Doubt the Stars Are Fire

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Chapter 10 - The Unexpected

The week dragged on at an agonizing pace. And every morning, Leda woke up to Madame Porphyria's beautiful, aged face staring down at her under the frame of her canopied bed. And every morning, Leda asked her the same question:

"Any news?"

Madame Porphyria's steady, cool expression twitched ever so slightly with what Leda wanted to believe was compassion. But Madame Porphyria only said:

"Get up, girl," and then would inform Leda about the day's visitors.

Leda knew, long before it happened to her, that wedding engagement visits were terribly boring and contrived. The added knowledge that all of Haight, if not the whole world, wanted to descend on her mother's house to see the girl that was Fated to a death sentence made the whole process even more straining.

"Why do you have dark circles under your eyes?" Madame Porphyria grabbed Leda's chin and squinted at her face. But Leda jerked her chin away from her grasp.

"Don't let it happen again," Madame Porphyria muttered as she turned to grab yet a new and elaborate dress from yet another dress box that Leda had never seen before. Leda slipped her nightgown off, and when she heard the rustle of the dress, her stomach lurched.

How many more of these meetings could she endure?

"Have they made any progress in her case?" Leda just turned her chin toward her shoulder. She couldn't bear to look at the dress or Madame Porphyria.

"Best not to think about that," Madame Porphyria was just running her fingers down the skirt in order to smooth out any wrinkles, "right now, you must focus on the day's events. You can't afford to be distracted."

"My sister is missing," Leda whirled around, dangerously close to tears. And it was as though Madame Porphyria had sensed the girl's rising temper, and she immediately moved in Leda's direction.

"Nothing you can say or do will change what is happening now, Miss Stryker," Madame Porphyria's dark eyes searched her face.

"I can't take it," Leda finally broke, "I can't take pretending that everything is okay while wearing a pretty dress and facing strangers while Valentina is lost..."

Madame Porphyria's expression was like stone-- it was unforgiving, and Leda wagered that there was a hint of disdain.

"I won't do it," Leda's voice quavered after a moment, "I don't want to go down there."

Madame Porphyria was clutching the dress. She pushed it into Leda's stomach. "It's not a matter of what you want."

"Is it a matter of what he wants?"

It was a conversation Leda had imagined in her head a thousand times as she sat on her mother's divan: telling them all no. That she wouldn't do any more of these meetings. But that would mean saying no to her mother. To Adonis Tariel. But first she would have to say no to Madame Poryphyria.

"What is taking so long?" Irena burst through the door, and when she saw her daughter was not dressed, she stepped toward where Madame Porphyria stood and grabbed the dress.

"We have guests arriving at any minute," she towered over Leda with severity.

But Leda could only manage to shake her head.

"Please," she gasped between suppressing her tears and taking a breath.

"I won't stand for defiance no matter your excuse," Irena grabbed Leda's arm till she was in the middle of room, and threw the dress into her arms.

Irena was about to walk out of the room when she saw the thoroughly horrified look that crossed Leda's face when Leda cried out: "I won't!"

Leda threw the dress to the ground and it landed softly, covering her feet. "I don't care what you or Adonis Tariel says-- I'm sick of these people that come to ogle at me! No one tells me anything about where Valentina is, and I'm forced to be an animal in a cage day in and day out!"

Madame Porphyria looked from Irena to Leda, and stepped toward Leda before Irena could come charging toward her. And in one swift motion, Madame Porphyria had swept up the dress and pressed it into Leda's arms, a new expression crossing her face. Leda could not understand it. It was of fresh concern, as though she were finally listening to Leda, but Leda could see that it had nothing to do with her words when Madame Porphyria glanced back for a moment at Irena.

"Listen to your mother, and I will send the guests away early."

Irena was boring her eyes into the back of Madame Porphyria's head, and Leda dared not move. The point of tension was suddenly not on Leda, but rather between her mother and this strange woman. And after a moment, Leda realized that Madame Porphyria was gently grasping both Leda's arms.

