Gilded Ashes Page 4

I’m nothing but a wisp of a girl with a sharp little nose and a cloud of dull brown hair that never stays neat. Shopkeepers look past me even when I’m trying to get their attention. Now I smooth my face into my best expression of brainless docility, the one I wear when Stepmother is even angrier than usual, and I walk into the duke’s palace.

It is amazing what people will let you do when you are wearing a neat but shabby gray dress and you scuttle demurely down the hallway, body angled toward the wainscoting as if you’re about to slip into it. Everybody thinks I am someone else’s temporary help, and I even get a lean, harried man with gray hair to tell me the way to Lord Anax’s study.

But after three gaudy flights of stairs and two hallways (one covered in writhing gold bas-reliefs, one paneled in silver and mirrors), I’m getting scared. I have never been anyplace so magnificent in my life; I feel like a clump of soot smeared across the gleaming floor of the palace. There are fewer people bustling through the halls than down below, but they’re all upper servants, clad in neat black-and-white uniforms. There is no more humble wooden wainscoting for me to blend into. My back crawls with icy fear; it takes all my will not to duck behind statues and into doorways every time somebody passes me. The only thing that holds me to my steady, purposeful stride is the knowledge that if I run, I will look guilty, and if I look guilty, I will be caught, and if I am caught, I will be punished, and if I am punished, Mother will know and she can’t know, she can’t, she can’t.

My cheeks ache. I realize I’m smiling.

Finally I reach the little green-painted door that the old man described. I walk inside placidly, ease the door shut—and slump against it with a gasp of relief.

I’ve done it. I’ve successfully invited myself into Lord Anax’s personal chambers. All the smiling, silk-clad ladies in Sardis would die of envy if they knew.

No, they wouldn’t ever envy a drudge who scrubs pots every day. And I’m not successful yet: I still have to find a way to make this letter special to Lord Anax, and I have to get out of here again. Without being caught.

Then I will have to come back tomorrow, because I doubt Koré will waste an instant.

I look around the room. After the terrifying glory of the hallways, it’s surprisingly comfortable. The clock hanging by the door is gilt, the bookshelves lining the walls hold a fortune in leather-bound volumes, and the huge, lion-footed desk at the center of the room is carved of cedar that’s been polished and varnished until it gleams dark red. But books slump out of their places or teeter in piles at the edges of shelves, as if they’re often rummaged through in a hurry. The desk is awash in papers; there are stacks of books, a brass slide rule, and a skull carved out of white marble.

Every room in our house, though shabby, is kept dusted and in perfect order, not even a porcelain shepherdess or a mildewed lace doily out of place. The honor of our house will accept nothing less. This room clearly belongs to someone who doesn’t need to please anyone. I imagine Lord Anax reading in his chair, his feet resting on the desk, and I feel a sudden stab of envy that he can live so carelessly.

I step closer to the desk. The silver mail tray teeters on one corner, but just setting the letter on top won’t do. I remember the great vases full of roses on the second landing; if I had stolen some, I could mound them underneath the letter like a pyre. But would that really impress Lord Anax?

What would a duke’s son who has ignored all the blandishments of high society find intriguing?

I pick up the marble skull. It’s lighter than I expected: it’s been carved out hollow. I poke my finger into one of the eye sockets, and then I roll up the letter and poke it inside as well.

Now it looks like the skull has died by letter. It’s ridiculous, and I’m about to pull the letter out again when I hear voices outside.

The doorknob rattles.

I should stay. I should keep my gaze on the floor and my mind full of wainscoting and pretend. But my body has other ideas. A moment later I am curled beneath the desk, my heart beating wildly.

The door slams open.

“—in just a fortnight, and I will declare my chosen bride as the clock strikes twelve. That’s romance for the ladies, profit for the lucky father, and a politic gesture for you. What more, sir, could you possibly want?”

It’s the voice of a young man, well past the awkward squeaks of boyhood, polished and clipped with a nobleman’s accent. Lord Anax.

“For a start?” The second voice is equally polished but deeper, older, more languid. “A son who doesn’t insult my dearest friends.”

I stop breathing. This must be Duke Laertius.

“I didn’t insult them,” says Lord Anax. “I said I was indisposed.”

“For the birthday party of their beloved only daughter, the day after you had been seen riding to hunt. All Sardis knows you meant to snub Lydia, boy.”

“Perhaps I caught a chill on the hunt.”

“Perhaps it’s time you stopped sulking over an engagement three years broken and bore yourself like a man!” The duke’s voice snaps like a whip. “Zeus and Hera, how did I beget such an unruly son?”

“If you’ve forgotten, perhaps you could summon up the dead and ask my lady mother.”

The duke barks a laugh. “You got that tongue from her, that’s for certain. But she was obedient to me for all her carping.”

“Obedient?” says Lord Anax. The desk creaks and shifts; I think he is leaning against it. “We must remember her very differently.”

“Always when it counted, my boy, which is more than can be said of you. I wanted that girl for my daughter, you know.”

“Adopt her, then. I believe it’s legal.”

“First I’d have to kill her parents,” says the duke, “and I am given to understand that’s frowned upon these days.”

“It’s gone the same sad way as the right of a father to execute his sons.”

The duke sighs. “The girl’s still free, you know. You could have her for the asking.”

There’s a silence. When Lord Anax speaks again, his voice is low and soft. “Father. I forced Lydia to break the engagement.”

“That was transparently obvious at the time. But what has never been clear to me is why you acted like the injured party, then and ever since. Or why, if you were so brokenhearted, you did not take the few steps necessary to win her back.”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Still the soft voice.

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