For Want of a Someone
Barbara Ann Wright
Despite the amount of cleavage around her, Princess Katya fought the urge to sigh. When she’d first come to her parents with the idea of masquerading as a womanizer and a rake, she’d been flooded with hormonal-driven fantasies of a different woman every night. But years later, all she saw was the need on the faces above the cleavage. Every woman in court was aware of her reputation, and many wanted to be the next woman in her arms.
Not because they wanted her, though.
“More wine, Highness?” one of the ladies asked, playing the role of a server with a come-hither smile.
Katya didn’t recognize her. She had to be one of the courtiers arriving in droves for the winter season. Katya was amazed this one had braved the gamut of titled women swarming at this particular gathering, a wine and hors d'oeuvres hour before a small concert began in the larger ballroom next door.
“Thank you.” Katya put on a lascivious smile and raised the new glass but didn’t drink. The more she thought of it, the more it seemed odd that an unfamiliar courtier would be at this event at all. She must have had powerful friends, titled ones, yet they weren’t at her side. No doubt it meant nothing, but as the leader of the Order of Vestra, a secret organization tasked with defending the Umbriels, royal family of Farraday—her family—she had to be cautious.
The helpful woman smiled and bowed, a slight blush in her cheeks, but she didn’t lean in eagerly like the others did. When Baroness Jacintha tried to slip between her and Katya, she said, “I’m always willing to be helpful, Highness.”
Baroness Jacintha’s look cut her dead, but she didn’t flinch. Interrupting a noble was social suicide, but the courtier didn’t take her eyes off Katya, supremely confident of her allure.
Or she didn’t care about her status at all.
“May I have the honor of your name?” Katya asked, careful not to let her court mask slip, even though the hair on the back of her neck was standing. She wanted to search for Crowe but couldn’t break character, couldn’t put this woman on alert. If she had a pyramid hidden on her person, Crowe needed to diffuse it. Surely, he’d sense it, was no doubt moving through the crowd at this very moment, his status as the king’s pyradisté creating a path.
“Fiona, Your Highness.”
“And your family name?” To not give one immediately was another alarm.
Fiona looked nervous for the first time, her eyes shifting to Baroness Jacintha, who’d gone red as a beet, her lips turned in as if she was offended by the very idea of a courtier who wouldn’t get out of the way when her superior clearly wanted Katya’s attention.
“Come, come,” Katya said, “don’t be shy.” She inched closer, keeping her leer on tight while she rested a hand on a knife hidden under her embroidered coat. She wished she could have worn her rapier, but that would have stood out too much at a concert.
Baroness Jacintha gasped, and Katya eased back a step. A disgraced house. No wonder she’d been reluctant to say, and her behavior made sense now. She’d obviously sneaked into this party, and attracting the attention of someone of Katya’s station was her only hope of staying. Jacintha was already whispering in the ear of some hanger-on who’d be going for the guards at the door. Fiona glared daggers at her, her expression shifting so quickly, Katya’s stomach did flips. She’d rarely seen anyone so angry. And angry people were unpredictable.
“I applaud your efforts,” Katya said, trying not to sound unkind. Crowe would have a severe word with the guards when he found out about this. “But you should withdraw before a scene.”
“Please.” Color bloomed in Fiona’s pale cheeks. “I could have lied about my family, but if you’ll just let me explain—”
“Come, Highness,” Baroness Jacintha said with a sniff. “You must try the salmon.”
But Kayta couldn’t just turn her back on Fiona’s desperate face. Her heart went out to her, but the Peyton family had lost all standing in court since their patriarch had made some bad investments and owed credit notes all over the city of Marienne. The Peytons could no longer afford rooms in the palace, or indeed, most places, and were shunned. Still, Katya admired Fiona’s fortitude, even if she couldn’t help her. Paying off the debts of every courtier would open a never-ending floodgate of requests.
“I hope your family fortunes turn around,” Katya said, hoping Fiona could see past her court mask just a little and know that the words were heartfelt.
“If the crown would only invest in—”
A guard arrived, his eyes hard as he took Fiona’s elbow.
