The young woman restrained herself from pacing across her opulent suite as a trio of handmaids fluttered around her, preparing her for the formal ball. She wriggled her shoulders, trying to settle the formal, floor-length dove-gray gown that, despite being woven from the finest silk in Adriel, seemed to weigh her down like an airship anchor, its lace-embroidered corset pressing in on her until she found it difficult to take a breath.
As her attendants finished their last touches, the object of their attention found she also was unable to still her hands, which twisted and fluttered around each other like two birds that couldn’t decide whether to alight somewhere or fly away forever. Would that I could fly away from all of this, she mused, but dismissed that thought with a decisive head shake. No. I cannot hide from who I am anymore. My parents wouldn’t have wanted me to do that—or at least my father wouldn’t have—and neither would my grandfather. I must face this, and I might as well begin now—
The bedchamber’s double doors swung open, and she turned with her heart in her throat, knowing it wasn’t time to go yet, but fearing that it had somehow still arrived. Her movement made the attendant working on her raven hair miss a pin and nearly stab her mistress, which she avoided by jabbing the silver pin into her own hand and gasping as quietly as she could.
Elise, the aide-de-camp to the young woman’s grandfather, strode in, ignoring the whispers that died with her every approaching step. Tonight, she was sheathed in her own elegant deep red formal gown, with black lace touches at the shoulders, wrists, and around the hem. It was a far cry from her usual clothing—often simple, utilitarian pants and hooded jacket—and her transformed appearance made the young woman gape in surprise.
The ladies had all stopped their work, and were now standing around with hands clasped in front of them and their eyes downcast to the floor. Their mistress also glanced at them in wonder. Would that I could still their wagging tongues so effectively.
“Leave us.” The words were spoken quietly, but they galvanized the attendants as if they had all been zapped by lightning.
Elise half-turned, following the trio with her dark-eyed gaze until they were all gone, with the doors closed behind them. Only then did she turn back to the young woman, who extended a hand and did a passable half-curtsey in the proper court tradition.
“How do I look?”
Elise sighed, her stern expression softening now that they were alone. “With all due respect, Baronet, you look like you’re about to piss yourself.”
The comment—although accurate—also made the finely-dressed young woman laugh in surprised delight. “That obvious, huh?”
A wry smile flitted across Elise’s face. “Afraid so. You must learn how to handle whatever is thrown your way. Keep worrying like this, and you’ll wrinkle worse than Kendrick. Remember, the goal is to be announced his heir, not become him.”
The young woman adopted the gravest expression she could, squinting her eyes in a perpetual glare and scrunching up her forehead in mock perpetual annoyance. “What, you don’t think the dour expression suits me?”
Elise raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Just don’t ever let him catch you doing that.” Instantly, the other woman’s features relaxed. “Better. You’ll mostly likely get away with it tonight, but you’ll need to comport yourself better at future events…and there will be many future events that will require the impending Maddox heir to make an appearance.”
“I know…” Her hands twisted around themselves yet again, and the young woman clasped them tightly together to still them once and for all. “I just wish it all didn’t unnerve me so…”
Elise crossed the room to her. “It doesn’t matter whether it does or not, what matters is whether you show it. Like much else in Adriel, this is a city of appearances, and at the end of the day, a person’s poise and manner often counts as much—or more—than what they actually say.” She rolled her eyes as she spoke, making the young woman chuckle.
“You sound like you’ve been in my place a few times.”
Elise shook her head. “More like two steps behind you and one to the right, but the principle is the same.” An odd expression crossed her narrow face, like she wanted to say more. Instead, she held out a silk-wrapped parcel. “I brought you something.”
The young woman wrapped the silk cloth to reveal a long, elegant feather made of hammered silver. The barbs of each vane had been finely wrought, each one individually set into the central rachis.
“It’s…beautiful.” She lifted her gaze from it to Elise. “But why?”
“Because you’re going to need all the help you can get,” the other woman replied as she removed a glorious white ermine and feathered cloak from its stand. “Let’s get this on, shall we?”
“I—I still don’t understand,” the woman replied, clasping the metal feather to her breast as Elise settled the cloak around her shoulders. “How will this help me?”
“By reminding you of who and where you are.” Elise took the feather and fastened it to one of the young woman’s cloak pins, then settled it across the braided golden rope that ran from one pin to the other. “From the moment you step out of this room, you’re going to be buffeted by many forces you won’t realize or understand at first. Indeed, some of them will be so subtle that you might not even notice their influence even as they’re doing it, but trust me, they’ll be there, always.
Elise adjusted the drape of the cloak on the woman’s shoulders. “Stand up straight…shoulders back. My point is that a feather can be blown about and flung everywhere on whatever wind is prevailing at the moment, but it always comes back to rest when that wind dies down, no worse for wear. If you ride all those conflicting winds like a feather, then they will not control you—and indeed, you will rise above all of them.” She gave the cloak one final tweak, and stepped back to admire her handiwork. “There.”
“…Thank you, Elise—for both the gift, and the advice.” The young woman turned to admire herself and her new decoration in the full-length metal mirror on the wall. “Tell me something, would you?”
“If it is within my power, I shall,” Elise replied.
“My father, Ryder…” The young lady bit her lip as she considered what she was about to say. “He always warned me that the Council of Nobles has been a pit of vipers from its inception, but there are those within it that still wish to serve the city, rather than just enrich themselves. Isn’t there? And my grandfather…he’s one of those people…isn’t he?”
