The Opal Fox
So this is what, the sixth, seventh, time I've rewritten the beginning? Sigh. I have to thank all the people whose reviews have helped me tweak and refine the opening. I take them all into consideration!
Perhaps the most import thing to remember is that I am a sorceress. Most people these days don't even know the difference between a sorceress and a witch, which shows a shocking amount of ignorance on their part. For reference, a witch (or warlock) does not have magical ancestry; they appear, sui generis, with never a hint of magic in their whole family history. A sorceress comes from a magical family, whether it be her mother, aunt or grandmother. It is an important distinction and the cause of all the trouble we got into over the years, well, almost all of it.
The next most important thing to remember is that I am a Dielle. I am of the oldest nobility, tracing my line from the greatest witch that ever lived, the Thaumaturge. We were noble and powerful before our kingdom was even founded and this had made us proud. Pride can be a dangerous trait, especially when it blinds you to the dangers of the world around you. Our pride blinded us until it was too late and we were cast from favor by a mad king who feared magic.
The genocide and witch hunts of the previous generation have made us suspicious and self-righteous. One historian wrote that a sorcerous house will always be pulled in one direction or another as factions try to gain the support of its powerful members. Sadly, she was only too right and we have taken sides. My father now leads the opposition party's efforts to check the king's power and restore the place of magic in the kingdom.
And the third thing to remember is that no matter what she says to the contrary, my sister is the troublemaker in our family and it is she who is responsible for getting me into this awful mess. It's really all her fault.
"Leave Papa alone for a few days," I said over my breakfast plate. The quiche was excellent as always but only half-eaten. I was in no mood to appreciate our chef's great talent that morning, nor had I been for several days.
The fire burned high in the grate and the table was spread with warm and hearty foods, but not even these or the cheery colors of the breakfast room could beat back the icy mood overtaking our household. My sister, Marie, was out of her chair and halfway to the door, but she stopped long enough to throw a nasty look my way. At least we matched the weather, I told myself with a glance towards the grey winter sky beyond the windows.
"You don't understand! You can't! You've never loved anyone like I have, Aura."
"This isn't about love," I retorted, jabbing my fork in her direction. "This is about politics and money."
"See!" she shouted, throwing up her hands. "You don't understand!"
She was just being difficult, I really did understand; it wasn't hard after she had been shouting about it for days. Her fiancé, Derie Avelay, had been estranged from his parents ever since he had declared his support for our father's party. Since then Derie had been cut off from everything except a small allowance from his mother's dowry. She, at least, still cared for his well being. His father, Lord Avelay, had recently taken up a stance supporting 'family values' when one of Father's supporters challenged him, before half the legislature, to defend his own conduct with his son. He had replied that he was more than willing to make up with Derie, if only the boy would take the small step of coming to meet him on the neutral ground of the Assembly Court and formally ask for his parents' blessing of his engagement.
What Lord Avelay was banking on was the fact that for a formal blessing to occur both parties must be present, and no Dielle had set foot within the Assembly Court since my grandfather's last address there some forty years before. Grandpapa had openly challenged the Mad King's roundup of witches and in response my grandmother had died. My grandfather survived their 'carriage accident' but he was crippled and refused to have anything more to do with the sham politics of the time. Avelay knew my father was dead set against any Dielle setting foot on those accursed grounds until a formal apology had been made to our family. Marie was set on challenging both men.
Marie spun away and went out the door, almost slamming into Reggie as he brought another pot of coffee for her. I threw down my napkin and nearly kicked my chair over before following. Arguing with Marie is futile, seventeen years had taught me as much, and yet I still tried. So I chased after her, shouting up the stairs as the pounding of her feet told me that she was headed towards Father's study. When I arrived she was jumping up and down before the door, but she stopped long enough to upend one of the tables in the hall, sending candle stubs and matches rolling across the floor in every direction.
I took the opportunity to slip between her and the doorway, planting one hand on the jamb and the other on my hip. Fed up with her antics and cranky at my interrupted breakfast, I intended to make her stop one way or another. Father had locked himself in and we already knew he would refuse to answer the door, or even acknowledge our presence. But that did not stop her trying, which only made me angrier.
