Cyrène bounced her foot impatiently. The motion sent ripples across the hem of her dress. Cyrène felt a distinct hatred for the garment and its enforced, blatant femininity. She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest in direct defiance of the way a proper lady would be expected to sit in her situation. She wished she could be out in the courtyard in her trousers, sparring with Lathian with a sword. Instead she was stuck here, in her mother’s office, sparring verbally instead.
“Cyrène,” Corianne said sharply. Behind her desk, Corianne sat rigid and straight-backed. The tone brought a faint smile to Cyrène’s lips. She considered herself a success if she could break her mother’s smooth facade even for a moment.
“Yes, mother,” Cyrène said. Her eyes sparkled. In answer to her mother’s unspoken command, she put both feet on the floor and straightened her back, hands folded delicately in her lap. From a distance, they appeared smooth and ladylike; it was only upon touch that the rough calluses gained from wielding a sword became visible.
“I don’t know why you insist on treating me like this,” Corianne said. “Your father and I have done nothing but what is best for you your entire life. You should learn to treat us with respect.”
Cyrène forced a brittle smile in order to prevent herself from issuing a barking laugh. She suspected that Corianne believed the truth of her words. Nonetheless, what Cyrène’s parents thought were best for her differed from what she wanted from her own life. “You’re right, mother. I still have much to learn.”
Corianne’s expression returned to the blank mask that she had been practicing for years in the elvish courts. Her lineless face, smoothed further by the artful application of makeup by her servants, verged on frightening when she adopted that cold, intentional facade. “You do. Your teachers tell me that you could and should be an excellent student, Cyrène, if only you would apply yourself.”
Cyrène bit back the responses she desired to give. Cyrène was an excellent student, by many metrics. She learned quickly and easily. If only Corianne would allow her to choose her own areas of study, she would be far more interested in learning. “I do well enough, mother.”
“You do not,” Corianne said. “You give so little effort to your embroidery that your teacher expressed to me a desire to give up. You may actually win that battle, Cyrène, for I have no desire to continue to waste money on a service that provides me with nothing.”
That’s a first, Cyrène thought. It’s not like your earned the money you’re wasting. “I apologize, mother,” Cyrène said without a trace of sincerity. Her mother had taught her, unintentionally, that “apologize” was a wonderful substitute for “sorry” when you wanted to make it obvious that you felt no regret.
“I appreciate that, Cyrène,” Corianne replied. It was clear she detected Cyrène’s intention. “Your teacher from the Arcanium has informed me that you have the potential to be at least of a middling skill with the First Tongue, should you put yourself further into your studies. He said you might even be accepted to study there, should you work hard enough.”
“With all respect, mother, I believe he has overestimated my abilities,” Cyrène said. The words of the First Tongue did not challenge Cyrène. After all, like most elves, she had grown up speaking elvish, which had been derived from the First Tongue long ago. However, she believed she would never be a great spellcaster, for she struggled with the complex syntax required when formulating spells, and, if she was quite frank, the First Tongue bored her.
Cyrène should have been glad for the opportunity to learn the First Tongue. It was generally a study reserved, past a certain age, for elvish men. Cyrène, like most girls, had received basic instruction in the language of spellcasting when she was young.It was only in the last year that her mother had hired a tutor specifically to train Cyrène in the deeper art of the First Tongue, a move which had surprised her, given Corianne’s otherwise strict conformity to gender norms.
“Fine. Perhaps that is true.” Corianne fixed her with a cold stare. Her vivid green eyes were a reflection of Cyrène’s own. “I doubt that it is. You are my daughter. I know exactly how intelligent your are. You do yourself no favors in selling yourself short and denying yourself knowledge.”
Cyrène looked away. She did not answer.
“On that point, Cyrène, we must discuss your arcane music,” Corianne said. “Of all your teachers, your music teacher speaks most highly of your skills. She said you are naturally gifted, with a keener ear than she has seen in years. Why do you insist on refusing to practice, Cyrène?”
Cyrène shifted in her seat. She did not wish to give her mother the true answer. Cyrène pushed arcane music away for the same reasons she hated embroidery and calligraphy: her mother forced her to study all of them because she was a woman. It disgusted Cyrène that she was forced into this one small corner of education because of the way she had been born. Her mother wanted her to be a certain way just because of her gender, and Cyrène found that deeply frustrating.
Corianne knew this. Cyrène had said some things outright that had caused her mother to purse her lips and leave the room, punishing Cyrène with her absence as surely as she punished with her presence. What Corianne didn’t know, and what Cyrène didn’t like to admit even to herself, was that she quite liked the practice of arcane music. She enjoyed singing. The flute her father had bought her, with its rich, dark wood and silver inlays, was lovely. It felt right and good in her hands.
She could never admit that, because she felt like it tore up the ground on which she tried to make a stand.
“For all your wit, you never have any good answers, Cyrène.” Corianne grabbed a letter from the basket the side of her desk. She ran her fingers along the edges.
“If you let me study the things that interest me, I would be more apt to apply myself, mother,” Cyrène said. “Then you would have no need to feel such disappointment.”
“You’re wrong,” Corianne said. “I’m disappointed already by virtue of that which you desire to study.”
“Law and politics are both important spheres of knowledge for all citizens,” Cyrène said.
“You are right,” Corianne said. “Which is why I’ve given you tutors on those subjects, as you requested. Even though I know you only wish to study them because they are generally reserved for men.”
