Set in a victorian-inspired world that has forgotten its past, a young woman struggles to support herself and her family when revolution finally comes.
It began when I was asked for my name and realized I had none. I had done so well until that point, adopting the guise of a noblewoman from distant Krone City and lying my way past the guards at the gate in a stolen dress. I had walked like a lady through the hallway, past the servants at the door and all the way to the ballroom. I stood frozen at the top of the long staircase and could see the noblemen and women dancing far below. The butler asked me again, "Your name, milady?"
I had no time to think as I opened my mouth to speak. Minding my voice, opening crimson lips, I spoke the first name which came to mind. It was one I always held in reverence, and its meaning held a particular edge. "Tatjyana." I remembered it was customary to speak it in full, and plucked another beautiful name to accompany it. "Lady Tatjyana Asya Novikov, of Krone." Only the title 'Lady' felt like a lie, the rest felt as if it had always been true. I did not have time to savour the moment, within a moment I was announced to the crowd below and their eyes were on me. A visiting noblewoman was not new, but my name was. Confidence, poise, I took my first steps down those steps into the ballroom as the crowd studied me. I knew how to walk like a young noblewoman, I had practised it. Grace, with a hint of vulnerability. Taking every step as easily as the last but with a blink of hesitation. I was nervous, I had to ensure I did not look away from the crowd, chin up and with a soft smile on my crimson lips. With my right I held the banister as if I had taken my lover's hand, my left held my peach dress (not my first choice, but beggars cannot be choosers).
It felt as if I had descended for an eternity when my heels clicked upon the marble floor and I stood in the round ballroom at the foot of the crowd. If there was ever a moment of truth it came then. A sharply dressed man approached me with his wife hanging on his arm. I recognized him from the papers and introduced myself. Extending a remarkably steady gloved hand to him, he took it and placed a kiss on its back as I curtsied low and with head bowed. "Sir Korsakov." I made a similar curtsy to Lady Korsakov, minus the head bow.
He was being polite, but it felt akin to interrogation. "Lady Novikov... I do not believe I've had the pleasure. What has brought you from so far away?"
Fortunately this I had foreseen. "While I might be born across the sea, my blood ached to visit my home. I hope I am not intruding."
When Sir Korsakov smiled, so did I. It was true to an extent, while I had not been born away from Norden continent it was my home. Three particular features of myself proved this, all of which were studied in greater detail. He looked to my long bloody red hair, at my soft alabaster skin and finally to my eyes, bloody red just like my hair and his. All of these features Sir and Lady Korsakov shared, and so did the vast majority of the crowd. I was born of Norden parents, both of whom pure blooded. The Norden trait was easily bred out, becoming lost whenever a child was not of two pure bloods. We wore these features proudly.
Having known exactly what to say, and I was welcomed to their home. Norden blood was the closet thing to a nation in the world at that time. A Norden noblewoman living across the ocean was an oddity to Sir Korsakov, and he asked me question after question about Krone City and Tsentr continent. Neither of which I had ever seen, aside from my dreams.
"Is it true that the entire city is built upon the mountain? From base to peak?"
"Yes, and you have not seen the world until you have witnessed it while sitting on a boat offshore at dusk. Watching the electricity flow to make it a pillar of light."
"So electricity runs along entire streets?" He asked, as the crowd returned to their dance.
"Most, though I have not been to any place without it." I knew this because I had read it. All of my life I had read the stories, comics, and it was even mentioned from time to time in the chapbooks. I am sure that if these was more widespread Sir Korsakov would not have asked, but it allowed me to establish my story. Growing more confident I looked above us to the chandelier lit also in electric light, a rare sight in Norden and a symbol of wealth. When my vision returned to eye level with Sir Korsakov, a young Norden man in a white suit stood beside him.
