She dined that night, as always, with her sister Tatiana, a pretty and petulant seventeen-year-old, the only blood relative she had left other than her uncle Balthazar. Tatiana’s perennial guest, a fourteen-year-old schoolfriend named Liliyah, also dined with them that night, doing studious justice to the fresh peas, breast of chicken, and butter sauce adorning Cassia’s table. Cassia’s mind was racing in a hundred directions; she felt anxious and tired. But she attempted to shake it off, tried to be charmed once again by the spare, carefully appointed room, decorated by her own hand, but neither the table with its silver dishes and snowy linen, nor the furnishings with their pale-blue-and-gilt color scheme, nor even the vase of fresh cherry blossom branches, heralding the spring, could ease her thoughts. She had a headache.
Meanwhile, Tatiana chattered volubly, her words a spring of bubbling excitement.
“…brought me a bouquet of jonquils, and said I was like a jonquil.” She sighed rapturously. Cassia willed herself not to wince. She knew that Tatiana spoke of Finnian, for whom she had long cherished a secret crush. Now that she approached womanhood– or rather, had reached it, Cassia realized with a pang–it seemed that Finnian had begun to notice her, in return. Cassia could not tell whether his interest was anything more than an attempt to further ingratiate himself into the life of the house, but she doubted it. What would an urbane, power-hungry man like Finnian have to gain from a boring flirtation with a naive, chocolate-box debutante like Tati? In his position, women were easy to come by, and more sophisticated, less protected ones than Balthazar’s sheltered niece. A frown creased her brow. Or was she, Cassia, being naive? Surely innocence had had its charm since time immemorial. Stifling these disturbing thoughts and the accompanying host of unwelcome memories that whispered for attention, she doggedly turned her attention to Liliyah, who now spoke.
“But how charming! Truly you have caught his eye.” Liliyah said, swallowing a mouthful of chicken and sauce and dabbing a napkin daintily at the corners of her lips with real skill, so as not to disturb her makeup. For a moment, Cassia forgot the conversation as, for the umpteenth time, she assessed the arresting face of the “Russian Doll.”
Painted an almost pure, matte, white, with blush-pink lips, Liliyah’s fragile oval face was perfect in every feature. Her luminous blue eyes were carefully outlined in silvery eye makeup that made them appear, from a distance, as large in her face as a doll’s; up close, the trompe l’oeil was somehow doubly charming, a pleasing charade rather than a farce. So also was her scarlet smock, tied over a blue-and-white eyelet frock that was tightly corseted at the waist, creating the illusion of impossible fragility from a distance, and yet appearing tantalizingly, well, adult up close. Cassia shook her head slightly. Liliyah was the daughter of a house of geishas, purchased by them in infancy and given a delicate, but strenuous, upbringing. As yet she had not assumed the status of a true geisha, and Cassia was glad. She found that mode of life unacceptable somehow, a travesty of her idea of womanhood, although in truth the geishas seemed disdainfully pleased with their status in society, and certainly they bought their fair share of luxury with the generous payments received for their companionship.
At fourteen, Liliyah was three years from her adulthood, but was, in the fashion of the geisha, making a name for herself already. A schoolfriend of many of society’s uppermost young ladies, she was invited to many parties and dinners, where her charming manners and blossoming beauty were much admired. By the time she reached the age of majority her position would be secure, and many would be the offers of protection that came her way.
Now, Tatiana colored slightly. Her downcast eyes betrayed the defiant set of her chin as she announced, “Now, you must be my advisor in this matter, Lili.”
Cassia’s head shot up; she leveled a shocked, angry stare at Tati, her eyes narrowing and her brows drawing down fiercely. Tatiana pretended to assemble a forkful of peas, her face impassive. For her part, Lili remained absolutely still, looking from one sister to the other, assessing the situation and her own role in it. Carefully, she laid down her fork.
“Perhaps that will not be necessary.” She said simply. “You seem already to have charmed him completely, dear Tati.” In the midst of her angry disbelief, Cassia found herself nevertheless sparing a modicum of grudging admiration for Lili’s diplomacy. She grew less tense, but remained angry. Clearly, she had failed as an older sister these past few years, if the silly girl thought she could ensnare Finnian with the arts of the geisha; it was time for a serious talk before some kind of– of scandal occurred. Not for the first time, she felt like a fool for allowing Lili to become such a regular part of their lives.
It was true that Lili was only a child, and yet she was also much more a woman of the world than Tati, or even than Cassia. She was only a schoolgirl, three years younger than Tati, and yet she possessed a maturity and resolve that,in all frankness, Tati seemed unlikely ever to achieve. She was biddable, good-natured, and well-behaved, and yet here was proof that her influence on Tati was dangerous.
