Aamira found her mother in the middle of her garden, sitting on the raised roots of a tree she herself had trained into the shape of a bench. She was a beautiful woman, even by her family’s diamond standard, with her dark brown hair always pinned up in elegant whorls on her head, her gowns that always perfectly matched her shoes, and her flawless makeup that made her skin look so smooth. There was always a necklace glittering around her throat, rings sparkling on her fingers, earrings framing her lovely face.
Child Aamira had always wanted to live up to her mother, to be beautiful and lovely. She’d been ten when she realized she would never be that beautiful. She’d cried for a week.
Blossom, don’t cry my dearest, her mother had told her as she’d stroked her hair. Do you know what I think? What I know? That you are the most beautiful princess of them all.
Child Aamira had been stunned to hear her mother thought she was beautiful and had stopped crying from sheer shock.
Her mother must have felt her watching her, because she turned and gave Aamira that same loving smile she had when she was a girl.
It was quickly touched with confusion.
“Blossom, what are you still doing here? You should have left an hour ago,” she chided gently.
Aamira managed to keep from rolling her eyes. “Only if I wanted to arrive early, Mam. And I dearly don’t.”
“But to be early is to be on time.”
“No,” Aamira countered her mother with a grin. “To be early is to be bored. And the Cacophony is boring enough. If I really have to do this, don’t make me suffer unnecessarily.”
The tiniest of smiles pulled at her mother’s red-painted lips. “There’s nothing unnecessary about governing a square of the board, Blossom.”
Aamira sat down next to her mother, flinging her legs out before her and crossing them at the ankles as she leaned back against the trunk of the towering tree that grew at the heart of Rubia’s garden. She started to tick off fingers. “The rules, the parties, the cleaning up after the parties, the dancing-”
Her mother made a noise and flapped a hand at her objections. “You love dancing, and there was a time I couldn’t keep you out of the parties, even when you were supposed to be sound asleep.”
“That was before I understood the value of sleep.” She stretched her arms above her head. “What I wouldn’t give to be in bed right now.” She yawned loudly.
A breeze gusted through the garden, carrying a giggle with it, one light hearted and carefree. One Aamira recognized better than her own.
She and her mother shared a knowing look, but otherwise didn’t react. Aamira sat up and looked around, shading her eyes with a hand as if that would let her see into the secret places the flowers kept. “You haven’t seen Zephyr, have you, Mam? I wanted to tell him that he could go to the Cacophony instead of me today, if it was fine with you of course.”
She gave her mother such a serious face, Rubia almost burst into laughter on the spot. “Oh, I don’t know Aamira.” She pretended to think, humming as she did. “Oh, all right, but just this once and only if you can find him before Delphine is finished readying the flamingos.”
“Oh, that’s soon! I’m sure she’ll be here any minute which means there’s really no point in trying-”
A red-haired cyclone burst out of the limbs of the tree, falling down in a tumble of play clothes and grass-stained knees. “Here I am! Here I am!” her nephew cried in utter delight. “It’s my turn for Cacophony! Callay!”
His aunt and grandmother laughed at the boy. At almost eight, he was the spitting image of his father, Aamira’s older brother Gusting, gone these last two years along with his wife. Bony and angular, he was still all elbows and knees, his red hair overgrown and wild so that it tumbled about his ears and eyes in scraggly locks. One of his canines was chipped — from one escapade or another, there were too many to count — and he had a smile like a blustery day - overpowering and wonderful.
For a moment, the memory of her brother overlaid her nephew and Aamira felt a powerful ache in her chest. She pulled Zephyr into her lap and it faded somewhat when he looped an arm around her neck, like they were co-conspirators that had finally won. He flashed her a smile, showing off his chipped tooth. “I know Granmam said I get to go, but you can still come with me if you want, Aunt Mira. It’ll be more fun!”
Aamira chuckled, pushing the hair out of his sky-blue eyes. “Having you there is the only thing that could possibly make the Cacophony fun, Zeph, but I think Granmam was playing a game.”
