The twins had taken their morning stitchery to the Tapestry Salon, one of the less fashionable sitting rooms in the palace. Jeanne liked the quiet, and Tess the tapestries, which depicted a seagoing adventure involving serpents and icebergs and flying fish. A younger Tess might have gone in search of the weavers to ask them what legend they (or their forebears) had been trying to depict; she might have scoured the library for references or asked Pathka the quigutl, who knew an awful lot about serpents of every sort.
Tess the lady-in-waiting, however, sadder and sixteen, had no time for such involved and esoteric interests. Who would have dressed old Lady Farquist if Tess was selfishly haring off after her personal curiosity? More important: who would put Jeanne forward in the world and find her a husband?
Jeanne, embroidering at the other end of the couch, was too sweet and mild to do it herself. If she were, left to her own devices, no one would have noticed her at all.
“Lady Eglantine’s soiree is tonight,” Tess was saying as she basted a new sash onto Jeanne’s blue satin gown. She’d add mother-of-pearl beads, too—she’d gleaned some off Lady Mayberry in exchange for a particularly succulent bit of gossip—and no one would recognize the dress when she was done. The Dombegh twins couldn’t afford many new clothes, so Tess, the stronger seamstress, had learned to be resourceful.
“Couldn’t we stay in for once?” said Jeanne, leaning her blond head against the back of the velveteen couch and gazing out the window at the snowy courtyard. “I’m tired of all this.”
Jeanne was tired? Imagine the tiredness of the person who dressed her, altered her clothes, and carried her messages. The one who vetted eligible bachelors and navigated the treacherous web of palace politics with no thought for herself, doing everything for Jeanne’s happiness and that their family might be saved. That person must be bloody exhausted.
Tess basted fiercely, stabbing the needle in and out, and kept her mouth clamped shut.
The twins had no option but to attend every soiree until Jeanne’s future was settled. Tess frowned over her work, trying to find the words that would best persuade her sister. “I’ve heard a certain someone is going to be there,” she said, tilting her head and batting her brown eyes.
Jeanne knew whom Tess meant, and blushed, but still she opened her mouth to protest.
And that was when the miracle happened: the door of the salon flew open and there stood a strapping young man of twenty-two, Lord Richard Pfanzlig, the exact same “certain someone” Tess had alluded to.
Tess hadn’t planned this meeting; the spooky timeliness of his appearance raised the hairs on her arms. He looked windblown, flakes of snow glistening in his thick dark hair; his commanding nose shone red from the cold, and his cloak swirled dramatically around him.
Tess’s heart quickened, though he wasn’t here for her. She didn’t want him for herself or envy Jeanne (more than usual), but he cut a romantic figure, and Tess was not immune to romance, in spite of everything.
He whipped off his cloak, tossed it toward a chair, and missed, but no matter. All eyes were upon his finely fitted maroon-and-gold doublet, his trunk hose, and his shiny, shiny boots. Or maybe his eyes, which smoldered at Jeanne from across the room.
Jeanne couldn’t bear it. She squeaked and grew intent upon the shepherdess in her embroidery hoop. Tess sighed inwardly, praying her shy sister wouldn’t spoil this opportunity.
“I heard Lord Chauncerat intended to ask for your hand,” cried Lord Richard, clasping a fist to his chest. “Am I too late?”
So that was why he’d come. Tess resumed her stitching with some satisfaction. Lord Chauncerat, of course, had made no proposal; he was a Daanite, uninterested in women, but he kept it secret. Tess had found out, or more accurately, something in his gaze had reminded her of Cousin Kenneth and she’d guessed. For her silence, Lord Chauncerat had permitted her to take his name in vain and start the tiniest rumor that he might have a modicum of interest in Jeanne.
That was all it took at court. You put a copper coin in the gossip engine, every tongue polished it up, and it came out unrecognizably golden. By the time the rumor reached Lord Richard’s ears, it would’ve been inflated to ridiculous proportions. He’d burst in as if expecting to interrupt the wedding itself.
