8. The Ball
The dark of the moon approached quickly, and with it, the Harlots’ Ball. Minette closed Maison d’Aube to all custom in preparation for the ball, and it was just as well. Sylvie had renounced the life of a courtesan and shocked us all by wedding her long-lost lover the day after their reunion.
Sylvie’s Raoul was tall and rawboned with pale hair and wary, wild eyes. He was a taciturn man. When he spoke, he spat his words out in short bursts, as though he could not stand the shape or taste of them upon his tongue. He seemed ill-at ease with the clatter and chatter of human activity. He bristled at the sound of cartwheels on cobblestones and the way voices echoed from ceilings and walls.
I did not understand at all why Sylvie loved him, until I saw him look at her. Raoul watched Sylvie as though she was the sun and the moon and the stars drawn down from the heavens and bound into flesh. He smiled when she smiled, and when she did not smile, he did everything he could to cheer her.
I wanted to dislike him, but Sylvie loved him. What kind of sister would I be, to hate the man who made my sister happy? I couldn’t even hate him when Sylvie told us she was going away with him.
“He cannot abide the city,” she explained. “He wasn’t born to it, and it grates against his nerves. We will find a place in the country.”
“A place where humans don’t hunt wolves? I do not believe such a place exists.”
“We will find a place.” Sylvie’s voice was firm. Her expression softened, though, and she said, “I will stay to help you prepare for the ball. Once this business with the prince is past, you must introduce your lover—what is his name?”
“Rian,” I said. I hated the note of melancholy yearning in my voice.
“He was named for the prince?” Sylvie’s lovely features crinkled with a slight frown. “How terrible that your lover should bear such a hated name.”
“I do not think of it,” I said. “Rian is ‘my Rian’ and the prince is a stranger.” I knew the words were a lie when I spoke them. The prince was not a stranger, far from it. I knew him too well—not because we had exchanged confidences but because we were too much alike. Long shunned for my witchery, I could easily imagine how alone he must have felt faced with false smiles and Charm-compelled adoration every day of his life.
As much as I hated his desire for me, I understood it. Rian had been right those many months ago when he’d speculated on what a cruel fate it would be to be surrounded by people who loved you though they did not know you. The prince only wanted what other men took for granted. A friend. A lover.
He had chosen the wrong way to achieve his desire. He had chosen the wrong woman. His threats and highhanded behavior had done nothing to endear him to me. But he’d never needed to ask for anything in his whole life. Is it any wonder that, when he set his mind to wooing a woman who was less susceptible to his Charm, he made a mess of it?
“Well,” Sylvie continued, stretching a smile onto her face. “I would like to meet your Rian before I go, if only to be certain he is good enough for you.”
“If I am good enough for him,” I corrected. “And if he forgives me for betraying him.” I felt tears welling in my eyes, and looked away from Sylvie to hide them.
“Ember, you are crying!” Sylvie hugged me and patted my back. “You mustn’t lose hope. From everything you have told me of your Rian, I know he will understand. I am certain he will forgive you, if only you’ll forgive yourself.”
Forgive myself. I wondered if I ever could. In time, I might forgive myself the weakness that had let me succumb to the prince’s curse and spread my legs for him that morning in his bedchamber. I’d never meant to betray Rian. But my plan to rid myself of the prince was a deliberate betrayal. Even if it freed me from the prince’s attentions, I would still have knowingly betrayed Rian. And that, I could not forgive.
I let my sisters dress me for the Harlots’ Ball, for the night I would give in to the prince. I emerged from my bath naked as a newborn, and they remade me from my toes to the crown of my head. There was no magic in it, only artifice. Sometimes artifice is the greater power.
Sylvie teased and styled my hair. Minette slathered my face, arms and décolletage with ceruse to cover my freckles, before dusting the whole of me with white powder. Dulcie wrapped necklaces of diamonds, pearls and glass gems around my neck. She tugged at the chain of my moonlight pendant. “Are you sure you want to wear this?”
“I’ve never taken it off.”
Dulcie added another string of glass beads to hide it, and smiled, satisfied with her work.
Next, Sylvie gave me white silk stockings tied with red ribbon garters. And for my feet, Minette produced a pair of shoes in white satin, studded all over with glass gems in tin settings.
