The moon loomed over the Machia household like the sprawling estate loomed above the other noble holdings of Adriel. Even from the far-off slums, one could see the dozens of lit windows—eyes into the seemingly endless wings and hallways and bedrooms and ballrooms—all aglow from the golden paint that informed you of your inferiority from miles away.
Many families hoped to grasp even the tiniest portion of the Machias’ stature—like a child who reaches up toward the night sky, hoping to clutch a silver strand of starlight for her own—but they would have better luck casting a net around the moon. And were they ever to accomplish that impossible feat, well, the moon would likely crush them… much like the Machias.
On most nights, the estate was deathly quiet. Its ballrooms lay fallow, its staff commanded to place the family’s secrets so deep in their chest that they would first need to expel their own heart before they revealed any Machia business.
But on this night, loud laughter shook the chandeliers. It was bracing but warm, all encompassing but not cloistering. It lifted the ceiling off the room both in volume and spirit. And it came from the bedroom of Tyrella Machia, firstborn daughter of the Machia name.
“Tyrella, please, stop laughing,” the old handmaiden Oren said as she attempted to secure the young woman’s corset, despite her wizened hands shaking with her own giggling. “It’s hard enough trying to fasten these buttons as it is. I simply do not remember your back ever being so wide.” Oren couldn’t help it. Since Tyrella had been a girl, her laugh had been infectious. Broad as a shield, tall and sharp as a spear, Tyrella could command a room as easily as she could control a fight.
“I’m sorry, Oren,” Tyrella said, the laughter slightly subsiding, catching a tear before it could smudge her artfully applied rouge. “It’s just… I can still see Tywain’s face as he got off the donkey, holding his groin. And do you remember what he said? He said ‘I lost the race, but I suppose the real loss is I won’t be able to have any children.’”
Oren continued to giggle. “And then the donkey—”
“And then the donkey kicked him!” Tyrella fell into a fit of laughter again, and Oren could do little but join in.
Tyrella’s glittering evening gown was heavy, with layers of fine midnight-blue silk over delicate chiffon, but the encrusted jewels were what gave it its heft: gleaming opal highlights that complemented the satin trim. It had cost so much they needed to put off building the northern servants’ quarters for another six months. However, it seemed two years was enough time for Tyrella to somehow grow too large for it, even at 19. “Lift up your hair dear, and I’ll see if I can get a better grip.” Tyrella wrapped her hair in her fist and pulled it aside, revealing the myriad of bruises, scrapes, and burns covering her back above her corset. “Tyrella! Have you been off training again?”
“Just fasten the dress, Oren.” Tyrella wheezed as she held her arms up for the sleeves to glide down. “I thought the Deathbrokers knew proper chokeholds, but clearly they have something to learn from the Machia dressmakers.”
Oren quickly fitted the dress onto Tyrella to hide the marks. She fastened the buttons up the back, but the last one resisted coming together, no matter how much the handmaiden strained and Tyrella exhaled. “If your mother discovers—”
“Discovers what?” asked a voice from the doorway, its tone pleasant but reserved.
Tyrella and Oren started and turned to see Lady Paendra Machia standing in the bedroom entrance. “That my daughter grows as large as her father by the hour, rest his soul.” She had pulled her blond hair back as tightly as possible, highlighting the iron-grey that shone near her temples. She was wearing her own evening gown—black, understated, with single lines of perfect pearls across her neck, waist, and lining the cuffs of her silken gloves.
Tyrella had always loved the look of her mother’s pearl gloves. She had touched them once when she was very young, and her mother had slapped her cheek, telling her they weren’t something for a child. Tyrella later learned that one of the pearls was actually a condensed powder that could kill on contact if crushed, and would dissolve almost instantly in most liquids. The Machias, her mother especially, were a gleaming smile held out to the world, one that was inviting, but could also bite with endless ferocity. Tyrella was the family’s loose tooth.