Jeanne wasn’t finding her voice. Tess bailed her out: “Indeed, Lord Richard, you have arrived just in time.”
His face lit up as if Jeanne herself had spoken, and not Jeanne’s oracle at the other end of the couch. Tess didn’t mind. She’d have plunged her hand into her sister’s back and moved her mouth like a ventriloquist’s dummy’s if that would have helped.
Lord Richard crossed the room in three strides and dropped to one knee before Jeanne. The embroidery stand was in his way; Tess edged over and hooked it with her foot. Jeanne’s eyes widened as the frame drifted away, leaving her no choice but to meet Lord Richard’s eyes.
She looked at her hands. Tess cursed silently.
It wasn’t that Jeanne didn’t like this suitor; the problem was entirely that she did, rather a lot, and that she’d been raised on the strictures of St. Vitt to keep her desires severely under wraps. It was devilishly hard to encompass both.
Tess felt for her, but this was important.
Lord Richard took Jeanne’s hands—clever Richard!—and Jeanne looked up at last, flushing pink all over. She was beautiful even pink, Tess noted with some satisfaction. Richard seemed to think so, too, because he pressed her knuckles to his lips.
Tess tried not to watch, even though she was supposed to be the chaperone, guaranteeing that nothing got out of hand. Privately she sort of wished things would get out of hand, just a little. It would have eased her heart to think that even pure, virginal Jeanne was a mere mortal.
As if Lord Richard could read Tess’s mind, he released Jeanne’s hands and was back on his feet again, two yards of decency between them. Tess sighed.
“Jeanne,” he said gruffly, his heart evidently in his throat, “I want to marry you. Would you have a fellow like me?”
A rich, handsome fellow who seemed utterly smitten with her? Unless she was terribly stupid. Tess snipped a stray thread with her scissors; she hadn’t raised Jeanne to be stupid. She hadn’t made every mistake she could possibly make, hadn’t given everything up, so that Jeanne could sit there, saying nothing, as if she were stupid.
“Say yes, Nee,” Tess mumbled around the needle between her teeth.
Jeanne rose, her green day dress draping demurely around her, and curtsied to Lord Richard. There should have been no suspense, but Tess found herself sweating all the same, her eyes glued to the duo, tall and dark facing short and pale. Lord Richard fidgeted with a button on his doublet, which Tess found humanizing and endearing. If Jeanne should turn him down, it was going to take a lot of looking to find another suitor half this well suited.
In a voice so sure and strong that Tess couldn’t quite believe it was her sister speaking, Jeanne said, “Lord Richard, I would happily accept your offer, but do you understand my family’s situation? My father was unjustly stripped of his law license, and we’ve struggled ever since. I should feel ashamed to put too great a burden on your house, and so I cannot agree to marry you without being certain you know how many obligations come with me.”
Tess’s jaw dropped; this was not part of the script. That is, it was the truth—the family desperately needed Jeanne to marry for money—but it was nothing anyone would, or could or should, utter aloud. This was a game everyone played but no one acknowledged. Tess felt vaguely sick. She’d worried that Jeanne would look too mercenary, and here was Jeanne herself, laying it all out on the table.
Lord Richard, however, was smiling, and not a strained what have I gotten myself into? smile, but a smile full of warmth and gentleness that almost took Tess’s breath away. “My dear, there is no burden your family could place upon my house that we could not easily bear, or that I would not willingly take on for your sake.”
Saints above, he was perfect. Jeanne deserved no less. How had they gotten so lucky? If Tess felt a self-pitying pang for her own ill fortune, for Will and Dozerius and everything else she’d lost, she suppressed the feeling almost before she noticed it. This was not the time; the moment was all Jeanne’s, as was right.
Jeanne, her courage spent, returned to her bashful, blushing self again. She stammered something adorably grateful; Richard, all passion, took her hands once more. He shot a glance at Tess, asking permission. Tess nodded curtly and turned her eyes resolutely to her hemming.