Her mouth shut with a snap, and she seemed to shrink in on herself, but when the guard led her away, she held her chin high.
Katya hoped the Peytons’ fortunes would improve as Baroness Jacintha led her toward the buffet. Maybe if Fiona was put in charge of them rather than her father, she could make some headway.
But Katya couldn’t worry about that now. She put her bored face on, finding that easier to stomach than her rakish one. She let the conversations of the nobles wash over her, fighting the urge to wince when several laughed at the Peytons’ troubles or Fiona’s audacity for sneaking into the palace. Not for the first time, she wished she could say what she really thought, but the princess of Farraday was supposed to have nothing more on her mind than women and hunting, whatever covered up her true purpose.
At the head of the room, her mother and father were similarly assailed but only by the top tiers of the nobility. They stood on a dais that had its own guard, and any courtier who’d managed to bribe, cajole, or sleep their way into this gathering couldn’t hope to speak to them like they could to Katya. She longed to join them, but if she tried to hide from all the gorgeous ladies, that wouldn’t help the reputation she’d worked so carefully to craft. Her cousin Maia could mingle at her side, but she had her own bevy of hangers-on, and if she and Katya merged the two groups, they might explode from all the societal pressure like a pocket of air underground.
Katya’s other friends, Brother Brutal; Averie, Katya’s lady-in-waiting; and Crowe’s masked companion Pennynail were too lowborn to attend this party, and she was struck by just how alone she was. She caught sight of a star through the nearby windows and wished for the spirits to bring her someone who could attend these functions by her side, a woman beautiful enough that the court would accept she’d been swept off her feet. Someone trustworthy, intelligent, and brave enough to share all her secrets.
Starbride had lost count of the number of jolts the stupid carriage had taken. A thousand? Ten thousand? “Why in Darkstrong’s name did I let my mother talk me into riding in a carriage across half the world instead of going on horseback?”
On the opposite bench, Dawnmother lay on her back, feet braced against the door. “It’s much easier if you travel this way.”
Starbride had already tried it. The acres of fabric that made up her ridiculous gown filled the carriage when she lay down, and neither of them could see a thing except a cloud of froth. She couldn’t wait until she arrived at the palace in Marienne, and she could dig into the trunk that held her trousers and shirts. She cursed her mother again for filling her traveling valise with nothing but these awful dresses. “I should have snuck out of town before we traveled and arranged some horses beyond the city walls.”
Dawnmother snorted, but it turned into a yelp as they hit another rut in the so-called road that led through Farraday, surely a false word conjured to trick the unsuspecting into jostling their brains into mush. “Your mother had a word with every hostelry in Newhope. If any of them had loaned or sold you a horse, he would have been staked out in the sun for the vultures.”
As a large bump threw Starbride into the door, she cried, “I would take that fate over this one.” The ride smoothed out a bit, and she sighed, daring to lower the arm that had kept her from hitting the ceiling a time or two. “I really hope this trip is worth it, Dawn.”
Dawnmother shimmied upright and drew her dark braid over her shoulder. Starbride envied her hairstyle as much as her simple shirt and trousers. At least Starbride’s mother hadn’t insisted they both dress more like Farradains than Allusians. She could be comforted by the sight of the familiar if not the feel. “Just keep telling yourself the real reason we’re going. Not to snag an influential spouse like your mother hopes, but…” She raised her eyebrows.
“To study law,” Starbride said firmly. “To keep Farradain traders from exploiting Allusians in Newhope and beyond.” She could almost see the great library of the palace in her mind: so many shelves of books, it boggled the mind, every law of Farraday for hundreds of years at her fingertips, and the Allusian traders and lawyers eagerly awaiting her findings. She would use the fact that her parents had enough money to house her in the palace against the very people hoarding that money. It would be glorious.
“What are we going to do if your mother comes to check on you?” Dawnmother asked.
Starbride blinked back to reality in horror. “She wouldn’t. Would she?”
