“Ione. You are still here?” intoned the most respectable and highly-regarded Lady Hephastne of the House of Sapphe.
“Still here,” her first daughter affirmed in her usual too-calm, too-quiet way. She was sitting in the window alcove of their Aur City townhome library, a book open on her knees. The glare from the early evening light made it difficult to see more than her silhouetted form surrounded by an eerie glow. It made her seem as if she wasn’t quite there.
Hephastne would rather not see her at all.
It rankled Hephastne’s fine sensibilities that the two of them should look alike. Once Aurians reached adulthood, they didn’t age physically until close on a century, so the mother and daughter could be mistaken for twins at first glance. Of course, no one dared mistake them for each other for long. Aside from the superficial resemblance, Ione was nothing like Hephastne; to begin with, Ione utterly lacked elegance in her bearing. She also dressed and arranged her hair with no sense of originality or style. The worst of it, though, was, while Hephastne was every bit respectable and highly regarded as was her due, this daughter was the disgrace of the House, a disgrace as an Aurian.
Like all Aurians, they were quite beautiful. They were a people with raven-black hair, golden complexions, and brilliant, sapphire blue eyes. They were lithe and graceful, more like fairytale beings than mere mortals. But since physical beauty was rather de facto amongst Aurians, individuals were judged more for other things – things no less unforgiving.
If only, Hephastne had often wished, Ione would just fade away completely and – more to the point – be forgotten. Sadly, the various manners of premature death – accidental, suicide, or murder – would all become virulent gossip in the social circles of the small island nation. And Aurians could have notoriously long memories, recalled at the most inconvenient moments. Why, Hephastne wondered yet again to the capricious gods, had she been made to suffer thus, when she deserved only to be lauded? Even now, after all her many accomplishments, she must continue to carry the reputation of the entire House of Sapphe on her worthy shoulders. While the other members of the House whined and gave useless advice, only she was capable of maintaining the House’s standing in society.
“Do you not realize that the guests will be here any moment?” Hephastne presently said to Ione, outraged that she had to even remind her.
Ione had closed her book up and was rising without demur, but in a way that, Hephastne suspected, suggested mockery and defiance. Hephastne’s elaborately bejeweled bosom heaved with indignation.
Away from the glare from the outside, Hephastne could make out the too-serene face of her older daughter, a face with the same curve of brow and mold of her own mouth, but with a vacant, stupid expression which Hephastne knew to be a blind. Whatever it was a blind for always made Hephastne uneasy.
“You know very well that this is our chance to quell the rumors about Vivne,” she reminded Ione in repressive tones. “We can afford no misstep. If someone should see you – .” She paused, then added, curling her fingers into fists until her nails dug into the soft palms of her hands, “It was a mistake to have you come to the City with us at all. You should have remained at the fief. Vivne has been an angel.”
“Yes,” Ione agreed readily, at least to the part about tagging along to Aur City. Not so much the part about Vivne being an angel.
Her mother, Ione found, had the skill of remembering things as she wanted them to be, though sometimes past events didn’t cooperate. Vivne, Ione’s younger sister and Hephastne’s presumptive heir, the one who was to ensure the House of Sapphe’s ongoing place in the First Tier of society, had been an angel for perhaps a couple of hours. Hephastne appeared to have forgotten about the events of that very morning when Vivne attempted to send a message to her lover, not to mention the loud, long drama that ensued.
The note had fortunately been intercepted before it got out the door by their Scholar-in-Residence and Hephastne’s cousin, the most noble and righteous Cephas. At least, he was noble and righteous when he was getting along with Hephastne and doing as she bid. Whenever he was foolish enough to oppose her wishes, he was a stupid, clumsy, hair-brained lummox.
The drama had reached its resounding climax – literally resounding – when Hephastne confronted Vivne with the letter. Hephastne’s righteous indignation quickly devolved into a shouting match between the two, overheard throughout the grand halls of the townhome. Nothing very meaningful was said on either side for all that.