She didn’t keep them there. She peeked through her lashes and thought her heart would burst as Lord Richard chastely kissed Jeanne’s cheek. Tess recalled such joys, even if she would never again experience them; indeed, she wanted more than that for Jeanne—he should kiss her lips at least!—but Lord Richard came from a devout household, as strict as theirs, and passion could not override his upbringing. Not today, anyway.
He didn’t linger, either, because it would not do to have tales told. One of Jeanne’s great appeals, in the absence of money, was that she had not the faintest whiff of scandal about her. She was innocence incarnate. Lord Richard wouldn’t compromise himself by compromising her.
When he left, Jeanne turned toward her twin. Tess’s smile froze when she realized her sister’s eyes had filled with tears.
“Dear heart, those are tears of joy, I hope?” said Tess softly, holding out her hand.
Jeanne flopped onto the couch and laid her head on Tess’s shoulder, where she began to weep in earnest.
Tess set her sewing aside and put her arms around her sister, saying, “No, no, why are you sad? If you dislike Lord Richard, we will find you someone else. Never mind the money, never mind how long it takes. Papa and Mama will find a way to send Paul to school. Seraphina will swoop in and fix everything—” She wouldn’t, in fact, because she couldn’t, and Jeanne knew this as well as Tess did, but Tess felt it incumbent upon herself to keep her mouth moving, to keep her sister’s spirits up. “Something will come through for us. It always does.”
Jeanne drew her handkerchief out of her bodice and held it to her streaming nose. “That’s not it, Sisi. I’m happy to marry Richard. I believe I may be a bit in love with him.”
Tess drew herself up a little, taken aback. “Whatever is the matter, then?”
Jeanne’s cheeks were speckled like a rosy quail egg, her eyes rimmed in pink. “I can’t help remembering that you’re older than me, whatever we may pretend to the world. I don’t deserve this honor and happiness, not when they should have been yours.”
Tess’s heart contracted, wringing out the unselfish joy she’d felt earlier. Wasn’t this typical, though? Not only did Tess not get what should have been hers by birth, but now she had to comfort dear, tenderhearted Jeanne, who was upset by the unfairness of it. Tess did not often feel true resentment toward her sister, but in this moment she did. Soothing Jeanne’s guilt, on top of everything else, seemed a bit much to ask.
“There, there,” she said, patting her sister’s back mechanically. “We both know I’ve gotten what I deserved. If I had really valued any of these things, surely I’d have had the good sense not to throw them away.”
Jeanne sniffled and nodded. Tess turned her face away, unwilling to let her sister glimpse any anger in her eyes. It wasn’t Jeanne’s fault; every ounce of blame could be ascribed to Tess herself. Could be and should be. She ascribed it with all her might.
Only an ungrateful bitch of a sister could feel angry at dear, gentle Jeanne.
Tess walked through the rest of her day, waiting on Lady Farquist, laughing at gentlemen’s jokes during dinner, steering Jeanne’s footsteps toward the obligatory soiree. Jeanne and Richard exchanged lingering glances across the room but said no more than a coy word to each other. Tess didn’t care what they did; she was marking time until she could finally be alone.
Around midnight, Tess closed the door to her little room, which was technically a walk-in closet; her “elder” sister got the suite’s main boudoir. She fished around behind Jeanne’s hanging gowns and three pairs of shoes and drew out a little bottle of plum brandy, which she’d won off Lady Morena. She rationed the stuff religiously, because one never knew when it would be possible to obtain another, but tonight she filled her little glass three times. The fumes streaked painfully up her nose (plum brandy was not as delicious as it sounded), making her cough every time she exhaled, but she didn’t mind. She flopped onto her cot, pleasantly dizzy, and joy was finally able to rise up in her again, a single bubble of hope.
After two years at court, diligently securing her sister’s future, Tessie would be free.