Tremontaine: “The Eye of the Swan”

Welcome to Tremontaine, where social advantage is best achieved through duels of wit and steel. A Duchess whose beauty is matched only by her cunning; a handsome young scholar with more passion than sense; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius whose discoveries herald revolution—when games of politics begin, no one is safe. Mind your manners and enjoy the chocolate in a dance of sparkling intrigue that returns readers to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series, where sexuality is fluid, politics is everything, and outcasts are the tastemakers.

Team-written by some of today’s most exciting authors, Tremontaine Season Two unfolds across 13 episodes beginning October 19th, with a new installment releasing every Wednesday until the season finale on January 18, 2017. Season One is currently available in full at SerialBox.com, in our iOS app, and wherever eBooks are sold. Below, read “The Eye of the Swan,” a stand-alone tie-in story by Kelly Robson—found exclusively here on Tor.com.

 

 

The Eye of the Swan
A Tremontaine Story

Art by Kathleen Jennings

Art by Kathleen Jennings

 

On the morning of Diane’s wedding, the old duchess had said, “My dear, I hope you will call me mother. I’m so glad to have a daughter at long last.” Diane had just turned sixteen, but she’d seen enough of the world to know William’s mother would never treat her like family—would never really love or trust her. And she was right.

Over the two years that followed, the old duchess had made no attempt to prepare Diane to take the reins of the household, or promote her authority with the steward and upper servants. Now the old duke and duchess were in their tombs; Diane was the Duchess Tremontaine, but the household went on as before, without any direction or guidance from her—as if she were a duchess doll dressed and danced about by the servants.

Not a real daughter, and now, not a real duchess.

 * * *

“Diane, my dear, you must be so happy,” said Lady Sarah Perry as she posed on the edge of her chair like an overdressed mermaid. “Look at you, positively dripping with jewels. Now that you’re duchess, of course you must always wear the Tremontaine swan. That brooch is darling.”

Diane stared down at the clunky gold-and-diamond swan pinned to her breast, partially obscured by long drooping necklaces of pearls and gold beads. While dressing, Diane’s maid had informed her that these pieces had been among the dowager duchess’s favorites, as if Diane hadn’t seen her mother-in-law wearing them nearly every afternoon for the past two years. She’d tried to argue but it was no use. The maid had talked right over her as she coiled the necklaces around Diane’s neck.

“Happy? Because of a few old gems?” Lady Florielle Durant sat at Diane’s elbow, nearly crowding her off the divan. “How can you say that? Diane is bereft, poor little thing. Losing a father and a mother in quick succession is the most terrible thing that can happen to a woman—especially one so young. No wonder she didn’t choose her attire with more care.”

“The duke’s father and mother, not Diane’s,” said Lady Lassiter, lounging on the velvet chaise opposite. “That’s not so terrible. Losing a child is far worse.”

“Yes, of course,” Diane said quickly. “Nothing could be more horrible. But my daughter is as healthy a child as any parent could wish.”

She kept her voice soft, trying to hide the quaver in the back of her throat. If these women heard it, they’d jump on her like she was wounded prey. Lady Lassiter obviously already suspected. Diane could only hope she couldn’t see how close her barb had come to hitting Diane’s heart.

Lady Florielle threaded her arm around Diane’s shoulders. “How are you, my dearest? We’ve all been so worried since you rushed away from the ball. It was supposed to be a triumph, you know. Your very first as a duchess.” She leaned closer and squeezed Diane’s hand. “I saw you turn pale as snow. And then you disappeared for days. We were all certain you’d had some terrible misfortune.”

Misfortune. That was one word for it. Diane had miscarried. When the first pain had lanced through her abdomen, she’d fled the ball, rushed home, and locked herself in her dressing room. All her hopes for a second child had disappeared in blood and agony. Diane’s only consolation was that she hadn’t shared these hopes with anyone, not even her husband. After the bleeding stopped, she’d destroyed the evidence in her own blazing hearth. The grief and shame were hers alone.

Diane deliberately relaxed her jaw and forced herself to smile up into the wide blue eyes of the woman leaning on her shoulder. Lady Florielle was a nosy, cloying creature with a sharp instinct for gossip, but otherwise dim. The other two were keener than hunting hounds and just as eager for the kill.