"Now wait a moment-" I started to say.
"Goddess Aixa," Marie called as she began to pace.
Outside the snow fell, big flakes drifting towards the ground in lazy swirls. The grounds were covered in white frosting, the walls and fountains looking like fluffy sculptures decorating a giant pastry. I only wished it could be so peaceful and quiet inside. With a sudden lunge she pulled me out of her way before her next attack and I silently cursed my sister's bullheaded nature as I tripped over a rolling candle and caught myself on one of the tables littering the hallway. I was more than a little tempted to hex her while her back was turned, but I knew the worst possible idea would be to start a magical fight while she was in such a mood.
"Give me patience! Give me fortitude. Give me a stronger fist!" Marie threw herself at the door, though the heavy wood still would not budge.
"Father! You can't stay in there forever!" she shouted as she rattled the handle. I could just imagine him, sitting at his perfectly ordered desk, trying to figure out the best way to have food delivered through the second story windows. He would do it too if she continued like this for much longer; it had already been over a week since her tantrums started and he was spending more and more time locked away.
"I need to go to Assembly Court!" she screamed. "If you don't come out I'm going anyway, permission or not!" She stopped her shouting and pounding to give him another chance to respond but there was only blissful silence for that moment and the snowflakes drifting by the window. "If you won't answer one way or another I'll take it as a yes!"
"Marie, will you please stop already?" I grabbed her arm before the next blow could fall and shook my head. This was her fourth attempt to have a shouting match with our father. Our mother had retreated to the orangery and the servants were hiding in the basement until the storm subsided. "Really, he's never going to say yes and with the fit you threw last time, he's not going to say no either," I told her, hoping that maybe this time she would listen to reason, though by this point I should know better.
"Aurelie," she shot back, pulling her arm free and straightening her dress. "Don't tell me what to do. He's our father, he should act like it-Instead of hiding!" she shouted the last part and kicked the door. "If Derie is to inherit his father's title I need to go with him! I don't care whose side they're on, I just want to meet my fiancé's parents." She turned away, scowling, and I caught her mutter: "And have them un-disown him."
"Derie's parents are royalists!" I exclaimed, hoping that she could still at least see why our father was upset. I was as fond of Derie as any future sister-in-law could be; his parents, Lord and Lady Avelay, however, were quite possibly grounds for divorce.
"But he follows father around like he's some great hero! If he's ever to make up with the old bastard we have to go now and get his blessing." She sneered the last word and her eyes flashed but she was still more than willing to go through with the ritual- if it meant money.
"Mother would say yes if you asked her."
I crossed my arms and stepped back, waiting for another one of her little fits. It takes a great deal of patience to handle Marie and I was thankful her fiancé had enough of it to take her off my hands most days.
"Mother's not the one who orders the grooms to hide the saddles and take apart the coaches whenever we try to go somewhere." Another kick to the polished wood finished this sentence. It was a good thing she had her riding boots on and not house slippers.
"Goddess above," I breathed as my older sister stomped up and down before the door, crackling with half-formed spells and angry magic. "He's our father, don't you know by now that he acts like a spoiled child when it comes to King Phillip? He'll never listen to you. He doesn't care. The grudge is more important-"
The door opened then, positively flew backwards and my father appeared, framed by the light from the windows. We jumped back in surprise, nervous, and unable to see him clearly. He took a step forward into the hall and glowered at the both of us, but especially me. I am not used to having my father turn that look on me; I am the (relatively) good one. I slunk back even further.
"Never let it be said that I care about anything in this world more than my girls," he said in such a low tone that I felt my neck burn with shame. "So Avelay was stupid enough to offer to reinstate his son?"
"If Derie and I meet him by the Assembly Chambers sometime this season," she replied promptly, all signs of pouting and temper tantrums miraculously smoothed away. "Father, he does not think that you will let me go and so he will never have to hold up his end of the deal. That way he can blame Derie for their estrangement."
"And if he is forced to hold up his end and reconcile with his son-"
"I will be the next Lady Avelay!"
"Fine," he said and for a second neither of us registered what had just happened. He turned away, retreating back into the depths of his study. "Go and show Avelay up, but don't talk to anyone who's not on our side. Don't do them the honor. And Aurelie, you'll go with your sister." And with that the door shut.
