melbourne authors

Day 3: Dreams

That night, she dreams of the man in the dark again; one nightmare, or perhaps not a nightmare at all, among many. He seizes her by the throat, with a hand of shadows and mists, of flesh and steel. Too weak to resist, too strong, always too damnably strong, to give in, she would plead, if she could, for release - death, or another kind.

With a hoarse whisper on her lips, the baroness of Namaire awakens. Ria makes no mention of this irregularity. The lady’s servants, all three of them, have long since learned not to comment on her often strange ways. She finishes her breakfast early, and ventures out into the grounds.

‘Lady Eloise.’

'Your Grace.’

Greetings and curtsies; polite conversation and false smiles. She can manage that, always. Her life has been an excercise in managing that. And if that stroll in the gardens she promised herself, a blissful hour of much-needed solitude, is to be interrupted by a chaperone - she would manage that development, and do it well. When the grand duke offers his arm, she takes it - without hestitation, never letting even a trace of displeasure manifest upon her features, or in her manner.

'I have read a… most interesting thing, the other day’, the man speaks, his tone as neutral as her expression, 'apparently, according to a certain scholar of Old Revaire, the entirety of human action, any deed at all, is governed by two reasons: the true one, which we most skillfully hide from ourselves, and the acceptable one, which we tell ourselves must be true.’

'Surely, no one invited to such a noble affair as this Summit is proving to be would ever consider doing aught for an unhonourable reason. We are each of us, after all, utterly dedicated to the protection of Katiya’s peace.’

One furtive look at his face is all she needs to tell that she has failed. She is tired, and preoccupied, not her best at all, yet somehow doubts that this platitude would work against an opponent of his skill, no matter how stellar the delivery.

'A sentiment as wise as it is true’, the grand duke replies, leading her towards the hedge maze: an act of whimsy, a subtle metaphor, or merely a way to ensure privacy, 'As a chaperone, I approve of your noble ideals. In that spirit, I shall offer a word of advice… if you would have it.’

'Always. A chaperone, after all, would never think to lead me astray.’

He stops, abruptly, and turns to face his companion, smiling ever so slightly as she takes a controlled step back. Amused, mayhap, with her caution, or impressed with her self-possession.

'As… well-rehearsed as your bland courtesy is, this is not a time for games. Not ones of this paltry sort, in any case. I have seen you with the Crown Prince. As advantageous and prudent a match as it might seem to you, if not to those of us who believe the purpose of the Summit is to further relationships between different nations… reconsider. You believe that you can steer him to do your bidding. That to be crowned queen of Revaire would be the only fitting fulfillment to your ambition. All… acceptable reasons, no doubt. So acceptable, indeed, that I came to wonder about the true ones.’

There are dozens of tricks at her disposal: a cutting remark, an allusion, perhaps, to Princess Jaslen, a veiled mention of Lady Avalie. The pretense of puzzlement. Some way to deflect the question back upon it’s giver. And yet, she remains silent, caught between fear and desire - a combination even more dangerous to her than than it is to others.

'You guard yourself well, lady Eloise. Too well, perhaps, to find hapiness’, the grand duke spoke, as if to reassure her, 'But not well enough to deceive a man of experience. There are… ways to get what you need, my dear. Ways that, appearances to the contrary, would leave you in complete control of your fate. Ways that… do not involve marriage.’

He reaches out, as if to touch her face, to cup her cheek. Too strong, always too damnably strong to yield, she stops the caress midway, seizing the man’s wrist - and smiles to see the look upon his face: an expression of unguarded surprise. She imagines that few, very few perhaps, have ever managed to see him like this.

'Ah, sir. You truly hold me in high esteem’, she replies, finding the right words without effort, 'And you truly have high expectations for my future. Why else, after all, would a man of your stature endavour to discover a scandalous secret of a mere baroness? A secret of which you could gain sufficient proof, and then expose it, or merely threaten to do so, whenever it suited your purpose?’

She lets go of his hand; lets go of might have been. Of the words that might have been spoken. Of the deeds that might have followed.

The baroness of Namaire knows the price of her dreams. It is one she cannot yet afford to pay.