This chapter contains themes of abandonment, emotional and social distress, and manipulation.
36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Academy
A timer rang in the kitchen. Sweet smells drifted into the apartment’s main space. Cinnamon and mint tingled Salvatrice’s nose but did not draw her attention away from the paper in her hands. Canelle returned; when she set down the sweet rolls and mint tea on the table in front of Salvatrice’s couch, the princess began to read the short letter for the umpteenth time as if there was some hidden meaning she could divine from it.
Her servant sat in the couch across from her and took a delighted sip of tea.
“Yum! Certainly the best cup I’ve ever made. You should give it a taste, Princess.”
She extended the cup as if to bewitch the princess with the smell of it.
Salvatrice lifted her own cup, blew on it and then set it slowly back down.
A perfunctory, distracted action from a woman with more on her mind.
She had the letter in her hands still. Turning over the words, the green ink.
Rubbing her chin, scratching her hair; nothing, she could not make sense of it. Why her; why now? Salvatrice threw down the letter in frustration. She covered her face with her hands, rubbing her fingers against her forehead, burying her thumbs into her temples. Canelle reached out a hand and laid it down on her shoulder, squeezing gently.
“Were this a truly dire circumstance I’m sure Her Highness would have spared more than eight words for you, Princess. Please calm down and eat. Take your medicine. Relax yourself. I’m sure you’ll go to Palladi and back without consequence.”
“My mother never spares words. She just gives commands.” Salvatrice replied. She gave Canelle a sharp glance that forced the latter to cower and withdraw her gaze. “My mother considers me such a lowly creature she needn’t explain what she requires of me, she calls me to her like a dog or a horse and knows I must blindly obey the whistle!”
Staring at the couch cushions at her side, Canelle replied in a conciliatory, almost frightened tone of voice, “I’m sure Her Highness has her reasons. A mother would not–”
Furiously, Salvatrice interrupted. “She has already jailed one of her daughters! My mother is mother last, Canelle, and above that she is a tyrant, a gaoler, a murderer!”
“No, Princess, stop, that is wrong, please.” Canelle pleaded in distressed whispers, her voice choppy. “Do not say these wrong things, Princess. You do not under–”
Salvatrice crossed her arms and breathed harshly. “I’m sorry. You’re not to blame nor to suffer for any of this. But please see it from my perspective, Canelle. For years I’ve had such limited contact with mother. She extends her arms to me to tell me she has jailed my sister and given me her position. Then she abandons me again; now this! Tell me, were you in my position could you see this as anything but another incoming betrayal?”
“Your circumstances are of an extraordinary nature Princess.” Canelle said gently.
“So you cannot speak of it? You cannot relate to it at all?” Salvatrice said.
“I am an un-extraordinary person.” Canelle replied, casting glances at the floor.
Salvatrice turned her cheek at this answer. It was frustrating, but wherever the Queen was concerned Canelle would become uselessly demure in an instant. Whether she feared or respected her or a twisted combination of the two, Salvatrice did not know.
Canelle kept all of her secrets, and took care of her, and Salvatrice wanted to think her loyalty resulted from warm feelings, from friendship and empathy and a relationship.
But whenever discussion shifted to the Queen, it brought to Salvatrice’s mind the ugly thought that perhaps Canelle just did it out of an antiquated sense of a peasant’s obligation to royalty. She kept her secrets because a peasant girl did not betray a noble-born woman; she helped Salvatrice because a peasant girl did not refuse aid to a noble-born woman. And she treated the Queen’s name as if that of a God because peasants did not take the liege’s name in vain. Perhaps it was not love at all, just awe of her.
It made Salvatrice feel lonely and isolated. She turned her head and wiped Canelle from her sight. In so doing all she had was walls; just a room bereft of anyone’s sentiment.
As she scanned around the room Salvatrice saw the door open abruptly as if by itself.
Centurion Byanca Geta casually let herself into the room, dangling a keyring in her index finger and whistling a little song as she went. She closed and locked the door behind herself, and ambled toward the couches, coming to a stop near the princess.
“Where did you get that?” Salvatrice said. Her voice rose to an aggressive tone.
“Good morning to you too, Your Majesty.” Byanca had on an apathetic expression.
“I categorically refuse to allow you to let yourself in here. Give me those keys.”
Salvatrice extended her hand at almost the same time as Byanca withdrew her own.
“They’re the old custodian set. I was allowed to have them for security reasons.”
She was being cheeky lately; much more than Salvatrice was comfortable with. The Princess tried not to lose herself in front of the Centurion, but she could not help it. When she next spoke her demeanor had devolved from imperious to rancorous.
“Give me your copy of my key then! Keep the rest if you need them so badly!”
Salvatrice thrust her hands out again and swiped at Byanca in passing.
The Centurion stepped away from her reach, walking around the table.
“They are a security asset now and I cannot release them to a civilian. Apologies.”
Byanca gave a little mocking bow. Salvatrice gripped the skirt of her dress in anger.
Canelle raised her tea cup. “Joining us for tea and cinnamon rolls, Centurion?”