Dangerous women, both of them, but hardly the worst in the City. Other ladies were even more powerful, more deadly, more ruthless. And Diane knew she was easy prey. Young and inexperienced, with few friends and no allies. Precariously balanced at the very apex of society, the Duchess Tremontaine was a prime target easy to topple.

Over the past two years, Diane had followed her mother-in-law through society. She’d watched these three women and the other ladies of the Hill display at balls and assemblies, parade through splendid homes and gardens, and promenade in the most fashionable boulevards and shops. She’d analyzed their conversation and pretended to admire their children while carefully parsing every detail of their manners, expressions, dress, and habits right down to their elegant handwriting. She’d seen them ruin lives with gossip, rumor, innuendo, and scandal-mongering. Diane knew exactly what they were capable of. But they certainly didn’t know her.

And Diane would keep it that way.

“Lady Sarah is quite correct. I am happy,” Diane said, carefully extracting her fingers from Lady Florielle’s grip. “It is my greatest pleasure to bring comfort to my husband in the dark hours of his grief.”

Lady Sarah and Lady Florielle cooed. Lady Lassiter joined in late, her lips twisting as though the sound tasted sour. Diane suspected she’d long been sweet on William.

“The Duke Tremontaine also takes consolation in our child,” Diane continued, and was rewarded by the sight of Lady Lassiter’s lips puckering. “William is a most devoted father. He never looks so happy as when my daughter and I are in his arms. Our little family is his world entire.”

Lady Lassiter’s face caved in like a broken egg. She did love William; this proved it. Any woman was pretty when happy, and some were beautiful when angry, but jealousy ruined even the loveliest face.

“Oh good, chocolate,” Lady Lassiter said, as a footman edged backward through the door bearing a tray piled high with the Tremontaine chocolate service.

Diane breathed a private sigh of relief. She’d managed to land a hit on Lady Lassiter, and hadn’t needed any instruction from the old duchess to accomplish it.

 * * *

William was still grieving for his parents, but his grief didn’t express itself in any way the ladies of the Hill would recognize. By their standards, a tall, handsome young man such as the Duke Tremontaine should be languishing by his family tomb at twilight, or lingering in the garden composing thoughtful and incomprehensible sonnets, or lounging in his bedchamber while playing some instrument or other instinctively and without any instruction, and perhaps allowing himself to shed the occasional graceful tear while tenderly clutched to his young wife’s breast.

William did none of that. For the past two weeks he’d hidden himself in his library.

After a harrowing afternoon with the three ladies, Diane wanted William. A passionate hour or two in her husband’s arms would soothe her quivering nerves and refill her small well of confidence. William never saw anything wrong with her. He never had, and Diane would spend her life making sure he never did.

Diane lingered among the marble statues opposite the library door, book in hand. William never complained about being interrupted or made her feel unwelcome. Nevertheless, she would wait and pick her moment.

Always having a book nearby was one of the first strategies she’d developed after arriving at Tremontaine House as a very young lady from the far north of the Land, rusticated by City standards, with the wrong accent, wrong clothes, wrong manners—wrong everything.

In a huge household of strangers, a book provided camouflage. If she developed a reputation among the servants for strolling from room to room turning pages, standing at windows to catch the last light, lingering on terraces, and tracing her fingers along balustrades while engrossed in a volume of poetry, she never had to explain herself. Nobody could guess her true thoughts, or suspect how much time she spent watching, listening, and learning.

Footsteps. Two sets on the service stairs at the far end of the gallery. Diane opened her book.

“We can do it better this year, since the old duchess is gone, can’t we?”

“Not likely. Steward will stick to tradition.”

“How could he? It’s a disgrace. Embarrassing.”

A laugh. “You going to tell him that? Can I watch?”

Diane recognized the voices. Two chambermaids a few years older than she was, best of friends or maybe even better; one tall and square-shouldered, the other short and plush. Both sharp, quick, and energetic. And well-informed, too.

Unfortunately, they also had excellent eyes. They caught sight of her at the far end of the gallery, and that was the end of the chatter. Diane turned a page. When they curtsied, she pretended to be startled.

“Nima, Saffy.” The chambermaids curtsied again. Sunlight glinted on a silver chocolate pot, glimmered on the gilded edge of a fine porcelain cup. “I see the duke has called for chocolate.”