“They’ll look like diamonds in the candlelight.” Minette held the shoes up for my inspection. “And here is the best part.” She tipped the right shoe up to show me that the inside was crooked, to support the twist in my foot. From the outside both shoes looked almost equal.
Clever Minette also had lace gloves for my hands. The left one came with a wooden finger to disguise my missing one. It was perfectly carved and painted to appear as powdered skin through the lace.
“I had the carpenter do it.” Minette explained. “I don’t believe this is the first he’s made. Come now, let us get your clothes.”
To clothe me, my sisters first draped me in a linen shift as thin as a liar’s promise. Over the shift, they strapped lightweight panniers, followed by linen petticoats and an underskirt of silk charmeusse in the palest, prettiest pink I’d ever seen.
“They call it Last Blush,” Minette explained. She spoke of the lovely color, which came from a berry that grows in the Alts. The berry is a subtle poison. Even with careful training, a lifetime stirring vats of dye drives the dyers mad. This is why you will often hear d’Orans declare someone to be “mad as a red-fingered dyer.” They will also say someone is “rich as a red-fingered dyer,” for fabric dyed with Last Blush is quite expensive.
Next came a corset of whalebone and thick coutille followed by an overskirt and bodice of white silk brocade figured in gold and pink with the fleur d’Or pattern, which is popular in my sisters’ homeland. The corset made my waist seem as thin and fragile as the stem of a wineglass, and it pushed my breasts up to somewhere just beneath my chin, offering them temptingly, like fresh buns on display in a baker’s case.
Sylvie and Dulcie pinned the edges of the overskirt aside with glass brooches to match the glass gems on the shoes. Sylvie brought out a frothy little collar of starched pink silk, this dyed also with Last Blush, and pinned it round my shoulders with two more broaches. The collar framed my face and neck, but did nothing to hide the vast expanse of powdered décolletage laid bare by the low-cut bodice.
“Loosen the ties so I can pull this bodice up,” I complained. “I can see my nipples over the top.”
“Rouge for those, my dear,” Minette offered me the little pot wrought of glass and gold. “Last Blush pink to match your skirt. Apply it to your lips and cheeks, as well. The color enflames men’s passions.”
“It’s poison!” I protested.
“Only a little,” Sylvie said. “For beauty. Like belladonna. You’ve heard the Whore’s Remedy, haven’t you?”
“Is it like the Witch’s Bargain?”
“You always think of witchery,” Dulcie laughed. “The Whore’s Remedy is this,” she took up the rouge pot and recited, “One pinch for your beauty, two teaspoons for his sleep, a cup to solve your problems and make his widow weep.”
I laughed. “And I thought witches were cruel.”
“We all do what we must to survive.” Minette tilted my chin up. “Hold your eyes open, dear, while I apply the belladonna.”
The candlelight seemed very bright after she put the drops in my eyes, but fortunately my sisters had finished their ministrations, and all that remained was for me to see was my reflection. Dulcie drew the scarf away from the silver-backed looking glass.
I did not know the woman who faced me. Her hair was powdered until it seemed a very pale rose, and piled high in soft waves upon her head. Her face was pale, too, except for her limpid black eyes, the red slash of Last Blush upon her lips, and the round, false flush of girlish pink against her white cheeks. Her breasts, powdered pale and revealed to tops of her rouged nipples, proclaimed her no girl, while the white silk gown stretched over wide panniers beneath her narrow waist made her seem to float above the ground, like a specter.
I looked like a ghost, a dead woman wreathed in white mist.
“You’re beautiful!” Dulcie cried.
“No offense to you, Sister,” Sylvie said, “but I never suspected you hid such beauty beneath your shapeless woolens and your cloak of ash.”
I looked at my white face in the mirror. I did not think it beautiful at all.
We caused a stir when we entered the ballroom. The other women in attendance (whores, barefaced but for their paint, and ladies masked to preserve their reputations) wore passable imitations of the d’Oran style, but none had quite mastered the combination of delicacy and grandiosity that distinguished the high style of Terre d’Or from garish imitation. We must have seemed like spirits floating on clouds of ruffles and lace, crowned by misty swirls of powdered curls. We must have seemed beautiful, for the men came running and the women’s whispers turned ugly.