"But-but Papa!" I called as Marie ran off shrieking for our mother. "I don't want to go to court!" I yelled at the door.
After my sister's frantic footsteps had died away the door opened a crack and half of my father's face appeared. He scanned the wedge of hall he could see before opening it further and sticking his head out.
"You'll go with your sister," he said once he saw that the coast was clear, "or neither of you goes. I'm not throwing her to the lions. I can't trust all of our allies at court to be as vicious as you in defending our name."
"Don't you think my viciousness will be an embarrassment to our family?" I asked.
"With the way they'll come after you once they realize who you are? I think you will put them all in their places," he said with a fond smile, before it faltered. I saw the shift coming, but instead of cold anger there was sadness as he asked: "Do you really think I'm that selfish, Aura?"
"I guess I have to go find a suitable dress," I said, turning away from him quickly, still ashamed and embarrassed that I had yelled such a hurtful thing. "Since Marie's been placated maybe you'll finally come to dinner again?" I ran away to follow Marie before he could reply.
"The Assembly Court?" My mother was not as pleased as my sister had anticipated. She did not even look up from her writing desk at Marie's breathless announcement. Instead, she kept writing, the long feather tracing delicate patterns through the air when the quill quivered. "Well, if your father says you can go I have nothing to say against it. The Sea King knows he does what he wants with regards to you girls."
"Mama," Marie said again. She stood primly by the settee, her chin up and eyes fixed on her target when I arrived in the doorway. With our mother shouting was not the way to wear her down. She would not flee from open conflict like our father. It took slow insistence, like a relentless tide, to change her mind. "Don't you see? Derie's father made that promise in front of half the Assembly, if we hold up our end he'll have to bless the marriage. And then he'll have to give us the house!"
"The house?" my mother repeated as she began paying attention. The quill paused in midair. "Which house?"
"The one Lord Avelay promised Derie if he got married to a girl the lord approves of," I intoned as I rested against the doorjamb.
I had heard the story repeated often enough by my overeager sister that I, like her, had every word memorized. I'm afraid my repetition lacked something of her enthusiasm though as I stood there watching them, still thinking of my half-eaten breakfast. At least it seemed the storm of tantrums were over, though I was tempted to throw one myself at the idea of being forced to deal with the other nobles at court. Knowing what some of our party's members were like, I could only imagine what the other side was like. Undoubtedly they were barely capable of rational thought, how else could they continue to blindly support such a dynasty?
"And then we'll have enough money to staff a full manor house!" my sister barreled on.
Not that they would ever want for money. My father would take care of everything. He always did.
"But we must go as soon as possible!" Marie continued. "And Father has said that Aura is to come too. I'll write to Derie at once! And we must have new dresses!"
"There's no time for new ones!" I called as she ran past me towards the stairs.
"I'll call for the seamstress at once."
I looked around to find my mother setting aside her letter and pulling a ledger from the desk. Lady Anabella Dielle, the daughter of Lord Donghai of Margate was known widely for a few things besides being the wife of my father. One was her love of slightly dangerous animals; the other was her strict attention to her correspondence. Seeing her put it aside made me a bit uneasy and I fidgeted in the doorway, unsure of what to do next. What I really wanted was to escape the madness descending on my family with a nice long ride to somebody saner's house. The Jujues were less than two miles away, it was a tempting idea.
"Be a sweetheart, Aurelie, and send word for Lynne. I'll have her alter your second best dresses. Luckily your Aunt Mary has just sent me some drawings from Nantal and I'll have you both in the latest fashions. We can't have you a season behind at the Assembly, now can we?"
"Mama, I think it hardly matters. We will only be there briefly."
She laughed lightly as I gestured for one of the footmen in the hall to come over.
"Well I still intend for my girls to stand out from all the rest," she said with a smile in my direction. "We still have to find you a husband after all!"
"Ugh, Mother, please." I rolled my eyes and slouched a bit. The subject of husbands was starting to appear more frequently and more seriously in conversation as Marie's relationship marched on towards marriage.
