The Lily and the Rose

“Cesca, darling! I have a present for you!”

Though her morning thus far had consisted of little more than the everyday tedium of her usual bout of lessons, the young girl did perk at the sound of her mother’s voice calling out from the other room, speaking of some sort of present. With haste did she abandon her current task – which consisted of little more than embroidering a little cushion for their informal family sitting room – to instead rush to her mother’s side.

But she paused in the doorway, haste turning to wariness as she tried to take the measure of this new “present.”

“Cesca, my love,” Vannossa dul Alberti greeted her youngest daughter with a most winsome smile. “I would like for you to meet Georgette dul Valnoci. Is she not simply charming?” She gestured toward the girl at her side then – a little slip of a thing with golden curls and big, blue eyes. She looked of a similar age to Francesca herself – perhaps 8 or 9 – and she was pretty.

Francesca disliked her at once.

“My present… is a girl, Maman?”

“Yes,” Vannossa purred, clearly quite pleased with herself. “She’s to be a little companion for you. A friend, to keep you entertained, and to help you with your lacings while dressing, to accompany you when riding–“

“I do not need a friend,” the young Francesca announced with a rather haughty air before then turning about upon a heel to retreat from the room. Amidst a rustling of silk did Vannossa follow.

Georgette quietly remained behind.

“What is the meaning of this rudeness, Francesca? Do you not like your dear Maman’s gift?”

“I already have a maid, Maman,” was Francesca’s only reply as she sank back into her seat by the window, her cushion unceremoniously plopped within her lap so that she could continue working upon it.

“But Georgette will be so much more than a maid, my pet. She is your social equal, after all. It will be good for you to have someone your own age to talk to. You are so alone here…”

With her chestnut head bent over her work, the girl posed with all the shrewd observation of a child, “If she is my social equal then why is she a maid?”

“Because Georgette’s father is not as wealthy as your own Papa,” Vannossa replied with equal frankness, a slender hand then reaching out to snatch at her daughter’s chin so that she might force the girl to look upon her. “And you would do well to remember who you are. You are a dul Alberti. We do not scoff at presents. We accept them with grace and dignity. Now tell me why you do not like your Maman’s gift.”

Staring up at her mother for several long moments, the girl finally confessed in a rather sheepish tone, “She is too pretty, Maman.”

The room was filled with the sound of Vannossa’s melodious laughter.

“Oh, my pet… no girl could ever outshine you. And such jealousy is beneath a woman of your station. Remember this: a lady envies no one. Now… come with me and let us begin again with little Georgette. You two shall be fast friends before too long, I am sure.”

Eight Years Later

The shriek of girlish laughter rang out across the rolling hills of the dul Alberti estate, accompanied by the thundering of hooves, the rustling of fine silk whipping within the wind. And then there was Francesca, bent low over the neck of Giovanni dul Alberti’s prized courser as she crested the hill, clearly in the lead with Georgette trailing behind by a good length. Trailing even further still were the two dul Alberti guardsmen assigned to watch over the young women.

They had had to stop to fetch the ladies’ hats which had been stolen by the wind mere moments into their impromptu race.

“You cheated, Franc!” Georgette cried out the very moment Francesca reached the edge of the treeline, thereby winning the race. But Francesca merely pulled her courser up short with a soft laugh, high color upon her cheeks and her chestnut hair streaming loose as she tossed the other woman a most winsome smile.

“I never cheat, George.”

“Miss dul Alberti. Miss dul Valnoci. Your hats…”

“Ah, yes,” Georgette noted, donning her own riding cap before trotting over closer to Francesca to hand her hers. “‘A lady must never allow for her complexion to be marred by the sun, for such is a sign of low birth,'” the golden-haired young woman quoted the dul Alberti matriach, doing an exceptional impression of Vannossa’s signature purr.

Francesca merely laughed once more, though she did don her own cap as well, without further ado.

