...indiscretion has its charms;/it's boring/to fit one's face to reputation.- Sulpicia, Roman poet of the 1st century B.C.E.
Mother likes to brag that I have always been a well-behaved child. According to her, I came from the womb smiling beatifically, never crying or fussing. I was born on my best behavior.
This is a lie, of course. I came into this world like any other child, crying and snotty and selfish and petulant. But like any other wealthy noblewoman, Mother never had to deal with any of that. She left my care and feeding to Cressida. So Cressida was the one to calm my tears and quell my fears each time I started awake from a nightmare. Cressida was probably the one to witness my awkward first steps. And Cressida was the one who taught me what one should and should not do in company.
Mother, meanwhile, was only around when I had on my best dress and my best smile, on my best behavior with my best curtsy.
I didn't resent her for it. All I knew was this world where grace and poise were paramount, proper behavior drilled into our bones from our first breath. Once I mastered the courtly smile at the age of five, it was four years before anyone caught me expressing genuine joy. I learned to be seen and not heard, to respond politely and not ask questions, to float instead of walk, glide instead of run, obey instead of think.
This world might have been all I ever knew, if my father had not died.
His death didn't immediately impact me – I saw him even more rarely than I did Mother. It wasn't until three months after his funeral that Uncle Jaxon showed up with a six-year-old waif and announced that she was my sister.
Even as I noted her mud-spattered shift and belligerent expression, she scowled at me and hid behind Jaxon. True, I had vaguely wished for some sort of companion before, but this sister was not quite what I had pictured.
Within moments of her arrival, she became the bane of my mother's existence. She was wild, rude, and terribly uncouth. Mother was especially appalled by the way she wore her heart on her sleeve – when she was upset, she cried. When she was angry, she bit. (Mother learned that the hard way.) When she didn't like someone (namely, Mother), she didn't hesitate to make her feelings clear. It gave my mother an attack of nerves to think about how she was expected to mold this country bumpkin into anything resembling a genteel young lady.
Corie's emotional honesty fascinated me. I lived a life where nobody was this honest. Even Cressida, who had tended to me from the day I was born, never let on how terribly sad and lonely she was, imprisoned so far from her home. It was only in her touches and embraces that I could sense the slightest bittersweet regret.
Yet here was my sister, who announced her feelings to the world and feared nothing.
That is why, even when her first meeting with Mother and me ended in teethmarks and tears, and she ran off before anyone could catch her, I found myself volunteering to go after her.
It wasn't hard to find her. I'd grown up in Castle Auburn, and knew it better than the back of my hand. A tear-streaked child tearing down the hallways wasn't exactly inconspicuous. I needed only to follow the trail of scandalized expressions and the heated whispers. I took my time. Nothing could upset her any more, and she looked like she needed the extra time to compose herself a bit before she would be fit for company.
Suffice to say, when I came upon her, she was still in the throes of an impressive tantrum, wailing without abandon. When I approached, she just heaved another sob and then looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes. "What do you want?"
"My name is Elisandra," I introduced myself. "I am to be your sister."
"Why are you here?" she hiccupped, "After all, you must hate me as much as that wretched Greta does."
"I don't hate you at all. In fact, I just know that I'm going to love you."
"How do you know that?" she asked suspiciously.
"Because you are my sister, and I am yours," I said simply. "And I know that we are going to the best sisters there ever was."
So saying, I held out my arms to hug her as Cressida so often did, as I had so often wished my own mother would.
She hesitated a bit, then threw herself into my arms.
"Now, did Uncle Jaxon say your name was Coriel?" I coaxed. "That's a very pretty name."
"My name is Corie," she corrected sharply.
"Corie," I repeated, committing the name to memory as I patted her. "I promise, Corie, we are going to have lots of fun together."
As I said, I found Corie fascinating.
Corie didn't speak only when spoken to – she was loud, and didn't hesitate to interrupt and speak her mind when she wished. She hated her lessons, and ran away whenever she could. When she wanted to hide, she generally remained hidden. Corie ran too fast and always got herself tangled in her skirts. Each morning, Cressida carefully braided her hair, and put her in an acceptable dress. By nighttime, she was found with her braid unraveled, her clothes were torn from running through the bushes, her feet barefoot and muddy because she'd lost her shoes, her face smudged with dirt, and her excited chatter full of her day's fresh adventures.
Her best behavior didn't even fall under Mother's definition of tolerable behavior, much less acceptable behavior, and could generously be considered miles away from good behavior.
Though she slowly learned to hide her emotions behind a court mask (though hers dropped far too often to be any good), I found that she never hid her emotions with me. I could always read her innermost thoughts and feelings from how she smiled at me – and she was always smiling at me. Corie had taken me at my word, and was determined to love me as much as any sister ever could.