"Please," Madame Porphyria begged.


Leda was left alone in her room to dress and to apply all the jewelry that had been laid out for her. When she finally emerged, Madame Porphyria wordlessly used her magic to tuck strands into place and adjust any curl that was out of place. Leda felt positively ill and her feet were heavy with dread, but she dared not speak. When she descended the steps, the guest was already in the drawing room. She could hear Irena's pleasant-voice and how it hummed. Leda wanted to pluck out every hair in her head just hearing her mother's voice sound like that. She willed herself to go down the steps.

As always, when Leda met with anyone during these engagement meetings, Horus Trym was sitting in one corner, while Irena lurked in another. Today was no different--the visitor was yet another older witch with a sagging face and ruffly clothes much like the ones Leda wore.

The name passed over Leda the moment they were introduced, and Leda remembered every motion and word she had to execute in order to make it a pleasant and acceptable visit, and today she did nothing differently. It was widely reported that Leda was the perfect witch in terms of manners and appearance. She was every bit the daughter of what one might expect of Irena Stryker. However, today, Leda was pale. It took every bit of her strength to extend her hand and smile at the woman.

"Sleeping well, Miss Stryker?"

The voice of the woman floated to her, but Leda was staring into her tea trying to conjure the words, but all she could think about was Valentina. She would've loved this. Every second. She would look good in the dresses and in the jewelry-- she would be perfect for all this. And Leda used to envy Valentina's ease, but now she wished she were invisible.

Leda managed a smile and was trying to think of a response when the old woman rattled off, "young love must be keeping you awake at night."

And the woman glanced over her shoulder at Irena with a mischievous smile. And when the old woman turned back, she could see Leda's expression was mildly shocked.

Love.

She barely knew Adonis. Her sister's betrothed.

Not once had the idea crossed Leda's mind. That she could love Adonis Tariel. The most feared warlock. The most dangerous of beings. Someone she barely knew. Or even thought about knowing.

"What do you think of your betrothed?" The woman's smile was thin and crooked in a way that struck Leda at once as sinister.

The general nature of questions over the course of the week were indirectly about Adonis, but he too was like a topic that people danced around like Leda's lack of magic. And now she had to directly confront her own thoughts on the one thing that everyone was thinking.

Leda blanched. Irena stepped forward.

"His magic deals in a complexity that would only enrich the bloodline, as we have discovered..." Irena was nodding at her daughter trying to get Leda to agree.

"It does...?" Leda stared up at her mother. Leda knew nothing about Adonis' magic other than it was brutal. It wouldn't enrich anything. It would only corrupt.

The old woman blinked at Leda, and then Irena burst into a peal of laughter, "My daughter is very ironical these days."

"An impending marriage does bring out peculiar behavior," the woman eyed Leda in a way that made Leda shift and put her tea down. And as she did, there were footsteps in the foyer.

Leda prayed it was another visitor to distract this one.

"And what of the sustainability of your magic?" the woman suddenly leaned forward and Leda could not avoid the direct eye contact, that sent a thrill through her whole body.

There it was-- the question. The one that everyone wanted to ask her. Now it was boldly put before her.

"My magic?" Leda whispered in a thin voice.

She heard Horus rise from his chair behind her, but as she turned her head to glance at him, her eyes swept across the sight of Adonis Tariel under the threshold of the drawing room.

The room had grown deathly still.

"The question of her magic is like asking the size of her ring finger to see if it'll accept a wedding ring," Adonis was examining his cuticles and sounded so positively bored at the idea of the question.

"Really," he walked directly in and placed himself in a chair between the two divans and looked at the old woman, who had suddenly grown pale, "such insulting implications--"

"--it is only what I've heard of Miss Stryker--" The woman tried to explain quickly.

"--and to bring slanderous gossip to an engagement appointment! A crass strategy to squeeze out information, at best."