Oren wrenched the final button into place, and the tension constricted Tyrella’s chest and shoulders.
“Tyrella dear,” Lady Paendra said, “smile for me.”
Tyrella put on her greatest fake smile, one that, even sarcastically, lit the room. Its only flaw was the black hole where her eyetooth had once been. It had been knocked out sparring with a guardsman’s son in the marshalling yard when Tyrella was a girl, and for all of her power and ability in Adriel, Lady Paendra had yet to find a suitable replacement.
She scowled at her daughter’s mocking grin, leading Tyrella to whistle a short toot through the hole. “Just try to smile with your lips tonight, dear. We’ll make the rest of it work as best we can. And no drinking either. I don’t need any of your donkey-racing nonsense to spoil the evening. Respectable people will be in attendance.”
As Lady Paendra turned to leave, Tyrella rose to follow. As she stood, she found the tension to be more than she cared to bear for an entire evening. She flexed her shoulders and back, causing the top most sterling button to snap off, striking the bedpost with a crack. The relief was immediate.
Lady Paendra scanned the room like an owl that had caught the tittering of a field mouse. In the sudden, chilly silence, she glided to the bed, her feet not making a sound, and ran her hand along the silk covers until she found the button. She considered it for a moment, staring down into her hand with restrained anger, then walked towards Oren, who stiffened at Lady Paendra’s approach.
“Oren,” she said quietly, the redness in her neck starting to climb to her jaw. “take this button to Dressmaker Jesuip. Tell him to swallow it. Watch him swallow it. If he does not swallow it, you will swallow one of your cooking knives.”
Oren reached a trembling hand out for the button, but Lady Paendra slapped it away. “I am not finished. He will swallow the button. Then, tomorrow, he will dig through his excrement to find it, clean it, then sew it to one of his gloves so that he does not forget the lesson.”
Oren stood, nursing her hand, desperate but unable to break eye contact. And for all her stature, all her feelings for Oren, Tyrella could not help. There were many a heavy object she could lift, but heaviest of all was her mother’s stare.
“You may now take the button,” Lady Paendra said. Oren plucked the button from her hand, and Lady Paendra turned to Tyrella. “No drinking, no smiling,” she said as she headed towards the door. “And absolutely no laughing. People will think I raised a horse.”
* * *
Tyrella looked out the window as the carriage bumped along the streets. The large retinue of Machia house guards made it difficult to see the surroundings. Tyrella had thought their number to be a show for the gala, but as the journey continued, the window framed a grim painting of life within Adriel’s slums. Drunkards wandered the streets screaming at lampposts, orphaned children picked the drunkards’ pockets and chased the carriage calling for coin until the Machia guards kicked them away. Rib-thin dogs licked greasy sewer grates while their masters panhandled and pissed down the alleyways.
“Tyrella,” Lady Paendra said with a flat affect. “Do you remember where we’re going?”
“I can’t remember,” Tyrella said while staring out the window, her chin resting on her palm.
Lady Paendra breathed a long sigh through her nostrils. “We’re attending the Starlight Gala. It’s a fundraiser for Starlight Commons, to rejuvenate the area. Many of the noble houses will be there. What are we trying to do while we’re there?”
“I can’t remember,” Tyrella said, watching a drunk woman stumble along the street, singing a song to everyone who could hear. Tyrella imagined it was a song she had learned when she was young, one that had always made her feel beautiful when she sang it, to which she’d forgotten the words long ago.
The carriage filled with oppressive silence. Tyrella knew what her mother’s stare felt like, the way it sucked the air out of the room. She knew if she looked at her mother, she would break. So she did not look.
