Gilded Ashes Page 6

“Then you and my lady should suit each other perfectly,” I say. “She doesn’t love you at all and she never will.”

Speaking the truth is like gulping a mouthful of brandy: it burns on my tongue, but a moment after my body feels warmer, looser, freer.

He quirks an eyebrow. “Excuse me? Did I spend the last five minutes telling you how much I liked it when ladies pursued me for my title?”

“No,” I say, and without trying, without wanting in the least to save somebody, I break into a smile. “You told me how much you hate being lied to.”

Lord Anax stares at me.

“So here’s the truth: she doesn’t want your title—though it doesn’t hurt—she wants your money, and a way out of her household. She has a mother to please and a younger sister to provide for.”

My skin is shivering and my heart is slamming against my ribs, but I’m not afraid. For the first time in years, I’m speaking the truth and I’m not afraid.

When Koré gave me the letter, I imagined not needing to lie so much. I have never imagined being able to tell the truth.

Lord Anax is still looking at me as if he can’t believe I exist. “And you think I should marry her, just because her lady’s maid is truthful?”

“She’s educated as well. Read the letter; she wrote it to impress you with her learning. Of course, there’s a lot of tripe about loving you, but she won’t bother with lies once she knows you don’t need them.”

“A very practical lady, I see.”

“She’s fool enough to want her family to love her,” I say. “She’s not fool enough to care about being loved by her husband.”

He tilts his head. “You’re quite cynical on the matter.”

Koré has the wit and the will to court a duke’s son in secret. She could have ignored all Stepmother’s plans and gotten herself a respectable husband as soon as she turned fifteen. But she’s so obsessed with pleasing Stepmother, the thought never even occurred to her.

“People who want to be loved,” I say, “always do the most idiotic things.”

He laughs suddenly, his face cracking into a wry smile. “On that we agree. Very well. I’ll read your lady’s letter. What’s her name?”

“I promised her I wouldn’t tell.”

“What’s your name?”

“Maia.”

“Well then, Maia, you can go home and tell your mistress that you accomplished your mission.”

I don’t know why I want to laugh. Maybe it’s the thrill of truth still burning in my veins. But I smooth out my face and drop him a curtsy instead. “Thank you, my lord.”

Then I make for the door. I did it, I think, and start to shake again, this time with relief.

My hand is on the doorknob when I hear him say, “Oh, and Maia?”

“Yes, my lord?” I look back over my shoulder.

He’s sitting at the desk now, the letter open in his hands. He looks at me over the edge of his spectacles. “I am prepared to believe you didn’t mean to spy on me. But if I hear you’ve been gossiping about my former betrothed—and if you do, I will hear of it—I will find both you and your mistress, and I will give you cause to regret your indiscretion.”

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I have no interest in discussing your broken heart.”

“Did he read the letter?” Koré demands from the kitchen doorway that afternoon.

I look up from the pot of barley soup I’m stirring. “Yes.”

“What did he say?” Her left hand rests against the doorframe in the languid, graceful way that she always poses, but her right hand is clenched on a handkerchief.

“That he would read it.”

“Watch your tongue. Did he—” She breaks off in a fit of harsh coughing.

“You haven’t caught a chill, have you?” I ask. Koré is forever catching minor illnesses when she doesn’t sleep—Stepmother calls it aristocratic frailty—and she’s even harder to please than usual when she’s sick.

“It’s nothing,” says Koré. “Did he seem—favorable?”

Once I swore you didn’t love him, I think, but I hold the words back. I’m sure I was right when I told him that she didn’t want his love. There has never been any room in her heart for anyone but Stepmother and Thea. But I’m not sure if she’ll be angry that I took such initiative—or if her pride will be hurt—

And I don’t want to share with her the moment when I laughed, when I spoke the truth to somebody who wanted to hear it.

“I think so,” I say instead, which is a truth and a lie at once.

My reward is Koré straightening up, the majesty back in her shoulders and chin.

“Of course he can’t fail to be impressed,” she says. “Good work, Maia. You’ll take him another letter tomorrow. Tell Mother I won’t be down for dinner. You can bring me a bowl of broth later.” A whirl of bright blue skirts, and she’s gone.

“Poor Koré,” I say to Mother. “I suppose she won’t be getting much sleep tonight.” The words are a reflex, but I remember Lord Anax, and I almost mean them. He won’t be easily impressed.

“Well, on the bright side,” I say, “I suppose I’m going to see a lot of the duke’s palace.”

I may tell the truth again two or even three times before the fortnight is up. My heart flutters.

The next day, I try to slip into the palace the same way as on the first, but a footman catches me halfway up the second staircase, in the spot where gold leaf has just begun to bloom across the walls.

“What are you doing?” he demands. “You don’t belong to the household.”

“No, sir, I’m here on an errand,” I say quickly. The molded rosettes on the wall press into my back. I can feel the long, cold limbs of panic slowly unfolding through my body.

“On whose behalf?” The footman looms closer; he’s almost as young as I am but a head taller, with broad shoulders, greased-back hair, and the smug confidence of a man with both muscles and a white waistcoat.

I smile brightly. “Lord Anax sent for me.”

He laughs. “Do you expect me to believe—”

“Ah, Maia, there you are. Finally.”

Lord Anax stands on the landing above, leaning against the banister. He’s facing one of the great portraits on the wall; he looks down at us from the corner of his eye. His waistcoat is cut from golden brocade, and a golden watch chain glints from his pocket. Everything about him proclaims lordly unconcern.

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