Doubt the Stars Are Fire

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Chapter 9 - Lysander

The sound was sharp. It was the abrupt parting of her bed curtains. When Leda opened her eyes it was still dark, but she saw the figure of a woman standing over her, her hands on either side of where the curtains parted.

"It's time you got up," a cool, smoky voice resounded beside her.

Leda pushed herself to her elbows, and suddenly the curtains to her windows were flung open. Leda winced and shielded her eyes from the white light of morning.

"In 15 minutes, Lady Clarehall and her niece will be upon this house whether you like it or not." The lithe slender figure of a middle-aged woman with a curly, dark bob of hair, a pale pencil skirt, and pink see-through blouse moved swiftly around Leda's room. She was grabbing garments and opening curtains while a maid was listlessly assisting her.

Then suddenly the woman stopped at the foot of the bed when she noticed that Leda hadn't moved.

"There isn't time to dawdle!" She snapped.

And when Leda got a better look at her, she realized she had never seen this woman before.

Leda pushed the covers off and rose from her bed just as a maid was rushing over to put slippers where Leda's feet would land: "Who are you?"

The woman stopped her rushing, and her expression seemed almost surprised at the question: "I'm Madame Porphyria."

"One of mother's associates, I assume." Leda pushed herself from off the bed, rolling her eyes. She knew what her mother's "associates" were like: they were never "friends", always associates. And whatever it was Irena Stryker wanted, she always used her network of associates or Valkyries to accomplish her ends. No wonder mother was considered the sovereign's private general, Leda thought.

But the woman only narrowed her eyes at Leda.

"I'm not Irena's associate," the woman straightened her shoulders. "I'm here on behalf the Tariels."

She spoke the last word as though she meant to curse Leda with it. Leda went cold. She suddenly felt exposed and stared at the woman as though she were a snake ready to strike her.

"Come along now," the woman whipped her hand through the air and the turned and disappeared through Leda's door.

Leda was still bolted to her bed, staring at her closed door. Would Madame Porphyria tell Adonis everything she saw? Everything that Leda said? How she looked?

But the more pressing matter of a visitor finally weighed down on Leda, and she pushed back the covers of her bed and rose. Her muscles ached and she felt too tired to stand, but she felt around her bedroom. She realized that Madame Porphyria had already laid out a frilly black gown with white accents. And when Leda pushed open the door to her bathroom, she had barely heard the maid that was silently drawing the water for her bath. When she heard Leda, she looked up and curtseyed instantly, walked past her. Leda glanced over her shoulder watching her go. Mother was certainly pulling out all the stops in giving her a maid. Leda nor Valentina were afforded the luxury growing up: even though the Strykers had money, Leda's mother believed in discipline and independence-- both in which Leda failed miserably.

Leda pulled off her gown and sank into the tub. Her muscles felt better but did little to quell her anxiety. She dropped the bar of soap into the water and watched as the water fogged. Leda ran her hands along her arm and body, and finally dipped her head under the water.

Fifteen minutes. That's all she had. She heard her bedroom door:

"I've taken the liberty of unpacking the family jewels Adonis sent over."

Leda straightened in the tub. Jewels? She pushed herself up from the tub and threw her robe over-- she couldn't move fast enough.

"Jewels?" She flung bathroom door opened and watched as Madame Porphyria was just taking a three-layer princess necklace with diamonds and black tourmalines from a blue box and holding it up to the faint light. Leda gaped: she had never seen jewelry that large, that ornate, or that beautiful in her life. But what's more, she was horrified that they were hers.

"A bit much for the afternoon," Madame Porphyria laid the piece back into the box and selected something from another box. "Perhaps the earrings and a bracelet?"

But Leda could barely look. She crossed to her dress: everything was happening too quickly.

"We're not even Fated, yet..." she said vaguely.

"Not yet," Madame Porphyria muttered as she looked at the jewels, gently touching each piece. "But it is customary."

Leda turned to her and gave her a look of a disbelief.

"Oh come now, you're surprised that the Tariels are this flamboyant?" Madame Porphyria nearly smiled.

"Flamboyant isn't really a word I would use with dark warlocks."

Madame Porphyria lifted her eyebrows and nodded her head from side to side as though considering. Then she gestured to the dress:

"Best you hurry!" Then she crossed to the door and called down the hall for the maid.

Leda pushed off her robe, before Madame Porphyria could see her and tried to climb into the dress as quickly as she could: she wouldn't have Madame Porphyria describing anything else beyond her words to any Tariel. The dress reached all the way up to her neck and rested just under her jaw with soft ruffles. It wasn't totally ugly, but Leda wanted to pull at the scratchy material underneath. She tried to reach for the buttons, but the dress was stiff and tight. She nearly cursed under her breath, when she felt Madame Porphyria's cool fingers suddenly and swiftly doing them for her:

"A witch does not reach when her power her is her closest friend."

Leda tried not to openly grimace at the saying: she didn't have that kind of power. And she wanted to snap at Madame Porphyria for being so stupid. But then Leda just clenched her jaw: she could just hear Madame Porphyria say that Leda was pathetic for not being able to button her own buttons.