Dawnmother shrugged. “You’ll have to write regularly.” She raised a finger before Starbride could ask if Dawn could write the letters herself. “She won’t accept letters from me. She knows your handwriting, Star. As Horsestrong said, ‘Keeping a secret from one’s parents is like imprisoning the wind. It always escapes.’”
And she was already imprisoning a tornado of a secret. “All right. Long letters about the law to my contacts, and short letters about how none of the people I’ve met are rich or influential enough for me to marry to my mother. She ought to accept that for a little while.” She waved out the window. “My mother would never make this journey. She might send a cousin or something, but never her.” She prayed to Horsestrong that the theory held.
Maybe she would even make a contact in Marienne. Not a spouse or a suitor. She wasn’t looking for that. A friend would be nice, someone to show her around, maybe who was interested in law. Maybe she’d even get as lucky as her father said she was and find someone who could laugh at these silly dresses and hairstyles and other Farradain ways.
“Brace yourself, ladies,” the coachman’s voice yelled from above.
Starbride slid to the floor with Dawnmother, drowning them both in the fabric of her skirts, but if the coachmen shouted a warning after letting all the other ruts come upon them unaware…
The jolt sent them both flying nearly to the ceiling, and they cried out. Dawnmother grabbed Starbride’s arm and yanked, clearly trying to get under her and soften her landing, but she only managed to send her banging off the padded edge of the seat.
“Sorry about that,” the coachman called.
Starbride cradled her arm. He did sound contrite, but she couldn’t help wishing him and the carriage would be carried off to Darkstrong’s home and be doomed for eternity, along with the road and the palace and every single Farradain.
“Are you all right?” Dawnmother said. “You should have pushed on top of me.”
“I know you always give me the, ‘my life for you and also the truth line,’ Dawn, but I’m not about to smother you with this skirt.”
Dawnmother snorted and hauled on Starbride’s arm until they were both sitting on the same bench. “Maybe we should get the other dress out of your valise and use it for extra padding.”
“Then we’d both smother.”
“Better together than alone.”
Starbride grinned at her as they slumped side by side. At least she’d always have one friend wherever she roamed. But the thought wouldn’t leave her that she could use more, wanted more. Maybe one day, she’d find more than a friend in someone, too.
Katya had her own curtained-off area in the music room, a mirror of her parents’ on the other side. She wasn’t completely hidden, but she had taken advantage of the small amount of privacy before to invite some young lovely to sit beside her. They’d given each other small caresses, kisses to the hands and wrists, and all the flirty play that promised more to come, and she’d been happy to deliver.
But her encounter with Fiona Peyton had put her off such amorous pursuits, and no doubt to the great shock of the crowd, she sat alone in her little alcove, trying to relax and listen to the superb quartet, but her leg wouldn’t stop jumping, and she couldn’t help looking over the audience, sweeping back to her parents again and again.
Her father was nodding off.
Katya bit back a smile. Her mother had been prodding him discreetly in the ribs, but that didn’t stop his head from drooping again and again. Music never failed to put him to sleep, one of the reasons he loved and hated concerts. If he didn’t listen, he fidgeted, never one to sit still, and if he did listen, well…
Droop. Prod. His head came up with a jolt, and he nearly applauded at a pause, but Katya’s mother grabbed his hands just in time.
Even with the rush of affection, Katya couldn’t relax. The whole night was off.
Nonsense, she tried to tell herself. She was just out of sorts. Wearing her court face didn’t give her pleasure anymore, and she wanted to be out hunting traitors instead of merely waiting for them.
No, there was more. Her instincts were practically screaming at her, and she’d learned to trust them. She leaned around the curtain to scan as much of the audience as she could. Most were focused on the quartet, and more than a few cast glances at her private seat or those of her parents. If she met anyone’s eye, they smiled and nodded respectfully.
A woman on the far side of the room avoided her eye, had avoided it every time Katya had looked. Strange enough in itself. She also leaned away from everyone else, as if she’d moved her chair to the side, closer to Katya’s parents’ curtain.
Katya stared, trying her best to look as if she was only slightly curious. The woman’s gaze darted to hers, then away again. She wiped her upper lip as if sweating. In a cold room. With no fire lit.
