heather lin book

Lady of Mars: Chapter 45

Capri’s new apartment was smaller, the furnishings simpler. The bed was the same size as Brody’s bunk and meant for just one person. It was, however, much more comfortable. She’d fallen in status, but a lady could only fall so far. She still garnered some respect and luxury.

Briony’s last act as her attendant had been to weed out most of her more daring outfits and have the remaining ones sent to her new room. It wouldn’t do for Capri to upstage Marianne.

She sat on the edge of the bed and tried to make peace with her new role. The idea of waiting on the conniving woman was unappealing, but it had to be done. She’d known Ekon would assign her to Marianne if she let him know she still hated her. He’d been looking for a way to punish her, and she needed an excuse to be close to the favorite. Once she had access, she could exact her own justice, since Haddaway and Ekon would be no help in the matter.

She’d decided on poison. If Marianne was already ill, she could probably get away with it.

A soft knock sounded on the door from the hallway, and Briony slipped into her room. Her tenure was over, but she was there as a friend and to help her get settled. They hadn’t talked much since their meeting with Ekon, and Briony seemed troubled, hurt. She swept into the room and barely looked at her before picking up a long dress and hanging it in the closet. Capri took hold of a few garments and stood with her friend to hang them.

“What happened after I left?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“I’ll be attending another young lady.”

“Will you let me know where?”

“It’s the same apartment.” Her tone was clipped; she still wouldn’t look at Capri.

Capri hung two more dresses and pretended not to notice when Briony rearranged them. Another woman would be in the room that held so many mixed memories for her. She wasn’t sure how she felt.

“Well, someone will be very comfortable.”

Briony made a small noise of polite acknowledgement. Capri had had enough. She took her friend’s arm and turned her so they were facing each other. She couldn’t divulge her reasons for doing what she did. She couldn’t let her friend in on her plan. She wouldn’t let her get involved. The only way a secret worked was if there was only one keeper. She also couldn’t stand the tension between them.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to get stuck with her.”

“I’d have handled it better than you.”

“You’re probably right.”

Briony threw a dress on the bed in frustration. She lost her cool so rarely that the movement startled Capri.

“I know you better than anyone, Capri. Anyone here, at least,” she allowed with a trace of bitterness.

Capri stared at the dress on the bed for a moment, gathering her thoughts. It was the plain shift dress she’d been wearing when she was transferred from the ship back to Mars. She was filled with longing but tore her gaze away and fought against the distraction.

“What are you doing?” Briony asked softly, green eyes searching hazel ones. “You did this on purpose, and it wasn’t just for me. How will this help him?”

She meant Brody, and Capri’s heart contracted painfully. It wouldn’t.

“You just have to trust me. I’ll be okay.”

Briony glanced at the door that would adjoin her room and Marianne’s. She would report for duty the following morning. Briony’s gaze slid back to hers. She still looked hurt, but Capri could sense she was relenting.

“Fine,” Briony conceded. “Are you ready for tomorrow?”

Capri attempted a smile to ease the remaining tension. It was something Leroy might do. “Of course not. I’ve been too busy being pampered by you these last four years; I never bothered to learn your secrets.”

To Capri’s relief, an amused smile touched Briony’s smooth lips. “Let me give you some pointers.”

*

Capri did her own hair the next morning, braiding her curls at the temples and pulling the plaits back in a practical style. She chose a gray maxi dress paired with comfortable ballet flats. No jewelry, no scents, no frills. She was striking despite the lack of adornment.

Marianne would hate that.

The corner of her mouth lifted slightly. She approached the door to her lady’s room, took a deep breath, and knocked.

Her first day’s instructions came directly from Ekon. She was to go in at 8:00 sharp, whether Marianne was awake or not. Her lady was to bathe, eat, and drink ginger and peppermint tea. If the nausea persisted, Capri was to go to the infirmary for something stronger. She must be discreet.

Marianne had to be ready for a visit from the King in the evening. Capri knew well enough what that meant.

There was no answer on the other side of the door. Capri knocked again, louder this time. The door was made of heavy wood rather than steel, and it dampened the sound of her fist. It was just the beginning of the luxury in Marianne’s apartment.

“Come in,” a groggy voice called.

Capri walked through. Marianne sat in a four-poster bed that could have fit four people comfortably. For a moment, Capri mistook her pale form for an uncovered pillow in the midst of the rich, cream and emerald bedding.

The regal blond was diminished to a ghost of her former self. Ekon hadn’t exaggerated her illness. Marianne’s expression was one of accusation. She hadn’t been expecting her.

“You,” she snarled, but her voice was weak and it sounded more like a squeak.

Capri almost felt sympathy, pity, so many things the other woman did not deserve. She didn’t respond immediately. She needed to approach this carefully. She took a moment to survey the room and collect her thoughts.

