…is a wonderful novel that’s a little difficult to explain, but is so easy to love. Part historical fantasy, part romance, part feminist treatise, I was delighted and entertained from the first page to the last.
A sultry, aromatic breeze stirred the silver leaves of the tree outside Adelina’s bedroom window. Her two sisters giggled as they leaned over the sill, their gazes fixed on the three figures trudging through the dust toward the front door of their house.
“He looks tall and strong,” said Felise, standing on her little toes for a better view of the lead figure. “Like a hero from a story.”
“He’s wonderfully handsome,” said Irena. “And no doubt a great warrior. See, he has a scabbard at his belt.”
“Anyone can have a scabbard at their belt.” Adelina propped her head in her hands and squinted into the sun. “Even our stable boy could if somebody bought him a sword.”
“Even so, he might still be a great warrior.” Irena spun to face Adelina. “How is my hair? I don’t want a single strand amiss.”
Adelina sighed. Every lock on Irena’s head was perfect, of course, just like the rest of her. She was slender, golden-haired, fine-cheeked, ample-bosomed—traits that ensured these infuriating suitors kept coming. “You know damn well your hair is beautiful. You just want to be flattered.”
“Oh, Ada, don’t blaspheme. You’ll frighten away my suitor.”
Felise pouted. Despite being quite as blond as Irena, she was in every other respect unlike her, a plump, mischievous tiny monster. “How do you know he’s not come courting me?”
“You’re barely thirteen, Lise.” Irena patted Felise’s fat cheek. “Grown men don’t come courting little girls.”
“Oh, to always be a little girl,” said Adelina. She leaned further. The second stranger was slight and walked with swaying hips—a woman, then, dressed much like a man. “That must be his sister.”
Irena nodded. “I suppose so. How strange she’s dressed that way.”
“Perhaps all women dress like that where they come from,” said Felise. “Oh! She has a sword too!”
“A woman with a sword.” A tingling warmth crept through Adelina’s chest. “Isn’t that the most exciting thing you’ve ever heard?”
Irena scrunched her elegant features. “It looks very unladylike.” She fussed with the broach at her neck. “I suppose you’d carry a sword, Ada, if Father would let you.”
“Of course. It’d help me fight off these grotesque suitors the day they come for me.”
Irena drifted to the side table, unscrewed a vial of perfume and dabbed rose scent on her neck. “You’re lucky Father is superstitious. You’d be married off already otherwise. Twenty-three is very old to be a maiden.”
Felise cracked open the bedroom door. The sound of conversation rose from the floor below. “They’re here!” she said. “Let’s go peek!”
“How childish.” Irena covered her lips, stifling a giggle. “But let’s.”
The sisters crept onto the landing, stole across the carpeted balcony and pressed close to the banisters. The lobby stretched beneath them, illuminated by windows around its walls and the great skylight in the ceiling. Four figures stood conversing in the sunlit space, their shadows stretched across the floorboards. Father gestured as he talked, his face split by a wide grin above his oiled beard, while Lothar, their family’s cleft-jawed, illiterate footman, stood silent beside him. Opposite them, the strange brother and sister stood in deferential postures.
“He really is handsome,” Irena said in a low whisper. “Look at his shoulders!”
“What about his shoulders?” said Adelina. “Everyone has shoulders.”
“They’re so broad. You can tell he’s a strong man.”
“So he can lift heavy things. Be still my heart.”
Adelina shifted her attention from the muscular man, who interested her about as much as folding tablecloths, to the woman standing beside him. Her heart faltered in its rhythm, and her breath drew short. The woman’s auburn hair was cropped short but for several stray locks that fell across her forehead, and her skin was bronzed by open travel, though not enough to disguise the light complexion of a foreigner. An ironic smile turned her wide lips, her dark lashes concealed narrow eyes alight with amusement, and an elaborate silver tattoo crept branch-like across one cheek and down her neck.
“Oh, Ira, look at her. She’s beautiful.”
“She’s strange-looking,” said Felise. “Why is her hair so short? It’s mannish. And the way she stands is mannish too.”
“Just because she’s not simpering and giving curtsies doesn’t make her mannish. You’re pathetic, Lise.”
“Hist!” Irena pressed her finger to Adelina’s lips. “You fools, you’re talking too loud—”
Father paused midconversation and looked up. “Girls!” The shout echoed against the lobby’s high walls. “Look at you up there, spying on us like children! Haven’t you been raised better?”
“But I am a child,” said Felise, her voice raised to an indignant shrill. “Everyone keeps saying so.”