Moments later, the girls were happily tucked beneath a tree, indulging in a little picnic while their horses grazed nearby. The guards remained mounted, idly conversing while watching over the two women.

“Are you attempting to flirt with the guards again?” Francesca quietly inquired of her companion while she lounged there against the tree trunk, watching Georgette flash the men in question a veritable number of small smiles and coquettish sidelong glances.

“Well, someone has to if you’re not,” Georgette replied, popping another strawberry into her mouth.

But Francesca merely shook her head. “They are freemen, Gigi,” the young woman noted in a faint whisper which managed to draw a look from the other girl.

“How utterly snobbish of you,” Georgette remarked with a playful smile before going on to sigh, “Freemen can be handsome, too, you know.”

“Oh, yes,” Francesca murmured beneath her breath, toying with a strawberry in between her own fingers before then popping it within her mouth. “I am sure your father would be quite happy to let you marry a freeman simply because he was handsome.”

“I would rather be married to a freeman than to be shipped off to Lithmore to be married off to… only the Lord knows who.”

Dryly did Francesca jest, “Probably an old, rotund Tubori sugarlord.”

The two young women dissolved into laughter at that, though such laughter quickly died in the face of the reality which was looming ever closer: they had only one week left together.

“I wish I could go with you,” Georgette whispered, reaching out across that space to take Francesca’s hand.

The chestnut-haired maiden gave her friend’s fingers a little squeeze in reply. “I know. I do not understand why…” She trailed off, then, tears beginning to sting at her eyes. Of course, her father had explained why Georgette wasn’t to go: she would be a burden on Uncle Cesare’s household, she would be out of place in Lithmore City, her uncle already had a maid waiting on her – a Lithmorran girl who would be able to help her find her way around the city.

But she didn’t care about any of that. She would have rather gotten lost with Georgette any day than consider a future without her in it.

“But I’m sure your husband will be most pleasant,” Georgette quietly offered, clearly trying to lighten the mood. “And you will be a lovely bride. I will come for the wedding, of course. Tell me,” she went on to prompt, finally releasing Francesca’s hand. “What color gown will you wear?”

“Surely I need a fiance before I can begin thinking about a wedding gown,” Francesca noted with a little laugh, though such merely earned another look from Georgette. “Ivory weighted with crystals and pearls so that I seem to glow like the heavens as I walk down the aisle,” the young woman finally confessed in the wake of that look, revealing that – of course – she had given the topic some thought.

“Beautiful,” Georgette expressed on a wistful sigh, then snatching for another piece of fruit. “But I hardly see the need to send you all the way to Lithmore to find you a husband.” Biting into her plum, the young woman then rudely asked around that mouthful, “Why doesn’t your father just do as your mother’s father did? Have your portrait painted and then just…” She waved her free hand vaguely.

Francesca could only shrug. “I do not know… I would prefer that, really. I do not want to leave…”

Of course, the manner in which Vannossa dul Cosinni had managed to attract a husband in her youth was a most well-known and beloved story within their social circle. Vannossa’s father had had three portraits painted of his stunningly beautiful daughter, clothed in nothing but Vavardi housesilks. Those three portraits had then been delivered, without explanation, to the three most powerful gentry families within Capua who had unwed firstborn sons.

Which had begun the great bidding war of 339 SC.

When the dust settled, Giovanni dul Alberti stood the victor. And nine months later, Vannossa presented him with the first of their five children.

A prosperous match.

“I do not see why father does not simply have my portrait painted and sent off,” Francesca went on to glumly remark. “He is going to simply… inform me who I am to marry either way. I do not see the point in my having met the gentleman in person before we are to be wed or after as I will have no say in the matter either way.”

“And if he merely sent off your portrait,” Georgette suggested with a naughty smile, “then he could just have you sent off directly to your betrothed when you had made a match. In a box. Perhaps with a little bow tied about you.”

Francesca reached across that space to idly swat at her friend. It was halfhearted at best.

