Thursday, 25 September 1902
Lady Isabel Amaral plucked another pair of drawers from the chiffonier and tossed them in her companion’s direction. Oriana caught the silk garment and folded it neatly while her mistress disappeared into the dressing room.
Oriana laid the drawers in a pile with the others, surveyed the collection spread across the bed, and shook her head. Even after two years living among humans she was still bemused by the number of layers a proper Portuguese lady must wear. Chemises and underskirts, drawers and stockings and corsets: they all lay neatly prepared to pack away, none of them meant to be seen. It was a far cry from the comfortable—and less voluminous—garb Oriana had grown up wearing out on the islands that belonged to her people. She rarely noticed her heavy clothes any longer, but seeing all the lace-bedecked items displayed on the bed before her, Oriana was found the quantity of fabric in which Isabel swathed herself daily rather daunting.
What was missing? Even with all that lay in front of her, Oriana was sure Isabel had left something out. She puffed out her cheeks, mentally cataloging the garments on the bed.
She wished Isabel hadn’t waited so late to inform her of the plan to elope. If she’d known in advance, she would have packed Isabel’s best clothes neatly. She could even have sent a couple of trunks ahead via train to the hotel in Paris. Being rushed at the last moment was her own fault, though. She’d made her disapproval of the match known early on, and Isabel probably wanted to avoid an argument. But it was also Isabel’s style to wait until the last moment. That made everything more of an adventure.
Unfortunately, adventures didn’t always turn out well . . . particularly if one didn’t have the proper undergarments.
Aha! Oriana suddenly placed the oversight. “You haven’t any corset covers.”
Isabel peered around the edge of the dressing room door and waved one hand vaguely. “Pick some for me. I need only a couple. Marianus will buy me new ones after we’re married.”
Isabel disappeared back into her dressing room, leaving Oriana shaking her head. She had to wonder if Marianus Efisio knew he would be spending the next few weeks shopping. While Isabel’s family possessed aristocratic bloodlines tracing all the way back to the Battle of Aljubarrota, they had very little money. Everything supplied by the various milliners and dressmakers who’d rigged Isabel out in style had been bought on credit. Isabel’s mother was counting on her beauteous daughter’s marriage to a wealthy husband. Luckily, Mr. Efisio did meet that requirement.
Unluckily, he was already promised to another woman: Isabel’s cousin Pia.
It was an arrangement made when he was just a boy and Pia an infant. Even so, it wasn’t fair to simply ignore the arrangement. At any rate, Oriana didn’t think so.
Isabel had waved away Oriana’s concerns, claiming that Mr. Efisio wasn’t suited to Pia’s placid disposition. The elopement would cause a scandal, and Isabel’s rarely present father would be livid. Nevertheless, Isabel’s popularity in polite society would help her survive the disgrace. In time, Mr. Efisio would be forgiven for breaking his betrothal, particularly if Pia were to marry well. He had money, which always seemed to temper society’s disapproval.
Isabel was like a tidal wave, though. She always did as she wished, and the gods would merely laugh at anyone who stood in her way.
Clucking her tongue, Oriana sorted through the contents of the rickety chiffonier’s top drawer and selected the two best corset covers. She’d just laid them neatly on the bed when Isabel emerged from the dressing room, her arms overflowing with skirts and shirtwaists. She dropped them atop the garments Oriana had already folded, and a narrow line appeared between her perfectly arched black brows. “Am I missing anything else?”
“A nightdress,” Oriana answered. She eyed the wreckage of her neatly folded stacks. Isabel probably hadn’t even looked before dumping the clothes she’d carried. Oh, well. There was nothing to do but start over. Oriana nodded briskly and lifted the top skirt off the pile.
A knock came at the door, and she jumped. She instinctively hid her bare hands in the fabric of the skirt. She was usually so careful, but she’d taken off the mitts that normally hid her fingers so she could help Isabel pack. Then she realized she was wrinkling the skirt terribly and forced herself to let it go. She took a calming breath, hoping her voice would sound normal. “Who is it?”
“Adela, Miss Paredes,” one of the maids responded from the hallway. “I have what my lady asked for.”
Oriana cast Isabel a questioning look. What was Isabel plotting?
Isabel hurried to the bedroom door herself. Oriana stayed by the bed and shoved her hands behind her back. Other than Isabel, no one in the Amaral household knew her secret. Oriana wanted to keep it that way.
