“Delyth,” Dilys grabbed her sister’s arm as they both stepped from the carriage. “Delyth, are you … sure this is the best idea?”
“Am I sure? Am I sure?” Delyth gasped, or pretended to gasp, as her hands went fluttering over her heart. Dilys hoped it was the latter. “Dilys! We plotted our plan of attack for weeks! And now you’re not sure?”
It was one thing to be sure when the night was weeks away and success in question. It was quite another to be sure when one was in the shadow of the great Tricross Inn, the place where all of Albion’s youth came to eat, drink, and be merry away from parental supervision.
Or almost all of Albion’s youth. Plenty couldn’t afford it. Others … Dilys tried not to gulp so loudly that Delyth would hear it. Others, like Dilys and Delyth and other noble young men and ladies, weren’t supposed to go to inns like the commoners. They were supposed to take their entertainments at the homes of their noble friends and kin, gliding from party to party like so many fantastic kites, making friends only among their own set. The trouble with that picture was that now Dilys and Delyth were the only ones in their set who weren’t at Camford, unless you counted Ravenna le Fay. Dilys would like to count Ravenna, just for the sake of having someone else, but she was afraid that nobody else did.
“I know we did, and you did a great job of managing Papa, but …” Dilys started.
“A great job? I object! It was a fantastic job!” Delyth fluffed her hair and winked. “We picked just the right time, too. Papa was ready to say no until Mama glared at him. Your reconnaissance was invaluable!”
Reconnaissance. Dilys blushed. It was certainly a nicer word than eavesdropping, even if she hadn’t been meaning to eavesdrop at the time. It was just, she wanted to complete her painting while the light was right, and she couldn’t help it if the studio was the next room over from her parents’ bedroom … where her parents were having an argument … about her and Delyth. Their father had wanted to be stricter with them, given the problems Dindrane and Aglovale and even Lamorak were having with their loves, while their mother had been adamant that the twins not be punished for their elder siblings’ mistakes, especially when some of the mistakes hadn’t even been made by their elder siblings in the first place.
“Well, maybe, but all the same –”
“No buts! We’re here now, and if things go well tonight, we should be able to come back whenever we want! Come on!” Delyth grabbed Dilys’s arm and brooked no further argument. Dilys was forced to keep up with her sister, unless she wanted every youth in the kingdom to see her being dragged into the inn like a recalcitrant mule. Luckily Delyth let go of her once they got to the stairs, and Dilys could follow at her own slower pace.
Still, she looked longingly at the tables, quick-food stand and even the bar down below. “Are we sure we want to go up? I mean upstairs are the … rooms …”
“And downstairs, we’ll just have to eat and stare at each other. Everybody’s upstairs; can’t you hear them?”
Well, yes, Dilys could hear them. She gulped and smoothed her dress down. “I just … I don’t know … maybe a drink before …”
“You’re not allowed to drink until you’ve met some people and talked with them. I promised Mama.”
“You what?” Dilys gasped.
“She said when she was young that she would try to drink to make herself more lively at parties, and all that would happen would be that she would get tipsy and either make a fool of herself or make herself sick. So I promised I’d keep you away from the drink until you got to know somebody.”
“That’s not fair! Mother might have told me! I’m not so foolish that I’d not listen!”
“Mother said that her father told her the same thing, and she didn’t listen to him.”
That still wasn’t fair. However, Dilys had no time to protest it, for as she realized, she suddenly had bigger problems.
They were at the top of the stairway.
“There, see?” replied Delyth, mistress of all she surveyed. “Nothing to worry about. Lots of friendly, smiling faces!”
The faces did look friendly, even if they weren’t smiling. The group of boys, by far the most intimidating, was far away playing some kind of card game. Three girls were playing a Sminese tile game right before them. Dilys started to relax a bit. Girls were much less threatening than boys, at least boys who were merely boorish and demanding and hadn’t yet learned how to be charming.
Except, Dilys noticed, there was only one seat at the Mah-Jong table. She hadn’t the least idea where you could fit in a fifth chair, given how close together all of the girls were sitting. Worse, she was not sure which idea terrified her more: that of playing with the other girls without her sister by her side, or that of having to go sit someplace else, all by herself.
