37th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria
Princess Salvatrice’s return to the Palazzo should have been greeted with a feast fit for the transformation of an era, but there was little pomp to the celebrations. Queen Vittoria strongly dismissed her various attendants and courtiers who had come to insert themselves in the festivities. The occasion was an open secret — those who knew and were in a position to attend would desire to seek favor. They would not get the chance.
Instead of a feast, the Queen arranged a small family outing. Nevertheless she dressed for the ballroom. She wore a filmy shawl over her otherwise bare shoulders, semi-translucent, green and gold with thin etchings of leaves and flowers, the lines like the pattern of a spider’s web. Beneath the shawl was a form-fitting emerald green dress that shimmered with threads of silver and a coating of jewel dust. A slit on the side revealed a long, perfect pink-pale leg, and the dress was sleeveless and cut at the level of the breasts. It was not the kind of thing Salvatrice thought befitted the modesty of a mother.
Her own dress seemed overly conservative in comparison to her mother’s flashy attire.
“Apologies for the wait, my precious crown jewels. To make a spread fit for Queen and Queen-To-Be alike takes a concerted effort. But I digress: here come the girls. Enjoy!”
Lillith Mariel made her cheerful announcement from the comfort of the dinner table, and tapped a fork on a wine glass in the manner of a gong to call in the evening feast.
Her tapping seemed to reverberate inside the confines of the chosen locale.
Dinner was served not in the castle’s grand hall but atop an ornate glass table in the tea room, a tiny nook tucked away in the center of the grand structure. It felt more like a restaurant booth than a room. It was soundproof, with a close ceiling and walls, like a polished and gilded cage. Bulletproof doors that locked from the inside opened and closed as sharply-dressed servant girls came and went with plates expertly balanced on the tips of their fingers. A breadbasket, wine, and a first course were neatly arranged.
Once the table had filled with introductory plates, Lillith stood and clapped her hands.
“We shall start with quail in a pan sauce and bruschetta, paired with a delicate Merlot.”
Lillith then sat again, faced Vittoria, and began to cut the meat for her Queen.
She was clothed as expected of a classical maid, wearing a black dress and a white apron with a matching cap. Long gloves and stockings covered her slender limbs. A dusting of powder reddened her cheeks. Her lips were painted a glossy crimson. However, when she leaned near the Queen and the princess paid her greater attention, Salvatrice did notice a plunging neckline and a hint of skin along the upper chest.
Vittoria gave no expression in response to her maid, not even when the bird was cut.
Instead, the Queen raised her eyes from the plate of quail leg and lay the full weight of her imperious gaze on her daughter. Her glossy green painted lips formed the rudiments of a smile, but the intensity of her eyes prevented any softness from coming across. She had no gaze except that which made lesser mortals cower. It was her nature.
“You must give it a taste, Salvatrice. It is a world-class meal.” She said gently.
Newly-minted First Princess Salvatrice Vittoria sat behind an untouched quail leg, looking almost defiant. Keenly aware of her mother’s affinity for the color, she traded her green dress for a form-fitting salmon-pink dress with long sleeves and a high neck. Her hair was pulled back and arranged in a braided bun, exposing her blunt, half-elven ears. Around her eyes there was a delicate shade of yellow, and her lips were shiny pink.
When Salvatrice picked up her fork and knife it was as if in the manner of a child forced into a tedious chore. She quickly cut and speared a piece of meat, dabbed it in the yellow pan sauce and delicately raised it to her mouth. Chewing gently and silently in the manner of a proper lady, Salvatrice found the texture perfect and the flavor exquisite. Tender, juicy, well-seasoned, perfectly glazed; food fit for the almighty Queen’s table.
Salvatrice suppressed any indication of pleasure and delivered a monotone response.
“It is quite serviceable, dear mother.” She said. She then set down her fork.
Across the table, Vittoria gripped her knife slightly harder in her slender fingers. Salvatrice could only tell this movement by the shifting of the cloth on her mother’s gloves. Her face was as precious stone; perfectly polished and inexpressive. Radiant, beautiful, dispassionate. Salvatrice wished she could’ve provoked grandiose anger.
