Chapter One: Beauty

Disclaimer: I do not own anything here – Crown Duel belongs to Sherwood Smith.

Beauty. That one little word means so much to Tamara. It is obvious that the word "beauty" is Tamara. There is no doubt about that; Tamara is of middle height and slender and utterly gorgeous. With her shining black hair curling around her beautifully boned face, delicately arched dark brows, small and delicate nose, full rosy lips, creamy white complexion that is the envy of the court, breathtaking smile, and large pure blue eyes with famously long and curly black lashes, there is no doubt that Lady Tamara Chamadis of Turlee is the beauty of the Court and the belle of any ball or party that she deigns to attend. It is also universally acknowledged that Tamara personifies "beauty". The gorgeous young lady is intelligent and perceptive, polished and sophisticated, fashionable and flirtatious, and above all, charming. Tamara embodies beauty to most. To most she is sweet and charming and as fragile as a butterfly – until you threaten her. Then the innocent beauty turns into a dangerous Circe-type beauty that stabs you in the back with a stunning smile. But no matter what, Tamara is always beautiful. Always.

But to Tamara, there is more to beauty than that. Beauty means always being the prettiest, most charming, and most stunning girl anywhere, anytime. Beauty means perfection. Beauty means having every glossy curl in place. Beauty also allows you to reign over Court, it lets you be confident, it lets you charm all the young noblemen with a smile, and it lets you be so perfect and admired that no one can ever bring you down. That is what Tamara strives to achieve, and she wants it so badly that she never cares who gets hurt in her endeavors to be the most beautiful lady at Court. To Tamara, if they get hurt, then it's their fault for being her way. This beauty stops for no one and nothing to get what she wants. Tamara knows why; she remembers what it was like when she didn't have beauty, when she wasn't complimented as the loveliest flower in the world, and she never wants to experience that again.

It used to hurt Tamara so much when she was a little girl. It hurt a lot within her heart that her mother never cared about her. The Countess of Turlee cared for nothing but her own beauty, wealth, and popularity. It hurt Tamara deeply that she did not receive the loving affection that so many other young children did. It really hurt. It especially hurt little six year-old Tamara whenever she thought of the affection her cousins received.

It was the first time that Tamara realized how much affection meant to her and how much she longed for affection.

Tamara realized this especially one cold and wintry day. Summoned to speak briefly with her mother, her maid Anara dressed her up as prettily as she could. With her black hair tied back with a blue ribbon, her blue silken dress emphasizing her sparkling eyes, and her cheeks flushed with excitement, Tamara resembled a porcelain doll. She was excited to see her mother, who had not spoken to her for almost year, since Tamara had been sent back to Turlee after her father "died".

The Countess of Turlee sat in her dressing room, dusting her cheeks with color as she examined herself in her gold-framed mirror. The Countess's maid was busily twisting the Countess's gleaming auburn hair into a knot at the nape of her neck while the Countess dabbed lip color on her full, pouting lips and added dark green eye-liner to her hazel eyes. Tamara's mother was very beautiful.

"There you are, Tamara." The Countess replied to Tamara's graceful curtsy with a careless wave of her long fingers. "What took you so long?" Before Tamara could answer, the Countess continued speaking. "Anyway, I called you here today because the Marquise of Merindar asked me yesterday if you would like to go to Lady Fialma's birthday party next week."

"W-who is Lady Fialma, Mother?" Tamara stammered.

"Stupid girl!" her mother berated her sharply. "Keep your mouth shut unless I require your worthless opinion. Don't you even know royalty? Lady Fialma is the daughter of the Marquise and King Galdran's neice. I expect you to be cordial and pleasant to her." The Countess smirked. "But the real reason that I want you to go to the party is because Lord Flauvic will be there. He's about your age, and it would make a most excellent match if you were to marry him."

"B-but M-mother!" Tamara protested weakly. It was the first time that she heard such coarseness from a noble.

