Fairest, p.2
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       Fairest, p.2
 

         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  “Your Highness,” he said, and hearing his voice was almost as rare a treasure as seeing the flecks in his eyes. “I am so sorry for your loss. The sorrow belongs to us all, but I know you bear the weight more than anyone.”

  She tried to store his words away in the back of her mind, for retrieval and analysis at a moment when he was not holding her hand or peering into her soul. I know you bear the weight more than anyone.

  Although he appeared honest, Levana didn’t think he was overly fond of the king and queen. Perhaps his grief was because he’d not been on duty when the murders happened, so he couldn’t have done anything to stop them. Levana sensed that he was exceptionally proud of his place on the royal guard.

  For her part, though, she was grateful that Evret hadn’t been there. That some other guards had been killed instead.

  “Thank you,” she breathed. “Your kindness makes this day easier to bear, Sir Hayle.”

  They were the same words she had said to countless other guests that day. Wishing she were clever enough to come up with something truly meaningful, she added, “I trust you know that you were a great favorite of my father’s.”

  She had no idea whether it was true, but seeing Evret’s eyes soften made it as true as she cared for it to be.

  “I will continue to faithfully serve your family as long as I am able.”

  The proper words exchanged, he released her hand. Her skin tingled as she let it fall back to her side.

  But rather than move on to offer condolences to Channary, Evret turned back and gestured to a woman beside him. “Your Highness, I do not believe you have ever met my wife. Her Royal Highness, Princess Levana Blackburn, this is Solstice Hayle. Sol, this is Her most charming Highness, Princess Levana.”

  Something shriveled up inside Levana, turning hard and sharp in her gut, but she forced herself to smile and offer her hand as Solstice curtsied and kissed her fingers and said something that Levana didn’t hear. She knew that Evret had taken a wife some years ago, but she had given this fact little consideration. After all, her parents were married, but that had seemed to create no great affection between them, and what was a wife in a world in which mistresses were as common as servants, and monogamy as rare as an Earthen eclipse?

  But now, meeting Evret’s wife for the first time, she noticed three things in quick succession that made her reconsider every thought she’d had about this woman’s existence.

  First, that she was profoundly beautiful, but not in a glamoured sort of way. She had a cheerful, heart-shaped face, elegantly arched eyebrows, and honey-toned skin. She wore her hair loose for the occasion and it fell nearly to her waist in thick, dark strands that held just a bit of a curl.

  Second, that Evret looked at her with a gentleness that Levana had never before seen in a man’s eyes, and that look sparked a yearning in her so strong it felt like agony.

  Third, that Evret’s wife was very, very pregnant.

  This, Levana had not known.

  “It is lovely to meet you,” Levana heard herself saying, though she didn’t catch Solstice’s response.

  “Sol is a seamstress in AR-4,” Evret said with pride in his voice. “She was commissioned to embroider some of the gowns worn today, even.”

  “Oh. Yes, I … I seem to recall my sister mentioning a seamstress in town who was becoming quite popular…” Levana trailed off as Solstice’s entire face brightened, and the look only further solidified her own hatred.

  Levana remembered nothing more from their brief conversation, until Evret placed his hand on his wife’s back. The gesture seemed protective, and only as they continued on did Levana notice a fragility to Solstice that had at first been hidden by her beauty. She seemed a delicate creature, exhausted from the funeral or her pregnancy or both. Evret looked concerned as he whispered something to his wife, but Levana couldn’t hear him, and Solstice was batting his attention away by the time they’d reached Channary.

  Levana turned back to the receiving line. Another mourner, another well-wisher, another liar. Lies, all lies. Levana became a recording—nod, hold out your hand, mumble thank you—as the line stretched on and on. As her sister became less and less interested in pretending sadness and her giggles and flirtations tinkled shrilly above the low-voiced mutterings of the crowd, as the holograph of her parents accepted their wedding vows.

