Andrea tugged at the strings holding her dress together at each side. She loathed these formal gowns, but her father was relentless. It was the beginning of Tajad, the most festive celebration in Colonna. At least now, when Andrea was twenty-five, she was able to choose her own seamstress and style, to a degree.
"Please, stand still, miss," Bettina, Andrea's ladies made said with her usual exasperation evident in her voice. "I have told you so many times. If you don't fidget, we'll be done quicker."
Andrea sighed, but let her arms fall to her sides. Bettina had been with her ever since she was two years old, when Andrea's mother passed away. Rising in the ranks from nanny to lady's maid, Bettina was the only one Andrea truly listened to, and the compact woman had been like the mother she never knew for her entire life.
"There," Bettina said, stepping back from Andrea, hands on her hips. "If you're not the most beautiful woman at the ball tonight, those stuck-up fools at the court are as blind as they're rich and stupid."
Andrea grinned at Bettina's irreverence and had to concede that the midnight blue dress adorned with topazes and pearls, made her look quite elegant. Normally, a young, unwed woman dressed in light pastels, but Andrea was no keen on being regarded as 'on the market', but rather in the 'a bit too old' category when she entered the country estate of the monarch, located just outside Colonna's capital, Camahl, where the Tajad royal ball was kept every year. She was well are that her father had his sight on a rich and successful son-in-law, and eventually a bunch of grandchildren. Shuddering at the idea of all it, Andrea looked over at the dresser.
"Should I really wear mother's tiara?" She regarded the impressive piece sitting in a blue velvet box. It matched her dress, which was thanks to Bettina's influence, but it was large and bound to give her a headache.
"I think you should. Your mother always meant for you to have it, pet." Bettina was not generous with terms of endearment, but now her otherwise stern voice was soft. "Let me attach it and then you can make up your mind." She helped Andrea off the stool she'd been standing on when Bettina helped her into the intricate dress.
Sitting down by the vanity, Andrea looked at the stranger in the reflection. The makeup turned her into someone who appeared to be more worldly, and less clumsy, than she always felt at the functions her father insisted she'd attend. Her brown eyes looked more like amber, and her full lips were perfectly lined. The neckline of her dress plunged deep between her breasts, but thin mesh fabric kept her from causing a scandal.
"There." Bettina formed one more tress of Andrea's long, chestnut hair into a curl and attached it at the base of the tiara.
The impressive piece of jewelry was indeed the perfect accessory. It wasn't as heavy as Andrea feared, and when she stood, she felt Bettina had secured it properly.
"All right, Ma," Andrea said, using her own, secret pet name for Bettina. For some reason, this made Bettina's eyes well up with tears and she pulled up a handkerchief from her apron pocket. "Oh, no," Andrea said, horrified. "What did I say?" Bettina never cried.
"Nothing at all, pet. You're just so beautiful tonight, and you called me ma. You haven't in a long time."
Andrea didn't care if she wrinkled her dress. Pulling Bettina in for a hug, she clung to her. "Not out loud, I know. But always in my head, ma. And my heart."
Bettina allowed the embrace for a few more seconds, but the pushed Andrea away. "Don't you dare destroy hours of ironing that thing," she grumbled, but Andrea could hear the tears on her voice still.
"I won't." Andrea checked the old gold-plated clock on the wall. "I might as well go downstairs. Father is always far too early." She grimaced as Bettina draped the silver-wool shawl around her shoulders. "Wish me luck."
"I wish you more than luck. I wish you happiness, whenever it comes your way. And I wish for you to recognize it when it does." Bettina hand her hands over Andrea's shoulders, smoothing down the shawl. "Try to enjoy yourself tonight."
Andrea snorted. "I will. If nothing else, then to spite Father."
She left her room and walked down the broad, curved staircase to the large hallway below. As she had guessed, her father stood ready, tapping his foot impatiently. A tall, gangly man with thinning, gray hair, he was immaculately dressed in traditional dark green caftan and black trousers.
"Finally," he said and looked her over. "Really, Andrea? Black?" He wasn't pleased.
"First of all, I'm fifteen minutes early, and no, not black. Midnight blue." Andrea spoke lightly, set on not letting him get to her. His constant criticism could sometimes scratch at her nerves, as claws against her skin. Tonight, she would simply ignore him and keep out of his reach as much as possible.
"Ha." Father huffed as he walked out the tall double door to the waiting carriage. He climbed into it, not bothering to show her even the consideration common courtesy suggested. It was not surprising as Andrea was well aware of what she was to him. Someone to secure his estate by marrying into money, and his legacy, by having children, preferably sons.