Vivne had ended up locking herself in her room. Through her closed door, she informed Hephastne that she wouldn’t attend the fete that evening, much less get ready for it; her mother and the entire House of Sapphe were unbearably cruel and she didn’t care what they thought. And then she demanded to speak with Ione.
Hephastne, bristling with impotent rage, sent for Ione.
Ione spent the next hours with her sister and listened while Vivne railed against all the injustice done to her and her beloved Gabrel.
As always, Ione gave Vivne her opinion in her cool, calm way. And Vivne listened with more attention than she did to anyone else. Why Vivne listened to her sister – but not Hephastne – was a point of outraged wonder to the lady.
“You’ve wanted to be a part of the Season since you were a young girl,” Ione had murmured during a lull in Vivne’s ranting, “and you’ve spent much thought and time on the gowns you had made for the occasion. If you are seen with Gabrel in the City, or even if there are rumors that you are seeing him, you will be blocked from attending the Season. Not only now but forever in the future.”
“Society is so unfair!” Vivne had cried angrily.
“It has its rules. You have the choice to play by its rules and enjoy its fruits. Or to ignore its rules and have none. You can only choose once.”
Choice was more than Ione could ever hope for herself in their insular, island country of Aur, but that was beside the point.
Ione was actually surprised that her words had the effect of sobering Vivne rather than prolonging her tirades of self-pity. More likely, though, she’d just tired of raving and wanted to get ready for the fete. Because she really did want to go. She dabbed fretfully at her tear-streaked eyes and rose. Then she flounced over to her wardrobe, swinging the doors wide so that she could choose which gown she would wear. After a pause, she testily commanded Ione to have Hephastne come to assist her. Hephastne was the favored one when it came to clothes. Even Vivne had to admit that Hephastne’s sense of fashion was inerrable. Ione was dismissed after that.
Ione knew that despite Vivne’s attempts to see Gabrel, Vivne was only really interested in him because he was unattainable. She had other ardent admirers, none of whom Hephastne considered good enough, of course, but Gabrel’s shockingly low social standing made him the worst of the bunch. And therefore the most desirable.
But Vivne really didn’t want to run away with him and live in complete social disgrace, for that was what such an act would amount to. Of course, if challenged, she would convince herself she did. At least for the moment. And if she followed through on it, she would, Ione knew, end up regretting it for the rest of her life.
It was because Ione was the only one Vivne minded – to a limited degree – that Ione had accompanied the House party to Aur City for the Season. The Season was a three month period of assemblies and fetes, where alliances were reaffirmed or made. It was also a marriage mart when there were enough prospective brides and grooms.
It wasn’t that Ione had a special sisterly bond with Vivne – at least from Vivne’s point of view. Vivne “listened” to Ione mostly because Ione didn’t prevent her from doing what she wanted. Ione was less annoying than their mother or anyone else.
And she had been of use in getting Vivne out of “situations”, though Vivne was sure she would have been able to get herself out easily on her own.
Hephastne would have greatly preferred that Vivne didn’t get into “situations” in the first place, but, the lady had to admit – privately only – Ione’s interventions were better than nothing.
Ione wasn’t sure if any of this was the case, but she loved her sister so she did what she could.
“Go to the topmost floor and don’t leave it,” Hephastne told her presently, taking an involuntary step back as Ione neared her, and thinking once again that it had been such a mistake, bringing her along.
Hephastne actually understood Vivne very well – more than the girl knew herself – but, most infuriatingly, this didn’t always translate into being able to control her. Like Vivne, Hephastne had been a passionate, sensitive young woman – and Hephastne still was beneath the responsibilities she so nobly bore now. In her youth, she had also been utterly contemptuous of her own mother. But, of course, that had been different.
Hephastne’s curled fingers tightened as Ione met her gaze directly. Ione’s eyes glowed in the increasing gloom of the room, clear blue flames that seem to burn through into Hephastne’s very soul, revealing that all she held important was of no significance whatsoever.
But there was nothing different about her eyes, surely, compared to everyone else’s, Hephastne reminded herself. If anything, Ione should be an object of scorn, not fear.
All Hephastne could do was look away.