But Georgette caught the other girl’s hand and gave it a little squeeze, holding on for a few moments more before releasing it. “It won’t be all bad,” she whispered, as though trying to reassure herself of this fact as well. “And I shall write you every week.”

Francesca made a brave attempt at a smile, but she could feel how false it felt upon her lips. “Yes, it will not all be dreadful,” she agreed in her soft way, looking out across the rolling hills of her childhood home, drinking in the sight of it shining there beneath the temperate Vavard sun. For a small eternity did she thus linger, trying to soak up every detail.

But eventually, it was time to return to the manor. She mounted her father’s courser in silence and set off at a swift gallop back toward home. Georgette called out about her cheating again by getting a head start.

But Francesca merely didn’t want her friend to see the tears which she could no longer hold at bay. They blinded her, rendering her helpless in steering the powerful beast surging beneath her. But she trusted in the courser to be able to find his own way home.

The Trellis and the Vine

“The Vandagan Waltz is a dance of utmost trust, Miss dul Alberti. Which is why I need you to trust that I’m not going to let you fall. Now. Again.

Francesca obeyed, moving back into position – her left hand barely resting upon her dancing tutor’s upper arm, her right hand delicately clasped within his. And then there was his left hand, hovering a mere inch from her lower back. He waited. She stalled.

“Do lean back into my hand, Miss dul Alberti,” the tutor sighed, clearly running out of patience. “I promise I’m not going to drop you.”

“But I–“

“Miss dul Alberti. Your Father has demanded that you be tutored in the dances of the Vandagan Court. Chief among these dances is the Vandagan Waltz. Shall I inform him that you are refusing to learn these dances?”

“No, of course–“

“Then please, please for the love of the Lord. Do lean back into my hand.”

Finally did Francesca obey, though her discomfort was apparent as she leaned back on her heels, placing herself off-balance and at the complete mercy of her tutor. He could simply remove his hand at any moment and she would be upon the floor.

Surely the waltz had been designed as a way of torturing young women.

“Thank you, Miss dul Alberti. Though I fear very few men would be taken by their dance partner indulging in such a grimace. Might I suggest a smile instead?”

Francesca merely flicked the man a quick glance from beneath the sweep of her dark eyelashes. He would be getting none of her smiles this day.

“Very well. Chin up then at the very least. Back straight. Weight upon my hand. And now…”

The tutor took a step toward her and the security of his hand at her back disappeared, forcing her to take a step backward so that she might fall into his hold once again. It was a terrifying sensation. She couldn’t help it; a sound of distress escaped from her.

Madame dul Alberti!” the tutor roared, drawing a bubbling laugh from Vannossa dul Alberti who had been watching the debacle from her perch against the nearby wall. The man released the young woman with a ‘tsk’ of disapproval, his hands on his hips as he began to stalk along the floor, pacing. “You must talk some sense into her,” he declared to the dul Alberti matriarch in the midst of such pacing. “Lest she embarrass us all! Just think. Everyone knows I am dancing master to your family. They will see her dance and I will never have another patron!” His words tumbled out in an agitated Vavardian cascade, each syllable blending into the next.

But Vannossa merely laughed, shaking her head as she glided toward the man. “Shhh,” she soothed him. “Come, come. Let us try again.” And thus did she move to stand behind her youngest daughter, a mere breath from Francesca’s back. “You will not fall with me behind you, Cesca. You are safe,” she reassured the girl even as she rested her left hand atop her daughter’s where it perched on the dancing tutor’s arm. Her right hand was light upon the clasp of theirs.

“The Vandagan Waltz teaches us much about life, my pet,” Vannossa whispered in her daughter’s ear as the trio began to move through the steps – slowly, but without any further interruptions on Francesca’s part. “There are many types of women in the world. With the Decree of Sodality, there are heiresses who will inherit in their own right. There are warmaidens who will lead men into battle. And then there are women like you and I, my darling – beautiful yet delicate, like a rose vine. But a rose vine cannot flourish on its own. It must have a trellis to cling to – a trellis to offer it the support it needs to grow to its full potential, to put it on proper display for all to admire.”