Before Elise could answer, the tall, black-enamelled double doors swung open, and Kendrick Maddox strode in. Like his granddaughter, he was immaculately dressed, wearing a supple, tailored outfit of iron-gray, from his leather jerkin to his high, soft boots, all under a black velvet cloak topped with its own mantle of black feathers. For tonight, at least, his ever-present family broadsword was not slung over his back, making the entwined serpents of the Maddox sigil all the more apparent. As he approached, his stern gaze swept over everything around him, constantly evaluating, probing, and either approving or dismissing each item it saw.
Turning to him, the young woman straightened up, squaring her shoulders and putting on what she hoped was a confident look on her face.
“It’s almost time.” His scrutinizing eyes looked her up and down with the same dispassionate evaluation he’d given everything else. He noticed the silver feather—of course he did, he notices everything, she thought—and his gaze darted toward Elise for the barest moment before returning to her.
Piper stared back at him coolly. Best get used to it, she thought. You’ll be on the receiving end of far worse looks from the other nobles.
As he studied her, she couldn’t help thinking back to the first time she had met him…on what had seemed an entire other world away…
…She ran through the village streets back home, waving to shopkeepers she knew along the way. Her steps were shorter, and it took more of them to cover the same ground as her mother.
As she approached her home, she heard urgent voices speaking in her mother’s bedchamber. Curious, she did something she had never done before—she snuck over to the wall below the window and listened to the people talking inside.
“—Promise me, Kendrick.” Her mother’s voice, strained yet insistent. “Do whatever you wish with those greedy, short-sighted fool, but promise me you will never bring her into it.”
“You’re tired, Adalia. You need to rest—”
Her grandfather’s voice was cut off by her mother’s words. “You are not leaving this room until you promise me that you will not bring my daughter under your name at Adriel.”
“I promise…I will not bring the child under my name. You have my word,” her grandfather replied. “Now please, rest…both for your sake…and for hers.”
The little girl threw open the door and ran inside to her mother, who lay in bed, propped up by several pillows. She was pale and drawn, but her ice-blue eyes blazed with passion as she spread her arms to her daughter.
A dark-haired man sat next to her, regarding the little girl with great interest as she ran to her mother for a hug…
And yet, here I am… She thought as she regarded the man in front of her. To be somewhat fair, he had held up his end of the bargain—he hadn’t returned to that sleepy village for her until her seventeenth year. Certainly no longer a child by then…
Apparently satisfied, he gave a brisk nod. “You look radiant, my dear.”
“Thank you, Grandfather.”
“You’re worried.” There wasn’t a hint of a question in his words.
She tried to smile, but it faded under his stare. “It’s just—this is all very sudden.” She looked around for Elise, but the other woman was nowhere to be found.
He reached out and took both her hands in his. “I know I am asking much of you, Piper. This family is asking much of you, especially after so much has been taken from you already. But I would not have requested your return if I did not think you would be up to the task at hand—”
“I am,” she blurted, surprised to hear the words tumble out with such sudden confidence. “I am ready.”
Kendrick nodded. “I know you are. Much is at stake here—not only for us, but for the future of Adriel itself. You are aware of some of the Council members’ machinations, but there is much more you need to know. And soon, you will.”
Releasing her hands, he motioned to the open double doors leading to an even grander hallway, with gilded marble columns and a red carpet leading to another set of giant double doors. “After tonight, some of our enemies will seek to move against us quickly, while others will lie in wait, biding their time. But rest assured, once we enter the Great Hall, you must keep your wits about you at all times, and guard your words carefully, lest the wrong one finds the wrong ear. I will guide you as best as I can, but it will behoove you to master the intricacies of navigating the overall machinations of the Council, to avoid getting caught up in its own designs.”
Like a feather on the winds… She frowned. “You speak as if the Council is something beyond the Lords themselves.”
A wry smile crooked the corner of Maddox’s mouth, but disappeared so quickly she wondered if it had ever been there at all. “That is not inaccurate. Each Lord has his or her own designs, but the Council as a whole is another being altogether. It can be harnessed to do your bidding…if you can properly control it.”
“But seeking to control many brings the risk of some or all turning upon that person if they are discovered doing so,” the young woman replied.
Kendrick cocked an eyebrow. “An astute observation—I knew you were a fast learner. That sort of gambit lies in your future, but tonight, your role is simply to observe. We will mingle, I will make introductions, and we will enjoy the finest vintages Adriel has to offer. And afterward, you and I will discuss what we have learned over the course of the evening.”
“Of course.” This time Kendrick’s smile was real, but it was a wolf’s grin, one that made her soul shiver. “Surely you’ve heard the adage, ‘when wine flows freely, so does the truth.’”
He walked to her side and held out his hand for her to place hers atop. “Tonight, my dear, you shall sip and smile and curtsy, and all the while you will be listening to each and every one of these powerful, spoiled nobles talk about whatever they believe is important to them. And we shall harvest every scrap and bring it all back to sift through and analyze. That which is deemed important shall be recorded for future use. That which is deemed useless shall be discarded.”
He looked toward the open doorway, then back at her. “In a few minutes, you shall be reborn, and take your rightful place in Adriel’s society as my intended heir. Shall we?”
Suddenly, any words the young woman might have said stuck in her throat. Instead, she merely nodded. Kendrick stepped forward, and she automatically moved with him toward the doorway, wondering all the while what she had gotten herself into.
If I am to be the person Kendrick wants me to be, I must start now, she realized. The thought made her raise her chin and affect a disinterested stare similar to his as they approached the huge doors at the end of the hallway. As she did, a more discomfiting thought arose: But is that the person I want to be?
“That’s it, my dear,” Kendrick said. “Here we go.”
The doors swung open, and they stepped into the grand hall, where every head of the dozens of lords and ladies present turned to regard them. And as she began descending the grand staircase, one thought kept running through the young woman’s mind:
I am Piper Maddox—and this is my time.
* * *
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.