“Perhaps it will be best if you stay in your room,” she said, clearing her throat. The blue sapphire ring she wore on her first finger caught her eye, blazed up at her with the same sort of clarity as Ione’s eyes. She put her fists behind her back, clearing her throat again. “Perhaps we can arrange for you to return back to the fief, though I don’t see how.”
What she meant was she didn’t see how it could be arranged without any gossip. Ione could make the long journey back by herself to the fief easily enough, only she would be seen along the road, and it would be duly remarked upon how the Failed Scholar from the House of Sapphe was sent home alone. It would only remind everyone that she existed.
And, of course, the irony of the matter was it would only be the truth.
Ione walked past her mother, through the doorway, without another word.
“Don’t you dare come down,” her mother thought to add to her back as a way to make up for her unreasonable fear.
Ione turned her head briefly to her mother with a thoughtful look. It made Hephastne temporarily avert her gaze again. But Hephastne managed to recover her poise quickly.
“And don’t you look at me like that,” she said testily.
A faint smile curved the ends of Ione’s lips, but still she was silent. Her silence was louder than speaking the last word. She continued her way down the hall without undue haste, heading to the staircase.
Once Ione gained the top floor, she didn’t go to her own room at the back; instead, she went into her sister’s room, which was directly above the library. It had a corresponding bow window alcove as well as a balcony next to it, which afforded a view of the townhome edifices across the way and the street below.
She made her way past strewn piles of clothes, jewelry, and shoes; Vivne had taken a great deal of time and effort deciding what she would wear for the fete, going through much of her substantial wardrobe. Her mother had remained in her company throughout, both in accord with each other for once. It really was no wonder Hephastne had forgotten their earlier drama.
Ione took a seat in the alcove, drawing up her legs and opening her book again. But she stared at the pages without reading.
She allowed a flicker of emotion to pass over her face, the calm mask slipping.
Loneliness. Self-pity, perhaps.
But only briefly. She gave her head a slight shake. She didn’t allow herself to dwell too much on her own feelings, ever, because she’d already concluded some years ago that it just made her more miserable. Nowadays, she filled her head with books, reading as much as she could. Back at fief, she’d been systematically going through the library’s collection. Never mind that it was meager compared to the vast, comprehensive libraries at the College.
The fief collection had a decent number of books devoted to the rich history of Aurian decorative art, for that had been the pet interest of one of her ancestors. So Ione had made quite a study of that topic. She’d even had the exciting discovery of a reference to one of Sapphe House heirlooms, a blue sapphire ring of simple but masterful workmanship. Hephastne always wore it on the first finger of her right hand.
Before Ione’s fall from grace many years ago, Hephastne had let her examine it. Ione had only been ten years old, but even then she had realized that the engraving on the inner side of the band was a Scholar sigil. According to the book she’d read years later, there was some speculation that the ring had been crafted by a First Scholar. Ione knew now that it meant it was not only a ring but a weapon. At least, it was a weapon of a High Scholar, not so much for an ordinary Citizen.
And, even though she was hardly High Scholar material, the image of it had remained vividly with her in the years after. In her mind’s eye, she could trace out its intricately wrought twists and angles crossing and re-crossing each other in a complex dance. She even knew what it did.
If only she’d thought to mention the sigil while she had been at the College, so she sometimes thought regretfully. She might have been able to learn and understand more about the sigil’s meaning from genuine Scholar texts and from her High Scholar teachers. Instead, she had only her belated piecemeal understanding – and a clumsy ability to use it. But, of course, she’d been too busy humiliating herself at the College with her ineptitude to mention it then.
She wondered if she would have been able to do more with this one sigil if she’d at least been allowed to stay on at the College. Maybe she could have eventually shown her teachers she wasn’t a complete failure after all.
In any case, there was never an option to rejoin in the ten years since she’d been ousted. Tentative letters she’d sent now and then went unanswered. A shame. She had so many questions she would never be able to really answer, and not only about the sigil on the ring.
In the meantime, she was grateful that this trip to Aur City had at least given her the pleasure of more books. It had been over ten years since she’d last been at the townhome – last left the fief grounds – and she had only vague recollections of the townhome library collection. The books here turned out to mostly be light fiction that no one had thought to bring back to the fief. She found herself enjoying them.
