Lady Corvina was the picture of grace and serenity as a footman helped her out of the carriage in front of the Wyernmal estate. It had been a long evening, but a highly productive one. She had encouraged two strategic engagements and destroyed an inconvenient one. And she had prevented her foolish half-brother, Crown Prince Sebastian, from making too big of a spectacle of himself when two of his girlfriends turned up to the ball.
Corvina maintained a pleasant smile on her face as she walked up the steps and through the door. As soon as the door had shut behind her, she let the smile drop. A servant ran up to her and presented her with a cigarette on a small velvet pillow.
"Thank the goddess," she said, taking the cigarette. A second servant approached with a match to light it for her, while a third servant helped her tie back her hair so it was out of the way, and a fourth servant took her shawl from her.
"Tell Helen to bring tea up to the balcony," said Corvina, striding up the main stairs while the servants fussed around her.
By the time Helen brought the tea, Corvina had settled into the comfortable chair she kept on her balcony, her feet tucked up underneath her. She had exchanged her ballgown for a simple nightgown, had donned a pair of round, gold-colored glasses, and was reading from a book.
Helen set the tea things down on a small table and began to pour a cup for Corvina. Helen was Corvina's personal maid. She was a young woman with platinum blonde hair tied up in a bun. Warm brown eyes and a smattering of freckles across her nose added to her friendly, down-to-earth image.
Helen sighed as she finished pouring the tea. "You always look so exhausted when you return from these things," she said. "Couldn't you take a break, my lady? It seems like you have one social engagement or another every night! You barely have time for your books."
Lady Corvina only briefly glanced up from her book. "Lady Corvina Wyernmal, miss a social engagement?" She said, turning a page. "Impossible,"
"Then maybe you should give up the books," said Helen. "And get some more sleep. I'm worried about your health."
"Equally impossible," said Lady Corvina. "Without my books to look forward to, I'd never be able to survive the drudgery of all the social events."
"If you say so, my lady..." said Helen. Helen was around the same age as Lady Corvina, and had entered domestic service when she was very young, so in many ways she was the closest thing Lady Corvina had to a childhood friend or a sister. That's why Lady Corvina let her guard down more with Helen than she did even with the other servants, and that's why Helen knew Lady Corvina well enough to recognize how exhausted and miserable she was.
"I just wonder..." said Helen.
"What is it, Helen?" said Corvina, finally putting down her book and granting Helen a slight smile. "You know you can speak freely around me."
"I just wonder why, with all this wealth and influence, you can't just live the kind of life you want to live."
Lady Corvina looked out at the gardens for a moment before answering. "All of my wealth and influence is an illusion. Like the reflection of the moon on the pond in the garden. The reflection only exists because the moon is in the sky, and because the water of the pond is still. I only have power because my father is the emperor and because I do what he expects of me. If I was a legitimate son, perhaps I could become the moon myself. But I am an illegitimate daughter. So I must play my roles, and keep my waters still, and do my best to keep the moon in the sky. If I allow a single ripple, or if, goddess forbid, too many clouds fill the sky and cover the moon... the illusion will be broken. And who knows what will become of me then?"
"I understand, my lady," said Helen, her expression solemn. "But couldn't you at least wear your glasses to your social engagements? I worry you're making your eyes even worse by straining them all the time."
"I can't show any weakness in front of society. Not even weak eyes," said Lady Corvina. "They might start to think I'm human."
Helen gave a dissatisfied huff at that. "Well I think you look rather cute in your glasses. I guess your beautiful face framed by glasses is just another wonderful sight only I'll get to enjoy."
Corvina scoffed, but she was blushing when she did. "Just go fetch me more cigarettes."
Helen giggled. "As you wish, my lady."
Corvina sighed as Helen left, and continued to watch the pond for a moment. Her eyesight really was quite poor, and she rarely wore her glasses, so when she did she was continuously struck by the beauty of the world around her seen with such clarity.
Lady Corvina read all kinds of books in her free time. Many of them historical, scientific, or otherwise informative. It was wise in her situation to try to know as much as possible. You never knew when an obscure piece of knowledge would be the difference between a successful scheme and an assassin on your doorstep.
But, to her own embarrassment, she also read a number of novels, including romance novels. These novels often starred young women in difficult situations due to circumstances beyond their control. In many of these novels, someone would come along who truly saw and understood the heroine, and grew to love her. The heroine, being truly understood for the first time, would then find the strength within herself to rescue herself from the bad situation she was in.
Her fiance, Grand Duke Marshal certainly never saw or understood Lady Corvina. He rarely even looked at her. That was fine. Lady Corvina went out of her way to obscure her true self. If anyone truly saw her, it would be a disaster.
Still, there was some part of Corvina, the part behind all the titles and the carefully crafted persona, who wondered if, just maybe, there was someone out there who could see the truth behind it all, truly understand her, and still accept her... maybe even love her. She wondered what that would be like. To be loved.
Across the kingdom, in the small city of Longren, which bordered the Sacred Forest, in the Monastery of the Blessed Lady, Anne was lying awake staring at the stone ceiling, thinking:
So is insomnia not a body thing, but like, deeply ingrained in your soul or something? Fuck. If only I had a book to read. Hell, I'd read all those thick holy books if I had a damn candle. Do you think someone would give me a candle if I asked? Or would that seem too wasteful and self-indulgent for a saintess? Damn, I miss electric lights. I wish I had any idea how electricity worked so I could invent it. I really should've paid more attention in high school science.