Salvatrice cried out in a suddenly petulant voice. “Canelle! Don’t offer her tea!”
Almost at the same time Byanca bowed her head. “I would love to be your guest.”
“Geta! Don’t accept her tea!” Salvatrice whined. Nobody listened to a word of it.
Canelle smiled and sidled toward the couch armrest to make room at her side.
Byanca dropped brusquely on the couch beside Canelle and snatched a roll from the table. She took a bite out of it, and took a sip of the tea shortly after. Cup in one hand, roll in the other; not much in the way of tea table manners at all. Something about that sloppy display resonated with Salvatrice. She felt an odd sense of nostalgia from it.
In the face of her current frustration she found no comfort in those pangs of feeling.
Grunting a little, Salvatrice thrust the letter over the table to hand it to her Centurion.
“I take it since you’re here, you know what this is about. So explain yourself.”
Byanca cast a few deliberate glances between the letter and Salvatrice’s eyes.
She paused and pushed the remainder of the roll into her mouth.
“I have no idea.” She said through a mouthful of half-chewed food.
She swallowed, and sucked the slick sugary glaze left on each of her fingers. Once cleaned she extended her hand and plucked the letterhead from Salvatrice’s fingers. After a quick glance she slid the letter down the table toward the princess, and pushed her teacup up against her face, tipping down the rest of the tea in one big gulp.
Canelle and Salvatrice watched her as one would a misbehaving child. Salvatrice almost expected ructus and flatulence to follow after the rest of this slovenly show.
Thankfully Byanca merely set down her cup outside her saucer and sat back.
“I came to inform you that all Rossa surveillance measures have been revoked. Phone wiretapping, mail interception, transaction controls; it’s all done henceforth. From now on your security, and any accountability for your movements, begins and ends with me.”
Salvatrice was taken aback. At the mention of all of this spying she felt anger rising in her chest. She had suspected that she was being watched, in the discrete ways that the Legion could watch her. Hearing the extent of it spoken so casually stoked the embers already lit by her present circumstances. There was no relief in knowing that these violations had been curtailed. She was sure now that the future held much worse.
Meanwhile Canelle beamed, ecstatic, and clapped her hands together several times.
“You hear that, Princess? I told you that your mother had your interests in mind!”
“This is all part of a scheme.” Salvatrice said. She sighed. “She’s plotting something.”
“I agree. Her Royal Highness would not tear down the collar she’s got around your neck just to be a good mother. She has something planned for you.” Byanca replied.
Canelle glared at Byanca with sudden disdain. Her mouth hung slightly open.
“Do not fill the Princess’ head with evil ideas, Centurion!” She shouted.
Salvatrice crossed her arms and grinned cheekily. “Finally someone in this land of the blind sees things my way; and ironically of all people it is the Blackshirt Centurion.”
“I told you before, but I am on your side, Princess. No one else’s.” Byanca said.
“Yes, so you say. I don’t know why a Blackshirt would say it, but you do.”
“In any case,” the centurion began, at a lower, deflated tone of voice, “you should prepare to leave for the palace soon. I’ll be accompanying you on the journey.”
Salvatrice leaned forward toward Byanca, holding her head on her hands.
There were so many faces over the years. Salvatrice had stayed in a Messianic monastery, she certainly remembered that. It was dedicated to trying to revive divine magic. But she had stayed in the duke’s vineyard until the duke mysteriously passed, and she had stayed in a girl’s school for a time, and she had stayed with a General of the army Regolare until his own passing; and in each of those places there had been children, whom she played with and grew up around for certain short periods of her life. Save for one, for whom she reserved all of her feeling, she had forgotten all of these acquaintances. In her mind they were so transitory they were not worth recalling.
In front of her this Centurion insisted that she and Salvatrice had a connection.
And her presence was starting to insist remembrance from Salvatrice’s mind.
Was she worth remembering? Was that memory valuable enough to become trust?
“Why did you become a Blackshirt?” Salvatrice asked. “Did you really do such a thing to try to be ‘on my side’? You must understand how implausible that sounds to me.”
Byanca breathed out a sigh. She rubbed her hands down her face, and clapped them together as they slid off her chin. She stared at the ceiling, flicking her wrists.
This was a question that hurt to answer. This was a hurt person in front of her; that was the impression Salvatrice got. It made her uncomfortable to think she was causing her such hardship, but several little voices continued to assure her that she was justified.
Canelle looked between the two of them, discomforted by the sudden silence.
“I wanted to become a Knight.” Byanca finally said. She continued to speak, pausing from time to time, staring at her hands to avoid eye contact. “Knights who ascend to the rank of Maggiore can present themselves before a Lady of noble blood to ask for a wish from her, anything desired. This was a rule that passed down from the time of Magic, where miracles were real. He needed only swear his loyalty in the eyes of God, and she would indulge him in order to strengthen her family’s position. Ever since the rule of Passionale Vittoria began, women have been able to become Knights too. So a woman Knight can still ask a wish from a Lady. I wanted to make use of this ancient law.”