"Shut up, you fool! Don't speak to me until I want you too. You're disturbing me; you made me smudge my make-up!" Still facing the mirror, the Countess beckoned lazily to Tamara. "Let's take a look at you, you little ugly girl. I'll have to work hard to pretty you up so that you look passably attractive. Come here."

Reluctantly, Tamara moved to her mother's side. "Anara dressed me," she explained. The Countess turned to examine her daughter. She froze. Her hazel eyes widened in shock, and she bit her rosy lips so hard that they became bloodless. Tamara waited, standing very still and praying that she hadn't done anything wrong.

A jar of cosmetics smashed into her cheek. Tamara gasped in surprise and pain as the glass cut into her cheek. She saw the maid put a hand to her mouth and back away, but then her mother grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her so violently that Tamara's head rocked. "M-mother," she stuttered.

It was the first time that someone intentionally hurt her.

A resounding, stinging slap cut her off. Her mother's long, sharp fingernails dug into her arms so hard that Tamara felt tears sting her eyes. "You brazen little witch," the Countess hissed venomously. "You little fool. You think that you can just dress up and put make up on and you will be beautiful?"

Tamara gasped. "Mother, what are you talking about?"

"Do you think you are beautiful, Tamara? Let me answer that question for you – no. You are ugly. You look like a troll and a gnome mixed together. You are horrendous and you disgust me just by standing here and letting me see your ugly face." The venomous words felt like a slap across the face to Tamara.

"Listen to me, Tamara. You are nothing but a brazen little witch who thinks she's so pretty when in actuality she is a hag. That is what you are, Tamara, nothing more. You are pathetic and indecent. No man will ever look upon you with ardency; no lady will ever view you with admiration and envy. You are nothing but a little worm, Tamara, and you had better remember that burned well."

It was the first time anyone told her that she was ugly. Adults had always called her "cute", but then, all Court children who were wealthy heirs were called that.

The Countess shoved Tamara onto the floor. Tamara cried out as the floor scraped off a layer of skin.

"Sister." A soft, gentle voice spoke from the doorway.

Tamara and her mother both looked up at the short, perfectly formed, brown-haired woman who stood in the doorway, teal eyes worried, but the rest of her face as blank as any courtier's. Lady Malanda Argaliar stood calmly on the threshold. With a polite smile, she turned to address the Countess. "My husband wishes me to inquire into Chamadis's level of prosperity thus far? Argaliar lost quite a bit of grain during the last floods and we would like to buy some from Chamadis, if that is agreeable. It is my wish that you could help arrange such a sale?"

The Countess rose with a covert glare at Tamara, who cowered on the floor. "Of course," she sneered, gesturing with her fan in the mode denoting Pity for Misfortune, but her tone wholly making the sympathetic gesture into mockery. "It would be an honor to help your husband during this time of prosperity for Chamadis."

Lady Malanda stood perfectly still, not even flinching as her sister not-very-obliquely hinted that she had made a terrible choice in her husband and that she was a loser for being so poor when the Countess was so wealthy. She sketched a curtsy, making the gesture for Unalloyed Gratitude. "Thank you, sister. I am grateful for your help." Her teal eyes rested on Tamara for a moment, although their expression was unreadable. "Perhaps you should talk to my husband now?" she suggested blandly.

The Countess inclined her head graciously, now firmly back in control. With her face calmly blank and her smile gracious and charming, she was once again the court butterfly who enchanted so many men. "Of course."

"Mama!" a soft voice cried. A small, rosy girl with curly brown hair and wide-set brown eyes dashed into the room. She held out a delicate hand that carried a blue bruise. "Mama, Jaric shoved me into the wall! He was so mean!" Nimiar Argaliar, also known as Nee to her family and friends, complained, pouting. "It hurts!" Her eyes widened slightly as she caught sight of Tamara on the floor, but she said nothing.

