Fire. Heh heh.

The first cloudless night we’ve had in a very long time, so of course it’s turned bitingly and instantly cold. If we don’t get a frost overnight I’ll be very surprised.

There was enough nip in the air that I stopped and bought firewood on my way home. Then proceeded to stoke a fire so hot that I had to strip off to my undies and melt into the couch. That’s the problem with a fire in a small house. It’s either too much or nothing at all. Imaginary House is definitely getting a heat transfer system to keep the lounge cooler and the bedrooms warmer.

However, now that the fire is out and we’re in the wee smalls again, I’m thinking that I might resume my book posts (which nobody is reading) with something a bit tougher, harsher, more likely to leave a bad taste.

Chapter 17…

***

“Don’t do it…” Kara whispered with a warning tone, her foot tucked up casually on the edge of the seat and one sinuous arm threaded through the other. “Jeez. She’s gonna do it…”

They were in the children’s music room. Aarik, the wives, and the older children had crammed in after dinner to watch the 7-17 year old girls sing as a choir. They always sang at Christmas and Easter services and their music tutor had been pushing them very hard, as every year they were expected to better the previous performances. Aarik was smiling widely.

However, as the group found their seats and the children assembled on stage, Kara had her gaze on Lauren. Lauren had tried to get Aarik to sit next to her, fingering the new opal bracelet he had given each of the three birthday girls. It was something that Darbi knew she’d have to get used to: the fact that two of the other wives had birthdays in the same week as hers. It meant that she, Lauren and Lily seemed to share attention. But with so many wives and kids, if they’d had parties for everyone they’d be celebrating a birthday every couple of days.

Yet despite his early dispatch of presents, Aarik simply acknowledged Lauren’s offer and then turned and sat between Rebecca and Hannah instead. Lauren was hurt, and her eyes started to well up. She had a very bad habit of trying to use guilt to get attention.

As the tears began to flow, Kara turned away and put her fingers up to her brow to disguise the expression of humor and chagrin. Darbi simply sat in her hard-backed chair and continued watching Lauren, her face a picture of concern. Lauren began crying in earnest, swallowing back her breathing in a series of chokes and wiping her eyes in such a way as to not smudge her mascara. Most of the wives were trying to ignore her. Aarik succeeded in ignoring her for about 30 seconds, chatting brightly to Rebecca, who was still flushed with romance upon finally meeting her fiancé. Lauren sniffed and Aarik glanced at her. Her sad eyes widened in anticipation. When he looked away again, she completely broke into sobs.

Hannah took the Emperor’s hand and began stroking it. He raised hers up and kissed it. On the other side, he moved his left hand across to rest on Rebecca’s knee. She seemed shocked, but extremely flattered. He smiled at her once more, and leaned over to offer a remark, sotto voce, in her ear. She laughed lightly.

The outside of Darbi’s left elbow started to ache again. She was sure she’d once had that same expression of shock.

Belle had seated herself next to Darbi and was similarly watching Lauren with a great deal of worry.

“What do we do?” Belle whispered.

“Don’t do anything,” Kara cut in, also whispering in case the Emperor might hear. “You’ll just get sucked into it like Maggy did.”

“Who’s Maggy?” Belle was confused.

Darbi bit her lip momentarily, playing with her own bracelet. “She was one of the… ex-wives,” she stumbled quietly.

“She used to feel sorry for Wet-Pants over there,” Kara continued, under her breath. “And she told Aarik not to be so mean, because Wet-Pants is ‘sensitive’.”

“Did she really say that to him?” This wasn’t a story Darbi had heard before.

“Supposedly,” Kara shrugged.

That made sense, didn’t it? Maybe more sense. Perhaps she was just so very ungrateful.

Belle was clearly still concerned about Lauren, who looked about ready to throw herself on the floor in anguish. Plenty of the children were also watching her cry, and appeared to be getting quite stressed about it. Rebecca glanced over too, until Aarik drew her attention back almost instantly. “Well somebody should at least take her outside,” Belle said softly.

Kara gave her a warning frown. “If you do, he’s going to think you’re more interested in her than you are in him.”

Belle looked over at Darbi to get her thoughts, but Darbi just seemed sadly resigned. She’d say one thing: Kara seemed to understand men really well.

“Shhhhh!” Someone hushed the hubbub of general conversation as the conductor looked ready to begin. Kara sat up straight. Lauren drew back her sobbing and made a show of blowing her nose on her handkerchief. She clearly wanted more interest from Aarik than she was getting.

The conductor raised her hands to pull her students’ gaze to her, then the sweet and mournful tune began.