Andrea allowed one of the footmen to take her hand and help her into the carriage. Sitting down opposite of her father, she refused to lower her gaze from his. Not this time. To her surprise, he was the first to look away, a frown deepening between his eyebrows. Perhaps a very small win, but better than nothing. Andrea offered her father a sweet smile before she pulled a tiny mirror from the pocket, she had insisted her seamstress sew into her dress, and checked her makeup. Perhaps she might have some fun tonight after all.
The balcony overlooking the front of the castle was decorated with enough spruce, red satin ribbons, and glass ornaments, to risk it detaching from the impressive stone structure. Miranda raised the crystal glass holding a well needed brandy and sipped it as she studied the carriages delivering everyone who was anybody in Colonna. Royalty, nobility, people of immense wealth, and foreign dignitaries.
The next carriage in line to deliver its passengers stood out from the rest with its scuffmarks and outdated reins and adornment for the horses. The valets opened the door to the carriage and a tall, middle-aged man stepped out. At first Miranda thought he was unaccompanied, but then a slender ankle appeared, followed by a dress so blue it was almost black. It sparkled from yellow and white stones and the woman, whoever she was, wore it with a grace and elegance that made it difficult to look away.
Chestnut hair with highlights from the surrounding fires baskets and torches, making it look like aged gold. The woman stopped to adjust her shawl, and then looked up, straight at the balcony. Miranda wanted to take a step sideways, into the shadows, but found it impossible to move. The young woman was stunning, it was obvious even from this distance. Large, dark eyes, full lips, and now she tilted her head to the side, before returning her focus on the older man, who might be either her father, guardian…or husband. Miranda pursed her lips. The latter was no appealing at all.
The large, thirty-two-pane glass doors behind Miranda opened and the sound of the guests inside came at her like a wall of chatter and music.
"General. Her majesty requests your presence." The footman spoke quietly.
"Then by all means." Miranda adjusted her gala sword to align with her left leg perfectly and strode into the ballroom. Over by the other side of the vast room, Queen Serena's throne was the obvious focal point, and the young queen even more so. The queen sat surrounded by her ladies and lords in waiting, but it was obvious that Serena had been waiting a few minutes too long for Miranda than she was comfortable with.
"Your Majesty," Miranda said, greeting her queen with a placating bow.
"You took your time," Queen Serena said. "I thought I made myself clear—"
"You did. I lost track of time outside on the balcony. It's a beautiful evening. All the stars are out for your Tajad festivities, Your Majesty."
"Such poetic flattery is barely enough to make me feel less ignored, but it will have to do." Serena huffed, but Miranda could tell she was only half joking. "Take your seat, General."
Miranda bowed again, this time not as deeply, and took the seat just behind the queen's right shoulder.
"Lord Sachs and his daughter, Lady Andrea!" the Herald of Arms called out.
Apparently, the young woman from outside had caught up with her rude father as she was only two steps behind him as they entered the staircase leading down to the ballroom.
"Now there's a beauty with a past," one of the ladies in waiting behind Miranda, said. Recognizing the unmistakable voice of the queen's favorite among them, Emily, Miranda made a mental note to ask the haughty woman what she meant later.
Lord Sachs bowed to the queen and was quickly dismissed. Obviously, he was of little interest to the sovereign. Lady Andrea curtsied, and it was clearly not something she was used to as it was neither deep nor long enough. A quick glance at Serena showed no irritation over this, surprisingly. Instead, the queen held up her hand and stopped Lady Andrea from moving to the side and make room for the next in line to greet her.
"I haven't laid eyes on your before, Lady Andrea, isn't that right?"
Looking like she would pay good money to be anywhere but in the queen's focus, Lady Andrea swallowed visible and then shook her head. "No, Your Majesty. I haven't had the honor until tonight."
"Well, we need to rectify this. I'm not pleased with your father for keeping you from this court. One would think Lord Sachs would not make such a mistake—if that is what it is." Serena sent Lord Sachs a dark look. He looked as if he meant to say something, but thankfully thought better of it.
"No, my queen, my father is not to blame. I am usually something of a recluse and have never thought I have anything to offer the court." Clearly, Lady Andrea had found her bearings. Miranda looked between the queen and the young woman, more intrigued than she'd been in a long time.
"Ah. I find this hard to believe. You have a lot to make up for, then." Serena tapped her lower lip. "I think a walk through the halls under the protection and guidance of my most trusted person is a splendid idea. What do you think, General Priestly?" Turning her head to look at Miranda, Serena grinned. "I'm sure you'll be the perfect person for this assignment. Please, don't forget to show Lady Andrea the special chamber. I believe it's time."
Damnation. Miranda groaned inwardly. It wasn't as if she hadn't suspected this only seconds after laying eyes on the Lady Andrea. She had never met this woman before, and yet, it was as if she knew her. That could only mean one thing. "It would be my honor, Your Majesty," Miranda said and stood. She walked over to Lady Andrea's right side and offered her arm. "My lady."