Lady Paendra continued, “We’re going to discover who’s been funnelling money to the Grants to buy their favour. We’re quite certain it’s someone with military funding, likely one of the old war houses. There’s little risk involved—everyone asks about money at these things—so it’s an excellent opportunity to cut your teeth. You’ll be speaking with Duke Vernick. I know it’s a waste to ask, but do you remember anything about—”
Now Tyrella turned to face her mother. “He comes from an older family, hasn’t seen service in some time, likes to flirt with the girls and boys of the upper families, likes them to be taller but doesn’t like to be made to feel short, prefers crystal brandy to wharf port, is easily distracted by stories about some of the houses’ great conflicts, and I should not mention that we’ve been funnelling money to the Grants because that would embolden him to possibly ally with the Garamot house who are already suspicious of us after Lady Helka’s nephew went ‘missing’ in one of the quarters we co-own with the Hont family.” She stared evenly back until her mother’s glare subsided, then went back to looking out the window.
“Well… I’m glad you listened after all.” The carriage slowed to a stop, having finally reached the event. They were, however, in the back of the line of a battalion’s worth of carriages waiting to get into the party. “Tyrella dear, I know that you prefer to work out your problems by yourself, using your… natural gifts. But what I’m trying to teach you is stronger than any sword or secret combat training. You can’t punch your way out of every situation. You need to know how to make a situation serve your ends, how to beguile people, make other people wield the knife that stabs your enemies. You need to learn how to—”
“Be you.” This time, Tyrella didn’t return her mother’s glare. She just kept staring out the window, wondering if any of the soldiers guarding House Yril could actually put up a fight in those poofy pants.
Tyrella had attended these parties since she was a girl, but rarely was she allowed to speak. She was pulled out, made to say hello, then ushered out of sight before anyone could comment on how tall and awkward she was. Her mother had tried desperately to give her the social graces to carry her through these parties, but no one bought it. She was Tyrella “The Tyrant” Machia ever since she was old enough to take away the boys’ sweets. And being a Machia, she took them whenever she wanted them.
When they finally arrived at the Starlight Commons, the square—normally filled with beggars and animals, both suffering from mange, and a smell that could wilt flowers carved from stone—was unrecognizable. The normally dry stream that ran along the edges of the square was filled with effervescent water, a string ensemble played ballroom favourites in the center, the smell of rich pastry melded with the perfume of the royalty, and every hint of squalor had been scrubbed clean.
In its place danced nobles, dukes, and merchants, all laughing with one another, attempting to seduce the handmaids and squireboys, patting one another on the back for providing such an ugly place a chance at beauty for once in its wretched life, that maybe one day it could be beautiful at all times, and not just when graced with their presence.
Lady Paendra grabbed Tyrella’s arm with both hands. Tyrella flinched, being completely unfamiliar with her mother’s touch. But when she looked down to Lady Paendra, she saw what appeared to be… a smile? Perhaps even an honest one?
“I remember my first gala,” Lady Paendra said, marvelling at the absolute affluence of it all. “This was when the Machias still held alliances with the Dagards, long before your birth—and their family’s well-deserved demise—and I found out not one but three different dukes had been part of the same smuggling ring. Those were such good times. Oh, there he is!”
Lady Paendra let go of Tyrella’s arm while nodding towards the banquet table. Tyrella was relieved, but also wished she hadn’t stopped. Standing next to the pastries was a tall young man, dressed in a regal-looking crimson military uniform, one that caused his chest to puff out (or maybe he was doing that himself? It looked incredibly uncomfortable). There was something boyish to him—no scars, light eyebrows atop large eyes, full lips, a rounded jaw, and he only came up to her shoulder. The fact that he was stuffing his mouth with chocolate dandies did little to help. She had imagined an enemy, and instead stared at what was shaping up to be a playdate.
“Leave him with nothing. Be his ruin,” Lady Paendra whispered as Tyrella slipped into the crowd.
Tyrella remember her mother’s lessons. Create eye contact. Smile, but not dumbly (“and show no teeth!”). Walk straight, and should people walk in front, wait for them to move. (“You do not move around other people, they move for you.”)