“You may as well come down. Lothar, you’re dismissed.”
Lothar nodded, expressionless as ever, and disappeared into the bowels of the house. Father returned his attention to his daughters. “Descend in order of age, dear ones, so that I may introduce you properly.”
Irena flushed and fiddled with her broach. “Is my hair still—”
“Your hair is fine!” Adelina shoved Irena’s shoulder. “Get moving, you monkey.”
Her tightly-cinched cream dress rustling, Irena descended the staircase with affected grace. “This is Irena, my eldest,” said Father as Irena left the bottom step. “A maiden of twenty-five, a talented seamstress and a remarkable musician. She is especially exquisite on the harpsichord.”
“The harpsichord?” said the man. “Truly a beautiful instrument.”
Irena reddened to her roots and gave a stumbling curtsy. “I hope to play it for you some day, my lord. I also sing.”
Father cleared his throat. “Irena, your hand…”
“Oh! Of course!” Irena extended her thin hand, fingers drooping. The man took it and planted his broad lips on her knuckles.
“A pleasure to meet you,” he said.
Irena babbled something incoherent in return, and Adelina managed by force of will to hold down her laughter.
“Next,” said Father, “is my middle daughter Adelina. A maiden of twenty-three, she is fond of reading and poetry.”
Adelina trudged to the bottom step and crossed her arms. “Hello.”
Father frowned. “Ada, you should curtsy to our guest.”
“I’d rather die of the plague.” Adelina matched Father’s look with a scowl of her own. “Father, I don’t even know their names. Isn’t it proper for introductions to go both ways?”
Father’s cheeks became as purple as wine. “I must apologize,” he said, grasping the male guest’s shoulder. “Her decorum is sometimes lacking.”
The man laughed. He, too, wore a beautiful facial marking, though his was golden and spiraled. “That’s no problem. To be honest, the standards of decorum in your lands are far above what we’re accustomed to.” He smiled at Adelina, and his shaggy eyebrows lifted. “I’m pleased to meet you, Adelina. My name is Rafael.”
“Such modesty,” said Father. “He’s also a baron, a descendant of northern royal blood. Adelina, do give him your hand, that’s a good girl.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Rafael, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you drool on my hand.” Adelina glanced at the woman, who stood watching the farce with a slanted smile. “What’s your name, my lady?”
“Silvana.” The woman strode to stand beside Rafael, who proved perhaps a head taller than her. The resemblance between them was plain—the same light complexions tinted copper by the sun, the same expressive lips and the same dark eyes dancing with secret humor. “I’m this unfortunate man’s sister.” Her voice was low and rhythmic, and goosebumps gathered on Adelina’s arms.
Rafael chuckled. “I can hardly be unfortunate to stand in a household of such beauty.”
A bold impulse entered Adelina’s heart, and she acted before it could escape. “Silvana, I’m pleased to meet you.” She extended her arm. “You may kiss my hand.”
Mirth animated Rafael’s face. Silvana, clearly the more restrained, only smiled a touch more widely.
“Ada, please!” Father tugged his mustache at both ends. “Again, I apologize. She’s a troublesome spirit…”
“It’s quite all right.” Silvana lifted Adelina’s hand to her lips. As the tender warmth of her mouth pressed against Adelina’s knuckles, Adelina trembled, and a prickling heat spread across her face.
Silvana gazed for a moment into Adelina’s eyes before breaking the kiss. “A pleasure to meet you, Adelina.”
Grinning enormously, Rafael turned to Father, who watched with his whiskers trembling. “Take heart, Master Sebastian. In our society, it is quite common for women to greet each other this way.”
Suppressed amusement flickered on Silvana’s lips. Father cleared his throat. “Adelina, go stand by your older sister. Felise, don’t just stand there gawking like a newborn calf, get down these stairs.”
Felise trotted down the staircase and drew herself upright. “I am Felise!”
“Damn it, girl, I’m meant to introduce you!”
Adelina covered her mouth and held her breath. It was too funny not to laugh, but if she did, Father would be furious.
“I’m sorry.” Felise folded her hands over the front of her pale blue cotton dress. “I won’t do it again.”
Father closed his eyes, breathed, and opened them again. “This is Felise, my youngest. A maiden of thirteen. Her hobby is drawing, isn’t that right, darling?”
“I drew a horse once. Father put it on his wall.”
“Well, well,” said Rafael. “A horse! They’re complex creatures to draw, so you must be very talented.”
“I am.” Felise stuck out her tiny hand. “Kiss my hand.”
