As time progressed, I liked the new conditions in which I lived; however, often I longed to go to my tree, climb up its branches and hide in the indigo-misted sky. I found the dazzling style of the court grand in its opulence and shine, but always something lurked beneath the glitter.
Because I was young, younger than the others, I had my own set of chambers, in the smaller east wing of the Pallazio. They had the most marvelous tinted windows, where light streamed through rose-hued glass and sparkled like glorious flowers ablaze in the setting sun. Yet when night fell, sometimes I liked not the glass as much, for a ruddier light flowed through blood-colored panes, and set shivers snaking their way down my spine. There was no obvious cause, for once I ran outside at dusk to see if perhaps the sun itself had turned ripe and red, like the juice that comes from bursting pomegranate seeds and stains sticky on my fingertips. Yet, no. The sun was the same gold, and the sky was violet and gold, pastel, to dark purple dusk—not the depth of hue that came through the glass. I never again checked, for I found I didn't wish to discover the source. And that suited for some time. Not always, though—but that discovery did not occur until far later in my years.
Though I was no longer a servant, I still had work, and that kept me busy for most hours of the day. I was not yet allowed to enter into the Blossom Court; remember, I was not of age at a mere decade. So I served Cecily, who yet remained of cold disposition towards me, as well as others she housed, but who were not of her rank. Her closest companion was Rietha, a young woman of Raoul, one of the northeastern provinces along the coast of the Lamirre. She had the sun-kissed skin tone of the sea fishers, yet I was quite certain she'd never stepped a dainty, velvet shod foot on a boat. She was, after all, born of noble lineage, and had come to live here young. But close though Rietha was to her, Cecily kept no one too close.
One day, however, she surprised me by calling me into her quarters, alone. This was a rare occurrence for any, and I had never been specifically called to attendance. I donned my best gown, a silk, the hue of the garden roses. It was a child's dress, but lovely nonetheless. I had no time to bother with dressing my hair; I tied it into a slipknot at the base of my neck, tendrils escaped and curled about my ears.
Through the doors that fascinated me still, after almost a year, Cecily waited with an old woman, dressed in crinkled white robes, with a carved staff of diamonds. Aiha, I knew immediately, for I still heard stories of the world. Her blind white eyes, eyes of the pricked iris, milky and omniscient, pierced through me with the chill of a glacial blizzard. She shook her head.
"This child will not be a courtesan. She is cold. You are cold as an ice thorn—no courtesan, you child." A shiver ran through me at her words, and Cecily's lips tightened into a line. But she respectfully inclined her head to the Aiha. This ceremony was usually done as it was said—as ceremony. All become courtesans. All, it seemed, save one little rose.
I would need to keep myself very useful, or find myself out of the kindness Rain had bestowed on me. I was dismissed.
After the proclamation of my fate, I wondered much what my Lady had in store for me, or if Fate had perhaps forgotten me altogether. I was pariah among Cecily's Blossoms; they'd nothing to teach, I confused them, and they were petty creatures. They had to be, to survive. The only company I had an enjoyed was Rain, but he did not come often. The demands of his duties were time consuming and I was a mere child with no great attraction. I considered myself lucky he deigned visit at all, as he and Cecily did not get on well, each time, they argued fiercer, and with a grimmer, more malicious snarl.
It was because of her scowl I had gone to the gardens to practice my hand, and untangle some necklaces for Selea and Rohan. I perched on the rim of the Trivinoign fountain, looping letters round and round, intent.
When hands grabbed 'round my waist, I fair jumped into the fountain, sending water high, like crystal beads thrown into the air at a wedding. Spluttering, whom did I turn around to face but Rain.
"You." I stood, an idiot, an eyebrow raised and sopping wet. My hair had fallen out, thick and heavy it draped over my shoulders, a wet bolt of velvet. And he laughed.
"Fairy girl. I thought I'd come see you. I didn't know you wished to take a swim." And he laughed again. I stepped daintily as I could from the fountain, and angled my head high to stare into Rain's blue bell eyes. My chin almost grazed his chest; I gave him a scowl of my own.
"I thought princes had better manners." My ire rose as he smirked.