“Be with me, Lord, where’er I go,
Teach me what thou wouldst have me do,
Suggest whate’er I think or say,
Direct me in the narrow way…

“Prevent me, lest I harbor pride,
Lest I in my own strength confide,
Show me my weakness, let me see,
I have my power, my all, from thee…”

Lauren’s breath shuddered. Two of the youngest girls in the choir, both in the front row, flicked their eyes to her and then proceeded to lose their note with distraction. Even the Emperor shot Lauren another look, seriously displeased.

“Assist and teach me how to pray,
Incline my nature to obey,
What thou abhorrest let me flee,
And only love what pleases thee.”

Darbi had no idea why, but as the choir moved into the next hymn, she suddenly found herself silently rising from her chair and creeping over towards the rear of the sofa where Aarik was sitting. Kara gripped her skirt as she passed and stared at her, shaking her head, but Darbi pulled away and put her palm up as a gesture of reassurance.

She snuck up behind him and tapped the Emperor lightly on the shoulder, crouching down to his ear as he inclined his head her way.

“Forgive me for interrupting, your Excellency,” Darbi breathed. “I felt that it might suit you better if I took Wife Twenty-Five out for some air.”

Aarik turned his head fully towards Darbi now, and regarded her for some time, his eyes flicking about her face. He still looked angry. Darbi had her face tipped down, modestly, but she still allowed her focus to climb as high up as his nose. She knew she couldn’t meet his stare, yet she still didn’t want to appear ashamed.

Without changing expression, Aarik’s eyes lingered on her beautifully down-turned brow for a few moments. He then flicked his head away, and towards Lauren. Darbi paused. She wasn’t sure whether that movement meant approval or disapproval. He went back to watching the choir.

Unclear on what to do next, Darbi decided to risk it anyway. She stood up from behind the sofa and crept over to where Lauren was sitting.

“We need to go,” Darbi mouthed at the still-crying woman.

Lauren shook her head resolutely, her expression more pout than despair.

Darbi leaned in and whispered, slowly and firmly, “We need to leave. You’re clearly upset and it will look better if we go.”

Lauren sniffed again and seemed to think about this for a few seconds. Then, with as much indignation as she could summon, she rose from her sofa and placed a hand on Darbi’s shoulder, as if for support.

Beginning to step forward, and obviously meaning to walk across the room – in front of Aarik – to make her exit, Lauren found her an arm thrown across her back in a comforting gesture. Darbi used the embrace to direct Lauren away from the center of the room and back around behind the Emperor’s seat. He didn’t glance up at them as they left, but he was clearly aware that they were going. Lauren cast plaintive gazes his way and then tipped her head to rest it on Darbi’s shoulder as they walked out. Darbi quietly closed the door behind them.

***

As the coterie made their way back into the women’s lounge later that evening, Darbi and Lauren were still sitting together on one of the striped chaises. Lauren had laid back against the arm and was staring listlessly at a potted kentia palm, almost as if she was dead. Darbi had brought out the shirt she was working on – the wives often made the Emperor’s clothes. She had embroidered fine, white lines onto the tips of the white collar, and was now adding the little cross and fish motif to the cuffs using tiny stitches barely one thread wide. The tips of her fingers stung. It was delicate work, and after an hour in the evening light, and she feared it might send her blind.

When Aarik and the rest of the wives re-emerged from the Children’s Wing, Darbi sat up to attention and tried to stretch her aching back without making it look like she was in pain or pushing her chest forward in a provocative way. Lauren didn’t move, although she obviously knew that the others were there. Plenty of the wives were now touching Aarik, smiling seductively, or posing lithely as they walked, hoping that he would choose to spend the rest of the evening with them. Rebecca was nowhere to be seen, so she had clearly been returned to her room in the Children’s Wing before the evening wound to its inevitable close. Some things were not to be pre-empted. Inside, Darbi was a little glad to see that she was still the only one who could keep him up talking all night.

The Emperor watched Darbi and Lauren for a moment, from across the other side of the room, and excused himself briefly and made his way over.

“Your Excellency,” Darbi gave a whispering smile.

Lauren didn’t acknowledge him.

Completely unperturbed, the Emperor stood before Darbi and looked down at her – her hands still holding the needle, and curled limply across his shirt as it lay in her lap. Her knees were together, but she had to draw her ankles in to a cross from their childish, splayed-out position. She was nervous, and looking up at him without tipping her head back.

Without a word, Aarik motioned for her to get up and follow him. She gave a quick nod, hurriedly pinned the needle back into the shirt, and then rose, leaving the shirt crumpled on the end of the chaise along with her thread and thimble. Lauren sat up, wistfully following his leg with her eyes as he walked past, but he did not seem to see her.