Lady Malanda turned to her daughter, her teal-colored eyes soft. "Poor Nee," she smiled affectionately. "Come, let us go back our rooms," she told her daughter in a tender voice. "I'll look at your hand there, alright?" Nee nodded solemnly. "Aunt is also joining us," Lady Malanda continued, gesturing toward the Countess, whose lips twitched slightly in a smirk. "Come on, Nee. Let's go back." Tamara was struck by how caring her aunt's voice was, and how warmly she smiled at Nee and slipped an arm around the girl's shoulders.

It was the first time that Tamara acknowledged to herself that she envied Nimiar, that her cousin had something that she didn't, something that Tamara wanted.

The Countess, Lady Malanda, and Nimiar left, leaving Tamara sprawled on the ground, tears streaming down her blood-stained cheeks and blood trickling down her face. The maid hurried to her side, murmuring empty words of comfort. Tamara paid her no attention, nor did she pay any attention to the pain burning in her cheeks. Her mind focused entirely on the warmth in her aunt's teal eyes as they rested on Nee, and the relaxed happy in her cousin's smile.

It was the first time that Tamara realized that parents can actually care for their children, can actually love them, and the children can actually in return respect and love their parents instead of fearing them. It was the first time that Tamara felt inadequate, and as ugly as the monster her mother painted her. After all, if she were a nice, pretty child like her cousin Nimiar, her mother would probably love her and shower her with attention and affection like Lady Malanda did to Nee.

She did not stop to consider how very different her mother and aunt was. She did not stop to consider how her aunt treats everyone with quiet respect and politeness while her mother smiles and simpers to her favorites and treats everyone else to condescension and hidden barbs, that her mother cares for nothing but beauty. She did not realize that it didn't matter how perfect she was; that ironically, it was just because she was so perfect in appearance that her mother was enraged, afraid that she would be beaten in the beauty contest by her own daughter. She didn't realize that in actuality she was the prettiest child at court.

So slowly her self-confidence and belief in herself broke down. The once bright and lively creature became sad and quiet. As Tamara's heart slowly broke, she offered no opinion to anything, believing her opinion to be worthless, and said nothing, fearing that no one would listen – or worse, that they would listen and laugh at her and call her a silly, ugly fool. Tamara became quiet, shy, withdrawn, and silent. The color faded from her rosy cheeks and her blue eyes lost their sparkle as her mother berated her and taunted her cruelly, abusing her opponent in beauty both physically and mentally. Tamara no longer believed that anyone cared about her, or that she had any redeeming quality whatsoever. As Tamara grew more and more uncertain in herself, her mother laughed more and more, telling Tamara that she was right; Tamara was a stupid, ugly, worthless hag.

It was the first time Tamara learned how much words could hurt a person; hurt them deep within their heart, like a knife to the ribs. It was the first time that Tamara wished that she had never been born; the pain of what her mother told her and her longing to forget hurt her that deeply.

Tamara looks exactly like an enchantress in her blue silken dress. For a moment, she fiddles apprehensively with the golden chain around her slender neck, then drops her hand, composes her face into beautiful graciousness, and steps into the Great Hall of Athanarel. It is her turn to serve her "duty" to King Galdran by standing the Great Hall in full Court mode – Court dress, jewels galore, and many arguments proclaiming Galdran's greatness – and she must not be late. King Galdran might choke on a grape in his anger – not that that will be so bad, but…

The room seems to hold its breath as Tamara enters. The magnificent goldenwood doors glide open smoothly. The room is huge and perfectly shaped as to not echo too much. The marble floor shines from polish. High beams support the distant ceiling, and the huge windows stretching from roof to floor filled with colored glass shows the snowy state of affairs outside. Remalna's huge gold and green ancient flag hangs from the ceilings, and between the huge windows, the flags of the ancient fiefdoms. Guards discreetly line the perimeter of the room. Countless beautiful dressed ladies and gentlemen mill about in an orderly fashion. There room is filled with gentle feminine laughs and low, masculine one, pleasantly modulated voices, long, fluttering lashes, flirtatious smiles, and fans flashing in the different modes.