“My lovely little cabbages! My darling pumpkins!” I recognized Dulcie’s gentleman, the Grand Duke. Though we’d not had a real war since before the prince’s birth, the prince’s younger cousin wore a military uniform of dark blue, bedecked with red ribbons and gold medals. He held out his arms, as though he meant for us to approach him.
“The Grand Duke seems over-fond of vegetables.” I whispered to Dulcie behind the cover of my lace fan.
“Ember! You’ve a filthy mind. ‘My little cabbage’ happens to be an endearment in Terre d’Or.” Dulcie whispered back, her face the very picture of affronted innocence. A moment later, she broke into a fit of giggles.
“Who is this lovely?” The Grand Duke asked, inclining his head to me.
“Our sister, your Grace. The one whom the prince asked us to bring.”
I opened my mouth to greet him, but Dulcie prattled on. “She is a mute.”
I snapped my jaw shut.
When the Grand Duke turned away to greet a passing acquaintance, I grabbed Dulcie’s shoulder and hissed, “Why’d you say I was mute?”
“It was a favor, Sister. They only ever talk about themselves, and now you’ve no need to pretend you were listening by answering.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
The Grand Duke turned back to us and offered his arm to Dulcie. “Come dance with me.” She took his arm and he began to lead her to the edge of the ballroom.
“The dancing is the other way.”
“Come dance with me outside in the shadows,” he cajoled.
“But I’ve barely seen the ball.”
The Grand Duke smiled. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
Dulcie blew us a kiss and let herself be led away.
Soon after, Minette and I found ourselves amid a growing circle of gallants. Many of them talked at me, telling me tales of their prowess. They puffed up proud as kings when I smiled. Their breathing quickened when I blinked my dark, drugged eyes at them.
They paid me fulsome compliments, noting the fineness of my skin and the delicacy of my form. They said beauty such as mine must be protected from the vicissitudes of the world. One offered me a carriage, promising that my feet would never tread on cobbles again. Another offered me a house and servants so I would never need share my home with any but the man who loved my beauty more than a flower loves the sun. A third, who was not so rich as the others, offered me his heart on a silver platter and his affection for eternity.
The poor fool. I almost took him up on it. He could keep his affection, but oh, how the Fire would have loved his heart! I smiled and he sighed, thinking I favored him.
“I say, is something on fire?” One of them asked. The air smelled of smoke.
Hastily, I turned my thoughts to matters other than the power I might harvest from a freely given heart. I turned my eyes back to the men, wondering what other false promises they would spin for me. They had fallen silent and begun to back away, bowing as they went.
Rian stood among the fading crowd, watching me with dark and hungry eyes. I blinked and he wavered like a dream. Like a nightmare. The man before me was too perfect to be my Rian. His dark hair was neatly combed, his jaw clean-shaven. His hawkish nose had never been broken. He wore the prince’s finery.
It was the prince, draped in the image of my lover. It wasn’t until I saw the prince that I realized how well and truly I loved Rian. The prince’s curse would make him seem perfect in the eyes of any who saw him. And to make the prince perfect in my eyes, his curse had made him appear as a better-groomed version of my estranged lover.
“Ember.” He said my name. I heard it echo in my soul. He held his hand out to me, and my body went to him, though my heart and mind screamed against it. The phantom of my missing finger felt hot as smoldering coals. I looked down at my left hand. The wooden finger in my glove was black and burnt.
He took my right hand, and drew me into the figures of a dance. I didn’t know how to dance, but my body moved for him without misstep. There came places in the dance where he should have given my hand to other partners, but he didn’t let me go. He kept me in his arms, eating me with his eyes as we moved together.
He drew his finger along my jaw, and it came away smudged with paint and powder. “I don’t like you this way,” he said. They were the first words he had spoken since my name.
“They tell me I am beautiful. I thought men liked beauty.”
“This isn’t beauty, it’s lead paint and artifice.”
“What do you like, then? Only tell me, and I shall strive to please you.”
His expression soured at my words. “I dislike your powdered curls and your affectation of a malleable will. I like your hair red, and your eyes burning with the strength to look away from me. I like you as you truly are. I always have.”
