Setting: Palace Interior, Spring

So the rain kept on rolling through as predicted, which left me inside doing boring things like housework… and actual work.

I’m trying to rewrite a venue hire contract, which is due by Tuesday. It’s technical and very, very dull.

It got me thinking about writing again though. Something I’ve done for a very long time but still never seem to do enough. I think any writer knows that it’s never enough, and even the worst and most agonising writer’s block can be solved by simply writing. Anything. Gibberish. Stream-of-consciousness. This is a big part of the seven-year exercise. I must force myself to just keep writing until eventually, hopefully, it turns into something. You guys get to see all the first drafts – nothing but first drafts – like the open pages of a diary. This is my gibberish.

It also got me thinking about my novel. Still immortal and convenient in its unpublishedness. It is always so much easier to be undiscovered and amazing, rather than just discovered and useless.

But, you know what? Let’s put something up on the block for once. Let’s post a scene or two here and see who reads it. Who wants to read it. Who wants to read more…

It was about now that I realised that, upon opening my draft manuscript, it’s been untouched for three years. Three whole years. Ever since just after the whole Amazon thing and, well, let’s not talk about that any further. It is so easy to lose traction. To lose faith. To lose three years…

I’m not even going to explain the plot – or do the back-cover blurb. Let’s just pick it up below and see where it takes you…

 

 

 ***

Aarik’s office was a stately and peculiarly solemn place. A wall of books, 10’ high, bordered the large picture windows which over-looked the Laurel Lawn. The Emperor’s wide, leather-topped desk was piled with paper and dotted with a few carefully selected items: an etched, brass artillery shell from the Silent Revolution; a couple of gold paperweights; a bronze statuette of a soldier on guard in the snow. A painting of Aarik’s father, Semus II, hung on the wall to the right. A portrait of the nation’s first emperor, John I staring off into the sunrise, hung directly behind the desk. It looked good in photos.

Before the desk: a thick rug, and a scattering of leather-backed chairs surrounding a low table. On the wall opposite Aarik’s desk: an ornate red marble mantelpiece was carved with the Imperial cross, with a painting of a glacial lake in the autumn mountains above. To the right of the fireplace, a door led out to the secretary’s office and the hall beyond. To the left, another door led to Aarik’s private salon where he sometimes took his meetings (and an occasional lunch date), a bathroom, and a library. A stairwell off that led up to the landing of his personal chambers.

“I can never do this,” the Emperor complained, his chopsticks frozen in space.

Darbi grinned from where she sat, cross-legged on the office carpet in front of the TV. He was watching golf – sort of. He was multi-tasking. It was after 9pm and his jacket and tie had been cast across a chair, but he was still working. She was wondering whether her conversation with Max had had any effect on his choice of dinner companion, or whether it was just coincidence. Aarik had always said liked the way she color-coded his appointment calendar, and she was meticulous about updating it every time she was let loose in his office.

“Here,” she said, reaching over and taking the sticks out of his hand. “This one you hold like a pencil… Just like a pencil… And this one goes through here… Now you move that finger… You got it!”

Aarik cautiously manipulated the two sticks with a beginner’s unease. “Why can’t I just have a fork?”

She laughed. “Because you have to learn sometime. Aren’t you meant to be going to Vietnam later this year?”

The Emperor growled his low ursine grumble, “They have forks.” He leaned forward and attempted to pick up a small piece of sushi with his chopsticks. On his first try the sticks crossed over and the sushi simply spun around in a circle on the plate. On his second attempt, he crushed it into two pieces. Giving up, he just picked up a lump of rice and fish with his hand and popped it into his mouth.

“Hey! That’s cheating!”

He smiled cheekily at her and licked his fingers.

Darbi gave him a slightly disapproving frown before moving back to the computer screen in front of her, her own chopsticks poised gracefully mid-bite. “What about… your review of the Senate Finance Committee’s recommendations on member’s travel allowances?”

The Emperor swallowed another fingerful and huffed with displeasure. “What are they asking for?”

“They want your opinion as an addendum before it’s tabled.”

“I think they should all be shot. Is that an opinion?”

“Yes,” she replied, her eyes brightening playfully, “just probably not a publishable one.”

“What am I doing on Wednesday afternoon after I get back?”

She scrolled through to his diary. “You are meeting with the Daughters of Liberty group, and then doing a tree-planting photo op with them at Sullivan School.”