Her face sank again into her hands after she was done speaking. She didn’t look up for a time. Salvatrice did not know what to make of the shame with which she admitted this. This was something she desired so much; why would she speak of it with such trepidation? She looked almost disgusted with herself. Salva didn’t understand it at all. She didn’t understand why Byanca would seek after wishes in a time where Magic was now dead; and she did not understand why this dream tore her up so much now.
“What was your wish?” Salvatrice asked. “And whom would you present it to?”
Byanca raised her head. She had on a bitter, cynical grin, quite different in tone from the cheeky expression she bore when flipping the keyring in her fingers minutes ago. A little laughter escaped her as she spoke; to whom it was directed, Salvatrice didn’t know.
“I staked everything on it, Princess, but I failed to become a Knight. I became a Blackshirt to avoid the depths of my failure. That is the undramatic truth of the matter, whether you believe it or not. I was sent to Borelia, where I trudged through miserable wilderness to kill men who threw grenades from bushes and laid mines along the roads. What was my wish? I don’t know anymore. It doesn’t matter. I’m not that girl anymore.”
Now it was Salvatrice’s turn to avert her eyes. She did not want to lock with that sudden, mournful gaze cast toward her by the Centurion. She was afraid and felt guilty.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried into this. I’m just being nosy, and it’s unbecoming.”
“You deserve to know. I wanted to sit down and explain all of this sooner anyway.”
Salvatrice plotted something eloquent to say, but her lips moved before her mind.
“Byanca, I have no power to grant any wish to anyone.” Salvatrice said to her.
“Blackshirts do not get wishes. We’re unworthy of them.” Byanca replied quickly.
“Then what do you want? Why did you accept this mission? Why are you on my side?”
The Princess and the Centurion locked gazes again. Byanca smiled softly.
“You deserve to have someone on your side. That answers all those questions.”
Salvatrice stood up from the couch and turned her back. She walked out toward the bookshelves surrounding the door to her room, pacing them with her hands behind her back. She looked wistfully around, seeking anything to grab her attention and break the tension that she felt around the room. But her mind was so scrambled that she saw the letters on the books shifting and warping before her eyes. Everything was twisted now. She ran an idle hand through her hair and sucked her lips in, tasting the red pigment.
Without turning back to the couches, stifling a groan, Salvatrice gave her answer.
“Centurion Geta, the one thing the 1st Princess of Lubon can grant you is trust, so she will grant you trust. Treasure it, for nothing will replace that gift should you squander it.”
Salvatrice pulled a book from the shelf, taking an object she had hidden behind it.
Her head held high, she returned to the couch and held out Byanca’s Picea pistol.
Their hands briefly brushed as the Centurion took back her weapon.
“God save our gracious Queen. Long live our noble Queen.” Byanca sang softly.
She returned the weapon to its holster with a demure little smile on her face.
Salvatrice shook her head, exasperated. “To hell with the Queen.”
37th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Before, when the Queen summoned Salvatrice, a private car appeared out of the blue in front of the Aquinas building. Canelle urged her to dress nicely and slide into the back seat without question. A driver behind bulletproof tinted glass, likely sworn to have no interaction with her, drove her wordlessly to wherever the Queen wished to meet her. That was the expected procedure, the control that the Queen had over her life before.
But there was no private car, even two days after Salvatrice received the letter. In fact it was the first time that a royal summons had been delivered to her like this. She knew that she could not tempt fate for much longer. One or two days could be chalked up to the whims of the postal system. Any more might draw the Queen’s ire. So on the morning of the 37th, Salvatrice made preparations to leave for the royal capital.
Canelle was practically jumping off the walls with enthusiasm. She picked out a regal green dress, that had been designed to match one the Queen had worn several months prior at an important function. It was form-fitting, though Salvatrice felt she had precious little form for the dress to fit, as she was a fairly slight lady; the tight, long skirt evoked petals curling around with her body as the flower’s core, and the high neck and long sleeves gave it a sleek modesty. There was a green gemstone shining on her chest.
“You are the image of your mother; I wish others would see that!” Canelle said.
Salvatrice posed in front of the mirror as Canelle fussed with her hair. Aside from a green and red ribbon, her straight, shoulder-length, evenly-distributed red-yellow hair remained the same. A touch of red lipstick accentuated her thin lips, and a dab of purple shadow lent a bit of complexity to her face and complimented her green eyes. Powders and blush gave her slightly brown skin a somewhat lighter look than it normally had.
Two pieces of wing-like jewelry extended the size of her ears by a few millimeters.
Canelle turned her around before the mirror, admiring her handiwork. “You look beautiful, Salvatrice! Of course, you always do, but you look your best when your clothes shine as bright as the rest of you, I think! Artifice accentuates nature.”
“In my case I think the medicine is more to thank than nature.” Salvatrice said.
“Oh come now, don’t say that, your beauty is inherent,” Canelle said awkwardly.
Salvatrice felt a little thrill running through her body as she looked in the mirror. She was dressed up now, in costume. There was a strange, elated, perhaps even somewhat arousing sensation to it. In the same way that she felt she became a man, Sylvano D’Amore, with the proper preparations, now she had become a woman to the world. It was comforting, like a mask, it covered up the bare, naked Salvatrice within it.