Delyth with her confidence had already decided that it was to be Mah-Jong for them, and Dilys could only follow like a baby duckling. “Hello,” Delyth said, one hand on the back of the empty chair. “Mind if we join you?”
The mouth of the blonde girl in the middle gaped, all the better to emit the shocked yelp that suddenly leaped from her. The glare she shot at the curly-haired, tanned brunette left of her left no doubt in Dilys’s mind what had happened. The second brunette, the one who wasn’t being glared at, smiled languidly up at Delyth. “We don’t mind at all. Your name, Miss?”
“I’m Delyth, and this is my sister Dilys. You are?”
“Mary,” said the brunette who had first spoken.
“Elizabeth,” said the blonde.
“Florencia,” replied the last.
“Nice to meet you. Dilys, why don’t you pull up a chair? You can take the place of the first loser.”
Dilys looked around the room. “I don’t think there … is one …”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” replied Mary. “Take the other chair from the chess table. Nobody else is going to be playing.”
“I …” Dilys started.
“Go on, Dilys,” said Delyth.
Dilys looked at the chess table. There was only one person there, but it was … Ravenna? Someone whom she knew, however slightly?
She twisted her hands together as she walked closer to the chess set. Why wasn’t Ravenna playing with the other girls? She was the king’s own niece; surely the other girls would want to be currying her favor. Even if her mother was … and her father was … surely who her uncle was outweighed all that? And Ravenna was so joyous, so brave, so sparkling — if Dilys wanted to be her at times, then that had to go double for the commoner girls.
This questioning lasted until Dilys came to the chess set and moved her hand vaguely toward the empty chair. She cleared her throat awkwardly. “Do you mind …”
Then Ravenna looked up with an expression so surprised, so hopeful, so like Dilys imagined she herself looked whenever anybody wanted to sit by her, partner with her, that another question entirely came to Dilys. “… if I join you?”
Ravenna’s smile was more than the reward Dilys needed for disobeying her sister. And Delyth probably wouldn’t even notice that she hadn’t come back. “Oh, of course not! Have a seat!”
Dilys slipped gracefully and gratefully into the chair, not quite daring to send an apologetic smile back at Delyth. “Thanks. It’s — it’s a bit …” Dilys shrugged and tilted her head in the direction of the other girls. “You know?”
Ravenna lowered her eyes, her dark lashes making two fans against her pale cheeks. “Oh, I know.”
What on earth was behind that? Dilys smoothed her dress again. “Um …” She cast around for conversation. “Um, whose move would it be?”
“Oh!” Ravenna reached out and put all the pieces back. “We’ll start a new game. I mean, now that I’m not by myself.” She gave that horrible false giggle that Dilys knew so well, the one she always gave when she trying to appear less awkward and unsure and lonely than she really was. “I guess I’ll go first, since I’m white.”
“Oh, right, of course!” Dilys kept her hands folded on her lap as Ravenna surveyed the board. There was no need to be nervous. Losing at chess — inevitable when your most common partner was your father the genius or your elder sister the other genius — was something she was rather good at.
Still, you learned a thing or two from all that losing, and when Ravenna cautiously moved her first piece, Dilys recognized the opening and countered it. Ravenna’s eyebrows shot up before Dilys even had a chance to move her hand back. “You’re good at this!” she exclaimed, sounding — excited? She then frowned at the board, considering her next move.
“Thank … you? My papa and I play often. And Dindrane and I have been playing, since … oh.”
“Oh …” Ravenna murmured. “How is she doing, by the way? It’s just that my mother said …”
Dilys wanted to hesitate. She wanted to be cautious, to remember that these were private family troubles. But she saw nothing but sympathy and mild curiosity in Ravenna’s eyes. So Dilys spoke. “She …” She hung her head. “I don’t know. Dindrane doesn’t talk to me. She doesn’t talk to anybody. She — she’s worse than I am. At least I talk to Delyth,” Dilys blurted out. She felt the color rise to her face as soon as she spoke. Ravenna would surely think she was pitiful now, if she hadn’t already!
