Authors: Victoria Aveyard
As usual, Julian gave
her a book.
Just like the year before, and the year before, and every holiday or occasion he could find in between his sister’s birthdays. She had shelves of his so-called gifts. Some given in truth, and some to simply clear space in the library he called a bedroom, where books were stacked so high and so precariously that even the cats had trouble navigating the labyrinthine piles. The subjects varied, from adventure tales of Prairie raiders to stuffy poetry collections about the insipid Royal Court they both strived to avoid.
Better for kindling,
Coriane would say every time he left her another dull volume. Once, for her twelfth birthday, Julian gave her an ancient text written in a language she could not read. And one she assumed he only pretended to understand.
Despite her dislike for the majority of his stories, she kept her own growing collection on neat shelves, strictly alphabetized, their spines facing forward to display titles on leather bindings. Most would go untouched, unopened, unread, a tragedy even Julian could not find the words to bemoan. There is nothing so terrible as a story untold.
But Coriane kept them all the same, well dusted, polished, their gold-stamped letters gleaming in the hazy light of summer or winter’s gray castings.
was scrawled in each one, and those words she treasured above almost all. Only his true gifts were loved more: the manuals and guides sheathed in plastic, tucked between the pages of a genealogy or encyclopedia. A few held court at her bedside, snug beneath her mattress, to be pulled out at night when she could devour technical schematics and machine studies. How to build, break down, and maintain transport engines, airjets, telegraphy equipment, even lightbulbs and kitchen stoves.
Her father did not approve, as was the usual way. A Silver daughter of a noble High House should not have fingers stained in motor oil, nails chipped by “borrowed” tools, or bloodshot eyes from too many nights spent straining over unsuitable literature. But Harrus Jacos forgot his misgivings every time the video screen in the estate parlor shorted out, hissing sparks and blurred transmissions.
Fix it, Cori, fix it.
She did as he commanded, hoping each time would be the one to convince him. Only to have her tinkerings sneered at a few days later, and all her good work forgotten.
She was glad he was gone, away in the capital aiding their uncle, the lord of House Jacos. This way she could spend her birthday with the people she loved. Namely, her brother, Julian, and Sara Skonos, who had come specifically for the occasion.
Growing prettier by the day,
Coriane thought, noting her dearest friend. It had been months since their last meeting, when Sara turned fifteen and moved permanently to the Royal Court. Not so long really, but already the girl seemed different, sharper. Her cheekbones cut cruelly beneath skin somehow paler than before, as if drained. And her gray eyes, once bright stars, seemed dark, full of shadows. But her smile came easily, as it always did around the
Around Julian, truly,
Coriane knew. And her brother was just the same, grinning broadly, keeping a distance no uninterested boy would think to keep. He was surgically aware of his movements, and Coriane was surgically aware of her brother. At seventeen, he was not too young for proposals, and she suspected there would be one in the coming months.
Julian had not bothered to wrap her gift. It was already beautiful on its own. Leatherbound, striped in the dusty yellow-golds of House Jacos, with the Burning Crown of Norta embossed into the cover. There was no title on the face or spine, and Coriane could tell there was no hidden guidebook in its pages. She scowled a little.
“Open it, Cori,” Julian said, stopping her before she could toss the book onto the meager pile of other presents. All of them veiled insults: gloves to hide “common” hands, impractical dresses for a court she refused to visit, and an already opened box of sweets her father didn’t want her to eat. They would be gone by dinnertime.
Coriane did as instructed and opened the book to find it empty. Its cream pages were blank. She wrinkled her nose, not bothering to put on the show of a grateful sister. Julian required no such lies, and would see through them anyway. What’s more, there was no one here to scold her for such behavior.
Mother is dead, Father gone, and Cousin Jessamine is blessfully still asleep.
Only Julian, Coriane, and Sara sat alone in the garden parlor, three beads rattling around the dusty jar of the Jacos estate. It was a yawning room that matched the ever-present, hollow ache in Coriane’s chest. Arched windows overlooked a tangled grove of once-orderly roses that had not seen the hands of a greenwarden in a decade. The floor needed a good sweeping and the gold draperies were gray with dust, and most likely spiderwebs as well. Even the painting over the soot-stained marble fireplace was missing its gilt frame, sold
off long ago. The man who stared out from the naked canvas was Coriane and Julian’s own grandfather, Janus Jacos, who would certainly despair of his family’s state. Poor nobles, trading on an old name and traditions, making do with little and less every year.