Katya wasn’t vain enough to think that every woman wanted her, and she could imagine one who wasn’t interested and didn’t want to encourage her, but not even a polite nod? The woman seemed tense as a bowstring, far more fear than someone who wanted to avoid the interests of a princess.
And Katya had never forced her attentions on anyone.
So what was this woman so afraid of? Katya racked her brain to recall the face. She’d seen her before, but like with Fiona Peyton, the name eluded her. A courtier, then, a guest of one of the nobles, though she didn’t seem attached to the people she sat nearby.
And if one person could sneak in…
Katya knocked her feet against the curtain, trying to appear bored but hoping the movement would attract Crowe’s attention where he stood behind her parents. He wore a smile as he listened to the music and didn’t glance over, but Katya’s mother’s lips turned down just a hair, no doubt invisible to anyone who didn’t know her. Any boredom on Katya’s part would be an insult to the musicians, and the queen had to take any insults in her court seriously.
Katya widened her eyes before darting her glance toward Crowe and back again. So much of her life depended on little looks, but her mother was well-acquainted with her duties, both public and private. When Crowe winced, Katya knew her mother had most likely trodden on his foot. He bent toward her, and she gestured pleasantly toward the players as if praising one or all, but Katya would have laid an enormous bet that she was telling him he was needed.
He smiled, but it never reached his eyes, as friendly as an iron pot. He looked at Katya as he straightened, and she wished she could just shout, order the players to stop, and tell Crowe to investigate the suspicious-looking woman and throw her out if need be.
Instead, she cast a deliberate look the woman’s way, tapped four fingers against her sleeve as she crossed her arms, then scratched her chin with one. Fourth row back, first chair. She nodded toward his side of the room.
He frowned. They hadn’t rehearsed any such signal, but his partner on many of the Order’s excursions was Pennynail, who communicated only with signs. He’d figure it out.
Spirits above, she hoped so.
In the audience, Maia peered Katya’s way. She’d noticed something was up if not what, as she was part of the Order, too. When Katya repeated the sign to Crowe, Maia rubbed the back of her neck, using that as an excuse to look over her shoulder. She’d gotten the signal. And now Crowe seemed to be doing his best to sidle to the edge of the curtain so he could glance around. Soon, everyone would notice something was going on, and Katya was supposed to be hunting traitors and threats to the crown in secret. But as the king’s pyradisté, Crowe could do it in public, and if he saw the woman doing anything suspicious, he could act without it looking suspect.
The woman was clutching her purse now, her eyes round as she took too long between blinks and swallowed too frequently, her throat shuddering like the wing of a frightened bird. She dipped her hand into the bag. Spirits, if she had an explosive pyramid, everyone in the room was in danger.
Maia’s mouth opened. Katya’s court mask must have slipped, showing her fear. Her pyramid necklace burned beneath her clothes, the magic reacting to her emotions, to the anger that followed the fear, a stark reminder that if she lost control, a potential pyramid wouldn’t be the only explosive thing in the room.
Maia leapt to her feet. “A mouse,” she shrieked, her high voice carrying above the stringed instruments and the harpsicord. “Rat, rats!” She sprang onto her chair, and panic spread from her like a wave, screams from the pampered nobles and courtiers who either joined Maia on the chairs or lifted their fine hems of fur and velvet. Others cried out defensively and rushed to wherever Maia pointed like hunters.
The royal guard closed around Katya’s parents like a fist, but Crowe edged out, stepping around the curtain. Katya darted around hers, heading for the other end of the room and commanding everyone to exit swiftly, causing a brief surge for the doors until she could see the woman again through the milling bodies.
She’d shrunk into a corner as if lost, one hand still in her embroidered purse.
“Steady now, steady,” Katya’s father’s voice boomed over the chaos. “Let’s all just leave and get this sorted out. Quickly now, hop to!” Two of his guards moved through the crowd, hastening the players and the audience through side doors. Katya waved the guards away and helped usher everyone to apparent safety, trusting that the other guards would send her parents through the hidden door behind their curtained alcove and into the secret passages that threaded through the palace.