However, she seemed to think no such thing. “It must be so wonderful, having a twin sister,” Ravenna said in tones very like envy. But not a cruel type of envy, the type of envy that made one Sim want to take away everything that made the other Sim so happy. It was the envy of someone who wished the wealth could be shared, not coveted and hoarded. “You always have a friend.”
Except it wasn’t the same as always having a friend. It was a having a sister. And while that was great — good — wonderful, it wasn’t the same. Dilys stared mutely across the board at Ravenna, wondering how to possibly explain that to a girl who hadn’t had anything like a sister until last year, and even now …
“I wonder who that is?” Ravenna asked, breaking off Dilys’s line of thought. Dilys squirmed in her chair to look.
It was a young woman, dressed in a gown much like Dilys’s and Ravenna’s in cut but much more daring in style and colors. She was followed by a boy who looked a few years younger than Dilys. There was something in their faces that proclaimed them to be kin — something in the way the girl tossed her head and said, “Come on, Jackie,” that proclaimed them to be very close kin indeed.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Jackie piped. “And don’t call me Jackie.”
“Because you don’t like being called Apple.”
Why on earth would anybody ever call that girl Apple? Her hair wasn’t the right shade of red for it. Dilys watched the torchlight play off the girl’s braids and thought what kind of fruit you could compare it to. An orange, maybe? Although Delyth was often said to have orange hair, and her hair was darker than this girl’s …
Much to Dilys’s shock, the girl didn’t stop at the Mah-Jong table, which had lost Elizabeth, or even the couches. She sauntered right up to the card table. “Mind if we join in?” she asked, loud enough for Dilys to hear.
The dark-haired boy, the one Dilys vaguely thought she should recognize, blinked at the red-haired girl. “No, not at all. You sure you can play, though?”
The girl’s grin was visible from where Dilys was sitting. “You ever play Crazy Pineapple Hold ‘Em with an ex-pirate, an ex-smuggler, and an ex-navy sailor, all armed to the teeth?”
“Um … no …”
“Then don’t worry if I can play. Have a seat, Jackie, there’s room for you too.” The girl pointed to the boy in red. “That’s Jackie Andavri, and I’m Cherry Andavri.”
Andavri, Andavri, Andavri … Dilys thought. The name was so unusual, and it was ringing a bell —
“George Ferreira,” replied the dark-haired boy, intrigued. Dilys saw Ravenna sit up for a moment, before forcibly relaxing.
“Joseph Westcott,” mumbled the blonde boy who wasn’t Jackie Andavri.
“And I’m not Jackie. It’s just Jack,” muttered Jack.
“You’re Jackie when you play with the big kids!” giggled Cherry.
Dilys couldn’t see it, but something in George’s voice made her imagine that he was smirking. “So …” He flicked the cards through the air, looking almost like magic. “Crazy Pineapple? Never heard of that one.”
“Really? It’s the most popular in Bledavik,” Cherry remarked.
“Oh!” Dilys gasped, luckily keeping her voice down.
Ravenna quirked an eyebrow in her direction.
“That’s who she is!” Dilys whispered. “They’re new — new to the school! Er … our school …”
“They … they come from Bledavik, but I haven’t heard much else about them …”
“Bledavik?” Ravenna breathed, looking over her shoulder. “The pirate island?”
“Aye. But they weren’t pirates, of course.”
Ravenna tilted her head to one side. “Well, they do look a little young to be pirates … still, the pirate island! Can you imagine?” Ravenna grinned, then her brow contracted. “Why’d they come here?”
Dilys glanced over her shoulder at the players, who seemed to be deep into their game. “… I don’t know.”
“I guess things here can be exciting. Or they were, last year,” Ravenna conceded.
Dilys blushed, not wanting to think too hard about that — but Ravenna could, she realized. And everything last year had had as much to do with Ravenna’s family as it had to do with Dilys’s. Why did that make her feel so relieved?
Her relief, however, did not last long. For even though Dilys couldn’t see it, the Mah-Jong table had been steadily losing girls. And it was about to lose one more.
Delyth, seeing it was possible for a young girl to play poker, had decided to join in.
“Hello, Ravenna,” she said, pleasantly enough, as she walked by. Ravenna waved, probably so she would haven’t to look at Dilys’s confused face.