Julian laughed, making the usual sound.
Coriane knew. It was the best way to describe his attitude toward his younger sister. Two years his junior, and always quick to remind her of his superior age and intellect. Gently, of course. As if that made any difference.
“It’s for you to write in,” he pressed on, sliding long, thin fingers over the pages. “Your thoughts, what you do with your days.”
“I know what a diary is,” she replied, snapping the book shut. He didn’t mind, not bothering to be offended. Julian knew her better than anyone.
Even when I get the words wrong.
“And my days don’t warrant much of a record.”
“Nonsense, you’re quite interesting when you try.”
Coriane grinned. “Julian, your jokes are improving. Have you finally found a book to teach you humor?” Her eyes flickered to Sara. “Or someone?”
While Julian flushed, his cheeks bluing with silverblood, Sara took it in stride. “I’m a healer, not a miracle worker,” she said, her voice a melody.
Their joined laughter echoed, filling the emptiness of the estate house for one kind moment. In the corner, the old clock chimed, tolling the hour of Coriane’s doom. Namely, Cousin Jessamine, who would arrive at any moment.
Julian was quick to stand, stretching a lanky form transitioning into manhood. He still had growing to do, both up and out. Coriane, on the other hand, had been the same height for years and showed no sign of changing. She was ordinary in everything, from almost colorless blue
eyes to limp chestnut hair that stubbornly refused to grow much farther than her shoulders.
“You didn’t want these, did you?” he said as he reached across his sister. He snatched a few sugar-glassed candies from the box, earning a swat in reply.
Etiquette be damned. Those are mine.
“Careful,” he warned, “I’ll tell Jessamine.”
“No need,” came their elderly cousin’s reedy whistle of a voice, echoing from the columned entrance to the parlor. With a hiss of annoyance, Coriane shut her eyes, trying to will Jessamine Jacos out of existence.
No use in that, of course. I’m not a whisper. Just a singer.
And though she could have tried to use her meager abilities on Jessamine, it would only end poorly. Old as Jessamine was, her voice and ability were still whip-sharp, far quicker than her own.
I’ll end up scrubbing floors with a smile if I try her.
Coriane pasted on a polite expression and turned to find her cousin leaning upon a bejeweled cane, one of the last beautiful things in their house. Of course, it belonged to the foulest. Jessamine had long ago stopped frequenting Silver skin healers, to “age gracefully” as she put it. Though, in truth, the family could no longer afford such treatments from the most talented of House Skonos, or even the skin healer apprentices of common, lesser birth. Her skin sagged now, gray in pallor, with purple age spots across her wrinkled hands and neck. Today she wore a lemon silk wrap around her head, to hide thinning white hair that barely covered her scalp, and a flowing dress to match. The moth-eaten edges were well hidden, though. Jessamine excelled at illusion.
“Be a dear and take those to the kitchen, Julian, won’t you?” she said, jabbing a long-nailed finger at the candies. “The staff will be so grateful.”
It took all Coriane’s strength not to scoff. “The staff” was little
more than a Red butler more ancient than Jessamine, who didn’t even have
as well as the cook and two young maids, who were somehow expected to maintain the entire estate. They might enjoy the candies, but of course Jessamine had no true intention of letting them.
They’ll end up at the bottom of the trash, or tucked away in her own room more like.
Julian felt quite the same, judging by his twisted expression. But arguing with Jessamine was as fruitless as the trees in the corrupted old orchard.
“Of course, Cousin,” he said with a voice better suited to a funeral. His eyes were apologetic, while Coriane’s were resentful. She watched with a thinly veiled sneer as Julian offered one arm to Sara, the other scooping up her unsuitable gift. Both were eager to escape Jessamine’s domain, but loath to leave Coriane behind. Still, they did it, sweeping away from the parlor.
That’s right, leave me here. You always do.