“No, my lady.” Nima, though shorter, was more bold. “Steward sends it, but his lordship hasn’t been taking it, not lately. Not since.”

Diane set her book on the marble pedestal, at the feet of one of the statues. “He will from me.”

The maids gaped as she took the tray from Saffy’s hands, but they didn’t object. If Diane tried this with the older servants, they’d probably react as though she had a snake protruding from her cleavage. But perhaps young minds were more flexible.

The pearl necklaces clicked against the silver tray. Nima opened the door, and Diane rewarded both girls with a gracious nod as she slipped into the library.

 * * *

A cup of chocolate in his own wife’s hand lured William’s rangy, loose-jointed form from behind his desk. She led him to a deep leather chair, and after he’d drained his cup, she slipped from the arm of the chair to his lap and grazed her lips along his jawline, savoring the fine rasp of his beard. He lowered his nose to her cleavage and then paused, drawing back.

“These gems.” William coughed. “Do you think we could—”

Diane laughed and leapt to her feet. Of course. His mother’s jewelry. What could be more dampening to a young man’s passion? She peeled off each piece as quickly as she could, dropped them to the carpet, and then threw herself back into his arms.

What happened then was only natural, and great comfort to them both.

Ink and beeswax, leather, chocolate, and library dust. These were the scents of her husband. She loved his long legs, bony knees, and soft hands always stained with ink. She took her fill of him; he took his in turn, and much later, when those knees became less than comfortable to sit on, a little distance meant nothing. William was hers, now and forever.

Diane paged through the steward’s account book, abandoned for days in the same position on the far edge of William’s desk. It had been gathering dust ever since William had inherited his father’s responsibilities.

“Your father spent a considerable amount of time with this book, did he not, William?”

“As little as possible. But I doubt you’d have seen him with it, unless you ever visited his countinghouse.”

Diane’s eyebrows rose in surprise. She’d never heard of the countinghouse. “I thought I knew every room of our home.”

“Father used it as a hideaway. The staircase is rather hard to find.” William had returned to his desk. He smiled over the stacks of books. “It’s the highest room in the house. Splendid prospect.”

Diane picked up the account book. It was stamped with the Tremontaine swan crest, and clearly labeled Town House Accounts, but she wanted to know what William would say about it. “What is this?”

“Work.” He sighed. “Work which I am not particularly keen on, to be truthful. There are more important things than counting household minnows.”

Diane held her breath. She knew her husband well. She’d heard that tone of voice many times, and could easily predict the next line: I almost wish I’d been born a younger son. He’d first said it on their wedding night, when he’d poured out his hopes and dreams without reserve, and with as much passion as he’d given his body.

If you were a younger son, we never would have wed. That had been her answer. And the faint suspicion that William would consider that trade-off a bargain had been the only dark spot on the beginning of their life together. For as much as William loved his family, their estates and farms, vineyards and orchards, their storied past, and their key role in the history of the Land, he loved something more: learning.

Diane knew the truth. He’d rather be a penniless student shivering alone in a University garret than the Duke Tremontaine.

“How many invitations for tonight?” William asked, and when Diane reeled off the list of two balls, one supper, and several card parties, his face fell. “How many have you accepted?”

“All of them, but you needn’t attend.” The official period of mourning was over, but nobody would question William’s right to continue to grieve for his parents in solitude. Diane didn’t have that luxury, however. She’d have to go out. The rumors about her would only get worse until she presented herself to the gossips in person.

Diane hid her thoughts by paging languidly through the account book, and before long, the columned entries began to pique her interest. The information was dense but not difficult to understand. Credits, debits, running totals, payments to merchants, and transfers from one budget to another, all clearly labeled and annotated with references to subsidiary accounts. A few hours with this book and she would understand the current state of the household. Presumably, similar books were kept for all their estates. Why was it so daunting to William?

She looked for the yearly event the maids had been discussing as they came up the stairs, but the entries didn’t go back far enough. To discover what they’d been discussing, she’d have to find the previous volume.

“I wish—” William’s voice wavered from behind the stacks. Diane held her breath. Did he still regret his position now that he’d inherited? Did he still wish to be a younger son?

“Yes?” she prompted.

“I wish my mother and father could have lived forever.”

Diane hugged the account book to her chest. “So do I, William,” she lied.