Darbi followed a few steps behind her husband as he strolled over to her bedroom and pushed the door open with the tips of his fingers. She didn’t look around, but she was sure that every wife was now staring daggers into her back. Aarik walked into her room first, then waited and closed the door behind her. He gestured for her to sit on the bed. She did so, once again crossing her ankles and placing her hands in her lap. She couldn’t look up at him. She didn’t know why she was so nervous, but perhaps it was the fact that he hadn’t said anything yet.

Aarik crouched down in front of her, picking up her hands and rubbing the inside of her wrists with his blunt, chisel-ended thumbs. Even crouched down, he was tall enough that their heads were almost level. He kissed her fingers. His blue eyes watched her face, but he didn’t look entirely happy.

“I meant to leave with you tonight,” he finally murmured.

Darbi had already guessed that what she’d done was wrong and had upset him. She just nodded apologetically. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled.

“It makes me very angry when you make a fuss like that.” His voice was still calm and quiet.

Darbi actually felt her head shrink back a bit. She wasn’t sure what to say. In the end, she just protested faintly, “I felt that I was trying to prevent a fuss. It was never my intention to create one.”

He continued rubbing her wrists, just watching her. “You know how things have been for me in the past.”

She nodded. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just…” Darbi moistened her lips nervously. “I thought that it would make you happy.”

He frowned and his grip tightened a fraction. “You thought that it would make me happy?” His voice was still quiet but the sarcasm gave his tone a cutting edge.

Darbi kept looking at his collar and swallowed. She could hear her own breathing.

“HAPPY?!?” he boomed. She flinched at the sudden shout. She fought an immediate instinct to rip her hands away and leap back across the bed. “You leave these matters to me in future,” he went on, quietly as before. “Do you understand?”

Darbi nodded quickly.

“If you weren’t trying to cause a scene, why didn’t you come back?”

She pondered this more carefully. “Lauren was… still very upset. I thought that, if I left her alone, I couldn’t trust that she wouldn’t hurt herself.”

Aarik tipped his head to one side and continued to watch her, still frowning. He took a deep breath and expelled it. “Do you think I’m a bad husband?”

Darbi’s eyes grew wide and her tense face melted. “No!” she insisted, genuinely surprised and shaking her head. “Never!”

He looked at her for a few more seconds, as if he was judging her guilt or innocence. Finally, he bent her arms up into a prayer position, rolling himself forward and bringing his cheek alongside hers. She could feel the sandpaper texture of his jaw pressing against her soft skin. Her world suddenly filled with the smell of him: expensive cologne, ironed Egyptian cotton, warm hair, and a bitter, spicy hint of the cigars he’d been smoking in Max’s office earlier. She couldn’t help it, but the scent made her loins tighten. He kissed her gently, high up on her cheekbone, just in front of her ear. “Don’t do it again,” he whispered. He was still holding her at the wrists, but his thumbs remained upright, pressing into the sides of her hands.

Darbi swallowed and nodded once more. He pulled his face back a few inches to see her level of shame. She could smell his breath now too, but her stare was vacant and fixed on his chest.

After another few moments of silent appraisal, the Emperor let go of her hands and stood up, his knees clicking with the effort. He stretched and walked to the door. Darbi remained where she sat, now looking at the floor. Aarik didn’t so much as pause: he just opened the door calmly and went out.

Darbi stayed where she was for a while, staring at the floor and uneasily picking her nails. Two tears of sheer tension escaped her eyes. She sniffed and dabbed her face. It occurred to her that she would have to go back out to the lounge to retrieve her embroidery. The other girls would already know that Aarik had only taken her aside for a reprimand. The embarrassment probably stung more than the knowledge that she’d done something wrong.

Instead, she just lay down on her bed and stared at the wall. A few minutes passed. She hoped that everyone else would just go to bed and she might be able to creep out later, unseen.

Darbi rolled onto her back and looked at the ornate plasterwork of the ceiling. A small but pretty light fitting hung down from the center rose. It was a mixture of twisted gold filigree and creamy glass – neatly matching the cream and gold theme of the room. Darbi wondered how many more years she would have to stare at that same light fitting. The thin gold chain which suspended the lamp was too weak to support a noose – probably deliberately. But the glass in the shade was real. There were still a few means of escape.

Tek… tek… tek… tek… of the carriage clock.

Voices purring in the lounge.

In many ways, it was like living in a hotel. There was always that civil, deliberately unobtrusive sort of noise.

Tek… tek… tek… tek… tek… tek…

The quiet sounds pressed upon her head.