"How would you know? Just how many princes have you known?" There was a subtle undertone to his jest I recognized from the darker comments of the Blossoms. Something trembled in my veins, but I answered true.
"The rain told me."
Rain's face lost its lubricious smirk, and he shook his head, midnight hair catching the sunlight within its dark layers. "Sometimes you sound just like them, and then, you're you." We stood, me, staring now at the creamy material of his shirt, his shoulders tense and chest expanding in, out. "You're wet, you know."
"Thank you for informing me."
I cocked my head to Rain's face once more, and he stared with a curious light in his eyes. "How old?"
I counted a moment. "Almost eleven. In half a year."
Rain snorted, shook his head. I almost got angry again, but then he said, "You are so puzzlingly curious. Beautiful and old. So curious."
What? Sometimes I did not understand what people thought; I felt much younger here than at any time in Bonnoir. For a moment, I let my mind wander. The window remained dark, dusty with neglect, and one pane broken. No one called this tiny hole home. I turned my eyes to Jason, my only rock. "Are we here?"
He nodded. Stopped for a moment. Nodded again, more certain this time. "Say hello to home, Lante." Then we'd shared a few penny crusts. That was two days before the Guard found him.
"Violante?" Rain tapped my shoulder. A shock sparked between his fingers and my collarbone. Something deep and soft passed through me. "Violante. I think you should change. Cecily may bite me."
Cecily, I wondered, no. I don't think it will be Cecily. And then I went to change my dress.
As I spent more time fetching for Cecily, Rain's face came to mind often, and I found myself wishing he was there, but I knew, I could not depend on others for relief. Besides, I did not see much of Rain, however, a small part of me was glad he did not frequent the Blossom Court. There were far too many beautiful courtesans. It was usual for me to help them ready for their appearances, in elegant, sumptuous gowns, and extravagant costumes. It was a furious activity, but then I had the rest of the evening to myself, since of course, I was not of age to attend the Court. I often wandered out in the Night Gardens; as I was not truly noble to them, and too young for scandal, I had more freedom than the ladies, and for that I was glad. The night felt comfortable, like an old worn cloak—but one with a hidden pocket, always a subtle thrill to entertain and surprise.
I got one such surprise during the Autumn Harvest Festivities, walking out to the gardens. The night was especially dark, as purple gauze of clouds drifted across the atmosphere as a purple sheer veil over black velvet. I walked slowly on the stone-laid pathway, uneven and bumpy, savoring the musky scent of fall foliage and the secrets of the leaves rusting ever-so-gently in the wind.
I met a man in the flowers. And he was alone, not with a courtesan. It was man I'd never before seen, and his appearance startled me a little. I had seen many passing and handsome men, and beautiful ones too—but this man had something different, something beyond physical sense.
I believe now it was his intensity, his fight and hunger to live, to feel, but it attracted me then no matter I did not understand. After all, I was still a child, and one who had not lived in a structured world for the vast part of my life. I only saw the smolder of incredibly intense emotion behind his dark gaze, and the jolt of electricity that surged through my veins when he looked at me through my cloak of night, as if he saw something there, something more than the mere girl I was. He looked upon me questioningly, with his surging eyes, and where they traveled; I felt a tingling blush on my skin. There was nothing I'd ever before felt like it, and it is something I've never felt elsewhere again.
"Are you running from something?" I asked, with all the misunderstanding and candor of a child, the child that I was. The man's eyes narrowed, and I thought for a moment of great frustration, that he was not going to answer. He had a brooding air, as well, and was so very different from Rain. There was nothing delicate about him, nothing feminine. No. I turned; I did not wish to remain under his disgruntling appraisal, while in the same instant, I yearned to stay forever. Yet then, he issued forth a response.
"No, sprite-child. But I'll wager you are." His voice was deep, with a growling, masculine accent, a brogue of perhaps, I thought, the Western Isles.
"I run from nothing," I scoffed, and tilted my head up to him. As I stared into his eyes, currents ran through my veins, I realized him younger than I had thought. Why was he alone, in the garden, during a fete? "Why don't you join the others?"
"Because I care not for their company," he answered. "Why do you not join them?"