"One day Aurelie, one day!" she laughed.
I sent the footman off to find the seamstress and shook the thoughts of husbands from my head. "Anything else Mama?"
"Hm, you shall go next Third-day, if Lord Avelay is attending," she mused over her ledger and schedule book. "That way the King and Crown Prince will not be present and there will be no way you will be called upon to pay your respects to them. I shall send Kingsley with you, of course, and probably Reggie, they are our two best looking footmen. Run along and make sure your sister doesn't think you're going tomorrow or something."
I sighed and headed for the back stairs, the quickest route to Marie's room. I just knew I was going to have to endure several days of her triumphant boasting. She always did like to gloat over a victory.
The next Third-day found us on the streets of the capital city, Salano, in our largest carriage, though it was hung with Derie's coat of arms for the occasion. The Assembly Court, a massive granite structure full of spires and gargoyles, sat on the same grounds as the Summer Palace at the center of the city and for the first time ever it was our destination.
I watched the street-life go by as our coachman shouted and cracked his whip to outmaneuver another carriage. Up and down the boulevard horses, reindeer, and oxen pulled carts and wagons loaded with goods and people. Pedestrians and horses weaved between the slower vehicles, with a moa here and there, its long legs holding its rider above the level of the horsemen. These giant birds were still a curiosity and a favorite of the fashionable young men who had more money than they knew what to do with. I'd always hoped I could see one in a spectacular crash: feathers everywhere, angry donkeys snapping at its heels. I'd heard stories…
Inside the carriage Marie and I sat opposite each other in our newly altered dresses. Our necklines had dropped and the padding holding up our skirts had widened, but the cream and pink striped silk of my dress was essentially the same. Marie and Derie sat beside each other, holding hands and staring straight ahead. Marie's dress was pastel green, as was Derie's waistcoat. It had taken them nearly two days to decide that they should match and then to settle on a color. Even as I looked at them sitting quietly with serious expressions I was tempted to laugh at the memory of Mother, Marie and the upstairs maids all holding up dresses, trying to decide which he would look best next to as Derie stood there with an expression of utmost tolerance.
To keep from snickering I looked out the window again and saw a young man weaving through the traffic on one of the oversized birds. He handled it well, turning sharply, pulling alongside horses without spooking and picking the right path to keep moving forward. I'll admit some jealousy as I sat there in our fine big carriage, jolting over the road's worst bumps and being cut off by people like this young man. Marie and I are both fine riders and I saw that he caught her attention as well as he rode alongside our carriage. Of course it is possible that it was his wavy golden hair, fine clothes and athletic figure that attracted her attention more than his riding skill. I, of course, was only interested in seeing his bird have an unfortunate encounter with a chicken cart.
The young man glanced towards us, a confident smile on his face. It looked as if he had the habit of gloating over those he passed. Then he made eye contact and with a sudden jerk pulled back on the reins. The bird nearly stumbled and I snorted, but Marie and I started when he quickly matched pace with our carriage.
"Hmph," Derie grumbled when the young man stood in his stirrups and swept off his tall hat with a little bow to us. "Show off."
Marie's fan was out in a flash, hiding her smile from her fiancé and the other man. I couldn't help smiling as well, especially as he almost hit the back end of the aforementioned chicken cart and had to quickly veer around it. A second later he was back alongside our carriage and still smiling, though I had seen the flash of apprehension cross his face.
"Open the window!" my dear sister said, kicking me.
Beside her Derie sunk down in his seat and crossed his arms like a sullen child. I rolled my eyes at them both and pulled the window open so she wouldn't hurt my dress. I had fought for hours to get that silk and I wasn't about to let her stomp all over it.
"Dear ladies," the rider called. "How are you today?"
"Very fine, thank you sir," my sister called back.
"Where are such lovely ladies going this morning?" he asked as he pulled right up beside our carriage, close enough to touch it.
I shifted uneasily under his gaze as his blue eyes flicked towards me again. The attention I normally receive from young men is usually tempered by some acknowledgment of my position. I am Sir Charles Dielle's daughter, a sorceress, and the one who broke the Duke of Demsby's arm two years ago. I do not get such openly appraising looks.