Tek… tek… tek…

For some reason, Darbi ended up thinking about the house they had moved into when she was eight. Her father had bought a patch of land on the edge of an older, gentrifying neighborhood and committed to building them their own perfect home. She remembered it being a very quiet place to live – caught between the retirement-aged suburb and a lot of open land. It had been some sort of industrial site, once upon a time.

Across the road from their house was a patch of cracked concrete with some closed-off pipes sticking out of the ground. It had been a foundation, or something else to do with the workshops that had been there. The pipes (or whatever they had once connected to) were obviously very important as a cage of chain-link had been built over them, about the size of a small closet. It had a door with a catch for a padlock, but no padlock. For lack of any other kids to play with after school, Darbi had turned the cage into a make-shift playhouse. She swung from the top like a monkey. It was the perfect size for one small girl.

She remembered bringing her toys in there, and then deciding that this was a pioneer homestead and she was the aproned, wind-weathered wife with flour in her hair. She wove fuzzy mullein leaves into the chain-link and pretended that the flower heads were corncobs that she could dry for winter.

One day, when she got bored of playing homestead, she laid her face against the inside of the cage, blue skirt flapping in the wind, and looked up at the sky. She sat quietly, posed, and waited for someone to see her. She was a little girl in a cage. She wanted to add a moment of poetry to somebody’s day. She wanted them to worry about her.

Nobody saw her. After a while, she let herself out and went home.

There was a light knock at her door. Darbi closed her eyes with a pained expression – she didn’t want to see anyone. She was sure it would be one of the other girls just looking to gloat. However, the door opened slowly and when she reopened her eyes she saw Max. He was holding the shirt she’d been working on. He didn’t look pleased either.

Pushing the door to behind him, Max took a couple of steps into the room and stood beside her bed. He sighed. After he had also taken a moment to regard her silently, he tossed the shirt on top of her with an air of disgust. “You know better than that, Thirty-One.”

Darbi’s skin bristled and she couldn’t help her face drawing into a scowl.

“He was talking about how much he favored you at the moment,” Max spat. “How do you propose that you apologize to his Excellency?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged, sitting up on her elbows. “I can’t take it back.”

“What, now you decide you don’t have all the answers?” he jeered. “Now you decide you don’t have the ability to make everybody feel better?”

“I was only trying to help!”

“You embarrassed him,” Max scolded.

“Well I never meant to embarrass him!” she cried. “You told me to put him first! That’s what I was trying to do!”

Max just stood with folded arms and impatiently tapping foot.

Darbi lowered her voice in hopes that no one outside could hear. “I mean, everyone knows that Lauren is like that. Nobody was looking at it and thinking that it was a reflection on him. It’s ridiculous that he should be embarrassed…” The words flew out of her mouth before she could even think. Hearing herself say it, she actually wondered whether she truly felt that way.

With one quick movement, Max picked up the shirt again and flogged her with it. “Don’t be so smart!” he snapped, tossing the garment aside once more. “It seems like every other week I’m having to make excuses for you and your naivety.”

“I’m sorry,” Darbi cussed. She wasn’t sure what Max was on about. As if he’d ever say a word in my favor…

Shut up, brain!

“It’s not me you should be apologizing to.”

“Well I already told him I was sorry,” she screwed up her face. “What else am I meant to do?”

“You need to learn for once,” he frowned matter-of-factly. Max then began to undo his belt in a rather hurried manner, his hands shaking. “You disobeyed your husband and you disobeyed me. Now you’ve had too many warnings about this sort of willfullness and you never listen.”

Darbi blanched, her eyes wide. “What are you doing?”

“My job.”

It was only with minimal relief that she saw he’d removed his belt alone and still left his pants in place. He flexed the leather strap, causing it to crack in the air.

“Come here,” he beckoned. “You’ll need to lean over the bed.”

“The hell I will!” Nobody had whipped her since she was a child at school.

Max raised an eyebrow. She knew how much he hated it when she bit back. With one sharp movement he flicked the belt and cracked Darbi across the shin.

“Ow!” she cried out, grasping her leg and quickly scurrying back on the bed to get away from him.

“Come. Here,” he commanded again, much more slowly.

“NO!”

Max lunged at her and she immediately screamed and tried to jump off the other side of the bed to escape him. Catching her by the ankle, he yanked her so hard that she fell on her stomach on the bed. With one more yank, she found her legs over the side nearest to Max and her skirt, catching the blanket as she slid past, ending up around her backside. Darbi was still screaming as, within a split second, Max was on top of her. He had one knee across her back and the other pinning her legs down against the side of the mattress. She flailed about helplessly but he was heavy.

“We’re doing six,” he stated, a little out of breath.

