“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
Entering my bedroom, I lean wearily against the wall, and, throwing off my shoes, take a few steps barefoot. I stop near the mirror, remove the veil from my head and take off the red wig. Then the maid helps me to remove the luxurious emerald green dress with gold needlework, which belongs to Mireya.
Today the Duchess, along with several of her ladies in waiting, visited the fair. Such trips mean increased security risk, because even trained guards can have difficulty keeping up with a motley crowd. Therefore, during such events additional precautions are taken: namely, Mireya exchanges places with one of her ladies in waiting. To be precise: with me. It is worth noting that to my knowledge there has not been a single accident during those outings; however, as they say, better safe than sorry. I have long been accustomed to the fact that once every couple of weeks I have to put on a wig, wear another woman's clothes, and along with the other maids, hide my face under a thick veil. Something about this elaborate masquerade is even funny.
But this time, I am just exhausted. Therefore, when I am clad in only a white chemise, extending to mid-calf, with great pleasure I sink into the armchair standing in front of the mirror, and throw my head back. I close my eyes and breathe evenly, waiting for the maid to prepare me a hot bath. Then I look at myself in the mirror, and click my tongue disapprovingly. Yes, after the bath I'll have to work on my face, because underneath my eyes dark circles have started to appear.
I unhurriedly let down my dark hair. Graceful curls fall on my shoulders. I stand up and look at myself in the full-length mirror. My shirt softly clings to my figure. In general, I can't complain about my appearance: average height, narrow bones and no excess weight. I am skinny, slim and flexible, my breasts aren't large, which is perhaps unfashionable, but I am more than happy with them. I have lively gray eyes, which, when necessary, are easy to hide under long lashes. I mastered the art of getting what I want with the right eye movements and facial expressions a long time ago, and I do it well.
I tousle my hair and optimistically wink at my reflection, as if to say "we'll be just fine", then walk around the room a little bit. My bare feet sink into the tender embrace of the fluffy carpet. I stop by the picture hanging on the wall, which depicts the sea and the waves lapping at the beach. I do not know why, but I daydream of the sea. Perhaps it is because I visited it as a young child. I was only five years old. From that trip I remember very little, but the view of the vast expanse of water, the cries of the gulls and the smell of seaweed have somehow become forever etched in my memory. Now I have two wishes. The first is to return to the sea. Just walk on the beach, bury my feet in the sand and listen to the sound of the rolling waves. The second: to have a huge mural depicting the seashore covering the wall from top to bottom. In the spirit of the one which adorns the ballroom. So that when you enter the room, you can glance at it, close your eyes, and practically feel the fresh breeze splash drops of the salty water in your face.
Except I have very little chance of fulfilling those dreams. The sea is far away, and I simply don't have the time to go on such a trip.
As for the mural, few artists could create such a work of art, at the sight of which you could believe that in front of you is not a picture, but life itself. Pablo Eskatto could, but this man creates for kings, and his works are insanely expensive. The Duke certainly would not invite him to decorate the boudoir of a lady in waiting. So I have to make do with the modest painting, which is actually quite well done. Well, dreams wouldn't be dreams if they came true, would they?
After a bath, I feel rested. Wearing my own clothes this time, I proceed to one inconspicuous little-used room. Outside the sun has already set, but the night has not yet fully fallen. I close the dense dark purple drapes and light a single candle on the table. Then I pass my hand several times over the flame, causing it to bend under my fingers. Three times towards me, once away.
"I'm already here — there's no need to call!" the cute girl now standing in front of me cheerfully informs me. She is completely ordinary, save for the fact that you can see the wall of the room through her.
"What have you brought me today?" she asks enthusiastically,
"Earrings," I declare, and smile at her childlike directedness.
I take out silver earrings with pear-shaped pendants from a secret pocket (the only kind our dresses have). When she sees them, her eyes seem to light up; of course, if one could say that about a ghost.
"Come on!" she prompts me.
I already know what to do. Which is not trying to give the earrings to the girl; rather, I place the hand with the earrings so that the shadow of them falls on the wall. She immediately slips through those shadows. When a moment later she stands again in front of me, she holds the earrings in her hand. Only this time they have a ghostly appearance as well. Meanwhile, their physical counterparts remain in my fingers.
"Wow!" Exclaims the girl, wearing the earrings and looking at them in a round mirror on a long handle, which appears out of nowhere and is as transparent as she. "Now I have something to brag about to my people!"
"My people" are the palace ghosts. However, I have never ever seen any of them. Only her: Maya Dancy, a young woman, who lived in the palace about a century ago, and died at the age of twenty-four. In general, this type of communication is, to put it mildly, unusual. The material world and the afterworld rarely intersect. Very few people have the ability to see and hear ghosts. So we are both kind of exceptions to the rule.