Maia clambered from her chair and let a couple of brave volunteers lead her through the crowd, but she tore away at the last moment and threw her arms around the wide-eyed woman as if she was too terrified to go on. Katya’s heart dropped, but she held in the urge to shout. Even if the woman had a weak pyramid, Maia could be killed. Crowe rushed the guards out along with everyone else, saying he would take care of the royals. Both sets of double doors boomed closed.
Maia hopped away from the frightened woman with the grace of a deer. Crowe pulled a hand from behind his long black and purple cassock to reveal a pyramid, a glow already fading in the center.
“I’ve canceled the pyramid you have in that bag,” he said to the frightened woman. “And there’s nowhere to run.”
A few tears dribbled down her cheeks, and she dashed them away with the heel of her hand.
Katya let out a slow breath. “Who are you?” It didn’t matter if this woman found out that Katya and Maia were more than the spoiled royals they seemed. She wouldn’t be leaving the palace. Even bringing a pyramid here was enough of a crime to ensure that. If she’d tried to go into the royal quarters, she’d already have been killed.
She shook her head, crying harder. She drew her hand from the bag and held a lifeless pyramid up like a shield.
“Is this just about killing my parents,” Katya asked, hoping to shock her into speaking. “Or did you have something else in mind?” She needed to know if this woman knew any of the Umbriels’ secrets, like the pyramid necklace under Katya’s clothes, under the clothing of all the members of her family, the pyramid that kept their Fiends locked inside.
The woman’s mouth became a little O. “I…would never…” Her features seemed so familiar, but Katya still couldn’t place her. She felt as if she’d seen her and yet hadn’t, but she didn’t gloss over any faces, no matter who they were. Part of her job was remembering who should be at court and who stood out. But this woman’s chin, the slope of her nose, the color of her eyes all screamed something recent.
Fiona’s face. “You’re another Peyton.”
“R…Rachel. I didn’t come for your family, Highness. I came for the baroness.”
Only one baroness had been at the concert: Jacintha, the same one who’d had Fiona Peyton escorted out, a noble known for her financial schemes. Everything fell into place. “She’s one of the nobles to whom your family owes money.”
“One of our bad investments was her idea. It’s her fault. And she knew we wanted her blood, so we had to distract her first.”
“So you both snuck in, but Fiona made a scene, and the baroness thought herself safe.”
Rachel gritted her teeth. “Why did you have to notice me before I could get close to her?”
“Murder wouldn’t have helped your father or your family.”
“My father hanged himself this morning.”
Katya pitied their family again. More than their finances had fallen apart. “I’m sorry.”
Rachel seemed hopeful for half a second. “You’re going to let me go?”
There was no way. “I’m sorry,” Katya said again.
Crowe held up a pyramid, and a look of stupefaction passed over Rachel’s face as she became hypnotized by it. At least she wasn’t a pyradisté herself, though Katya would have to hunt down where she’d bought her pyramid from.
“I’ll take her to the dungeon,” Crowe said. “And send Pennynail to collect the sister.”
“But the sister didn’t do this part,” Maia said, gesturing at Rachel with a pitying look.
Crowe shook his head. “They conspired together, Maia. That’s still a crime. And since Katya and you are involved now, it can’t be one that’s made public.”
Maia’s lips became one white line while her cheeks flamed red. Katya patted her on the shoulder. “Leave it alone, coz. Let Crowe do his work. We have our own jobs to do.”
Crowe led the hypnotized Rachel into the secret passages, and Katya shepherded Maia in after him, though she would take another path, heading up into the palace rather than into the dungeons below. Katya shut the hidden door after them, almost wishing Rachel Peyton had come here in order to assassinate the royals. At least then, Katya wouldn’t feel so damned sorry for her.
Alone, she shook out her shoulders and wished again for someone to take her hand and tell her it was going to be all right. Instead, she put her court face back on and threw the doors open, assuring those gathered in the antechamber that she’d slain the beasts that had troubled them. She fought the urge to wince when they called her a hero.