The others at court whispered about her. She was an oddity, to be certain – they never quite knew how to treat her. A daughter of the Halsing line was someone to be regarded, but a bastard daughter? Never quite sure how to address her, most settled for whispering about her latest exploits in scandalized tones.
Can you believe she snuck onto one of the new prize stallions?
I heard she spends her free time with the aliora.
I saw her punch one of the servants boys!
How utterly horrid, they tittered behind their fans.
(They learned not to whisper in front of me, of course. You don't need your fists to make a point, as I'd often reproved Corie. You can be just as effective with the right word in the right place, with much less blood involved.)
As we grew, Corie returned each year older and wiser. While three months a year may not have an irrevocable effect on one's bearings and behavior, it certainly has a noticeable one.
Slowly, Corie began to learn the rules of proper etiquette. She learned not to interrupt (though whether she chose not to interrupt was another matter entirely), not to elongate her vowels like some backwater peasant, not to shriek with laughter whenever she was delighted. She learned which forks and knives to use on which occasions, which way to move her hands and her feet when dancing a minuet, which way to tilt her fan if she wanted more wine from the servants and which way if she wanted water instead.
I would have been sad to see her bound by the confines of respectable behavior, if she had actually taken any of the lessons to heart. But Corie was too pure in spirit and too wild at heart for me to worry. She sat through Mother's occasional lessons (though more often than not, she slept through them) on how to turn down a marriage proposal, how to set a fashion trend, and how to run an estate, but she never paid them any heed.
Sometimes, she would try very hard to behave like a lady when Bryan was nearby or when she felt she had to imitate my good example. But she was equally likely to forget it all and run off like the hoyden she was, deliberately flouting conventions instead of unintentionally doing so. When she slipped off at dawn with Uncle Jaxon and the other boys wearing trousers, traipsing through the forest hunting aliora, she certainly knew how scandalous her behavior was. It just meant she needed to sneak out more quietly lest the maid wake up and catch her at it.
Before we slept each night, we would whisper and giggle together. She would tell me about her dreams, dreams that never changed year after year. She would become a wise woman, and take over for her grandmother …
"…and do something useful and good in the world," she always ended, sighing.
It was my greatest regret that we had less and less time for those nighttime discussions. My position meant I had balls to attend, social gatherings to preside over, and wagging tongues to quiet. She, on the other hand, was so often on punishment from Mother for one misstep or another, that her occasional lessons in etiquette became daily lessons.
And so the years passed.
Even while Corie was learning to don a court mask, I was learning to drop mine.
With Corie and Cressida, I had long since ceased to bother. With others, my court mask only ever dropped when it concerned Corie.
Take Kent, for example. I honestly don't remember him before Corie came, beyond a general impression of the boy who was always with Bryan. Without Corie, I doubt I would ever have known him as well as I did, the three of us chasing each other through the gardens and laughing ourselves silly afterward. That sort of behavior was uncharacteristic of either of us, but how could we resist Corie?
And later, as we grew older, how could I not look kindly upon the boy — the man, really — who loved my sister so?
And so my strongest alliance during the period of greatest turmoil in my life was one I owe entirely to Corie. Who can guess whether Kent and I could have curbed Bryan's excesses as well as we did, had it not been for the honest friendship underlying our political alliance?
And of course, I might never have met Roderick, much less showed him my true self, if Corie hadn't gone tumbling from her horse, nigh giving me a heart attack.
I still shudder when I think back on that day, when I saw my most precious person fall and how I was convinced for a few heartstopping moments that she was gone.
Roderick leapt from his horse with alacrity, I remember. When he told me she was fine, her eyes then fluttering awake, I sank to the floor in relief. Somehow I'd already dismounted, though I don't remember anything that happened between the moment she fell and the moment she regained consciousness.
Her petulance, her stubbornness, her silly fear that we would leave her – with each word she spoke, I was more and more comforted that she was not terribly injured, that she would not leave me.
Perhaps the giddiness of that relief is why I joined Roderick in teasing her as we rode back, checking Corie's condition every few moments. As we talked, Corie slipping in and out of consciousness, I bared my soul most uncharacteristically, and listened to his stories in return.
Neither my strongest friendship, nor my romance with the man who would be my husband, would have happened if not for my sister…
You would think it difficult for the woman betrothed to the future King to conduct a forbidden romance with a palace guard. You would be right. I doubt I would ever have entertained the idea had Corie not shown me how much joy the world contained if only you were open to breaking the rules.
Ultimately, it wasn't difficult to conduct the affair with discretion. Roderick was a fine fighter; after he was promoted to half-sergeant, I saw him more often. He charmed me, but we both knew the romance would never progress beyond stolen conversations and missives sent through Daria.
After all, it was perfectly acceptable for the future King to bed as many maids as he wished, father as many bastard children as he could, but we women were granted no such allowances. During our courtship, we took care to stand apart from each other at all times. If we had ever been caught …
I still remember the first time we touched. As we arrived back from Tregonia, he helped me off the carriage. His hand firmly grasped my own as he helped me down. For days after, I dwelt on the calluses of his hands, the firm strength and surety in his grip, and the message he passed me that I read over and over.