"Well, tell me!" says the girl, admiring herself in the ghostly mirror. "The palace is buzzing! What was the incident with the disguise in which you seem to have played a key role?"
It is believed that ghosts come to live with people in order to frighten them — to moan, complain about their ruined life or demand vengeance. I don't know; maybe somewhere that is exactly what happens. But this palace is a special place. Here, even the ghosts talk about clothes, jewelry, balls — and of course they love to gossip.
Having nothing against it, I tell Maya how I managed to lead Mireya's lover out of her chambers dressed as a woman. I have no reason to hide the truth. That's the beauty of communicating with a ghost. It won't betray you, or use the information for its own selfish interests; it won't even envy you, or at the very least she wouldn't hold a grudge.
For instance, now Maya is just having fun, and laughing merrily at my story.
"One thing's for sure: he was lucky that he was not born in my time!" She exclaims. "Whiteners would have been the least of his problems. By the way, no one could even imagine they were that dangerous. And yet now I realize that most likely my aunt died from lead poisoning... So, this lover of yours ..."
"Not mine — Mireya's!" I correct her. "That would be the day!"
"Well, yes — Mireya's." The girl waves her hand, making it clear that this was what she meant. "He should have seen the corsets popular in my time! Then he would have understood how easy yours are! In my century, it was fashionable to have a wasp waist and a flat chest. The corsets that molded your body into that shape were even called shells! And they consisted entirely of metal rods. More armor than clothes!"
I have a rich imagination; hence I shiver, vividly imagining wearing that kind of "armor" on my body.
"And the farthingales" adds Maya, surveying her own dress. "I think they would have made that poor man feel extremely uncomfortable."
I nod. Hoop skirts went out of fashion seventy years ago; today the only thing giving the dress volume is the petticoat, while stays made of whalebone have all but disappeared completely.
"I once had the chance to wear this atrocity to a masquerade ball," I say. "It was a unique experience. And most important, I couldn't pass through the door! "
"It requires a special skill," Maya chuckles, not without pride. "In general, progress is a great thing," she concludes a little later. "I look at the changes that have occurred in the past couple of decades, and come to the conclusion that almost all of them are really for the better. The wig was also not a…. To tell you the truth — here she lowers her voice although in any case no one could have overheard her — they made your head very itchy. However, the shoes in my time were a lot better. No offense, but yours look pretty funny. And these incredibly long trousers for men..."
I smile. What the ghost dislikes about the modern shoe, I couldn't understand. But I completely share her opinion of the trousers. Just a couple of years ago, the trousers reached only to the knee, and the attire was completed with long stockings. Then long pants abruptly became popular. Rumor has it that some progressive tailor presented the model to the King. The monarch was so pleased with the innovation that from that day on he only dressed in that way. And what wears the King, wear the courtiers. In short, fashion changed very quickly. By the way, in the ducal palace one of the first who adopted the new trend was Lord Estley.
"How was the ball?" Maya changes the subject.
"Didn't you attend?" I am a bit surprised.
Given her taste for fashion and gossip, she just could not miss such an event.
"I was only there for a short while. You see, balls have too much light, which tires us. It causes something like your migraines. Therefore, we usually prefer to stay away."
"Well, you know it was a ball like any other," I say thoughtfully. Then I wince and complain:
"Everyone tried to teach me how to live my life!"
"Who is "everyone"?" Maya inquires. "And teach you what exactly?"
"First Ilona told me how dangerous it is to mess with Cameron Estley," I begin to list. "And then Cameron Estley started to lecture me: said I should stop fooling around and find myself a lover."
Maya laughs, but does not have time to answer: the door opens a crack, and into the room peeks Collin, one of the local page-boys.
"Lady Inessa?" Seeing a familiar face, he seems to experience a sense of relief. "I was walking past and was surprised to hear someone in here at this hour. And ... to whom are you talking?"
He frowns, peering into the room — but, except for me, of course he cannot see anyone.
"A ghost," I say calmly.
"A ghost?!" The boy starts in alarm.
"Indeed," I say, as though talking to ghosts were as common and ordinary a matter as talking to seamstresses.
"And ... what does it say?" asks the page, warily turning his head from side to side.
"It says," I lower my voice, imitating his conspiratorial tone, "That it has starved for the last hundred years and wants to eat you for dinner."
"That's not true; I said nothing of the sort!" indignantly protests Maya.
The only problem is that unlike me, Collin cannot hear her.
