He pretended to sleep as she crept up on him from behind. Whenever she decided to pounce, though, he’d unfailingly wake up and seize her. But this was always the best part of their game. Lore clutched her imaginary sword and made her attack. Fallon grabbed her, and they tumbled off his fake throne and onto the floor.
“Fallon, you’re dead!” she said, wriggling away from him a little quicker than normal.
At twelve years old, her body had started to change. When it came to spending time with her two best friends, she could no longer roughhouse or take a ball to the chest without the two little lumps that had begun to swell there aching in protest.
“Am not, I woke up and caught you in the act!” He pulled her closer.
He had also been changing, but in a good way. His already husky voice had deepened, and his body grew taller and broader. He looked more like a man every day. Ironically, more like his guardian, Lord Percival Berclay, the current emperor of Vitruvia.
He took a strand of her dark tresses and swirled it around on his face. They lay on the floor of his private dorm catching their breaths, their heads close, and everything surrounding them white. The rooms at Chersley Bartlett Academy were as formal as those in her parents’ estate, but uniform in the pure, unmarred hue like the innocence they contained. From his elevated and protected quarters high next to the cathedral, they could hear the choir practicing, the voices echoing through the halls like so many seraphim. During languid Saturday mornings when they were allowed to pass the time as they preferred, Lore deactivated her orbis caputs and left them to toddle around on her desk. Her thoughts were free and clear.
On cue, Gideon busted into the room, air guns blazing, his blond hair hanging in his eyes, and a triumphant grin in place. “And now, you’re both dead.” He joined them on the floor. “I always catch you two like this,” he said, no suspicion in his voice.
Lore imagined there should be. After all, she’d been promised to him, hadn’t she? She considered them now as they sat beside each other, so drastically opposite in their looks and personalities. Gideon's hair shimmered like spun gold and his elegant features flushed with rosy innocence. His crisp eyes, perpetually full of humor and positivity, seemed to reflect a cloudless canopy of sky. Fallon emanated darkness and shadow, both in looks and attitude. He had a wry humor, a biting wit, and often appeared moody and brooding. And yet, Lore found herself gravitating towards him. Gideon should have been jealous of her obvious preference for Fallon, but maybe the thought hadn’t entered his mind because they’d all been friends for so long. Or maybe, it was simply because she had no choice or say in the matter. She had to marry him. It had been agreed upon by their parents when they were two years old and decreed by the Tree Vale’s bishop.
“Anyway,” Gideon continued, “don’t you think we’re getting too old to play Rebellion?”
Rebellion, a game made up six years ago in lower school, had become their favorite weekend morning activity. The mention of this childhood frivolity roused thoughts of her grandmother, Lady Mathilde de Bellereve, and the one St. Lucien’s Day only months ago when Mathilde had been allowed to visit – supervised, of course, by someone from the special place where they send batty aristocrats. Some supreme scandal surrounded her grandmother’s life, Lore could tell. Her mother, Miranda, who couldn’t stop talking under normal circumstances, clammed up like a mollusk when Lore tried to ask questions about why the old woman lived in a nursing home and not with them.
On this holiday, while a sour-faced male servant cut the dime cake, Lore prayed for a moment alone with her grandmother. The latter sat demurely, and her white curls shone like a soft halo of lamb’s wool around the creviced plane of her face. It saddened Lore that Mathilde looked so much older than her sixty-two years. Everything about her screamed that she’d been living a life of pain; every part of her seemed stretched and frowning. Yet, Lore saw that her grandmother wasn’t insane like her parents and others wanted her to believe. There remained a discerning spark behind those soft, doe eyes – eyes Lore had inherited despite her mother’s cheery cornflower blue.
They sat next to each other on a curved, velveteen chaise, as elegant and uncomfortable as the other furnishings in the Fetherston home, full of deep mahogany and heavy ornamentation. She began to notice that while Mathilde hadn’t spoken during her visit, she now surreptitiously looked at Lore and then at the lit candlesticks in their brass holders on the coffee table. The girl understood; she was imploring.
“Great Lucien, Lorelei!” Her mother managed to take the holiday’s namesake in vain while cursing at her daughter for starting a small house fire.
During the commotion that ensued, Lore ushered her grandmother into a broom closet underneath the stairs, now trampled by servants rushing to help. She reached for the light.
“No, darling. No lights,” Mathilde whispered, her voice still carrying that affected lilt of the upper class.
“Grandmother, why won’t they ever let me see you?”