 * * *

Diane had long since learned not to ask the servants direct questions. At best, they would only result in convoluted answers that cast more shadows than light. At worst, they would make her look naive—countrified and unsophisticated. Even stupid. When she was newly wed, even the laundry maids had known more about City ways than Diane. Her best strategy was to keep her lips closed and her eyes and ears open.

Luckily, she was a quick study, and by the time she was pregnant with Honora, she’d learned enough to move through society without embarrassing herself or her mother-in-law. For a long time, that had been enough. But now her success with Lady Lassiter had given Diane courage.

“I’d prefer my hair pinned higher,” Diane said to her maid as she sat at the dowager duchess’s gilded vanity, dressing for dinner.

“Your ladyship may find that’s not how it’s done in the City.” Clea secured another curl in the tight cluster over Diane’s ear.

When Diane persisted, Clea said, “The dowager duchess left strict instructions, my lady. ‘When I am gone, it will be your duty to ensure the young Duchess Tremontaine always gives grace to her title.’” A tear glittered in the maid’s eye. “I swore it. On my life.”

Diane examined herself in the mirror, ensuring her face betrayed no hint of frustration. She preferred her other maid, a quiet woman with big, gentle hands, but Clea had chased her from the duchess’s dressing room like a farmer chasing a fox from a henhouse.

Clea had earned the right to be obstinate and territorial. She’d grown old fussing over seams and stains, bodices and bodkins, stays and scarves, hats, hairpins, underthings, overcoats, veils, fans, furs, gloves—the endless minutiae of her lady’s life. Years of devotion had turned the maid’s hair white, and now Diane had inherited her along with all the old jewels.

The maid pinned another curl. Diane hated the tight, fussy hairstyles Clea had been imposing on her since the dowager duchess’s death, but she let it go. If Diane was going to begin fighting dressing room battles, she’d pick them carefully. A more important fight loomed at the end of her toilette. In the meantime, the mystery of what the two chambermaids had been discussing was still niggling at her.

Diane smiled into the mirror. “I believe the household is looking forward to an event.” Phrasing questions as statements was often an effective strategy. Not this time, however.

“Are we, my lady?” Clea brightened. She dashed away a tear with her knuckle and peeked over Diane’s shoulder to give her abdomen a searching look. “That’s happy news, indeed. The whole household will drink a toast at dinner.”

“No, no.” Diane’s face blazed. “That’s not what I meant. Not at all. I have no news of that kind.”

The maid pinned the last curl and patted her shoulder. “Don’t despair, my lady. Before long this house will be filled with children. Two nursemaids apiece and plenty of wet nurses to go around. I remember when—”

Diane interrupted. “The servants are looking forward to a yearly event. I’d be happy to hear about the plans.”

Clea slid two pearl-and-ivory combs on either side of Diane’s head, just as the dowager duchess had worn them. “I don’t know of any plans, my lady. Nothing special at all.”

Clea held out a cloth-of-gold brocade gown that the dowager duchess had claimed put color in Diane’s cheeks. Diane struggled into it and assessed herself in the mirror while Clea laced the sleeves. She’d never thought to question whether the gown truly suited her; she’d taken her mother-in-law at her word. But no, it didn’t. Not a bit. The gold made her complexion dull and ashen, and the style was overbearingly formal. Diane looked stiff and uncomfortable, much like the dowager duchess herself.

When Clea reached for the jewelry casket, Diane rested her hand gently on the lid. “No. Unless you can find some jewels the dowager duchess never wore, I would rather go without.”

Clea blinked. “I can’t—”

Diane interrupted her softly. “There must be something. In the vaults, perhaps. This is Tremontaine.”

The maid dipped a curtsy, or maybe her knee just buckled. Whatever the case, for once, Clea wasn’t arguing.

“One more thing. No.” Diane took a long steadying breath and dropped her voice to a low, soft purr. If she couldn’t actually be calm, at least she could sound calm. “Two things. First, send for a goldsmith. I must have these gems put in new settings.”

“All of them?” Clea blurted. She looked as though her heart might be giving way along with her knees. Diane knew she ought to take pity on the old woman and stop there, but she was tired of being led around like a prize heifer.

“Second, send for a dressmaker. Find out which one Lady Lassiter engages.”