Or perhaps she would.

"Composure is everything, my dear," Madame Porphyria was just tightening the last button when she turned Leda around by the shoulders.

"I suppose doing something with that main of yours," Madame Porphyria pointed her forefinger at Leda's head, and Leda could feel her long, pale hair being twisted up.

"There!" Madame Porphyria turned her around, and when Leda caught sight of herself, her eyes widened briefly: she looked older, but not in a good way. Her hair was piled high, and she looked more matronly than woman.

"Don't worry," Madame Porphyria whispered gently, "it looks dreadful, but it's befitting a woman in your station."

Leda silently thought that if she did have an important station, she would be able to choose what she would like to wear, but she just glanced at Madame Porphyria through the mirror: "How long do I have to wear it?"

"For however long it take for your visitors to come and go."

"Visitors?"

"You will have plenty trust me. Now we must go down!"

Leda wanted to protest and ask why, but everything was also so very plain when Madame Porphyria held out a bracelet with diamonds and onyx and dangling, matching earrings: The Tariels. It was a momentous occasion. Leda supposed that she would also want to gawk at the poor girl that was tied to a Tariel. Leda silently slipped on the earrings and bracelet. And when she did, she became acutely aware of the weight of the bracelet wrapped around her wrist: it belongs to him. Or rather, it belonged to a family member. Now it was his, and he gave it to her. She dared not touch it with her other hand. But Leda was given no time to really think about it, when Madame Porphyria was already marching out the door and down the all. Leda obediently caught up to her. The morning was grey and cool. Leda could hear footsteps, china clinking, and the rush of voices passing: the house was being prepared. And when Leda descended down the steps, she saw the man with olive skin and red damask from the other night. She nearly paused in her steps when Madame Porphyria called from over her shoulder: "Keep up, Leda!"

The man bowed solemnly, but Leda only stared, shocked as she passed by. And once they had turned the corridor, she jogged up to Madame Porphyria:

"What's that man doing here?"

"Horus Trym?"

"He said he was here to protect me the other night."

"Then that's what he's here for."

"But why do I need protection-- here?" Leda stopped in her tracks.

But Madame Porphyria grabbed her hand. Leda desperately wanted to yank it back: she was tired of being literally dragged.

"The Tariels are very protective over what's there's."

"There's?"

"Don't try to make it what it isn't." Madame Porphyria shook her head, "that'll do you no good."

"It's a bit excessive!" Leda wanted to laugh, but more out of anger than anything.

"Oh my dear," Madame Porphyria shook her head grimly, "you've no idea what you're up against."

"Then why don't you enlighten me," Leda shot back.

They had stopped in front of a door and Madame Porphyria opened it.

"I would," she pushed Leda through, "if it were my place."

Then she shut the door behind her. Leda was alone in the drawing room where they accepted visitors. The door suddenly opened again and a small party of maids and footmen came bustling in, pulling in golden carts with tea, cakes, incense and a record player.

Leda watched as she absently twisted the diamond bracelet around her wrist. The thing made her feel even more alone and awkward.

There was such a fuss over everything.

"I don't like it any more than you do," Irena's voice resounded from the doorframe.

Her face pursed as though she smelled something bad. "And that Porphyria woman..."

Irena tugged at the cuff of her creamy gown. It looked almost as frilly and ugly as Leda's, but her mother wore hers better.

Chae was waiting obediently behind Irena with her hands folded in front of her. Her hair was pulled back, and she looked fresh and beautiful in her blue uniform. It only made Leda feel oppressively heavy in her gown.

Irena crossed and picked up her daughter's hand, examining the bracelet. She smiled and hummed-- pleased with what she saw.

"Good!"

"How?" Leda knew very well what her mother meant, but she didn't want to act like she knew better. She hated this game that everyone was playing.

She knew she was to be her mother's eyes and ears, but she wouldn't like any of it nor pretend to.

"Don't tell me that you've never wanted something as fine that." She finally dropped Leda's wrist and gently placed herself at the edge of the divan that faced the light. They had to be seen, and in good lighting.

Leda said nothing and sat down at the other end of the divan.

"And anything but miserable, for Fate's sake," Irena seethed into her skirt.

Just then, Horus Trym passed through the door. Irena's chest just sank with an angry huff.

"Good to see you, too, Mrs. Stryker." Horus crossed to the fireplace at the other end where Chae stood.

"Your presence isn't necessary."

"Adonis Tariel thinks otherwise," Horus checked his cuticles.

"No, he does it to undermine me when I have a whole legion--"

"--enough!" Leda flattened her hands on her skirt.

All eyes bore into her in that second, which was the last thing she wanted.

"I can't stand this--" Leda wasn't sure what she was trying to say. But her cheeks were flaming, and she now wanted to tear off the bracelet and pluck the earrings from her ears. The room felt like it was shrinking and the dress felt as though it were compressing her the longer she had it on.

But just then a footman opened the door-- "Lady Clarehall and Miss Thruppleton."