That night, when I saw Corie again for the first time in so long, when she indulged my curiosity as I went through all the herbs and powders in her satchel, when I learned the names halen root and ginyese, that's when the seed of an idea first took root …
During that most turbulent period of my life, when it seemed my gilded cage grew smaller and smaller as my inevitable fate approached, I took great pleasure in Corie.
I took pleasure in her innocence, for she still saw Bryan's dashing exterior and not the roiling chaos he brought to all that he touched.
I took pleasure in her laughter, and how I laughed with her in a way I never have with anyone else.
I took pleasure in her no-nonsense attitude toward so much of court politics, and how even the flightiest of girls seemed to gain substance in her company.
Most of all, I took very malicious pleasure in the knowledge that Lord Matthew, the man who dictated nearly every aspect of my life, would find my sister no willing pawn.
Even as she shed her innocence and grew to despise Bryan in much the same way I did, and saw Uncle Jaxon for who he really was, I still awaited the day Lord Matthew discovered that where he thought he had a pawn in Corie, he had instead a live coal.
When my wedding could be measured in days and not maybes, I still took pleasure in the small things—like Lord Matthew's absolute bewilderment at Hennessey of Mellidon dropping his suit of Corie.
Kent and I played a game, when we weren't thinking of the impending wedding and coronation, where we tossed out ever more outlandish suggestions at what Corie must have done.
"She turned him into a toad for three days when he went to go visit her."
"She cast a spell of forgetting using a lock of his hair."
"He was shocked she lived in a cottage with less than ten rooms and no fountain."
"He stormed out in a fury after a farm animal wandered inside and threw up on him."
Though we tried to imagine how her humble home must have seemed to him, that was before either of us had ever visited her where she'd grown up or had any real idea how Corie lived nine months out of the year.
It should come as no surprise that even when I felt I had accomplished the most daring feat in my life, Corie managed to accomplish something even more daring.
I had rather melodramatically considered the venison stew my first move in the chess game that Lord Matthew played. My hand hadn't shaken at all when I served it to Bryan at our wedding banquet. My plans had come to fruition — this end, tragic though it may have been, was my move in this game of chess, the first thing I had ever done for myself.
As I watched Bryan weaken during the course of the night, I allowed myself to feel the slightest pity for the man. He was not a good man, but this might not have mattered if he were born a peasant. That temperament in a King, however, would only lead the country to ruin.
I had thought myself calm throughout it all, throughout the vomit and the moaning and the demands I not call for a doctor, throughout the servants and the guards who were summoned when I finally did so anyway, throughout the busybody courtiers come to see the spectacle and to gossip, throughout Mother's attack of nerves and Lord Matthew's roaring and Giselda's flustered attempts to heal Bryan.
But then I saw Corie, and all of the nervous tension that had been bottled up released at once. I did nothing so dramatic as break down, of course; I merely took comfort in my sister's presence, comfort she was more than willing to offer.
While I awaited Giselda's diagnosis and prayed that my careful plans had led to the desired results, while I waited with bated breath and yearning hope that my bid for freedom was successful, that was when Lord Matthew burst in and grabbed my beloved sister.
"You traitorous, baseborn filth," he had growled, "I want you out of here within the hour."
While I'd been preoccupied with securing my future, my sister had mounted a revolution.
And there, as Lord Matthew issued forth his accusations that she had freed the aliora, shaking her and demanding the truth, I saw my sister perform the bravest act I've ever seen.
She stood up to Lord Matthew.
She unrepentantly admitted her crime, and when he accused her of betraying him, she raised her head defiantly and her voice loudly as she addressed the entire court, "I did not want to be one of your own. Not the way you treat your own sons and daughters."
Though he slapped, banished, and forbade her to ever return to Castle Auburn, she never lost her dignity. She was proud of what she had done, radiating both defiance and courage.
Nine months later, when I stood before Matthew myself, I drew upon my memory of that courage as I openly defied his will for the first time in my life. I might have quailed before his disbelief and his outrage, before my mother's assumptions and her attacks of nerves, but I summoned that memory of Corie, and I told him, "No."
And I swept out of the room.
My whole life, I had been on my best behavior. Even when I transgressed, whether conducting clandestine affairs or plotting murder, I always did so with discretion. If there were rules of etiquette for regicide, I'm sure I followed them.
That night as I packed, however, I knew that everyone at court would have heard of what I'd done – they'd be gossiping now about how I'd defied Lord Regent to run off with a palace guardsman and live in perpetual exile on my uncle's estates.
For the first time in my life, I had created a stir because I hadn't been proper.
I found I quite liked it.
…indiscretion has its charms;/it's boring/to fit one's face to one's reputation