“Is that all, my lady?” Clea sounded as though Diane had knocked the air out of her.

“That’s enough for today.”

When the maid left, Diane pulled out the hair combs and snaked her fingers into her curls, pushing them higher. She loosened a few locks at her temples and nape. The reflection in the mirror approved, even if nobody else would.

 * * *

When William didn’t join her for dinner, Diane had the nursemaids bring Honora to the table. She was just over a year old, a stout, strong, cheerful child who took full pleasure in anything sweet and messy.

Diane held her daughter on her lap and fed the child from her own plate, ending with a large blueberry tart. Before long, Honora was smeared with sticky purple from her little blonde cowlick right down to her joyously kicking feet—all over her pudgy cheeks, down both arms to her stubby fingers, and across the front of her blue pinafore. The nursemaids hovered. Every time they tried to swoop in and scoop Honora away, Diane fended them off.

By the time the child was ready for bed, Diane’s gold gown was blotched with purple stains. Ruined. Completely.

A footman offered to call for Clea’s help, but Diane refused, claiming she didn’t want to take the maid from her own dinner. Instead, Diane enlisted Nima and Saffy’s help in her dressing room.

Diane dropped the gown to the floor and said, “Have this burned.”

Saffy opened her mouth to answer. In the tall mirror, Diane just glimpsed Nima’s foot coming down on her friend’s toes. Saffy’s jaw snapped shut.

“We’ll take care of it, my lady,” said Nima, gathering the dress into a tidy bundle.

Diane sponged clean, dabbed herself with rose water, and dusted her throat and cleavage with powder. She dropped a filmy muslin chemise over her head and layered it with an ivory silk and lace confection the dowager duchess had disapproved of.

Nima tied her blue sash as Diane turned this way and that in front of the mirror. Clea would never let her out the door looking like this. She’d have to change before going out to fulfill the night’s obligations. The very thought of meeting the likes of Lady Lassiter again sent ice through her veins, but that was a problem for later. She had a smaller one to deal with. Perhaps solving it would give her courage.

The first step was to find the old duke’s hideaway. Diane paced through the house searching for the staircase, with the two chambermaids trailing behind her. If she couldn’t locate the room, she’s have to give in and ask the two girls, but in the meantime, she’d use her instinct and hope she didn’t have to look the fool in front of them.

William had said it was the highest room. She must have seen the windows a hundred times while strolling over the manicured lawns that stretched down to the river, or from her carriage as it raced along the sweeping drive. High above the twin staircases that formed the impressive facade of Tremontaine House, where the wide marble steps spread out like two wings from the front terrace, the highest windows glittered like the eye of a great bird with its beak tucked in its feathers.

Past the offices and storerooms was a small courtyard. High grey walls on four sides were punctured by staggered rows of narrow casement windows. Laundry maids leaned over the ramparts above, reeling in dry linen. Above them, the first stars of twilight flickered in the darkening sky, and below, lanterns cast their glow over the polished paving stones.

In the middle of the courtyard, Tremontaine’s first swordsman, Teodor de Gris, wove his weapon through a series of figure eights. The blade cut the air with a hiss. A footman, naked to the waist, tried to repeat the figure with a wooden practice sword. Teodor smiled and sauntered behind the young man to adjust the angle of his hips.

“First blade’s showing off, as usual,” muttered Nima.

“And Phil’s playing with sticks, like when we were children,” whispered Saffy.

“Rude dogs,” Nima added. She gathered her skirts and edged past Diane. “They should be saluting you, my lady. I’ll bring them to heel.”

“Wait.” Diane raised her hand. Nima sunk back into the shadows.

Diane had been thinking about power all day, from the moment Clea encircled her neck with those awful pearl necklaces and pierced her bodice with that huge gaudy swan brooch. Clea was a maid and Diane was a duchess, but Clea prevailed because she had a specific kind of power. Custom. Tradition. Those who believed in such things had a powerful argument on their side. When questioned, they could say it had always been done that way because it was right, and it was right because it had always been done that way. Custom and tradition became their own excuses—self-evident, self-fulfilling prophecies.

Teodor de Gris had a different kind of power. Several kinds, actually, Diane thought as she watched him glide behind the footman’s shoulder, demonstrating the fine blade control possible with a motionless arm and a supple wrist.

