Chapter One: Funeral
I couldn't believe that she was actually gone. It seemed only yesterday that she had been sitting beside me, laughing at some joke or other. Now she was gone forever. Now, she was dead.
I brushed my tears away, trying to compose myself. Mother would not have wanted you to cry, I told myself, but in vain. I was an emotional wreck by now, my body wracking with violent sobs.
The worst part of it was that I should have known. All of the physicians had warned me that death was near during the final stages of her consumption. Foolish child that I was, though, I hoped. I hoped so much, that hope became a conviction that she would get better and everything would go back to normal.
This false hope had only made it hurt all the more when she had finally passed away. I'd been there at the time, my hand clasped in hers and my heart plummeting. My hope had done nothing but sharpen my sense of grief.
It took me about ten minutes until I regained some control of myself and my sobs quietened. I took shuddering breaths, gasping for the air that my lungs had sorely missed when I'd been crying too hard to inhale it.
A moment later even my shaky breaths had passed and I lifted my hand, gingerly touching the swollen skin beneath my eyes. I knew I had to fix that, make myself look more presentable. If I didn't look like I was managing well at the funeral I would spend the entire time plagued by well-wishers and that was not what I wanted right now. Right now I just wanted to get away and be alone.
I sighed. The damage I had done my face was not something that I could fix with cosmetics. I'd have to get some help - much as I hated to in my current state – and there was only one person I knew who could fix something this bad; my handmaid, Drucia.
Hesitantly I picked up an ebony brush from on my dresser, desperately ignoring an image of myself in the mirror that was threatening to invade my peripheral vision. I ran the brush through my tangled, black curls and tapped it once with the back of my fingernail.
Almost at once a young woman's face swam into view, perfectly visible against the black background of the Fae enchanted brush. "What is it mistress?" the woman asked, looking surprised.
I could have groaned right then and there, or worse had a fresh crying jag. Three days I hadn't spoken to her and three days was all it had taken for her to forget to call me Cederina. That was three years of hard work all gone in three days. "Call me Cederina," I said, whistling out a sigh. "I need your help, Druce. The...funeral is in a few hours and I need you to fix this." I gestured to my face. I knew that I looked terrifying with my blotchy nose and puffy, swollen eyes.
"Would you mind helping?" I asked her politely. That was one thing I had learnt from mother. Never order your servants around, always ask politely. It breeds a sense of loyalty to the family.
"Of course, Mistr – Cederina." I smiled shakily as she contradicted herself. After days of crying, smiling did not come easily. "I'll be right there," she told me and I nodded, passing the brush through my hair again. The flat surface turned black once more and I placed it back on the dresser.
True to her words I didn't have to wait long for my handmaiden to arrive. She was there in a matter of minutes, a great feat considering how long the staircase up to my room is.
She smiled at me tentatively, not knowing what to say to me after my days of silence. "Well?" I asked her, conjuring yet another fake smile onto my face , "Can the damage be fixed?" I pointed to the puffy skin beneath my eyes.
She eyed me severely for a moment, then, "It could be fixed, but only if you refrain from crying for the rest of the day."
I bit my lip, not knowing if that was possible. "I'll try," I told her.
"That's all I'm asking for," she replied as she whipped open one of my drawers and pulled out a jar of ointment. I hadn't even known it was there. It amazed me that in the three years she had been my handmaid Drucia had come to know my room – well, my dresser at least – far better than I had after living here five years.
Thankfully, it took her a short while to completely cover my face in a layer of cosmetics with smoky kohl lining the skin beneath my eyes. I was certain that if it had taken any longer I would have started fidgeting and ruined the whole thing.
Once she was done she assured me that I looked myself but I couldn't be sure because I point blank refused to take a look at myself in the mirror. That would just set off the water-works again. Keep it together, Cederina I reminded myself.
"Good luck," Drucia told me as we left my room. I murmured my thanks but I wasn't sure if she caught it as she walked briskly down the corridor and turned off into the library.
I wished with every fibre of my being that I could follow her and lose myself in the pages of one of those books. Instead, my fate was to descend the steep staircase, my arm clutching at the mahogany balustrade, just in case I should lose my balance.
By the time I had reached the bottom, I was out of breath, my face flushed with exertion. Thoughts of settling for a simpler room on the ground floor flashed momentarily through my head. They often did, but I always came to the conclusion that the long climb was worth it to have a spot so close to the library.
I drifted across the hall unwillingly and then into the carriage, feeling very alone because for the first time I was its sole occupant. On every other journey I had made my mother had accompanied me.
Of course, I wouldn't be alone for the entire funeral. My father would be coming with his new family, meaning his wife of five years now, Lady Nerren and her daughters Cerise and Leeva.