Her webbed fingers would give her away, and being caught in the city would mean arrest and expulsion, if not worse. They were her great flaw as a spy. She’d finally made the decision to have the webbing cut away, as her superiors insisted, and had planned to take her half day off this weekend to have it done. But Isabel’s sudden decision to elope had fouled those plans. Oriana hadn’t decided if she was vexed . . . or relieved.
Isabel opened the door only wide enough for the maid to pass her something and closed it quickly. She turned back to Oriana, a mischievous grin lighting her face, and held up a pair of maid’s aprons and two crumpled white caps. “See what I have?”
Oriana stood there with her mouth open. Why would Isabel ask for those?
Isabel rolled her eyes. “A disguise,” she explained. “See? If we wear black, we can put these on over our skirts and we’ll look like housemaids.”
Well, the only thing more scandalous than engaging in an elopement had to be exposure while doing so. The disguise would make the two of them less noticeable at the train station; most people in Isabel’s circles didn’t notice servants. Surely none would comment on a couple of housemaids dragging luggage about for their mistresses, even this late in the evening.
“I understand,” Oriana said, trying for an enlightened expression. The black serge skirt she currently wore would pass for a housemaid’s, but her white cambric shirt and the blue vest wouldn’t. “I’ll need to change my shirt, but it should do.”
Isabel tossed the aprons atop the chiffonier and grinned. “See? It will all work out.”
“I’m certain you’ve planned for everything,” Oriana allowed, inclining her head in Isabel’s direction.
A dimple appeared in Isabel’s alabaster cheek. “When it comes to marriage, one must.”
Oriana laughed softly. Isabel always had a clever retort on her silver tongue, a talent she envied.
She regarded the pile of garments atop the bed and tried to think of the best way to tackle the task ahead of her. An open trunk waited on the old cane-backed settee at the foot of the bed, although she would have to fold and tuck judiciously to get all these garments into it. She would likely have to add a portmanteau as well. Mr. Efisio had gone ahead to Paris, but he had ordered his coach to pick them up no more than a block away. She could carry their luggage to the coach in two trips if needed.
Isabel watched, tapping one slender finger against her cheek. “Now, what have I forgotten?”
“Nightdress?” Oriana reminded her.
“Oh, I mustn’t forget that.” Isabel dashed back to the dressing room.
Oriana folded the blue skirt from the top of the pile and set it in the trunk, located the shirtwaist Isabel wore with it and tucked that in next, and then headed into the dressing room to hunt down the matching jacket. She found Isabel standing before the full-length mirror in the cluttered dressing room, holding up a nightdress. It was her most daring, a white satin that bared much of her bosom like an evening gown.
Isabel glanced over one shoulder at Oriana, her face glowing with excitement. “Do you think he will approve? It’s not too shocking, is it?”
Isabel was blessed with an ivory complexion and thick black hair. She had delicate features, delicate hands, delicate feet. Her hazel eyes had been the subject of many a wretched suitor’s poem, and her rosy, bow-shaped lips had earned their own paeans. She was everything that Oriana wasn’t—beautiful by any standard. A good thing too, as Isabel’s sharp tongue and cutting wit might have earned her enemies were she less lovely. But she’d gathered a court of suitors and held them fast while waiting for a man of both adequate means and malleability to come along. Mr. Efisio had never had a chance once Isabel made up her mind to have him.
Oriana’s eyes met Isabel’s in the mirror. “I’m certain he’ll like it, shocking or not.”
“Good.” Isabel smiled contentedly at her reflection, but turned back to Oriana, her face going serious. “I know you don’t approve. I’m grateful you’re coming with me anyway.”
Oriana opened her mouth to apologize for her earlier arguments with Isabel over Mr. Efisio’s fate, but paused. She still didn’t approve. She nodded instead.
“I do love him,” Isabel said then, the first time she’d told Oriana so. “Have you never been in love?”
Oriana gazed down at her folded hands, her throat inexplicably tight. She was only a few years older than Isabel, but her situation in life had never been amenable to courtship. How many times had her aunts pointed that out? Unlike among human society, among her people a female often remained alone; there simply weren’t enough males. Those females not meant for a mate were destined to serve their people instead, as Oriana did.
That thread of Destiny that bound her soul to some other’s? Oriana didn’t think it existed. She had resigned herself to that years ago . . . or she’d thought she had. Seeing Isabel so excited about her upcoming nuptials made Oriana wish she’d been one of the others—those for whom Destiny had chosen a mate. “No,” she admitted when she found her voice. “I’ve never been in love, so I suppose I can’t understand.”
Isabel’s brows drew together. “Do your people believe in love? Or are your marriages all arranged, like Pia’s?”