Whatever that was; at times Salvatrice felt there was nothing underneath one costume or the other. She didn’t even know which one was the more natural form for her. She loved both; she loved being both. But she felt there was something apart from them too.
With her “costume” done up, and a little luggage prepared, Salvatrice took a light, careful breakfast, pumped a little estrogen into her system, and made ready to depart.
Outside the apartment door she found Byanca waiting in her dress uniform.
She looked at Salvatrice and appeared momentarily shocked. Salvatrice was a little taken aback in turn, but she had much more practice with holding her composure.
“What, Centurion; do I not ordinarily look like this to your eyes?” Salvatrice said.
“N-No, Princess, just, you look,” Byanca tripped over her words, “gorgeous.”
Salvatrice grinned. “And then I ask again, am I not gorgeous all of the time?”
“Well this is a different kind of gorgeous! There are gradients!” Byanca replied.
Byanca was looking rather more polished than normal. She had no makeup, for the service allowed her none, but her pure black uniform was rather dashing, her jacket decorated with all of her medals and patches, including the centurion’s armband, and a thin blue sash across her chest and waist. She wore her hair collected in a bun, very professional, and donned her feathered bersaglieri cap, black with a silver emblem. Her uniform accentuated the trained, toned slimness of her. She looked martial and strong. Knightly, one could even say. Though the Princess restrained her compliments.
“You look exceptionally fit to guard me, Geta.” Salvatrice said in a haughty tone.
The Centurion took those words as Salvatrice meant them and blushed immediately.
“Don’t stand there looking bashful, Geta! Lead the way for your charge. Escort me.”
“Y-Yes, Princess.” Byanca nodded her head, took the Princess’ luggage in her hands, and then started down the stairs. Salvatrice delicately followed the Blackshirt down. Canelle trailed behind them with an ecstatic look, bouncing as she went along.
Outside the Aquinas building, Byanca hailed a fancy black town car with a long sloping nose and a leather-covered interior with two sets of windows on either side. She opened the door for Salvatrice, who gave her a quizzical look before accepting the invitation. Tinted glass separated the cab from the passenger’s roomy black leather seating. Everything smelled strangely fresh inside as if the car was new from the factory.
The Centurion loaded her luggage in the back, tapped on the front glass and alerted the driver, and got inside, seated beside the Salvatrice — with a healthy bit of room between them. Together they bid Canelle farewell while she stood off the side of the road in amazement. Once the car was started and pulling away, Salvatrice turned to Byanca.
“What is this supposed to be? Where is my ordinary driver?” She asked.
“He’s fine; we’re just using this today. It is Legatus Tarkus’ staff car.” Byanca said.
“Staff car? He drives this? For work purposes?” Salvatrice whispered in surprise.
“No, it has practically never left the garage. But it’s bulletproof and safe. There’s a machine gun under the seat and everything. He vigorously approved of its use.”
Salvatrice grunted. “Who is the driver? Someone you know? Can you truly trust him?”
Byanca cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted. “He can’t hear you!”
“Alright, fine, he can’t, answer the question.” Salvatrice said aloud. She looked at the tinted glass and could make out an outline of a fairly tall man in a newsboy hat.
“You can trust him about as far as you can throw him. I can throw him a meter I think.” Byanca grinned. She laid back. “There is no way that he will interfere with anything.”
Salvatrice crossed her arms. She looked out the window at the scrolling landscape.
“Fine then. I trust you. How long will it take until we reach the Royal Territory?”
Byanca looked suddenly peppy. “A few hours; hey, let us sing a road song!”
“Don’t push your luck.” Salvatrice replied imperiously, keeping her gaze from Geta.
Once the car got going in earnest, the driver first circled around the Aquinas building and took a circuitous route out of the Academy, moving through neighboring vineyards and greenhouses. Clear of the campus, he rounded the rural roads, where there was nary another motor vehicle in their way. He skipped the nearby town of Juth; Salvatrice watched it pass them by, a kilometer out at their side as they advanced into the country. Over and around several green hills the car traveled with ease, the ride smooth and relatively noiseless. Palladi, a central Province of Lubon, was ringed by mountainous terrain. Complex, hilly turf was common to it, woodland thick and sparse dotted the landscape.
North of Palladi the hills opened into an expanse of broad, flat descending terrain sliced through by the vacillating Radice river and its branches. As the car glided down the hills Salvatrice could see the white palace in the distance, its walls extending around a dense, red-roofed town like protecting arms. She could almost see the crown of the Father Tree behind the gleaming towers of the castle. Vittoria’s Palazzo, the ancient town of Pallas, and the surrounding farmland was the nation-within-a-nation known as the Royal Territory of Pallas. Fifteen miles across and ten long, Pallas, farmlands and all, was the size of a city and much less densely populated than Torto or Cartha or other modern elven holdings. But the town itself was only a fraction of the territory’s total size.