Vannossa continued as the lesson continued, explaining to her daughter, “In this dance, your partner is your trellis. You must trust that he will support you. Look to his strength to hold you up, to guide you. And in turn, you will beautify his world.” She smiled then as she felt Francesca relax a little as she began to fall into the rhythm of the steps. “Without you, he is nothing more than a mere trellis, unadorned and without color. But with you, he is something much more. Together, you create something of true beauty… and so it will be with your future husband.”

“My husband, Maman?”

“Yes, my pet. Your husband shall be your trellis and you shall be his vine,” Vannossa confirmed as she finally pulled away from the pair of girl and dancing tutor so that they could continue drilling the steps without her offering further security for her young daughter. But still she lingered, circling about the pair as she continued her lesson. “Some women would balk at such an arrangement. But the heiress? She will always have to fight to keep her position safe from scheming relatives. The warmaiden? She will always have to fight for respect for a man will not follow one he does not respect. But the rose vine? Her trellis will protect her, support her, lend her strength, allow her to bloom to her full potential. Truly, there is much power in being such a woman.”

“Power, Maman?” the girl questioned, though her attention remained upon the dancing tutor. She was not yet comfortable enough with the steps to allow her mind to wander overly much.

“The power of pure femininity,” Vannossa confirmed with a little smile. “For within your delicate grasp, you will hold the power to inspire, to awaken within a man a true desire to protect – to protect you and the children you give to him. You will awaken within him a desire to achieve – to be the best version of himself so that he can be a trellis truly worthy of such a beautiful vine. You will awaken his own masculinity, my darling.” Indulging in a little sigh, the woman went on to confess, “There are some who do not see the power within such a position. There are some – other women – who see such a creature as being weak. But I tell you now, my pet, you will hold more power than the heiress or the warmaiden ever could. But only if you submit to your trellis. Only if you trust in him to embolden you even as you enrich him and his life. That is enough drilling for now, I think.”

“Yes, Madame,” the tutor declared, releasing young Francesca from his grasp. He bowed, then, excusing himself from the presence of the two gentlewomen. The pair of mother and daughter were left quite alone.

“And there is great power in submission, my darling,” Vannossa confided to her daughter in a little whisper, her hand cupping at her cheek to turn her gaze upward so that their eyes might meet – azure against sapphire blue. “For no man can force you to submit to him. That is something you give freely – a gift from a beautiful vine to her one and only trellis.”

Francesca frowned then, her pale brow furrowing. “But, Maman… if he is so much stronger than I… how could I refuse him if he demanded my submission?”

Vannossa smiled – a little smile, a dark smile, a smile which managed to leave her brilliant eyes quite cool. “If a man ever tries to force you, my pet, then you are to use the dagger I gave you for your tenth birthday upon him. Aim for his thigh, if you can, so that you might both distract and slow him if he tried to pursue you. And then you are to seek sanctuary within the Cathedral…” She trailed off then, love within her eyes as she caressed her youngest daughter’s cheek. “But your husband will protect you from such dangers. It is one of the benefits of being such a woman. Look to your trellis, my darling, and all will be well.”

“Yes, Maman.”

A Blessed Childhood

“Do not slouch, Francesca.”

“Do not lean forward when you curtsey, Cesca.”

“Lithmorran, Francesca. Speak in Lithmorran.”

“Do not frown so much, Cesca. You will line your face.”

“You wanted to see me, Papa?” She had been standing there for some time within her father’s study while he poured over his many papers. He always had so many papers. She was starting to think he had forgotten she was there.

“Patience, Francesca,” came Giovanni dul Alberti’s brusque reply. Still he would not look at her. And so there she stood, waiting with all the patience a 12-year-old girl could possibly muster while her father finished up his paperwork, the scratching of quill on parchment the only sound in the room.