Tamara treats everyone to her breathtaking smile. Time to get started, she tells herself. Tamara's favorite cousin, a distant, good-looking cousin a few years older than she appears before her with a grand bow. "My dear Lady Tamara," Lord Alexander, the Marquis of Tirragen, greets her, hazel eyes sparkling. "Please bolster my declining prestige as one of the most charming gentlemen of the Court by allowing me to escort you?" His slender wrist turns slightly as he holds his fan in the mode of Supplicant Before Beauty.

Tamara laughs softly at his mild joke and takes his offered arm. "Of course, my lord," she flirts back earnestly, her eyes innocently round and her cheeks glowing faintly with a maidenly blush at his compliment. She lowers her eyes in a mockery of modesty and lowers her voice; "You honor me by complimenting my beauty. But do tell: what is the contest where no prizes are won?"

It is the first time she has joked like this in years.

He returns her verbal feint merely with a Court-like, polite smile, a perfect parry to her barb. "A contest in which none may win naught gives one naught but hope, of course," he returns politely, fingers flicking his fan in the mode of Bedazzled, executing a flawless thrust to her feint. "And it gives me delight," he concludes with a smile, hazel eyes narrowed in mirth.

She smiles back at him – her radiant, beautiful smile. "Delight is always happily given to those who deserve it, my lord," she murmurs softly, her fan spread neatly in the mode acknowledging Superior Artwork. Tamara likes her cousin a lot; Alex has been her friend for a long time, and he held her and rocked her to sleep after her mother hurt her particularly badly. They both practice flirting on each other, as neither of them are interested in the other romantically in the least, and as both of them are good-looking, sophisticated people.

He leads her to a crowded place among the perimeter of the marble floor. There, Tamara flirts with any passable gentleman who looks her way. She has not the slightest intention of entering a dalliance or even a flirtation with any of them – it merely something for her to do. She is bored, and flirting helped pass the time. Not that the gentlemen will think that it is just flirting, she thinks to herself with an inward smirk. Really, these men are all so pathetic. They may hide behind their Court masks, but I know that it's true. She pauses to smile and exchange meaningless pleasantries with Lady Dara, heir to one of the northern duchies. The right enigmatic glance and they're staring at you with love-struck eyes barely concealed by their polite expressions, the right beautiful smile and they're asking you to dance, the right shy words and they are your toys to play with. It really is pathetic.

She clears her mind of such thoughts as King Galdran strides into the room. The king is a massively built man, tall, with a girth bordering on portliness. His long red hair is braided thickly with gems, his nose large and curved, his ears large, his beard carefully cultivated and red, his forehead much too high, and his eyes a watery blue. His long mouth is stretched in a cruel smile.

Immediately everyone sinks into curtsies or bows. "Your Majesty."

King Galdran waves his bejeweled hand carelessly. "Rise," he orders indifferently.

Everyone does so, and Tamara catches the auburn-haired Lady Renna flicking her fan deftly in the mode equivalent to rolling one's eyes, at the gentleman dallying with her. Tamara smirks and turns her attention back to the wealthy Duke staring at her perfect features and gives the man a shy smile. She notes that her cousin chuckles softly beside her, but ignores it. She does make sure, however, in case the King should glance her way, that her expression is one of polite, emotionless interest, nothing less and certainly nothing more. She knows well that the King is quite familiar with…with the rooms of the beautiful female servants, shall we say?

"YOU SPEAK RUBBISH!" Galdran bellows ferociously. Tamara snaps back to attention and notices Alex tensing (unnoticeably) beside her. Tamara's posture is as relaxed as ever. She knows that her position is safe; she has done nothing to the King, and the King always did like the beauties of the Court. Besides, Tamara doesn't care about anyone enough to be worried that someone she loves has drawn the King's wrath. She does pay attention, however; growing up at Court, you have to know what's going on from the source.

