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