Finally did he finish. Finally did he look at her. Finally did he speak.

“Your mother tells me you bled today.”

Fear filled the girl, then. The same fear she had felt that morning when she had awoken to find her sheets covered in blood. Mother had told her to not be worried, that it was simply a trial all women had to face. But how could she not worry over such a thing? “Yes, Papa… am I sick? Is something wrong with me?”

The man laughed, then. A sharp, “ha,” like the crack of a whip. “No, child. You are not sick. You are simply becoming a woman.” He looked at her, then. Truly looked at her, the way a man might look at a horse he wished to sell. And then he glanced away, his attention back on his papers once more. “You will no longer bathe at the bathhouse with the other children. You will use our private bath. Here.” Such a declaration was made without feeling and without room for argue.

But still the girl had to question it. “But why Papa? Detta… is older than me and still goes to the bathhouse. Why must I–?”

“Because your sister Bernadette is to marry a man from Vavard,” the dul Alberti patriarch stated blandly, the shush of paper on paper sounding as he sifted through his pile. “And you are to marry a man from Lithmore.” A pause, then. “Or Vandago, I suppose. Perhaps.” Silence, then. Perhaps he expected her to merely leave of her own accord, to realize she had been dismissed and that their talk had ended.

But still the girl lingered. “But Papa, I don’t understand–“

“Don’t make me be crass, Francesca,” Giovanni snapped, looking to the girl then. He was a sharp man with sharp angles and sharp glances. And his tone was most sharp, then – a dagger draped in the velveteen airiness of the Vavardi tongue. “But you will make me be crass,” he then noted, coolly, seeing the girl’s confusion. He spoke to her then like one might speak to a simpleton – slowly and with a goodly amount of enunciation. “Because in Lithmore, our ways are considered lewd and maidens are expected to possess a certain amount of modesty. And you are a terrible actress, Francesca.” That last statement was delivered in a flat tone. An observation. A statement of fact. Rising from his chair with a creak of leather, Giovanni finished brusquely with, “I want you to be able to blush like a Lithmorran lady when you see your husband on your wedding night. Now go. I will hear no more of this nonsense.”

He dismissed her with a wave of his hand, like how one might brush away a fly buzzing about their person. And finally, the girl left.

“Speak softly, Cesca. It is not proper for a lady to raise her voice.”

“Step more lightly, Cesca. A lady should not stomp about when she walks.”

“Take your parasol when you go outside, Cesca! You will give yourself freckles!”

Demure, Cesca, demure. A lady should not stare at a man for too long. You must avert your eyes.”

“Maman,” the 14-year-old gasped from behind the changing screen as the maid pulled the laces on her corset even tighter. “Surely… surely the ladies of Lithmore do not wear such things.”

“I fear they do, my darling,” came Vannossa dul Alberti’s purring reply from the other side of the screen. “They are so queer in Lithmore, you know. I hear they cover themselves from head to toe even in the summer. But do not worry, my pet. I will send you Vavardi silk when you are there so you are not smothered with their heavy wool… Georgette, are you finished dressing her yet? I want to see my daughter.”

“Just a few moments longer, Madame,” the maid reassured the lady of the house before giving another yank on the corset lacings, drawing another sharp gasp from the poor girl.

“Maman, I cannot breathe–“

“Oh, Cesca, do not be dramatic. If you can speak, you can breathe perfectly fine.”

A few moments later, the girl finally emerged, fully dressed in a gown that was positively Lithmorran – with a little hint of a Vavardi flair, of course. But the sight of her merely drew a frown from Vannossa.

“Non, non, non, this cut is all wrong for her. Look what your corset has done, Georgette.” Jumping up from her chaise lounge, the woman stalked over toward her daughter like an angry cat to then poke at her compressed chest with the edge of the fan she held, closed within her hand. “It has… smooshed her bosom. Non. You must find another one. What man will want to marry her if she looks like a boy? Do you want her to look like a boy?”