Oriana mulled that over. “We believe we are destined for one in particular, or—”
“Then perhaps you just haven’t met him yet,” Isabel interrupted with a blithe wave of her hand.
Apparently Isabel believed that if she were to have a husband, then everyone must. At least Isabel’s interruption had saved her from admitting aloud she was destined to be forever alone. Oriana nodded again, as if she agreed. She was realizing she did that quite often.
Isabel surveyed the mess on the bed with narrowed eyes, plotting how to subdue it, no doubt. “Now, why don’t you go pack your own bag, Oriana? I’ll finish up in here.”
Oriana cast a glance back at that chaos and suppressed a shudder. Isabel would simply cram her clothes into that trunk. As she wasn’t taking a maid along, Oriana would end up ironing everything later. She hated exposing her delicate hands to all that heat, but she would do so to help Isabel start off in her new life properly. One last thing she could do to repay Isabel for her kindness.
She tugged on her black silk mitts to hide the webbing between her fingers. “I’ll be back shortly, then.”
She slipped out the bedroom door and walked down the hallway, rubbing her hands up and down her arms to warm herself. The Amaral household was one of contrasts. In the public areas of the house no expense was spared. Fires would no doubt be burning merrily in the parlors to chase away the September evening’s chill. The silver was regularly polished, and the china lovingly displayed in a fine oak sideboard in the palatial dining room. The rugs and tapestries were of the finest quality, many dating back to the family’s wealthier days.
The social elite of the Golden City seemed to believe that facade of affluence, counting the Amaral family among their most important members. Isabel and her mother were invited to all the important affairs, the balls and picnics and soirees. They attended the theater regularly. Isabel’s approval was sought by younger girls, and her hand by all the men.
But while the Amaral family worked hard to present an affluent image downstairs, they didn’t bother upstairs. The second floor, where Isabel and her mother had their bedrooms, was left unheated. The draperies and rugs were threadbare, and the hall runner had begun to unravel along one edge. Only half the gaslights were turned up, leaving the hallway murky.
The areas of the house where the servants lived and worked were worse. When Oriana reached the narrow back stair leading up to the third floor, it was altogether unlit. But since her eyes were better than a human’s in the dark, she didn’t bother to fetch a lamp to climb its creaking length. The servant’s quarters were cramped and cold, the floors covered only with aged floor cloths. Like most houses on the Street of Flowers, the Amaral home had been transplanted to this spot in the Golden City in the previous century, moved stone by stone. The servants lived in rooms that hadn’t been improved since that time: no plumbing, no lighting, and with peeling paint on the walls. Small wonder the maids so often fell ill.
Being Lady Isabel’s hired companion, Oriana had a room to herself. She was grateful for that. Her little room was a safe haven, a place where she need not hide her hands or her gills or the inhuman coloration of the lower half of her body. While she looked more human than most females on her people’s islands, those things simply couldn’t be escaped.
Oriana opened her door and slipped inside. Once she’d lit the lamp on her nightstand, she stripped off her silk mitts and stretched out her fingers. The webbing between them glowed iridescent in the flickering lamplight. Although they protected her from exposure, the fingerless silk mitts pushed down the webbing between her index finger and thumb. This pair she’d sewn herself. That ensured they were better made than the ones she could buy at the market and long enough to hide all but the tips of her fingers. Even so, they made her hands ache.
Oriana sank down onto her narrow bed, rubbing that sore spot. She kept her nails trimmed close. Otherwise they would curve downward over her fingertips like claws. That was easy to hide. Her webbing was a different matter. At least the other maids didn’t question her refusal to bare her hands. Not long after hiring her, Isabel had cleverly let slip to Adela that Oriana had psoriasis—rough, red patches on her skin—marring her hands and throat. That lie provided a ready explanation for continually wearing mitts and her penchant for high-necked gowns, even in summer. It also meant that the maids never associated with her, for fear it was catching. Whenever she wasn’t in Isabel’s company, she was alone in this cold and unfriendly house.
Over the past year Isabel had become more than just her employer. She’d become a confidante as well. But once Isabel was securely married to her Mr. Efisio, there would be no need for a companion to play chaperone. Oriana would return to the Golden City, alone and without employment. There was little chance she would find work as a companion again, not after having been a party to an elopement.
That didn’t concern Isabel, though, and Oriana didn’t blame her. Mistresses had no reason to concern themselves with the fate of servants they left behind. Isabel was busy planning her marriage and her future; it would only spoil her enjoyment to hear her companion fretting about her own predicament. But without a letter of reference, Oriana was going to have difficulty finding a new position.