Instead the Queen picked up a piece of bruschetta and crunched on it ever so delicately.
“My, my; only serviceable?” Lillith said. “Well, the night is young. I shall hook you yet.”
Salacious giggling punctuated her words, and made them seem an eerie threat.
Meanwhile she raised a piece of quail speared on a fork to the Queen’s lips.
Idly, as if it was a natural exchange, Vittoria ate the bird as the maid offered it.
“And what does the quiet Centurion think of the quail, hmm?” Lillith asked.
Centurion Byanca Geta was seated at Salvatrice’s side, her position on the table mirroring Lillith’s seating arrangement next to the Queen. Wearing her dress uniform and feathered cap, and her long hair in a bun behind her head, the rugged young woman looked handsome enough for the royal banquet that would not be held. Her opinion was clear on her plate, upon which only a bone with some scraps of tissue remained.
“It was great! I’ve never had a bird so juicy.” Said the Centurion, chuckling with delight.
Salvatrice snapped her head toward the Centurion in disapproval.
Byanca paused, and averted her gaze, sighing. “I mean, it was, okay.”
The Princess turned a cold shoulder on her oafish companion.
Soon the girls returned, and left, and again returned. They brought in new courses every ten minutes it seemed. Quail leg, ox soup, fox, steer ribs, duck in sauce. Whether a plate was empty or in the process of emptying or utterly untouched, the kitchen maids unquestioningly replaced it when the time came to bring a new plate. Drinks, too, were brought freely and quickly replaced to compliment every new course. A rainbow of wines and mixed fruit drinks cycled into and out of the room with the meat and maids.
It seemed the only constant was the bruschetta, on a small basket lined with a red cloth. After each dish Vittoria would nibble on the bread. It was the only edible she deigned to pick with her own hands. Lillith cheerily fed her the meat, the shellfish, and any veggies.
Salvatrice tried to remain quiet and austere at her end of the table, taking reluctant bites of each meal and begrudging sips of each drink. She did not converse with anyone. She felt bitter toward Lillith for her flighty behavior, and felt a touch of anger at the way she so casually interacted with the Queen; and of course, speaking to the Queen at all was simply out of the question for her. The dinner table became very quiet, and for a time, she almost believed she would not have to talk. But then her mother’s powerful green eyes fell on her again, and she felt the strength of them like a blow to the chest.
“Salvatrice, how go your studies?” Her mother asked. Though her voice sounded gentle, the very fact of her presence was inescapable. She was the Queen, and the weight of history caused her most cooing voice to rattle Salvatrice’s spine. She did not want to have to answer her mother. But filial propriety bound her to respond promptly.
“I am performing as well as expected of me, dear mother.” Salvatrice replied.
Nothing forced her to expound at length. She needed to respond; nothing more.
“I was surprised at your choice of Sociology as a major. What prompted this?”
“Understanding social behavior and institutions seems key to political success.”
Vittoria cracked something of a smile. Salvatrice found it terribly condescending.
“My precious daughter, no science exists which will prepare you for the crown.”
“She would know,” Lillith said, grinning, “Her collegiate focus was science after all!”
“Civil engineering.” Vittoria corrected her. “It is not a scientist’s science, truth be told.”
“I am sure my dear mother is as equipped in mathematics and physics as any scholar.”
Salvatrice raised a kerchief to her mouth to wipe it, excusing herself from the discussion momentarily. Lillith smiled charmingly, while Vittoria was unaffected by the praise.
“You will understand Salvatrice, that is it not the technical details of rule that will try your willpower and patience. It is the effects it has on you personally. Nothing can prepare you for that but to live, and hope your life withstands the burden.” Vittoria said.
“I am certain my dear mother has instilled in me the character necessary for it.”
Even this much of a conversation with her mother was a struggle. With every word she felt a building bitterness and anger at the farce of this entire trip. Sitting here, eating this lavish dinner, pretending that they had any kind of relationship. Vittoria was like the pagan gods of the ancient elves, Gods of Nature that gave and destroyed without presenting a face, without directing a voice. Salvatrice was but a helpless worshiper.