"You're joking!" There is a note of uncertainty in the page's voice.
"Why would I?" I raise an eyebrow. "Right now she is baring her teeth, stretching her hands towards you, her eyes glazed with hunger."
Maya stands quietly, her hands folded on her chest, and looks at me reproachfully.
"And... and... what should I do?" Collin moves back, but not in a hurry to leave the room. All in all, if I'm not mistaken, he is experiencing a whole range of emotions, from fear to curiosity to excitement.
I mysteriously open my eyes round.
"I will try to persuade the ghost to leave you alone. But it will agree only if you agree to some conditions."
"And what do they entail?"
I pretend to listen carefully to the ghost. Maya only emphatically shakes her finger near her temple.
"Here's the deal. First of all, you will never again go into another person's room without knocking first," I start counting on my fingers. "Second, stop dangling after the tailor's daughter. And third, brush your teeth every morning. Do you understand everything?" I ask sternly, giving him no time to think. The page nods, though not too certainly.
Collin hesitates on the spot. Overall, the young man realizes that there is a probability of nine out of ten that I am just pulling his leg. But the chance that it is all real, no matter how small, makes him leave hastily just in case.
"Well, are you proud of yourself?" reprovingly asks Maya when the door closes behind the page.
"Yes," I say quite sincerely. "He shouldn't enter rooms without knocking first. What if I were busy making love to someone in here?"
"You would lock the door in such cases," Maya snorts.
"I would," I agree. "But that is neither here nor there. He still ought to knock. Besides, the tailor is really worried about his daughter, which this page has been bothering."
"Well, the first two demands I can somehow understand," begrudgingly agrees Maya. "But the third... what do his teeth have to do with anything?"
I shrug a little perplexedly.
"I don't know... To be honest, I just thought according to rules of the genre there should be three conditions. So I said the first thing that came to mind."
* * *
"Bastard! Scoundrel! Half-wit!"
Mireya dashes around the room like a storm and furiously shouts one expletive after another, though never repeating herself. Emma shrinks frightened into a corner. Ilona, feeling more relaxed, sits in her chair, and just in case pulls up her legs. I have just come in, and now stand at the threshold trying to assess the situation.
Mireya paces past me, sparing me a glance on her way. She definitely is furious. In this state, people of her position and temperament often tend to destroy everything around them. However, Mireya does not. First, all breakable objects that decorated the interior of the room have been picked out by her personally and with great taste. To lose them because of a momentary flash of anger would be a shame. And second, the Duchess, despite her explosive nature, is not inclined to show off. Which is what breaking dishes is really about in most cases.
A new series of curses tumbles from the Duchess, this time obscene, and concerning mainly the relatives of a certain person of the male sex. Interesting. Who has managed to drive her up the wall that much — the Duke or a new lover?
"Lady Mireya," says Ilona, on whom the lexicon of the mistress has not made a particularly strong impression, "the mother of the Duke is your mother too. Are you sure you really want to make all these statements about her?"
The voice and expression of the lady in waiting are mildly ironic.
So, therefore, we are talking about the Duke. I wonder what he has done this time?
"So be it, all that relates to the mother, I take back," grimly agrees Mireya. "But not the rest!"
"What actually happened?" I ask, walking into the room and sitting in an armchair near Ilona.
Mireya finally stops, breathing heavily. Ilona opens her mouth, but then looks at the Duchess, reckoning it would be better if she told me herself.
With a low growl the Duke's sister plops down on the banquette.
"This scumbag, my dear brother, has decided to build a philanthropic school for craftsmen in the south," she grimly informs me.
I lean forward a little, keeping a question in my eyes; my gaze remains wondering. Charity is not a flaw; the opening of schools is a worthwhile thing. For Mireya to be so angry, obviously something else had to have happened.
"He's going to open it with my money!" She snaps.
"With your money? What do you mean by that?" I decide to clarify.
"With money from my dowry!" the Duchess enlightens me, accompanying her words with a bitter laugh.
"Who gave him the right?!" I ask indignantly.
"Exactly!" immediately agrees Mireya. "Excellent question. That's what I asked my dear brother!"
"So you have already talked to him about it," I conclude.
"Have I ever!" Mireya proudly assures me.
From her tone I gather that the conversation turned so heated that the walls of the castle shook.
"But how did he explain all this?" I inquire cautiously.
"He didn't!" Mireya snaps. "Something just came over him! 'That's what I want, so that what's going to happen!' No, he of course told me at length how important this school is for the Duchy. A whole lecture! About new opportunities for the poor, about raising living standards, about the level of masters and developing the southern part of the Duchy. As though I was born yesterday! As if I do not know that using the right words you can justify any, however ridiculous endeavor! As if I were so naive as not to guess the true reason which is hidden behind those beautiful explanations, but is far less noble!"