He was relaxed, with a warm smile on his face. He rested his arm upon Sir Korsakov's shoulder in a way that he must have been family. He was young, early twenties like myself if I had to guess. I liked him. He dressed like no other, most of the men staying to safer brown suits or black hat and tails. He bowed, took my hand and kissed it. Norden blood rushed to my alabaster cheeks and turned them a familiar red. Sir Korsakov watched my reaction and his, and it became obvious that this was his son. For a moment, I felt like I was on the opposite side of the ball my father once brought me to years before.
Now my hand began to shake in his, he noticed. He took a step towards me, it was the first in some time that I had to look up at a man. "You are nervous?" His eyes became sly but friendly. "Do they not have balls in Krone?"
"None with such fine blooded young noblemen." Had I not been pure blooded myself, his parents would have surely cast me out instead of leaving us to talk.
He smirked, laughed softly. "You are good."
"Obviously, I caught the eye of the host's son..." I was becoming more comfortable. "Though I do not know his name."
"Yuri, Sir Yuri Vladko Korsakov. Charmed to make the acquaintance of the Lady Tatjyana Asya Novikov of Krone." He kissed my shaking hand once more before letting me take it back. "Now, I must ask. Why is it that you are truly here?"
My heart skipped a beat, did he know? "To visit my homeland, of course..." As more guests began to arrive we began to walk around the ballroom. It was of a familiar style, circular with pillars separating the central dance floor and the tables while holding up the balcony. His suit matched the white marble floors, pillars, even walls. All shimmering in the reflected electric lights.
The tables were littered with wine bottles, all red and of Norden vintages. Despite trade being so uncommon, and Tsentr wines being expensive there was still Norden pride on display. As he poured me a glass, he rejected my answer. "I haven't known a young lady to visit all on her own. Not many see the world, especially the young."
I wondered if I should say it or not before replying, "I am certainly not your average young lady." For one I lived in a destitute farmhouse hours outside of the city, but did not feel particularly compelled to go into detail. Yuri looked to the crowds, not many were watching us. He stood toe to toe with me and noted my height.
"Six. Exactly." I corrected him.
"I always liked tall women."
I acted offended and did an awful job. "Bold, Sir Korsakov. Very bold..." We smiled at each other. I had not expected this. Yuri was a gentlemen surely, he did not touch me aside from leading me and he kept his eyes in the proper places. Still he wanted to have fun and made it clear to me in his tone of voice.
"Yuri. Call me Yuri, Lady Novikov."
"Tatjyana." I corrected him once more. He had the manners to address me formally even when I did not have to.
"Tatjyana." He repeated. "Why do you smile like that?" I hadn't realized how much I was smiling when he said that word, my name. I had a tear in my eye that caused him to offer me his handkerchief. I took it, quickly dabbed my eye clean and hastily gave it back to him. My composure was all I had, I could not make a mistake. "I would ask if I have done something wrong, but it seems the opposite..."
I turned my back to the crowd and looked to him. "I... It is nice to be feel at home." A loaded statement.
"Have you truly never been home, Tatjyana? Did you not feel at home where you were?"
"Truly, never before now..."
Yuri poured himself a glass and raised it to me. "To Tatjyana Novikov, a Lady of Norden now and forever." He toasted me, we both drank. Yuri drank his wine quickly, placing an empty glass immediately down on the table. "To celebrate, might I have this dance?"
I was not to be outdone, but gulped and nearly stained my dress when he asked me. I barely saved myself from coughing. He took the empty glass from me and I wonder if he thought I was about to feint. I swallowed every drop and caught my breath. "Yes... Yes." I had never been on the receiving end of that question before.
He teased, "And here I was thinking you were a creature of grace."
I took that challenge, "You should know, Krone has considered dance an endurance sport." That is true, occasionally a Krone dance will gradually increase in speed until only one couple remain. Though at the time I hoped I had not bought into fiction. I took his lead, even that brought a smile to my face. He was a handsome young nobleman with young noblewoman on his arm. He walked me to the center of the floor with such confidence others couldn't help but watch. Every step in my heels was deliberate, my chin held high, wrapping my arms around his. I did this perfectly, all the while going over every Norden dance in my head.