Over a series of bridges, the car crossed the many arms of the Radice river that traced through the land at irregular intervals like the roots of the First Tree dug into the soil. Everything between the hills and the palace was farmland and homesteads that served the White Palace. They passed by orchards and vineyards, fields of purple Cyrn that gave bountiful cereals in the spring. Peasant families shepherded the farmlands and plucked nature’s fruits both for themselves and to present to the Queen each season.
“Ten green bottles of wine on the wall, ten green bottles hanging on the wall–”
Byanca sang and sang various drinking songs, mostly to herself, but loud enough to hear. She had already counted bottles several times, and sang Bevilo Tutto. It seemed all the songs she knew or at least the ones she felt like singing were drinking songs.
Salvatrice was quiet as the Queen’s lands scrolled past her eyes. She had frozen into a casual pose, with a hand on her cheek and another on her lap, staring out the closed window.
At first they were content to sit beside each other with a healthy gap between them, but after a few minutes inside the Royal Territory, Byanca started glancing Salvatrice’s way.
“Something wrong, Princess?” She asked. Her enthusiasm was mildly off-putting.
“Do soldiers only sing drinking songs?” Salvatrice said, glancing sidelong at Byanca.
“I used to be in choir, but you’d just get laughed at singing religious songs in a tank.”
“I suppose so.” Salvatrice looked out the window again, counting the electric poles.
“Let’s get this open, Princess! Take a whiff of the country air. It’ll cheer you up.”
From her side, Byanca leaned clumsily over, laying hands on the window lever. Salvatrice raised her hands in surprise. Byanca turned the lever and rolled down the window, then retreated with her own hands raised to mirror Salvatrice’s pose.
A gentle breeze blew into the passenger compartment, blowing Salvatrice’s hair.
She took in a deep breath; there was a sweet smell that she could not place.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And it smells great. I feel so at ease here.” Byanca said. Her ponytail swayed gently and she looked so girlishly delighted with everything.
Salvatrice smiled a little. She did not want to be the one to ruin the mood for now.
Byanca was happy because she saw nothing but the surface of the elven holy land.
For the First Princess, who would take up the mantle of Queen Vittoria, Pallas represented a birth-right, its people and lands owned absolutely by the Queen, to the point that the statutes of the Parliament did not matter within its limits. But Salvatrice had not grown in Pallas, groomed to succeed the throne. Clarissa had been the face of the Vittoria lineage up until recently. The streets of Pallas, the walls of the Palazzo, all of it was her childhood home. Clarissa was the one known and loved in the Royal Territory.
Salvatrice was like an invader; a foreign presence made to force her way inside.
This was the position that her mother had thrust her into. Salvatrice would have been content with obscurity. She had never wanted to rule. She had no aspirations to power or influence. Seclusion had nurtured modest goals. Peaceful tea-times, an education, a semblance of a social life, love; as ordinary a life as a royal-born girl could dream of.
She was not welcome here. Her trajectory in life was not meant to intersect with this.
Past several kilometers of farmland the car stopped before the green gates in the middle of the forward wall. Blackshirt guards wordlessly checked Byanca’s credentials. They offered no words for Salvatrice; they barely even glanced her way. It was as if she did not exist. In her situation, Salvatrice couldn’t tell if this was out of duty or disdain.
As quietly as they approached and as silently as they deliberated the guards returned Byanca’s papers and the vehicle’s registration, and ushered them through the gate.
Inside the green gates they found themselves on the perfectly flat, spotless grey roads of Pallas town, flanked on either side by rows of buildings with quaint-looking gabled red roofs. They traveled the main thoroughfare, under curling green street-lights like drooping flowers, their car trailing behind trolleys and work buses. Throngs of people in suits and uniforms crowded both sides of the street, coming and going from their work. Pallas was old but under Vittoria it was never antiquated. Fashionable clothing hung on trendy storefronts; modern restaurants catered to the middle class workers that now inhabited the town. Telephone lines and electric cabling hung high over every street.
At the end of the thoroughfare the middle wall divided the town of Pallas and the Mound of the Father-Tree — a beautiful, gently rising green hill walled in on all sides with polished white rock, and bearing at its peak the palace of Passionale Vittoria. A richly decorated structure, its corners were four equidistant towers surrounding a thick, central spire. Its walls projected backward beyond the living space and enclosed the plot of land that bore the Father-Tree. One could not see it through the height of Vittoria’s central tower. It had been built hundreds of years ago precisely to obscure the Father-Tree from commoners.
There were no paved roads outside of the town, and no telephone or electric poles projecting out from the earth. Their car was stopped beyond the gate by blackshirt guards and they were directed to park in a garage at the foot of the Mound alongside a dozen other liaison cars. Once the car parked, Byanca rushed out of her own door, swung around the back and opened the right-side passenger door for Salvatrice.
She ushered the Princess out onto the gravel with a gentlemanly bow of the head.
“Don’t push your luck.” Salvatrice said again. Byanca chuckled a little to herself.
“Shall I take your luggage?” the Centurion asked.