"And what reason is that?" I frown.
I don't have any idea as to what it may be, although in any case I believe that, whatever the motive of the Duke, he doesn't have any right to touch his sister's dowry, especially without her permission.
"Conrad plans to build this school in the Mirror Valley." Mireya chuckles pointedly. "Any more questions?"
I purse my lips. Mirror Valley is an area in the south of the duchy, which is full of all sorts of streams, rivers and lakes. It seems, because the sky and the trees growing on the shore are constantly reflected in the clear water, that people came to associate the place with mirrors, and that's how it got its name. Nature there is amazing: the water is a pleasure to swim in, and the air is allegedly healthy and even therapeutic.
"My brother is going to build a mansion for himself on the sly, maybe even a small palace," explains Mireya, just in case. "Supposedly in order to be able to supervise the school. What part of the sum will be spent on this part of his plan, and what actually on the school, I don't have to explain to you."
No longer able to stay in one place, she jumps up and begins pacing again. However, this time more slowly.
"He just wants to build a holiday resort and he's going to do it at my expense!" she says, turning sharply on her heels.
"Well, let's say that this is what he wants." I am very angry at the Duke, but I try to stay cool, to ensure clarity of thought. "But the Duke himself isn't poor. Why does he not spend his own money on the school and the mansion?"
Mireya laughs bitterly.
"Great question!" She praises me a second time. "Just wonderful. And you know, I asked Conrad the same thing. What do you think he answered me? He gave me another lecture. He says he does not have spare cash right now, while my dowry is just sitting there. Therefore, there is nothing more logical than to put it into action. "And what will happen when I set out to get married?" I asked. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," was his answer. As if to assure me I do not have to worry about anything, because I am under his tutelage. When the time comes, he'll make sure everything works out for the best."
"So, he didn't promise to return you that sum in time?" I reconfirm.
"That's what I like about you – your ability to see the bottom line," declares Mireya.
"No, he doesn't intend to give me back the money. He did not say it outright, but it was implied. If I need the money, and he has the means to repay me, and he deems my reasons valid enough, then maybe ..." She waves again and plops down on the banquette.
"Still, it's some nonsense," I mutter. "What do you mean 'does not have spare change?' Is he broke? Somehow I did not notice any signs of this."
"Again, a relevant question." The amount of praise I receive from Mireya today is blush-worthy, but alas I am not very happy. "He has great expenses, many economic and political matters in the duchy, and in a short while it will be time to send the King this month's taxes. In general, he always has an excuse for everything." She clenches and unclenches her fists again. "But this time it's not going to work." Mireya's voice is determined. "I'm not going to let him. It's my money. My dowry. Our deceased parent left it to me. I am the only one who can decide what to do with it."
"Of course, we will not allow him to have it,” I assure her soothingly.
Mireya smiles gratefully. But in Ilona's gaze I see some share of healthy skepticism. Well, she has a point: it will not be easy, and we'll have to come up with a strategy. But I firmly intend to handle it, and everyone knows that's at least half the battle. I get up from my chair and slowly walk around the room, hands behind my back.
"We should appeal to the King," I say confidently. "He is the monarch and your relative. He's the one who should interfere when your rights have been infringed. Strictly speaking, this is the Duke's job. But when the Duke is the offender, only the King may judge you and give him a rebuff."
To my surprise, Mireya shows no enthusiasm regarding my proposal. On the contrary, now she also gives me a skeptical look.
"I'm absolutely sure that the King will take your side," I try to reassure her. "In this matter, you are in the right, whatever way you look at it. It doesn't even matter how the Duke is planning to spend the money — on charity, on the development of the territory or on his own palace. In any case, it is your dowry, and no one has the right to take it from you."
"I'm not as sure of the assistance of my cousin as you are." The King is Mireya's and the Duke's cousin, which Ilona and I of course know. "Who knows which side he'll choose to take? It is even possible that Conrad has already told him his side of the story. But that's not the heart of the matter." Mireya shakes her head, forcing her luxurious red hair to swing from side to side, wrapping around her neck and shoulders." My brother has hinted to me that I had better not even think about such a solution to the problem. Meaning everything will play out exactly the same as last time."
I wince knowingly. The last time we tried to inform the King about the plans of the Duke — and, more important, to present the information from our point of view — the letter was intercepted. It happened even before the messenger had time to leave the palace.