“Don’t interrupt me, Cyrène. I see through every one of your attempted deflections and deceptions. You’re let on well enough that I know the reason you don’t wish to study what I ask is because, somewhere, you’ve gotten this stupid idea in your head that the way our culture has worked for ages shouldn’t apply to you. I’ve allowed you to study law and politics because, on some level, I agreed with your argument. Everyone should know what the laws are and how they work. I was forced to study them on my own. You should be grateful that I provided you with tutors.”
“I am, mother,” Cyrène said. Disappointment yawned with in her. Getting Corianne to allow her to study men’s disciplines, like law and politics, had felt like a personal victory. Apparently, that had been her mother’s desire all along.
“However,” Corianne continued. “The sparring yard is not a place for a lady. It is certainly no place for a daughter of mine.”
“Human women learn to fight all the time,” Cyrène said, unable to hold in her frustration. “There are human women in the guard and among the police force, even.”
“Be that as it may,” Corianne said, “humans are not elves. They are not and never will be a part of the nobility. Those of the lower classes are not and cannot be held to the same standards of propriety and education as us, Cyrène. We do not base our actions on theirs. If anything, they should look to us for influence.”
They did, of course. The richer humans in the city tried to imitate the lifestyle of the elvish nobility as well as they could, with varying degrees of success. They came the closest, out of all the races in Vanadram, to truly mingling with elvish society. Orcs were stuck in the slums or in the guard. Halflings were resigned to working as servants for the nobility. Those centaurs that came into the city proper usually wound up working for the police. Only the humans had the freedom to wind up almost anywhere.
In many ways, Cyrène thought, they had more freedom than the elves.
“Why does it matter if I wish to learn to use a sword?” Cyrène asked. “I’m quite good at it.”
“No elvish man wants a woman who can best him in a duel,” Corianne said. “Your future husband does not want a wife with rough hands and a hard body scarred by fighting.”
“My future husband?” Cyrène said. Her mother had spoken those words before, of course, and many times. Corianne and Cyrène’s father both intended for Cyrène to marry as soon as she reached the proper age. As their only child, Cyrène’s marriage held great import to them. Something about her mother’s tone when she spoke the words this time sent a faint sense of unease down Cyrène’s spine.
“Yes,” Corianne said. She held up the letter in her hands. “That’s why I brought you here to speak to me today. Did you think I intended only to reprimand you regarding your education?”
“I did,” Cyrène said, just to see her mother frown. Cyrène knew Corianne hadn’t intended the question to be answered.
“We have been in talks with House Agacent,” Corianne said. She opened the letter. “Our negotiations have finally been successful. We have arranged your marriage.”
“You… have?” A chill descended upon Cyrène. She had always known this was a possibility, and in fact, a likelihood, should she not stumble across a mate early enough in her life whom her parents deemed worthwhile.
“Yes, Cyrène. We have,” Corianne said. “We have been speaking with various houses for several years now regarding your marriage. You’ve shown no interest, or at least, no success, in finding a suitable, well-placed companion.” Corianne sighed. “We thought we were going to have to start searching abroad. Your reputation for being difficult and defiant has found its way among the parents of your would-be spouses here in Vanadram, so despite our House’s good position, our negotiations had not yet been fruitful.” She waved the letter in Cyrène’s direction. “Until recently.”
“I see,” Cyrène said quietly. She felt as though her parents had sculpted her whole life around her, a complex cage of marble in which they intended to keep her bound. The stone chafed her flesh and soul until it bled. Now she had lost one more freedom. The only thing she had left was her secret training at night under Lathian.
“Who is he?” Cyrène asked.
“His name is Enorien Agacent,” Corianne said. “He’s a handsome, intelligent young man. His mother tells me he was just accepted to study at the Arcanium. You will be meeting within the next month or so to begin your courtship.”
“Is that why you hired me a First Tongue tutor?” Cyrène asked. “So that I could, what, talk to him about it?”
“Yes, I thought it would make a more appropriate common ground for the two of you than some of your other areas of education,” Corianne said. “Men don’t like it when women understand topics about which men are supposed to have the upper hand.”
“Like politics,” Cyrène said. She actually knew who Enorien was, from social events. He was, as his mother said, handsome; although perhaps he drifted more toward beautiful than that more manly descriptor. He had flowing blond hair and bright, violet eyes. In a way, Cyrène thought, he was more feminine than she was.
“Like politics,” Corianne agreed. “I would avoid speaking about them with Enorien.” Corianne pointed at Cyrène, her long, lacquered fingernail gleaming in the sunlight streaming from the broad window behind her. “I would also avoid telling him about your martial persuasions. Don’t even mention it.”
“You disallowed me from continuing my training, mother,” Cyrène said. A lump formed in her throat. “I have nothing to speak about on the topic anymore.”
“That is a lie,” Corianne said. “You have plenty to say about it. You just know better than to say it out loud to me.” Corianne shook her head. The artfully placed curls of her hair drifted back and forth even after her head had stopped. She smiled. “And let’s not pretend otherwise, Cyrène. You’re my daughter. I am your mother. I know everything that goes on in this house. I know about Lathian.”
Cyrène blinked. Who had told her? Did it matter? She knew. Cyrène decided instantly that Corianne’s knowledge changed nothing. She would continue to learn swordplay. She needed some way to stretch within, and hopefully out of, her marble cage.
Cyrène stood without her mother’s dismissal. She felt a strong inclination to hit the woman, though that would accomplish nothing. “Have a good day, mother.”
Corianne remained in her seat, unruffled. “Attend to your studies, daughter. And ask your handmaid to find a better cream for your hands. We don’t want Enorien to feel how rough they are.”