A tall, buxom witch appeared, and Leda could just see her meek daughter, Miss Thruppleton, bedecked in lavender lace and butterflies follow close behind. But just as the two ladies sailed, a dark, slight figure slipped through, between them and the doorpost. And as soon as he made his appearance known, the whole room seemed to pause for a moment. Leda was looking into the angular face of a young man. His dark, straight hair slipped in front of his eyes as soon as he had turned to apologize, half-heartedly, to Lady Thruppleton.

Irena immediately rose from her chair.

"Lysander Veremond," her voice was a mixture of warning and uncertainty.

Leda's eyes widened for a moment: Gemma's youngest son. No one ever saw him because he was at school, but Leda only knew from vague comments and the sheer lack of interest in discussing him at all that Gemma found him more trouble than he ought to be. And when Leda got a better look at his face, she could see in his sharp eyes that he was devilish. His thin lips stretched into a smirk as he pushed his hair back with one hand.

"Auntie Irena!"

Irena grimaced at "auntie."

"I've come to pay my respects." His voice was thin and beguiling; a voice that Leda imagined would belong to a snake, and Leda could see that his intention was anything but respectful.

"Lady Thruppleton and her daughter have that appointment just now," Irena said through tight lips.

"Again," Lysander whirled around to the startled Lady Clarehall and her daughter, who was ogling at Lysander, "my humblest apologies for barging in unannounced."

Miss Thruppleton blushed deeply as Lysander landed the last word on her.

Leda was too enrapt with the chaos of his visit, and his confidence that she couldn't help but smile. Even Horus was watching the boy with a mixture of annoyance as well as amusement.

"Postpone your appointment," Irena asserted with a little more determination.

"I'm sure Miss Thruppleton wouldn't mind," and with that Lysander stepped to Lady Clarehall's side and extended his arm for her daughter to take.

And what would anyone do? Refuse Lysander? Start a fight? There weren't any rules against having more than one visitor. Miss Thruppleton hesitated for a moment, but knew better than to refuse and accepted his arm.

Lysander led Miss Thruppleton to the divan opposite Leda. Just as he was bending to sit, he looked at her in the eye. His gaze was mesmerizing and little terrifying; his grey-green eyes were much brighter than she imagined and piercing. Lysander seemed to know the effect in which he had in that moment and sat back, clearly satisfied with himself.

"My dear cousin," he breathed out, suddenly disinterested in Miss Thruppleton. "Forgive me for not making my presence known to you sooner."

Lady Clarehall mutely took a seat between the two divans and watched Leda and Lysander as though she were watching a tennis match. Irena tried to serve tea, but everyone seemed deflated and awkward.

"I won't hold it against you," Leda tried to match the slight playfulness she detected his voice.

"Kind and forgiving," his eyebrow arched for a moment.

Irena had tried to reach over to offer her nephew tea, but Lysander seemed entirely unaware of her existence. But Thruppleton happily took Lysander's tea.

Leda tried to suppress her laugh-- was it nervousness, genuine amusement? But Horus sat down in a chair by her side.

"Lysander, if you're going to disrupt a wedding engagement appointment, you may as well make better conversation."

"Isn't it all about the scrutiny of bride-to-be?" He sat up and looked directly at Lady Clarehall, whose mouth dropped, "or am I wrong?"

Lysander glanced back at Leda.

Leda also blushed and swallowed. Her eyes flicked to her mother, whose jaw twitched. She remained standing as she stared at Lysander.

"Then let Lady Clarehall have her appointment," Horus said softly with a smile.

"I want to scrutinize her," Lysander leaned forward, his lips curling into the most dangerous smile, and Leda felt as though she were about to be eaten.

"Scrutinize away," Leda was surprised by her own words.

And before Irena or Lady Clarehall could lean forward to discourage the very notion, Lysander fired away:

"They say you have no power."

The room grew tense as though Lysander had said something indecent. Leda felt her heart leap and her cheeks prickle from embarrassment.

"I'm assuming you didn't hear that from your mother." She tried to keep her voice even.

"I prefer vicious gossip."

"And yet you're in polite company," Leda's dark, triangular brows. Her expression was no long innocent. Rather is was thoughtful almost minx-like.

"So it isn't true what they say...?" He tossed his head to the side thoughtfully.

"I don't talk to nameless strangers." Leda responded quickly, growing annoyed that Lysander just wasn't getting to the point.

"That you're a simpleton."

Lady Clarehall's spoon clattered.

It was Lysander's unsettling gaze that somehow steadied Leda.

Leda simply gestured to her whole self.

"I'm glad you think it isn't true," but her voice shook, and Lysander's gaze faltered when he heard her voice. He straightened and his eyes didn't appear to bright.

Horus had tucked his cheek between his forefinger and thumb, "I think it's best you go, mate."

Lysander's thin, clever lips twitched to the side and nodded in his cousin's direction. He rose, but then turned around again to face the room having recovered his former self.

"Charmed to make your acquaintance, Miss Thruppleton," he bowed his head slightly with a smirk, and then turned to leave.

Miss Thruppleton had forgotten that she had been abandoned during the meeting, and straightened and cast him a hopeful, doe-eyed smile. And Leda felt a mixture of disgust and pity for how easy Miss Thruppleton fell for him.

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