"My brother expects this step," continues Mireya, making sure that I follow her thought process. "And he is ready for just such an eventuality. Any mail leaving the palace will be carefully examined. I suspect that in the near future, even a mosquito will not be able to fly out of here unnoticed. Therefore, we should act in a more ingenious way."
"You already have a plan?" I guess.
Ilona also transfers her gaze to the duchess.
"Yes," confirms Mireya, her eyes flashing triumphantly. «We will fight my brother using his own methods. He intends to take my money from me, I shall do the same. I'll take from him something that is worth no less than my dowry. Then I'll threaten him that if he doesn't back down from this robbery, he will be left in the lurch. While I will recoup my own losses by selling his thing."
"What is this thing that is worth such a monumental sum?" I frown.
"Strictly speaking, it has no price," calmly replies Mireya.
"Wait..." It begins to dawn on me. "Are you talking about the diamond? About 'The Giant's Tear'?"
"Indeed." A smug smile lights up Mireya's face.
"The Giant's Tear" is a one-of-a-kind diamond – light blue, of highest quality and literally enormous for such a gem. It is an Almikonte family heirloom, which the current Duke inherited from his father, and is kept in the palace's treasury.
"What do you think, Nessa?"
"But how do you intend to accomplish it? The diamond is in the treasury, which is inaccessible. A person can only come in and especially carry something out of there with the Duke present and by his consent, or by presenting an order from the Duke to the guards, stamped with his personal seal. Which is magically protected and cannot be counterfeited."
Everyone in the room knows perfectly well that Mireya has a man capable of forging the Duke's handwriting, including his signature. But the seal is a different matter. It was very carefully made by the best master of this craft; then a special spell was cast on it; thus forging it would be impossible.
"You're right," confirms the duchess, who has already had time to think over this aspect of her plan. "That's why we'll have to steal the seal. Just for a little while. Then we draw up the appropriate document, quickly gain access to the treasury with its help, and take the diamond. Thereafter we will immediately move the jewel to a safe location. If we were to keep it here Conrad's people would find it sooner or later."
Mireya undoubtedly expects my approval. But after some thought, I resolutely shake my head.
"I am totally against it."
"What?" Mireya is not angry, but in her face I can see genuine surprise.
"Madam, I believe that you must not take this course of action."
I know that I can be perfectly candid, and I consider it important to do so.
"The risk is huge;" I begin to list the cons of the proposed plan. «First you have to steal the seal out of the Duke's private quarters. Then retrieve the diamond using forged documents. But considering its incredible value the guards may not allow someone to take it, even with the document. What if they send a man to the Duke to clarify his intentions? In the best case scenario, the person retrieving the diamond would have a chance to escape. But what if they guard him while they check? And I haven't even started talking about smuggling the diamond out of the castle.
How are you planning to do it, given that we are afraid even to send a letter? Moreover, where would you send it? And whom would you trust to guard it? It is an incredibly valuable thing! God help us if it were stolen! What would we do then? Also" — I once again shake my head, trying to appeal to Mireya's good judgment — "it's not just a risky move. Not just an intrigue. It is against the law. We are talking about a serious offence. Furthermore, it is stealing from the treasury of the Duchy. This means it is equivalent to a state crime. The same goes for the theft of the seal. Lady Mireya, believe me, if something goes wrong, your brother will not leave it at that. Even if we manage to execute the plan to perfection, he will find a way to create a very serious problem for you. Much more serious than using part of the dowry for his own goals. And I haven't even mentioned the fate that awaits the executors of this plan. They will certainly not handle us with kid gloves. After all, the penalties for crimes of national importance are very harsh, up to and including the death penalty. Even for noblemen. Perhaps for noblemen first and foremost."
"I could not agree more," Ilona declares from her seat.
Mireya clearly doesn't like our consensus. Pursing her lips, she looks at us, not too pleased. However, as dissatisfied as she may be, our resistance doesn't enrage her, unlike the Duke's recent actions. She doesn’t like the situation, but she is ready to bear it.
"So, you refuse to participate in such a venture?" she asks me.
"Yes" I say. "I'm not going to take part in it and I think that we have to act differently." I try to speak as convincingly as possible. «We should again consider possible ways of sending a letter and in the meantime look for alternatives. Lady Mireya, I'm sure we'll figure something out. But the theft of the diamond would only lead to disaster."
"Ilona, what do you think?" Mireya turns to my friend.
"I fully support Nessa." Ilona's voice does not have the slightest hint of doubt.
Mireya thinks for a moment, biting her lip and drumming her manicured fingers on the elegantly curved backrest.
"Well”, finally, she sighs. «I’ll have to weigh carefully everything you have said. And reach a decision."
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