To live, the Queen said, and yet, had she allowed Salvatrice to live at all? She had always kept her hidden, always apart from the gilded world within the walls of Pallas. What did she know about living? Salvatrice had never been able to live as any of her peers had, nor had she been able to live as a member of the nobility was expected. She had no life.
“Have you made any friends?” Vittoria asked. She spread her lips delicately open as Lillith picked a piece of shrimp from a plate of scampi and lifted it to the Queen’s waiting tongue. Salvatrice surreptitiously averted her gaze from the vexing sight.
“Not many, mother; I am ever watchful of my privacy and security, as I must be.”
“I find that a shame, Salvatrice. One thing is to be watchful, another to be unsociable.”
“I would rather tread on one end of the line than the other, mother, for my own safety.”
She continued to punctuate the word mother. It helped take some of the sting off having to speak and participate in this idiotic volley of empty words. She felt like the word was a slur whenever she said it. It hurt the Queen and gave her power; mother was a slur, a horrible slur she could sling and chip and chip away at the image of the Queen. In her own heart, and in her own mind, at least. Whether Vittoria noticed, she didn’t know.
“Over the years I have received word of a few escapades of yours, so I suspected you might have a friend or two worth dressing up as a delivery boy to meet.” Vittoria said.
Salvatrice stiffened a little. She felt the first real shock of the evening. Of course, her mother had to have known of her little embarrassments. Surely the headmaster would have let her know; the Academy’s damage control was to protect the crown from gossip, not to protect Salvatrice specifically. However, it still made her hands shake to hear the Queen acknowledge that her new First Princess was caught in such taboo circumstances.
What more did she know? Did she know about Carmella? What was on her mind?
“I was bored and idle, and influenced by popular fictions.” Salvatrice said.
She tried to deflect it; whether the Queen was convinced or not, again, it was impossible for Salvatrice to know. That Queenly mask her mother always wore could not be read.
“When I heard of it I was much more amused than angry.” Vittoria replied.
“Have you personal experience in these matters, my liege?” Lillith said.
“Oh, shut up, you.” Vittoria waved her hand dismissively. Lillith giggled.
“Shutting up!” the maid replied, filled with delight, raising her hands defensively.
“So, Salvatrice; am I correct? Have you friends you sought to meet?” Vittoria said.
Salva sighed inside. “I did not have anyone in mind; I met some acquaitances.”
“Then was it the venue that you wished to surreptitiously see?” Vittoria asked.
“It was a whim, mother, nothing more. I acted purely out of flighty rebellion.”
Salvatrice was close to completely surrendering the conversation. Bad as it would look to her mother, she could accept the Queen’s offense if it meant leaving this table soon.
Thankfully she was not alone at the table. At her side, the long silence broke.
Perhaps sensing the tension sweeping over her liege, the princess’ own companion spoke up in a cheerful and loud voice and tried then to cause a shift in the atmosphere.
“So hey, question: what happens to the leftovers?” Byanca asked.
Her demeanor was unrefined, but Salvatrice was suddenly thankful for her presence.
Across from Byanca, Lillith dabbed her own mouth delicately with a cloth, wiping away a drop of green pesto that had carelessly dribbled down the side of her glossy red lips as she took a bite for herself. Though the question was asked seemingly to the air than to any person, only Lillith answered the Centurion. It was beneath the Queen to do so.
“Sometimes the servants eat it, sometimes the attack dogs.” She jovially replied.
Byanca shuddered a little and promptly returned her attentions to her plate of duck.
In this manner, the evening’s modest festivity continued in its own awkward way. More courses, and less conversation. There were shellfish, bright salads, and exotic meats. Ostrich, shark-fin, egg of drake; the drinks were becoming more elaborate as well. Though the bites were small, befitting the rarity of the ingredients and the barrage of courses coming and still to come, Salvatrice ate precious little. She did not want to think of this as accepting her mother’s generosity. She ate only to keep the appearance of eating.
“Everything is so delicious!” Byanca said, trying to force her gregariousness on the atmosphere. “Compliments to the chef! I’ve never had a meal like this in all of my life.”
Lillith smiled brightly.