So Tamara watches emotionlessly as the King rises not too gracefully and grabs the unfortunate messenger by the scruff of his neck. "WHAT DID YOU SAY!" the King roars, droplets of spit bouncing off the man's face. However, it was quite obvious that the runner is worried about more than the amount of scrubbing he will have to do to rid himself of such filth. If looks can kill, the messenger will be food for the crows by morning. Luckily, looks can't kill unless you are a powerful mage, which the King is not. Again, luckily.

The King's massive hand is now stroking the hilt of his sword. The messenger gulps. Tamara approves – there is something about swords that have nothing to do with luck whatsoever. "Well, um, Your Majesty," he stutters, dithering on how he can tell the King the obviously bad news without being chopped up and spiced into mincemeat. There have been rumors that the King is a carnivore.


The messenger obviously decides that he should speak. "Well, um…you see, Your Highness, the Denlieff King and Queen refuse to pay the tribute that was agreed to. They-they claim that they were unaware of the fine print when they signed the contract, and that it was d-dishonorable of Your Highness to-to do so and they shall do no such thing!"

"What do I care if it was dishonorable?" Galdran demands. "What do I care if they were to burned stupid to realize what we were implying? The treaty was agreed to! Denlieff swore that they would pay a thousand gold pieces for each fiefdom! Blast it, you idiot! Have you no sense at all?" he yells at the shaking messenger, who has fallen onto his knees and looks scared half to death.

Tamara shoots a covert glance from beneath her long dark lashes at a nearby Count and flicks her fan in the mode denoting Pity for Unfortunates. The Count blushes like a boy asking a girl to dance for the first time and smiles back at her, obviously touched by her gentle pity. Tamara refrains from rolling her eyes. Such things are undignified. Which means, dear self, that you cannot jump and tackle the man, however much you want to. It's sort of flattering, that someone likes you so much.

"Please, Your Highness, I but follow orders!" the messenger begs desperately.

The King's face is a mottled purple and his watery-blue eyes outraged. "GUARDS!" he yells.

A tall and well-muscled captain steps up. "Yes sir?" He salutes, puffing his chest out in pride, then instantly deflates like a balloon when Galdran pokes him hard in the chest.

"Take this man into the dungeons!" He barks angrily to the man, who, cowering, bows and nods at the same time, causing him to look ridiculous. The captain snaps his fingers at some guards, and they drag the unfortunate messenger away. "I will decide on his fate later!" the King declares, still panting from this outrageous behavior. "As if there were not enough burned stupid things today!"

Tamara almost feels sorry for the man. Maybe he is lucky that looks cannot kill, but if he really is lucky, he would have the ability to make weapons useless. The look in his eyes shows pure fear. There is no Court mask to hide it. He is open, and the fear is bottomless and might go on forever. Tamara is lost in its depth for a moment, then composes herself and looks away.

It is the first time that she has seen such deep, unadulterated, pure fear.

"My dear Lady Tamara. How good to see you again," the Marquise of Merindar greets Tamara warmly and smiles. "I hope that you enjoyed Court today?" She bows to Tamara politely, who of course bows back. She has known the Marquise for quite long, and thinks here a witty but rather dull woman.

Tamara knows a hidden trap when she hears one – after all, she's a master at the art herself. Widening her eyes innocently, she asks with an utterly controlled face, "Why, who does not enjoy Court, Your Grace?" Tamara is not fool enough to be lured into admitting that she hates Court, and therefore King Galdran, which would mean death. Of course, if she lied through her teeth and declared that she loved Court, she would be basically making a fool out of herself by complimenting King Galdran so lavishly.

The Marquise smiles again. She is not an unhandsome woman. Large and elaborately dressed, her curled red hair is streaked with gray. Her eyes are the same watery-blue as her brother's, and utterly bland in expression as she meets Tamara's gaze. Her fan sweeps gracefully in the mode of Acknowledgement of Wit.

Tamara curtsies without a word, waiting for the Marquise's purpose.