He was the deadliest swordsman in the Land. A lifetime undefeated, barely bloodied. Everyone recognized that kind of power, but in addition to his sword, he also wielded reputation and prestige. He often won fights without even lifting a blade.

And he was, of course, magnetic.

When Teodor had performed at her wedding feast, the crowded room had held its collective breath, entranced by a gorgeous blur of flashing steel and twirling capes. As a sixteen-year-old bride, Diane might have been jealous of the attention if she hadn’t been scared witless and desperate to ensure nobody noticed. She’d fooled most people. Not her mother-in-law.

In the two years since then, the silver at Teodor’s temples had spread into wings brushing against each other at the back of his head. At some point, he would have to retire. Or perhaps he would prefer to die by the sword—undoubtedly, swordsmen had strong beliefs about such things. Who would replace him?

Not Phil the clumsy footman, for certain. But when the time came, another swordsman would present himself to Tremontaine, willing to trade blood for glory.

Diane shivered. Enough of this. She nodded at Nima.

“Oi!” The chambermaid stepped into the light. “Make a leg for my lady of Tremontaine.”

The footman swept his wooden sword to his nose and bowed deeply. His ears glowed bright red and he held his left arm over his sweaty chest.

Teodor posed in the middle of the yard at the deepest point of his bow—a perfect picture of grace in breeches and billowing linen. Diane gave him a nod as she glided past, but ignored the footman. She could find it in her heart to spare the boy his modesty.

Nima and Saffy weren’t so generous. They each had a mocking remark for him, and their laughter echoed off the walls as they followed Diane into the next passage.

 * * *

The countinghouse was drafty. Nima built a fire in the hearth as Saffy lit the lanterns.

“This was the old duke’s haunt in life,” said Saffy to her friend. “If he were a ghost, he’d be haunting it still.”

“No ghosts at Tremontaine House. That’s just so much talk,” said Nima.

It was perhaps the smallest and plainest room in the entire house, not a bit of gilding, marble, or fresco in sight, from the bare creaking floors to the rough beams overhead. The furniture was plain battered oak with peeling varnish, the tables topped with green baize mats stained with ink. Everything was worn down, worn out, and scarred with graffiti carved by bored clerks.

The glass-fronted shelves held decades of account books. Beneath the shelves, cubbies held stacks of blank bevel-edged notebooks, tall ruled ledgers, and ream upon ream of paper. At the bottom of the shelves, drawers overflowed with clips, stamps, seals, punches, wax, rolls of ribbon and string, paper knives, rulers, bottles of glue mottled with age, dried-up vials of ink, nibs, quills, and pencils in all shapes and sizes—mostly tooth-gnawed stubs.

“The late Duke Tremontaine used this room.” Diane couldn’t keep amazement from seeping into her voice.

“Every day, my lady,” said Saffy. “But nobody uses it now. The clerks work in the steward’s office now. He likes to keep his eye on them.”

“In winter, they used to roll snowballs off the roof’s edge, aiming for the footmen and guards.” Nima pointed at the short sweep of roof outside the wide, diamond-paned windows.

Diane drifted to center window. The City spread under an indigo sky pierced with stars. The windows of the stately homes of the Hill glowed with steady amber candlelight, and up and down the wide, tree-lined avenues, lanterns bobbed at the sides of carriages, or swung back and forth on wooden rods carried by linkboys. More lights on the river, at docks and stairs, on boats and ferries, each lantern pursued by its sinuous reflection, like glowing snakes on the water’s surface. Lights on the bridges arched over the river too, and flickered in the narrow, meaner streets beyond, in the hands of watchmen, on trestle tables of petty traders, and in the windows of the merchants and tavern keepers, luring passersby inside with the promise of warmth and comfort.

Lights everywhere, each point a piece of information, an alphabet she could use to read the world, if only she knew the language.

Now she knew why the duke had liked this room. The view was beautiful, yes, but more than that. It was power, too—subtle and far-reaching. Knowledge of the world and its workings could be the greatest power of all.

But this wasn’t why she had come here. Diane turned to the glass-fronted shelves. She pulled out three of the latest account books and carried them to a table.

“When Steward works in those books, he’s chewing his pencil and saying words I shouldn’t repeat,” said Saffy under her breath.

