This is the second part of a short story draft. For the first part, click here.
After her dinner with the Infanta, the Matriarch passed through a series of rooms toward the Small Drawing Room, where the Memorist awaited her. But before she had reached the room, a voice arrested her.
The Matriarch stopped and turned slowly toward the voice, which belonged to one of the generals of the army. She noted with some pleasure that he flinched under the coldness of the look she gave him. No doubt he would later tell loud jokes, perhaps even insulting stories, about The Dragon Lady to salve his pride at having quailed before the glance of an old woman, as they all did. They were all alike. She had dealt with them for sixty years, and they were all alike. But they were also all firmly in her iron grasp, however much they might squirm. She continued to look at him coldly, waiting and looking. He squirmed.
"Matriarch," he said again. "I understand that you have reassigned a portion of my legion to the sentinel-stations. Why was I not consulted on this matter?"
She continued to look but said nothing for so long that he opened his mouth to speak again. But before he could, she said, icily, "And I should consult with you?"
His mouth closed again. The Matriarch simply turned and walked away, but there was something in the turn and the walk that expressed contempt more than any words could. As she moved out of sight, the general's fists curled and teeth gritted in rage and he stormed off to his next meeting.
The Infanta of Syan and her handmaiden did everything in their power to make the Infanta beautiful. They careful did her hair and perfumed her in every place that would admit of perfuming; they painted her thin lips and tried to shape her shapeless eyebrows; they powdered her face to cover her sallow complexion and used every secret known to cosmetics in an attempt to thicken her thin lashes. They did, as I said, everything in their power to make the poor girl beautiful; but such an effect, I fear, is beyond the ability of mortal woman, however ingenious she may be and however resourceful her supplier of cosmetics, and the result was more like a painted ugliness than like the vision of loveliness the Infanta had hoped to attain. But they managed, in the process, to distract from some of the Infanta's most unpleasant features, and so had reached a point where the Infanta, used to disappointment on this topic, was willing to settle.
The handmaiden had just gone out to retrieve somethign when she rushed back in again. "He's here!" she said breathlessly.
Excitement rushed over the Infanta's features. "Bring him in, bring him in!" she said, trying, not entirely successfully, not to squeal it out.
As the handmaiden went out the Infanta composed her features and her body into a pose and demeanor that she hoped conveyed an impression of Regal Splendor. It conveyed nothing of the sort, but the Infanta fortunately was looking eagerly at the door, not at the mirror, when she did it, and thus she somehow, despite the absurdity of her looks, had a charming air of innocent enthusiasm. That is a cosmetic ladies of the court rarely wear; but it was the only thing that prevented her from looking merely like a fugitive from colony of exceptionally ugly clowns.
The air of innocent enthusiasm intensified when a young man walked through the door. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and bright blue eyes, and he was dressed in a flawless dress uniform. The uniform, while handsome, only declared him to be a lowly sublieutenant; but his smile, also handsome, declared a great many things more.
He went down on one knee. "My Infanta!" he said. "You are truly loveliness itself tonight! I thank you for allowing me into your gracious presence!"
The Infanta simpered at this opening -- how could she not? But she had more self-control than many young women have when a handsome young soldier is on his knees before them, and she only offered him her hand to kiss, which he did with melodramatic enthusiasm. She then bade him sit by her, which he also did with enthusiasm. Only then did she soften out of her attitude of, as she still thought it (not having looked in the mirror), Regal Splendor.
"How are you tonight, my love?" she said.
"Now that I see you, I am very well," he replied. "And you, my darling Infanta?"
She sighed. "Not well at all. I think the Matriarch intends to poison me."
The soldier looked sharply at her. "What makes you say that?"
"I told you before, she hates me and does nothing but torment me. I think she has only kept me alive this long to torment me. And everyone says that she poisoned the previous Matriarch, and that Matriarch's son, and hundreds and hundreds of others, too. She's a horrid woman. I hate her!"
"You know," said the young man slowly, "if you survive her it is you who will be Matriarch."
"Yes," said the Infanta dismissively, "but haven't you been listening? She will kill me. She kills everyone." But something in his voice made her look at him. He took her hands in his and looked deeply into her eyes with that passionate, poetic look at which no one can succeed except handsome young men trying to be persuasive.
"My darling Infanta," he said in the manner of one beginning a practiced speech, "as long as she lives, you will live in fear, and it rends my heart to see you in such fear. As long as she lives, you and I can never truly be together. How would you ever convince her to allow it? But if she were to die before you, you would become Matriarch, and all our problems would be solved. You would live free of her, and there is nobody who could stand in the way of our being together. I know that you, being of such good heart, would never think of it yourself, but there are poisons that are swift and painless and that could never be discovered. As a soldier I can get you such poisons. It is within your power to solve all our problems and bring us together completely."
The Infanta was somewhat confused at the mingling of the pleasant blue eyes with the unpleasant suggestion. "But I don't think I could...," she began.
He quickly interrupted her. "I know it is something you would never do under ordinary circumstances. How could you? You have a good and decent heart. That is what I love most about you." The Infanta blushed here, but the young man took no notice. "But these are not ordinary circumstances. You have lived under the most terrible oppression a woman can expect to bear, under constant anxiety because of the odious mindgames of the Matriarch. No one could blame you. As you say, she may mean to kill you; it would only be self-defense." He squeezed her hands harder. "All I ask is that you consider it. I know that your good judgment will decide best what to do." And at that he kissed her many times, and she was confused yet again, although much more pleasantly and for different reasons.
The rest of their interview consisted of the stilted, trite banalities at which lovers excel. But they all eventually came to an end, and the young man emerged from the Infanta's room, straightened his uniform, and hurried off to his next meeting.