Lady Andrea stared at her, open-mouthed, for several seconds, before placing her hand on Miranda's arm and spoke in a silky voice. "I'll eternally grateful, General."
"Should I partake in—" Lord Sachs asked uncertainly.
"No need, my lord." Miranda sent the man a searing look. "I assure you, I'm a true gentle-woman." She bowed to the queen again and the stunning creature next to her curtsied, this time deeper and longer, perhaps because she had the support of Miranda's arm. "Then, Lady Andrea, which room should we look at first?"
Andrea regarded the floor-to-ceiling tapestries in the first room the general took her to, made of silk yarn in vibrant colors. "Amazing," she murmured, and her fingers were itching to touch the fabrics. "Are they very old? They look brand new."
"I think they're two-hundred years old, at least," the general said, not sounding bored exactly—more distracted.
Andrea was glad they were away from the crowd in the main ballroom, as the attention they'd paid her when she met the queen, was uncomfortable. These smaller rooms, meant for more intimate gatherings, were more her thing, even if they of course were much grander in style than she was used to. Glancing through the next half-open door, leading out of their current location, she glimpsed books. "Oh, is that a library?" She craned her neck.
"It is. Not the main library, but the one holding the Queen's favorite books." The general motioned for Andrea to step through. "Are you fond of reading, Lady Andrea?"
"I am. And would it be a complete faux pax if I asked you to call me Andrea. I'm not comfortable with pomp and circumstance—or titles." Andrea knew she had most likely stepped out of line as she slipped through the door and into the beautiful library. Green rugs with gold patterns adorned the oak floor, and gold curtains framed the windows. Shelves lined every wall and books filled them to the brim.
"An unusual request from a young woman, but if it pleases you, we can be on a first name basis, in private, of course. My name is Miranda."
"Of course. And Miranda's a lovely name," Andrea said, then felt silly for her remark. "And Queen Serena has read all these?" Glad to change the subject, she turned full circle as she studied the shelves.
"I doubt it. She's quite young. Same age as you, I'd imagine. But I know she means to do so, with time." Miranda gave the tiniest of smiles.
"She is?" For some reason, the idea of Queen Serena, who radiated elegance and confidence, seemed older.
"Yes. Perhaps being on the throne since she was just a mere child makes her seem more older." Miranda motioned with her hand toward a narrow door at the far end of the library. "Should we move on?"
"Of course." Maneuvering her skirts, Andrea walked behind Miranda as she opened the door fully. Finding herself in a narrow corridor, walls covered with maroon velvet and lit by a row of small torches, Andrea drew in the scent of spices, tobacco, and something that reminded her of cognac or brandy. "Where does this lead?" She peered down the corridor that seemed to run the entire length of the castle.
"To a room where I personally like to spend some of my free time when I'm not at the Queen's disposal. I'm not sure why I think it might appeal to you, but it is worth showing off, nonetheless." Miranda still sounded hesitant but offered her arm as they strode down the corridor to their left.
"You're the head of Colonna's military, aren't you?" Andrea wasn't sure where she got the confidence, or, audacity, rather, to ask personal question. "I mean, as the military commander, how do you find time to be at the Queen's beck and call?"
Miranda snorted softly. "Good question. I make the time. Denying our monarch and ruler anything isn't a wise decision."
"But what if she commanded you to go against something you truly believe in, something that means everything to you?" Andrea thought of her father and his plans for her. How could she ever agree to subject herself to a lifelong servitude of submitting to marriage when she didn't love anyone. Having never truly been in love, or even attracted, to anyone, Andrea knew very little about how it might feel. Comparing it to what the queen might order Miranda to do, or not do, was of course ridiculous, but it still had some merit.
"I trust my Queen and commander in chief to not ask of me something that goes against my conscience, or my grain, as it were. I have been in her service for seven years and she has yet to cross that line." Miranda stopped by a heavy-looking door, framed by metal and boasting an impressive lock. Producing an intricate looking key, Miranda pushed it into the lock and turned it five times. Was this the special chamber the queen had mysteriously mentioned?
Andrea held her breath as anticipation filled her at what could so closely guarded. As Miranda swung open the door and motioned Andrea to step inside, she did so very slowly. Oil lamps rendered the large room a gentle ambiance, and at first, Andrea couldn't make out what sat around the walls. Then she grew rigid and gripped Miranda's arm hard.
Whatever it was—it was moving!
"Fear nothing, Andrea." Miranda guided the woman on her arm into the special chamber. Feeling a bit hypocritical at her words, as an unusual onset of flutters under her ribs suggested she too was rattled, Miranda stopped and locked the door behind them. "I swear you can leave at any moment. I just can't allow anyone else to enter without royal permission."
"What is this?" Andrea asked weakly. "All these mirrors. And with images that move."