"I am not old enough." I am afraid to admit, I said this rather snootily. "But you are."
"I am, indeed. But most ladies won't dance with a painter, you see. It might get paint on their gowns." His tone mocked. I liked it.
"I don't have a gown on. And I like paintings, as long as they aren't of fruit." I rolled my eyes at him, and was thrilled with the slight smile that curved his lips. "Are you going to paint the Princess?"
But at this question, the smile faded, and the light fled his gaze. He shook his head, but this belied his next words.
"I am afeared I shall."
"She is pretty." It was a gross understatement, but Cecily was not there. "I am in her court. Well, I will be."
He nodded. "I see. I am afraid then, to admit, I must also take my leave of you, fairy."
Before he could turn away, the request burst from my lips. "If you paint Cecily, will you paint me?"
Some smile I thought cruel passed his mouth, but I didn't feel it was directed at me. "The Princess will have naught to do with it. I cannot paint you."
He shook his head. "Maybe someday, fairy. If I find myself a fairy princess with a moon in her heart and starlight in her smile, then I'll paint her." He left me without another word, and I supposed maybe he'd been mocking.
But I took his words as a promise to my heart.
I often thought of him, though we did not meet often, for I was busy or outdoors, and he painted and painted until I believed he'd painted the whole of the court and all the servants within. I thought perhaps he'd forgotten his promise—oh, I blamed him not—I was just a little girl claiming demands on his time.
But I remembered; I remembered every word, every look—those eyes that threatened to burn the flesh from my ivory bones, eat me alive, while I ached in the bliss of it. I did manage to think of other things, like the time for my blooming at a near thirteen, my debut in the Blossom Court at last. Cecily had agreed to Rain, and she sometimes looked over me appraisingly, most likely assessing my value to bring her luck, for it was rumored she would soon have to marry—the struggle to proceed the King had not yet been resolved, and now I knew much more of it, and precisely why Rain was not the given heir. But I could not speak of it. I had many secrets to keep, and a mind troubled by the petty ways of the Blossoms.
The beach was my only solace; somehow, the violence and majestic power of the tide calmed my own turbulent soul. Freedom lay along the shore; in every crash of wave there was a heartbeat, in every sweep of sand dune, a secret soul.
I could not often find time to spare there, and besides, I did not want company. If I walked the sandy path and saw silhouetted figures in the distance, I would oft turn round and sit elsewhere to while away the hours alone. There were not many, however, who wished to explore the tide caves, so there I ventured frequently. The dark merged with the cool, clammy air bothered me not one whit. I wore my court clothing there, and then simply shed them, for damp heavy skirts were no asset on rocky, slippery ledges above shadowy pits. Echoes of the tune I hummed brought me simple pleasure in all occasions I escaped to the caverns, and I skimmed about in the sheltered pools—but never where I saw the surface move, for the denizens of the deep might deign to swallow me up.
I saw faces sometimes, reflected out of the darkness; faces Lady Fate had not bestowed her mercy on. And then there were the voices from the black isles.
The black rocks served a warning to any ships that had the audacity to demand passage through the straits. Alrbiesh was not a merciful deity, and it was she who the seafarers worshipped; many who returned, if they returned at all, missed limbs, gained gnarled bones, or the madness of the mind. The sea, in truth, is not a mortal affair.
The voices called with a siren song—it was a dark, secret thing; the song tugged at my heart and tangled within my veins. Never was a presence found at the rocks, but still, I searched for the source of the song, for it called even in my dreams.
I swam, twas true, in the deeps, but I would not presume myself safe. That was half my intent—I had become an addict to thrill, to risk, to the bubbly panic that rose in my breast when something cold and sharp brushed 'gainst my legs far from the shore, where there was no one to hear me scream.
Afterwards, I lay out on the black isles, little clusters of crystalline ebon stone, warmed in the sun, my tresses damp and dark spread out above me, and I stared up, up, up into the porcelain heavens. I did not lead a life similar to others at court; perhaps the Aiha had spoken the truth. You are as cold as an ice thorn—no courtesan, you, child. I felt no chill deep within, but oftimes there was a pricking at my heart.
A thorn in the bloody crimson rose of my heart.