Home > The Shadows Between Us(7)

The Shadows Between Us(7)
Author: Tricia Levenseller

“And their sons, it would seem.”

I blink. “Excuse me?”

“I found it rather curious that none of the ladies at court have ever heard of you. I mean, your sister was here at the last ball. She stayed at court. Made friends. And yet she never once mentioned you. It’s like you didn’t exist then.”

I smile politely as a lead weight rests at the bottom of my stomach. Trust Chrysantha to cause problems without even being here. Once again.

“And yet,” Vasco continues, “Myron Calligaris and Orrin, Lord Eliades, say they know you. They had a lot to say about you, in fact. Eliades couldn’t speak enough on your charms.” Vasco makes a face. “Calligaris had … other things to say about your character.”

I’ll bet he did. Myron is still bitter over my rejection.

My sister and my gentlemen friends are painting a horrible picture of me without even saying anything damning against me. But I can fix this.

“I’m afraid Lord Calligaris had asked my father for permission to court me before my sister was engaged. As a law-abiding gentleman, my father was obliged to refuse his request.” I let my face fall into a look of sadness. “I’m afraid Lord Calligaris blames me for it. Can you believe it? It’s as though he has no respect for those who set and carry out our kingdom’s laws.”

Which, of course, would be the five men and women before me.

Lord Vasco nods with new understanding. “Indeed. I shall have to revisit my earlier conversation with him.”

And before then, I shall have to remind Myron about what will happen should he divulge the nature of our previous acquaintance. Ladies aren’t permitted lovers before marriage. Just one of the many laws I will change once I’m sitting on the throne.

Just a hint of a rumor like that would ruin me and all my plans.

“Do enjoy your time at court, Lady Stathos,” Vasco says. “I’m sure you will be happy to see many old faces, but might I suggest—if you’re hoping to spend more time with the king, that is—that you make some female friends. Hmm? And perhaps try for some more traditional attire?” He looks down at my clothes with some distaste.

“I already have female friends, Lord Vasco. Perhaps you didn’t question as many ladies as you ought to have at court.”

“Is that so?” he asks.

“Yes, if you will excuse me.”

I have three seconds to survey the orchards. First my eyes land on the group of ladies who screamed when Demodocus bounded in front of them. I mentally shake my head. Not them. Then my eyes light on a gathering of lords and ladies in a huddle. They look far too friendly for me to be seen there.

And then I spot two ladies apart from the rest. They sit on a bench before the creek a ways down, enjoying some quiet away from everyone else.

Yes, they’ll do.

I stride with purpose toward them. I feel the council’s heated gaze on my back. They watch me the entire distance, which thankfully is much too far to be overheard.

“Hello,” I say when I reach the pair. “My name is Alessandra Stathos. Might I join you?”

The first girl brightens instantly, and I let my shoulders slump with relief. This is exactly the kind of response I needed the council to see.

“Of course, please sit! I’m Hestia Lazos. Please, call me Hestia.”

I like her instantly, for that alone. Only friends exchange first names.

Then I take in her attire. She’s wearing pants underneath her overskirt. I doubt she had the outfit on hand. I wonder how many seamstresses had to stay up all night in order for her to wear it the next day.

Hestia’s coloring is a rich umber with yellow undertones. She wears her hair short, only about an inch from her scalp, the strands wrapping in tight coils. The lack of length shows off her gorgeous earrings, a pair of garnets encased in complicated brasswork.

“And this is my good friend Rhoda Nikolaides.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Stathos,” Rhoda says. She wears a black gown with terribly heavy-looking petticoats. She barely manages to fit on the bench with the thickness of her skirts. Though all the nobles are dressed in fine clothing, I can tell that this lady is fabulously wealthy. Her skirts shine so brightly, I can practically see my reflection in them. Her hair is done up in a coiffure so intricate, it would take no fewer than three ladies to manage it. The strands are the same color as my black hair, but her skin is a bit darker, more amber than my dark beige.

“Please call me Alessandra,” I say, following Hestia’s lead. Besides, I need to make friends quickly, don’t I? I haven’t had many opportunities to make friends, and it has been my experience that most ladies do not like me. Not when I’m their competition for the attentions of men.

But these two are all sincere smiles.

“At last we meet!” Hestia says. “I was going to approach you, but then I thought perhaps I shouldn’t, since I didn’t want to overwhelm you. What with everyone wanting to know who you are! And then I saw the council, which made the decision for me. I’m so relieved you’ve asked to join us. I’ve been dying to ask you who made the gown you wore last night. It was simply darling!”

“And deliciously scandalous,” Rhoda adds. “I adore how adventurous you are with your wardrobe. It certainly caught the king’s attention quickly.” She smiles as though we’ve just shared some wicked secret.

They both look at me expectantly.

I say, “I actually design the outfits myself. I love to sew, and I hire a seamstress to help when I run short on time to make everything.”

“You’re joking!” Hestia says, her long earrings swaying with the turning of her head. “No wonder you wore it so well. You designed it with your own figure in mind. I wrote to my seamstress as soon as the ball was over and offered her triple her usual rate if she could finish this outfit for me. She did her best to heed my written instructions, but I still don’t quite like the fit of the pants. It’s simply brilliant to wear an overskirt over the top of them. Did you know? The reason the Pegain style faded away so quickly was that”—she lowers her voice to a whisper—“most girls couldn’t handle having their bottoms so exposed. But you solved that problem, didn’t you?”

I don’t quite know what to make of the conversation, but a voice suddenly sounds from behind us, making me jump.

“Forgive me for interrupting talk of bottoms. I would gladly continue the conversation, but I simply must secure an introduction.”

The newcomer strides around the bench to stand before us. “Leandros Vasco. At your service, my lady.”

“Vasco?” I ask as he takes my hand and kisses it. “You’re related to Ikaros Vasco, the head of the king’s council?”

Leandros sighs. “I’m afraid he’s my uncle.”

I don’t see the resemblance. Leandros looks a couple of years older than me. He’s long and lean—like the king, but his hair is a light brown, which he wears down to his shoulders. His short beard is neatly trimmed. He wears a red silk waistcoat atop a black shirt, his cuff links in the shape of roses. His nose was broken once, but it was set well. Only a small notch near the bridge gives anything of it away. It manages to make him look dangerous and dashing all at once. Were it not for the fact that I have to give the king my full attention, Leandros is exactly the sort of man I would find myself dallying with.

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