“Uurgh!” Aarik let out an exasperated sigh and leaned his head back against the seat of the sofa behind him. “Thursday,” he concluded, not looking up. “Put it on Thursday.”

“The Senate thing?”

“Yeah. They can wait another week.”

“How long?”

He pondered this for a moment. “Allocate two hours… I haven’t read it, but if it takes any longer than that I’ll shoot myself.”

Darbi flicked through his onscreen calendar once more. “That would give you… an eighteen hour day that Thursday.” She sounded concerned.

“Well I’m planning on fleeing the country on Wednesday night,” he replied deadpan, still staring at the ceiling. “I’ll just leave everything packed and hop on another plane. I’m moving to Aruba and changing my name to Jorge.”

She didn’t so much as flinch. “Can I come?” Equally deadpan.

Aarik tipped his head up again and regarded her with a smirk. “Of course… I will call you Consuelo.”

Darbi raised an eyebrow at him.

“I’ll call you Consuelo, and I’ll get you a carnival outfit. All feathers and a sparkly g-string, and you can dance for me.”

She frowned as if considering this offer. “Okay,” she finally concluded.

He broke into a huge grin, his blue eyes glistening in the reflection of the TV screen. “¡Ven acá bella dama!”

“Ooo…” Darbi put down her chopsticks and crawled across the rug to him on her hands and knees. They kissed passionately, her head above his on the sofa.

Sitting back on her heels with her hands still touching the floor, Darbi regarded him with a quizzical smile. “Why do you get me to rearrange your diary? You have a secretary. And half the time they just change things back anyway.”

“I have lots of secretaries,” Aarik replied, his head lolling forward lazily. He played a finger around the hanging neckline of her satin dress, enjoying the view that her pose afforded him. “But Peter wouldn’t look nearly as good in this dress.”

She laughed. His Appointments Secretary, Peter, was probably pushing seventy.

“You don’t tell me what to do,” he continued with a sigh. “I like that.”

Darbi thought about this for a few moments. It was hard to say why his words unsettled her, but they did. In the end she decided to bury that doubt and carry on with the light tone they’d established. “Except when it comes to chopsticks,” she shrugged.

“Except then,” he agreed, still smiling.

She leaned toward to kiss him once again, but she could already sense a hesitation appearing in his response. He kissed back, then gently put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her away. With one finger he gestured for her to resume her place by the TV and keep working. He did so with another very deep sigh.

She paused, stung, before crawling back to her place. What is going on in that big brain of his? she wondered. Was he thinking that she just wasn’t good enough? Did he wish she was? Did it make him sad to possibly lose her?

Leesa’s request seemed to echo through her whole empty body as she sat back down with her chopsticks and tried to look unaffected by his sudden rejection. But it wasn’t good enough to just have a child – to placate him with his prowess as a man. She really wanted something that could be both of theirs together. Something made of only the two of them. She wanted to carry a part of him inside her body. She wanted them to be joined in a way that could never be broken. Bonded in their life and in the life of another, throughout all eternity… She wanted to be better than this.

Darbi realized that she was staring blankly at the screen. She glanced around at Aarik but he was back to watching the golf like she wasn’t even there.

Why?

She swallowed.

“I worry about you,” she finally murmured.

The Emperor turned his head and regarded her fairly blankly. It was hard to tell if he’d heard her, but he was often very difficult to read.

After a moment, Darbi had to look away. Stupid! Don’t look too needy. He doesn’t like it when you’re needy! He can’t help the way things are. He could still be quite scary when he wanted to be, and recently she’d felt even more afraid of displeasing him. She went back to looking at the screen and pretending to work.

“I worry about you too.” His voice was low and warm, and she immediately felt the relief wash over her. As she turned to face him with joyful smile, she could see he’d resumed watching the golf.

Darbi bit her lip but quietly resolved to press on. “Max said that you didn’t want to spend as much time with me anymore.”

Aarik closed his eyes with another deep sigh. “I never said that,” he replied, calm but with the faintest hint of irritation.

“He said I should think about why you’d want to spend time with me, considering…” Her voice trailed off.

Aarik frowned and sucked on his teeth. He seemed to consider this for a few moments before regarding her once again. “Come here,” he finally beckoned.

Darbi crawled back over to where she’d sat in front of him before. He picked up her hand off the floor and held it between his like a sandwich, looking her square in the face as he did so.