Still, despite this new supply of amusement, she would have preferred to return to the fief rather than stay on. Because the House didn’t want to announce her presence any more than absolutely necessary, she was mostly confined to the townhome with only its small inner courtyard. And, since a number of the House members had made the journey to the City, it was harder than ever to avoid her relatives, all of whom, she knew, regarded her with a mixture of fear and contempt.
They didn’t want her here, either.
At least, for now, everyone was downstairs on the main level, gathered for the fete.
But what Ione really wanted besides returning to the fief was something she could never have and knew she shouldn’t even consider: to leave the island completely, escape this closed society which had no place for her at all.
She tried reading again. But failed. Instead, she closed the book and leaned over and peered down at the street below, pressing her forehead against the cold glass windowpane.
It looked like Hephastne had spoken to her in the nick of time, she thought dully. She could see the first of the guests starting to converge, walking down the broad mosaic-stone road from the other similar townhouse mansions that lined up on the southerly part of Aur City.
It was, Ione reflected, quite a pageantry of fashion and who’s who of the First Tier this evening. It appeared to have even garnered an audience of lesser-tier Citizens gawking at the sides as if viewing a formal parade.
The House of Sapphe’s social standing was still in the First Tier. For now. Their status was less because of tradition than recent social triumphs, all Hephastne’s. Hephastne had good reason to be proud of herself. First, there had been her marriage to her cousin, Plaves. Then there had been the birth of her daughters, Ione then Vivne ten years later. Once each of them passed the danger years when they might have transformed, the House of Sapphe firmly established itself as First Tier. The House had even survived the scandal when Ione was kicked out of the Scholar College. But they would need to continue the line if they were to remain in good standing.
Continuing the House lines was an ongoing struggle for all Aurians. They were a long-lived people, but each successive generation bore fewer and fewer children. Now many Aurians were unable to conceive children, and those who did risked giving birth to an Impure.
The Impure, the nightmarish shame of Aur, were deformed, crazed monstrosities. They were usually identifiable at birth, born with hallmark physical signs that they would go on to transform as they entered their teen years, though sometimes not. It was always safer to wait until after the first decade to make sure, and so children were mostly sequestered at their respective fiefs until then. Those who reached their tenth year without any sign of the discolorations on their skin or in their eyes were celebrated with much fanfare and boasting.
It was seventeen years ago when Ione had been brought to Aur City with her proud parents and a trail of other relatives, for a coming-out fete. She’d been pronounced by the Chancellor of the Scholar College to also show promise of magical ability, of becoming a Scholar, and so was to enter the College.
Scholars were held in awe in Aurian society. High Scholars, those who achieved astounding feats of alchemy and other abilities to bend physical laws, were considered demigods of sorts. Low Scholars, less astounding, were nonetheless necessary if households were to run smoothly, and it was even better to have household Low Scholars from one’s own House. Blood meant loyalty.
Ione was accordingly packed off to the Scholar College amidst high expectations that she would bring even more status to the House of Sapphe.
Only to return in disgrace after another seven years.
She had been dismissed from the College because she had been found severely wanting, unable to master even the most elementary of Scholar magic. She obtained the dubious distinction of being among the most inept Scholar initiates in the entire known history of the College.
“You are hardly more,” her teachers had informed Ione before kicking her out, “than an Armchair Scholar.” A damning insult. This was the pejorative name Scholars gave to Citizens who studied non-classified facsimile Scholar Texts and fancied themselves Scholars, just without any magical ability.
Ione had returned, thus, in disgrace, back to her familial mountain fief.
To her family and other Citizens, she was much, much worse than an Armchair Scholar, and, actually, Armchair Scholars were called “Scholarly Citizens” outside the College and well regarded as lay-experts.
Unlike a Scholarly Citizen, to her family and other Citizens she was truly and utterly useless, for she had no magical talent that could run the household or help grow her family’s wealth and power. And, because she was a Scholar, even a Failed Scholar, it also unequivocally meant she was barren. There would be no chance of her continuing their House name.