There were rich oak details and even a few live plants she was sure she’d be responsible for keeping alive. Marianne did not have an alcove in the back but rather a separate room with a table for two and a small kitchen, clearly meant for servants. The thought of Marianne lifting a finger for herself was absurd.

There was a china cabinet with crystal wine glasses inside and a small bar beside it. A crystal chess set sat on top of a wardrobe, reminding Capri of the unsettling conversation she’d had with Ekon two years before. It was safe to assume Marianne’s closet and bathroom were up to the same over-the-top standards. These were the chambers of a queen, meant to be an escape for Ekon as much as a home for Marianne.       Capri dragged her eyes back to the blond. Before she could speak, her lady bent over a porcelain container by the bed and dry heaved. She spit into it and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Her voice was hoarse and bitter.

“This is a punishment for both of us.”

“Why would he punish you?” Capri asked.

“For this. This illness.

Capri didn’t reply. For all she knew about Ekon these days, Marianne was right. She felt conflicted. How could she kill a woman who seemed half-dead already? If she couldn’t, what the hell was she doing here?

“Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.” Capri helped the shaking woman out of bed without bothering to hide her impatience. She was angry that her resolve was wavering, that she’d found her arch rival in such a pathetic state.

“Bring my receptacle,” Marianne managed.

“I’m not cleaning that up.”

“It’s your job.”

“No.”

“I’ll tell Ekon.”

“You can tell him when you see him tonight, but I doubt he’ll be able to come up with something worse than you.”

Marianne’s pale face turned a shade whiter. “Tonight? But…he knows I’m ill.”

Capri remained unsympathetic. “You wanted to be the favorite, Marianne.”

She took her lady’s thin arm and helped her to the bathroom. She went in by herself to dump the contents of the pot and relieve herself, and Capri ran a bath for her. She raised her arms to wash her hair, but she shook so hard that Capri took over. She washed her back, too, and held a thick towel to help her dry.

Once she was clean and robed, Capri moved to the call box. “I’ll have tea and crackers sent up.”

“If you must,” Marianne muttered, sitting down heavily in a chair and sipping a glass of water, which she managed to keep down.

Capri made the order, stripped the bed, and found fresh linens. She threw the soiled sheets and blankets, along with Marianne’s sweat-soaked nightgown, into a basket to be taken to the laundry chute.

“We’ll go for a walk after you’ve eaten.”

“No,” Marianne protested sharply. “No one can see me like this.”

“You won’t get better by staying in bed,” Capri said. She paused, trying to sound nonchalant when she asked her question. “What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

Marianne averted her gaze. “No one knows.”

Capri didn’t believe her. Mysterious illnesses didn’t exist. The doctors on Mars came straight from the medical schools on Venus, which meant they were some of the best. But she didn’t contradict her.

“There might be something in the infirmary to help,” she suggested.

“I’ll be fine.”

“We’ll walk up and down the hall,” Capri said. “At least I’ll be able to say I did my part.”

“Fine.”

“Ekon won’t be happy with either of us if you don’t make an appearance at the memorial.”

“He’s made that very clear, already. But you’re likely to get it worse than I do if I’m not there.”

“Maybe,” Capri agreed. “Or maybe he’ll give up on you and find a new favorite. I can’t fall much farther, Marianne, but you’ve got a long way to go.”

The blond gave her a scathing look. A knock sounded on the door, and Capri gave her a polite smile. “That will be the tea.”

*

That night, Capri brushed and combed Marianne’s long blond hair until it shone. She placed rubies around her slender neck and put more makeup on her skin than she might have before the illness, to mask the dark circles and sunken cheeks. She helped her slip into a red dress.

Normally, black would suit her better, but in her current state it would only make her look witch-like.

Marianne studied her reflection with a critical eye and pursed lips. Even she had to admit she looked spectacular, considering she’d thrown up just an hour before. Capri had called for more ginger tea and crackers, but she suspected her lady was still fighting nausea.

“It’ll do,” Marianne said at last.

Capri inclined her head slightly. “Champagne and glasses are on the side table. Should I look in on you after he leaves?”

“No. I’ll see you in the morning.” Marianne glanced at her for the first time since she’d begun dressing, and her gaze was sharp. “This time, if I’m sleeping, don’t wake me.”

Capri raised her eyebrows briefly in response and went to her own room. Marianne was disobeying Ekon with the command and asking Capri to do the same.

Maybe this was her quiet way of retaliating. Maybe, under different circumstances, Capri would experience a feeling of camaraderie. They would put aside their differences and fight the good fight together.

But this was the woman responsible for the single worst moment of Capri’s life. She was the reason for every lost hope, every unkind Victor, and every nightmare.

Marianne could rest in the morning, but she couldn’t be allowed to live.

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