“Thank you! I concocted the recipes and trained the kitchen staff.” She said said. “Before I was brought in the food here was dreadful. I don’t know how her majesty endured it.”
“I couldn’t endure it; that’s why you were brought in after all.” Vittoria said.
“Just for my cooking?” Lillith said, covering her mouth delicately with her hand.
“Among other things. You know it. Don’t be so desperate for attention.” Vittoria said.
“It’s in a maid’s nature to seek the approval of her mistress.” Lillith replied.
“I would hope you do not teach our maids this dreadful nature.” Vittoria said.
“Ah, no, no! They know their station; I’m the only unruly woman in the stable.”
Salvatrice and Byanca exchanged glances. Their hosts were far too cheeky.
Around the table and its rotating dishes the conversation between Mother and Daughter had completely waned. Familial chit-chat had apparently exhausted the both of them. For the most part, both women now held to the gilded veneer of unapproachable respectability that befit their positions. Vittoria broke character only to Lillith; the two regularly addressed one another, and exchanged various nothings across the evening.
Salvatrice never broke her own royal façade. Byanca never insisted on it as Lillith did.
Then the meat, the salads, and the bread were for the last time taken from the table by the maids. Savory food went out, and the dessert courses came. Yogurts, creams, cakes, confectionary of all kinds. Wine and cocktails disappeared from the room, and the women sipped on mugs of ice cream melting in hot, sweet cocoa and coffee, and from wine glasses filled with sweet syrupy iced drinks. Everything was overpoweringly sweet.
“I can have no more.” Salvatrice said. She had nibbled on every meat course, eaten her salads, sipped from every variety of fruit and grain committed to a glass that night, and tasted the mango ice and vanilla float. She was not full; but she was quite done eating. She hoped that the silence between her Mother and her meant she could now escape.
“Ah; the spread satisfied you quite quickly I see!” Lillith jovially said.
Vittoria said nothing, merely staring at Salvatrice as the princess spoke.
“Thank you for the meal, mother; I would like to take my leave now.” Salvatrice said.
Vittoria again said nothing. She averted her gaze and sipped from a beer float.
Salvatrice stood from her seat and bowed her head. “May I take leave?” She asked.
“It is your loss.” Vittoria finally said. A pair of maids walked in with a plate of donuts.
“She’ll have plenty of opportunities to try my cooking from now on.” Lillith said.
A nervous thrill shot across Salvatrice’s body at the maid’s mere suggestion.
“Perhaps, perhaps not. That has yet to be decided.” Vittoria replied.
She waved her fingers, dismissing Salvatrice. The Princess bowed her head deferentially to her mother, and made no gesture to Lillith, to whom she owed no respect. She then turned to face Byanca, whom she expected to leave with her. The Centurion was quite deep into a piece of chocolate cake, with a soda and ice cream drink in her other hand.
Byanca stared wistfully at the spread of deserts and sweet drinks laid before her.
She swallowed her cake, sipped her drink, and wiped her mouth clean.
“Princess, may I finish the course? It is so delightful; I don’t want to waste it.”
Salvatrice straightened herself, poised like a hawk after the Centurion’s question.
“We are leaving, Centurion. You are to escort me to my chambers.” Salvatrice said.
Byanca nodded her head, a gloomy expression on her face. She pushed away the tray of cakes, and pushed back the glass mugs and wine glasses. Turning her head away from them, as if struggling to tear herself from the multicolor spread of foods, she slowly stood and performed a standing bow, honoring the Queen first, and then Lillith.
“It was an extraordinary meal, Ms. Mariel.” Byanca said.
Lillith smiled. “Oh, it was nothing.”
Salvatrice started moving as the Centurion gave her bows, and was quickly out the door; the princess shoved brusquely past a pair of maids, nearly knocking a plate of flan from a woman’s hand, and stomped her way down the white and gold halls. She was eager to be free of her mother’s presence, and the Centurion was simply not moving fast enough.
Behind Salvatrice the doors swung, and in an instant Byanca was again at her side.
She held on to her feathered cap and smiled.
“I’m going to assume things did not go well with the Queen today.” Byanca said.
Salvatrice did not respond. She felt she had spoken enough for years at the table.