I had never met my father's new family, because, when he'd left my mother five years ago, she'd fled to her country estate to nurse her broken heart in solitude. Barrall Manor was in so far-flung a region of Amornia that we had never received one visitor in the five years we'd been staying here.
To be honest, I was not looking forward to the meeting with Lady Nerren and her offspring. From what I had managed to gather from the conversations of the servants - who travelled to the city to get the food and supplies the Manor needed - she was not a very pleasant woman. Her two daughters were reputed to be even worse.
My coachman, Thom, must have realised that I was feeling lonely, because he did his best to supply me with cheery conversation. I appreciated his efforts, but he could not come close to making up for my mother's absence. No-one could entertain me as well as her and it was with a bitter smile that I reflected on the past journeys I had made in this coach, all with her.
I wondered if this was what life without mother would be like for me. Empty, lonely and cold. Shivering at the thought, I withdrew into a corner of the coach. I only just managed to keep on responding to Thom's kind words.
Thoughts of the funeral invaded my mind and I leant back in my seat, feeling sick to my stomach. I refused to cry though, not when Drucia had been so helpful with making me presentable. As a substitute I wrapped my slim arms around my stomach, trying to repress the sickness that was forming there.
The sun was shining brightly when we got out of the carriage. I glared at it, seized with the temptation to shake my fist at the ever-smiling thing. How could it be so joyful, so full of light, when I was hollow?
Swallowing, I approached the large crowd of people dressed in black. It was touching to see that so many people had come out for my mother's funeral. She wouldn't have spoken to any of these people for five years – not since we'd left Amornia – but they were still out here paying their respects. It was testament to just how lovely my mother had been. Or just how bored these nobles were...
Making my way through the gaggle of people, I took one of the reserved seats in the front row. The four seats beside me - meant for my father and his new family – remained empty. Where could they be? Didn't they know that it was rude to be late for a funeral? I pursed my lips.
They did eventually arrive, about five minutes after everyone else. I could feel my blood boiling and bubbling up into my face. Anger suffused me. She had been last on his list of priorities when she'd been alive and her death hadn't changed anything.
I looked up at my father for the first time in years and there was no hug, not even a warm greeting. Instead, I glared at him and he looked uncomfortable. He smiled at me and if not for the large assembly of people here I would have cursed and stamped my foot in anger. As it was, I greeted him with a polite –if icy - "Hello."
His greeting was much more cordial and he slung an arm around my shoulder, "It's been too long, Ced," he told me.
My nostrils flared. Only the people I loved called me Ced - mother and sometimes some of the servants. Father was a stranger to me; he had no right to use my pet-name. He had forfeited all right to that when he'd up and left five years previously.
I gritted my teeth, "Has it?" I asked my voice sweetly venomous. The implication behind my words was clear. It had not been too long since I'd seen him last.
He looked away for a second - unnerved by my bad temper - but then he turned back to me. "This is my wife, Ced." I ground my teeth. Was he truly thick enough to not realise that I didn't want him calling me Ced? As for his new wife...
I eyed the woman with distaste. She was heavyset with thick features. I believed that her major attraction had been her fortune, which was even larger than my mother's. My father was a greedy man, in spite of his soft manners and I had no qualms about admitting it. "And these are her two lovely daughters, Cerise and Leeva."
Lovely? I nearly snorted. Cerise was anything but lovely. She was rounder than her mother and her hooked nose descended from between piggish, blue eyes. She was as far from being lovely as I was from being sweet-tempered. Then my eyes fell upon Leeva...
There was no denying it, this sister wholeheartedly deserved the term 'lovely'. She was beautiful beyond belief. Her eyes were large, their hue green. They glittered like jewels as she looked at me. Her hair a beautiful, glossy auburn fell past her waist, curling loosely and while her sister merely grunted at me when introduced, Leeva's full, pink, lips tugged up at the corners, "Nice to meet you," she said sweetly.
I nodded, completely awed and after a moment she turned away from me. I snuck a glance at her out of the corner of my eyes, how could it be that the servants had been so wrong about my step-sister? Perhaps they had just seen Cerise and Lady Nerren and not Leeva. Her elegant posture and graceful smile told me that she was a true Lady.
Feeling too numb to do anything other than nod at my stepmother, I returned my gaze to the casket. I couldn't see her from here, but I knew that my mother was nestled inside the coffin, waiting for the lid to be closed. Waiting for her eternal peace to be sealed.
The service began and it finished just as suddenly. Everything felt too fast. The priest simply said he "had never known anyone as beautiful and caring in spirit as Lady Adrianne." His words met a smattering of applause from the audience, all of whom seemed to concur with the priest. I noticed that none of my stepfamily's hands moved from their laps. Father's did though, they clapped louder than anyone else's and I felt myself melting towards him for a moment. He had loved my mother, after all.