His hands roamed my body as he herded me from the ballroom onto a lamplit terrace overlooking the gardens. He fell on me like a starving man at a banquet, kissing me before we even got outside, rubbing away my paint and powder with his hard lips and rough cheeks.
He shoved me against the ivy-covered wall outside the ballroom. The leaves caught in my hair, and I wondered if the tickling scamper of legs across my skin came from the ivy’s insect tenants, or the effects of his Charm. He ran his hands over me, my face my neck, my shoulders, my arms. His lips followed where his hands went, careless of the cloying taste of lead upon my skin.
“When you fled, I was so worried,” he murmured. “I love you.”
“Love!” I almost screamed. Where once I had felt shame in my attraction for him, I now felt rage at it. I didn’t have it in me to play the docile fool. I could not let his curse dictate my emotions. “What do you know of love? I’m here because you threatened my sisters’ lives. How is that an act of love?”
“I didn’t mean it. It wasn’t a binding promise.”
“You only meant to make me think it was.” I slapped him. “You used your curse to make me fuck you. And you don’t care if I’m in misery to have betrayed the man I truly love. How is that love? It seems like cruelty to me.”
“Ember, be calm. Listen.” He tried to still me with soft words and gentle hands on my shoulders but I pushed him off. For all I hated him, my body still thrilled to his touch. I needed to get away.
I charged down the steps of the terrace and into the shadowed gardens. He caught up to me just before I reached the edge of the lamplight. He grabbed my shoulders. “Ember, wait. Listen. There’s something I need to tell you.”
I didn’t care to listen to him again. My anger flared as fire in the air around me, and he drew back clutching the side of his face as though he’d been burned. His face appeared unharmed. It still bore that hideous, perfect version of my beloved Rian’s features.
“Go to hell.” I turned and fled into the darkness.
As soon as I left the lamplight, my moonlight pendant began to glow. I heard the prince’s footsteps behind me. I whirled to face him and screamed at what I saw illuminated by my little vial of moonlight.
It was Rian—my Rian, with his broken nose and messy hair—clad in the prince’s velvet coat and breeches, with a fresh burn marring his cheek and sorrow welling in his dark eyes.
“No.” I shook my head and staggered away from him. “What game have you been playing with me?”
“No games. I love you. Please come back. I wanted you to love me as I am, and not as the curse makes me seem. I shouldn’t have touched you that day in my bedchamber, but I was dreaming of you. I spoke your name, and then you were there, cloaked in a bland illusion.
“It was too long to go a month without you. I was impatient. I wanted you, and took you though you didn’t know me. Twice, I tried to tell you, but you ran away each time.”
“You deceived me.” I felt sick to think of all my agony over the past month. I had betrayed my lover…with my lover. Oh what a fool I had been, blinded by all the things I thought I knew. Blinded to the glaring truth that the man I loved and the man I hated were one in the same!
“I never lied to you. Not once. From the day we met, you knew my name was Adrian Juste. You knew I lived at the palace. You knew I spent my days with horses and hounds.”
“You lied by omission.”
“I spent years looking for you, the red-haired girl dressed in russet silk. The one with dark eyes and no name. It was as if you disappeared. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you again.”
“You will have to bear it now.”
He reached for me. I held up my hand.
I spoke the word for “halt” in the language of the Old Ones, the tongue of curses and enchantments. It was like licking the edge of a razor’s blade. Blood poured over my chin as I looked at the frozen figure of my lover. His eyes watched me, but the rest of his body did not move so much as a hairsbreadth. His hand remained outstretched to touch me.
“I will not be another conquest of your curse,” I whispered. “The spell will fade when my blood dries.”
I kissed his cheek. My lips left their print in blood on his jaw. The blood was drying, even as I turned away.
I ran into the gardens, but the tall heels of the shoes Minette had given me kept sinking into the damp earth. I kicked them off, and made much better time for having rid myself of them. I found a fountain on my way to the front gates of the palace, and rinsed the blood from my lips before continuing on.
The guard at the gate came running when he saw me. “Mistress, where is your coach?”
“Perhaps it turned into a pumpkin,” I laughed.
The guard looked at me as though he thought I was mad. I smiled at him and confirmed it. My tongue had not stopped bleeding, and my teeth were red with blood.
He backed away. I walked past him, out through the gates and into the night.