"Come to my rooms, dear, for a talk?" The Marquise asks, her fan flicking at the angle of Confidential Invitation for a brief moment. Her voice drops slightly. "There is something I would like to discuss with you that is quite important."

Tamara nods. "Of course, Your Grace."

Later, Tamara kneels gracefully on a cushion in the Marquise's most private room. Two china cups of steaming tea are set on the table before them.

"Well, then, my dear. I'm sure you would like to know why I wished to speak to you?" The Marquise smiles and waves her fan in the Walled Circle Mode.

"Yes, Your Grace," Tamara replies demurely. Inside she tenses slightly; the mode the Marquise is using does not suit her.

The Marquise smiles and lowers her voice. "Have you ever felt…uncomfortable with the way events are occurring in this country, my dear?" she asks.

"In what way, Your Grace?" Tamara will not be drawn into treason.

"The way some kings of the time seem to rule like tyrants and live wealthy and surrounded by gold while people labor to pay his taxes?" the Marquise hints obviously.

Tamara gives a mental shrug. It's not her problem if the Marquise wants her head to be an ornament to the gates of Athanarel, but how does she think she can contrive Tamara into such a pea-brained stunt? Beautiful as she is, Tamara likes to remain an ornament of the court, thank you very much.

"The way some kings do away with family members?" the Marquise probes further.

Tamara's brow clears. Ah. So the Marquise thinks that she is going to use that to rope Tamara into a plot. Because Galdran disposed of her parents? It would have been a nice gesture if Galdran didn't also dispose of the Marquise's own husband. Tamara merely gazes quizzically at the Marquise.

The Marquise reaches inside her gown and draws forth a letter. It has been opened; Tamara can discern that much. "A letter from the Tlanthis," she whispers in low tones. "They sent this to my dear brother telling him that his bad ruling is destroying the kingdom. From the tone of their letter, they are prepared to fight, to rebel, and they seem to hope that the rest of the kingdom will also rise up and dispose of this terrible King." The Marquise smiles. "I think it a very pretty speech," she murmurs to Tamara, "But I do think that they will need some help."

"Help, Your Grace?" Tamara pretends to be the simpleton who has no mind for politics at all.

The Marquise just smiles. "Cautious, my dear," she approves. "But remember the anguish that you suffered when your parents were torn from you as a child. Remember the grief that my dear brother caused you. If your experiences were anything like mine, to have my husband torn from me and to have to send my dear Flauvic away…" she sighs prettily and lifts her shoulders in an elegant shrug. "Think on it, my dear Tamara. Think on it."

The smirk on her lips proves that she truly believes her misguided notion that Tamara and her mother were close. But Tamara is more concerned with the gleam in the Marquise's eyes. She is a determined woman, Tamara realizes, whose ambition is as great as Galdran's, and who is ever more sly than a snake. She is a clever woman, the Marquise of Merindar. Clever and devious and deceptive. Thank the stars that she, Tamara, has more sense than to lose herself to emotions and succumb to such a hare-brained plot.

Tamara rises gracefully. "If you will excuse me, Your Grace? I fear that I must leave you now."

The Marquise inclines her head, a triumphant smile on her lips and her eyes burning with ambition. She truly believes that she has won over Tamara with her words, that Tamara's grief and desire for revenge for her parents will bring her to the Marquise's side. For such a clever woman, the Marquise really can be blind.

Tamara curtsies to the Marquise and departs the room. She feels strangely scared.

It is the first time that she realizes just how dangerous the Marquise might be.

I know that this is really long. I guess I went overboard. Please review! Please review! I need reviews to give me the energy to write another chapter! (This took me quite long, actually.) I hope Tamara doesn't seem too out of character – she will be more prickly and flirtatious next chapter. All reviews are welcome; constructive criticism and even flamers, I guess. I want to take this story until Tamara and Russav make up, or maybe even longer if you guys want it. Just review, please! Thanks!