His speech over and done with, the priest approached the coffin and looked down at mother for a second. Then he laid two gold coins upon her closed eyelids. Her passage through the OtherWorld was more than amply paid for. Creak. The coffin lid had finally come down, taking with it people's composed exteriors.
Nearly everyone was crying. Everyone that is, except me. I was beyond crying by this point. Fire seemed to be burning away at my chest and throat, while ice froze the rest of my body. I gave a dry gasp of pain as a dull ache passed through my head. All around me, tears, tears, tears. I felt as though I was drowning in a sea of salt water...
"Ouch!" I yelped and twisted away as sharp nails dug into my shoulder. I cast about me, searching for the source of my pain and was shocked to discover my stepmother leering down at me with a fake smile. I rubbed my sore shoulder; she had nearly drawn blood with those talons of hers.
Unable to contain my anger any longer, I spoke before I could think, "What the hell are you playing at?"
She sneered at me. "Forgive me, child. Was my grip too hard? I apologise, but even if it was, there was no need to carry on in such an unladylike manner, swearing," she shook her head and tutted. I nearly flew at her; I wanted to show her just how unladylike I could be. My temper is not one of my virtues. I repeat, not one of my virtues.
I glowered at her and then turned away coldly, ignoring my father's look of disapproval. He was a fool. Only a fool would have married such a woman. How could anyone love her? Nauseated by the pair of them, I rose from my seat. I didn't know where I was going just yet, but I knew that I didn't want to be anywhere near them.
Slow, subconscious steps drew me away from my seat, meandering their way to the coffin, which hadn't yet been lowered into the grave. I didn't want to go there, not just yet. Not, while everyone was still here, watching, but I couldn't help myself. It was as if the coffin was a powerful magnet and I an iron-filing, attracted to it irresistibly
"Mother," I whispered upon reaching it. I understood now why my feet had led me here. I was just a distraught child, seeking comfort in her mother's arms. Slowly, I leaned down and wrapped my arms as far around the casket as they would go. My head was resting against the glossy wood and I knew that this was the closest I could get to her embrace now.
I cried then, my few tears pooling on the surface of the casket. I wiped them and some of my make-up away as I stood back, eyes closed, trying to control the mass of emotion that was fighting to explode from within me.
I jolted slightly as something touched me, but my eyes didn't open. An arm was resting on my shoulder, unlike my stepmother's hand; this one was gentle, warm and comforting.
"I -" my mystery companion began, but then stopped, voice choked with emotion. It was a hoarse voice, raspy and most definitely male.
I opened my eyes, but directed them at the floor; I didn't want him to see the tears streaming down my face. I fought to control myself, finding a welcome distraction in his brown, leather boots. Almost hypnotic, swirling impressions rushed over the surface of the leather like waves and for a minute I let my mind follow the swirls. It was calming, soothing.
We stood there like that for a while. I needed a helping hand and no-one was there to give it me except for this stranger. Eventually, I decided that it was time to go. "Thank you," I murmured and turned to leave, the heat of his hand gradually slipping away from my shoulder. I didn't look at his face, not once. I wouldn't let a stranger see me crying freely like that. My heart warmed though, for the stranger who'd attempted to comfort me when no-one else would. He'd failed miserably, though. This just wasn't something that I could be comforted about. I wanted to be left alone to grieve.
After that came the well-wishers, some genuinely saddened, but for the most part each smile was more plastic than the last. Simpers, smiles, hugs. It all amounted to the same thing. Torture.
I managed to work out a routine response that minimised the pain of the experience. Smile. Nod. Thank you. Smile again... I followed this routine religiously, only breaking it to truly respond to some of the more genuine well-wishers. It seemed to go on for hours, an endless procession.
I sighed with relief as the last person wandered over and wished me the best of health. I nodded, too tired for any other response and whistled out a sigh of relief the minute that they left. As I ambled back to the coach, I felt the full weight of the day hit me, crush me. It was like I'd been holding out all of this time, just waiting for a moment when I could crumple. Silent tears streamed down my face, covering my cheeks in a salty solution.
Thom was waiting for me when I got to the coach, a small, sad smile on his face. I returned it and clambered into the coach, perfectly ready to be taken home.
Home. I needed to be there. Surrounded by the life that she and I had carved out for ourselves since I was ten. It was only there -where her musky scent could still be caught on the air - that I would ever really belong.
My smile at father as the coach pulled away was a tight one. The horses were taking me away from him, his wife and her children. God willing I would never have to see them again. Or at least not soon, at the moment I didn't want to see anybody. It was time for me to begin my life on my own.