  Monogamy. Faithfulness. True love. She did not think she had ever witnessed it, not beside the fairy tales she’d been told as a child and the fanciful dramas sometimes acted out for the court’s entertainment. But to be so cherished—what a dream that must be. To have a man look upon you with such adoration. To feel the press of fingers on your back, a silent message to all who saw that you are his and he—he must be yours …

  When a woman with gray antlers on her head saw the tears beginning to glisten in Levana’s eyes, she nodded understandingly and handed her a crisp gray handkerchief.

  * * *

  Levana convinced herself that it was boredom that drove her out of the palace three days after the funeral, still dressed in gray for the third and final day of mourning. She told herself that she wanted something bright and beautiful to wear when the mourning period was ended and all the kingdom rejoiced as their new queen took the throne for the first time. She told herself she needed a new pair of embroidered slippers for the coronation, or perhaps a finely spun scarf for her waist. Nothing in her wardrobe would suffice for such a historic occasion.

  If she’d made up a story to tell to the guards at the maglev platforms, it was in vain. No one stopped her or asked where she was going.

  AR-4, the most popular shopping district in Artemisia, was bustling with court families and nobles and their servants, all dressed in shades of gray, all making their arrangements for tomorrow’s festivities, but no one recognized Levana, who was wearing the glamour of a dark-skinned goddess, tall and lithe, with a gracefully elongated neck and edged cheekbones. She did not bother with hair, not wanting to distract from the glamour’s perfectly sculpted head and figure. Only the silent palace guards that followed in her wake would have given away her identity, but the street was too crowded for anyone to notice them or the girl they were tracking.

  She paid no attention to the cobblers or the dressmakers, the milliners or the jewelers, the art galleries or the candy shoppes. She knew precisely where she was going. She counted the streets that she had seen on the holographic map that morning. Her eye caught briefly on the crescent Earth that could be seen in the black sky beyond the dome’s protective sphere, but lost sight of it as she turned the corner into a lovely little side alley. The scent of roasting coffee from a small café followed her as she trotted around the flowering window boxes and stone-carved benches that lined the alley. Though it wasn’t fully deserted, it was serene compared with the bustle of the main street.

  There was the shop, just where the map and directory had indicated. A simple sign hung over the doorway, showing a needle and thread, and the paned window displayed an assortment of different yarns and fabrics.

  As soon as she saw it, Levana realized that her stomach had knotted itself since turning into the alley. She was nervous.

  And over what? The wife of a palace guard? A mere seamstress? Ridiculous.

  She gestured for her guards to stay outside, braced herself, and pushed open the door.

  She found herself in a well-lit showroom. A quick scan confirmed that no shopkeeper was present, but a second door was cracked open, leading to a back room where she could hear the whir of mechanical looms.

  Two holographic mannequins in the corners were modeling a variety of garments—everything from lingerie to ball gowns, three-piece suits to crocheted stockings. Every piece was magnificent. It was easy to see how even this insignificant shop in a tiny alleyway in AR-4 was building such a quick reputation for itself among the families.

  Levana paced around the showroom. It wasn’t large, but there was a lot to see. Shelves stacked with embroidered towels, bed linens, and windo
w draperies. Silk scarves so delicate they felt like spiderwebs. A dress form wore a corset-style bodice that appeared to have been woven entirely of fine silver thread and tiny sparkling gems—it was jewelry as much as it was clothing.

  Then she spotted a quilt that hung on one wall, large enough to take up almost the entire space. Levana stepped back to admire it, enchanted.

  Earth. And space. Pieced together from shredded fabrics of all different sizes and shapes, the edges left raw where they’d been seamed together. Shining forest greens and rough-textured desert browns, shimmering ocean blues and velvet ebony blacks, all stitched together with gold thread. Every segment of the quilt was embroidered with whimsical patterns of ivy and flowers, elaborate spiral curls and glowing starbursts, and though it seemed like it should have been chaotic and excessive, the consistency of the gold thread grounded the piece. Made it beautiful and somehow serene. Levana knew very little about quilting or embroidery, but she could tell, instinctually, that every tiny stitch had been done by hand.

  “Hello.”

  Levana gasped and checked—first—that her glamour hadn’t faded with her distraction, before turning around.