“No. He can do it.” Salvatrice pointed at the driver, who looked her way in confusion.
Nearly swallowing his cigarette, the man rushed to his work while the women left.
The Mound was gentle enough a climb for most people, and the climb was required for anyone who wanted to visit the Palazzo. No vehicles or horses were allowed to climb the Mound — only the feet of human beings. Salvatrice and Byanca followed a makeshift path up the slope, delineated by perfectly-trimmed bushes with gilded sashes around them. It was a ten minute walk under the noon sun, and Salvatrice felt herself sweat a little.
Before the palace doors they were again stopped, and again it was only Byanca whom the guards seemed concerned with. For the third time she displayed her rank before them; once again she was allowed forward, while Salvatrice received no word from anyone. Through the double doors of reinforced glass they entered a vast lobby with four large fountains, an indoor garden filled with lilies of all manner of colors, like a rainbow grown from the soil, and couches beside tables full of brochures for visitors.
Salvatrice was ready to be insulted that her mother would leave her at the reception.
Then a set of doors opened at the end of the lobby and a woman approached, flanked by a pair of guards. She wore an afternoon uniform, a conservative black dress worn under a white apron, with long black sleeves and hands covered in white gloves. Her half-white, half-blond hair was pulled up into a bun, and she wore an elaborate cap.
Salvatrice took note of her because she had seen her before, though they had not formally met, not that Salvatrice remembered. But this must have been her mother’s maid — Canelle’s counterpart in the castle. Unlike Canelle, this maid had a foxy, canny sort of expression, a slight grin with piercing blue eyes behind a pair of thin spectacles. Hers was not a gentle expression. Salvatrice would’ve even called it a violent one.
“Princess, it is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. My name is Lillith Mariel.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Mariel.” Salvatrice said. She forced a softer, girlish sounding tone of voice and a graceful smile. Her cheeks already tingled from the effort.
Lillith bowed her head, and she reached out her hands, palms up. Salvatrice touched her with both of her own, palm against palm, and the servant had room again to speak. And speak she did; in a dulcet tone of voice she indulged in a lengthy introduction.
“You would not remember me, but long have I been keeper of your mother’s skin and silk. I have been with your mother since before you were born — in fact, I helped her through labor with you. I was the first to hold you aloft, and to wipe your mother’s blood from your body. I was, even, the first to breast-feed you; I had to take a drug for it.”
“Well; it appears I came to meet one mother and found a second.” Salvatrice said.
Lillith giggled girlishly; at her side the guards looked visibly uncomfortable with this.
Through her affable facade Salvatrice felt a sudden surge of hatred for Mrs. Mariel.
There was no reason for her to say anything; like the guards, she could have just led her where she needed to go without undue words. She could not have been sentimentally attached to the Princess — this was a reason Salvatrice always threw out immediately where it concerned her mother’s people. She knew that none of them cared. By process of elimination Salvatrice realized that this was Lillith either taunting her or flaunting her freedom of speech. Unlike the other servants she had a measure of status in Pallas.
“History aside; your true mother awaits, Princess. Follow the guards up to the peak of the central spire. I shall take your dashing companion on a tour of the Palace, and your driver will be given instructions on what to do with your lullage. Worry not.” Lillith said.
After one additional bow, Lillith whipped around and marched down the hall, perhaps expecting that Byanca would immediately follow. Likewise, the guards turned around and started away from Salvatrice, and stood in front of an elevator door waiting for it.
“Princess, be careful.” Byanca said. Out of sight of the guards, she took Salva’s hand and squeezed it. It was definitely an overreach on her part — but it didn’t feel awful.
Salvatrice cocked a little grin at her and let her go. “Like I said, don’t push your luck.”
Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria
At the top of the tower the guards opened the door to the spire’s main chamber and ushered Salvatrice in. They then turned around, shut the doors behind her and left the spire without setting foot inside. Salvatrice heard their footsteps, growing distant.
Inside the chamber there was nothing material on display, no obvious purpose. It was empty of furnishings, enclosed by unadorned walls, and there were no treasures on display. On the floor, a spiral green and brown pattern resembled vines or roots crawling along the tile. Overhead, the rising pyramidal shape of the roof, and its visible supports, untouched. At her side there was a wide open balcony with a commanding view of the green-glowing foliage of the Father-Free. A cool breeze blew into the chamber from several arch-shaped windows in the corners — they were standing high above Pallas.
In the center of the room, looking out to the balcony, stood Queen Regnant Passionale Vittoria. Her stoic beauty still struck the Princess; every time she saw her, those imperious green eyes, her fair skin, perfectly flowing locks of blond hair and features untouched by time, her figure, ample but also sleek, wrapped exquisitely in a sleeveless, ornate silk dress with a large green emerald set between her breasts. Salvatrice had scarcely seen her mother in the flesh, and every time she seemed more like a figure crafted, as though given life through the artifice of a legend like a Galathea statue.
She turned her head to her daughter, framed by the door several meters away.
She smiled; very slightly, a mere tipping of the lips, but her mother smiled at her.