“Listen to me now.” He sounded a little annoyed, but he was still trying to be reasonable. “You know how hard this is for me – how many things I have to juggle all at the same time. So you can’t take that personally if I’m not around… But Max has no idea what goes on between you and I behind closed doors. I don’t tell him, and last time I checked, he wasn’t a mind reader… Now what worries me is why you’re thinking so much about what he said, when you’re here with me.”

She nodded to show she understood, then looked down at their hands. After a long pause, she raised her eyes to his once more. “Does it bother you? That we haven’t…”

“I’m not happy about it,” he admitted quietly. Then he cocked his eyebrow and smiled. “But I’m enjoying trying with you.”

Darbi smiled and blushed.

“You’re different. Normally you’re not concerned about these sort of things. Normally we can just enjoy the moment. And I love that about you… Please let’s go back to that.”

She nodded again. She didn’t know why she let that bastard, Max, get under her skin. He was always finding new ways to needle her.

“I got the book that you made me.”

Darbi grinned much more widely this time. “Was that okay?”

“It was nice,” he said, “You went to a lot of effort.”

“You deserve it.”

“I honestly had no idea you felt that way about me. It made me blush a little.”

“Really?” She was confused. Was he serious or just being cheeky?

“We might have to try a few new things…”

Now it was Darbi’s turn to flush hot pink.

“And now you’re getting all modest on me… Look at you!” This time he clearly was being cheeky.

“I’m not getting modest.” She protested quietly, although still looking at the floor.

“You’re such a tease,” he grinned.

Oh. He’s never said that before…

There was an unwelcome knock at the door that connected his office to his private salon.

Darbi’s heart crushed like it was made of paper – she knew who that would be.

“Come in,” Aarik called out.

No! We get so few of these moments! Don’t take this away from us!

Sarah stood in the doorway wearing a floor-skimming see-through negligee. The lamp light and TV cast just the right shadows to make her look very much a film noir vamp. “Your bath is ready… your Excellency.” Her tongue played with the last word as if it tasted very good.

“All right.” He seemed to be agreeing to her proposal. “We’ll have to finish this up tomorrow.” He leaned in and gave Darbi a peck on the cheek as he stood up.

Sarah smiled triumphantly. Darbi swallowed down her sense of humiliation.

Aarik crossed to his desk and moved some folders from one pile to another, flicking through a couple as he did so. He checked his phone. Darbi meanwhile diligently unplugged his computer and brought it over to him so that he could shut it down. He always insisted on doing that himself.

As he stood waiting for the screen to go black, he glanced back and forth between the two women. Darbi standing patiently beside his wide, oak desk. Sarah nonchalantly leaning against the door jamb, watching him with a knowing stare. He clearly decided that, no, it wouldn’t work. Darbi felt another little stab.

“Would you be able to leave these on Marcus’s desk on your way out?” Aarik handed Darbi one of the piles of folders.

“Sure,” she nodded, completely unable to look him in the face.

He caressed her hair back behind her ear. “You okay?” he murmured tenderly.

Darbi closed her eyes tightly like she might cry. “Why?” she pleaded under her breath.

He kissed her gently, then rested their foreheads together with a finger playing across her lips. “Don’t start this now,” he whispered. “I have certain obligations.”

She winced in real pain. “I’m just aching for you.”

He smiled. “Tomorrow,” he breathed, planting a tender kiss on her forehead before turning to leave.

As he shut the door behind him, Darbi was left standing in the middle of the room, empty and alone in the flickering light of the television.

Yes, tomorrow. He always says that. Tomorrow never comes.

***

The young woman picked at her quail unenthusiastically while she thought about Leesa’s proposal. The reception banquet swirled around her in a blur. The East Banquet Hall was a sumptuous room – solid gold laurels climbed the molded, red plasterwork with an intricate, inlaid parquet floor below. The central chandelier was a twinkling dome twice the size of a car, and reportedly weighed close to two tons. The rosewood tables – stained oxblood red – could seat 600, and tonight they were swathed in burgundy velvet, imported roses and low, gold candelabras. There was an uninterrupted susurration of small talk and laughter, punctuated with the tinkling of crystal and the bright strings of the band. White-coated waiters hovered. The Emperor sat at the head table in his rich, black tuxedo, chatting with the visiting Prime Minister and a few sundry officials. The wives were scattered about the other tables like glitter.

