“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.