She had been back for a decade now, an embarrassment her family tried to keep hidden away from the scrutiny of the rest of Aurian society.
In some ways, she was worse than even an Impure, for her family couldn’t just deny that she existed. It didn’t help that she lurked about, ghost-like, making everyone uncomfortable.
Thankfully, there was the solace of the perfect Vivne, who was almost ten years younger than Ione. She, too, had survived her danger years and was pronounced a true Citizen. And she was now of a marriageable age. There had been no other children in this generation for the House of Sapphe to ensure its ongoing place in the First Tier. Vivne was its first and only hope.
Hephastne decided that nothing short of a brilliant match would do, perhaps between Vivne and the widower, Ursin of the House of Argens. He had accepted the invitation to tonight’s fete.
Now with the fete about to begin, Hephastne could well forget – for the moment -that Vivne had nearly eloped with that calculating, mercenary Gabrel of the wicked and depraved House of Eles.
The drama of Vivne’s seduction or infatuation or love, depending on the point of view, had first unfolded back at the House of Sapphe’s fief only the previous week. Vivne had attempted to elope or was just having a clandestine assignation – no one was sure which it was supposed to be – just before the family was to leave their fief for Aur City for the Season.
It was then that Ione had made herself useful – for once – and went after Vivne and brought her back. And it had been Hephastne and Plaves’ fear that Gabrel would follow them to Aur City which prompted them to bring Ione, a decision they regretted now, for there was nowhere to keep her for the three months.
Ultimately, for this latest calamity in Aur City, it had been the worthy Cephas who provided the necessary assistance, not Ione, by intercepting the note. No doubt Vivne would have gotten over her temper tantrum without Ione, Hephastne was inclined to think.
Ione also thought so.
Only, she also thought that once Vivne grew bored, she would just try something again. Something stupid. With or without Ione there. And there was a strong likelihood that Vivne would take it too far.
From her perch on the window seat, Ione found herself watching the ostentatiously dressed First Tier Citizens arrive. As they began to slowly congregate in the townhome, she could hear the distant ring of their voices filtering up even here on the third level.
Eventually, the stream of promenading people slowed to a trickle, and the streets were empty again; even the loitering audience drifted away. The daylight slipped into night, and the streetlights blinked on.
Around her, the room seemed all the more empty, deep in shadows.
Ione left the alcove and slipped out the stained-glass door, onto the balcony. The evening wind had picked up, carrying with it the ever-present smell of the salty ocean and the mountainous stone from which Aur City was carved. The trees along the street fluttered their leaves and flowers, casting up a whirlwind of soft petals.
Ione leaned against the cold metal railing, letting the chilled, salty-sweet wind brush against her face and catch at her hair.
Below her, a lone figure appeared along the roadway. From his formal clothing, Ione guessed he was a late guest to the fete.
She drew back slightly, and the jeweled comb that held her hair up slipped out and tumbled down three stories to the mosaic-patterned stone walk. She pulled her freed tangle of hair back from her face and gazed down at the comb. It lay there, some of the gems catching the light, winking up at her.
The man stopped before the comb and bent down to pick it up. Then he turned his head up. Their eyes met and held across the distance. There was a hardness to his features which made Ione think he was older than her.
“This is yours?” he said after a moment. He didn’t shout, but his voice, a cool, clear tenor, carried up along the swirling wind.
“You are coming down to the fete?”
She shook her head.
“You cannot speak?” he said mockingly, unsmilingly.
Ione decided she didn’t like him, whoever he was. One of the First Tier, of course. Since he came alone, perhaps he was a suitor and would become her brother-in-law.
“Will you toss the comb up?” she said, her voice coming out huskily. She realized she hadn’t spoken aloud for some time, not since the brief words she had spoken to Hephastne.
Without further commentary, he threw it up to her. His aim was good, and she managed to grab hold of it.
“Thank you,” she told him, and, without further word, pulled away from the railing and went back inside.
She realized her heart was pounding.
She’d not spoken to any strangers for the last ten years.
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