Leda hadn't realized she was staring slack-jawed at Adonis when he turned to look at her. She wasn't sure if she was terrified of the deadliest man being her mother's drawing room, defending her, or if she was shocked that he admonished the old woman like she were child; he acted and behaved in a way a normal man would. But then Leda wasn't sure what else she would expect from Adonis, who was still technically considered an acceptable member of the warlock society. Smoke? Fire? Ice? Anything to come shooting out his hands to eviscerate the woman. Instead, his lifted eyebrows and scandalized tone was almost hilarious to Leda, because it was the last thing she expected from him. Because it wasn't violent.

"Madame Porphyria tells me you're getting on well. I would remiss in my duties if I didn't make my own engagement appointment to you."

If Leda ran her finger down a sheet of satin, it was the sound of Adonis' cool, calm voice. He stared at her like how a deadly animal would consider his prey. As though he were deciding whether he was about to kill her or leave her be.

Leda drew a breath. But what to say? She glanced at Irena.

She looked frightened too.

"Tea, Adonis?" Irena's voice caught in her throat.

Leda could see that Adonis detected the dramatic power shift and how Irena could easily lose face.

"I hope Horus hasn't been any trouble?" Adonis gestured cooly to Horus Trym who was also standing, frozen.

"Not at all," Leda's broken voice matched her mother's.

What a sight, Leda thought to herself, two Strykers in a room couldn't muster enough courage to speak sensibly.

"You are an attentive groom," the old woman was the first to recover, but shakily.

"I hope that Miss Stryker will consider me as such," Adonis had not taken his eyes off of her. He pressed his fingers together, close to his chin. And when Leda was forced to look back up at him, she could almost see his eyes laughing.

He thought her a coward.

A pathetic little girl that couldn't even speak.

"Of course," Leda tried to say, but no one heard her. Irena promptly handed Adonis tea. And just as she did, the woman saw her escape and rose from the divan.

"I really must be going."

And Leda also found herself jumping to her feet and reaching her hand out, but for what? To prevent her from leaving? Don't leave me alone with him, Leda wanted to cry. But she forced a serene smile, and walked the woman to the threshold.

"Thank you for coming," Leda's head was spinning. She felt giddy, as though she were filled with too much air. What else could she say? Please don't go? Stay a while longer? She didn't even know the woman.

The old woman turned, as though she had forgotten something, but instead she grasped Leda's arm: "Good luck."

The woman's eyes were peculiar. Leda thought they were a dark grey, but in that moment, the color and the shape were unmistakable. And the shock of the familiarity had paralyzed her, and the woman knew it. She let go of Leda's arm, and turned and walked away.

"Leda," she could hear her mother's warning voice, which felt far away and helpless. Leda turned around almost forgetting who was there. But Adonis was no longer looking at Leda, but over her shoulder: he was glaring at the receding figure of the woman.

"Your tea..." Irena gestured weakly at her tea and then tucked her arm around waist while vaguely scratching behind her ear. Leda had never seen her mother like this.

"Adonis," Horus advanced toward Adonis, but just then Adonis leapt to his feet, completely unaware of anyone else in the room, and turned to Irena.

"The engagement appointments are over," he bent gracefully to place his teacup on the table. "I don't want Leda to be overtaxed."

Irena's face somehow had grown whiter.

"It isn't right," she said through thin lips.

But Adonis didn't seem to care what she said, "She'll spend the remaining time at my home."

Then he seemed to take in Irena's irate expression.

"See it as a more modern invention of an outdated and tiresome tradition."

"A Tariel speaking of progress..." Irena scoffed.

Adonis darkened, and Leda immediately stepped forward just as Horus did.

"I expect her in two days," he dropped his voice, and Leda shivered from how chilling it sounded.

Adonis turned on his heels and crossed to the threshold without stopping to look at her. All three of them watched him go, and it took Leda a moment to realize that she was staring a closed door.

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