He whispered to me, "Hopefully this will not bore you, I know Krone dances are more... physical." Krone dances often clap to the beat, and require changing of partners while Norden dances are more intimate. Truthfully, I had only practised Norden dances.
"I know I will enjoy myself, Yuri." We were all smiles. He motioned to the musicians to begin another tune, a waltz. Taking my hands in his, Yuri and I began.
When I took my first step, I felt as if I had stepped back into my cozy little room at home practising to a tune in my head. On my second step, I felt as if I were in the city streets in the evening, dancing to a tune which drifted from the fine shops my family could no longer afford. On my third step, I wondered if it was real. The dance flowed naturally, every step taken with delicate purpose and drawing me steadily closer to the body of the young nobleman. I do not believe he minded. Not a single noble did, there was nothing to mind. The two of us danced, sparks lit the air between us and there was a smile on my painted lips for the first time that I could remember.
There was wine, conversation, more dancing into the early hours of the morning. I weaved stories about my life in Krone, admittedly adaptations of my life before things changed. I asked the right questions, spoke the right words, and even got a laugh out of a few of them. All the while Yuri and I carried on as if we were a couple, and truthfully I felt as if the nobles wished it to be so. It was like the stories. The handsome nobleman, the beautiful noblewoman, dancing in a fine ball and drinking only the best wine. It was the life I had only read and dreamt of.
It was like the stories, and while the lives of the nobles within truly was romantic, they was not without their conflicts. I dreaded knowing the conflict would come, pushed it from my mind as long as possible but as the night wore on and the dance wound down. I knew it was time. In some the noblewoman is a spy, in some she is secretly part of a rival family, in others an assassin. In no story is the noblewoman like me. I do not say that as if no story included a poor girl who disguises herself as the nobility, that certainly has been done. I speak of the reason why what happened next should have been my right, but it would have meant my death.
The crowds began to thin, and I was busy committing names to memory as if it mattered. Yuri's hand was with mine, standing together as he gave his farewells to each guest. The sun would rise in an hour and it was time for many to stumble home, sober up and return to keeping up appearances. Sir and Lady Korsakov stood opposite us, both of them gracious hosts. The last of the guests had departed the ballroom and the servants had begun to sweep and clean. Sir Korsakov turned to us, smiling and entirely sober. "Lady Novikov, I won't have you staying in a hotel. I will have a guest room-" He paused and was looking to Yuri. Though I didn't see the expression on Yuri's face, Sir and Lady Korsakov turned to one another and silently decided. "Lady Novikov, I hope you will join us for breakfast." As they made their exit I curtsied, bowing my head to Sir Korsakov.
Yuri and I were alone, and with the creeping truth that came the lights dimmed and the black became suffocating. Yuri leaned in behind me and whispered to my ear, "I remember how you like it when I am bold." I felt his lips on my neck, his tongue gracing across my alabaster skin, his hands on my shoulders and I wanted to give in.
'Only a moment... Just once...' I fought myself, and brought one hand up to run my slender fingers through his hair and invite him in deeper. In my mind, I screamed at myself for doing so. 'You have no right!' His hands were so warm, his body pressed against me. He was a gentleman, I was not being taken despite knowing he had ability to do so. He advanced because I was inviting him, my body was aching for his touch and the feeling of his arms reach across me was intoxicating. I was loosing my composure and my mind screamed to me that I was about to loose far more than that. He could not see my face, struck with the realization that the dream was over and a nightmare was about to begin.
My moans at his lips suckling on my neck, my back pressing against his chest, the rising heat of us together, all of it was my doing and all of it had to stop. Yuri placed his hands on my hips, holding me in place and pulling against my skirt to bring us closer. When he took one hand, hesitated for me to say something, before starting to dexterously unlace my corset, the other pressed and reached down between my legs. 'No...' My mind began to repeat, 'No. No...'
