Gilded Ashes Page 9

He lets out a breath, nostrils flaring. I should stop. But I’m drunk on truth, and though my body is shaking in anticipation of his anger, my mouth won’t stop.

“Why don’t you tell your father that you don’t want to marry?” I say. “He may want you to secure an heir, but he can’t force you—a firstborn son has rights—and if he does find a way to disown you, you’re not helpless. You’re a man, you’re wellborn, you’ve been to the university, and you have contacts in the Resurgandi; you can find a way to support yourself.” I think of the way Thea goes over the accounting books, late at night when Stepmother isn’t there to tell her it isn’t ladylike. “Why are you carrying on with this madcap plan? Why are you trying to marry anyone?”

He turns on me, and all pretense of lordly boredom is shattered by the raw, helpless fury in his face. “Because she asked me to.”

Even though I’d been expecting it, his anger rocks me back a step. “Who?”

“Lydia wrote me. Said she knew I despised her, but if I had any pity, I’d bestow my name on someone else so that her father would let her accept suitors and not doom her to spinsterhood.” His voice drops as he looks away, running a hand through his hair. “I’d taken everything else away from her. What else could I do?”

I stare at him. “But you said—that first day, you said you didn’t care—”

“Yes, yes, I said! I am the duke’s son and I often lie, my lady. Despite my exalted position, there are freedoms you have and I do not, and the truth, I regret to inform you, is one of them.”

My body stiffens, a thousand memories icing over my skin: smiling when Stepmother tells me I’m a stupid little girl, and afterward whispering, Mother, it’s so funny how she pretends not to love me. Koré saying I’m useless and slow and she can’t imagine why they feed me. Mother, I feel so sorry for Koré when she’s cross. Thea trying to make peace and only bringing down more punishment on my head because she’s too stupid and spoiled to think through the consequences of her words. Mother, Thea is so good to me.

“Do not,” I say quietly, “presume to tell me about withholding truth.”

Then I whirl and run from his study, run from the palace, before the cold ache in my chest can turn into real anger. But though I’m calm again by the time I reach home—though I smile to Mother and whisper, He’s so sweet, though I say to Koré, I think he’s weakening—his words are still lodged like splinters beneath my skin, and I hear them again every time I move. Lydia wrote me. Lydia wrote me.

What else could I do?

I go back the next day. I must, because Koré gives me a letter and I cannot let her be angry with me. But as I creep into the palace, I feel raw and helpless and naked, like a chicken trussed up for baking. A few of the maids nod at me as I pass, and one giggles—all the servants know about my visits now—and though yesterday I ignored them, today I flinch, as if they can know about yesterday’s fight just by looking.

I can’t believe I was foolish enough to goad him. If he’s set on marrying miserably, what of it, so long as he marries Koré? If he can’t forget this Lydia, what should that be to me?

Nothing. It should be nothing. I’m the girl who never gets angry and never wants anything, and that’s why my family is still alive.

It used to be so easy. I used to huddle in the corners and think of the wallpaper and forget I even existed. Now, as I march grimly through the hallway of golden rosettes and mirrors, my body and my thoughts and my wretched, tangled emotions cling to me like sticky bread dough.

When I reach Lord Anax’s study, I pause a moment. I tell myself, You are the only one who can protect your family. Nothing else matters. Then I push open the door.

Lord Anax is sprawled back in his chair, feet on the desk and Alcibiades in his hands, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his forehead creased as he stares at the marble skull.

The moment he sees me, he flails upright, papers flying everywhere. In a moment he’s on his feet.

“Maia,” he says, and doesn’t go on, just stares at me.

“Lord Anax,” I say, and bob a curtsy, then flush because I’ve never curtsied to him before. I thrust my hand out. “I brought you another letter.”

“I really don’t care about the letters. At all. Not one bit.” He’s still staring at me with—not fear, I don’t think, but a sort of dazed caution.

“Then I have no errand here,” I say, and I mean to go—this is a relief, isn’t it, that I don’t have to face him any longer, so why this plummeting sensation in my stomach?—but my feet won’t move.

“Wait.” His hands are clenching and flexing. “I wanted—that is to say—I am sorry for speaking angrily to you yesterday.” He swallows. “I hope you will not repeat . . . anything I may have said unwisely.”

My spine stiffens. “I’m not a gossip, my lord.”

“I didn’t mean that—well, maybe I did. A little.” He rubs the back of his neck. “I’m no good at this. Maia-who-refuses-to-tell-me-her-family-name, will you sit down? I think you deserve to hear a story.”

His eyes flicker to me once, then focus on his desk.

“You don’t have to tell me anything, my lord.”

“I don’t,” he says. “But you wanted to know why I am determined to marry—anyone but Lydia—and you deserve to know.”

“I’ve only brought you letters, my lord.” I don’t want to keep spitting the title at him, but my tongue won’t do anything else.

His head snaps up and now he does look at me. “You have told me the truth, and Tartarus take me if I do any less for you. Sit down, woman, and do as you’re told.”

“Yes, my lord.” I sit down.

He draws a breath. “I’ve known Lydia Cosmatos since I was three years old. We were childhood playmates. We did everything together, until we were old enough that it wasn’t proper, and then we still saw each other as often as we could. Our fathers largely looked the other way, because while they never said anything, it was generally understood that we were destined to marry each other. When we were children, we thought it a very good joke. When we were older . . . Lydia was beautiful. Is beautiful. And sweet, and kind, and good. I was in love with her, or thought I was, and though she grew quieter every year, I was positive that she returned my feelings. So on my sixteenth birthday, I declared myself—told her that I loved her more than light or breath—and begged her to marry me. I thought we could be wed before the year was out.”

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