She watched him: this big, square-jawed man. People couldn’t help but look at him. His height forced him to lean down into the conversation, almost paternally. He had a friendly smile and an easy laugh. But he was always working.

It was easy to remember those years as a gangly schoolgirl, staring up at his handsome face above the blackboard. Not so much different from now. Only now she knew his fears and his pain. Now she knew that he liked summer blankets even in winter. Now she pined not for something exciting, but just for something lost.

“So what does your father do, my dear?” the middle-aged lady on her right asked in a heavy accent, breaking her daydream. The woman’s chunky topaz bracelet rattled against the table as she ate. Darbi caught herself estimating the relative value against her own fine platinum bangle.

“He’s an architect,” Darbi smiled back politely.

The visiting Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs (“Call me Ziggy,” he had insisted) leaned across the table with a leer. He had already dripped butter down his shirt placket, but she didn’t want to tell him that. “I thought they were all in the Senate or something. The empire likes to keep these things… in house, doesn’t it?”

“Uh, no.” Darbi didn’t make eye contact with him – it wasn’t appropriate – but instead looked down to her plate again as she spoke. Her gaze was unfocussed and vacant, as though she was blind. It was the way she had been taught to speak to men, but she was also trying to hide the fact that his stare had flustered her. “It is true that the Emperor may only marry within the nation – but we are a very large nation.” She smiled. Oftentimes the foreign dignitaries at these functions tried to use the wives to find out how they might gain influence over Aarik. It was a chess game.

“That’s a religious consideration, isn’t it?” the older lady asked.

“Yes,” Darbi nodded. “Kings 11:1-13.”

“You know your Bible.”

“I’ve read it a few times.” She was modest.

“But whose version?”

Darbi decided that the lady was now being quite rude. She didn’t answer and went back to picking at her quail again.

“You don’t think it’s a bit restrictive and simplistic, though?” the woman rattled on like a slow train, oblivious. “Shunning real investigative thought in favor of a bunch of easy answers? The big questions in the universe are a lot more complex than that, don’t you think? It’s like remaining a child your whole life – so sure of the world because you don’t understand it.”

Patronizing, was the first word that came into Darbi’s head.

“No,” Darbi countered quietly, letting her fork come to rest on the edge of the charger. “In fact I think it’s just the opposite. Science deals only with the tangible – the describable. If you can’t see it uniformly then, to science, it may as well not exist. I agree with you that the big questions are far more complicated than that – they’re not knowable in that way.”

“But science actually pursues answers. Religion simply gives them.” She liked the sound of her own smugness.

“No it doesn’t,” Darbi went on firmly. “Religion opens you up to seeing more than the sum of your own knowledge. Asking science to describe the universe is like asking science to describe a painting. It might be able to tell you what the paint and the canvas are made of, but it can’t tell you what the painting means. It can’t tell you how it makes you feel when you see it. It’s easy to understand paint – it’s a lot harder to understand art.”

The old woman raised an eyebrow. “Do you understand what paint’s made of?” she laughed lightly.

“No, but I could find out.” Darbi was actually starting to get quite short now. “What I mean is that it’s a single answer – it’s a finite thing… And I can understand how much more comforting it is to have a single, solid truth – to seek that out as bedrock upon which to build your understanding of the world – to ignore the existence of something as soft and ethereal as meaning. But that doesn’t make it a better truth… There is a lot more to life than we will ever understand.”

The woman considered her shrewdly then took a nervous sip of water. “Well I’m sorry if I upset you. You know, the empire is famous for its good manners, so I suppose I expected the Emperor’s wives to be a little more… reserved.” She smiled again. “And so nice to see you’re not as thin as I expected either. It gives us all hope.”

Darbi blinked a few times in quick succession. Wow lady! I won the argument so that’s what you fall back on? “Well I’m sorry to disappoint you.” Her return smile was far too polite.

“But then, I suppose I’m not a forty-five-year-old man.”

There was a pause, an even wider smile. “He’s thirty-nine.”

“And how old are you?”

“I’m twenty.”

The woman’s eyes sparkled. “And yet you already know so much…”

The woman turned away again. “I told you so,” she tittered to her companion in a whisper. Darbi didn’t let on that she’d heard, and instead went back to her meal, trying not to look too chastened.

