While her brothers were at the Valstan Club, Ynaselle had the pleasure of entertaining Lady Erro. Lady Erro sat across from Lord Blackwell, her old-fashioned hooped skirt showering the black and gold wingback chair in peacock feathers. Peacock feathers covered her skirt and her trumpet-cut sleeves. Her bodice – another old-fashioned affectation – was adorned with opals in brocade, so too was her veil. Ynaselle couldn’t help but think the dress and veil alone weighed three stone, and that didn’t include her earrings and necklaces and rings. No one could doubt Lady Erro’s wealth, though her taste was another matter.
Lady Erro gossiped. She gossiped with Lord Blackwell about old Lord Ozymand who had recently returned from Faydark. He had spent months trying to broker a new trade deal with the Kingdom of Draque, a human kingdom built into incredibly rocky soil. Heliohart had wheat and rye it needed to be rid of, and Draque had need of it. The Emperor had, apparently, refused the offer, and now Lord Ozymand had to return to Draque to try again before the grains rotted.
She gossiped about the Court of Oak and Birch, the Court of Swallows, the Court of Bones, of the cotton merchants and the sugar merchants and the tea merchants, of the Princess Myrrh who had helped to pick out Prince Heliohart’s bride since she would be the one to bare the children, of Mistress Therel who had been caught with a Knight of the Court, and of the young Master Joran who had always been sickly and many feared would be giving up his birthright to his sister. Lady Erro even gossiped of Jaonos, Vithian, Othorion, and Ynaselle herself, pretending that she wasn’t there despite casting furtive and teasing glances at her whenever she did.
“Pity, of course,” Lady Erro said, placing her tea on the table beside her. She shifted so she could look more closely at Ynaselle, her dress whispering and jingling as she moved. “I had thought we would celebrate your marriage last year, before your mother passed of course. Not that I blame you for refusing Master Bryravn. Not one of us suspected him of being the waste that he is.”
Ynaselle felt a flush rising on her face while heated embarrassment washed over her. She felt her throat close and her mouth go dry.
Flinar quickly came to his daughter’s rescue. “It’s for the best. Ynaselle has been the greatest of comforts to me.”
“Still, it must be a burden on you, none of your children yet married. Oh, Vithian need not marry at all, as a priest. And Othorion is still a bit young, though if he gets his captaincy he’ll have no excuse. But Jaonos – well, it’s high time he married. Will he be a bachelor forever? And you, Ynaselle, you’ve been hiding yourself away in Pheasant’s Cross for far too long. If you will not find yourself a husband, join the ambassador’s guild. I’m sure you could find employment there – or any guild, surely.”
Ynaselle took a deep breath to slow her heart before she replied. “I have plenty to keep me employed at the moment, Lady Erro. Thank you, though, for your kind advice, as always.” That was, of course, a very polite way of telling Lady Erro to mind her own business for once in her life, but if Lady Erro understood that, she did not show it.
Lady Erro was interrupted as the front door was flung open and the foyer filled with laughing and voices. Ynaselle stood, but Lady Erro and Lord Blackwell, both used to being some of the most superior members of society in the room, did not.
“Oh,” Othorion said as he stepped into the sitting room, Vithian and Jaonos immediately behind him, “many apologies, Lady Erro.”
Lady Erro tilted her chin up and examined each of Lord Blackwell’s sons in turn. “May the stars shine upon you, Lieutenant.”
“And upon you, Lady Erro. You’re looking very well.” He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, whether salute or kiss his fingers, what the protocol was in this moment.
Lady Erro simply turned back to Lord Blackwell. “Well, now that all your children are here, I suppose I should tell you what my business was in coming here in the first place.”
“Please, go on,” Lord Blackwell said. He motioned for his children to sit as she spoke. Othorion and Vithian joined Ynaselle on the chaise while Jaonos poured himself a drink from the sidebar.
“As you know – and this is not to go beyond this room,” Lady Erro said sharply, casting frowns at each of them as she said this. Her frown lingered on Jaonos who was smirking to himself without realizing he was being watched. She waited for him to finish pouring his drink and look up to make sure he knew her displeasure before continuing. “Not a word breathed beyond this room.
“As you know, we will announce Prince Heliohart’s affianced at the full moon. As such, I shall be throwing a ball at at the palace. And, of course, Lord Blackwell, you and all your children are invited.”
She glanced at each in turn, and all of them felt the Lady measuring them against some rubric they weren’t entirely certain of. Jaonos was already resentful, believing that he didn’t reach her standards and deciding he didn’t care to please the silly old woman anyway. Vithian felt the heat of anger raising up behind his eyes as he remembered Lady Erro’s comments the few days before and then the icier shame at his own behavior. Othorion wondered how Lady Erro found him, confident in the back of his mind that he had already proved himself.
Ynaselle felt that she was but a shadow of a promise, that she had not sought a trade because women like Lady Erro would use her as a bargaining chip in a marriage. She wondered, a nausea washing over her, if her mother had intended it as well. She recalled that other ball four years previous. Had that been more than an introduction? Had that been Ynaselle’s mother throwing in her bargaining chip to the other families within the Court?
“I am certain I shan’t have to tell you the expected dress,” Lady Erro said, glancing at Jaonos under hooded lids.
Lady Erro stood, her dress and veil fluttering and clattering like an entire flock of chickens. She kissed Lord Blackwell on his cheek, who kissed her back. They had been friends for many years.
Ynaselle walked the Lady to the door, but Lady Erro paused on the steps. She turned back to Ynaselle, her sharp black eyes looking into Ynaselle’s. “Your mother had such plans for you,” Lady Erro said, and Ynaselle felt that dizzying wave of nausea return.
“She had plans for Othorion, but, well, those had to change.” Lady Erro shrugged, snapping her fan shut. “But she had plans for you. Ladies need not be silent ornaments on Lord’s arm. Remember that, child.”
“Yes, your grace,” Ynaselle said, bobby her head down slightly so that Lady Erro wouldn’t see the look of disgust on her face.
“Pity,” Lady Erro said. “You know, I have sons. Or daughters.” Lady Erro’s arched eyebrows reached for her hairline. “In case you’re interested.”
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