“Where are you going?” asked Dilys.
Delyth didn’t answer. Instead, she walked right up to the table. “Hey — would you mind if I took the place of whoever loses?”
Dilys’s eyes bugged. They weren’t supposed to be gambling! Their father would be furious! And they hadn’t brought that much pocket money with them! And Delyth had never played poker before, so she would be sure to lose it all!
… She hadn’t, had she? Watching her sister stand there, one hand on her hip, leg stuck out a little, head cocked to one side, Dilys had to wonder if there were things about her twin that she didn’t know …
The George boy turned around and looked her up and down with a gaze that could only be called appraising. The Joseph boy sputtered. “A lady? Playing poker?”
“And what am I, chopped liver?” laughed Cherry.
“Pssh, you’re no lady,” Jack snorted. Cherry turned to him with one raised eyebrow, and Jack ducked his head. “Sorry.”
“Darn right you’re sorry.”
“But she’s a real lady!” Joseph gasped, waving to Delyth and looking to George for assistance.
“If a real lady wants to play,” George shrugged as he dealt the next hand, “then I say we let the lady do what she wants.”
The thought seemed to so upset Joseph that he promptly lost the next hand, and Delyth took his place.
The introductions were made, again, and then Delyth turned to George. “So,” she asked, “how is it that you play this game?”
“Oooh,” Cherry said, “let us show you.”
“Cherry!” Jack gasped.
“Mum said we’re not supposed to tick off the nobility!”
“Pshaw!” Cherry tossed one braid over her shoulder. “I’m not going to tick her off. I’m just going to take her for everything that she’s got.”
Delyth giggled. “I’d like to see you try!”
“I won’t just try, I’ll succeed.”
“I like confidence in a woman,” George chuckled. Dilys watched Ravenna stiffen momentarily before relaxing again.
“Then tonight’s your lucky night, George,” Delyth chuckled, waggling her brows at George.
“Two confident ladies? My, it never does rain but it pours, does it?”
“You’ll just have to decide which of us is more confident than the other. For instance, I am certain that I am going to win this hand, even if I’ve never played the game before,” Delyth announced.
“Oh, is your beginner’s luck that strong?”
“And what do you plan to do once the beginner’s luck wears off, eh, Lady Delyth?” George asked.
Delyth glanced at him, hips leaning away from him, her head leaning closer, turning her normally-modest curves into a dangerous winding road of Delyth. “Bluff,” she replied, enunciating the “b” so that her lips popped. George’s eyes were going to them, Dilys just knew it. Where had Delyth learned to do that? It was scandalous! Unladylike! Their father would be furious! And it just wasn’t fair that Delyth hadn’t taught Dilys how to do that!
What drew Dilys’s attention more, though, was how Ravenna cringed, almost as if she was as embarrassed as Dilys. But Ravenna had no reason to be embarrassed for Delyth …
Unless it wasn’t Delyth she was embarrassed … or upset … about …
“Ravenna? Can I ask you a question?”
“Oh? Oh, sure. What?”
“Are …” Dilys dropped her voice. “Are there any other students in the magic school with you?”
“… One …” Ravenna whispered. Then she stuck her chin out and tossed her hair back in a gesture that reminded Dilys of Garnet or Princess Jessica. “But it’s just George Ferreira. Nobody important.”
“Oh,” Dilys murmured. She looked again at Delyth and George, who were both ostensibly looking at their cards … but kept stealing glances over them at one another.
Ravenna, unless witches had eyes in the backs of their heads, couldn’t see this. Somehow, it suddenly seemed very important to Dilys that she not see anything else.
“I — I’m hungry. Do you want to go back down and grab a bite to eat?”
“Sure!” Ravenna leapt from her chair, only just remember to sweep the pieces back into their compartment. Dilys did the same for her half of the board, and the two hurried down the stairs.
And then they were sitting at the counter for the quick food, and Ravenna was trying to smile and keep her chin up, and Dilys just had to say something. “So … Ravenna …” she started.
Ravenna seemed to start and stare at Dilys.
“How — how are you new … baby brother and sister?”
Ravenna smiled, and Dilys knew her self-imposed mission was accomplished.