“You look ravishing, Salvatrice. You have a beauty hitherto unknown to this land.”
“Thank you, Mother. You are as stunning as the Goddesses of our myths.”
Salvatrice replied graciously, and curtsied before her mother. Her compliments grated on the princess, however. Salvatrice was not “a beauty akin” to her mother, or even simply a “beauty.” She was a foreign, alien beauty; reddish hair, light brown skin, blunt ears. All of her features that were different from the norm seemed drawn into stark relief.
They each stood in their places. Vittoria turned fully to greet her, skirts trailing on the floor. Salvatrice remained at the edge of the room, standing with her hands clapped before her and set against her skirt. Neither made a move to draw near, to link hands or hug or even, in their places, to show any undue affections. Just smiles and distance.
“Did I ever tell you the story of how I became Queen, Salvatrice?” Vittoria said.
What a ridiculous question; of course you didn’t, Salvatrice’s mind screamed. You were never there! When on Aer would you have had time to tell me a story? It took all her moderation to continue smiling neutrally when her mind and soul seethed so strongly.
To Vittoria there was no contradiction in this, no acknowledgment of the absurdity of it. In all earnestness, she stretched her arms, gesturing to the breadth of the chamber around them. She looked up, at the roof, and around herself. She turned around.
“This room is quite nostalgic. It is here where my journey as a Queen truly began.”
Salvatrice looked around. This was alarming; there was significance in the air here. If this room meant anything to Vittoria then it was ominous that Salvatrice now stood in it.
“Was it empty at that time, Mother? Were you made to view the Father-Tree?”
Vittoria paced; Salvatrice heard the tapping of her heels under her voluminous skirt.
“I was a mere twenty years of age. This room was very different. It was surrounded by mirrors. You could not escape the sight of yourself in this room. It was known as the Chamber of Selection. All truths were laid bare before the Chamber of Selection.”
At her mother’s words the princess found her gaze wandering, scrolling across the walls, lingering on the floors. She saw the bolt-holes, where the mirrors would have once been screwed into place. A room full of mirrors, where one could not evade oneself — Salvatrice could imagine it. In her mind it was a macabre place. The way her Mother stared at the walls almost seemed to mirror this. Salvatrice could have sworn she saw a hint of disgust or trepidation in her mother’s countenance as she recalled the surroundings.
Again the Queen began to speak, and this time her tale was longer, and Salvatrice listened without interruption, swallowing all emotion but the facade of a smiling face.
“Once upon a time, my daughter, there was a young King, whose father passed, having spent his life unsuccessfully clinging to an Empire in decline. This young King wanted little responsibility, and longed only for domesticity; he was a shy king, fond of quiet.”
“Upon the eve of his coronation, his older, proper female relatives took it upon themselves, as is the ancient custom of this land, to seek a woman who could inspire his passion and improve upon his bloodline, which was much intermixed within the close-knit circles of the high aristocrats. They settled on three candidates, but two were problematic, for one crossed the King’s bloodline several times, and the other was thought too low-born to be appropriate. Nevertheless, all were brought here, to this room, one by one.”
“Surrounded on all sides by mirrors, the women were stripped of their clothes, and thoroughly examined. Width of the hips, size of the skull, physiognomy, length of limbs, body fat, and of course, virginity. The King’s grandmothers and aunts and older sisters, this assortment of the most proper ladies; they found, after their inspection, that there was only one woman who had the character and health to support the kingdom.”
Vittoria turned her head over her shoulder, staring sidelong at Salvatrice.
“I hated what they did to me, how they saw me that day; it disgusts me to this day.”
There was vitriol in her voice. Salvatrice felt a thump in her chest as she listened.
“Our traditions, by and large, disgust and repel me. Years later I would take my bloody revenge on the King’s nonni for that slight. With these two hands, Salvatrice, I closed the circle those crones began on the eve when they selected me as wife to their King.”
She turned fully around, and wore a suddenly darkened expression. Her eyes downturned, her lips curled in a stoic displeasure, her hands held behind her back.
“When you were born, doctors took you from me and deliberated about you as if you were an anomaly or a myth. They said explicitly they did not know whether I had chosen a correct name for you. It disturbed me. It reminded of that time in the elector council. People being treated like lumps of meat.”
Vittoria stretched one of her hands back out from behind herself, and though there was nothing in it, she did it with such quickness that Salvatrice nearly jumped back with fright. She always thought Vittoria would smack her from across the room somehow.
“I purged every doctor who had anything to do with that unneeded panic at your birth, and I sought out doctors on the cutting edge of science, young and with open minds. I did not want doctors with knives who viewed you as a creature. Nobody deserves that.”
Lies, lies, lies. Salvatrice fought back the urge to shout. You killed those doctors because they hurt your ego, not because they wanted to hurt your child; though the result was the same Salvatrice knew that the origin was different. This was not love.
“Whenever we met during your childhood, I saw you growing and growing into a fine princess. And I saw your enthusiasm to be a princess. I sought every resource available to make you the best princess that you could possibly be, the healthiest, best educated, least poisoned by bureaucratic indulgence. I only wish I could have been there more for you during that time.”