Miranda had been in the special chamber many times, and even she was certain people who had been to the castle had heard of it, not to mention the staff, visiting the chamber was only for a select few. Miranda gazed around the walls, trying to see it through Andrea's eyes, remembering how she herself had gawked at the mirrors the first time she was allowed in.
They did indeed look like mirrors and came in all kinds of shapes and sizes. There were more than eighty of them, the smallest the size of her palm, the largest covering half the far wall. Candles and oil lamps lit up the room, just enough to see the reflections in the mirrors. The housekeeper or the butler took care of this task each dusk, as the regular staff were not allowed inside.
Andrea took a few tentative steps toward the closest mirror. Gold-framed, it was oval in shape and clearly very old. The was mottled, but it was still possible to see one's reflection—and what else was visible behind it.
"How can this be?" Andrea whispered. She had let go of Miranda's arm, but now stepped close enough for their arms to touch. "What are those figures? And…it looks like they're outside, in the woods? What sorcery is this?" Her voice trembled, but her eyes appeared lit from inside.
"As you can see, these are not your average mirrors. They hold a certain magic, and for sure, a definite purpose." Miranda motioned toward the mirror.
"A purpose? For what?" Andrea leaned in closer to the mirror.
"Do you trust me enough for me to show you?" Miranda turned Andrea to face her, placing a gentle finger under her chin.
Andrea blinked slowly. "General? I mean, Miranda. If I can't trust Colonna's most decorated, high-ranking officer, then who can I trust?" She swallowed hard. "Please, you must satisfy my curiosity."
Andrea's guileless words could easily be interpreted in a completely different way. Miranda had to drop her hand from Andrea's face, thinking it best to harness her suddenly over-active imagination, where satisfying this gorgeous woman meant something entirely less innocent. "This are mirrors—of a kind. They're also gateways, allowing their users to go to places otherwise unreachable for them." Miranda hoped her voice didn't sound as strained as it felt.
"What?" Andrea walked farther into the room and pivoted slowly. "I don't understand. They show you stories? Like reading a book, but with images?" She frowned.
Now, there was an unexpected take on the concept of the mirrors Miranda had fretted about having to give to that certain someone she was meant to share this with. "In a manner of speaking, but there's more to it. It's a complete experience in a way that feels real. You don't just observe, you are part of the realm, and you live it, rather than just watching it." Miranda wondered how badly she was failing as a guide, as if she was even confusing herself. This was not her normal self. She instilled fear, commanded respect, and enjoyed her position as one of the highest-ranking citizens of Colonna. People normally stuttered and looked panic stricken around her. She was never the one flailing.
"You make it sound like a magic trick, or at least, some sort of illusion." Andrea then looked alarmed. "Or…surely our beloved queen isn't a believer in the occult?" Her voice sank to a whisper.
Miranda had to smile. "I can guarantee Queen Serena is not into black magic or anything along those lines. In fact, the opposite. Our queen is strong and just. And very kind."
"I thought so, but these…these frames…" Andrea shook her head. "I see constant movement in many of them. Figures. Trees. Even ocean waves." She shook her head. "And yet there's a seating area and what looks like a rack holding clothes, all of it looking so worldly. So mundane, if that's not blasphemous to say in a grand castle."
"It's quite refreshing, actually," Miranda said, tilting her head. "You said you'd trust me to show exactly what this is. Is this still true? If not, we'll continue the tour and then return to the ball."
Andrea barely hesitated. "I admit I'm apprehensive, but I'm so intrigued and curious, which appears to overpower any trepidations on my part. And whatever these mirrors do, it has to be less boring than a ball where I'm on display for the highest bidder as prize livestock." The frown was back, marring her forehead. "Go ahead, Miranda. I trust you."
"I'm honored. You will need this." Miranda reached for a black fur-lined velvet cape for Andrea, placing it around her shoulders, and then did the same for herself. "Now, hold my hand. Do not let go until I deem it to be safe."
Andrea slipped her trembling hand trembled in Miranda's. "I wish I knew more of what's about to transpire," she murmured, the tremors spreading throughout her body, making her shake fully visible.
Miranda closed the small distance between them. Letting go of Andrea's hand, she instead placed her arm around the wide-eyed woman and then her free hand on the frame of the mirror. After a few moments, a familiar hum reverberated through her, and fog rose around them.
"What's going on?" Andrea pressed her face into Miranda's shoulder. "It's getting cold!"
"Just breathe and calm yourself," Miranda said and tugged her closer. "You are not in any danger."
Eventually, Andrea raised her head and gasped as she stared at the surroundings. Her warm breath created white smoke around them. "Where are we?"
Miranda chuckled and rubbed Andrea's arm through the cape. "Ah. When it comes to this particular mirror, it's not so much about where, but when."
Contiued in part 5