She was halfway across the dancefloor when Duke Vernick matched her eye, and she saw something she had never seen before: a military man flushed with embarrassment. She neared, and opened her mouth to say hello.
“I’m so very sorry,” he said, dandies spilling out of his mouth. “I’m so absent-mindedly chewing. You are Tyrella Machia, yes?”
“Yes I am. And you would be the good Duke Vernick, third of your name, and a military man of great repute.” Flattery, understanding of his stature. Give him a leg up, then sweep it out from under him later.
“Why… yes. Yes, I suppose that’s who I am, but I so rarely lead with it. I’m afraid I don’t know your family history to the same extent, and it makes me feel rather unprepared.” He stared at her, eyes wide, a slight grin accented by dot of chocolate hanging from the corner of his mouth. “Please, let’s get acquainted while we explore the grounds.”
As Vernick spoke, Tyrella wondered which way she could influence him. Would it be with her mother’s beguiling hand, or with brute force? Was it better to manipulate him into a state of submission, or as a soldier, to beat him down at his own pride? With her mother watching, and in a particularly stiff and expensive dress, it would be better to lead with a silver tongue, and follow with a brass fist if necessary.
While getting him a drink (Duke Vernick offered, Tyrella refused), she asked about his family. He told her about being in the military but not suiting him as his family had expected. He was much more of a strategist than a warrior. And with few skirmishes occurring at the moment, there was little to strategize over.
While examining the crystal candelabras, she asked about his relationships with the fellow noble families. He had little to say about anything, commenting that the most he’d ever discussed them was his parents telling him which families had respectable daughters. He blushed and trailed off before he could finish his sentence. He seemed somewhat punch-drunk, unable to keep his focus, always staring at her. Maybe if she asked about—
“—How did you lose your tooth?” he asked.
Tyrella covered her mouth.
“I noticed it while we were talking.”
She instinctively looked around the room for her mother, who regardless of distance had likely heard the exchange, and was shaking her head in dismay. “I’m so very sorry. It’s so unbecoming.”
“Not at all,” he said. “Look.” And with a flick of his tongue, one of his teeth came loose, showing a gap in his own smile. He fixed it back in place just as easily without the use of his fingers. “It was during training last year. Got hit with a sword hilt and swallowed it. I’m sure your reason is much more sophisticated.”
“Is getting hit with a punch more sophisticated than a hilt?” Tyrella asked.
Vernick’s smile glowed as much as his eyes. “I knew it. I could see it in your arms.”
“No, please don’t look.”
“Why not? I think it’s wonderful. You’re clearly very disciplined. I’d be willing to bet you’re in better shape than most of the guard here. Can I ask who you train with?”
Tyrella slowly pulled her hands down from her exposed arms, and did her best not to flex. “I’m afraid I can’t say whom specifically, but it’s a kind of training based primarily around submissions and general weapon defence.”
“Interesting!” Vernick said. And while Tyrella had heard this so many times before from her mother or the family or servants, this was the first time she believed it.
They continued to walk the grounds, sharing battle stories, different bruises, old wounds, sparring partners. They talked about the damage they’d taken, the pain they’d given, what they would have done differently, and the things they’d never change. As the night went on, Tyrella forgot her interest in discovering any information about the Grants, and instead wanted to discover more about Vernick. She’d never seen someone so easily display their discomfort. He seemed to sweat in her presence, take glances and look away when she noticed, be flushed when he’d not had nearly enough to drink to be so red.
They eventually came to sit on a bench situated along the cusp of the Starlight Commons, where you could look over into the street and see slum occupants in the sidestreets talking and laughing and drinking. Aside from the clothes, one couldn’t tell the difference between the two parties.
“If I may say something,” Vernick said, “I’ve greatly enjoyed our conversation.”
“I as well,” she said.
“And it might just be the drink, but I wanted to let you know that… I think I cherish you.” He said. And then he looked at her. And the boyishness faded, and he looked like a man, and there was a want in his eyes Tyrella had never experienced before—that she had never known she’d wanted until that moment.