I began screaming. "No, please no!" I spun around, tearing a corset string from his fingers and held my the garment in place with one hand. Yuri's face was in shock, mine was in tears and neither of us knew what to say. I do not remember exactly what I said but I know I nearly screamed it, "Please, I cannot. It's..." I studied the look on his face, my mind screamed that it was so obvious now. I lost my composure, I lost my confidence and my speech. I needed to run, I needed to run far away.
Awakening from that state of shock and confusion, Yuri followed me. "Tatjyana?!" I was in the hallway when he reached the top of the stairs. He could run far faster than me, as I had to hold my skirt and loosened corset up. It was a straight line: out of the ballroom, down the hall, through the doors and onto the long driveway. "Tatjyana?!" He was catching up. I did not believe he would take me, but I knew any explanation would lead to the same conclusion. My feet ached, my dress was heavy but I would soon be gone. Throwing open the doors, slamming them shut behind me, I headed for the shadows at the end of the driveway and wanted desperately to disappear into the night. The last time I saw Yuri he was standing at the doorway, our eyes caught for a moment when I looked back, before I rounded the stone fence and returned to reality.
I am not a thief. I never took more than I earn. As the sun began to rise, the gentle click of a lock picked echoed through an alleyway occupied by only one. I knew the dress shop would not open for another hour or so, I had time. I was not fast, I was not graceful, I slogged through untying my corset. I pushed the dress down, and I swept hair wet from tears and sweat from my brow. I did not look in the mirror like I had at the start of the evening, and I admit that the dress was returned askew. Before returning to the brown wool dress I had placed in a corner, I stood and looked around the shop. I remembered that as a child I used to marvel at the pieces, I remembered that two years prior I could have afforded them. When my eyes graced across my reflection in the mirror I remembered why that was. It hung between my legs, still begging for Yuri's touch like a whining dog. Strips of flesh, marking me forever as undesirable, insane and a fake; a Fiela. Old tongue name no one cared to investigate, but a name I had heard yelled to me until the drugs helped me. A name which marked me and would have to be declared. No matter how far I would come. No matter how many injections of the drug Fiela-Marin would flow through me. No matter how strong or beautiful. My phallus would mark me now and forever always, Fiela.
Our hotel was narrowly placed between two shops and close to the market where my sister and I sold what we could. It was cheap, but the owner's heart was in the business so it was cleaner and friendlier than most. Certainly safer. Before it had been me, our father and several farm hands in far better accommodations. No one would have bothered us then. Now it was two women alone and that changed things. I do not know what I expected when I opened the door to our room, it was past dawn and my sister Nadedja would be and was awake. Worried, angry, but smart and with no need to ask me where I had been, she knew.
Tossing the paper from the day before with the article announcing the party in front of her, she sat with legs crossed on the bed and scolded. "You could have gotten yourself killed! What would you have done if they found out? I never believed you would have actually followed through with this..."
Despite her frustration, the memories of the night had left me smiling. In my defence, "I did." My body was tired, my feet ached but I couldn't deny that I had lived my dream for a night. "I did, Nadejda... I borrowed a dress, lied past the guards, told them my name and spent the evening in the arms of Sir Yuri Korsakov." I missed him already.
Nothing gets past my older sister. "You have a name? You've chosen a name?" She had been patient, I went through lists of them but could never pick the one which felt like me. Only when my back was pressed against the wall did it become so clear. I told her, and she sat considering it. Turning it over in her head, and I know she weighed the fury of my actions with the fact that I had not been arrested for impersonating a noble. She's smart, she knew that if I had not been suspected that night, it was unlikely that they would figure it out in the morning. We were not famous, they would not know of my true stature. When I looked to Nadejda, I could see the lines under her eyes and knew she had been up all night worrying. The fury subsided, and the worry was pushed away and my big sister got to her feet and walked to and embraced me. "Tatjyana..."
I held her close, "Yes?"
Pulling back and with a movement so fast that to this day I cannot match it, I was delivered a stinging slap straight across my left cheek. "Never again."