“Get the hell off me!” she screamed.

*crack!* Darbi yelped and buried her head in the bedcovers as she felt the cutting burning sensation across her buttocks. Was she just in her underwear down there? She couldn’t tell. At least he seemed to be holding the buckle end.

*crack!*

Holy Jesus that hurt so much worse than the first one! Was he just going to keep hitting the same spot?

Max clipped, staccato. “You knew what the punishment structure was when you first came here, missy. I’m not going to apologize for you again, so you are just going to have to take your licks this time.”

*crack!*

“Get off me you pervert!” she hollered.

*crack!*

*crack!*

Darbi had actually started to cry by now, which was no doubt his intention in the first place.

“Last one.”

*crack!*

“GET OFF ME!” she bellowed through her tears.

This time, Max obliged.

Darbi didn’t pull her skirt down. She just clung to the bed, face down, digging her fingers into the cover as she sobbed. Max tried to regain his composure as he put his belt back on. But he was still shaking and the way she cried stilled him. Like she was clutching onto a protector. Like she was clutching onto Aarik.

***

Each wife’s bedroom closet was usually reserved for ‘house clothes’ and other personal effects that they might not like to keep in public view. Darbi’s house clothes were not her own – not really. Just a mixture of cream and white and copper dresses, sometimes tea-rose florals on white, which Max determined would suit both her complexion and her figure. While some of the wives decorated their rooms with tasteful antique heirlooms and art, Darbi had very few possessions. A honey-colored teddy bear sat on the chair by her window. His name was Boris, and his paws were still purple from where he’d ‘helped’ her paint a picture when she was five. On her dressing table sat the little, straight-sided, bone china sugar bowl with a top molded to look like a yellow summer sun-hat with flowers. Nowadays her extravagant palace jewelry was kept in the safe in Max’s office – and was far too large for the little box anyway. The only things she kept in her china hat-box were: her Imperial cross necklace; a baby pinecone from her grandfather’s house; a fossilized seashell she had once found whilst out on a walk; and a photograph of her family at Christmas the year she turned eight.

However, like all the other wives, Darbi had a long, cedar case that sat on the top shelf of her closet. It was large and difficult to get down off the shelf, but the wood was so fine and delicately assembled that the case itself was actually quite light. Standing on a chair, she lifted it down out of her closet and laid it on the bed. The surface was polished to a high lacquer finish. Aarik’s crest was carved into the top, which slid open like a painter’s box.

Inside the case, swathed in acid-free tissue paper, was her wedding dress.

Each wife’s dress was different. Darbi’s was a drapey, strapless gown of ivory georgette over silk charmeuse. The bodice was boned, and tight, and laced up the back like a corset. A subtle ivy pattern was woven into the fabric of the bodice, and mimicked in the fine embroidery of the georgette over-skirt. Tiny gemstones glittered in the needlework – real diamonds. It was all assembled by hand, she remembered that. Parts of the bodice were literally stitched on her as she stood.

Darbi recalled how she had first put the dress away in its box, about a week after her wedding. At the time she had imagined how she might someday proudly gift it to one of her own daughters, so that it might be passed down forever as a memory of her life. She thought of it stored in her daughter’s and granddaughter’s and great-granddaughter’s own cedar chest – one of those big hope chests like her mother had, sitting at the end of the bed. She thought of it stored alongside her mother’s peacock-blue shawl, and her grandmother’s delicate lace doilies. It needed to become part of a women’s chest; one of those chests full of women’s work and women’s stories and women’s dignity. It was a tale of how far she had come in life – from a modest middle-class family to a diamond-studded gown in the grandest palace in the world. It spoke of how women’s stories were passed down through hands; hands at the needles on a Sunday evening, hands on knees under the kitchen table.

Of course, she then realized that her daughters would grow up as princesses, and probably have no concept of their mother’s humble life before the palace. They would never have a chest of homemade treasures, priceless in the hours of toil taken to create them. Darbi could not bring her life to them. In a strange way, it felt as though her daughters would never be hers at all.

And in the end… they wouldn’t be.

Seeing the dress again, after these two long years, she couldn’t help but start to cry.

Darbi picked up her fine embroidery scissors from where she had left them on the bed. Working carefully along the bottom hem of the dress, she began to snip the tiny threads that held the diamonds in place. She wouldn’t take every single one, just in case the dress ever had to be seen again. Instead, she would just select stones at random and hope that they were never missed. As she removed each one, she dropped it into the little envelope she had folded from a sheet of notepaper. She silently wiped away her tears as she worked.

She didn’t know how many diamonds Leesa would need in order to start a new life, but Darbi would help her out as much as she could.

***

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