Once upon a time, it had all seemed so exotic. She was sure that was half of the reason why she had studied languages at school. She was desperate to find out more about how the rest of the world lived. Darbi had excelled at languages, but had never actually met a foreigner before she came to the palace. She had spoken with a few over the phone during the eleven months she worked for her father’s firm – translating requirements for a Swiss embassy job – and they always seemed nice, if a little too friendly. It was hard not to think of them as broad archetypes: sitting around in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats, eating fondue while they talked about scotia samples.

Europe especially had once seemed steeped in romance. Those men in Geneva had talked to her like she was a grown woman. They quoted Baudelaire at her. It was a place where their important historical figures were writers and artists and philosophers. Here they all seemed to be politicians and soldiers and criminals. Yet after so many banquets and so many derisive looks, she’d begun to realize that the hardscrabble here seemed more real, more noble, than a past built on grandeur and ease and grace. Her mother’s family could trace themselves back to orphan girls in the gray-walled mills of Aberdeen. Her father’s great grandfather had been an illiterate, illegitimate herring fisherman from Aalborg.

Even though it was one of her few chances to leave the Women’s Wing, she had begun to detest these state functions. The men often stared at the wives, which unnerved her even more because no one else was allowed to do that. Some of them seemed to expect that she took a hand in her nation’s politics and influenced important decisions. Some seemed to expect that she hadn’t a brain at all. And some were like the Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs, sitting across from her…

Call-me-Ziggy leaned across the table again and whispered, “Pay no attention to her – she’s just being a bitch.”

Darbi hid a smirk. She tried to hold her face in a modest smile while she ate.

But the associate minister wasn’t finished. “She’s just jealous. She doesn’t like being seated next to a girl…” his eyes flicked down to her cleavage, “so attractive as yourself.” He grinned ingratiatingly.

For the first time, she looked over at his face. His mass of fair, tight curls was barely under control. His teeth were crooked, and he had gone sanguine from too much wine. “Thank you,” she replied, frosting her tone with a thick layer of disgust. Her glare was extremely confrontational and did its best to tell him to back off.

“I can tell why the Emperor would be so taken with you…” He kept smiling and leaned even further forward, conspiratorially. “Age is just a number, right?” He gave her a saucy wink.

Darbi fixed him with her best polite, sour-milk expression. He didn’t seem to notice. She looked away again, hoping that the man got the picture that she wanted nothing more to do with him.

“I can be lots of fun too,” he went on, lecherously. “I might have a bit more stamina than the old man, and I like to party…” He said ‘old man’ even though he was undoubtedly Aarik’s senior by five or ten years.

“I’m one of the Emperor’s wives,” she replied icily, tapping the necklace she always wore on public occasions: the jeweled Imperial cross inside a stylized fish.

He flicked the thought away with his hand. “There are like fifty of you! A pretty girl like you – you shouldn’t have to share.… I tell you what: if I had you, you would be my only one.”

Darbi hadn’t noticed that he had taken off his shoe until his foot tickled the inside of her leg. She flinched away, banging the underside of the table with her knee and making the cutlery jump. She saw Max glance over at her from where he was standing behind the Emperor’s table. The sudden movement had caught his eye. The angled lighting picked up the hollowed shadows on Max’s face in particularly dramatic ways. He almost looked like an old tragedy mask from the Greek theater.

“Shhh… Easy there,” call-me-Ziggy said.

She glared at the minister again as she crossed her legs. “It’s not appropriate for you to touch me.” Her tone was crisp, but she was frightened.

“Mmm,” he groaned, “I’d like to do more than just touch you. Besides, like she said: the empire is famous for its hospitality, huh?” His toes rubbed the underside of her thigh. She flinched away again and debated stabbing his foot with her fork. “You’re jumpy like a wild horse!” he exclaimed. “I’ll bet you’re just as wild to ride, huh?” He winked again. “I think I could break you in…”

Darbi looked nauseous as he went into explicit detail of what he’d like to do to her. It was the most disgusting thing she’d ever heard. No man had ever said such things to her, not even before she was married.

“… I’ll bend you over my lap and…

An older woman sitting next to Darbi glanced back over and looked at them both. She had obviously overheard something of what he said. Then, with a huff like it was the younger woman’s fault, she turned away.

Darbi was starting to panic but trying not to show it. “Stop it!” she hissed across the table. But he didn’t stop.