  Solstice Hayle stood at the door to the back room, a smile on her lips and an embroidery hoop holding a swath of white cotton in her hand. A needle had been secured in the corner of the material, dark maroon thread strung through its eye.

  “Can I help you?”

  She looked like the embodiment of kindness, in a way that made Levana instantly defensive.

  “Yes. I—” She hesitated, forgetting why she was there. What had possessed her to come to this shop, to see this beautiful woman and her enormous stomach and all the lovely garments she made with her own skilled fingers?

  She swallowed down the rising despair. Remembered that she was beautiful too, so long as her glamour held. Remembered that she was a princess. “I need something for tomorrow,” she said. “To wear to the coronation.”

  Solstice nodded. “Of course. I’m afraid anything constructed brand-new for the occasion would have to be rushed, which I try to avoid. But perhaps we can find something you like here in the showroom and alter it to fit your tastes.” She set aside the embroidery hoop, her hand moving to rest on her stomach as she waddled around the room. “Were you wanting a gown? Or perhaps some accessories?”

  After a moment’s thought, Levana answered, “Do you have any gloves?” She already had plenty, but gloves wouldn’t have to be sized. And she liked wearing gloves. They made for one less thing she had to hide with her glamour.

  “Oh, yes, I have a wonderful assortment of gloves.”

  Balancing with one hand on the edge of a wooden dresser, Solstice bent over to pull out one of the lower drawers. It was filled with women’s gloves, each neatly folded atop a layer of tissue paper. “Will you be wearing a glamour for the occasion?”

  Levana stiffened. “What do you mean?”

  Solstice glanced up in surprise, and Levana sucked in a breath, realizing that her palms were sweating. She was suddenly angry. Angry that this woman was so effortlessly pretty. Angry that tonight she would sleep beside her doting husband. That soon she would hold a wrinkled, wailing baby in her arms and that child would never question whether it was loved, or whether its parents loved each other.

  Nothing Levana wanted had ever come that easily.

  Solstice must have noticed a darkness lurking in Levana’s eyes. She stood up, her expression showing the first hints of caution. She was breathing heavier than before, as if the small motion of opening the drawer had exhausted her, and there was a bead of sweat on her upper lip. She certainly was a fragile thing, wasn’t she?

  And yet her gentle smile never left. “I only meant that if you’ll be using a glamour, we can pick out a color that will complement your chosen skin tone. Or … if you already know what gown you’ll be wearing, we can coordinate the two.”

  Trying to smother the envy that had stoked inside her chest, Levana looked down at her hands. The long, slender fingers and flawless skin that weren’t really hers.

  Wetting her lips, she met Solstice’s gaze again. “What would you choose for yourself?”

  Solstice quirked her head to one side, reminding Levana of the small birds in the palace menagerie when they heard an unfamiliar sound and mistook it for a predator.

  Solstice returned her attention to the drawer of gloves. “Well…,” she said uncertainly. “I’ve always been fond of jewel tones, myself.” Crouching again, she peeled back a couple layers of tissue paper and emerged with a set of silk gloves in rich sapphire blue. Though the gloves themselves were undecorated, their tops were rimmed with small gold chains and each had a tiny metal clasp. Levana guessed that they would reach almost to her shoulders. Solstice held the gloves against Levana’s wrist, showing the contrast with her dark skin. “What do you think?”

  Pressing her lips together, Levana ran her thumb over the gold clasps. “What are these for?”

  “It’s part of a new design I’ve been working on. It’s meant to be a set. See, they go with this necklace…” She led Levana to a jewelry counter lined with chains and beads and fasteners, and gestured at a gold collar. At first Levana assumed it was made of metal, but when she picked it up, she realized that it was tightly woven gold thread, intricately braided together and flexible in her grip. Two more clasps were attached to it on opposite sides. Sol continued, “I have small filigree chains that connect it to the gloves, see?”

  Levana did see. It was beautiful and unusual, two things that were always popular in court fashion, but not gaudy as Levana found so many of the trendy pieces to be.