Because she’d not yet had her webbing cut away, her initial assignment in the city had been trivial. The sereia spymaster in the Golden City, Heriberto, had grudgingly taken her on, but he’d done little to help her. Oriana had managed to secure a position in a dress shop on her own, one favored by less-wealthy members of the aristocracy. She’d listened to the gossip of the ladies as they came in for their fittings, reporting back to her master on which of them might be sympathetic to nonhumans and welcome their return to the Golden City. When Isabel—a regular customer at that shop—had offered Oriana a position in her household, it had been a step up, with greater access to the aristocracy. It had been a coup for a spy whose master insisted on treating her like an untested child.
Now it would be back to the cramped dressmaker’s shop on Esperança Street, or possibly even home to the islands to wait for another assignment. She would simply have to see what Heriberto ordered. Oriana sniffled and snatched up the handkerchief off her nightstand. This was no time to feel sorry for herself. She would have to press on. She would reschedule her appointment with the doctor. The webbing was sensitive, and its absence would leave her hands with phantom pain for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, if she was going to be useful to her people, she needed to get it cut away.
She had little left of the things that had been important to her as a child. Her mother had died when Oriana was only twelve. Four years later her father had been exiled for sedition. Oriana had never learned exactly what he’d done or said, but he’d been raised by an indulgent mother who’d taught her only child that he was the equal of any woman on the islands. Unlike most males, he’d even been educated. Oriana’s mother had been proud of her clever mate, no matter his tendency to defy convention. But his political beliefs had clashed with almost everything the government held true, and after his exile Oriana had been left alone to care for her younger sister, Marina. They had aunts who’d taken them in, but weren’t ever close to them. Citing Oriana’s natural talent for calling, those aunts had pushed her relentlessly to join the Ministry of Intelligence, claiming again and again that it was her Destiny to serve her people. Oriana had refused.
Until three years ago. When Oriana was away visiting their paternal grandmother on the island of Amado, Marina had run away to search for their father. Somewhere along her path to Portugal, she had fallen prey to a merchant ship’s crew.
Oriana wiped away a tear with the back of one hand. That had been her failure. Marina hadn’t been happy living with their aunts on the island of Quitos, but Oriana hadn’t believed she would take such a desperate step to escape them. Her parents would have expected Oriana to keep Marina safe, but she hadn’t.
After Marina’s death, Oriana had given in, joining the ministry. She’d hoped to protect her people from the threat of subjugation under human rule. She’d also hoped to extract a small amount of vengeance, but never learned anything further of her sister’s death. The humans she’d met in the past two years had turned out to be no worse than her own people. And she’d seen no firm indication that Prince Fabricio intended to seize control over her people’s islands any time soon. There were rumors, of course—those were as commonplace as seagulls—just no proof.
But Prince Fabricio had acted against her people’s interests in the past. The prince had several seers in his entourage, whose words purportedly ruled many of his actions. One of them had prophesied that the prince would be killed by one of the sea folk—the sereia, the selkies, or the otterfolk—and fear of that had led to the prince to ban all nonhumans from the shores of northern Portugal decades before, when Oriana was just a child. That decree had cut her people off from their primary trading partner and crippled their economy. Many of their people had lost their property and their livelihoods. And because of that same ban, Oriana now wore mitts that pinched her webbing, and high collars on even the hottest days.
It was simply the price she had to pay. Determined to squarely face whatever chapter lay ahead in her life, Oriana rose and set about the business at hand: packing. As her presence was meant to lend Isabel countenance in this ramshackle flight, she needed to look severe but ignorable. That wouldn’t be difficult. She didn’t have Isabel’s beauty to catch male eyes, and once she was mentally classified as a servant, most people dismissed her from their minds.
That had been helpful over the past year. Her dark eyes were larger than most humans’. Her brown hair, when dry, had a non-Portuguese reddish cast that prompted the maids to whisper that she’d suffered a mishap involving tincture of henna. Those things would have drawn curious eyes if she were a lady, but for a mere companion no one took note. She faded away.
Oriana changed into a black shirtwaist that, under the borrowed apron, would pass for a housemaid’s. Then she moved her nightstand away from the wall and used her shoehorn to pry up the short floorboard underneath. In an old netted handbag tucked under the board, she’d hidden every last mil-réis she could save. It wasn’t much, but the stash of coins would pay for a place to live while she searched for a new position. after she returned from Paris and looked for a new position. She weighed it in her hand, then tucked the small bag into the bottom of the portmanteau and arranged her clothes and hat atop it.