“I am your humble servant.” Rafael pecked Felise’s knuckles. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Felise. I look forward to seeing your drawings.”
“You should marry me instead of Irena. I’m prettier.”
Silvana snorted and turned away, her shoulders shaking. Father grabbed Felise by the wrist and dragged her to stand beside her sisters. Her lower lip wobbled, and tears gathered on her lashes.
“Don’t bawl, Lise, please,” said Father quietly. He turned his attention back to the visitors. “My dearest Lord Rafael.” An ingratiating note lifted his voice. “Would you like a tour of my estate? I can show you the vineyard.”
Rafael bowed. “That would be most appreciated, Master Sebastian.”
“And your sister, perhaps she would enjoy some refreshments in the drawing room? My daughters will be happy to keep her company with feminine discussion.”
Silvana grimaced. Rafael put his hand on her shoulder and whispered in her ear, and she muttered an inaudible reply. “She would enjoy that very much,” said Rafael.
“Excellent.” Father clasped his hands. “We can continue our earlier discussion, establish the essentials…I’ve seen the seal, of course, but it would nice to see more, perhaps documentation…”
“I’m sure I can satisfy your curiosity, Master Sebastian.”
“I never doubted it for a moment.” Father ran his finger along his mustache. “Come along, then, my dear baron. Girls, please see to entertaining our other guest.”
“Silvana.” Every trace of amusement had left Silvana’s expression, and her tone was cool. “My name is Silvana, Master Sebastian.”
“Of course. Silvana.” Father put his hand on Rafael’s back and guided him through the open front door. “Perhaps, after dinner, I can take you into the town and you can see the tavern for yourself…” Their voices faded but for a few stray words of Father’s groveling chatter. “…sumptuous…finest in the city…the vintage…”
Silvana puffed out her cheeks. “Well, there they go. Is your father always so hard on you?”
“He’s not hard on us.” Irena played with her lace collar as she spoke. “He just wants to see us grow up to be respectable women.”
“You poor girl.” Silvana swept several stray hairs from her forehead, and that prickling heat spread again across Adelina’s face and neck. “Though perhaps I should be more sorry for my brother.”
“I beg your pardon?” A slender wrinkle appeared between Irena’s eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“Never you mind.” Silvana crossed the lobby and stood before an ugly bronze statue of a spearman. “Where did you find these grotesque furnishings?”
“Father brings them back,” said Adelina. “A new horror every day. He considers himself an appreciator of fine art.”
“This little statuette…” Silvana ran her fingers along the arched wings of a jade bird. “It’s a cheap forgery. Aventurine instead of jade.”
“Really?” Adelina laughed. “He paid a fortune for it.”
“I don’t think Felise ought to listen to this,” said Irena. “Lise, why don’t you go to your room and do some drawings for our new guests?”
“Yes.” Felise nodded with as much enthusiasm as if the idea had been her own. “I’ll draw a horse for Rafael.” She traipsed up the staircase, her pale dress flapping at her ankles.
Silvana smiled as Felise’s rapid footsteps receded. “What an entertaining child.”
“She’s a nuisance,” said Irena, and for once, Adelina had no disagreement. “My dear Silvana, would you like to come through to our parlor? I can show you my needlework.”
“To borrow a phrase from your sister, I’d rather die of the plague.”
Irena’s jaw dropped. “Oh.”
“I’d prefer to see your garden. It looked quite beautiful from a distance.”
“We weren’t given permission to take you to the garden.” Irena gnawed on her lower lip. “I’m sorry, but when Father tells us to do something, we mustn’t—”
“Of course we can tour the gardens,” said Adelina. “I’ll show you the fountain.”
“Ada! We can’t!” Irena scurried toward Adelina and caught the sleeve of her dress. “Father told us to take her to the drawing room, remember?”
“To hell with Father. Are you coming or not?”
“Then go practice your harpsichord. I’m sure that Rafael will be back later, and he’ll probably pretend to want to hear you play it.”
“You’re so unkind.” Irena exhaled a gloomy breath and left with unhappy steps through one of the high corridor archways.
“You’re a blunt one, aren’t you?” Silvana put a hand on her hip and appraised Adelina, who blushed beneath the inspection. “Well, it seems to just be the two of us, Adelina. Shall we?”
A pleasant spasm leaped through Adelina’s body. Just the two of them! “Yes. This way, come.” Adelina considered, for one breathless moment, whether she ought to take Silvana’s arm. No—not yet. Better to savor that idea and act on it later.
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