Salvatrice closed her hands into fists at her side. This was all embellishment. As a child Salvatrice only called herself what other people called her; what her mother called her. She didn’t know anything back then. She didn’t really know much now. Though she was happy enough with the result of all these years, all these doctors and medicines and treatments, these examinations, all the things taboo to medicine that she was and was made to be; that chaos and confusion was not a calculated, loving decision by her mother. It was the result of neglect and receiving only what Vittoria wanted to give. She could have been Sylvano or Salvatrice. She had accepted both, in a sense. That was not Vittoria’s doing!
“But Salvatrice, I already knew it when I held you as a child. What I saw then was unambiguous. I knew who my daughter was and I knew what she truly wanted and what it was her birthright to become in the end. From the moment you were born, I knew that it was you who needed the utmost protection, who needed to be sheltered from the melee that was unfolding in these walls. Not Clarissa; you. Always you, Salvatrice.”
Her words nearly drew tears from Salvatrice’s eyes. She wished she had a broader skirt so that her knees could quiver openly. Salvatrice felt as though there was a skin under her own and a creature ready to lunge from it for the Queen’s throat. She was furious.
Vittoria was painting her own picture of Salva’s life, and all of the paint came from her own ego, her own untouchable ego. She had never done anything wrong, never abandoned her — in her own mind she was always the winner. And she said those horrible words, those erasing words, those words that spat on Salvatrice’s entire life as she had lived it; Queen Vittoria said them with such stoic ease and perfect delivery that it hammered at Salva’s mind.
She had not abandoned Salvatrice because of her dangerous illegitimacy, fathered by a foreign diplomat, and born ambiguous and unplaceable in a binary world; in Vittoria’s mind she had protected her and groomed her in a unique way! Oh how convenient for the Queen!
“One princess, grown among her people; the other, raised amid the repulsive ideological debauch of this Pallas and its squabbling, incompetent nobles and knights.” Queen Vittoria raised one hand, and then other, one palm-up, one palm-down. Salvatrice didn’t know which hand was supposed to represent her. They went up both at once.
Teeth clenched, hidden behind her lips, Salvatrice stilled her ragged breath as best as she could to deliver a short, crucial line. “Mother, how am I meant to serve on this day?”
She needed to cut her off this subject. She needed to do anything to reassert herself, to reassert that her version of the events was the real one. Salvatrice needed to be anything but this unique, uniquely loved, uniquely trained model daughter; she needed again to be the abandoned and reclaimed tool of a callous, monstrous despot. Otherwise her mother’s words would truly dig into her brain as if the unvarnished truth, erasing her own life.
“Salvatrice, I must confess to you, that I have lied, though I have done it to protect you, and I believe the lie a white one for the most part.” Vittoria said. She turned her back on Salvatrice again and paced to the end of the room, where she picked something up from a window.
“In what sense, Mother?” Salvatrice asked, her voice a little choked.
Vittoria flicked something her way — Salvatrice caught it against her chest.
It was a cardboard envelope, and inside there were photographs of a man, hair gelled back, a fine beard across his soft features, a boyishly handsome sort of person. There were also photographs of this man and a woman, a delicate little blond– Clarissa.
“It was never about Clarissa being indiscreet, for I do not care how many men she claims her own as long as she does so cautiously and uses them properly. Her indiscretion was the man she chose and what she chose to do with that man.”
Vittoria glided across the floor, and stood face to face with Salvatrice.
“That man is the leader of an anarchist cell known as New Humanity. His nom de guerre is Cesare Regal. He is connected to the attacks that have been transpiring across the country, but he is not a foreigner: he is an elf, born of this land, educated here, wealthy, and ambitious. He tapped into the ego that this environment cultivated in your sister. She plotted against me; now he plots against you in revenge for her.”
Salvatrice felt her mother’s fingers tip her chin up. They locked eyes.
Seeing deep into those callous green eyes Salvatrice could hold her tongue no longer.
“You used me as bait! All this time! To draw this man out!” Salvatrice shouted. She shouted each set of words as the revelation reverberated inside of her mind. That was why the surveillance was ended; going farther back, that was why Salvatrice was allowed to return to her studies after the trip to Nocht. Clarissa was removed, to provoke this man.
Salvatrice was promoted, and she was made vulnerable, to provoke him!
Vittoria grinned; she shook her head at her daughter, both amused and disappointed.
“No.” Vittoria said. She savored every word. “You are not bait, Salvatrice. You are the future Queen of Lubon. And you will show me the Power of a Queen by destroying this man and everything of his. You will do it because your past, present and future depend on it.”
She set her hands on Salvatrice’s shoulders and the Princess felt a sudden weight.
It was almost enough to make her collapse, and she did not know whose strength she borrowed to remain standing throughout that exchange, and to keep her eyes open. She felt like the hands of her mother were here to finally sink her into the earth where she belonged.
The Queen’s striking green eyes were no longer stoic and indifferent; they had been set ablaze by a malignant fire that illuminated a purpose reserved only for Salvatrice.