He leads me to the table, pulls out a chair for me and sits only once he makes sure I am comfortable.
"Shall we toast our meeting?"
Our glasses clink softly. What did I think just a short while ago? Such men don't exist? Well, maybe I was wrong. While you, Lord Cameron, perhaps were right about something.
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