  She trailed her fingers over the braided threads and imagined wearing it on her neck. How regal she would look. How it would accentuate her throat and collarbone, how the deep blue silk would look so stunning against her honey skin and rich brown hair.

  Only then did she realize that in the fantasy, she looked like Solstice Hayle.

  She set down the necklace, and Solstice gestured back to the dresser. “Would you like to see the other gloves?”

  “No,” said Levana. “I’ll take these. And the necklace too.”

  “Oh—wonderful! Will you … do you want to take them with you today, or did you want them to be personalized?”

  “Personalized?”

  Solstice nodded. “That’s what I specialize in—the little flourishes that, I like to think, set my shop apart from all the other seamstresses in Artemisia. If there’s a particular design you’d like embroidered on the gloves, I should be able to have them done by tomorrow morning. Some of my clients like to get their favorite flower, or their initials…”

  Levana glanced at the quilt of Earth that hung on the wall. “You did that, didn’t you?”

  “Yes, I did.” Solstice laughed, and her laughter was surprisingly giddy, like a child’s. “Although it took much longer than a single evening. Do you like it?”

  Levana frowned. She did like it, very much. But she didn’t want to say so.

  “You can embroider the gloves for me,” she said. “I want the design to be something whimsical, like you did in the quilt. Maybe something with an L in it, but nothing too obvious.”

  “An L? Like Luna.” Her smile was back, as warm as ever. “I’d be happy to. Shall I have it delivered in the morning?”

  “Yes.” Levana paused, before squaring her shoulders. “Have it delivered to the palace. Address it to Princess Levana, and I will let the stewards know that I am expecting a delivery. They will see that you receive payment.”

  Solstice’s smile froze, her eyes caught between surprise and panic. Levana knew the look well, the look when any of the palace servants realized they’d been in the presence of royalty and their minds skittered to recall if they’d said or done anything worth punishing. Gathering herself, Solstice gave a half curtsy, using the countertop to keep her balance. “I am sorry I didn’t recognize you, Your Highness. It is such an incredible honor to be in your service.”

/>   Heated by the knowledge of her power over this insignificant woman and her insignificant shop, bolstered by the thought that it was, indeed, an honor to serve her, Levana was tempted to demonstrate her authority. She imagined demanding that Solstice kneel to her, knowing it couldn’t be easy in her condition. Or threatening her business’s reputation should she be displeased with the gloves when they arrived. Or suggesting that Solstice give her the marvelous quilt of Earth, as a royal tithe, or a symbol of gratitude, and watching her struggle to give up something that clearly had so much value—to her, and to her livelihood.

  But Levana buried the fantasies before her tongue could betray her.

  Solstice would surely tell her husband, and then Evret Hayle would never again refer to Levana as Her most charming Highness.

  She gulped, hard, and forced a smile for the first time since stepping into the shop. Perhaps this was why she’d come. So that Solstice would tell her husband about the princess’s unexpected visit, and that Levana would even be wearing one of her designs to the coronation. Levana’s heart warmed to think that Evret would know what a generous princess she was. She wanted him to think about her, even if only for a moment. She wanted him to admire her.

  And so, she lied. “The honor will be all mine,” she said, “in wearing such an exquisite piece. I can see why Sir Hayle has sung your praises so highly.”

  Solstice flushed with all the joy of a woman in love, and Levana left, quickly, before her own bile could burn her throat.

  * * *

  By the next morning, on the day of Channary’s coronation, it seemed that all of Luna had been granted permission to pretend that the assassinations had never happened, that the memories of King Marrok and Queen Jannali would live on peaceably in their history texts, and that young Channary would make for a most fair and just ruler. Levana wasn’t sure how many people believed this, and no doubt those who did had never met her sister, but Channary’s right to the throne went unquestioned even by her. They were, after all, the only known heirs of the Blackburn bloodline, that distant ancestor who had been first born with the Lunar gift. Channary, as the eldest royal daughter, would be queen, as her son or daughter would rule next, and the generation after that, and the generation after that. It was how the crown had been passed on since the day Luna became a monarchy, since the day Cyprus Blackburn created his own throne.

 
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