Abandoned to Jessamine, who had taken it upon herself to turn Coriane into a proper daughter of House Jacos. Put simply:
And always left to their father, when he returned from court, from long days waiting for Uncle Jared to die. The head of House Jacos, governor of the Aderonack region, had no children of his own, and so his titles would pass to his brother, and then Julian after him. At least, he had no children anymore. The twins, Jenna and Caspian, were killed in the Lakelander War, leaving their father without an heir of his flesh, not to mention the will to live. It was only a matter of time before Coriane’s father took up the ancestral seat, and he wanted to waste no time doing so. Coriane found the behavior perverse at best. She couldn’t imagine doing such a thing to Julian, no matter how angry he made her. To stand by and watch him waste away with grief. It was an
ugly, loveless act, and the thought of it turned her stomach.
But I have no desire to lead our family, and Father is a man of ambition, if not tact.
What he planned to do with his eventual rise, she did not know. House Jacos was small, unimportant, governors of a backwater with little more than the blood of a High House to keep them warm at night. And of course, Jessamine, to make sure everyone pretended like they weren’t drowning.
She took a seat with the grace of one half her age, knocking her cane against the dirty floor. “Preposterous,” she muttered, striking at a haze of dust motes swirling in a beam of sunlight. “So hard to find good help these days.”
Especially when you can’t pay them,
Coriane sneered in her head. “Indeed, Cousin. So difficult.”
“Well, hand them over. Let’s see what Jared sent along,” she said. One clawed hand reached out, flapping open and closed in a gesture that made Coriane’s skin crawl. She bit her lip between her teeth, chewing it to keep from saying the wrong thing. Instead, she lifted the two dresses that were her uncle’s gifts and laid them upon the sofa where Jessamine perched.
Sniffing, Jessamine examined them as Julian did his ancient texts. She squinted at the stitching and lacework, rubbing the fabric, pulling at invisible stray threads in both golden dresses. “Suitable,” she said after a long moment. “If not outdated. None of these are the latest fashions.”
“What a surprise,” Coriane could not help but drawl.
Thwack. The cane hit the floor. “No sarcasm, it’s unbecoming of a lady.”
Well, every lady I’ve met seems well versed in it, yourself included. If I can even call you a lady.
In truth, Jessamine had not been to the Royal Court in at least a decade. She had no idea what the latest fashions were, and,
when she was deep in the gin, could not even remember which king was on the throne. “Tiberias the Sixth? Fifth? No, it’s the Fourth still, certainly, the old flame just won’t
” And Coriane would gently remind her that they were ruled by Tiberias the
His son, the crown prince, would be Tiberias the Sixth when his father died. Though with his reputed taste for warfare, Coriane wondered if the prince would live long enough to wear a crown. The history of Norta was fraught with Calore firebrands dying in battle, mostly second princes and cousins. She quietly wished the prince dead, if only to see what would happen. He had no siblings that she knew of, and the Calore cousins were few, not to mention weak, if Jessamine’s lessons could be trusted. Norta had fought Lakelanders for a century, but another war within was certainly on the horizon. Between the High Houses, to put another family on the throne. Not that House Jacos would be involved at all. Their insignificance was a constant, just like Cousin Jessamine.
“Well, if your father’s communications are to be believed, these dresses should be of use soon enough,” Jessamine carried on as she set the presents down. Unconcerned with the hour or Coriane’s presence, she drew a glass bottle of gin from her gown and took a hearty sip. The scent of juniper bit the air.
Frowning, Coriane looked up from her hands, now busy wringing the new gloves. “Is Uncle unwell?”
Thwack. “What a stupid question. He’s been unwell for years, as you know.”
Her face burned silver with a florid blush. “I mean, worse. Is he
“Harrus thinks so. Jared has taken to his chambers at court, and rarely attends social banquets, let alone his administrative meetings or
the governors’ council. Your father stands in for him more and more these days. Not to mention the fact that your uncle seems determined to drink away the coffers of House Jacos.” Another swig of gin. Coriane almost laughed at the irony. “How selfish.”
“Yes, selfish,” the young girl muttered.
You haven’t wished me a happy birthday, Cousin.
But she did not press on that subject. It hurts to be called ungrateful, even by a leech.