Cassia’s head ached worse than ever.
Seeming to sense this, Lili gave a small cough, rising to her feet. “I beg you would excuse me,” she said to Cassia, who acknowledged her with a wary nod. “Guests who linger overlong may not receive another invitation!” Her light, trilling voice brought a smile to all of their faces, easing the tension further.
“Don’t be silly,” Cassia returned automatically. “Of course you are always welcome, Lili. You must excuse me, however: I have a headache.”
“Then I hope it will leave you soon.” Liliyah bowed her head respectfully. “Good night, Miss Cassia.” She circled the table to quickly embrace Tatiana; the two girls smiled and squeezed their eyes shut simultaneously as they hugged.
“Good night, Tati.”
“I’ll see you out.” Said Tati, rising. Her plate was hardly touched. Together they left the room. Cassia waited only a moment before she rose, wearily, and retired to bed.
* * *
The morning dawned gray and brooding, perfect for her errand. Cassia hurried to dress in her plainest garments, threw her basket over one arm, and made her way down the deserted alley just outside her private entrance. It was not far to the market, but once there, she hurried through the thin crowd of gray-faced stallholders, setting up for the day, making her way to a dingy side-street. Soon, she was knocking on the familiar door, meeting the familiar, suspecting eyes through the small window, and stepping through the door into the fusty warmth of Padgett’s bookshop. No one knew she came here, except Tati, who only rolled her eyes and grudgingly kept this a secret, scolding Cassia for her questionable tastes. But like the panelled door, Padgett’s drew Cassia irresistably. She dreaded the day it closed down.
But this morning, the proprietor seemed to hover just out of her line of sight, instead of resuming his usual seat behind stacks of crumbling papers and broken hardbacks. Finally, Cassia had to address this unusual behavior.
“Padgett?” She murmured inquiringly, if rather vaguely. Then she ran a finger thoughtfully down the spine of a dusty volume before pulling it decisively from the shelf, flipping it open, and frowning at the first page.
The bookseller, obscured by a tangled assortment of ragged garments, fidgeted with his hat. His lined face, punctuated chiefly by a bulbous, ruddy nose and nicotine-stained mustache, registered a look of acute anxiety. Cassia frowned more deeply, looking up.
“Padgett, what is it?” Her voice was not unkind, but Padgett only rendered her an anguished stare, chewing his lip. Cassia closed the book, darting a glance through the small window of the shop. Seeing nothing, she approached Padgett cautiously, as one might approach a small child or strange dog, not wishing to alarm.
“Should I leave? Are we being watched?” She whispered.
Even as she said it, she rejected the idea as insufficient to cause the alarm in Padgett’s small and blurry eyes. Padgett was a bookseller, and although his profession was frowned upon, it was technically legal until the current resolution facing the Regional Empirical Council passed. A raid for illegal materials was possible, and certainly bookseller and customer were anxious to avoid that humiliating inconvenience– it would make running his shabby, semi-secret shop more difficult for Padgett, and greatly restrict Cassia’s freedom. But whatever caused the ordinarily shy, backward Padgett to stare anxiously into Cassia’s eyes, silently struggling with words, was much more than an inconvenience.
Finally, he gave up on words. Dropping his eyes from hers with relief, he shambled across the room to a shelf, taking down a brittle paperback and turning its pages with expertise. Cassia glanced from him to the window once more; all she saw was rain, and the the tattered hanging laundry of a neighboring woman going to ruin in the downpour.
Then Padgett was at her side again, silently holding the open book before her eyes. Cassia blinked, and then squinted at the pages, reading rapidly.
Then Wang Lung rose up, slowly and half dazed, and he set the girl child down and he went out and there before the great iron gates of the rich man’s house a multitude of clamoring common people pressed forward, howling together the deep, tigerish howl that he had heard, rising and swelling out of the streets, and he knew that at the gates of all rich men there pressed this howling multitude of men and women who had been starved and imprisoned and now were for the moment free to do as they would. And the great gates were ajar and the people pressed forward so tightly packed together that foot was on foot and body wedged tightly against body so that the whole mass moved together as one. Others hurrying from the back caught Wang Lung and forced him into the crowd so that whether he would or not, he was taken forward with them…
She left off reading. Openmouthed, she slowly looked over the top of the book’s pages into Padgett’s pleading face.
“You must make plans.” He said, his voice a dry wind through the leaves.