Mathilde let out a bitter laugh. “Because they know I’ll tell you things – things they’d rather you not know.”
“What things?” Lore whispered, leaning in.
The closet door swung open and a plump arm reached in and turned on the light, exposing them. Constance, her mother’s young maid, stood with her hands on her wide hips, glowering at them in smug triumph. Before Lore could plead with her to be quiet, she gave a robust, “MADAM! Look who I’ve found sneaking around!”
In the instant before her parents arrived on the scene, Mathilde slipped something into Lore’s hand. Lore closed her fingers tightly around it and watched her grandmother transform back into a dumb mute.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing?” Her father removed his monocle so that his brow could furrow without inconvenience. He took her roughly by the arm.
“I only wanted to keep Grandmother safe from the fire.” She gave what seemed like a logical defense, but he didn’t bite.
“Go upstairs to your room and there will be no dime cake,” he hissed.
“But Father, I–”
“That will be quite enough from you.”
His menacing glare implied harsh ramifications if she disobeyed. He may even send her away to the place no one spoke of where they treated young girls who suffered from malcontent. Her best friend, Sawyer, had been sent there a few times, and she always returned quietly submissive, at least for a little while. However, Sawyer had a much higher tolerance for any kind of pain or discipline, especially since she refused to mend her ways. In this moment, Lore decided against headstrong behavior.
Her mother looked on with faux rage peppered with histrionics that could give the most celebrated stage actresses of the age a run for their money. Constance stood behind Miranda, her thick, livery lips with their light fringe of a moustache still in a victorious sneer. The other servants haunted the background, all taking satisfaction in their power over her.
Lore wished for a second that they were porcelain galateans, even though she feared such creatures, but they were no longer allowed within the aristocracy. The lovely, soulless servants, once a programmable race of automata, now remained a coveted privilege of the emperor and his head bishop. Those salvaged after the violence of the Great Rebellion thirty years ago were rumored to be kept locked away in a secret room deep within the Seat. There they stood in the dark like a silent army waiting for someone to reanimate them.
She climbed the stairs to her room, keeping her eyes on Mathilde, certain she would never see her again. The old woman locked eyes with her and, before Lore passed out of sight, winked. Only when she had closed her bedroom door, did Lore open her hand to see what treasure Mathilde had given her. A small key of darkened brass rested in her palm.
As she wondered at the object, she heard her own door being locked from the outside – father’s mild form of punishment. She didn’t need to guess who was doing it, either, since Constance’s heavy breathing permeated walls. But even locked inside her room, she still knew more freedom than her jailer.
Her orbis caputs animated and whizzed around her head. The tiny yocto-creatures – a fat chinchilla riding in a miniature hot air balloon and two flying squirrels – had been gifts from Miranda when Lore first went away to school. They swarmed her with cheer when she returned from classes, hovering around her head, spewing out phrases in her mother’s voice that were both reactionary and linked to Miranda’s own emotional state.
“HOW COULD YOU BE SO DECEPTIVE, YOU IMPERTINENT, LITTLE TWIT?!” screeched Lord Izzy Holt Hempel from his balloon, his little top hat shaking so much it nearly fell off.
“Oh, shut up already.”
She couldn’t take solace in them in her punishment. Instead, she sat and stewed about how she had always resisted any kind of closeness with her mother, preferring her father’s stoicism above Miranda’s erratic moods. She wondered why her father seemed even more distant from her lately. Was it because she’d started becoming a woman, or perhaps he sensed the newfound contempt she held for his shallow position? Instead of dwelling on such negative thoughts, she opened the bottom drawer of her desk and shifted some decorative papers. Underneath them, the tattered edge of her notebook peeked out. As with most everything, documenting this occasion proved to be her only release.
Now, as Gideon spoke of their game, Lore couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a servant, or worse, one of the dregs. Hailing from the Tree Vale, a lush area in the Northeast, she had more rights than others, and she’d been given an education, albeit most of it focused on the domestic arts. But in the Granary and the Turbine, children started working as early as four years old. She knew that from Fallon.
Apparently, that’s where Lord Berclay found the handsome little boy and rescued him from a dire situation. No one knew what had happened to him, save for the strange scar that wound its way around his wrist like a snake. And he certainly never spoke about it, if he even remembered. But by his response to Gideon’s question, he most certainly did. He looked away from them, his flashing eyes resting on that pale ring of skin.
“We’ll never outgrow this game.”