He scrunched up his face. “But we were already playing a game. That’s why I was hiding. And you can’t play more than one at a time-” He tilted his head, eyes going wide with possibilities. “-can you?”
“You most certainly can,” Aamira’s mother told him. “How else would I ever get you to come out?”
Zephyr gasped, mouth opening very, very wide. “Granmam cheated…” he mock-whispered. He and Aamira hummed in unison and gave Rubia a matching set of mistrustful looks.
“Sneaky,” Zephyr murmured as they watched her.
“Very sneaky,” Aamira agreed.
“I always knew she was super sneaky.”
Aamira nodded sagely, setting her head next to the boy’s and whispering loudly, “She always told your da and me that we got it from your granda, but I think we really get it from her.”
Rubia rolled her eyes and rose gracefully from the bench as they hummed again. “I will not stand for this.”
“Sure you will, Mam, you just did.”
Her mother looked down at her feet and then rolled her eyes as she got the pun. “Must you always be so on the nose, Aamira?”
Two faces lit up with delighted gasps and fingers went to noses as Aamira and Zephyr stuck out their tongues.
“Oh for the sake of my roses…” She sighed loudly.
Her children only giggled. “Right boyo,” Aamira said, picking up her nephew and set him on his feet so she could stand. “The fun will have to continue when I get back. I can hear Delpine’s beasties beating the ground in impatience.”
“Aw…” Zephyr moaned. He looked up at his grandmother with the hopefulness of a boy. “Can’t I go with her, Granmam? Just this one time?”
Her mother gave him a patient smile and held out her hand. With a child’s petulance, he took it, clearly sulking. “There will be plenty of time for you to go with her when you are older,” she promised. “But now it is time for logic lessons.”
He made an impatient noise and scuffed his big toe — as bare and as dirty as Aamira’s — against the ground. “But I want to go to Cacophony with Aunt Mira…”
Aamira leaned down. “I wish you could come too, Zeph. I won’t have any fun without you,” she said as she hugged him.
His face lit up. “Promise?”
“Promise,” Aamira told him.
She straightened up to find her mother holding out a pair of gold cloth slippers — the smallest, thinnest, shiniest shoes Aamira had ever owned. “Don’t think I didn’t notice,” her mother said.
Aamira just rolled her eyes and snatched the shoes before kissing her mother’s cheek. “I’ll be back by tonight,” she told them. “If the Duchess doesn’t fall asleep in the middle again anyway.”
Her mother nodded and she and Zephyr waved with differing levels of exuberance as she left. Aamira waved over her shoulder halfway to the gate.
She stopped next to one of the carefully pruned trees — little white fruit blossoms dotting its foliage despite it being the wrong season — and leaned against it as she dusted her feet off and pulled her shoes on, one by one. Behind her she heard her mother settle Zephyr in for his lessons.
“Now, if a bird with a cold is flying north as fast as it can, and a bird with bad vision is flying south at half the speed of the first, how will they meet?” she recited in a tone Aamira remembered all too well.
“When they crash of course!” Zephyr cried, making Aamira shake her head, a fond smile on her face.
Delphine met her at the garden entrance, her pink flock having doubled since Aamira had seen her. Both birds were dressed in their finery — silver bridles with golden ends, a leather saddle in the shape of a shoehorn embossed with the signs of her family, station, and suit strapped across their backs, and, for Aamira’s, a filigree headset that most likely would be choked on before they got there in the first place — and both eyed her with the wariness born of memory.
Apparently we’ve met before… Aamira thought dryly.
Delphine watched her with large eyes. “Well, shall we go, my lady?”
Aamira made a face. “Only because we have to.”
Delphine smiled as she held the filigree-topped flamingo still for Aamira to mount, then waited for her to tuck her feet under her so they did not dangle down and trip up the bird’s spindly legs while she ran. “Is there any other way?”
Aamira only groaned as they started off, the repetitive thump thump thump of scaly-toed feet meeting the ground already making her rear sore.