It’s a ploy, girl.
No it’s not, Tyrella thought. He means it.
It’s not real. Nothing here is real. He may either be the the hand wielding the knife or the knife that someone else wields, but it all ends in your blood.
Stop, mother, she said.
It’s for your good, dear. This is all for your good.
Like the light that shone from the crystal candelabras, the moment was sucked into the darkness of the alleyways and devoured. Tyrella stood from the bench. Vernick watched as she walked back to the party, shaking. This was a pain completely apart from any submission hold, any punch. She bled something other than blood, and as it ran out of her veins it left a cold hollowness that slowly filled with the rage and heat of tears.
Was she a Machia? Had she grown up in the endless game, or was she completely new to it? Would her mother ever love her? Would she ever be loved? Could she love? Was love something real or just a moment, then your father dies, and you’re left with a mother who won’t touch you, servants you despise, with no escape? The Starlight Commons spun around her, taking her hands into its own, leading her a dance they shared: to be dressed up and made beautiful for a night, to return to the gutter come morning.
Tyrella stopped when she was near the punch bowl, tears streaming down her face. A voice that slurred like oil wafted over from the table. “Es’cuse me, miss.” A sweaty hand touched her side, and the feeling slithered up her neck and into her brain. “You look like you could pull a plow.”
She turned to see a slovenly, drunk duke of enormous stature, standing a full head even above Tyrella, his limp moustache dripping beer on her feet, hair greasily falling into his face.
“But I’d like to know if that body’s good for more than just field work. Why don’t you an’ me go off to the—”
Knowing how drunk the man was, Tyrella took it slow. She led with her leg, pushing her weight from her hips all the way up into her elbow, propelling her fist so deep into his face she felt his thoughts shatter against her knuckles. He launched backwards over the table with such a clatter the band stopped playing.
Tyrella turned and surveyed the party looking for her mother, when a fist came unexpectedly from her right, striking her face. Something broke loose, and after a moment, she tongued her lower jaw, discovering a new gap to complement the old. She turned, her face darkening, to discover the drunk duke glaring at her, dizzy but upright, dagger in hand, while the party looked on in a mix of shock and excitement.
Finally, Tyrella thought. A problem I can solve.
Despite his size and stamina, he certainly had trouble defending himself from an empty crystal punch bowl. It broke over his head after the third strike, but drink had made him wild, and he screamed as he tackled her to the ground. Pinning her by the shoulder, he lifted the dagger, but a punch to the throat caused him to gag, and with the distraction she grabbed his hand and smashed it against the cobblestone until those fingers could never hold anything again.
Tyrella pushed him off, and as he tried to crawl away, she pulled him by the leg back onto the dancefloor, wrapped his legs into a knot, and told him to yell mercy. His screaming made him difficult to understand. She had to keep getting him to repeat it.
A group of guards pulled her off the drunken noble, and like a rat he crawled into their midst and was gone. The crowd tittered, their whispers like an especially pungent and unwelcome perfume. They laughed at the duke, but there were eyes that fell upon her, looks that attempted to be hidden the second they were noticed.
Tyrella stood up and faced the now-silent crowd. Perhaps it would be better to continue wielding the brass fist over the silver tongue, to keep doing things her way. But even then, she only had so many teeth to lose.
She looked out into the crowd. Vernick was nowhere to be found. But she felt the air leave the Starlight Commons, sucked away to the back of the room where her mother stood. She felt the gaze like never before. But this time Tyrella met her eyes. And she imagined, if only for a moment, that deep within her mother’s carefully blank stare there was something beyond the anger that sent the servants running to their quarters. There was something that looked like sadness. Perhaps mourning.
“Mother!” Tyrella said, blood dripping down her chin, fully baring her now twice-broken smile. “I did it! I didn’t drink tonight! Not a drop!”