Gilded Ashes Page 3

I bolt to my feet and babble, “The garden’s so pretty, I can’t help myself.” I seize her hand and start dragging her down the moss-choked path, back toward the house. “But you must be tired; you had your lamp on all night.” We are three steps from the tree, then four. Five. Six. “Won’t you come inside and have some tea? You can tell me all about how you want to be dressed.” If I can just get her back to the house, maybe it will be all right. “Weren’t you and Thea planning your dresses?”

Koré plants her feet and tears her hand free. “Thea asked if you could come with us to the ball, and now she’s not allowed out of her room until tomorrow.”

Our eyes meet. Trying to stop Thea from befriending me is the one thing on which we have ever agreed.

“That is not my fault,” I say quietly.

Koré shakes her head. “No,” she says, because when Stepmother isn’t watching, she can afford to be fair to me. “But she is being punished because of you, so you will help me. You’re going to take my letters to Lord Anax.”

I stare at her. “Your letters?”

Koré has always been the perfect young lady, every day that I have known her. And it is deeply inappropriate for any lady to write a man who is not related to her. Unless—

“Are you secretly engaged?” I demand.

“Of course not,” says Koré. “But I will be engaged. Publicly. When he chooses me at the ball. And he will choose me over all the richer, more beautiful girls from better families. Because when I dance with him, I will reveal that I am the one who sent him the anonymous letters and courted him while discussing history and literature and Hermeticism. Lord Anax is a scholar. He is always turning down invitations to society functions because he would rather study. Everybody knows that. I will show him that I am the only woman who can match his learning, and he will marry me. He must.” She draws a shaking breath. I have never seen her so passionate. “And you will deliver my letters to him. Anonymously. Today.”

She thrusts the letter at me: thick, creamy paper, folded and sealed with red wax. I take it and feel the hard ridges of the wax; the paper flexes between my fingers.

“Stepmother won’t approve,” I say.

“She’ll approve when I marry him.”

Koré would make her heart beat backward to get Stepmother’s approval. It’s what makes her a fool: Stepmother has never seen her as anything more than an asset to the honor of our house. Is this scandalous plan at last her rebellion? Or just a final, desperate attempt to win the love that Stepmother isn’t capable of giving?

It doesn’t matter. If Koré can convince Lord Anax to marry her, then she will leave this house. Probably she will take Thea with her. Maybe they’ll even convince Stepmother to live at the palace with them, and then I won’t have to protect anyone.

Nobody to protect. I can hardly imagine such freedom.

“I’ll do it,” I say, my heart beating a swift, dizzy song of maybe, maybe, maybe. “I’ll do it.”

Leaving the house is easy. Nobody raises an eyebrow; I already do the shopping, as I do everything else for the household. Stepmother hasn’t bothered even trying to hire servants for nearly a year. She complains about the fickleness of the common folk, but I think it’s a mark of good sense that none of them will stay more than a month. They may not know about my mother’s ghost—they certainly don’t know our house is haunted by demons, or a mob would have burned it down long ago—but they can tell something is wrong.

Stepmother and my sisters don’t even realize anything is wrong. They are very great fools, all three of them.

When I reach the front gate, I pause and whisper, “I’m just leaving for a little, Mother. Koré gave me a delightful errand,” because I know her spirit is bound to our house, but I don’t know if she can see into the city. And I don’t know what she would do if I left and she didn’t know why, but there are demons at her command. I can’t risk her doing anything. It’s why I have never even thought of running away.

Delivering the letter should be easy too. The minor gentry scheme and curry favor for months before they dare approach the doors to the palace of Diogenes Alector Laertius, Duke of Sardis and First Peer of the island of Arcadia. But a mere nobody like me can walk up to the servants’ gate, hand over a letter to a palace footman, and be done. That’s what I leave the house planning to do. It’s what I should do.

Except, as I trudge through the narrow, twisting streets—as I skirt the edge of the marketplace, where a hundred vendors scream their wares at once while children sing and old men beg for spare coins—as the white-and-gold filigree hulk of the duke’s palace looms larger and larger above me, I think of Koré. I think of the seams where you can see that her dress has been turned inside out and re-sewn because the fabric faded. I think of the single pearl that she wears around her neck because Stepmother sold the rest to pay for expanding the house, though that string of pearls was meant to be part of her dowry. I think of the rich ladies I’ve glimpsed walking down the street, silk and lacing rippling with every move, white kid gloves and white lace parasols gleaming in the sunshine, golden bells tinkling in their ears.

Lord Anax is heir to the greatest dukedom on the island of Arcadia. However little he cares for parties or flirtation, he must care for his station. He is selecting his future duchess, and an anonymous letter on the mail tray, no matter how erudite, hardly has a chance of influencing him. And that’s assuming the letter ever reaches him. No doubt someone sorts his mail and burns all such foolish missives (surely he receives a hundred daily) before he has to read them.

I should hand over the letter and be done with it. But the thought of getting Koré and Thea out of the house and out of danger has infected me. I try to imagine what it would be like to draw one breath without my family as hostages, and I want it more than I’ve wanted anything in years.

And this is how I’m a fool: I know what happens when I want things, but today I try anyway.

Stepmother once said that her daughters were born to be adored, and I was born to be invisible. I think she meant that I was ugly, but it’s true: my stepsisters could never pass unnoticed. Koré is too magnificent: roll her in ashes and dress her in rags, and she’d still turn heads as people wondered who was the impoverished princess. Thea is too lovable: she could pass as a servant, but let her wrinkle her forehead once, and five bystanders would demand to help.

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