"We are going to pay a call," I answered and glanced at Marie before she could say 'court.'
"Who is the lucky recipient of such a fair visit?" he asked with a courtier's honeyed tones. My dislike intensified.
"My father-in-law," Marie replied with a smile at Derie. Derie was slouched back against his seat, but his lips twisted into a cynical smile at that.
"My sincerest sympathy, m'lady," the rider replied and we all had to suppress our laughter. "I cannot believe I have not had the pleasure of meeting you ladies before!"
"Then that must mean we are on opposite sides of the aisle, my lord," I replied and watched his smile turn mischievous, whereas I had hoped to send him cantering away.
"I'm not a political man," he laughed, nudging the bird forward a bit more. No, I thought to myself, it was quite obvious he had other things on his mind. He glanced ahead and frowned, and sighed. "I'm afraid our ways part shortly."
I blinked at him, trying to keep my expression neutral. "That's too bad, my lord," I drawled and my brother-in-law began to chuckle. "Perhaps at some far distant date we will meet again."
Marie looked scandalized, but the golden haired man merely smiled, the left-hand corner of his mouth raised slightly higher than the right. He took one hand from the reins and plucked a flower from the top buttonhole on his coat, which, despite the cold, he had left open. He held it out towards me and the flapping of Marie's fan intensified.
"A token, m'lady, of my esteem," he said as I stared at the flower in some bewilderment. It was the middle of winter and here he had a tropical lily in his buttonhole. Some fine greenhouses his family must have had.
"I'm afraid, sir, that I do not take tokens from young men," I managed to say in response to his expectant look. My sister had the decency to burst out laughing. "Marie!"
"Oh take it!" she said through her laughter. "I promise not to tell Mama or Papa."
"You will see no more flowers like that until Spring!"
"If you cannot take it for yourself," the rider said, looking quite proud of himself, "then please give it to your honored mother and tell her it cannot compare to her two lovely daughters." In his corner Derie snorted again and I had to hold back laughter as well. His overblown language was not what we were used to in my household. Such false sweetness was still in vogue among the royalists though, and I thought I had him pegged.
"Very well," I sighed, leaning on the window frame to take the flower from his outstretched hand. "I am sure my mother will be quite amused, my lord." And mentally added that I was not.
"It is customary to give a kiss upon receipt of a flower," he said with that slightly sideways smile and I mutely held the flower back out to him. "But I would never think to ask such a chaste maiden as yourself."
That brought more giggles from Marie inside the carriage, though I think he did not hear them. Chaste maiden indeed! Delicate, dewy, flower of splendor let me keep you in a jar on a pedestal… That was certainly nothing I needed or wanted from anyone.
"Good day ladies!" he called as I pulled my arm back through the window and he wheeled away.
"We should do this more often," Marie said, to groans from Derie and myself. "He was handsome," she added and prodded me with her foot as I slumped against my seat.
"He was," I sighed, knowing that she would not leave me alone until I agreed.
"He liked you." The prodding intensified.
"He liked us both," I returned and pulled my legs up onto the seat. I was glad to see him gone, no matter how handsome.
"You're the reason he stopped to talk," she barreled on. "He saw you and totally forgot himself. Derie did you see the way he almost fell off his moa?"
"Yes darling baby sister mine?" I was always impressed by her ability to look completely innocent even when she had the most insidious plots brewing, but then I've been told it's a family trait.
"Stop trying to set me up with anonymous strangers."
"He would not have stayed anonymous had you encouraged him a little more!"
I sighed and returned to my window gazing.
"Well go on and do something with the flower!"
I looked down at the thing in my hand. It was a crisp white lily just the right size for a lapel or buttonhole, its petals and symmetry perfect. With his obvious wealth he probably had no idea that flowers could be anything but perfect.
"What if it's a symbol of his house?" I asked as I twirled the blossom, half wishing to pull off one of its petals. "I can't wear anything of the sort!"
My sister snapped her fingers and with a tiny flair of magic the flower changed from a snowy white to a rich pink that matched my dress. "There, now no one will ever know," she said and pinned it to my dress before I could protest.
Concrit would be very much appreciated! Or any sort of feedback. Thanks :D