“… and then I’ll take that sweet arse…”

A sommelier leaned over to fill her glass, his thumb controlling the bottle by its punt. He reddened when he heard what was coming out of the minister’s mouth. Darbi saw the servant’s sharp adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, but she couldn’t catch his eye – he wouldn’t look at her. She returned to glaring at the man seated across from her.

“That’s disgusting,” she sneered, hoping he might be embarrassed enough to shut up in front of the staff. But call-me-Ziggy didn’t miss a beat. The wine steward finished his pour with a deft twist then, silently, moved away from the table.

“… then I’ll slide down…”

Darbi watched as Max, still standing like a soldier at the top of the room, caught the sommelier’s eye and called him over with a snap of his fingers. He inclined his head and exchanged a few words with the man. The sommelier nodded a couple of times, and then said something back. Max’s gaze was fixed on Darbi as he talked. His poker face didn’t alter for a moment. The minister’s fantasy was still going on.

“… and pound until you scream…”

Max dismissed the steward and glided across the crowded dining room towards her table. Darbi had never seen this dance before, but she thought she might know the steps.

“… right down your throat again…”

“Excuse me,” Max interrupted with a cough. “Wife Thirty-One is required to accompany me to his Excellency’s table.”

“Of course,” Darbi feigned surprise, dabbed her lips with a napkin and began to rise. “If you’ll excuse me,” she said to the minister, almost too politely.

“Hey, I understand, baby. When the big man calls…” He winked yet again. Then, as Darbi moved away, he called out to Max, “Hey Jeeves, make sure you bring her back here when she’s done.”

Max pretended not to hear him, and escorted her to the Emperor’s table.

Aarik was involved in a discussion with the visiting Prime Minister, so Max waited politely beside his chair until a break in the conversation. Darbi stood back.

“If you’ve got under-performing assets, why continue to invest in them?” The Emperor gestured his glass in an absentminded way as he added emphasis.

“Yes, but our government is not a private company,” the Prime Minister protested with a friendly smile. “We cannot simply sell off services like the police force, for instance.”

Aarik smiled obliquely. “Why not?”

“Because you’d be the only people interested in buying it!” They both laughed.

“I’m not making any promises!”

Max leaned down and spoke quietly into the Emperor’s ear. “Excuse me, your Excellency, forgive me for interrupting…”

Aarik smiled an apology to his dinner companion. “Forgive us for a moment, Prime Minister.” The Prime Minister simply nodded his acquiescence.

The Emperor’s blue eyes shifted to a serious, disappointed look as Max continued to recount his story.

“I see,” he finally replied, his voice deep and low like a contrabassoon.

Max stepped back and Aarik motioned for Darbi with two flicks of his finger. She moved forward and crouched down next to his chair. He didn’t look at her – his eyes stayed focused on his quail as he ate.

“Are you all right, Thirty-One?” He had a stern tone, but quiet enough to hinder any eavesdroppers.

“Yes, your Excellency,” she replied – formal titles for formal occasions. Then, with an afterthought, she added, “I think the associate minister has the wrong impression of our customs.”

“So it would seem.” The Emperor did not sound amused. “He didn’t touch you, did he?”

“No,” she shook her head. “He tried a little footsie under the table, that’s all… I debated stabbing his foot with my fork but I didn’t think you’d like that.”

Aarik gave a dry laugh. “If it happens again, you have my full permission to stab any part of the man’s anatomy you can reach.”

Darbi sniggered. “I think that the associate minister has also had rather a lot to drink, your Excellency,” she said, returning to diffidence.

“You are too gracious, girl…” He paused, cleaning his teeth with his tongue. “Go up to bed now. I’ll deal with it.”

“Thank you, your Excellency.” She tried to sound humble, but her gratitude was real. It was a great relief that he had understood what had happened. Spontaneously, as she rose, she kissed his cheek – her nose tickling the lightly silvering hair on his temple. He seemed surprised, and a little pleased. He patted the small of her back as she stood up.

Max took her across to the nearest exit. The doormen averted their eyes as she approached. Max addressed one of them, “His Excellency’s wife has been excused. Please escort her back to the Women’s Wing.”

“Yes sir.” The doorman didn’t raise his eyes, but they did start to lead her out.

“Hey!” Darbi heard call-me-Ziggy exclaiming behind her from across the room. “Where’s she going?”

