What he planned to do with his eventual rise, she did not know. House Jacos was small, unimportant, governors of a backwater with little more than the blood of a High House to keep them warm at night. And of course, Jessamine, to make sure everyone pretended like they weren’t drowning.
She took a seat with the grace of one half her age, knocking her cane against the dirty floor. “Preposterous,” she muttered, striking at a haze of dust motes swirling in a beam of sunlight. “So hard to find good help these days.”
Especially when you can’t pay them, Coriane sneered in her head. “Indeed, Cousin. So difficult.”
“Well, hand them over. Let’s see what Jared sent along,” she said. One clawed hand reached out, flapping open and closed in a gesture that made Coriane’s skin crawl. She bit her lip between her teeth, chewing it to keep from saying the wrong thing. Instead, she lifted the two dresses that were her uncle’s gifts and laid them upon the sofa where Jessamine perched.
Sniffing, Jessamine examined them as Julian did his ancient texts. She squinted at the stitching and lacework, rubbing the fabric, pulling at invisible stray threads in both golden dresses. “Suitable,” she said after a long moment. “If not outdated. None of these are the latest fashions.”
“What a surprise,” Coriane could not help but drawl.
Thwack. The cane hit the floor. “No sarcasm, it’s unbecoming of a lady.”
Well, every lady I’ve met seems well versed in it, yourself included. If I can even call you a lady. In truth, Jessamine had not been to the Royal Court in at least a decade. She had no idea what the latest fashions were, and, when she was deep in the gin, could not even remember which king was on the throne. “Tiberias the Sixth? Fifth? No, it’s the Fourth still, certainly, the old flame just won’t die.” And Coriane would gently remind her that they were ruled by Tiberias the Fifth.
His son, the crown prince, would be Tiberias the Sixth when his father died. Though with his reputed taste for warfare, Coriane wondered if the prince would live long enough to wear a crown. The history of Norta was fraught with Calore firebrands dying in battle, mostly second princes and cousins. She quietly wished the prince dead, if only to see what would happen. He had no siblings that she knew of, and the Calore cousins were few, not to mention weak, if Jessamine’s lessons could be trusted. Norta had fought Lakelanders for a century, but another war within was certainly on the horizon. Between the High Houses, to put another family on the throne. Not that House Jacos would be involved at all. Their insignificance was a constant, just like Cousin Jessamine.
“Well, if your father’s communications are to be believed, these dresses should be of use soon enough,” Jessamine carried on as she set the presents down. Unconcerned with the hour or Coriane’s presence, she drew a glass bottle of gin from her gown and took a hearty sip. The scent of juniper bit the air.
Frowning, Coriane looked up from her hands, now busy wringing the new gloves. “Is Uncle unwell?”
Thwack. “What a stupid question. He’s been unwell for years, as you know.”
Her face burned silver with a florid blush. “I mean, worse. Is he worse?”
“Harrus thinks so. Jared has taken to his chambers at court, and rarely attends social banquets, let alone his administrative meetings or the governors’ council. Your father stands in for him more and more these days. Not to mention the fact that your uncle seems determined to drink away the coffers of House Jacos.” Another swig of gin. Coriane almost laughed at the irony. “How selfish.”
“Yes, selfish,” the young girl muttered. You haven’t wished me a happy birthday, Cousin. But she did not press on that subject. It hurts to be called ungrateful, even by a leech.
“Another book from Julian, I see, oh, and gloves. Wonderful, Harrus took my suggestion. And Skonos, what did she bring you?”
“Nothing.” Yet. Sara had told her to wait, that her gift wasn’t something to be piled with the others.
“No gift? Yet she sits here, eating our food, taking up space—”
Coriane did her best to let Jessamine’s words float over her and away, like clouds in a windblown sky. Instead, she focused on the manual she read last night. Batteries. Cathodes and anodes, primary use are discarded, secondary can be recharged—
A very bug-eyed old woman stared back at Coriane, her annoyance written in every wrinkle. “I don’t do this for my benefit, Coriane.”
“Well, it certainly isn’t for mine,” she couldn’t help but hiss.