“No… no, Madame dul Alberti…”

“Then get another corset at once. And stop frowning, Cesca. You will ruin your face with lines. What man will want a girl who looks like my grandmother?”

“I am sorry, Maman, but… I simply cannot breathe…”

“You must learn to not complain so much, Cesca. A woman should be like a pristine fountain. What man would want to quench his thirst at a fountain filled with nettles? Now, get her out of that outfit, Georgette. She looks ridiculous.”

“Speak in Lithmorran, Francesca. You must practice your enunciation.”

“Do not walk so quickly, Cesca. A lady should always move with grace and poise.”

“Do not drink so much wine, Francesca. You are looking as flushed as a whore at confession.”

“Remember to always accept compliments with humility, Cesca. It is unseemly for a lady to boast about her accomplishments.”

The hall was alive with sound, with music and laughter, with the clink of glasses, with the rustling of fine silks. And it was all for her. But still, she felt alone.

“Sixteen already… my beautiful girl,” Vannossa purred in her youngest daughter’s ear before giving her a kiss on both of her cheeks in turn. “A woman at last.”

“Yes, Maman,” came the young woman’s murmured reply, her azure gaze averting to observe the dancers gliding about the floor – like so many beautiful flowers upon the wind. “Might I dance, Maman?”

Vannossa tutted then, instructing her daughter, “A lady must never beg for dance partners, Cesca. If a gentleman asks you to dance, you may accept. But it is unseemly for you to ask him. You know this.” Taking a sip of her wine, the woman then chuckled at a sudden thought. “Do you want to seem desperate? Non. You must wait and be patient. Give the men your smiles and they will come to you.”

Dutifully did the young woman linger there at her mother’s side, attempting to catch the eye of a gentleman. But there were so few familiar faces there amongst the throng. Friends of the family. Friends of the friends. Their many relatives. She knew the names. She recognized the insignias. But the faces? She knew no one. Her father had made sure she would be kept out of society, so there was no threat of an infatuation. No threat of a scandal.

Outside of her immediate family, she was quite friendless.

And so it was that she spent most of her En Passant in the company of her mother. But Vannossa was only too happy to continue in her education of her daughter, in what little time they had left together. “And you must never dance too often with the same partner at such functions, Cesca, especially when you are the hostess. It would not do to favor one guest over the others.”

“Yes, Maman.”

Alone did Francesca perch within the carriage, her hands folded within her lap, her eyes starring blankly ahead. She sighed. It was going to be a long journey to Lithmore, especially since her mother had refused her the company of her maids. “Your aunt will have a new handmaid for you, in Lithmore City,” Vannossa had announced the week before. “She can help you if you stumble over any of your words… or if you become lost. One of your Capuan girls would be just as lost as you.”

And so it was that the young woman made ready to depart, only a company of dul Alberti guards with her.

Her father had not even bothered seeing her off.

“Cesca,” her mother whispered to her as she stood there at the carriage door, tears welling up in her eyes. “You must… write to me often, yes? And tell me everything.”

“Yes, Maman.”

“And try not to be a burden on your uncle. He is a busy man.”

“Yes, Maman.”

“And remember all that we have taught you. Remember your lessons… and keep up with your dancing and your painting. Do not become dull. A man does not like a dull woman.”

“Yes, Maman.”

“Now, give me a kiss, my pet… I shall miss you like the flowers miss the sun.”

Only then did the young woman offer up a smile, a proper smile – one filled with sadness and the beginnings of homesickness though she had not even quite left yet. “I shall miss you like the ships miss the sea,” she whispered in reply, then giving her mother one last kiss on the cheek, lingering in that moment for as long as she could.

But such moments cannot last forever. And all chapters must, eventually, come to a close.

So it was that the chapter on Francesca dul Alberti’s childhood was finally finished amidst a lackluster send-off from her family home and a long carriage ride spent alone, in utter silence.