***

The rubberized bands of her strapless bra had pressed two parallel red grooves into her skin. She pulled her underwear off with some relief and slid fluidly under the silk comforter, nude. The fabric caressed her – decadently smooth against her skin. It was like sliding into a bed of cool vanilla mousse. They weren’t allowed to sleep nude when they slept alone, but she hoped that Max would never know.

Darbi’s room always smelled of vanilla. Whenever a new wife joined the palace, Max made a habit of assigning each girl a signature scent, which was then marketed to the public along with her clothes and hairstyles. Her perfume and all of her toiletries held a deft blend of vanilla and cinnamon. The maids used the same scent in her room every day. Darbi’s linen came back from the laundry with a faint aroma of vanilla. Even brand new ball gowns were presented to her with the fragrance already there. The girls didn’t get a choice as to which scent they were given, but Max seemed to pick perfumes that he thought would match each girl’s personality.

Vanilla. Your assigned personality-type is: ‘sweet’… vaguely edible.

It’s probably just to help Aarik remember our names…

Shut up, brain.

The Women’s Wing was eerily quiet as she lay in bed. She could hear the big clock in the main lounge, ticking woodenly like a metronome, and alternating with the quickstep “tek… tek… tek” of the little, gold carriage clock beside her bed. There was a clinking of dishes in the dining room, as the kitchen staff set up for breakfast before the end of their shift. Even the eldest children were in bed by now. A light rain pattered on the French doors that led from the lounge out onto the women’s raised terraces – hemmed in by hedges, but still on the sunny, south-side of the building. The warm spring rains always came up from the south. Darbi’s suite – like the rooms of all of the minor wives – was on the darker, northern side of the adjoining, double-ended, curved structures that made up the Women’s and Children’s Wings. Only the senior wives got rooms on the south and east sides of the main lounge – with patios and balconies for added comfort. The most senior got three-room suites (with full baths). But still, Darbi’s bedroom and ensuite windows saw a lot of light reflected off the blue slate of the main palace roof below, and her walls were painted a pale ivory cream, which always made the space seem bright and sunny.

Darbi lay back under her silk brocade bedspread – ivory, to match the rest of the room – and lazily slipped her legs back and forth. The carved Virginia roses on the bedspread matched those on her bleached oak furniture. She tried to forget about call-me-Ziggy and do some reading. It was medieval poetry tonight: pretty, but somehow lacking.

I syng of a myden
That is makeles,
Kyng of alle kynges
To here sone che ches.

Darbi yawned, then closed the book around her thumb and wondered what else there was to read. These last few months, it had started to feel like ennui was a thing. A huge, heavy boulder that she must shoulder through life, until her spine bent over and her feet pounded flat. Reading used to let her hide from reality, but it didn’t seem to work anymore. She was endlessly seeking something that just wasn’t there.

When did it stop being flattering? It used to feel flattering.

She remembered the summer just before she turned fifteen. She met a boy at a family barbeque – eighteen, sandy haired, fit but still with the last blossoms of acne under his ears. His name was Foster, and he was the son of some banker friend of her father. He played lacrosse. They chatted about music and movies in a casual, friendly way. He brought her a slice of cake and offered to join her in the three-legged race.

Yet her mother had intervened and said that Darbi was needed inside. She’d then suffered a lecture on how smart women should always assume that boys like that were only after one thing. She said that Darbi should remember to hide her light under a bushel and only let it be found by the right man. It ranked up there with her mother’s once blunt statement that women didn’t really enjoy being with men, and that that was only a male fantasy. It made Darbi feel a little sad. At heart, her mother was a deeply unhappy woman.

But the fact was: she hadn’t assumed anything about Foster. And now that her mother had laid it out, her first thought was to feel terribly sorry for him. What would his friends think if they found out he’d been flirting with a plain, awkward, little kid like her? His friends wouldn’t let him hear the end of it.

It was a compliment though, wasn’t it? To suddenly know that someone wanted to be with you? Even in the wrong way?

As Darbi pondered this, a faint ripple of conversation drew louder, and she heard the unmistakable clanking of the main gate being unlocked. The rest of the wives drifted back into their quarters like a tide – shedding earrings and shoes and hairpins as they went. Someone called out to ask if anyone else wanted a cup of cocoa. There was a quiet knock at her door.

Oh Criminy! “Hang on!” Darbi called out, scrabbling out of bed and quickly pulling on her nightgown.

 

 

 

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