She closed up her case with a touch of room to spare. She might be able to retrieve her other garments when she returned to the city. She unpinned her hair, combed it out, and braided it, making a simple knot at the nape of her neck. She checked the small mirror on her wall—yes, she did look like a housemaid.
But at least she would be a housemaid who had seen Paris, the French City of Lights.
Oriana checked her left sleeve, feeling the reassuring stiffness of the dagger strapped to her wrist. Perhaps Isabel was correct and everything would work out. Even so, it was better to be armed than trusting.
The clock in the hallway struck ten just as she reached Isabel’s bedroom. She let herself in and was greeted by the sight of Isabel standing proudly by her trunk, all the catches closed and the strap already buckled. “See? I did it all by myself,” Isabel said, a sly look in her eyes. “I know you didn’t think I could manage it.”
Oriana inclined her head, granting Isabel that point. She didn’t comment on the additional portmanteau half-hidden behind Isabel’s skirts. “I am impressed.”
Isabel chewed her lower lip. “Now, how do we get these downstairs without the butler noticing?”
The other servants were all aware that the family needed this marriage in order to pay the bills, but the butler had old-fashioned opinions about what was appropriate for the daughter of an aristocratic family. He’d created one difficulty after another to keep Mr. Efisio away from Isabel.
“Carlos will help,” Oriana decided. The first footman hated the butler with a passion. He might do it just for spite. “Do you have a couple of mil-réis to spare?”
Isabel produced them from her little handbag, and Oriana slipped downstairs to bribe the footman. As she’d expected, Carlos was on the back steps of the house, smoking a cigarette. He proved willing to help and, a few minutes later, carried Isabel’s two pieces of luggage out to the corner of the courtyard.
The court behind the row of houses was private. Beyond the courtyard were the mews that served the wealthy homeowners of the Street of Flowers, and the scent of dust and horses carried in the cool night. With the moon up, it was bright enough to see the whole alleyway, but Oriana couldn’t make out a coach waiting in either direction. She turned to Isabel who, with her white cap and apron, almost looked the part of a housemaid, although an impudent one. “Where is Mr. Efisio’s coach to meet us?”
Isabel pointed to the farther end of the block with her chin. “On Formosa Street. His driver is to wait for us there.”
Oriana groaned. That was several houses away. She should have bribed Carlos to carry the luggage all the way there. Casting about, she spotted the small stair leading from the cobbles down to an old basement entry, the coal room. Reckoning no one would be using that door tonight—no shipment of coal was due for another month at the earliest—she took the two portmanteaus down and tucked them by the steps, where they wouldn’t be seen. Then she and Isabel picked up the trunk between them and began the trek down to the far end of the alley.
Isabel had thrown herself into the adventure of the moment. She didn’t complain about having to carry her own luggage. She didn’t complain about the weight of the trunk, or how far they had to go. She simply picked up her end and led the way. Oriana had to admire her for that, because the trunk was damnably heavy. They’d nearly reached the end of the alley when a coach approached slowly and eased to a stop.
“Thanks be to God!” Isabel said passionately, tugging on her end of the trunk to draw Oriana along faster.
The driver of the coach set the brake and jumped down to help them. They lowered the trunk to the the ground as he opened the coach’s door and folded down the steps. Isabel went to climb inside while Oriana spoke to the burly driver. “I need to go fetch two more bags,” she told him. “I’ll be only a moment.”
He grunted his assent, and Oriana turned to dash back to the Amarals’ courtyard.
A hand grabbed her hair, fingers tightening about the braided mass at the nape of her neck. Off balance, Oriana stumbled backward toward her attacker. Before she could cry out, he pressed a cloth over her mouth and dragged her against his body.
Oriana bit down hard. But biting only drove the cloth into her teeth, a strange sweet taste on her tongue and in her gills. She struggled wildly as the fire in her stomach died back into cold fear. The big man had her pinned helpless against him. She kicked at his shins, but her heel tangled in the hem of her skirts, like seaweed wrapping about her legs. It was getting harder to move. All these damned skirts . . .
The man set her down, shaking the hand she’d bitten. Oriana swayed on her feet. She tried to loosen her shirt cuff to draw her dagger, but the moon wavered in her vision. A surge of nausea rose, leaving her hot, then cold.
What was wrong with her? She should do something . . .
As if at a great distance, she heard Isabel cry out. Oriana spun that way, reaching one arm out to her. Then she was tilting, falling toward the night-dark cobbles.