“Your ladyship won’t find much poetry there,” said Nima.

“No,” replied Diane in the softest of tones. The girls fell silent and drifted to the windows.

Unlike most of the servants, they seemed perfectly willing to defer to her. Not a hair of reluctance, no raised eyebrows, no patient, steady corrections. For Nima and Saffy, William’s mother seemed to be long gone, and Diane herself now the duchess entire.

Diane allowed herself a private smile. If only the whole household were made of such pleasant creatures.

She paged through the latest account book. There. Last spring. Just prior to the grand balls wrapping up the City’s social season at the end of spring was a little subaccount titled Servants’ Ball. Not much expense. Beer, beef, bread, and one hired fiddler. Paltry indeed.

The previous year’s account was much the same, and ten years back, a little more lavish. She pulled a few older account books from the other side of the room. Thirty years ago, the Servants’ Ball had been a major event. A feast for four hundred, with a dozen musicians, a master of ceremonies to direct the dancing, and a troupe of acrobats to entertain the children. The guest list included servants from all the noble houses.

Diane let a small sigh escape. It had taken her nearly all day to find the answer to this one household mystery. A wasted effort. She could have just asked Nima and Saffy.

But no. If she had admitted ignorance, what would she have given up? Would these two girls still defer to her? Perhaps not. And by searching for the answer herself, she had gained something important. A way to signal to the entire household that Tremontaine would no longer be mired in moldy tradition.

“When you go downstairs this evening,” Diane said, “Tell the steward I would like to speak with him about his plans for the Servants’ Ball.”

From under her lashes, Diane watched the two girls grin at each other. Nima did a little dance step, skipping high and landing silently with a flounce of her skirts. Saffy laughed silently, her eyes sparkling.

Diane paged through the account books and immersed herself in the subaccounts, expenses, budgets, and transactions over the past three years. It was fascinating. She was beginning to form a picture of Tremontaine’s finances. Just a rough sketch—a few charcoal shapes on a blank wall—but the details would resolve in time. To understand fully, she’d need to learn how banking worked—loans, mortgages, interest, and the like. She’d also need to form a complete understanding of all the estates, their holdings, their history, and their potential.

Diane brushed the curls off her forehead. More than an hour had passed while she studied the accounts. The maids had waited quietly, amusing themselves by watching out the window. Saffy’s arm clasped Nima’s waist; the shorter woman rested her head on her friend’s shoulder, the pair a very picture of cozy intimacy.

Diane nodded to herself. They were lovers, just as she’d suspected.

She closed the books. As she slipped them back into place on the shelves, a thrill raced through her veins. This was real power—Tremontaine power. Wealth, influence, volition; quiet, solemn, inarguable. If she could master this, she could do anything. Anything. It was all within her reach.

It was within William’s reach too, but he didn’t want it.

And that was just as well, because she would never give it up to him.

 * * *

When Diane stepped into the carriage that waited to whisk her off to the evening’s first ball, she felt freer than she had in months. Years. No, perhaps in her entire life. It wasn’t just the clothing she wore, though that was part of it. The frothy silk and lace suited her very well. Even Clea had admitted it, when pressed, and deep in the vaults, the maid had found a delicate gold and sapphire choker that finished the ensemble with understated perfection.

She settled back on the deeply cushioned seat and snuggled into her furs, still necessary in these chilly early spring nights. Deep within her breast was a tiny ember that glowed and pulsed with anticipation.

Teodor spoke though the carriage window. “The duke sends his regrets, my lady.”

Diane nodded. William needed his solitude.

“Your ladyship will have my protection this evening, as always.” Teodor’s words might be humble, but his confident grin was anything but.

Diane lifted her chin above the furs and looked him up and down with a flick of her eyelashes. Teodor didn’t attract her in the slightest. Whatever kind of person she was learning to become, it certainly wasn’t the kind that dallied with swordsmen.

“Very well,” she said softly. “I suppose you will do.”

As the carriage swept down the drive, she turned. The countinghouse windows were dark, the room abandoned. But not for long. She would take that highest room as her own and have it remade into a proper retreat, a place she could go to be alone, to think and plan. She would gaze out the window at the panorama of the City until she could read it as easily as a clock.

There, she would find her own kind of power.

“The Eye of the Swan” © Kelly Robson, 2016

3 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!